Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Vientiane, Laos

Wow. This must be the most laid back city I've ever visited. You have to slap yourself as a reminder that this is a city. I found an oddly-named hostel called DouangDeuane2 and got a room for 40,000 kip per night (10,000 kip cheaper than the place next door). The room was bright and airy and empty! I had the 4 bed dorm to myself apart from the very last night when 3 others checked in. I relaxed straight into the vibe and didn't do much at all, so this might be a short post you'll be glad to hear! I certainly spent a lot of time in the room, or cafe's, catching up with this diary and uploading as the wi-fi was excellent. There's a lot of money here (the complete opposite of rural Laos) - the locals drive around in posh cars, the kids ride posh bikes, posh dogs are paraded along the riverside and keep-fitters don their posh lycra for evening workouts. The French influence is everywhere so coffee shops, baguette stalls and bakeries are in abundance.

Saucise the dog with owner Ake

I randomly bumped into a couple I met in India so spend a nice few days sitting about, drinking a beer or two, playing some pool and munching some delicious noodles or larb, or a strange stretched chicken on a stick, with sticky rice. We took a bumpy bus journey 25km along the border to the Xleng Khuan Buddhist sculpture park. Built by Luang Pu in 1958 it's a completely fascinating place, combining Hindu and Buddhist figures. As you walk in there's a giant concrete ball; you enter it through a demons mouth into hell where there's hundreds of small odd (and mostly broken) sculptures depicting such a place. You then climb up some steep blocks to earth then up again to heaven; the last level is a small opening onto the roof for a great view over the park.

View of the park from the top of the ball 
The ball
Hindu deities on the side of the ball
Vishnu isn't going to be happy!
120m reclining Buddha! Too big to take a complete picture of!
I hired a bike one day, a "turbo fairy", and cruised around the city like the locals do (wrong way up roads, on pavements, crossing red lights). I visited the beautifully maintained Hophrake temple that used to house the emerald Buddha (which is actually jade) until the Thai's stole it (back?). I then cycle over to Patuxai (victory arch) which was built to commemorate the people that died in the struggle to gain independence from France. I went to the post office and posted a parcel of goodies home then I cycled as far as I could along the Mekong up the Laos / Thai border before the ridiculous heat got to me and I retreated back to the  room!

Creative graffiti
Arch of Triumph
My wheels!
Mighty Mekong - Thailand on the other side
You can view all of my pictures here

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Pakse, Laos

Not quite getting enough money out before getting onto the island (there's no ATM here) I'd completely run out and Talitha had just enough to buy us both a small breakfast and one tea bag (which we shared). I dashed to the ATM as soon as we hit the mainland and bought an impressive array of drinks, crisps and nuts to munch en-route to Pakse. There's a little confusion as to who's going in which minibus but eventually we get a seat. On the move we begin to demolish the feast but at the end of the road we're ushered out, into another minibus. Very odd. I don't know the reason. Into the older new bus and we're moving again; at least until the minibus gets a puncture thirty minutes later.

Arriving at Pakse at 3pm we head straight for a lonely planet recommendation as it's raining heavily and we just want to ditch the bags and shower. Talitha isn't staying in Pakse; she's catching a bus north to Vang Vieng that evening for some tube pumping Mekong action. The Sabaidy 2 guest house has the hallmarks of a Lonely Planet approval: unhelpful staff and higher prices. They were very off about Talitha putting her bag in my room for a few hours, and also wanted to charge her for using the shower (she managed to ninja one). Pakse is a large town with a friendly feel, nested between the mountains. There's a large Chinese and Vietnamese population here and everyone (it seems) drives expensive 4x4's. For tourists it's mainly a base for motorbike adventures to the Bolaven plateau and the coffee plantations; this was my plan for the next four days. We walk to a temple then to a large bridge over a big tributary of the Mekong, where there's a beautiful (derelict) French colonial mansion (for sale) on the other side; it looks fantastic - I want it!

After that we stroll back and grab some tasty Asian food in a western style coffee shop then sup a warm beer in the guest house garden while a thunderstorm rages overhead; the fish in a giant tank love it! Once the rain dies a little we hail a motorbike and sidecar tuk-tuk to the bus station. We hang about in the station for around an hour (a cat finds me) then, realising the lack of people about, and hearing various stories of the Pakse to Vientiane route, we start to worry about someone trying to take advantage on the sleeping bus. At the last minute someone that was on the bus with us before turns up and all is good! I wave goodbye and decide to walk the 5km back to the hostel, as it's now a beautiful night.

Next day I cheerily exit the unwelcoming guest house and head to Miss Noy's motorbike shop on the high street. I hire a bike for four days at the cost of 50,000 kip per day. Fitted with the usual sweaty undersized helmet (I have a large skull). I scoot off on my semi-automatic Honda Wave, rucksack and all, ready for a great adventure, quickly nipping into a market and buying some pure white shakin' Stevens canvas pumps. The road to the plateau is long and climbs steadily upwards; it takes me a few attempts to find the correct road as the map is vague. Before long I'm straight into the damp clouds and I can only see about 20m in front. It's cold and wet; I pop on the jumper and raincoat and continue, hoping to break out of the clouds, but at this point I'm pretty much on the plateau, and no break happens. For the sake of having a bike for the day I stubbornly press on for about 200km. Occasional breaks in the cloud give me a beautiful view of the coffee plantations and peaks in the distance. People in little towns and muddy villages wave as I cruise past.

Cold and wet I seek sanctuary in a temple
See what?
Stuck clouds

Numb bum, RSI stricken throttle hand, back aching from the rucksack, soaked and cold through I eventually give in and turn back, heading north-west to a guest house I'd previously researched. Within 5km of the guest house I come upon a large gathering of people just outside a village. I get closer to see a collapsed bridge, completely split broken in two and in the river!

Asking about there doesn't seem to be a way around this. I have to go almost back to Pakse to get around then back up to the guest house. I start to think this was never meant to be and, as it's getting dusky, decide I may as well just go back and stray in Pakse. The clouds had lifted a little by this point and I could get some nice speed (as much as you can from a 125) from the bike. As soon as I hit the main road from the plateau I'm out of the cloud layer and it gets immediately warm. Back in Pakse the weather seems beautiful as I limp into town! I take the bike back and the explain what happened to the bike lady; the bridge story being overheard by some tourists who decide that maybe they won't hire a bike after all. The lady gives me three days cash back and I pay an extra 10,000 kip (it's 60,000 for one day). I explain that if the weather's good I'll attempt it again tomorrow.

I stay in a cheap and characterful place with flowers in bombs in reception and photographs of former Laos leaders meeting with Ho Chi Minh - I wish I'd noted the name. Unfortunately I woke up the next day to the same view of clouds on the mountains and decide it's probably going to be the same, so I grab a fantastic Tom Yum (to get me in the mood for Thailand) at a stall then get the overnight bus out that evening at 19:30.

Cloudy mountains - meh
Tom VERY Yum

Monday, 21 May 2012

Don Det, Laos

Saying goodbye to beautiful Cambodia we pile into another minibus (which had some strange smoking mushroom graffiti on the windows) and head off to Stung Treng, a nice little border town perched on the Mekong, where we have to wait for the next bus. We have some noodles from a street stall while hanging about for a couple of hours then our minivan turns up. By now there's far more people than seats in the van. Taking up the back two rows are some bags of things heading to Laos; the seats in front of that contain Talitha, another girl and two guys from Denmark; in the front is the driver then me and a Monk sharing the passenger seat. Although not comfortable in any way it was certainly another journey to remember.

We pull up at the tiny border post - there's no-one else at all here, just a few police in small buildings and a few sitting around in the shade. We fill out a quick form and give it, with our passports and two photographs, to the hand in the window. They shuffle the papers about for a while then hand the documents back, gesturing us to the next hand in a window. The visa costs $35 for 30 days. There should be no other charges but they decide they're going to charge us $2 to stamp the visa! Not wanting to pay this unofficial fee out of pure principle I tell them that I only had enough for the $35 entry, so they tell me I should go back into Cambodia! What can you do?? I root about in my pocket, produce $1 in change, put it on the counter in front of the hand and tell him that is all I have. He takes the change and stamps my passport. I head over the border and into the waiting minibus with a ridiculously BLUE roof.
Our Cambodia minibus - Monk having a quick smoke
The Cambodia / Laos border
The customs windows 
Access granted
The BLUE roof of our Laos minibus
On the road again we get settled... for 10 minutes then we stop in a little town. The driver ushers us out to walk but doesn't really explain where we're walking to. The road in the town is under repair, and is non-existent, so we assume we're walking to another minibus at the other side. We dodge the building materials and the residents dodging the building materials, walk a little further and there it is, the Mekong, flowing lazily around 4000 little islands, one of which is Don Det.

Our little long tail boat nips through the islands and lands on a sandy shore framed with quiet restaurants. We jump out and have a quick drink in one of the restaurants, admiring the beautiful Mekong. I'm approached by a tiny kitty when leaving the restaurant, possibly the smallest cat (that's not a kitten) I've ever seen. I name him Oscar and promise to see him later with some food (I never found him again). There's no roads on Don Det, just dusty paths between shops and bungalows down each side of the river bank. You can walk from the eatst to the west side of the island in under five minutes. We look for accommodation on the sunrise side, but find nothing. We find the kind of place we're looking for on the sunset side; two little bungalows right on the river in a resort called Tena, for 30,000 a night. Extremely basic, literally a bed in a hut, mosquito net, a fan and a hammock on the balcony; toilets are in a separate block. Talitha only stays one night and moves to a nicer place, preferring to have a toilet in the room. I'm a tramp, and will sleep anywhere (as long as there's a mosquito net). We dump the bags, have a shower and relax in the melting sunshine. That night we meet a Canadian guy, who's wearing a t-shirt with a logo that later becomes a big part of my life (keep reading for more on this ;) - he's travelling with a half-Vietnamese girl who puts to rest the little mystery of the little question-marks on some Vietnamese characters. We laze about drinking with them for ages. Later we come across a little cinema where you slob out on the floor with a beer and "happy" chocolate brownie; we watch Pineapple Express; which was extremely entertaining! (because of the brownie?). You can get anything "happy" here: shakes, cookies, brownies, pizza - you name it. It just means it's had a liberal sprinkling of cannabis when made. Take it slowly though they're pretty strong; half a brownie each was more than enough!

Everyone out the minibus! walk this way.. 
Arrival at Don Det
Laos Laos (Whiskey) and coke and some mint and lemon drink
I'm going to take you home
This is where is spent most of my time in Don Det
Laos sunsets are spectacular
  The next few days for me are spent reading, writing and relaxing; literally doing nothing. Don Det had a strange effect on me: I'm not sure I've ever been that lazy in my life! Talitha was, on the other hand, in party mode, so she darted off here and there! One day we hired some bikes and cycled to the waterfall on the next island down, paying a small charge on the bridge to cross. The waterfall's not like any I'd seen on the trip so far, it was a powerful Mekong monster crashing over sharp rocks. You can't get particularly near it for the "DANGER" signs! Truly awesome; and this is in the dry season; it must be scary in the wet season. After this we ride over and check out a viewing spot for the rare Mekong dolphins. We didn't see any, despite the many suggestive, badly photo-shopped pictures of tourists frollocking with them, so we head back to Don Det.

That evening we tried a little tubing, with one tube. We tried on the west side of the island, attempting to swim upstream with little progress; constantly aware of the raging waterfall 5km down the river! We leave the water and walk up the north side, hoping we can get into the current at the top point; and float with the current down the west side, to our bungalows. This also failed as the fast current splits on the north west side pushing us east around the side of the island with no places to exit the river. Still, it was great fun splashing about for a while, and at least I can say I did a little tubing in Laos! 

Our last few days together before we part company

The beach a little further down from the waterfall

Totally tubular
Here's the sunset from our final night - no words can describe it, and these pictures certainly don't do it justice.