Friday, 11 April 2014

Stunning Little Laos

On my return to Thailand from Cambodia I spent the best part of two weeks doing very little,  I resided myself once again in "Farang Street" at the Ayutthaya Guesthouse and spent my days lazing around seeing Fai in between her final hours at University. During this time I did however perform the duties of a "Dek Wat" for a friend who recently became a monk along with two other monks. A Dek Wat is typically someone who is either a young orphan or a poor person and part of the job involves following a monk (or monks) between the hours of 6AM and 7AM carrying the food offerings the people on the street have to give to them, it is certainly unusual for a farang to do this so I did indeed get some funny looks yet coupled with amazing smiles from those who the monks blessed for their gracious parcels. One man asked me how long I would be living at the temple (What the Dek Wat would normally do) but I explained to him I was just helping for that morning. When we arrived back to the temple, although it was only 7AM, I was dripping with sweat as by the time the hour was up the trolley I was pushing behind them was completely full, it was a successful feast for the monks who went back to eat it. I am told the leftovers are given to poor local people or the many number of wild digs that roam the temple.
April 4th saw Fais final day at university and that evening we took an overnight bus to Laos, we arrived in Nong Khai (border town) in the morning and took a tuk tuk to the "Friendship Bridge" which we would cross to get into the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic. The process for obtaining my Laos visa was straightforward although pretty pricey at $35 plus $1 "overtime" charge which is a lot of rubbish but it was quick and easy to do; Fai being an ASEAN National did not require a Visa. Once we had crossed the bridge it was a then only a tuk tuk away to get to our hotel in Vientiane the capital city. We spent two nights here and on our first day just took a walk around exploring whilst in the evening we took to the night market followed by a visit to the local bowling alley, only having flip flops and no socks we did it bare feet which they had no problem with us doing; it was a throughly enjoyable day. The following day we hired bicycles and headed for the Patuaxi (Victory Gate) which is a famous site in the city, we climbed the large concrete stairs to find some small respite from the heat with the gentle breeze at the top. After taking the view in we checked our map and decided to head to "That Luang" a very famous stupa in the nearby area which was beautiful. Much like Thailand they had two entry prices for entering (one for locals one for foreigners), we tried to blag them that Fai was Lao as they have very similar languages but the woman didn't buy it and we both paid full price albeit not very much. On the way back to the hotel we encountered a public swimming pool that looked highly appealing so we went back to get something suitable to wear and headed straight back to take a dip, Fai cant actually swim so she found a tube she could float around in, the water unfortunately was too deep to attempt to teach her, ill have to do that some other when.


 The following day it was time for us to take our bus to Vang Vieng, a notorious party town and home to the (once) infamous 'tubing'. Its around a 3-4 hour drive north of Vientiane and we arrived and checked into the "Phongsavanh Resort" owned by a expat Kiwi and his Lao wife who were both excellent hosts. Knowing we had just a week in Laos our initial plan was to spend two nights in Vientiane, two in Vang Vieng and two in Luang Prabang however once we got to Vang Vieng we decided against the rushed travel and decided we would stay put here, this would allow us four days to slowly explore. The first thing we did was check out the local town which to my confusion was very quiet, I could not believe this was the home of the 'tubing'?! The reason for the large decline in numbers is down to the Laos government effectively banning it in 2012 due to the high number of accidents and fatalities that drinking copious amounts of local whiskey and plunging into the river on rope swings and zip lines bought. It's kind of good in a way as it's not really the most 'responsible tourism'. I did know that the tubing was almost stopped but it was confirmed to us that there were 3-4 bars left from the dozens that once stood and we could still do it, it was of course on our plan albeit we were prepared for something a lot more chilled.


Once we had checked out the town we went to hire a motorbike, now in all my travels I have always taken an automatic bike as that is always the standard on offer and most often cheapest but it was strange to see in Vang Vieng that almost every bike was a manual/semi automatic. Being kind of lazy I preferred an automatic and we did find one place renting them but they were charging double what a manual one was which sucked, it was still cheap enough though so we decided to take it. We rode around aimlessly for a while until we encountered a bridge that you can pass for a small fee, we drove across and saw a sign for the "Blue Lagoon' which we had read about in the information books at our guesthouse, the sign said 7KM and we figured we would have enough time to find it before it got dark and the bikes needed to be back. The road we had to take was perilous, not a single bit of tarmac or concrete in sight just thousands of rocks of all shapes and sizes, we could now see why they prefer you to take a bike with bigger wheels but even so, we could just about manage it, I just had to be careful especially with Fai on the back. We got a few K's in and came across a turning into a field with a magnificent view of the mountains so we pulled off here to take on some slightly better tracks, we had decided that we wouldn't make it all the way to the blue lagoon in time before it got dark so we checked this place out for a bit a then headed back to drop the bike back off. In the early evening it was dead everywhere so Fai and I ended up drinking a couple of beers outside one of the local shops entertaining some kids with cards and paper aeroplanes, around 9PM the town was starting to show signs of other backpackers so we said goodbye to them and headed to a bar.


Our second day we headed back to the bike rental place and decided this time on a manual, I only have very vague recollections of driving a manual before so gave it a quick test drive and realized there was nothing to it so off we went on our way to the blue lagoon back along the long rocky road. Once we reached it (after ignoring the fake turn off signs which luckily I'd read about) we discovered the alluring lagoon. It was populated with a small crowd of backpackers and was a very peaceful spot, we spent some good time here before visiting the cave which is also in the same spot. To get to the cave you must first climb some very steep rocky stairs about 100M before you can get into it, now Fai had not told me she did not like the dark until we actually got into the cave so needless to say she did not enjoy it as much as I did. In the cave were many bats, huge stalagmites and stalactites and even a reclining Buddha image. Once we had descended further down we turned off our lights to submerse in complete and utter darkness, to me it was tranquil, to Fai it was terrifying. We spent maybe an hour exploring before making our way back to the lagoon for a few last jumps. That evening there seemed to be a lot more backpackers around so we headed again to one of the bars for more beers and baloons.



The following day we still had the bike and weren't sure if we would go tubing or go for an unknown adventure exploring outside Vang Vieng. I was somewhat hungover and the thought of tubing didn't appeal so much so we headed off for a small village (~30KM away) as recommended by the our resort owner. Armed with my basic offline GPS map off we went, we drove through some small little towns where everybody was extremely curious as to who we were, we stopped at one place to get a drink and to have a little rest and the whole time was stared at in wonder by dozens of little eyes, we waved to them as we left and carried on our journey. We passed many schools which of course meant we passed many more kids walking or riding their bikes and they were all incredibly friendly and happy, they all shouted out to us "sabai dee" (hello) and some of them even tried running after our bike, it was funny to see how almost all of them carried an umbrella to protect them from the sun. A good hour or so into our ride we realized we had in fact passed our original destination by miles so headed back in search of the original place we intended. When we reached what we thought was the right place we made a turn off and ended up on a very remote path in the middle of nowhere, just a few local villagers, lots of cows and striking views. Our unknown excursion was a success




On our final day in Vang Vieng it was time for us to go tubing, we rocked up to the rental office where we met some fellow brits and shared a tuk tuk to the starting point. We started at the first bar before getting in the water where we were given our first free shot of whiskey and the day spawned from there. The river, due to the lack of rain over the last months, was very low and the current very slow so it was a leisurely ride in between the bars, with a fair bit of kicking needed in parts, but it was still pretty cool. When we approached each bar we would be pulled in by a guy throwing a rope down to us, we would get our free shot and have many more drinks before continuing our way down the river. Two of the bars had basketball hoops with a shower fitted on top which added a wicked spin to shooting hoops, one of the bars also had a petanque (boules) pitch and a volleyball net, so we got stuck into that too. It started to get late and we were due back at 6PM, the time in fact was already past 6PM which we didn't really care about, we all decided to forfeit some of our deposit but had to ensure we were back by 8PM at very latest as that's when the office closed and we would thus lose all our deposit. We all very drunkenly got in one of the tuk tuks waiting at the last bar and headed back into the town to drop off our tubes, after a shower and change we met up with our British friends again and took to the bars to continue our shenanigans.


The next day was now upon us and we had to take the bus to the border to cross back into Thailand, it wasn't ideal that we only got to spend one week but we needed to head back to Thailand to celebrate "Songkran" the Thai new year which would be starting in a couple of days. Even though we did only spend a week we manged to take in a  lot of what Laos had to offer, it is a remarkable country with extraordinary landscapes and welcoming people. I plan to certainly visit Laos again for a more extended trip.




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