Thailand -> Laos and back again...
09.09.2007 24 °C
Sorry for my absence of late. It's been quite a while since I wrote something here, but time flies!
Anyway, finally having grabbed a few hours to catch up I guess I should start where I left you, which was just about to go to Laos.
The People's Democratic Republic of Laos (or Laos PDR) would be better named Laos: Please Don't Rush. Please. Just don't. Incidentally, why is it that countries with 'Democratic' in the title are usually anything but?! To say that Laos was nothing as I expected is something of an understatement. I expected something like Cambodia (awful roads, little infrastructure) but with commie flags and loads of hippies who forgot to go home. Usually I try not to have any expectations, but you know, this one was fairly basic.
So anyway, off we went from Thailand to the Laos border by sleeper train. For the 12 hr journey (with bed) we paid 488 Baht, which is about 8 quid. Not bad. It even left on time. Actually, since I've been travelling, pretty much all of the transport here has surpassed the standards endured by the UK. That bus in China definitely wins, but this train was pretty good too.
We arrived in the morning at the border, and obtained a few more stamps and a very pretty visa to hop over the Mekong into Laos. Expecting the beautiful Thai roads to turn into a clay bone rattler ride, the quality stayed just the same, which was nice. As an aside, did you know that Laos is the most bombed country in the history of warfare? A B52 planeload every 3 minutes around the clock for 9 years, to be exact. They didn't really mention that one in history either. All the evidence in SE Asia shows just how much more compelling the US effect was than any 'domino effect...'
Vientiane, the Laos capital is just over the border - a short taxi ride away. We were somewhat unsettled by the Tesco tissues in the taxi (with Thai or Lao on it), are they taking over the world??? Anyway, so we get to Vientiane and were dropped off in the centre.. and was it quiet. In fact, we walked to a fountain which is supposed to be the centre of the whole city, and I think in the ten minute walk we must have seen a total of 7 people. Even at the centre, we were beginning to wonder if something had happened, there was no-one around. When I think of capitals I think of people zipping around doing lots of stuff. To me capitals involve being bumped by throngs of people. This place was unsettlingly close to a ghost town!
Vientiane was actually as quiet as first impressions implied, so we moved on earlier than planned to Luang Phrabang in the north of Laos. We took the cheapie bus - 100,000 kip (about $10) - and I think the journey rocketed straight into my top 5 beautiful bus rides ever. In fact, it was one of those bus rides where you don't mind that it's 10 hours long because the scenery is so entertaining. Beautiful hills and karsts covered in jungle complete with moody mist and a few rainbows. Fantastic. Finally we arrived in LP and got ourselves a delightful room in a colonial style guesthouse (with balcony) for $4 a go, which we didn't complain about at all and got some sleep.
You know how I said I was expecting hippies? Well we were so, so wrong. In fact, we were stared at more by the other westerners, who were of something of a higher calibre than us. Luang Phrabang is a lovely quiet and colonial-type old place. The monks from the millions of temples within the city and the surrounding countryside collect alms at 6am by taking a route through the city single file and walking past locals who drop handfuls of rice into the bowls the monks are carrying. The rather picturesque, serene scene was somewhat disturbed by a yowling cat.
I found Luang Phrabang pleasant and enjoyable, but the hoards of flashpacker tourists were really quite unsettling. Loads of the shops were fancy boutiques selling fancy wares, and food prices had taken a hike for the worse. It dawned on us that the main attraction of Laos is chilling out (please don't rush) and watersports (money money money). So we had a quiet few days then headed back down to Vang Vieng, and equally quiet and touristy town (but more geared towards budgeteers like us). The main attraction there is again to chill out at the million and one places serving pizza and Friends on tvs and to go tubing. The tv bars are actually pretty cool. Instead of seats, there are raised platforms with cushions and a little table for food/beer separated into small compartments where you and your friends can sit for hours and hours on end. We were pretty tired by the time we got to Vang Vieng, but we're all pretty active people and get bored pretty quickly. That said, tubing was extremely entertaining. Essentially, one takes a tractor inner tyre, sits on it and floats down a river for a day (yes, I got sunburned, I'm British, it's what I do!). There are bars serving big bottles of Beer Lao at stops down the river and it's all very entertaining - especially as the river is actually relatively zippy at times.
It's turning out to be quite hard to write about Laos, our time there was relatively inert. The tourist trail doesn't seem to give much of an impression of the country itself, and we didn't really have time to stray off the beaten track. I feel having spent 9 days there that I didn't really see the country itself that much, even though that's nearly twice as much time as we spent in Cambodia, yet I feel like I saw so much more of it. It's not easy to really get to know a place on a runaway-train travel adventure like ours, so I guess that had I more time I could have seen the south and done more. Anyway, it was nice to chill out all the same.
We did another of our special 24hr travel monsters by bus, tuk tuk and train back to Bangkok and here we are. Tomorrow we fly back to Hong Kong to spend a little more time exploring then finally a flight back home.
We've now covered 6 countries (if you count HK as a country), collected 4 delightful visa stickers, 14 stamps (16 when we go to and leave HK) and a lot of pirated CDs! It's been quite incredible and we've covered an absolutely huge distance, mostly on schedule and almost on budget! We've seen some amazing and beautiful things as well as upsetting and dark things (such is life is it not?) but all equally memorable and valuable. If I had to choose a favourite country? Perhaps Cambodia left the deepest imprint. The least favourite? China's sinister machine-like atmosphere was somewhat offputting I must say. The best view would have to be that of Angkor Wat, every time, although those Lao hills come pretty high up too, along with the view from Victoria Peak in HK. The worst, my stinking feet at the end of the day! Thailand has the best, cheapest food, although the most amazing meal we had was at Lucy's blow-our birthday meal, which might have been a little obscene. Vietnam wins every time with comedy communism - some of those propaganda billboards were pure beauties I can tell you. Biggest disappointment? My camera's inability to upload photos early on, leading to my inability to take any more. Fortunately Mark and Lucy have some splendid snappers, so I'll be getting copies to show off to anyone who sits still long enough.
I've only 2 minutes left, so I'll dash off. Hope you've enjoyed reading these posts - next year Argentina?
Loads of love to all...