We are so torn when it comes to how we feel about Laos. The long boat ride was brilliant and we loved Luang Prabang. The time we spent in Kasi with Uncle Tom was unbelievable and the Lao landscape and scenery was some of the most beautiful I have ever seen in my life. But as we went South we were less charmed by the country and we felt the people were less friendly, no doubt jaded by the types of tourists we ourselves try to avoid. I would never go back to Vang Vieng, nor would I recommend it to anyone looking for a nice place to visit. The capital Vientiane was fine. Just a city with no surprises nice or otherwise. 4000 Islands, namely Don Det, was such a disappointment. Now we love nature and getting back to basics, but everyone on that island needs to contribute to cleaning it up. If I could sum it up in one word it would be 'spoiled.' It probably used to be very beautiful. It is no surprise that I got sick on Don Det because I feel that basic hygiene is lacking around the island. If you are set on visiting 4000 Islands, skip Don Det and choose Don Khong or Don Khon. I am grateful to Laos for the friends we made, but it is not a country we will be rushing back to.
Day 84 - Thursday 5th March - Pakbeng/Luang Prabang
The process of crossing the border from Thailand happened quickly and without incident and then we were in Huay Xai in Laos. We boarded a boat to begin our 2 day slow boat journey down the Mekong River. I popped a travel sickness tablet just before the boat set off so I mostly slept and took some pictures of the beautiful scenery when I woke up. I should probably add that it's not my intention to be missing out on all these amazing scenes, I just can't risk feeling like I did on the way to Pai and these bloody things knock me out!
We had an overnight stay in the village of Pakbeng. Upon first impressions it was a bit like a scene from the film Silent Hill, especially after sunset. We'd read loads of bad reviews about the guesthouses here. Because everybody who takes the slow boat has no choice but to stop here, we'd read that the service was non existent, the food terrible and that there were frequent robbings from guesthouse rooms. We did some research and booked ahead at a place called DP's. It cost a little more but was really nice and had dinner and breakfast included and the shower was great, which is apparently uncommon in Laos. We had a drink with Inti and Gabby then got an early night. The next morning we boarded the boat early and got a better seat with a table. We ended up sitting with travel companions Kat from Canada and Rich from Canterbury. We spent the morning getting to know each other, chatting and playing cards. Early afternoon, a houseboat went past and it was HUGE. This created a MASSIVE wave that washed over the side of the boat and soaked everyone on the left from head to toe (this was mostly us) For a split second we all just sat looking at each other, water dripping off our playing cards and noses and then the boat sprang into action. People's bags were all over the floor with their electricals in, mobiles were on the tables, money in pockets. Some poor guy was working on his laptop when it hit. Nobody was hurt however and we were lucky that neither of our phones had been out at that time. Half the boat stripped off and we hung all our clothes up to dry. Don't think the laptop made it though.
After another full day on the boat we docked and travelled to Luang Prabang with Kat and Rich. Over the next couple of days we hung out with them and Sam Hopkins who had made his way over from Vietnam. Last night Mat and I went for dinner with Kat, Rich, Inti and Gabby. They had a DIY BBQ thing which was pretty cool and I sat and ate my vegetable rice (no seafood!) After that we went to a cool bar called Utopia but didn't have a late one because Laos has a curfew of 23:30. Rich has gone South to Vang Vieng today, Kat goes there tomorrow and Inti and Gabby go North. We have a bus in the morning to a little village called Ban Na before we start our two day motorbike lessons and tour.
Getting on the slow boat in Laos
Scenes of the River Mekong
What is better than a beer in the sun, on a boat, with friends?
Trying to dry our clothes after the wave hit
Welcome to Pakbeng! Just kidding....
Kuang Si Falls - Luang Prabang. You can swim in the pools although the water is freezing!
Mat, Sam, Inti and Gabby
Sam, Kat, Rich and Mat
Mat sticking his finger up as usual
*Photograph by Inti Herteleer*
Rich, Sam and Mat
*Photograph by Inti Herteleer*
*Photograph by Inti Herteleer*
Luang Prabang Markets
Sam and Mat at Mount Phousi
Mount Phousi sunset - Luang Prabang
Day 85 - Friday 6th March - Ban Na
We've just been dumped at an intersection by the bus driver and had to trek 3km in the blistering sun through little villages IN FLIPFLOPS to get to our guesthouse. It's in the middle of nowhere and is the only guesthouse for miles. The walk was really beautiful though and the villagers all called hello to us as we passed. Our guesthouse is a hut full of spiders with an icy trickle for a shower, no fan or a/c, very authentic. *Flashpackers my arse. Mat's just chilling in his hammock overlooking the river and chatting with the only other people in the guesthouse, who are also in their hammocks. It's all very relaxing! There is a French-Canadian couple with their son and a Hawaiian/American couple with their two children. All the kids are being schooled by the parents whilst they're on the road. These children tear arse around shoeless, playing in the river, making rafts, catching frogs, experiencing real life and culture everywhere they go. They are absolutely fearless and I have no doubt that all of them will grow up to be amazing people.
- Flashpackers - Flashpacking is a neologism used to refer to affluent backpackers. Whereas backpacking is traditionally associated with budget travel and destinations that are relatively cheap, flashpacking has an association of more disposable income while traveling and has been defined simply as backpacking with a bigger budget (This is what Kat labelled us!)
The beginning of our trek to Nola's Guesthouse
Beautiful scenes of rice and vegetable paddies
A lady fishing
The family's kitchen where we cooked ourselves breakfast
Our wooden hut at Nola's
Day 86 - Saturday 7th March - Kasi Town
We've had an absolutely surreal day today. Right now I'm in our room at Uncle Tom's Guesthouse, listening to Mat and Tom in the bar singing Al Green's 'Let's get it on' on karaoke. I've never felt so far out of my comfort zone and far away from home and I absolutely love it. We left Nola's Guesthouse today in a flagged down car full of Lao people who absolutely pissed themselves at our 'Sa bai dee!' We paid the driver 20000Kip to drop us at the intersection. From there the intention was to hitch hike so we flagged down a pick up truck and tried to explain where we needed to be. Somehow we managed to get there using only 3 phrases. Sa bai dee! (Hello) khop chai (thank you) and han ping pet (BBQ duck house)
We're doing a two day dirt bike course with Uncle Tom. He's a lovely Welsh guy that teaches idiots like me to ride a motorbike. I've gone from riding a scooter into a ditch to riding an enduro bike with gears around. It's way more complex than twist and go but Mat's absolutely nailing it. He's been riding Gary (small bike) on the road today while I've been Tom's passenger. But then Mat rode the big yellow bike (called Red) around the paddock this afternoon which means if I do well tomorrow, I can take Gary onto a road and Mat can ride Red.
The filthy truck we hitch hiked in
Uncle Tom, what a guy!
Mat and his finger again
Me taking it all very seriously
This is right before I set off and immediately stalled it
We drove through some beautiful Lao villages
Mat and Tom doing Karaoke
Day 87 - Sunday 8th March - Vang Vieng
As we left Tom and got in the tuk tuk to the bus station, Mat said 'I feel really sad leaving him' and I started to cry and Mat was welling up too. Tom was one of the most fantastic people we have ever have had the pleasure of spending time with and we felt like we were leaving our best friend. I can imagine that everyone who has to say goodbye to him feels like this. We've said goodbye to a lot of people over the last few months but this was easily the hardest and we'd only known him 2 days!
We got to Vang Vieng and had a wander round, what a shit hole.
Here is a really well written article that sums up Vang Vieng perfectly http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/apr/07/vang-vieng-laos-party-town
Thank god we've only got 2 nights here. We went for a drink and some dinner but I had a really bad allergic reaction to something so we cancelled our order and left. I was fine this morning so we decided to go tubing. Now don't get me wrong, back in the day, Mat and I liked a party, but we're knocking on 30 now and we're a bit over 'happy pizza's.' However, we couldn't really come to Vang Vieng and not do the very thing it's famous for. So what happened that day, is that I think we smashed the record for 'tubing completed in the fastest time in dry season' and 'least amount of alcoholic drinks consumed whilst tubing.' We hopped in our tuk tuk with loads of rough, awful British people, talking about getting effed up and doing mushrooms and we just cringed and died. We got in the river and immediately heard the thump thump of terrible music from the first bar. As we neared it, people were shouting for us to stop so we could get our first beers of the day. We just ignored them and carried on and this happened at all the next bars as we floated by. They must have thought we were super boring, but if getting drunk at 11am with a load of douchebags on a smelly river with the loudest music ever, makes me boring, then I absolutely am. Oh god I've turned into my parents.
In summary, I enjoyed looking at the stunning scenery while floating down a river with my bottle of water. I didn't enjoy my arse dragging on rocks due to the low water level though. It must have been absolutely brutal before they shut down most of the bars. Another good thing about doing it so early and fast, was that there no other awful tubers about. My personal opinion, don't bother tubing, get a kayak instead.
Best part about tubing were the amazing views
Worst part about tubing was everything else
Day 93 - Saturday 14th March - Vientiane
Vientiane was fine, didn't need three nights though and it was the hottest place we'd been so far. So glad we had a/c or we'd have never left our room knowing we didn't have some respite rom the heat to come back to. One day we walked the city and looked at wats, one day we spent at a public pool with Sam Hopkins and another day we visited the *COPE Centre which was very hard to see but also very enlightening.
We're on 4000 Islands at the moment and considering all the effort it took to get here I'm not sure it was worth it yet. Stupidly, I booked us a room without a/c. No amount of tears and pleading and playing the asthma card got us a refund to enable us to move hotels. So it looks like we're stuck in this hot box for the next five nights. We've just had breakfast in a scruffy little eatery where there was a huge cockroach being devoured by a million ants under our table. The waitress scooped it up, binned it and then served us our food. Then we listened to a guy behind us proclaiming loudly about the ants in his baguette which I wish I hadn't heard. How does that joke go...?
'Waiter, waiter! There's an ant in my food,'
'Well don't wave it about or everyone will want one,'
So then there was a mad rush to the kitchen for ant infested baguettes.
Then the guy started talking about how one of the girls had got drunk and done a shit in the street in Vang Vieng. After they'd finished that delightful conversation, one of them decided he was going to jump into the river from the cafe window until the waitress cottoned on and stopped him. No wonder the locals are frosty towards tourists here. What I've found whilst travelling is that most tourists are douchebags and deserve ants in their baguettes. Every night after the bars close, the travellers head to the 'beach' and build a fire and sit around it. The firewood is collected from anywhere people can get it from. I watched people carrying wood from the island and dumping it on the fire. A few minutes later, a local would be carrying it back with a resigned, dejected look on their face because it had been a piece of their fence, or house or shop. Tomorrow we're hiring bikes and getting away from this part of the island!
- COPE Centre - COPE was created in response to the need to provide UXO survivors with the care and support they required, namely by way of orthotic and prosthetic devices.
COPE is now a local not-for-profit organisation that works in partnership with the Centre of Medical Rehabilitation (CMR) and provincial rehabilitation centres to provide access to both orthotic/prosthetic devices and rehabilitation services, including physiotherapy, occupational therapy and paediatric services to people with disabilities.
In the Vietnam/America War, over 270 million cluster submunitions were dropped on Laos by America to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail and supply routes to Northern Vietnam. One-third of the bombs failed to detonate on impact and have since claimed an average of 500 lives a year. Only 1% of Laos has so far been cleared of these bombs. It is absolutely heartbreaking. I would urge you to read into this, before we got to Laos we had little understanding of the Vietnam/American War, it really opened our eyes.
Unexploded bombs that were safely detonated and are now on display at the COPE Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang
Prosthetics used by people injured by UXO's now on display at COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane
A Wat in Vientiane
Statues of Buddha
The Victory Gate - Vientiane. War monument dedicated to this who fought in the struggle for independence from France
Mat at Joma Café. This café gives 2% of every sale to charitable organisations in the local community. They also work with NGO's to provide job training and employment opportunities to disadvantaged people and victims of human rights abuse. Plus they did great food and coffee
Day 98 - Thursday 19th March - 4000 Islands
If I had any advice to people visiting 4000 Islands it would be to:-
A) Get somewhere with aircon so you don't die of heat exposure
B) Don't stay on Don Det or at least stay at the South end of the island away from the main strip and,
C) Don't eat anything for the entire time you are there
We rode to Don Khon to see the waterfalls and it's loads nicer. It also has a beautiful beach although you're not allowed to swim because of currents. If it hadn't have been for Kat and Rich staying on Don Det I wouldn't have stayed there a moment longer than I had to. We spent one day at a really nice pool on the South of the island. I was feeling great and then I ate my lunch. As soon as I put my fork down, my stomach ballooned and I felt horrendous and I knew we had to get out of there. Now I've done in depth courses about food safety and the causes of food poisoning because of my job so I know the timescales of the onset of symptoms, so I'm not saying it was that. BUT, something in that food instantly disagreed with me. The next 18 hours were spent in a haze of green diarrhoea and spicy lentil vomit. I have never felt so ill in my life, made a million times worse by our 38degree room and our impending, inevitably unbearable boat and bus ride the next day.
I chowed down on an Imodium before the boat and it got me through the journey. I was so relieved to be leaving as we sailed away from the rubbish strewn, fire scorched 'beach' and grim, depressing main strip of Don Det.
We're in Pakse now in our air conditioned room, mentally preparing ourselves for our sleeper bus back to Vientiane tonight. On our sleeper bus on the way down we were right at the front, directly opposite the 'toilet' (although that might be useful this time.) It meant that we could smell shit all night and people were grabbing Mat's legs to steady themselves whilst exiting the toilet as the bus swerved about. Also, because the driver had brought his 20 mates with him for the trip and he kept picking up more people, we ended up with half of Laos sat at the foot of our already cramped bed. Then the driver turned the a/c off and it was stiflingly hot until an angry American lady stormed down to the front and made him turn it back on again, giving Mat's leg a quick grab for good measure on the way back to her bed. The driver retaliated by singing loudly for the next 10 hours.
Our first two weeks in Laos were great, but now we're ready to leave. I think because we had such an amazing time at Uncle Tom's, everything that followed has been mostly disappointing.
The view from Baba's Guesthouse
Cycling over the Mekong
Absolutely love this face!
Waterfalls on Don Khong
This cat was the nicest thing about Don Det
Cycling around Don Khong
The boat outta there!
This is a coffee made strong with condensed milk in the bottom and usually found in Vietnam. They were pretty hit and miss throughout most of South East Asia but I had this one in Luang Prabang and it was absolutely perfect
These were squishy coconut rice pancakes from a street food vendor and were unbelievably tasty. Kat made us try them one night and then we had them every day in Luang Prabang after that
Here she is making them, then she puts them in a little banana leaf cup
Tuk tuks in Vientiane. Mat says he didn't filter this but I'm not convinced!
How about this fake grass on top of the toilet though?
Squished up in our sleeper bed travelling from Pakse back up North to Vientiane to catch our flight to Vietnam. They still do the peace sign when they pose for pictures over here so think that's why I keep doing it!