Archive | September, 2011

Muddy Motocycles/Feet

30 Sep

After another sporadic meeting with Paul, we were introduced to two girls (Lisha and Rose). Lisha wasted no time after our introduction and went straight in with:

“So we’re going to rent some motorbikes tomorrow to go explore the other side of the river, want to come?”

“Ermmmm yeah? I guess?” I hesitated a reply.

A day of tubing and relaxing later me and Clare stood waiting whilst our bike was made ready. Up role the 3 on their bikes as we climbed aboard ours. I feel like someone should have shouted out a corny one liner like “TO ADVENTURE!”, but instead I just said a rather British, “Shall we go?”

The ‘Road’ (a muddy track) was immediately hard going. Last nights rain had taken its toll and while the road wasn’t hugely muddy, the huge pot holes had become lakes and due to the soft verges the only way forward was through. Due to the varying size and depth, it was often down to a game of ‘whoever’s first try’s it’, AKA puddle roulette. Most of the puddles were passable, but occasionally they would sink deeper and deeper and suddenly you’d find your feet (which meant the engine as well) were under water. This gave you only one option, gun it and hope for the best. This normally meant you’d end up with your legs covered in a thick orange mud or the bike would slip and you’d end up on the verge desperately trying to stop the thing sinking into the outer mud. This of course lead to a number of “God dammit!”‘s and “QUICK GET OFF THE BIKE ITS SINKING!”.

After our trial by mud we reached some flat ‘road’ and even managed to reach 3rd gear at some points. We drove on roads surrounded by paddy fields and through little villages which almost every inhabitant would call out “Sabadi!” (hello) and wave. With huge khast mountains as the backdrop against the sky, it really was beautiful.

Blue Lagon

Eventually after a few narrow wooden bridges and more mud, we reached to where we had vaguely planned on going, ‘The Blue Lagoon’. First impressions were of an empty car park (a field) and an attendant asking for money. Though once we parked and headed towards the lagoon our views quickly changed. A beautiful swimming hole lagoon, with water a brilliant blue/green, a tree growing over with swings and ladders and a roofed bridge crossing over it. Locals swung from ropes and dived into the inviting waters. Now this may sound corny but it really did look like something you’d see in a film or postcard.

We all played for hours, swinging from swings, diving from the highest branch we could manage (the water was so deep even from jumping near the top of the tree could you not even feel the push of the bottom). It made the hellish start to the ride seem completely worth it.

After a brief visit to the cave which was half way up a mountain (literally), we rolled on to a cafe we had passed near a bridge. Some locals served us some 2 minute noddles that took about 45 minutes to cook (though the mango and mint shakes were amazing). From this part of the journey onward we were joined by a French lady on a mountain bike (who often out paced us!).

We decided that the way we had come was probably not best to be the way back (Surely there must be and easier going way back!?). A map check confirmed there was another route back to Vang Vieng. So often we zoomed, thinking it be easier to at least TRY going another way.

After a few games of puddle roulette we hit our first snag. After I picked the wrong route through a puddle, caking me, Clare and bike, bike refused to restart. Fearing I’d drowned the thing, I started to wheel it to a garage. Amazingly the nearest bike garage was less than 50m and the mechanics had watched the whole thing.

“It no work” I said pointing at the muddy thing.

“????” and a thumbs up from the mechanic.

A old man stumbles out the garage speaking Lao and smelling of alcohol, another man in the background laughs and signs me to sit down on the bench. The mechanic has a go at starting the engine and immediately says “Ahh!” and runs into the garage. He now holds a new spark plug and says “BOOM!”, “Ok?” I reply and he begins to unscrew bits of bike.

I am then offered a shot of Lao Lao (homebrew whisky/moonshine/alcohol/engine de-greaser), which I politely turn down considering how much harder this would be even after a single beer let alone a shot.

Quicker than I realise the bike is fixed and actually working better than when I had hired it. So off we went again, desperately trying to hold on to our bikes through the mud and praying not to drown in the puddles.

Snag two happens. Paul hits a particularly deep puddle, couriers off road, through the mud and ends up accelerating into a tree/hedge. Luckily this was more comical than medical and we were on our way soon enough.

Then we came to this:

Apparently this roller-coaster of planks was a bridge. The bridge looked so flimsy we were unsure if anyone could walk across it let alone think about bike. Suddenly a local comes by on a motorbike, beeping and cursing us for being in his way he sped across the bridge, it flexing and sagging as he crosses.

“What!? Really?! You CAN cross that on a bike?”

“Who’s going first then?”

“I don’t mind” I say, “but I think I’d rather just wheel the bike over”

Timidly I crossed, with the bridge creaking and flexing like it really wasn’t happy. I made it across to 3 women sitting in a straw hut, asking for money to cross the bridge (apparently it was a told bridge!?).  Then snag three happened, a crashing sound like motorbike meeting timber came from the other side. The toll bridge lady jumped up and sprinted up the first hump of the bridge to see what was going on.

The Fall of Paul

Apparently Paul had tried to ride across and lost control and fallen off the bike. By some luck his bike had hit one of the only two uprights that held the bridge up, thus saving the bike from falling into the river. The toll bridge lady promptly removed the bike from Paul and wheeled it across (“Let me do it for you”).

The girls then expertly drove almost full pelt across the bridge and then took lead of the group (“Rose’s Riders”). We passed some wonderful scenes of locals playing in rivers, huge paddy fields with mountainous backgrounds and open khast quarrying (?).

Rose's Riders

We only had one small snag on the road on the way back, a flat tire on Rose’s bike. This was expertly fixed (again by the looks of the inner tube) by a local repair man. Who’s whole family of children came to watch. Me and Paul (much to the entertainment of the kids) took to pulling silly faces.


Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos

28 Sep

In an earlier post I mentioned that whenever I asked anyone about Laos, the first thing people talked about was the tubing. And now we’ve arrived at tubing central- Vang Vieng, I’m a bit fascinated.

The whole tubing craze apparently started in 1999 at a place called Mulberry Organic Farm, 4k away from here. The owner of the place would hand out rubber inner tubes for his volunteers to float down the river on and relax.

Fast forward a decade and this activity seems to be the thing that now defines Vang Vieng, so much so that it’s actually illegal to sell inflatable rings here now. They can only be rented from one of two tubing companies operating on alternate days to share the business.

Joe, the owner of Maylyn hostel where we’re staying said that he used to joke, “It’ll soon cost more to rent a tube than a room. And now it is.” The tubing companies must be making a small fortune! Joe also came up with the inventive term, ‘Post Modern Tubing’ for those who choose to tube in the PM when it’s generally busier and more of a party.

Later that afternoon we started chatting to a local nearby to our hostel who said that if we wanted to, we could borrow his tube which was kind of him. There would be no bars with people raving in the showers, free shots, or spray paint to mark our skin like cattle, but it’d still be tubing in Laos!

So, at around 3pm we got ready to tube! Equipped with a bottle of rice wine left over from Luang Prabang we wandered through rice fields lead by the daughter of one of the locals, and floated lazily down the river, stopping every now and again to enjoy the scenery and to jump off trees- Not quite the PM Party Tubing but certainly a fun experience.

In Vang Vieng the drug dealers come young

28 Sep

Happy Menu from a bar in Vang Vieng

We arrived in Vang Vieng last night; a place now well known for its tubing , ‘happy’ shakes and drunk, semi naked tourists. I like what Wiki Travel said about the place: “If teenagers ruled the world, it would look like Vang Vieng.”

After one night in the heart of the town we took a short walk over the bridge to the other side, which feels a bit like being on a farm (cows and chickens roam freely around), surrounded by incredible mountains and bright green rice fields. We’re now staying in a beautiful treehouse like, bungalow room overlooking the river, which you can swim in.

Dom jumped into the water pretty much as soon as we arrived and shortly after, 2 little naked Lou boys of about 6 dived in from the other side holding what looked like a yoghurt pot. After scavenging in the mud for a bit and filling the pot up more, one of them said, “You buy?”

Inside the pot were tiny mushrooms, presumably of the magic variety, which wouldn’t surprise me here as all the bars sell mushroom shakes and opium tea.

Vang Vieng- View from Maylyn Hostel room


Luang Prabang, Laos Sunset

27 Sep

Yesterday was our last full day in Luang Prabang which meant the last chance to take some good pictures of the sunset on top of the main temple. So, for the sake of art we ran all the way up hundreds of steps to catch it in time.

Once at the top, there was a small gathering of people including Paul, all snapping away at the sky. There was also a slightly raised collection of rocks – the viewing platform, where people were posing for silhouette style photographs.

Paul then thought it’d be a good idea to say, “Let me take a picture of you both up there kissing”- The ultimate bad postcard/ awful film still shot. Completely unexpectedly, once we were up there, everyone below started clapping, cheering, and taking photos of us for themselves.

It’s a good job we’re leaving today because as we walked out of our hostel this morning, a girl smiled at us and said, “You’re the kissing couple from yesterday- sooo cute.”

Cycling Map Free around Luang Prabang, Laos

22 Sep

Yesterday, we (me, Dom and our older nomadic traveller friend, Paul) went on a bike ride to nowhere in particular, which I quite like doing because there are often surprises along the way.

About half an hour in though, we came to Luang Prabang Airport; not really a must see site. We’d decided to take the route across the wooden plank bridge because it looked nice. It kind of seemed like we’d gone the wrong way and that bringing a map would have been a good idea after all.

However, when you’re on a ‘let’s just cycle and see’ bike ride there isn’t really a right or wrong way, providing you have no expectations. I think we were all hoping for lovely countryside, mountainside jungle or interesting riverside paths, apart from Paul who was just happy to lose some calories.

We carried on cycling anyway and stopped again after an hour to sit in this wooden shelter in the shade by the side of the road opposite some houses and fruit trees.

Unsure which way to go next I asked a man walking past, “Khwy sawk haa” which translates badly as “I’m looking for forest.” He shook his head and I asked again replacing ‘forest’ with ‘river’. He then smiled and pointed left. In the mean time Paul had been given a papaya from a lady who lived in one of the houses opposite.

As we continued to cycle, the river turned out to be unsuitable for swimming but we later found a small cafe where we could consume sugar and eat the papaya. The woman who worked there happily agreed to cut it up for us. 10 minutes later she returned with a plate of the South East Asian speciality, papaya salad- spaghetti like strands of papaya, soaked in a kind of chilli fish oil with tomatoes and green herbs. It was surprisingly tasty.

Towards the end of our bike ride we ended up finding a 3-floored temple on a hill with a fantastic view over Luang Prabang. Most temples contain mural paintings and artworks. However, in this one the work was different. Am I right to think that the people in this part of the mural are eating themselves?

On the way out of the temple an old wise looking, white robed woman, who I assumed worked there smiled at me and gestured for me to come over to her. She reached for my hand and tied several plaited, gold threads around my wrist whilst muttering something in Lao. I thought, how lovely, she singled me out because I’m paying extra attention to the art and deserve a bracelet. However, once she’d finished she held out her hand and said, “Money.”

Now I have 2 thread/ string bracelets on my right wrist which are supposed to symbolize happiness. The left wrist is knowledge. Perhaps I’ll get another one of those soon.

As we rode slowly back to Luang Prabang, we spotted a huge rainbow running right through the sky; a lovely clichéd ending to a ‘There’s no right or wrong way’ bike ride.

Tat Sae – Or “Not this waterfall, the OTHER one!”

22 Sep

Tat Sae Waterfall

After a brief encounter with an “Older Nomadic Traveller” over breakfast we decided that we should all head to one of the two waterfalls around Luang Prabang. After pointing at one of the waterfalls on a faded card the ‘tuk-tuk’ driver had shown, me, Clare and Paul were on our merry way.

We arrived near the waterfall in the pouring rain and were told that we would have to take a boat up river to the waterfall. We insisted that the one we wanted to go to you could walk too. After a heated debate of “NO, NOT this one the OTHER one, I SAID the OTHER one” and “I think I heard about this, them trying to rip you off by taking you to the smaller one”, I realised I had pointed to the wrong falls to begin with.

I'M ON A longtail BOAT!

As we were now near A waterfall we decided we might as well not spend money for nothing and jumped into one of the little motor boats (a 12ft long thin boat with an engine with two speeds, full power or off). It was actually quite a pleasant ride up the river and when we arrive we were even more pleased by the falls.

The falls were a tributary joining the main river we had sailed up and it looked as though the jungle was flooding. Seriously, water rushed over short drops and swept around full grown and alive trees. Small bamboo woven bridges crossed at various points and further up the falls the reached up into one of the steps so you could actually wade out across the falls. From one tree hung the remanence of a tire on a rope. From the edge of one falls you could get a good swing and dive into the pool of the step below.

The falls were hardly the crystal blue that a lot of pictures had shown, but a choclate brown. Aparently this was due to the huge amounts of rainfall that come with the monsoon season. This didnt actually take away from anything and infact meant there was a lot more water to play and dive into.

We also heard from another couple of tourists that the other waterfall was so flooded and fast flowing with water that it was completely impossible to swim in let alone jump into. So in the end it seems like we inadvertently choose the better one for this time of year.

Arriving in Laos, Luang Prabang, and an angry woman and her dog

20 Sep

Laos seems to be one of the more mysterious South-East Asian countries, probably because I’ve never come across a Laos restaurant outside of Laos or owned anything made in Laos, etc.

And before arriving here, whenever I asked anyone about Laos they’d talk mainly about the tubing which despite sounding kind of touristy, I think I’d quite like to do. For the equivalent of a few £’s, floating down a river on a rubber ring in the sun and being handed free shots doesn’t sound so bad.

But where is the real Laos? The Lonely Planet mentions that “For about 80% of the population, the ‘real Laos’ is village life, and the best way to really get a feel for how the Lao live is to spend a night or two in a homestay.” Quite like the idea of this too.

However, we only arrived in Luang Prabang in central Laos a few days ago, and for now I think we both want to stay here for a few more days. The city is full of character and seems almost European in some ways; probably because it was originally a French colony. When we arrived it was a pleasant surprise to see lots of stalls selling baguettes. It made me hungry for sandwiches.

Aside from the bread though, Luang Pragang is an entertaining and endlessly intriguing place. Perhaps we haven’t yet got to the core of life in Laos but we’ve sampled some delicious food, stumbled across some great art, experienced Saturday night in a Laos nightclub, and met some interesting people, both nice and nasty.

On our first full day here, we were walking past a restaurant and met an Aussie girl, Nikki who had just finished doing a Laos cooking course and was sat alone surrounded by bowls and plates of yummy looking vegetarian food. She couldn’t eat it all so she invited us to sit with her and eat some, which is still some of the best food I’ve tasted here.

Unfortunately a bit later on, the next person we met wasn’t so nice. We ventured into the second hand book swap shop across the road where we were greeted by a horrible barking ratty little grey dog (reminded me a bit of the severely inbred dogs when you type ‘ugly dog’ into google).

Shortly after us, a Swedish guy walked in calling ‘Sabadee’ which is hello in Lao. I thought he was calling Zebedee and assumed he must know the woman who worked in the shop, because a few seconds later this booming Australian female voice yelled something back quite scarily.  I thought, you can’t surely be that rude to a stranger- he must be family.

The Swedish guy couldn’t hear so said something like, “I’m sorry I can’t here you.” And the woman completely lost her temper and started yelling at the top of her voice, “I SAID WAIT A MINUTE…” When she appeared (an overweight, ratty, grey woman in her 60’s), the Swedish guy timidly asked if she had a copy of a book he was looking for, to which she barked back, “No” and he left muttering, “sorry for disturbing you.”

By this point we were pretty keen to leave this bad tempered woman and her ugly dog alone, so Dom handed his Terry Prachett book to her which she disinterestedly flicked through and said, “Well, I suppose we can take it because we had one of these in last week and it sold pretty fast.” The other books on the shelf were so bad; we didn’t even swap it with another one. Talk about being ungrateful.

It’s also important to note at this stage that the shop this woman was working in was a charity, and all the money made supposedly went to help children in Laos get an education. How and why was this woman allowed to work there is completely beyond me.

I very much doubt that this little encounter had much to do with experiencing the ‘Real Laos’ but it was amusing to see such a well matched, ugly and angry dog and owner combination.