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Ban Nam Water Festival (video)

20 Oct

This is a short clip from the Ban Nam water festival. It takes place in Laos every October and is celebrated with market stalls and many boat races. In Savaanakhet the races took place on the Mekong river.

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The Best Beer in Laos

12 Oct

Dam Jook!

Laos is partly renowned for its friendly people, semi lethal Lao Lao drink and Beer Lao, but until reaching Central Laos I had no idea the province of Savannakhet had its own beer too- Beer Savan. It has a tiny dinosaur on the front of the can and tastes better than Beer Lao.

After perhaps one of the tastiest meals I’ve had in Laos at the floating restaurant, and listening to some rather deafening live Lao music by the Mekong River, we decided to search for a karaoke bar Tat and Andy had been to the other night.

However, unable to find the place, Tat asked some Lao locals who were sat enjoying a beer outside, for directions. The man at the far end said, “I’ll tell you where it is, but you have to have a drink with us first.” Behind him were loads of stacked up crates of beer and large signs reading ‘Beer Savan’.

We’d accidentally stumbled upon the Beer Savan owner and her friends and employees having a friendly evening meal and drink. We were only too happy to accompany them.

In all honesty, up until last night I was starting to feel that the claims were false about Laoisians being friendly, hospitable people; especially as we were fed bowls of laxatives the week before in a home-stay meal in Konglor.

But, the people of Savannakhet and the Beer Savan group were incredibly warm, welcoming, and happy to chat with us all evening; they definitely lived up to the ‘Lao people are friendly’ reputation. And as we left, they kindly gave us all a free Beer Savan glass each, with a dinosaur on the front.

Of course, the whole thing could have just been an excellent sales pitch, as I’m now writing a whole blog post about Beer Savan; if so, good for them. We all had fun, they made some extra sales and as promised, they lead us in the right direction to the karaoke bar just in time for what seems like Laos and Thailand’s favourite song, Hotel California.

People Watching in Vientiane

3 Oct

Vientiane feels half finished and a bit unsure of itself. I had this vision before we arrived that it’d be quite French and rustic, but in reality it’s a bit like a building site with some banks, bakeries and temples dotted about.

After wandering around for a while and seeing a great film called Trafic at the French Institute, my attention turned purely to people- both tourists and locals.

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.”