Saturday, February 04, 2006

VangVieng and southern Laos

So today it's Kirk's turn to be sick. That's 3 for 3. He was puking all the way down the street as we walked to get our bus tickets to Vang Vieng.We took a minibus to Vang and the scenery through the winding mountain roads was beautiful. Poor Kirk, he's not looking to well and was almost set off again when the pretty Laos Co-pilot got car sick. Along the way we got stopped for over 40 minutes at a police check point. Never did figure out why?

We eventually arrived around 3pm and tried to get into Riverside Bungalows, but they were booked up and had to go next door to ChampaLao Bungalows. That was fine 'cause they are closer to the cool spots and cheaper. There Duong told us how to avoid getting into trouble with the police and then we decided to immediately test out our new found knowledge.

You see the bars here are also Coffee Shops ala Amsterdam. So we sat down at The Smile Bar and had breakfast including a cup of Laos Coffee which is undrinkable Mud. Really horrible stuff! And then bought a bag of good "Coffee" to brew up. Much nicer.Ok, so I'll sum up the next few days: lying in hammocks, lying in tubes going down the river, lying in our bungalows, sitting around bonfires at night, chillin, relaxing and chillin some more. It's just that kind of place!!

The tubing is fun if a little slow at this time of the year. At some points it seemed like we weren't moving at all. But it's nice to slowly and aimlessly drift down stream past bars, huts or even just a guy with a cooler selling Beer Laos. Along the way the way the bars have swings and ziplines to plunge into the water and hopefully not break your neck.

So before we relaxed into a coma we decided to move on to south to Vientienne, Laos capitol city. If for only one day. So we went to Buddha Park and it was worth a visit. Lots and lots of cement statues.

Then we were off to an area they call 4000 islands where the Mekong fans out it's width to accomadate them all. It's even slower and more relaxed down on Don Det, the island we stayed on. So basically we carried on at a snails pace and the highlight was the waterfall. Actually, not so much a waterfall as a large plateau of cascades with serious amounts of water moving even though it was the dry season.

So we only needed a few days there. At the rate we were slowing down we would soon start developing rust so it was time to travel back to Thailand viase Pakse into Chom Mek, Thailand. A little used border crossing, well at least for westerners. After paying the $1 holiday surcharge at the border (it's Chinese New Year! - Happy New Year!!) we had a quick lunch which gave us all the shits. Next we continued on to Ubon Ratchathani which is very much off the backpacking trail. In fact, we only saw one group of farang the entire time there. But then we were only there 1 day to make our way to Pattaya. Infamous Pattaya. The undisputed 24/7, 365 hedonism capitol of the world.

Ok. So it's two days before I'll be home and I'm gonna pretty much break it off here. My job is done. Well almost. ......

Monday, January 30, 2006

Heading into Laos

So Brad decides to come along to Laos and joins me for the backtrack bus ride to Chiang Mai. We arrive and as our Tuk Tuk drives past The Local I spot Kirk and Jody having some lunch. I introduced everyone, we had some lunch and checked into The New Zealander Guesthouse across the street.

We then went looking for bus tickets up to the border of Laos. At first it looked like we wouldn't be able to get a bus for two days. Luckily we did wind up finding a bus for noon the next day. With that out of the way all we had to do was relax and wait for dinner time to roll around.
When it did roll around we had another round of Mexican food at the Salsa Kitchen. Then we had nothing better to do but relax, sleep and await breakfast time.

At which time we had another round of Bagel and coffee breakfasts at the Bagel Cafe. Then off to catch our bus. A nice 5 hour mini bus drive on which I finished Goldstein's "One Dharma" and handed it over to Brad to read. On the bus we met Simon/Kathryn (Eng/Colorado) and Sky/Ben (Eng/Oz) and we all arrived ~5:30pm. The border closes at 5pm so we would spend the night here in Chiang Khong.

After checking into a snotty landlady's guesthouse we had a nice view of the full moon rising over the Laos mountains on the other side of the Mekong. While walking down the main street (the only street, really) a Scottish Expat of three years pulled up in his Toyota Hilux Pickup and offered us a lift. But since we had no idea where to eat we declined. He wasn't much help with restaurant suggestions, but he was very friendly.

We gave Bamboo Restaurant a try and settled on the deck to enjoy some Mexican food with an up close view of the Mekong. The owner had obviously taken a fair share of abuse from travelers and was rather defensive. But he quickly warmed up to us respectful folk. He even prefaced the dinner with the question "Have you ever had real Mexican food?" "Why, yes." "Oh, too bad. Cause I'm no Mexican, hope you like."Could have fooled us! The food was really excellent and we even broke down and had some homemade brownies to cap off the evening.

Up at 6:30 in the morning for breakfast and then a short hike of about a half a km to the border even though a Tuk tuk driver told us it was 5km!!After skipping across the Mekong into Laos we procured our 15 day Visas and bought our Slow Boat tickets for a two day ride down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. Brad decided to take the speed boat, but in the end wound up getting stuck there for a few days chasing a girl (about the only girl there!)

for anyone heading into the area: There is a new option available which we really wanted to take, but time became a factor. You can now take an "eco tour" into the national forests, sleep in the tree tops, see the monkeys and fly along the tree tops in an extensive zip cable system for 3 days. Then take the Ou Nam river down to Luang Prabang which is supposed to be great. Next Time!

So around noon we got on the boat and I took a seat on the cushionless wood bench. Luckily I thought ahead and stuffed a towel in a stuff sack to cushion my arse. And somehow I had the two seater bench to my self. (who needs deodorant anyway).

Jody and Kirk are a few rows ahead. Against the wall behind me are the English girls who seem to be following me thru Thailand and Laos. To the side, a Belguim, Behind me Spainards, In front Europeans. A French guy who thinks he's Spanish plays a few entertaining songs on guitar and even a little Flamenco.

After a short lunch break Kirk and I had a few Beer Laos (BTW-World class beer, not like that Thai swill!!!) and played some backgammon. I beat him three in a row and then he turned around and did the same to me. We still haven't had a tie breaker? Then we shared a few tunes on his Ipod and suddenly we were there in Pak Beng, our stop for the night.

We all file off of the boat onto a very steep 80 ft. high sand dune while local kids carry our oversized backpacks (some two at a time) across a narrow wooden plank ashore. Grabbing our bags we make the difficult ascent, barely able to get a foothold in the shifting sands.
We weren't there more than a minute and a boy has offered us weed and a room. We got there and the price doubled so we got another room. He tried to rip us off on the green (brown) stuff too!

I awoke at 3am and had to vomit. I had just barely enough time as I tried to calmly find my torch, flip flops and make to the bathroom. It was short and sweet and then went back to bed. Dodgy food I guess.

As we were putting our bags in the back of the boat the following morning we noticed there was a lot of space there. So we decided to squat back there for the second day of the trip. OK, it is right next to the engine, but I had my earplugs and there was enough space for us all to lie about and take in the Mekong views in relative comfort.

My stomach was still a bit crooked in the morning and I was trying to avoid the bathroom because the previous boat only had a squatter and with 2 inches of water(???) sloshing around. But I was pleasantly suprised to find this boat had a proper toilet and with that and a few Oreo's my stomach was as good as new. :)

Near Luang Prabang we passed Buddha Cave and around 4pm arrived. We walked around for a while trying to find the recommended Vilay Guesthouse, but after getting misdirected we hailed a tuk tuk and got a ride there. Had dinner and walked thru the night market (pretty large) and admired the wares for sale: bedspreads, t-shirts, food, lamps, etc.

In the evening we went to check out The Hive Bar, along the way locals "ppssst, pssst"-ing trying to sell us opium or grass. After a beer we went down the street to Lao Lao Garden where we and others from the boat gathered around the bonfire for an evening of swapping stories.

We awoke the next morn and had some really great bagels and coffee at Jo Ma's Cafe. Unfortunately Jody wasn't feeling very well at all, so she went back to her room to work past the dodgy dinner we had and Kirk and I took a walk aroung Luang Prabang. Saw some more nice Wats and took in the quite becoming French architecture as we made our way to where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet. We thought we'd keep up with the French theme and find some wine and cheese to munch on. We found wine, but no luck with the cheese. We also were unable to find motobikes to rent. Apparently they don't rent them to farangs here because if you get hurt the nearest decent medical attention is an air flight away.

In the evening Jody felt better, but wasn't ready for the 50 cent street buffet so instead we went for some really tasty Indian food. Then we took a meandering walk to Lonely Planet reccommended Mylak Bar. A nice place with rugby on tv, comfortable chairs and a european feel to it. Later we went on over to Lao Lao Garden for more drinks and to wish Ben/Sky farewell as they are off for a three day trek.

The next morning we were planning on going to see a waterfall, but I awoke to a cold overcast sky and rolled over for more sleep. Eventually Jody knocked on my door and we went again to Jo Ma's for breakfast. Afterwards we got on the internet and upon exiting were pleasantly suprised to see that the sun had come out. So the waterfall trip is back on. We found a driver to take us there, but we weren't sure which waterfall we wanted to go to. The driver didn't speak English so he was no help and in the end we pointed to a waterfall picture in his truck and said "take us there".

It turned out to be a good choice. The other waterfall is where all the tourists go and we found out later that it was standing room only there. The Tad Se waterfall was practically empty. Maybe there were 8 other people there. And we even got to take a short boat ride to get there. BTW- there cabins would be an excellent place to spend a night.

We hiked up to the top straight off. It's not very high but we did get a little bit of a rock climb in at the top. No obvious trails up there so we climbed back down, peered into a cave and then found a pool and had a refreshing dip in the chilly, clean, clear water. Grabbed a round of Beer Lao and drank sitting on the stools in the shallow pool of the waterfall. Quiet, Peaceful, great sun and temperature. After a few hours we hiked back down and woke up the napping boy for a ride back to the other shore.

After a nice bakery lunch in town we climbed up the 300 or so steps to the top of Phousi Mountain. The Phu Si wat caps the mountain which has a commanding 360 view of Luang. Up there I met a young monk of two years. I heard that many of the boys join for a few years to get educated and then leave the Sangha so I asked him how long he intended to be a monk. He said he was in for life. Good Karma! There was a fair amount to see up there including: Buddha's footprint, Big Reclining Buddha, Buddha Cave and a few other pieces.

In the evening I ventured to try the 50 cent street buffet and was not dissappointed. Then a little pampering with an oil massage. Ended up again around the fire at Lao Lao Garden. A troop of jugglers from Brazil/Italy were there, "Jugglers without Borders". The English girls were there too and when things shut down they invited us across the street to the gay bar. No thanks, it's not worth the hassel, besides we're getting up earlier to move on to VangVieng.

Stay tuned......