Not So Smelly River
12.10.2009 - 22.10.2009
My watch is not working properly. It is not displaying the digits properly. It is hard to tell if its 8pm or 9pm, 6 am or 5 am. It's a cheap watch that got damaged when it got wet. I don't care though as the ticking of time is not cracking the whip at me. I have no fixed agenda and I like it like that.
I left Vientiane, Laos on 12th October and headed for river sports capital of Vang Vieng. Nestled on a bend of the river Nam Song, it is an hour or so from the romantic sounding village of Huay Pong Song. OK there is no pretending that this is the real Loa, as the place is homogenized backpackerville with the usual collection of bars and travel shops providing American TV programmes in every bar for the homesick and conversationally challenged. It is surrounded by stunning scenery though, including the dramatic jungle topped limestone-karst terrain. The main reason to go here is for the fun though and I had plenty of that. I took a day trip that included a couple of cave trips, together with watersports. We Kayaked down the river for 17km, hitting the odd gentle set of rapids. We also did a bit of tubing. This entailed sitting on a truck intertube and either being taken by the rivers current inside the cave,or pulling yourself along on over hanging ropes. We also got to play trapeze artists, by swinging around on a high up rope swing above the river. I really was a kid again. I did however decline on the tube crawl. This involves tubing down the river, stopping off at a bar for a beer or two and then floating off to the next bar. All to Ibiza for me! The next day I hired a cycle, touring some more caves, hiking up one oft the karske's. The caves were not lit or manned. Although I had a torch I did hire the services of the local guides (often kids). Many of the backpackers were not forking out the 75p but for me it was a small investment compared with getting lost in a cave.
Next stop was Phonosavan. This is just a little insignificant town, 3 1/2 hours on the comfortable mini bus (actually a Korean People Carrier) North East of Vieng Vien. By this time I had become friends with an international bunch: a French lady from Britanny, a Taiwanese guy and a Polish chap who is living and working in Glasgow. We all dined together the night we arrived. Myself, the Pole and the chap from Taiwan did fancy going for a drink somewhere after the meal. Our curiosity was lured by some music on the main street. A party was clearly taking place, judging by the music, dancing and joviality. We hovered outside the out door venue. Just being nosey though. Someone however clocked us and got us to join the party. We were forced to drink, eat and dance. People kept taking turn to introduce themselves in limited English. The chap who had invited us over informed us that the party was to celebrate 20 years of the new bus station (please don't snigger). It turns out that he worked at the bus station during the day and in the evening did a voluntary teaching job in the evening at a local English Language school. He invited us to come round and meet the kids at the school the following evening. It is these moments of spontaneity that make a back packing holiday.
The main intention of coming to Phonosavan was the Plain of Jars. These are groupings of 2000 year old jars of varying size, many big enough to sit in, scattered over the landscape. The is still a mystery as to why they are there. They are clustered around the landscape in about 20 different locations. This is a tourist attrac tion that has only opened up due to the Mines Advisory Group. This is a Manchester based organisation charged with mine clearance around the world. Bear in mind that Laos is the most bombed country in the world per capita thanks to Uncle Sam's bombing campaign to flush out those pesky Commies. Of all the bombs dropped it is estimated that 30% have not yet been detonated, making it an occupational hazard for farmers and a huge danger for curious kids. The trade in scrap bomb metal is a very real and very also a very sinister trade. Every year many lives and limbs are still being lost.
Anyway - I have got the serious bit out of the way. Remember that we were invited to the school?. Well the part time teacher did keep his promise, picked us up and took us to the school. The French lady (Anne) and a Japanese guy whose name is pronounced 'Shoe' joined us. It thought that this would be just a quick introduction to the kids although it entailed much, much more. We were allocated to a class each of 14-16 year olds (looking 4 years younger than UK kids). For 2 hours we were asked if we could teach them. Initially this seemed daunting but they really were a good bunch of kids who where there because they wanted to learn. I was asked to team my class an English song and all I could thing of was Jingle Bells. One of the highlights of my trip so far.
The next journey, 7 hours on a Mini Van with no air con and windows that didn't open much, had me gasping for air like a suffocating goldfish. It was all worth it though when we arrived at Luang Prabang, former royal capital. It is on a bendy confluence of the Mekong on the West and Nam Khan on the East. Surrounding the town are endless densely forested rolling hills. Perched on a hill overlooking the town is a popular temple for sunset view. The town has World Heritage status. Immaculately preserved French colonial buildings, complete with balconies shutters line the street. What a classy place. The place really comes alive with the evening market. This is where I ate wmy new found friends every night. No fancy restaurants, just eating the amazing street food that included great grilled chicken and fish. This was accompanied by an vegetarian buffet for a staggering 45p. The morning marked was also a real experience. One morning I strolled around the stalls with the intention of picking up a bit of breakfast. Plenty to chose from including deep fried sparrow and grilled intestines. Much of the produce however was alive: frogs, eels, maggots even some kind of cute furry thing chained up. I settled for a sausage sandwich. But what was in the sausage?
On the 20th we all went our separate ways. I took a 7 hour boat ride down the Mekong The small boat could fit 10 although there was only three of us on this occasion. The seats were comfortable and the journey was a joy. We then arrived at our destination the village of Nong Kiaw. The village is cut in two by a 250 m long bridge. This is where I stayed for 2 nights, one of the most impossibly stunning places I have ever stayed. My bamboo hut/bungalow faced the fairly fast moving river and the dramatic limestone cliffs. Me and my fellow passengers: Jen American) and Palo (Italian) met up for a meal that evening and a little walk the following day. Really it was too hot to do much though other than sit around and be mesmerised by the view. Last night me and Paulo did however tackle the Lao rice Whiskey/paint stripper. Even that did not knock me out though as I couldn't go to sleep. I was kept awake by nature's orchestra - the constant sound of the river and the jungle surrounding us. Crickets, frogs, screeching beetles and various other creatures of unknown origin. I jumped out of bed last night, alerted by the snake that had slithered next to me. Then I realised that it was just a dream, a hallucination brought on by the Whiskey.
Here I am now (22nd of October) - back in Laban Prabang. Signing out.