Saturday 27th January, 2001 Sydney to Bangkok
After kissing goodbye to our precious cats, Benny and Layla, we leave home with Angie and Lauren to say goodbye to Mum and Dad and then on to Pelican Airport to catch the plane to Sydney. I break my heart sitting on the plane as I see my two beautiful girls waiting at the fence to wave us off. A month is a long time to be away from them and I can barely stand to think about it. It takes me nearly the whole forty minutes to Sydney to stop crying but feel better once we arrive.
At the Domestic Terminal we grab the airport bus to the International Terminal and by now we’re both feeling very excited. I love the feeling we have when we get here. Everything is done and we can relax usually for the first time in months.
At the baggage check-in we’re second in line as we’re here three hours early. This means that we get great window seats at the back of the plane. To pass the time, we eat pizza, buy a travel book called ‘The Wrong Way Home’ by Peter Moore, eat McDonalds and then find an outdoor beer garden and bar. Sitting in the sun and drinking beer must be the most relaxing thing in the world. Two beers later we pass through immigration and buy duty free bottles of Bacardi and Jim Beam, a carton of cigarettes for presents (or bribery) and a disposable underwater camera.
Our Thai Airways plane takes off at 5.15pm and we quickly move to the centre aisle next to us which has three empty seats. This is such a bonus as we can lie down for almost the whole trip. We make the most of it all by me drinking strong Bacardi with orange juice and Mark drinking a couple of wines. Dinner is good and so are two movies. Neither of us sleep but we manage to pass an enjoyable nine hours.
As we land, it’s 10pm in Bangkok and 2am in Sydney. Airport formalities are quick and we pick up a few maps and brochures from the information booth. We decide to get the airport bus into the city even though it’ll take longer than a taxi. This is our first backpacking trip on our own so we’re going to start it in the right vein.
We arrive at Khao San Road after forty minutes and, although it’s now midnight, it’s absolutely pumping. We’d expected to find deserted, dark streets but everything is open and the street is full of raging backpackers. This is incredibly exciting and any traces of tiredness have now gone.
Our first priority is to get accommodation even though we’re dying for alcohol. The last time we were here we’d eaten at a fabulous café around the corner so we head towards there to get a room. This is the Sawasdee Guesthouse and it looks fantastic. The whole lower floor consists of the café, bar and foyer which all open onto the street. People are lounging around drinking and eating and listening to music. We want to stay here so much but they’re full so off we trudge to the guesthouse next door.
Everywhere is booked out and we start to have visions of sleeping on the street. Along Thanon Rambutri we try the Viengtai Hotel where we stayed with Intrepid tours but they have only one deluxe room left and want $70AUS even though it’s already one o’clock in the morning.
Further along we ask at a little café that had become our favourite last time. So relieved when they tell us they have spare rooms. Not so relieved when we drag our gear up a winding cement staircase and see what’s on offer. Besides looking like a firetrap, it’s dirty and the shared bathrooms are hideous. The rooms are partitioned off from each other with the top foot or so made of mesh. This means we can hear people talking in the other rooms and they sound like a bunch of drug addicts. The place itself reminds us of where Richard stayed in The Beach so we’re very polite but say we’ll keep looking.
The lady who owns it is so sweet and runs after us down the street to tell us of another guesthouse down a nearby alleyway. Luck must be on our side as we just beat a young French couple to the door and take the only room left.
This is the 7Holder Guesthouse run by a smiling Thai lady called Mumma. Our room is on the bottom floor, it’s clean and we even have a bathroom. All this for 150 baht or $6 AUS. Besides this we’re only ten metres through a winding alleyway to Khao San Road where we head after chucking our gear on the bed. As usual there’s loud music, tuk tuks and backpackers everywhere.
We have beer and food at a table in the street and then on to another café for more beer. At 2am we decide we’d better get some sleep even though we feel great. After quick cold showers to cool us down we finally get to sleep.
Sunday 28th January, 2001. Bangkok
At 7:30 we’re up for more cold showers and have hysterics at the towel that comes with the room. We’d been worried that we wouldn’t get one but this thing is almost the size of a bedspread – you had to be there. After throwing on our clothes we’re out into the street as quickly as we can.
Today we have a heap of things planned to do. Outside it’s blue skies and hot already and just how we remember Bangkok. Our alleyway zigzags between Thanon Rambutri and Khao San Road and has double storey wooden Thai houses running along one side and mainly guesthouses on the other. It’s a nice atmosphere. One strange thing though are the Dog’s Toilet signs painted every few metres on the wall of the alley – what the?
Breakfast is in Khao San Road at a big, busy open-air café with fans buzzing overhead and loud music coming from somewhere in the back. The sun is pouring in and this is absolute heaven. Unbelievably, there are still some of the same people we saw last night still sitting in the same seats and looking definitely worse for wear. We only have 120 baht until the moneychangers open so this means we eat like the other backpackers. We share two slices of toast, one mushroom omelet and a small bottle of water.
After breakfast we ask Mumma if we can book the room for another half-day as we want to have cold showers before we get on the train tonight. She’s a sweetie and lets us have the room for 120 baht till 6pm. We talk with her and her daughter, Dang, while admiring the buddha shrine in the foyer. This has the usual offerings of incense, fruit and flowers and surprisingly a bowl of Tiny Teddy biscuits – what the?
Out into Khao San Road we change $100US into baht and ring home from a little place down an interesting alleyway off the main drag. It’s cool and dark and very basic with cheap cafes and tables and chairs set up down the middle. The phone connection is bad but great to hear Mum and Dad and it only cost us 100 baht ($4AUS).
Before we start our planned itinerary, we’ve got one more thing to do and that’s to get over to the Royal Hotel to pick up our train tickets. Following a map, we get out onto a busy road and pass open-air pavilions where people are playing some sort of gambling game with cards maybe like lotto or scratchies.
Across an intersection choked with traffic we come to the Royal. The foyer is big and impressive with lots of activity and, amazingly, here are our tickets. We’d booked them through Intrepid Tours in Australia as this weekend is the Chinese New Year celebration long weekend and most trains would have been booked out ages ago. I don’t know how else we could get to Laos except to fly to Vientienne. We’d decided to go overland, though, as we want to cross the Friendship Bridge on the Mekong.
Outside the Royal Hotel, we walk for a while next to a small canal (called a klong in Thai) but soon hail down a tuktuk to take us to Jim Thomson’s House. It’s an exhilarating twenty-minute drive through the streets and a great way to cool down. Being Sunday the traffic is thin so we avoid being choked to death by exhaust fumes as we have on some previous rides especially in India. We eventually turn off the main road and into a rutted side lane to reach Jim Thomson’s House situated on the edge of a klong.
Jim Thomson was an American who was based in Thailand during the war and then stayed on to revitalise the Thai silk industry. He disappeared when on a walk whilst holidaying in Malaysia and his house is now a major tourist attraction. The setting is magic and the gardens are a jungle of tropical plants and flowers. The house is actually two very old teak houses that he had transferred here from Ayutthaya in 1959 and joined together to house his vast collection of antiques and treasures. I can say that this is my ultimate dream home.
The entire house is teak with overhead fans in every room and all with shutters opening onto the garden or the klong below. A tiny slow-walking Thai girl leads us from room to room describing the treasures each one holds. Crystal chandeliers from Belgium, Chinese vases from the Ming dynasty, 18th century paintings and rugs and every piece of furniture unique. It’s sparsely furnished so that each piece looks like a piece of art and yet there is an overall feeling of comfort and homeliness. I just love it.
Before we leave we have lunch at a café next to a pond near the house. While chatting to some European tourists we have a Thai chilli fish dish and a large cold Heineken. One traveller tells us where to get the BTS (Bangkok Transport System), or the monorail, which has been newly built since we were here in 1997.
It’s only a short walk down the laneway and up to the platform where we’re on the train before we know it. This is extremely clean and almost empty, being Sunday I guess, and we have good views of the city from up here. We want to get to the Oriental Hotel which apparently is at the end of the line so this has worked out perfectly.
After a fifteen-minute ride we’re back down in the streets looking for the Oriental. We ask the way but we always seem to get someone who is trying to send us off somewhere else, for a commission presumably. Bangkok must be full of men combing the streets for lost looking foreigners they can pounce on. Despite being caught twice last visit, we still manage to be conned and end up in a tuktuk at a pier on the Chao Praya River where some guy is trying to sell us klong tours.
We end up stumbling upon the Oriental ourselves only to be turned away at the gate for looking like filthy backpackers – great. No real problem as the up-river water-taxi pier is nearby. It’s a creaky old wooden building which is what we love about Asia. With longtail boats and ferries of all shapes and sizes, the river is almost as busy as the streets. Our ferry is already jammed with people and we have to jump onto the back deck as the boat washes up against the pier. The sun is scorching but the breeze from the river cools us down and it’s an enjoyable ten minute ride upriver.
We’re part of the crowd that jumps off at the busy pier near Wat Po and we’re soon heading for the temple. Here, two different tuktuk drivers tell us that it’s closed till three o’clock but they can take us to another temple in the meantime. This is weird as the Lonely Planet doesn’t mention anything about it being closed in the middle of the day. We walk around to the main entrance and, of course, it’s not closed and never is – just another scam to make money – nice try anyway.
Inside the grounds of Wat Po are tourists, tourists and more tourists. It’s about two hundred degrees in the shade so the first thing we do is buy drinks and ice creams near the souvenir stalls. The main reason we’re here is to have a massage at the Wat Po Massage school so we set out to find it amongst the labyrinth of temples, stupas and pagodas. The school is situated in two open-air buildings with overhead fans and rows of raised beds. People are lined up at the entrance showing how popular it’s become. We book in and told we’ll only have to wait about half an hour.
To pass the time we wander around the complex and spend most of our time in the temple of the huge reclining buddha. Many Thai people are in here making offerings of flowers and burning handfuls of incense at small shrines at the base of the buddha. There are rows of tiny candles, brass vases of flowers and smoke from burning oil and incense – so beautiful. Along the walls of the temple are rows of monks’ bowls and Mark drops coin donations in these before we go back out into the sun.
At the massage school we still have a ten minute wait so we sit in the shade in the doorway and watch some young Thai girls having foot massages. Our turn now and we’re lucky to be on adjoining beds. I’m given a pair of baggy pyjama pants to put on as I’m wearing a long skirt and then we’re ready to start. The massage is great at times but so painful at other times. It consists of half an hour of pulling, pushing, stretching and cracking. Despite the pain the atmosphere in here is wonderful with the massage people all dressed in bright yellow pants and tops and the ceiling fans keeping us cool.
Outside in the street I buy a bag of cold watermelon from a street cart and then we hail down a tuktuk. I tell the driver we want to go to Wat Mahatat but he can’t understand what I’m saying and then cracks up laughing when he realises what I said and how I said it. He starts telling his mates and it’s a great joke on me – ha, ha.
At Wat Mahatat there are no tourists but us and it’s so much more peaceful, like a temple should be. The large temple in the centre is surrounded on all four sides by long open-air pavilions lined with rows of about fifty larger-than-life golden buddhas. Local Thai people are lying around on the cool cement floors, some asleep, some talking and some eating. It’s like a family day out.
A man takes us into the back of the main temple where about a hundred people are doing a slow-walking meditation led by a monk sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of them. At the rear of the temple are huge gold-leafed sitting buddhas where the man who’d shown us in, hands us lotus flowers to give as offerings. He shows us how to make the offerings with palms together and heads bent. A bit pointless since we aren’t Buddhists but it’s a nice experience and he gets paid for the flowers. We have another quick look around the grounds before finding another tuktuk to take us back to Khao San Road.
At a tiny upstairs internet place, we send E-mails off home and I’m in tears again. I just hope everything is okay – a month is so long. Back down in the street we buy cushion covers for $4AUS each and a hemp water bottle carrier. We try a different café now for rice and a Thai salad that’s so hot I can’t eat more than a mouthful but Mark eats the lot. We change more money and then race back to the room for cold showers. I have three in a row as I just can’t cool down then I end up passing out on the bed while Mark packs. He’s my darling.
At 6pm we say goodbye to Mumma and head around to a massage parlour in another laneway between Khao San Road and Thanon Rambutri. This is so popular probably as it’s got a good write-up in Lonely Planet. We have to leave our packs just inside the door and I worry the whole time that they’ll be gone when we come out.
Firstly we’re taken to a room at the back where we have our feet washed and dried, then since we’ve already had a body massage today, we ask for foot massage. There’s obviously a communication breakdown, though, as we’re led upstairs to a dark room where the floor is covered in mattresses and where tourists are all getting the torture treatment. Our foot massages never happen and we end up with the torture treatment too. It’s funny but we’re glad when it’s over and can retrieve our bags again.
In Khao San Road we order food from a table set up in the street, as this will be our last chance to eat before we get on the train. Mark orders chips and gets fried rice instead but no problem and we both have a beer. It’s dark by now and still hot and steamy.
With our packs on, we set off through the crowds to the end of the road to get a tuktuk to the station. Hualomphong Station is packed and very exciting. After buying water for the train, we board at 7.30pm. I keep nodding off in my seat as soon as we sit down so Mark makes up the top bunk for me and I’m dead to the world before the train pulls out at eight o’clock. Mark stays up for another half an hour but has an early night as well.
Monday 29th January, 2001 Vientienne, Laos
The night is comfortable but freezing in our overly air-conditioned carriage. Although I wake a couple of times to put on more clothes, I have plenty of sleep. Mark also sleeps exceptionally well considering he’s too big for the bed.
At five thirty in the morning, I’m awake in my bunk, writing up the diary and eating chocolates – extremely pleasant. At seven o’clock I wake Mark and we do the going to the toilet/cleaning our teeth ablutions before our American breakfast arrives.
This is provided by a young girl who’s been sleeping in her seat with the breakfast food in a plastic bag at her feet. We have eggs, a tiny sausage, bacon, toast, jam and tea then watch the passing countryside as we speed towards the border at Nong Khai. The scenery is rather uninspiring and the day looks slightly overcast but we are on a fantastic adventure so stop complaining, Virginia.
Finally we pull into Nong Khai station where we’re met, not surprisingly, by a crowd of tuktuk drivers. The tuktuks here are really a little trailer pulled by a motorbike so they’re probably called something else. We share with a well-travelled European guy who says we’ve paid too much as the border is only about a kilometre away.
Here we quickly pass through customs and immigration on the Thai side of the border then cram into a tiny bus with other travellers to take us to Laos. The Laos border is situated on the other side of the Mekong River and we cross the Australian-built Friendship Bridge to reach it. Again, formalities are quick as we already have our visas and in no time we’re racing off in a taxi with the friendliest little man ever.
The difference from Thailand is immediately apparent. Previously a part of France’s Indochina along with Cambodia and Vietnam, Laos has only allowed foreign travellers in since the nineteen nineties. Being effectually cut off from the rest of the world for almost twenty years it’s remained a rare treasure of what South East Asia once was. It’s obviously a much poorer country than its neighbouring Thailand but quieter, much less westernised and also what we’d hoped for – we love it already.
We’ll be staying in Vientienne tonight but we want to see Buddha Park, called Xieng Khuan, on the way. The park is actually a small distance in the opposite direction but it’ll save us coming back thirty kilometres later. We drive for about fifteen minutes through villages along the Mekong and see that most of the houses are grass shacks and the road is rutted and unpaved.
Buddha Park is, as the name suggests, a park full of buddha statues of all shapes and sizes. There’s a massive reclining buddha, hundreds of smaller ones, stupas and flowering bougainvillea everywhere. Situated on the banks of the Mekong, it’s a peaceful setting and there are only a few people around so we enjoy the serenity. I give flower offerings (no idea what I’m doing) while Mark climbs the steep stairs of a temple.
Back in the car, we set off for the capital of Laos, Vientienne. This is supposedly the quietest capital city in the world and it appears to be just that. Most buildings are only two floors high and the streets are wide with very little traffic. Despite this, it doesn’t really impress me too much but this is probably due to the weather which is still a bit cool and overcast.
We’ve decided on a guesthouse near Chinatown called Vannasinh which turns out to be a good choice. It’s in a side alley, atmospheric, small and cheap at $20AUS a night. It’s a bit smelly but appears to be clean and we have our own bathroom with the ‘throne’ really looking like a throne on it’s raised dais.
Since we’re starving we quickly dump our gear and head out for food. We eat at the closest café which is run by an aging French hippie making it a mix of Asian and Western. After a quick snack we grab a tuktuk outside to take us to the Talaat Sao or the Morning Market. This is the local shopping centre and most of the things for sale are hideous western clothes and basically a lot of junk. We don’t stay long and then spend ages trying to find another tuktuk to take us to the middle of town where there’s supposed to be some interesting cafes along the river.
Our driver obviously has no idea what we mean and very happily drives us straight to a huge golden stupa. We have no idea where we are but think we may as well get out for a look as it’s probably somewhere we’ll eventually want to see. No-one speaks English and our driver has disappeared so we hit the Lonely Planet only to find we are at Laos’ most sacred/important religious monument. This is Pha That Luang which translates to World-Precious Sacred Stupa.
It may be precious but it’s less than exciting and we wander across the road to the monks’ quarters which are set in beautiful flowering gardens with colored shrines and temples. This is incredibly interesting and we watch the monks going about their daily chores in their saffron robes and have fun with some local kids who want to see themselves on the video.
Back out on the street we luckily find a tuktuk driver who does understand us and we head off for the river cafes. At a leafy café on a quiet corner we eat chicken, fried noodles and vegetables then drink Lao Beer while talking to some friendly English backpackers. It’s more touristy here than where we’re staying and we prefer our quiet little area.
The river is definitely not beautiful here and is disappointingly just big and muddy but then it is the famous Mekong. Since we stayed in a guesthouse on the Ganges last year, our goal is to stay on famous rivers all over the world but we’ll wait till we get to Luang Prabang where the Mekong will hopefully be more picturesque.
Our next plan is to get out to Wat Sok Pa Luang which is a temple a few kilometres out of town. Instead of a tuktuk we have our first ride in a jumbo. These are slightly larger vehicles but just as colourful and noisy. Our driver is a sweetie and takes us straight to the village next to the temple which is our real destination.
Here in a stilted wooden hut we have a wonderful time. The hut is open on three sides and surrounded by palms, banana trees and bougainvillea. On wooden benches at the top of the stairs, a few backpackers in sarongs are lounging around drinking tea after their massages and herbal saunas. Can’t stop laughing getting into our sarongs and then enter the sauna which is my first ever. There’s six of us crammed in here but it’s barely possible to see the person next to you. Sweat is pouring out of us which I suppose is good but it’s so hot and claustrophobic that I can’t stand it. I feel like running out the door like a mad woman but everyone else is looking very ‘cool’ so I have to behave. I keep thinking ‘I’ll stay till I count to fifty’, or something like that, and so I stay a respectable fifteen minutes before making my escape. Mark is much more impressive and braves it for about half an hour.
The thing to do now is to not shower for three hours to let the herbs get into our pores. I’m very proud of my first sauna and we cool down while talking to two young English guys who teach school in China. We all drink green tea and then it’s our turn for massages.
For forty minutes we lay on raised beds getting our first Lao massage which is at least as painful as the Thai massages we’d hoped to have left behind us. It’s still a magical experience, though, as we lay here watching the other travellers and the monks and villagers below us.
Back into the sauna again – five minutes for me and ten minutes for Mark. More cooling down and then we dress before walking up the dirt track to the temple which is uninteresting except for a few monks wandering around. We have no idea how we’ll get back to town until we see our driver who’s waited for us all this time. It really goes to show how few fares there are if he’s prepared to wait hours for us. We’re so grateful anyway. On the way into town we pick up a Dutch girl who’d been at the sauna and is walking all the way back. She’s also grateful as it’s getting cool by now.
Despite looking forward to hot showers, we only manage a lukewarm bottom wash and have to jump into bed to warm up. Of course, we both fall asleep and have to force ourselves to get up at seven o’clock. So tempting to stay here but we don’t want to miss out on our first night in Laos.
Besides this, we have to work out how we’re going to get to Vang Vieng tomorrow. We try to book a tuktuk for the morning from the guy behind the desk in the foyer but he tells us to just go out onto the road and one will come along. This sounds a bit dodgey but it’ll have to do. Outside it’s dark but a bit warmer so it’s nice walking around the streets. Our guesthouse is only a street away from a busy area of local cafes and shops. This whole area seems to be just for locals and there isn’t a backpacker to be seen.
We choose a café where lots of Lao people seem to be having a great time. The décor is basic to say the least but this is the real thing and what we prefer. The floor is littered with lettuce leaves and other green vegetables and we soon find out why. Our meal consists of a table full of dishes and an electric bowl in the middle with steam rising off the hot water inside.
Copying the locals, we put onions, garlic, noodles and slithers of meat into the boiling water to cook. These are then fished out with a pair of chopsticks (not easy), place inside a lettuce leaf, add rice paper, sprouts and ginger, wrap it like a parcel and then dip it into a chili, satay or soy dipping sauce also on the table. It’s great fun and by the end of the meal we’re also ankle deep in lettuce leaves. Mark loves this food and is having the best time eating and drinking Beer Lao. I admire the white tiled walls, plastic tables and chairs and plastic flowers then wander outside to watch two women preparing the dishes for the next lot of customers.
Walking home we pass a nightclub and decide to have a look as we’re wide awake by now. Inside we can’t see anything except the stage and a spinning disco ball on the ceiling. As our eyes adjust we can see that there’s a few locals spread around and a lot of young girls. In the ladies loo I can barely get in as it’s packed with them all ploughing on heaps of makeup in the mirror.
We can’t really work out what happening on stage as each song is sung by a different person who disappears immediately afterwards. Don’t know if it’s a talent quest or this is normal. Anyway, they’re all good and we get slightly drunk and even have a romantic dance. The drinks are incredibly expensive and two beers each cost more than our room. Being less than sober, we find this hysterical. It’s worth it anyway to see another side of Lao life. Home, then, to pack and straight to sleep.
Tuesday 30th January, 2001 Vientienne to Vang Vieng
The alarm wakes us at six o’clock and we’re dressed and out on the street in fifteen minutes. The main road is deserted but a tuktuk appears from nowhere and we’re soon off to the bus station. We’ve only got a vague idea about when buses leave for Vang Vieng but we can get a songthaew if it doesn’t work out. No problem as a bus is leaving at seven o’clock and we manage to get seats.
The bus station is a hive of activity so we’re kept amused while we wait. The best thing about our wait is that we buy fresh French bread sticks filled with salad from one of the many young girls wandering around with baskets full of them. The weather is warm and sunny already so everything is wonderful.
We leave on time with half the bus filled with travellers and there’s standing room only for lots of people. The aisles are stacked with sacks of grain and vegetables which is usual on Asian buses and no-one seems to mind.
It’s an interesting three-hour drive and through open windows we see how primitive most people live. Villages consist of grass huts and we even pass a line of working elephants walking along the road through Kasi. I swear, I nearly jump out the window with excitement. After an hour of driving through flat cultivated areas, the last two hours are quite mountainous and reminds us of Northern Thailand. Plastic spew bags are handed out and thrown out the window as people fill them up. Mark is feeling sick as well and we’re so glad to reach Vang Vieng at eleven o’clock.
This is really just a village that’s become popular with travellers for its limestone caves as well as being a stopover between Vientienne and Luang Prabang which is still seven hours north. We love it immediately.
Our bus takes us right into the dusty village square which is surrounded by cafes, guesthouses and the local market. On the way in we see a guesthouse we like so we race back to book a room. This is two floors high although the metal reinforcing rods sticking out of the roof indicate the hope of an optimistic future. Our room is clean and sunny although we do have a leaking toilet and only warm water. At $8AUS a night I don’t think we’ll complain.
A quick unpack and we head down to the river. This is the Nam Song and it’s picture-postcard material. It gently bends towards the village with limestone karsts as its western backdrop. The mountains are spectacular and rise up one behind the other as far as we can see to the north.
The village is situated on only one bank of the river but two bamboo pedestrian bridges lead to another smaller village not far from the opposite side. Water buffalo are wading in the shallows and three naked little boys are playing in the deeper water.
We walk along a path that runs along the water’s edge and come across the La Pavot Café set up high in the trees. A bamboo staircase leads up from the river and we sit on the verandah amongst hanging plants and caged birds. While we wait for our drinks a young boy sits near us with his pet monkey. We really could sit here all day but we’ve got so much to see.
Back along the river we find a path that leads to the morning market which is situated in a large open-sided building. The fruit and vegetables look wonderful as well as the French bread rolls and baguettes. At a tiny stall set up with plastic chairs we order a noodle dish and watch the girls preparing the herbs and vegetables in a mortar and pestle. It looks like a thick vegetable soup and comes with a plate of lettuce leaves. After eating I bargain for place mats and a table runner all woven locally. The girls serving are so sweet and one looks too young to have a tiny baby.
Now it’s time to find out where we can hire rubber tubes to float down the river. We know about this from reading other travellers’ stories and it sounds wonderful. A guy in a stall on the edge of the square hires us two tubes for the afternoon so we hurry back to the room to get into our swimmers.
Our guesthouse has a very unique safety protocol. Each time we go out we have to leave our keys on a table in the courtyard. This is ‘guarded’ by someone who’s either swinging in a hammock or lying on a nearby mattress. The only problem is that the ‘guard’ is always asleep and you just grab your key each time you come back. Love to have such a laid-back approach to life.
Back in the square we find a tuktuk driver who’ll take us up river. On the way out of town we stop to pick up an ancient Hmong couple who are heading back to their village. They’re both wearing the traditional Hmong dress of indigo clothes with coloured trim – wonderful. The four of us do lots of smiling and nodding and then wave goodbye as we’re suddenly dropped off on the main road. We find the river a few hundred metres down a dusty laneway and push off into the cool river.
At first this is relaxing and just what we need but the river is running so slowly and we don’t seem to be getting anywhere fast. We decide to put our thongs on our hands and use them as paddles. We pass groups of young people smoking dope and drinking beer they’ve brought with them. We pass fishermen and buffalo but there’s really not much else to look at. We see other people desperately trying to push themselves along by using sticks and all of them are jealously eyeing off our rubber paddles. No way baby, I want to get the hell out of here.
Two hours later we’re overjoyed to see the village. We’re dripping wet as we walk through the market but I just want to get to a shower. Thankfully, the water is hot and Mark also does some washing and we hang it out to dry on the front balcony.
Another thing we’d read about was that we must watch the sunset across the river at the aptly called Sunset Café. Firstly we have a drink on the verandah of the French-owned Nam Son Hotel also situated on the banks of the river. This is very French-colonial with white wicker furniture and potted plants. Instead of buying alcohol, we’ve brought along our duty free Bacardi and Jim Beam disguised in water bottles.
After a couple of drinks we move over to the Sunset Café where lots of other travellers are eating and drinking and all waiting for the sun to set. The café is next to one of the bamboo pedestrian bridges and we watch people crossing over to reach the small village on the other side.
Travellers are also being transported across the river in trailers dragged by noisy engines, women are washing themselves and their clothes and children are playing in the water. Surrounded by flowering bougainvillea and with the limestone peaks opposite it’s just too beautiful.
The sun finally sets in a cloudless sky and is definitely worth the wait. We order noodles and a Lao dish for dinner and talk to two French-Canadian girls. After more drinks we walk back to the guesthouse and then a wander around town in the dark. We stop for a drink at the only bar in town but soon head back for an early night at eight o’clock. A great day.
Wednesday 31st January, 2001 Vang Vieng
Because we have so much sleep we’re awake and up by 6.30am. We decide to check out the village on the other side of the town centre. The morning is fresh and a lovely time of day to be out walking. The village is slowly coming to life and we watch people cooking and sweeping. The houses are all raised off the ground and are mostly grass and bamboo huts with a couple of wooden and cement buildings owned by the wealthy few.
Within the village we come across Wat That where local women are putting food onto bamboo trays set up under the trees. After preparing the food they fill about six metal bowls on each tray. Nearby, monks in saffron robes are sitting around outside the monks’ quarters and village men are squatting in another area opposite. Other village women put handfuls of rice into alms bowls set in rows on a long table in the centre of the compound. Other people walk along the table giving offerings of money and sweets into each bowl. Soon the monks collect a bamboo tray each and their own alms bowl and carry them to an open-sided building where music is being played.
Our video camera battery runs out so we race back to our room for a new one while the sun is rising now in a pale pink sky. By the time we get back to the temple, all the village people have taken places on the floor inside the building while the monks sit together at the front. The chanting begins and we watch this fabulous spectacle for an hour amazed at how lucky we are to be here.
We’re starving by now so we leave in search of breakfast. Down a dusty street back in town, we eat in a clean little café where a television is belting loud karaoke music. Strange hearing the Eagles and Credence Clearwater sung with an Asian accent – just doesn’t make it somehow.
In a nearby shack we hire little-girl type pushbikes from a happy lady and set off through the village. Bicycle riding is not my talent but Vang Vieng is perfect for amateurs – no traffic and wide dirt roads. We ride through the other side of the village and down to the Vang Vieng Resort which is really just a few sad looking huts down on the river. I think they make most of their money from tourists who have to pay a toll to get through here to reach Tham Jang cave on the other side of the river.
Riding across the wooden bridge is a bit of a worry but soon we arrive at the steps to the cave. More money here before starting the climb of a hundred or so steps to the mouth of the cave. Besides being totally exhausted by the time I reach the top, we’ve also forgotten to bring water with us. The cave is impressive but has been touristified with walkways and bridges inside and all lit up with coloured lights. So hideous really and we don’t stay.
Back down the stairs we walk around the other side of the cliff to find a few smaller caves which all contain buddha shrines and offerings of incense and fruit. A grotto at the base of the cliff is filled with clear running water and some Japanese tourists are there have a hilarious time. We decide to go back to get our swimmers as the heat is stifling by now and the water looks so good.
After changing at the guesthouse, we cycle first to the market and then down to the river. Across another bamboo bridge with a makeshift tollgate in the centre, we come to an interesting tourist attraction. A hand painted sign on a stick reads ‘The Vang Vieng Tan Centre – Sunbathe Centre’ and consists of a few straw mats on a piece of grass about two metres square down on the riverbank. We guess you pay to sunbake on the mats which is not a bad initiative if it wasn’t for a pile of rubbish sitting several feet away.
From here we try to get to Luci Cave indicated by a sign pointing across a dry rice paddy. We stupidly try to cycle across it but have to turn back. Then we have to climb over a bamboo fence where Mark nearly breaks his leg when the fence collapses under him. We continue our pathetic bike riding adventure by trying to follow some other lost riders along the riverbank. This is no easy task as the bank consists mainly of rocks and we end up getting off and pushing.
At last we come to a sign pointing to a cave five kilometres along a dirt road. This leads to a small village of grass huts but the thought of riding five kilometres there and back in this heat is too much. We head back along the river, across the bamboo bridge and up through the market to finally have lunch in a lovely leafy café. It appears to be owned by a French guy who’s probably an artist. Lunch is wonderful – fresh baguettes with chicken salad and banana milkshakes. From here, Mark decides to go to the bank while I E-mail home before we get back down to the grotto near Tham Jang cave for a swim.
We never do get there. An E-mail from Angie tells us that our precious cat Benny is sick and he’s at the vet now. When I read that he can’t move his back legs I know this is it. Angie wants us to ring home as soon as we can and I’m frantic by the time Mark gets back. No-one knows where we can ring although some say the post office but it’s closed now until two o’clock.
We race back to our guesthouse and they tell us to go to some other place where there’s a phonebox to make international calls. I ring Mum and Dad and Angie is there. The vet will do what he can but my darling boy may have to be put to sleep. I’m inconsolable and spend hours lying on the bed crying. Mark is so sad and we feel helpless. I don’t know what to do with myself and just want this pain to go away. I want to be home with my poor girls – they’ll be heartbroken. I can’t apologise for feeling like this over a little cat but he’s been my baby for fourteen years and I can’t imagine what it will be like without him.
I have to think that there may be a chance and make myself get up. We go for a walk down to the school and watch the tiny little ones come out all immaculate in their white blouses and navy sarongs called phaa nungs.
We have a massage in a small family hut along the road above the river which would normally be a great experience but I can’t stop seeing Benny’s little face. We have dinner in a little café next to the guesthouse and drink a few Bourbons and Bacardis to numb our brains. I take a sleeping pill and I dream that Benny is better. I keep waking and the dream is wrong and our precious boy is still sick.
Thursday 1st February,2001 Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang
We’re up at seven o’clock to shower and pack. Still crying but have to keep going as we have to get to Luang Prabang today as we’ve arranged to meet Julie and Steve there. Since we arrived two days ago, the bus stop has been moved out onto the main road instead of the near the market. This means a ten minute walk across an old airstrip that was built by the Americans during the Indochina War.
After getting our tickets and me securing our seats, Mark races back into town to buy some food. He comes back with bottled water and four beautiful french rolls filled with hot chicken salad. We leave about eight o’clock with the bus virtually full of travellers. They’re an interesting crew and the scenery is lovely but all I can do is cry and cry for Benny.
After an hour along Route 13, the road begins to wind up and down spectacular mountains and we can see it snaking its way over other mountains ahead of us. Villages appear periodically along the side of the road which falls away on either side. The ground is so steep that the back of the huts are built up on stilts and we wonder why these villages would be here at all. After two hours we all pile out to go to the toilet in the long grass and then stop again two and a half hours later for lunch in a small village.
This is a strange place as we soon have an audience of young children but who seem very shy and stand back from us. No-one is trying to sell us anything and the little ones even seem a bit afraid. I give them a bottle of Pepsi that they all politely share with each other. About five little girls no more than six years old themselves have babies strapped to their backs and some are carrying umbrellas for shade. We show them what they look like in the video camera and they all look on very seriously – not the giggles we got from the school kids in Vang Vieng. It highlights how remote these villages are and how relatively few westerners travel this route.
Route 13 was the scene of many Hmong guerilla attacks even up until five years ago and the road is still considered to be potentially dangerous. For me, I’m more afraid of plummeting over the side than of being attacked by guerillas. I must say, though, that our driver seems to be very safety conscious unlike lots of other drivers we’ve experienced in Asia. Back on the bus we have to share seats with a Lao man and Mark is also feeling bus sick. The only thing is to watch the road as much as we can or take our minds off our stomachs by listening to the driver’s music tape that we’ve heard several times today already. Our favourite is ‘My Itsy Bitsy Tenny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’.
At last after six hours on the road we can see the Mekong down below us and at four o’clock we finally arrive at the Luang Prabang bus stop a few kilometres out of town. Here we’re met by jumbos and six of us pile into one including a Lao man with his sack of grain. The jumbo driver takes us on a detour to the man’s village where we drop him off and then we continue into town to find guesthouses for the rest of us. The other passengers are a friendly American guy and a young French couple.
At the first guesthouse Mark and the French guy look at a room but say it’s too dark. The American guy jumps out and says he doesn’t care and he’ll take it. Our next stop is the Mekong Guesthouse where the French couple grab the only room. We decide to leave our backpacks here and set off on foot to look for somewhere to stay. Maybe that dark room wasn’t so bad after all.
Luang Prabang is lovely and deserves its reputation as the ‘best preserved city in South East Asia’. Since 1995 it’s been World Heritage listed by UNESCO to preserve its historical, cultural and architectural beauty. It’s everything we’ve read about – quiet streets, a mixture of Lao and French buildings, temples, monks, chickens, guesthouses and cafes.
The streets are clean and there are potted flowering plants outside most houses. It’s situated on a peninsular where the Mekong and the Khan rivers meet and surrounded by green mountains – beautiful. It’s relatively flat except for a temple-topped steep hill in the middle of town called Phu Si. Only 16,000 people live here and there’s very little western influence at all.
We walk along the bank of the Mekong which runs wide and muddy below us down a steep embankment. All along this street are cafes and guesthouses but no empty rooms anywhere. Along a side street we can hear a loud temple drum and expect to turn the corner and witness another special religious moment. Instead we find a group of young monks having a jam session with drums and tambourines. Great to see that teenagers are the same everywhere.
After numerous turndowns we finally find a room on the bank of the Nam Khan. It’s upstairs in a quaint little guesthouse with a nice verandah set up with tables and chairs. Our room is clean and has hot, or nearly hot, water and we have our own toilet all for AUS$14.
While Mark goes back to get the bags I find an internet shop to E-mail home. I spend the next half an hour sobbing as I read the messages from Angie and Lauren about out poor, sick baby boy. I’m heartbroken that I can’t be there with him. I’m so proud of the girls. It must be so hard for them to see him this sick. They told him that they love him and Lauren whispered ‘Benny Ball Kibble’ in his ear and she thinks he heard. I told them to give him a kiss on the cheek from his Mummy and I think it will be today that he’ll be put to sleep. Can’t bear to think of it or what the girls will do. I should be with them.
Mark finds me and takes me down to a café on the river to have a beer. Just as it is on the Mekong side of town, there are cafes all along the banks of the Nam Khan on this side of town. They all have tables set up under trees and so, with the beer and this soothing atmosphere, I calm down.
The bank on other side of the river is cultivated in terraced vegetable gardens and we can see the rows of plants being painstakingly watered with watering cans. Although we’ve only been here a matter of a few hours, and it’s probably my state of mind, but I already know that Luang Prabang is where you could find peace and heal the soul.
We don’t know if it’s today or tomorrow that we’re to meet Julie and Steve as we’ve lost contact over the last few days. They’ll arrive from the opposite direction to us as they’re on a boat coming down the Mekong. We notice a few travellers wandering around so we think that the boat must have already come in. I ask them if an Australian couple had been on today’s boat. The girl says yes and that the woman looks like me. That’s them!
Suddenly we hear Steve call us and there they are in the back of a jumbo. So happy to see them but not good timing with me being so sad. I can’t wreck their holiday so I’ll have to be okay. I have a cry when I tell Julie and they both really understand as they’re just as crazy about their dog, Nelson.
To get a room they have to go out of town a bit but they can move in the morning. We meet them again at seven o’clock and it’s great to hear of their Thailand and Mekong River adventures. We all get on so well and love all the same things. Dinner is on the main street where tables and chairs have been set up on the footpath. We’re all tired and go back to bed about ten thirty. After taking another sleeping pill I cry myself to sleep.
Friday 2nd February, 2001 Luang Prabang
We wake early and I’m still crying for Benny. I’ve dreamt about him and see his dear little face all the time. We meet Julie and Steve in the main street at eight o’clock. They have a new guesthouse right here in town so we all set off for the Post Office so I can ring home. It’s shut for some reason but I manage to buy a phone-card and ring from a telephone box in the street.
Lauren is there and tells us that our baby boy has died during the night. We’re so, so sad but glad that he went by himself. He was always such a good little man and it’s just like him. Lauren is so sad but so sensible. It was his time to go and she knows it. She and Angie brought him home from the vets this morning and Doug buried him in the back garden where he always loved to be. They put him under the trees near the fountain and put the angel statue on top of his grave. Can’t bear to think that he’s gone but I can’t bear to think of him suffering. He just couldn’t get better and his little body had just had enough. Home will never be the same again.
It’s good that Julie and Steve are with us, otherwise I think I’d just go back to the room all day. We all have breakfast at a sunny café near the market and then Mark and I hire a sidecar rickshaw to go in search of the airline offices. It takes a while to find them but the weather is beautiful and we have a fun and unexpected tour of this part of town. They’re both situated along a rutted road running parallel to the main street and amidst temples and coconut trees.
Inside Lao Aviation we’re held up while a moronic French couple ask hundreds of stupid questions. We book a flight back to Vientiane for Monday afternoon and then cross the street to the Vietnam Airlines office to confirm our flight to Hanoi on Tuesday. While we’re waiting the French morons turn up and quite happily push in before us. What is it with people?
Another rickshaw back to meet Julie and Steve then we all hire a jumbo to take us out to Kuang Si Falls thirty two kilometres out of town. It’s an interesting, if dusty and bumpy, one-hour drive. The villages we pass through are basic grass huts and the people are friendly. We see green rice terraces and water buffalo down in the stream below and finally arrive at a picturesque village near Kuang Si. Our jumbo driver drops us at the bottom of the hill where it’s a five-minute walk up to the falls. A couple of grass shacks along the track are selling fruit and we buy bananas to put on the bread rolls that we’ve brought with us.
I’m not particularly a waterfall person but these falls are truly pretty. The water cascades down over limestone formations which spread the water out into fanned shapes which pour into milky turquoise pools below. The main pool empties into a series of lower pools and bamboo bridges allow people to get close to the main falls.
We decide to have lunch before going for a swim but the bananas have big black seeds in them, ‘like eyeballs’ Julie says. Hideous! Mark and Julie climb to the top of the falls while Steve and I sit around in the sun. The top pool has a sign that tells us to ‘DO Not Swimming Here’ so we walk down to the lower pool and get changed in a tiny wooden shed. Steve’s noticed a guy who’s been hanging around and watching us so we have turns of swimming while the others mind the bags. The water is wonderful and such a beautiful colour but it feels strange on our skin – caused by the limestone from the rocks apparently.
After our swim we all walk back down the hill and tell our jumbo driver that we’ll meet him down further as we want to walk around the village. Small grass shacks sell weavings and Julie buys a lovely purple scarf. Off the road the village people are busy chopping bamboo and making things out of dried grass. One lady is making spoons out of bamboo and I buy a set even though they’ll be impossible to take with us. Seeds are lying out to dry in the sun and naked children are playing in the stream. It’s so lovely here and there are even wooden water wheels on the opposite bank. A lady is washing herself in the water and healthy looking turkeys, ducks and chickens are wandering around in between the huts.
Back in the jumbo and it’s another dust-swallowing hour back to town. We’re all starving by now and have lunch in an outdoor cafe on the main street. I have a beautiful salad with egg, chicken, ham, lettuce, tomato, onion and hot potato while Mark has chicken noodle soup. For me, the combined influence of French, English and Laos on the food here is really the ultimate.
We plan to meet Julie and Steve later this afternoon and go to read our latest E-mails from the girls. We both cry as we read how Benny died and how they buried him. They’d given him cuddles and kisses and told him they loved him and told him that we love him too. It just breaks my heart that we couldn’t say goodbye.
To say our own good-byes to Benny we climb the many steps to the temple on top of Phu Si. As the sun goes down over the Mekong, we say goodbye to our little man. Goodbye our precious baby boy, our little mate, our clever handsome little man. You brought such happiness to our lives – you’ll live in our hearts forever. Thank you, Benny.
Julie and Steve are with us so we all decide to eat at the night market. There’s an array of meats, cooked and uncooked, like whole pig’s heads and Mark orders chicken on a stick. This includes its head and feet and he eats it all. I have watermelon. From here we all walk to the Kaem Karn Food Garden on the Nam Khan for traditional music. Unfortunately, three of the band are ‘absent’ so the music is off. Mark now eats buffalo sausage and black sticky rice – disgusting!
An early night.
Saturday 3rd February,2001 Luang Prabang
Still crying when I wake and my eyes are so puffed up by now I look like I’ve been in a fight. We get up at seven o’clock to get out of the room. We also hope to see monks on their early morning alms rounds so we head off towards the temples. As we turn the first corner here they are coming towards us in a long line.
This is a magical sight as the air is slightly misty this early and the streets are empty. The monks are barefoot and wearing saffron robes and each carrying their wooden alms bowl. Village people are kneeling along the footpath and place handfuls of cooked rice into each monk’s bowl from their own silver donation bowls.
We spend the next hour wandering around the pretty temple area. Monks are sweeping and doing other morning chores while the local people are also beginning their day. In the backstreets around the temples are wooden houses, chickens, cafes and guesthouses and many French colonial buildings. Some of these have been converted into guesthouses and we decide to move into one of the very atmospheric ones this morning. The Bounthieng Guesthouse is white with blue louvred shutters and overlooks the Mekong which is another bonus. There are palm trees across the road and lots of small cafes nearby.
After meeting Julie and Steve in town for a noodle breakfast at eight o’clock, we move to our new guesthouse, change money and meet them again at Talaat Dala. This is the central market that sells just about everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to toiletries and plastic homeware. We wander around in here buying incense and Steve and Julie buy a metal cooker. Huge bags of tobacco are interesting but we don’t stay long as we’ve got a walking tour planned for this part of town.
From the market we follow the Lonely Planet’s directions which takes us past the hospital – please God, don’t let us get sick – and then watch a group of men playing a game like boche. We visit Wat Wisunalat and the Watermelon Stupa, walk along the Nam Khan and see two men making a buddha statue. It’s a pleasant, peaceful walk in the morning sunshine.
Back in town we all have cakes at the Scandinavian Bakery and then book massages for tomorrow at the Red Cross. I ring Mum and Dad and talk to Angie but she doesn’t sound good. We continue with the second part of our walking tour that involves revisiting most of the area we saw this morning. The main wat is Xieng Thong which was built in 1560. The low sweeping rooflines of its buildings are typical of Luang Prabang architecture. Situated on the Mekong and dotted with flowering trees, it’s extremely appealing.
Back in the main part of town, we buy silk wall hangings from a small market near the Post Office and Julie buys more cushion covers. Afterwards, we return to the temple area for afternoon tea.
This is at the Auberge Calao mansion which also overlooks the Mekong. We’re the only guests but enjoy our bacon salad roll and beers on the verandah. We all decide to have a sleep for an hour and then meet again at the internet café. Mark and I get more sad messages from the girls and feel so helpless that I can’t be with them.
Dinner is at our favourite street café on the main road. Mark has pork with ginger and I have a chicken salad covered in nuts. Then, because we’re feeling lazy, we all catch a jumbo to the Kaem Karn Food Garden.
The night is warm and it’s pleasant sitting out here in the open next to the river and listening to the traditional music. The ‘band’ has turned up tonight. We eat hot chili beef salad with lemongrass and lots of bacardis and bourbons. We leave Julie and Steve now to go back to their own guesthouse.
Before heading back across to the Mekong, Mark and I buy pancakes covered in condensed milk, bananas and chocolate from a street cart then stop to talk to some young local people playing guitars and singing. Near our guesthouse we have a beer at a corner café that looks too inviting. It’s dimly lit and open on two sides. The television is on and showing ‘Charlie’s Angels’ in Lao – very interesting. Bed at eleven o’clock and a good sleep despite the hard bed.
Sunday 4th February, 2001 Luang Prabang
Julie and Steve move into our hotel at eight o’clock and we all have breakfast at an outdoor café overlooking the Mekong. Actually, it’s a bit of a stretch to call these cafes ‘cafes’ as they’re really just some tables and chairs set up on the bare ground under the trees next to the river. It’s perfect especially in this weather and with this setting. The street is quiet except for the ubiquitous crowing roosters, who really only add to the wonderful laid-back atmosphere.
A jumbo now to the Red Cross on the other side of town. This is set in an old wooden Lao-French house, which makes most of its money giving massages and herbal saunas. Julie and Steve are taken upstairs while Mark and I are shown to a room at the back. For 25,000 kip ($6 AUS) we have an hour-long Lao-Swedish massage. From here we all walk up to Talaat Dalat and find a jumbo decorated in colourful plastic flowers to take us out to Ban Phanom.
This ugly, dusty little village is only fifteen minutes out of town and is known as the silk-weaving village. It’s become a recent tourist attraction and definitely spoiled because of it. There’s only a few other people here besides us this morning but, by the size of the shop, it obviously gets package tourists coming out from town by the busload. The shop is a newly built cement monstrosity filled with local women sitting with their weavings and waiting for customers. It’s the same stuff we’ve seen everywhere in Luang Prabang and we’ve already bought one each at the market yesterday. As we walk in they all hold up their silks and look at us hopefully. It’s so overwhelming and it seems too awful to walk out but we do anyway.
Across the road we watch a young girl giving weaving and spinning demonstrations and another lady making paper. It’s a bit touristy but interesting anyway and Julie and I both buy silk-covered books that we’ll probably never use.
We rest in the afternoon and plan to meet again at four o’clock outside the guesthouse. While Mark and I are waiting on the steps, we’re approached by a man called Mr. Somboun who offers to take us upriver to Pak Ou Caves. We ask him if he has a ‘fast boat’ or a ‘slow boat’ as we have to be back by one o’clock tomorrow to get ready to fly out in the afternoon. He tells us that he has a ‘slow boat’ but that it can go fast. Can’t ask for more than that. We agree to go tomorrow at 8.30 am for $20 AUS for the two of us.
Now we all wander around till we come across a lovely leafy café, which, for some reason, has shrubs, covered in eggshells – what the…? Must be eggplants (ha, ha). After pineapple shakes we head down to the internet café. There’s a message from Lauren and she’s so lonely and sad, as no-one understands why she’s so upset about losing Benny – after all ‘he’s only a cat’. After fourteen years it’s hard to imagine him not with us anymore.
Dinner is in an upmarket café in a side street but my heart isn’t in it. Afterwards, we walk along the Mekong and stop at yet another open-air café surrounded by lanterns and coloured lights. We all get slightly drunk after having our first taste of ‘lao-lao’. This is rice whiskey, distilled locally which obviously means it’s extremely strong and we only need a couple of shots each to make us all very ‘happy’. An older American couple are also drinking lao-lao and they tell us they’re on their way up north to spend a few weeks smoking dope – amazing. Another stop for a beer near our guesthouse and we finally fall into bed about eleven o’clock.
Monday 5th February, 2001 Luang Prabang to Vientiane
Mark and I are both feeling surprisingly good after our night on the lao-lao although poor Julie as been up spewing all night. She and Steve are leaving this morning to catch the seven o’clock bus to Vang Vieng. It’s been great to be with them and a shame it’s over so quickly but we’ll see them again at home in three weeks time. While we say goodbye outside in the street we’re lucky to see monks on their alms rounds coming towards us. We’re the only tourists here – always better when it’s the real thing and not some staged tourist attraction.
After waving goodbye, Mark and I hang around watching the monks and then head back to our room to shower and pack. For breakfast we decide to splurge and walk around to Villa Santi. This one hundred and twenty year old French colonial building was once the home of King Sisavong Vong and is still decorated with antiques and Lao art. The villa is beautiful with its two floors overlooking an inner garden. We’re shown to a table on the balcony and have a wonderful buffet breakfast for $20 AUS.
Now it’s time for our boat trip up the Mekong to Pak Ou Caves. We meet our boatman as arranged at 8.30 am and follow him down the steep embankment to his boat. We’re thrilled that we’re the only passengers and also with our boat which is extremely picturesque. It’s an old wooden longtail, painted green and white and set up with tiny polished wooden kindergarten-sized seats. It’s open on all sides but we have a roof for shade and even some tied-back curtains.
The two hours to the caves are rather uneventful but I’m a bit better today and feel almost carefree out here on the river. We’ve brought our pillows with us and Mark makes up a bed in the bottom of the boat for a snooze. I watch the activity along the river although there’s not much to see. A few people working in vegetable gardens, some hanging washing out on bamboo poles and some men making a boat down near the water.
The Mekong is quite dangerous in parts as the water swirls around the rocks jutting out from its muddy depths. We pass another ‘slow boat’ and almost get deafened by a couple of speed boats that roar past us. These look so out of place and I have no idea why you’d want to experience this remote beautiful country by hurtling down the Mekong at top speed encased in life-jackets and crash helmets – each to his own, I guess.
After a couple of hours we pull in at Ban Xang Hai also called the Jar Maker Village. Here hundreds of pottery jars are filled with the sticky rice that ferments into lao-lao. On the river bank we’re met by two women and a little girl from a Hmong tribe. The Hmong people live all around this area and still wear their traditional dress of black loose pants and kimino style jacket with bright pink and blue silk trim. All three have different styled hats but all in the same black, pink and blue colours. The women are extremely beautiful with soft delicate features and great smiles. They’re selling their embroidery and we promise to buy some after we’ve been to the village.
This is clean and quaint and so many wonderful things for sale. There’s the usual silk hangings as well as countless buddha images and opium pipes. I fall in love with a very antique looking brown and gold pipe and naturally buy it – what a treasure. There seems to be lao-lao jars everywhere but we don’t have time to see anything being done. On the way back to the boat we buy two wristbands and an awful embroidered bag from the Hmong ladies. All only $4 AUS so it’s no problem.
Back in the boat and it’s only another fifteen minutes to the caves. This is on the other side of the river and we can see one cave overlooking the river high up in the side of a limestone rock face. The boat pulls in to a tiny wooden jetty and we climb the cement stairs to the lower cave called Tham Ting.
An old man shows us how to make offerings to Buddha with incense, candles and flowers. This is so wonderful. We love doing this. The cave is crowded with thousands of buddha statues particularly the Luang Prabang standing buddha and the whole cave looking out onto the blue cloudless sky and the huge brown Mekong below us.
From here we climb up to Than Phum or the upper cave. Oh no, here’s more Hmong women on the stairs selling more of their horrible embroidery – I definitely cannot buy anymore. At the upper cave Mark goes through the ‘offerings-to-Buddha’ thing – know what we’re doing now. Look at more statues and then time to get back to town. The trip back only takes an hour as we’re travelling with the fast flowing current this time. There’s almost a drama when we nearly get swamped by one of the dickhead speedboats and our camera and video camera both get wet but there’s no real damage done.
Back in Luang Prabang, we still have a few hours before we have to be at the airport. We walk back downtown to the internet shop, buy a phonecard, try unsuccessfully to ring home, revisit the market, buy a silver urn, a temple gong and a red opium pipe and then have lunch. This is in a café but feels more like being in someone’s loungeroom – very appealing and there’s no menu. You just get whatever your given which is noodles and cost us only $1 AUS. Just love it.
Another unsuccessful attempt to ring home and then we have bacon and cheese salad breadrolls with pineapple and yoghurt shakes from our favourite café. From here we grab a tuktuk to pick up our bags from the guesthouse then through the now-familiar streets of Luang Prabang and out to the airport.
The terminal is a low modern building lacking any adornments or character. I finally get through to Lauren and she’s so sad. She’s bought a kitten but thinks she might take him back – too soon yet, I think. Angie has just gone out so I’ll ring her from Hanoi.
The waiting area is full of flies and uncomfortably hot and humid. We’re pleased, then, to discover that the restaurant is air-conditioned and we spend a pleasant hour cooling off in here drinking and diary writing. We’re looking at a very small plane outside the window and hoping like hell that it isn’t ours. It is. It definitely doesn’t instill us with confidence. Lao Aviation doesn’t have the best reputation but we can’t face ten hours backtracking across the mountains to Vientiane. We’ll take the risk.
Besides us, there are another eight passengers, which just about fills the plane. We take off at five o’clock and the next forty minutes are probably the longest of my life. Despite spectacular scenery as we put-put our way over endless mountain peaks, our ears are popping and we can see the sky through gaps in the emergency door parts of which have been covered with sticky tape. Lao Aviation – never again!
Sighs of relief as we land at Wattay airport. Everyone else has noticed the gaps around the door as well as the black engine soot on the wings. Anyway, we’re here and we share a taxi with a New Zealand guy called David. He works and lives in Hong Kong and travels all over Asia in his spare time. He knows Vientiane well and takes us to the Haysoke Hotel where we can get a good deal.
The hotel consists of a three floored newish building with a picturesque wooden French house next door. We like the house and our room is big with cane furniture but a bit grubby. We share a bathroom so for $20 AUS it’s not such a good deal. But we do have a television and it’s an experience to watch Lao TV. After quick showers we meet David outside and we all walk around to a bar he knows about.
‘Casper’ is set in the garden of a lovely old French villa. Most of the tables are filled with westerners but there’s also a lot of young heavily made-up local girls wandering around – prostitutes, I suppose. At first we sit at the outside bar and order jugs of bia sot which is the local draft beer. For 10,000 kip or $2.50 AUS we get two drinks each.
I can’t believe how much food we now manage to get through. We all share hot chips, vegetable/rice rolls wrapped in rice paper, chicken salad, tuna salad, fried pork rice and a Korean barbeque. This involves putting hot coals in a hole in the centre of the table then sitting the Korean barbeque on top. This is a stainless steel dish raised in the centre and a moat around the edge. The moat is filled with a watery broth which you use to cook noodles, cabbage and lettuce. Two eggs are also broken into the broth and stirred while strips of meat are cooked on the top. Interesting but painstaking and not that great.
We’re so tired now after an eventful day and definitely sick of drinking. We can’t believe that all this food and two jugs of bia sot only cost us $16 AUS. Glad to be rid of David’s incessant talking, Mark and I can’t wait to get back to our room and be alone. We watch our video on the television and then to sleep at last.
Tuesday 6th February, 2001 Vientiane to Hanoi
After early showers we’re out in the street for breakfast. Next door is a grotty local café with the usual flies, plastic chairs, fans, buddha shrines and dead chickens hanging from ceiling hooks. We sit at an outside table as it’s hot already. No-one can speak English so we just point to some bamboo steamers stacked on top of one another on a cart in the street.
We’re given five small steamers – spicy ducks feet, chicken wings and feet, birds eggs, dumpling and pork mince wrapped in Mekong seaweed and all washed down with warm Lao tea. What a great last breakfast in Laos. It’s a bit weird but the real thing and the reason we’re here after all. The bill comes to ‘ten five sousand’ meaning fifteen thousand kip.
From here we wander around the area stopping at a few wats and watching women sell live fish on the footpath. The streets around here are smelly and dirty but it’s an interesting town with more street life than Luang Prabang.
We make our way down to the river that’s lined with a string of ‘malaria’ cafes as Mark calls them. They look exactly that – a ramshackle mess sitting along the marshy banks of the Mekong. Thailand is easily visible on the other side of the river which is quite low at this dry time of year with sandbanks protruding from its shallows.
The humidity has got to us already and we head back to the room for a rest. Mark packs while I go in search of salad rolls. I find the rolls and I find the salad but there doesn’t seem to be any way that I’m going to get the two to come together. I compromise with a cold pork and cheese roll from a street cart – tastes good but will probably kill us.
We leave our bags in reception after checking out of our room and then catch a jumbo to the post office. From here we set off down the wide avenue of Thanon Lan Xang where we can see Laos’ version of the Arc de Triomphe called Patuxai. On the way we watch people sitting under trees on the footpaths having their fortunes told. No-one can speak English so we miss out.
At Patuxai, we pay 1000 kip to climb the six flights of stairs to the top for great views of the city. So hot now so I buy cold watermelon from a street cart then catch a jumbo to Fountain Circle. Of course, the fountain is dry so we keep going back to the hotel to pick up our packs.
Our last jumbo ride in Laos and we’re off to Wattay International Airport. As usual when we leave a country, we wonder if we’ll ever be back and what it’ll be like if we do. Despite being so sad over the last few days, we’ve loved this country and its happy people. I’ve felt at peace here and hope that western influences don’t manage to destroy its beautiful culture.
The airport terminal is modern and impressive and a cool relief from the heat outside. In an upstairs restaurant, we order satay beef and rice (Mark, of course) and a tuna club sandwich (me, of course) from a sign with coloured pictures of the meals on offer.
Mark has a diet coke which is the first he’s been able to get since Bangkok and he’s thinking of blowing the budget and ordering another. I ask for a chocolate milkshake and get a glass filled with chocolate ice water and two small jugs, one with milk and the other with liquid sugar. The little waiter is so worried that I’m not drinking it but when I explain what a chocolate milkshake is, he’s really interested – may have started something new in Laos.
Meanwhile we’re very happy to see that our Vietnam Airlines plane is the sleek and modern craft outside the window. Back outside, the heat on the tarmac is scorching but at 3.40 pm we’re up, up and away, finally heading for Hanoi and a new three week adventure in Vietnam.