Friday, 12 June 2009

The bus trip from Kumpong Cham to Siam Reap was probably one of the most painless journeys we have made so far. Ignoring the over friendly and over interested individual across the way from us there was nothing to trouble us bar the occasional pothole or brief dirt stretch that penetrated my vacant stare out of the window. On arrival our curious companion from across the aisle thrust his business card into my hand before disappearing on his way. His parting words confirmed my suspicion that he operated local tours and that he hoped that that his painfully ingratiating manner had won him our custom. Unsurprisingly the sell, sell, sell continued as we got into town. Stepping off the bus was not dissimilar to stepping into a scrum. We were jostled by tuk-tuk drivers and motos’s from the nanosecond our feet left the confines of the bus, each of them vying for business before out feet even touched the ground. Immediately it becomes apparent just how much Siam Reap revolves around the tourist dollar and the competition is cut throat. Likewise the prices are initially inflated by double on most things like transport and market goods. We managed to get one tuk-tuk driver aside and within seconds had cut his price down from US$2.00 to $1.00 to take us into town.

Having found accommodation I went to explore Siam Reap which amusingly balances Western consumerism with it’s own unique East Asian idiosyncrasies. For example walking down the main street into the downtown area takes you past stores advertising Armani, DKNY and D&G. And then a motorbike with three wildly squealing pigs bound upside down to the pillion will whistle past this same store. On every street corner tuk-tuk drivers prowl (“Where you go? Temples? Tonle Sap? Cheap price…Maybe tomorrow…?”) and as you head further into town children try to flog you books and bracelets (“Ten for one doellaaar, you buy!”) and postcards. The tuk-tuk driver are mostly good humoured and happy to joke around, the children with their dogged persistence and refusal to take no for an answer are down right exhausting. They are not begging as such - after all they are after a transaction - but nonetheless their persistence comes across as a variation of this. They are just children, many no older than ten our twelve, but already they are part of the local economy, buying and selling books and trinkets and carefully calculating their profits. Further into town brings you to Pub Street where you can buy a pint of draught for fifty cents and around this area are myriad eating options ranging from French cuisine to Italian to Thai and Indian. Guesthouses line the roads and again the competition is crazy, our accommodation costs four American Dollars a night, whilst the one next door is ten dollar s but offers free Wi-Fi, free breakfast and free laundry.

The obvious attraction in Siam Reap and one of the primary reasons (if not the prime reason) that Cambodia gets over 2 million tourists a year is the ancient Angkor Complex. The ticketing system is not terribly friendly, coming in at twenty American dollars for a single days pass, forty for three days and sixty for a week. To rub salt in the wound if you do more than one day then you are forced to go on consecutive days. We have just emerged from three solid days of ruins and we are exhausted. Whilst expensive the tickets do offer value for money as the Angkor Complex is massive. As such a more sensible approach would surely be to allow you to split your days up in order to avoid cultural saturation! The real outrage though is that of the entry charges a mere fraction of the money, a meagre ten percent, goes to the body responsible for preserving and maintaining the complex. The rest goes to the Sokha Hotel Chain who administrate the entry gate and the Finance Ministry, an alledged black hole from which nothing returns.

Our three days at Angkor were rewarding though. The sense of history that abounds and the obvious awe that is inspired by the structures that were created using only "primitive" technology leaves you dumbfounded. It has to be said that from a photographic point of view I failed miserably. In spite of being up at five in the morning every day I seem to have completely botched each sunrise and the sunsets are more pityful still. Angkor is surrounded by jungle, and I learnt the hard way that looking at a place on a map and pointing East is not much good when there are hundred foot trees all around. It is a bit like fishing though, the pleasure lies in hanging out there and if you catch it is just a bonus. As the sun got hotter and brighter I ended up doing more textural work using flashes to create shadows and taking close ups and abstracts. To avoid duplication and repetition I will do an Angkor post with all the un-pretty pictures and descriptions. In a similar way that kids prowl the Westernised streets of the city, the entrance to the monuments are home to a legion of kids and women selling food, drinks, books, bracelets and souvenirs. As you approach they holler from a distance in a nasal, unpunctuated drawl that you have to laugh with or you’ll go crazy. “Heey laydeee-you-wan-waaaaatttterrrr? You-buy-mie-pineaaaapple-only-one-darllaaaar.” and “Heymistaaa-you-want-postcard? Only-tennnn-fa-one-darlaaar?” Everything is one dollar. Bracelets, water, cans of drink, postcards and fruit. And most of this can be very quickly negotiated down by fifty percent. At first I found the constant badgering quite annoying and bordering on harassment, but after a while it became a joke and ninety percent of the people selling the stuff were really good fun. They could take a joke and throw it right back at you with a cheerful laugh. And they were very astute. One young girl aged twelve told us that if we bought a book from her she could tell us the capital city of our county, irrespective of where we came from. We duly bought a book that I had been wanting to read and low and behold she knew the capital of India, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Argentina. We asked her several more in quick succession and she shot the answers back without hesitation. We finally tripped her up on Botswana but her geographical knowledge was probably better than ours. Furthermore her English was brilliant. As opposed to the usual “Where you from?” she eloquently demanded to know our “nationality.” Her English had been gleaned from trading with tourists before and after school. Like most of the kids there she went to school for a few hours a day and then sold books for the rest of the day. It seems a bit sad to sad to me, children of twelve should be being children.

Our other excursion thus far has been to the Landmine Museum just outside town. The museum was set up by Aki Ra in 1997 to illustrate the devastation and grief that mines and unexploded bombs (compliments of the States and Vietnam) cause. Ra, who is unsure of his age, had been a child soldier in the Khmer Rouge Army after his parents were both killed by the same regime. Ironically he had laid landmines for them and liked the mines: in a time when food was scarce and his life was constantly at risk, the landmines frequently killed animals for food and kept him safe when he slept. As he grew older he realized the wickedness of the Khmer Rouge regime and he defected to the Vietnamese Army that later routed the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia. Aware of his past life he found his vocation clearing landmines. Today he estimates that he has cleared more than 50 000 mines and has set up an international NGO that assists Landmine victims. In the evening we went for a foot massage. By fish. Yup, that’s right. You plonk your feet into a tank filled with hundreds of tiny fish that proceed to nibble away and clean you feet. It tickles. A lot. However ten minutes in and it is actually quite soothing, if not a little bizarre.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Cambodia: Kratie and Kampong Cham

We arrived in Kratie in the middle of a thunder storm, the rain driving down almost horizontally towards us and the roads and sidewalks immersed in dark, muddy water. I did a very quick sortie for accommodation and, given the weather conditions, we checked into the first recommendation for Kratie in the Lonely Planet. Usually such an establishment has succumbed to the Lonely Planet Effect, in other words the price has shot up, and the staff are sometimes complacent. To be fair the accommodation was cheap (US$4.00 per night) for a double room with a balcony and the people working there were an absolute hoot. The other great thing about our guesthouse was that it directly overlooked the local market down below which was a constant source of fascination. I got into the habit of getting up at dawn and going into the meat section where all varieties of fish were hacked up, live chickens tied together squawked in anticipation of their final hour and slabs of unidentifiable meat attracted flies that were intermittently shooed away by sleepy eyed termagants. Commonly a pig would be driven by, bound to a custom made plank above the front wheel of a motorcycle, legs pointing heavenward and squealing with fear at this ungainly method of transportation. Sadly for the pig I fear that things were about to get a whole lot worse too. On my morning saunters through the aisles I thought about vegetarianism for about a nanosecond, and then conceded that it was easier to just not question the origins of my meals. And this was not a bad decision: I can highly recommend the pork, the fish can be a bit iffy and generally the chicken is as fresh as the new day. And that is because it is.
Whilst there is not a huge amount in Kratie, bar the markets and the waterfront that overlooks the Mekong River, it has a seductive charm and a soothing atmosphere. Sunsets by the river are rewarding and the crumbling buildings imbue the town with a sense of times past. It is one of those places that, in spite of limited in what it can offer, makes you want to stay longer. I could happily have spent a few more days there, but the thirty day visa is a relentless motivator. The main reason that the town exists on the tourist map is that you are almost guaranteed to see the Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins if you charter a boat for a couple of hours. Having seen countless dolphins before (admittedly mostly jumping through hoops and taking fish from a bikini clad nymph at the Durban sea front) we decided that instead we would hire a couple of men on motorbikes to take us out into the outlying country to see the rice plantations.

This turned out to be quite good fun and Nipun joined in the hard work of planting for about ten minutes before the mud, sun and posture became a bit too much. I passed up this golden opportunity and took the photos instead. Our motorbike guide was a constant source of information, prattling on about subjects ranging from the rice plantations to villagers being caught making, ahem, “boom boom” with livestock. He was delighted with this last tale and when I told him about a similar highly publicised incident in Zimbabwe where the perpetrator was made to marry his sweetheart (in this case a cow) his delectation was suitably increased. We ended up the trip by going to the market again, this time tasked with purchasing some fish and vegetable as we had been invited to lunch with him. My decision on the fish was fairly straightforward, being the specimen with the least flies buzzing about it.

Our next stop was four hours South by bus, the equally sleepy town of Kompong Cham. Whilst hardly a bustling metropolis Kompong Cham was positively frenetic compared to Kratie. Immersed in books we missed the bus stop and had to walk a kilometre back into town and from the moment we stepped off the bus tut tuk drivers and “motos” (motor cyclists who, for a fee, will put you on the back of their bikes and whisk you off to your destination) clamoured for attention. We walked the kilometre and found a café to have a coke in, whereupon the wind picked up and seconds later the rains were upon us. When we finally got going again we explored the town. Kompong Cham is a provincial capital and during the colonial days was an important trading hub. An impressive new bridge spanning the 1200 metre wide Mekong (the first in Cambodia to do so) ensures a steady flow of traffic through the city and the central street and roundabout is a constant source of activity. The promenade is glorious and lined with restaurants and guesthouses, whilst across the river the old French Light House catches the setting sun and turns to an evanescent, eldritch pink in the evenings. As the sun drops further the promenade fills up with people who come to do their daily exercise. The groups vary from footballers and volleyball players to others who form in front of large speakers to stretch and do a gentle workout to golden classics such as Footloose. The atmosphere is convivial and one of the idiosyncrasies that made Kompong Cham so worth the visit. Whilst we sat in the Mekong Crossing that evening, Nipun immersed herself in the Lonely Planet. A Cambodian gentleman in his fifties approached to chew the fat whereupon Nipun looked up and said “Are you Mr. Vannat?” I have to confess to some confusion at this point. Mr Vannat nodded his affirmation whereupon Nipun read out “Mr Vannat is an experienced local guide and if you sip an evening drink overlooking the Mekong, he’ll likely find you before long.” He had taken about half an hour to find us. We ended up going out into the country with him the following day, his 1955 jeep still going strong along the potholed dirt roads and thick monsoon mud. Among the sites we stopped at were the rubber plantations and Wat Maha Leap.

Wat Maha Leap is one of the few remaining wooden pagodas in Cambodia, many others having perished under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Inspired by Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China the Khmer Rouge obliterated most holy buildings and any other structures that were more than just functional. Angkor Wat was one of the few exceptions, owing to it’s Khmer heritage and unique and special place in Cambodian history. Wat Maha Leap survived only because it was converted into a hospital during the period between 1975 and 1979 when the Khmer Rouge were in control. As Loung Ung wrote, most hospitals around the world are seen as places of recuperation and the focus is on getting the patients being restored to health. Under the Khmer Rouge though, people went to hospital to die. Other people we have talked to have confirmed this, the hospitals were rife with infections and the “medical staff” had no medical training. As such the bodies of 500 Khmers are buried in the gardens of the pagoda. The pagoda has been restored as the Khmer Rouge had left their own marks on the building, painting over the gilded columns and doors and generally leaving the place in a state of disrepair.

Next to the pagoda is a Junior School, catering for 350 vociferous children all shouting “Hello” at the same time. As their vocabulary is limited and “Hello” gets attention they scream it. Over and over. It is strangely endearing if not a little overwhelming. The juxtaposition is a little eerie in some ways, just thirty years ago these children would have had their childhoods snatched away from them. They would have been forced into labour and some into the Khmer Rouge “army,” many would simply have perished. All would have been scarred. Today, not fifty paces from the mass graves and a hospital that was more of a mortuary, these children bound about with massive smiles and bags of energy. I suppose that is not really eerie, rather it is rejuvenating and an immensely powerful testament to what peace and relative prosperity can bring to a country. It is a soothing sight in a country that has been through such a dramatic and unforgiving past.

Going, going, Gone!

I wrote this some time ago but it never got uploaded owing to being on the road a lot and having very limited access to the internet. So it goes, it is outdated but I wrote it and I am uploading it!

Laos is now behind us and we have arrived safely in Kratie, Cambodia after a prolonged trip by long boat, bus and mini van - all in the space of one day. In actual fact the journey was painless but punctuated by long waits along the way. This matters not all as it is not like we are going to miss a meeting or anything. We entered Cambodia near the Mekong at Dom Kralor and paid for our visa on arrival. As anticipated the border officials suggested that we pay a couple of extra charges here and there, firstly for “Departure Tax” as we left Laos (at US1.00 each) and then for the Cambodian visas at USD21.00 as opposed to the going rate of $20.00. Credit be to Nipun who politely contested our case (most of our fellow travellers paid the money willingly) and managed to ensure that we were not fleeced. Having grown up in the third world I would have been more than happy to pay the, ahem, admin fees and be done with it. Experience has taught me that there are many pompous uniformed men and women out there who will happily ruin your day over a dollar. The ZRP (those fine stalwarts of Zimbabwean society who are charged with upholding the law and order of the land) are fine examples of such nefarious characters. Where Nipun pleaded indigence today, I would have thanked them for being so undemanding in their terms and offered a tip. All in all by refusing to pay the various fees she managed to save us USD6.00 which paid for a meal out. It has to be said though that the Cambodian border police were absolutely brazen in their requests and so supremely confident that their fees almost seemed to be genuine!

I seem to be developing the unenviable habit of going gaga about every country we leave and Laos is no exception. Laos exceeded every expectation that I had, I loved it and I was impressed on so many levels. The infrastructure and road network was generally very good along the routes that we took, the diversity of the landscape (ranging from the vertiginous route from Luang Prabang to Vang Viang through to the plains of the South,) the hospitality of the people and their gentleness and generosity. Sure, we met a few rogues along the way. My fishing trip with a lao lao (local home brew) swigging maniac springs to mind. His fishing gear consisted of broken rods tied together with twigs and elastic bands whilst he used bits of broken bricks for weights. The only fish we could have caught would have been one that was hit on the head by a plummeting rock.

As can be seen in the photo of our bellicose friend (credit on this one to Jochen Druberg who was test driving my D300) he was as crazy as a loon and took great offence to me writing down something in the notepad that comes everywhere with me. The contents of my scribble were harmless - a guest house recommendation in Cambodia given to me by one of the girls on the trip.

Our hapless guide then returned to his lao lao before steering us back along the river, needless to say without a fish caught between us. He ranted all the way, referring to me as Mr Book and refusing (thankfully by this stage) to acknowledge my presence other than to offer desultory curses. Ultimately though this just made for a very amusing afternoon and I’d be lying if I said that we did not make a decent dent in the Lao Lao too. We were so amused by the days “fishing” that we ended up de-briefing in one of the bars for the evening.

As a contrast to my fine fishing companion the family that we were staying with came to our bungalow (called the Holiday Inn but baring no relationship whatsoever) before we left and lit incense before tying string bracelets around our wrists and blessing our onward journey. It was a simple way of saying "Good Luck" to us and we were touched by the effort that they went to. It did not matter that they were Buddhist, Nipun Hindu and me, to all intents and purposes a tree worshiping pagan who would have been burnt at the stake as a heretic once upon a time - rather they were grateful that we had stayed with them, played with their kids and wanted to wish us well on our travels. It was very humbling, and a high note to leave Laos on. What really struck me as we travelled through Laos was the small, random acts of generosity and kindness that we saw time and time again. And that can be refreshing anywhere in the world.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Savnnakhet, Pakse and Si Phan Don. All bundled up together - oops.

It seems an absolute age since I wrote, let alone posted. As such this will be a summary of the last couple of weeks, hauled from my memory which is held together by scrolling back through the photos on my camera. Since we left Vientiane we have travelled further South through Savannakhet, Pakse and Si Phan Don (Laoation for 4,000 Islands). At present I am writing from the banks of the Four Thousand Islands, longboats shooting past on the Mekong and fishing nets bobbing up and down in the water. Electricity is only available from 6 PM to 10 PM and the town abounds with adorable kittens, most of them missing their tails. But let’s rewind a little… Let's leave Vientiane first.

We arrived at Savannakhet at about four thirty in the morning, having left Vientiane at eight o’clock the night before. Our sleeper bus was as sleeper friendly as an interrogation camp. We were in the back row of the bus which seats five people if they sit like dominoes and where the seats do not recline. Having paid double the price of everyone else on the bus, sleep was already elusive (rage was filling in for it). Next to me sat a garrulous Thai air conditioning engineer. He was affable and urbane, a lovely man though sadly of a generous size that flowed effortlessly from his seat and into half of mine. This problem only increased as he slumbered; we became very close. Nipun was on my other side and had it worse. The guy next to her had a serious case of the stares. Every time Nipun looked up he was looking right back at her. This would have been OK if he had been of a cheerful disposition, but rather than smile or say “Hello” he would only offer a detached, emotionless stare. It was a little bit creepy. What’s more there was not a lot we could we say because (a) he was in his seat and entitled to look wherever he wanted and (b) he would not have understood a word we said anyway. Our attempts at meeting and greeting met with a face that was a tabula erasa. It was a relief to get off the bus and join the mosquitoes on the hard wooden benching at the bus station until the sun came up.

We decided that as it was still so early we would walk into town. The Lonely Planet said that it was only about 400 metres into town after all. This proved to be patent nonsense, though was not helped by us taking a much longer route along the Mekong. Stray dogs barked and growled, locals laughed and eventually we hailed a tuk tuk that took us to the Saisouk Guest House. It was about 7 AM and already if felt like it was about thirty degrees. We took the AC room and then went to find breakfast. Savannakhet, in spite of my initial protestations about going there, was a beautiful old town. In parts it was positively crumbling away, the old brickwork exposed and paint peeling from structures. The town had once been the largest French trading and administrative centre south of Vientiane. Now it crumbles and other than the Casino remains a sleepy riverside town. As gambling is illegal in Thailand it seems that most of the trade in Savannakhet revolves around Thai’s who pop across the Mekong to play cards and roulette. In the evenings a food market sets up on the river bank and makes for the perfect setting for grilled chicken ands sun downers.

As Savannakhet town is small it can be exhausted in an afternoon. The surrounding countryside is far more rewarding though and we hired a tuk tuk driver to drive us through the paddy fields that line the roads (Savannakhet produces a huge amount of rice) and the lakes that are dotted around, finishing up at Dong Natad Provincial Protected Area. Our driver spoke not a word of English, but was so friendly and helpful. It was a great day. We got caught poaching berries from laughing locals, lost my sunglasses climbing a tree (not so great, they were Ray Bans) and visited one of South Laos’ oldest temples which is allegedly home to Buddha relics and surrounded by a courtyard of golden Buddha’s.

The heat had been getting oppressive and the air growing ever more
humid, so it was immense relief that night when the sky lit up and crackled and then gave way to a storm, the likes of which I have not seen since I left Zimbabwe. There is something wonderful about lying in bed beneath a corrugated iron roof, listening to the rain explode above you, the air thick with electricity and thunder. Over the course of the next day we met Louie and Geoff from Melbourne who became our mealtime companions and who we hope to see in the UK, ot who knows, Melbourne.

Our next stop was Pakse, made by bus again and this time the local variety which is always so much fun. During the six hour journey we stopped 11 times to drop off or pick up passengers and to purchase food such as barbequed chicken and skewered eggs that had then been boiled, freshly picked mushrooms and some things that I am happy not being able to identify. Lao music blasted from eight well positioned speakers and gradually the bus filled up with plastic chairs when the proper seating ran out.

Keen to crack on we only spent one full day in Pakse and went on a tour of the Bolevan Plateau. This included stopping off at a tea plantation, a coffee plantation and a few of the local zoo’s villages where bus loads of tourists are bought in to ogle at the locals. I find this all very disquieting and wonder how I would feel if twice a day (or more) ten people arrived at
my house and snapped numerous badly composed and lit pictures of me. It all feels a bit intrusive I think. The positives though (because that’s how we roll) were the waterfalls and stunning country side and the brilliant companions we made on the journey, this time from Switzerland (Mourizio and Daniela) and the Nethelands (Ninka). Our address book is growing steadily and when we get back, fiscally ruined from travel, weekends in Europe look good!

As mentioned we are now in the Four Thousand Islands, staying at Don Dhet before we make our way across the border and into Cambodia. Our bungalow is cheekily called the Holiday Inn and bears no relation what so ever to the chain we are all so familiar with. We tried, they will not accept our loyalty card. It is run by a fantastic local family with adorable kids who come play in the river each afternoon. They use empty water bottles tied together as floats and inflate plastic bags for a ball. No one speaks English but we all manage to understand each other. There is no electricity in our bungalow except for a few hours in the evening and at night the toilets are populated by poised, black scorpions (I counted four last night) that prowl the walls for moths. The island is home to the rare fresh water Mekong dolphins that have so far proved elusive to us, but that does not matter - the boat ride is otherworldly and Tolkien-esque with bent over trees and swift, dirty currents of water that boil around the myriad tiny islets in the river.

Today we (Sunday 31st May) we will be packing our bags and going across to Cambodia in the morning. I have just finished reading Loung Ung’s book “First They Killed My Father” about the genocide that occurred in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Watching the carefree children play in the river outside it is difficult to imagine that so recently, just across the border
, similar children were tortured, forced into labour and beaten to death to save bullets. That so many family’s lives were destroyed. The book is a non fiction work is outstanding, it is narrated in the first person by Loung, going back to when she was aged five. This account of Cambodia’s history is enormously compelling but difficult to read at times because of the sheer tragedy of what the Cambodians went through. The epigraph speaks volumes:

“From 1975 to 1979 - through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labour - the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country’s population. This is the story of my survival: my own and my family’s. Though these events constitute my experience, my story mirrors that of millions of Cambodians. If you had been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story too.”

I find that a terrifying and hideous prospect. It leaves me with mixed feelings about the next leg of our journey. It is a country with such a recent history of human misery and suffering, of utterly mindless and senseless violence, but on the other hand home to country where the people are rumoured to be so very friendly and welcoming. I am sure that our time in Cambodia will be enriching in many ways and whilst sad to be leaving Laos, I am thrilled that tomorrow we will be on our way again.

Welcome to the Big City

My first thought on arriving in Vientiane was “Crikey, it is HOT here.” It was sweltering, and this was at four o’clock in the afternoon. It was a dry, hard heat, the kind that hits you when you are making a Sunday roast and you open the oven door. We took our bags down to the first coffee shop / bar that we stumbled on which was a serendipitous find - the Moonlight Café. The Moonlight Café sells Laotian / Western fusion cuisine with friendly staff and funky acid jazz tunes playing in the background. You also can take your iPod in and have new music loaded copied on to it; the music selection is quiet eclectic and has some real gems. For example on their list of recommendations are three albums by Malcolm Middleton, not particularly well known even in the UK. Of course there is a small fee involved and you are effectively buying an illegal download, but at US1.00 per album so be it.

On arrival at the café Nipun drew the short straw and went off to find accommodation whilst I chillaxed with the bags and had a couple of Beer Lao’s, surfing the net on the free wi-fi they provide. Increasingly we are finding that when arriving in a new town the best thing to do is for one of us to sit with the bags whilst the other looks for somewhere to stay. This (a) prevents reduces short tempered arguments caused by the heat and the bad packing hanging off your back and (b) mitigates the inflated prices from the guesthouse receptionists who can see the desperation in your eyes when you have walked across town with all your worldly possessions and a camera bag that weighs half of that again. What became immediately obvious was that Vientiane is an expensive place to stay and that the accommodation within our budget was pretty rubbish.

The city itself is far bigger than any of the other towns that we have visited in Laos. There are several beautiful hotels and guesthouses, but for these you will pay top dollar. This in part influenced our decision to spend relatively little time in Vientiane. As it transpired we stayed in two different guest houses (each at roughly 100 000 kipps which equates to roughly GBP 9.00 per night), the second offering air conditioning which only blew out hot air. I could see the condenser outside and the wall mounted unit in our room looked quite new, but what was happening between the two could be anyone’s guess. As such our room sauna was worse than the first room we had taken as we ended up paying more for accommodation with a fan and shared bathroom. Over the course of the next day I looked at several rooms and the budget accommodation seemed to be typified by manky, dirty rooms that had not seen paint in twenty years.

Vientiane did not feel (for me at least) as grand as Luang Prabang. Whereas Luang Prabang felt compact and enriched by history, Vientiane felt like just another capital city. It sprawls. The pace of life is noticeably faster and things seem more expensive. That is not to say the city was without beauty though, there were tree lined boulevards and the rustic, decaying French buildings set back from the streets that typify so many of the Laotian towns. Temples are dotted around the town and of course there is the Mekong flowing swiftly by without Thailand watching across from the other side. I liked Vientiane and we spent too little time there, but it has to be said that I liked the former capital (Luang Prabang) more.

In total we spent three night in Vientiane, exploring the town and the temples, eating delicious food and visiting the night market where you can buy a skewer of four roasted frogs or fist size snails ready for eating. Alongside the grilled chickens you can find grilled bat and all manner of other local delicacies on offer. My sense of adventure failed me and I headed off to Jaipur for a chicken curry with rotti. There is a huge variety of food available in Vientiane and part of the reason I feel that we spent too little time there is down to the rumblings in my tummy when I think of the restaurants that lined the streets.

The highlights of our time there included our visit to Pha That Luang, four kilometres outside town and cited as the most important monument in Laos. The Wat is a glittering gold, graceful structure that was originally built in the 1500’s but consequently razed by Siamese treasure seekers. The Wat was rebuilt twice by the French during their occupation of Laos and had been beautifully maintained. Just off the main complex are another two Wats that we briefly explored before jumping in our tuk tuk and heading back towards town and stopping at Vientiane’s answer to and copy of the Arc De Triomphe (Patuxai). Patuxai looks like a sore thumb in Vientiane, even from a distance. The monument was built in 1969 to honour the Laotian soldiers who died in the pre-revolutionary wars. Sadly the arches lack the breathtaking grandeur of the French original, and the setting does not gel with the monument. The scale feels wrong and the juxtaposition just looks silly; what’s more this impression is only strengthened as you get closer. As you reach Patuxai it becomes apparent that it has never been finished off. The walls are drab unfinished concrete and inside the archways bored looking, unfriendly vendors sell cold drinks and ice creams. There is no flame to commemorate the Unknown Soldier as with the Parisian original, rather a just a sign that says the monument was never completed as funds ran out halfway through.

After our flying tour of Vientiane we got going again. We were charged double for our bus tickets out of the city and onto Savannakhet (180 000 kipp each as opposed to 95 000) as we foolishly purchased them from our guesthouse instead of going directly to the bus station which was annoying, but live and learn. We suspected that the guest house may be a little more expensive than going direct to the station, but it was lashing down with rain and we got lazy. What we did not expect was the extent of the price hike, but then this is the capital city and capital cities are renowned for being a little over zealous in their charges.

Vang Viang

Vang Viang has taken on a tainted image over the last few years as it has attempted to lure in the tourist dollar. Most of these dollars come into the town in the form of backpackers, so in other words mostly young punters who are intent on drinking, toking and scrimping and saving on accommodation and any other overheads that can be eliminated. As such Vang Viang town is devoid of any of the crumbling grandeur that is so evident in place like Vientiane and Luang Prabang. The two main streets that run through town are characterised by guesthouses, bars and restaurants that serve up predominantly Western food. True, most of the menus will include a few local token dishes but the emphasis is on All Day Breakfasts and Cheese Burgers. The proliferation of cheap-ish guest houses in recent years means that most of the buildings in and around the town centre are soulless structures that blight the town, whilst the modest dress sense of the local Laotians contrasts sharply with the bikini clad Lovelies (and they are - mostly!) and bare chest-ed dudes that prowl the town on scooters and foot. Furthermore there are still several guesthouses going up, and the place looks like a construction site in some areas. On the small island that separates the town from the Nam Song river proper lies the Rock Bar, Smile Bar and countless other places that blast their music up until midnight each evening, completing to see who can play their music the loudest and therefore (in theory) draw the most people in. All in all the town is completely geared towards backpackers who are cultured out from their travels and want to party long and hard en-route to elsewhere. The handful of Wats in town are largely ignored by the travellers that pass through the town, who are more intent on watching re-runs of Friends, The Simpsons and Family Guy. It is not a pretty town, but it’s surrounds are majestic.

Vang Vieng lies alongside the Nam Song River and is surrounded by breathtaking limestone karsts that thrust up and through the low lying clouds that hang lazily in the sky when we were there. The view from our balcony was magnificent, providing you looked up slightly and thereby avoided the sight of the Rock Bar. As Vang Viang only consists of a handful of small streets it takes minimal effort to get out of the town and into the country.
On our first day in town we rented out bicycles and cycled out of town for three kilometres, ending up at the Organic Farm. The Organic Farm is a nother brilliant enterprise that raises funding for education in Laos, their goal being to provide equal opportunity and access to education for the local villages. The Farm consists of a guest house (specialising in mulberry pancakes and fruit shakes - delicious) and, no prizes here, a farm that grows organic fruit and bacon and eggs (Pigs and Chickens). They also have several goats that are milked and then they manufacture goats milk cheese which sadly we did not get to try. We spent a few hours here - feeding the goats, watching the pigs and piglets and exploring the fields where they grow pineapples and chillies. Again the setting is beautiful, though a little marred by the three bars that lie slightly down stream and cater for the tourists who go tubing down the river. Tubing is immensely popular and synonymous with the name Vang Viang. The idea is that you float down stream on an inflated tractor innard, stopping off along the way at the bars that line the river. Once
again the bars compete by playing their music as loudly as they can. The effect is that at any given time you can hear a medley of three songs all intertwined together which is a bit disconcerting, especially in such a seemingly tranquil setting.

The following day we went out of town on our bikes again, my bicycle being a lovely shade of pink and having a basket that was made to measure for my tripod. We went in a different direction, this time crossing over the river and stopping about 2km out of town for breakfast at a local Laotian shack that sold noodle soup and fried rice dishes. It was here that we met a handful of local kids who befriended us for the day and in effect became our local guides. They took us swimming in the lagoons and up to one of the several caves that penetrate the limestone hillside. The kids were really great fun, our introduction had taken place over breakfast when we gave them some pens and they wrote out the A, B, C’s for us. They spoke no English, and one of them was deaf and unable to speak at all (I hate the connotations of the word “Dumb“), in essence though he became our key guide for the day through a combination of sign language and an uninhibited enthusiasm. At the end of the day he tried to lash us with a fee for his companionship, but by this stage we had bought him and mates food and drink and he had been pedalled around the countryside by your humble narrator, so the fee was wavered. It seems that a hangover of the tourist industry is that a lot of the kids view Westerners as a source of cash, be it by blatant begging or more surreptitious methods. On our first day in town some kids tried begging from us and instead of money we gave them some children’s educational books that we had purchased in Luang Probing (at Big Brother Mouse) - they were ecstatic. We sat with them for ten minutes whilst Nipun made them write their names in the books and read out a couple of pages for us (they read in Laotian so who knows if they read them out or not!). When we left the kids behind they were still huddled around together, immersed in their literature and animatedly pointing out different pages to each other. It was a rewarding experience (very humbling as so much that we have seen is) and felt so much better than chucking away some spare change.

The rest of our time in Vang Viang was spent cycling around town and exploring. After a couple of decades of not getting on a bicycle Nipun is becoming a mean cyclist, whilst I on the other hand have déjà vu of having had to ride to school every day (how I loathed that!) and also rediscovering muscles in my body that I had long since forgotten. The next stage of our travels in Laos took us by bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos that sits on the Mekong River which forms a border with Thailand on the other side.