Friday, 2 January 2009

Rats, bats, squirrels and frogs

On New Year's Day, we visited the Tat Kuang Si waterfall, 32km from Luang Prabang. It was a very pleasant afternoon. You could even paddle through the water at the top of the waterfall – the current was surprisingly not too strong. In the grounds, there was a ruined old house, straight out of the Blair Witch project, and a bear sanctuary for rescued bears. Unfortunately, Phet the rescued Tiger had passed away in May 2008.

On our journey back, and with the vehicle moving, our driver took the key from the ignition. He then cleared his ear wax out using the key. When he'd finished, he wiped the key and replaced it in the ignition.

We also stopped off at a village where they were still celebrating the New Year. Many of the girls wore very colourful dresses which were almost fluorescent. Day glow pink and green are making a comeback.

We celebrated New Year with Ants and Sandra, who we randomly met whilst having our fish supper in the night market. They are from Dunedin in New Zealand. Dunedin is known as the “Edinburgh in the south” apparently. They recommended we visit the local market in the early morning.

Apart from the usual meat and vegetables, we saw rats, bats, squirrels and frogs, all ready for the pot. One bat was still showing signs of life. The stall holder took the bat and buried it under its dead relatives. Sandra and Ants had also seen some thick, long pieces of snake, but we couldn't find any today. A market not for the faint hearted.

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Eating our way round Luang Prabang

We've been going for walks in this small city famous for its French colonial architecture. Last night we walked up Phu Si hill in between the two rivers that border the city: the Mekong and Nam Khan. The hill has three Buddhist temples and offers lovely views all around the city. However, as you'll see from the photo, a few other tourists had read the same paragraph in the guidebook. The temple had an Escher-like staircase. One of those staircase which you walk down and find yourself at the top again.

This morning, we explored the new town and found a lovely sunny spot on the bank where the two rivers merge. While we were watching the world go by, a large chunk of the riverbank fell into the Nam Khan river. I guess it's not very stable then. We also passed the tiny airport and watched a Lao Airlines plane fly really low over the houses as it was landing.

You may not think of doughnuts when you think of Laos, but we've found some divine ones in the markets. The round sugar doughnuts with a custard filling are so good that Jen was trying to eat it in one piece.

The hunt for dinner began in earnest. We skipped the pig head and trotters on offer and headed straight for the lady with the barbecue. For our supper, we had barbecued fish with sticky rice and Beerlao. The fish was very simple but absolutely delicious. Its skin had been rubbed with salt and belly stuffed with lemon grass. A home made sweet chilli sauce arrived for dipping. Who could ask for more?

Walking back through the market, every fourth stall sold the same items. Tourists haggled with sellers, who punched out the prices on oversized calculators. This photo makes the market look far more atmospheric than it really was.

And a Happy New Year to everyone. We'll be bringing in the bells with one or two Beerlao. Hope you have a good time, whatever you're doing and wherever you are.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Boat trip on the Mekong - Huay Xai to Luang Prabang

Read our previous posting.

The next morning (28th December) we boarded our boat. Ironically, the most comfortable seats in the boat were a dozen or so (narrow) bus seats, identical to those we had sat on the previous day. The remaining seats were little more than church pews, but without the prayer cushions. (Cushions were purchased separately and were well worth the pound). Ensuring a comfortable seat for the journey meant arriving painfully early for the boat, cancelling out the benefit of the better seat.

The journey consisted of six hours to Pak Beng (day one) and eight hours to Luang Prabang (day two). The scenery along the river was stunning and got more varied the closer to Luang Prabang we got.

Our most vivid memories from the journey are:
  • The boat being boarded by hyperactive child sellers, trying to tempt us with snacks.
  • To kill some time, Andy decided to chat with the man next to him. He turned out to be a complete know-it-all, and Andy regretted starting the conversation within the first five minutes. Ooops.
  • Watching our boat load of tourists unleash their bulky Canon cameras with long lenses every time the boat got within two metres of the riverbank. Unsuspecting locals were greeted by an onslaught of photography.
  • Watching some people take the most mundane photos and videos that clearly wouldn't inspire anyone. The girl in front of us must have taken well over a thousand 'river and jungle' snapshots. A posh camera is no substitute for a good eye for photography.
  • Feeling sorry for an eight-year-old girl who was having a maths lesson on a boat full of distractions. Why did her parents feel this was necessary, particularly during the Christmas vacation?

Our backsides are still sore from the hard seats, but the trip was well worth the pain. It was very relaxing to float down the river for a couple of days just taking in the scenery. We had expected to be on a boat packed full of locals, but the majority of fellow passengers were tourists. Luckily there was one motorbike, a bamboo cage of chickens and a handful of locals to make it feel a bit more authentic.

Against Foreign Office advice, the speedboat might look like a fun and attractive way for thrill seekers to zip down the river. However, we could certainly appreciate the high risk of death - fatalities are apparently “not uncommon”. There were lots of rocks which we could see (and many we probably couldn't) lurking in the water. The current and the whirlpools would certainly have spiced up the journey too. In the picture, some people are wearing crash helmets for 'protection'.

Bus trip to the Laos Border - Chiang Mai to Huay Xai

The buses to Chiang Khong, and the Laos border, were fully booked on the 26th and so we relaxed for an extra day in Chiang Mai. It's amazing how wanderlust can be tamed with 24hr cable TV, in room fast internet and good local food located just around the corner.

On the following day, we made the six-hour bus journey to Chiang Khong. The bus was remarkable for having five (narrow) seats in a row. We laughed at the broad shouldered Australian man who was uncomfortably sandwiched between his girlfriend and a stockily built Thai soldier for most of the journey.

After arriving, we had a pit stop in the local market for an excellent noodle soup. We got our exit stamps at the Thai border and made the short boat trip across the Mekong River to Huay Xai in Laos.

Huay Xai was a pleasant place to spend the evening, and the lady in our guest house was a real character. She had a real penchant for money. The picture shows her holding four million Kip (the Laos currency), worth about 300 pounds.

We also paid a visit to our first temple in Laos. It was very chilled, with excellent views over the river. There were also some Monks' robes drying in the setting sun.