Stolen Kiss

Stolen Kiss

January 6, 2008

Languid Laos.

The main reason for our visit to Laos was to spend a few days floating down the mighty Mekong River. From this, all our plans fell into place. As we had business to attend to in Phuket, we flew their first so we could also meet up with Laura and Randy (Pollen Path), our traveling companions, and catch up with some other cruisers. Laura, (exchanging emails with us from our respective homes across the globe) found a 00BHT flight from Phuket to Bangkok which we felt was too good to miss out on! From Bangkok we would catch the overnight train to Chang Mai, then from there bus to Chang Kong on the border and cross the river into Laos at Houayxai.

Phuket proved to be interesting and a lot of fun as I got to feed a tiger cub and Peter met up with his second cousin! Peter’s cousin Peter had met Laura and Randy in New Zealand, some 13 years earlier when he had a yacht. On introduction, both being English, the Peters were doing the ‘were do you live’ routine. Surprise!!! Being of similar age, having the same initials and sharing family memories was wonderful for Peter. As it turns out, Cousin Peter lives between Cairns and Phuket. He and his beautiful wife are divers and photographers. All the time we previously spent in Phuket not knowing!

The overnight train from Bangkok to Chang Mai was fantastic. ‘Beautiful Noise’ (for the Neil Diamond fans) sprang to mind; ‘the clickety clack of the train on the track’. Very corny! We enjoyed our few days wandering around in Chang Mai before we caught the long bus ride up to Chang Kong, the Thai border crossing.

We had read mixed comments about this crossing on the internet from other travelers, which prepared us for the worst. However, it turned out to be a breeze and all proceeded without any hitches. The only thing to watch is having the correct amount of USD to pay for your visa on arrival in Houayxai. Randy was a bit miffed as Canadians had to pay $45, whilst the rest of us only had to pay $32.

Other essentials like sorting accommodation and purchasing boat tickets were completed in such a short period of time which gave us enough time to kick back and explore the town. This did not take long!!! Randy and Peter had their first (of many) Lao Beers. Amazingly cheap and really good.

On our bus there was a young Australian boy from Sydney who did not get enough money out of the ATM before he crossed to Houayxai. Although the latter does have a bank, it was not opened on a Saturday. When Laura and I walked off to find accommodation, he ‘found us’; prattled on and told us his hard luck story. Did we look like a soft touch????? Anyway we lent him some money for his accommodation and meals. As it turned out, Randy had also given him a few USDs for his visa. As he said he was going back to Phuket, I gave him (to his astonishment) Laura and Randy’s address so he could pay back the money. He joined us when we were having a quiet afternoon drink but we made a quick exit in case he thought we were looking for friends! We saw him later on in the week in Luang Probang (he still did not have any money!), reassuring us that he would pay us back. In hindsight, we should have dragged him off to the ATM. Was he a scammer???? Most probably. We taught him nothing about responsibility.

Houyxai has an office for the ‘Gibbon Experience’ and is where you start your adventure of zip lines, tree houses and Gibbons. This was not to be for this trip but I have committed it to memory for the near future.
There were two choices of boats to Luang Probang open to us: fast boat (cramped, noisy, jarring, 6 hours, scary, need for a crash helmet) or the slow boat (hard seats, two days, more comfortable). We actually took a fast boat on a little adventure from Luang Probang at a latter date which confirmed to us that we had indeed made the right choice!

Fellow cruisers on Sea Rose gave us some valuable tips about the slow boat trip. Take a cushion and food. We had started our gatherings in Chang Mai of the latter. Great snacks of nuts and dried fruit. The Laos people eat huge amounts of fresh vegetables, so getting baguettes made for our lunch was an easy task. Laos was actually a gastronomic delight – much to Peter’s surprise.

Its December, the beginning of the dry and the river is already quite low. The Mekong in its entirety is the longest river in South East Asia; the 10th largest in the world in volume and 12th largest in size. Its 4180 km journey has its source in the Plateau of Tibet and its mouth fanning out in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam. Of this, 1993 km runs through Cambodia, which has 90% of its watershed emptying into the Mekong River. Our journey over the two days covered a mere 300km. A small drop in the river!

The banks of the river alternated between stretches of white sandy beaches (to our surprise) and large granite boulders strewn randomly, some of which were very jagged. Most of the Mekong we experienced was quite narrow; somewhere between 100m and 200m. The Mekong’s widest point is in the south of Laos at Si Phan Don where it stretches across a 14 km wide system of rivulets forming a landlocked archipelago. There are many island families that exist on this part of the Mekong.

Our boat was around 80m long, very narrow and was packed with around 80 people. There were a few rapids that required a lot of skill and concentration on the driver’s part. We had one short lived pucker factor when the side of the boat, flying through a rapid, just missed a very large jagged boulder. We missed side swiping it by half a metre! We appreciated the difficulty of maneuvering such a vessel in and out of boulders through the rapids, which sucked us in and spewed us out at a much increase speed. At one stage we had to abort a very narrow passage as there was another vessel coming up stream. Our boat was turned around into the current and we sat to one side, very close to a sand bar. Nearby rocks looked a little threatening. When the other boat had passed, we had to go back up stream some distance to where the river widened so we could safely turn and head back down river.

Although we did glimpse some village life along the Mekong, stopping to drop people off or pick them up, settlement was a lot more sparse than we imagined. There was evidence of slash and burn cultivation, logging and some mining, the latter of which had left behind unsightly scars on the landscape. The main indication of a nearby settlement was the cultivation of the sand bank along the river. The area was very mountainous and largely inaccessible except for the river. We saw one family walking along the river; the men had guns slung over their shoulder for hunting or protection.
As it is too dangerous to be traversing the river at night, all the slow boats stop at Pakbeng, which was a bit of an adventure. (We had been alerted to this from Sea Rose.) Although there was a pier, it was for some reason, not for us. Our boat nosed into the sand bank amongst many other boats which necessitated one walking the plank to shore then scurrying up the almost vertical sand hill to the dirt road. One poor chap fell in the river! Unless you are on a tour, accommodation is generally not booked in advance, although there is one very up-market hotel which we assume would have the technology to do this. Tourism is now their only way of increasing the income of such an isolated community.

So on arrival at Pakbeng, scramble we did! Laura and I went off to secure our accomadation whilst the boys managed the bags (we all travelled lightly!). We did say we would meet them at the top after we had found suitable digs, but some how they wandered off and we lost them temporarily, somewhat difficult in a town that has only one street! Randy and Peter must have looked a little wanting, as in our absence they were offered girls, boys and any drug they could imagine. Took them a little by surprise, but sadly, given the area, why would it? We were also amazed at the ‘special smoking’ that went on so openly by many of the young travelers on the boat. Maybe we are just getting old! Randy thought it would have been interesting if he had his DEA shirt on (or not!!).

The Laos government is working towards a vision of being drug free by 2020. We wish them luck. We did notice further down the track at Vang Vieng that a tour company had crossed off ‘special smoking’ from their daily white water adventure. Probably a good idea!

Day two on the boat was much the same with the exception of it being a slightly larger boat with a few more people. We were much relieved that once again, after a very long day, we finally arrived in Luang Probang. We had grown so attached to our cushions (although somewhat kitsch) that we decided to keep them for a while longer in case of any bus trips. Our two days on the Mekong were certainly worth it, in gaining an insight into the scenery and life along the Mekong. In all respects, our days were very cool. It really was sensational.

Stepping into the pace of Luang Probang was something akin to being slightly comatosed. (Once we got past the touts at the jetty!) Time stood still; there was no need to rush. A slow steady pace prevailed. There were fabulous restaurants, places to enjoy a coffee and great night markets. It is the place to buy wonderful hand made silk and embroidered material, which of course we did. The mountains and the three rivers which surrounded Luang Probang added to the laid back atmosphere. In the evening the banks of the river would spring to life as the locals came out to swim and bathe. Although we were in peak season, there were not many tourists there. Hopefully such evening activities do not become too much of a spectacle in the future.

We were up early one morning quietly observing the giving of alms. We were told that many locals do not do this any more as they do not like their religion being observed by tourists. Sad that this has happened, yet I guess us being there was the exact reason! Alms are now given by Buddhist tourists, many from Korea and China and a handful of western tourists. Some ignorant tourists were standing almost in front of the monks to get their picture. They have no shame.

As with all temples, churches and other religious icons, they stand proud and majestic on the landscape. The Buddhist Wats in Laos are no exception. We did the customary sunset climb up Phou Si, past the giant gold Buddha and Buddha’s footprint. The vista was awesome; the Mekong snaking off in the distance through the mountains.

Our decision to go to the local school to see a concert was a wonderful surprise as this involved experiencing a Baci Ceremony. These ceremonies are often performed on special occasions by monks/priests for families/friends for a blessing of good luck, prosperity, health and happiness. A shrine of marigold and frangipani flowers sits in the centre, representing the hearts and soul of all present at the ceremony. Pieces of cotton string are tied around your wrists (for good luck, prosperity, health and happiness) and you are not supposed to take them off – they have to fall off! Peter and I decided not to take our off until we had landed safely back in KK.

Laos has a wonderful positive view of improving their lives through tourism and promotes the ‘Stay another Day in Laos’ Project. There are a handful of projects that tourists can get involved in. ‘Big Brother Mouse’ bookshop has local people writing and illustrating story books for children, written in both Laos and English. More recently, they have started translating classic English novels for older students. The idea is that tourists can either make a donation or purchase books to give to schools. Tourists are also encouraged to give a book to a child who is on the street begging rather than money, in the hope the parents will keep their children at school in preference to begging on the street.

Another project is ‘Puan Mit’ (best friend) which has a restaurant in Vientiane called Makphet. This is a sustainable street children project whereby the restaurant is run by street children – providing them with an education and a skill that they can then use. The education and training helps to re-integrate them back into family life and the community. Parents also make craft items to sell which increases their income enabling them to afford to keep the children at home. Over 1000 street children in Vientiane alone are assisted on a daily basis. This is a division of the ‘Friends International’ who operate similar programs in Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Pakistan and Honduras.

Leaving the serenity of Luang Probang behind, we hired a van and driver to take us to Phonsavan to the Plain of Jars. The jars are thought to be around 2000 years old and perhaps were used for burials. It was a long day to get there, winding through the majestic mountains on a small road, which did give us another insight into village life and the isolation of this part of Laos. To say there is not a lot to the town of Phonsavan is a bit of an understatement. However there are a few good restaurants and a small museum which shows the extent to which Laos was bombed during the wars - Indo China and Vietnam. It is the most bombed country in the world.
Of course this still has a huge impact on the people as 30% of the shells dropped remain unexploded. Farmers and children are losing life and limb trying to farm new land to cope with increased food required to feed an increasing population. The stats are alarming; for 9 years a plane load of bombs was dropped every 8 minutes! NZ Aid are active in finding and exploding the old bombs. When walking around the jars you are strongly advised to keep between the white pegs for obvious reasons. Imagine a tourist site in Australia amid a mine field!

December is the ceremonial time where young girls dress in traditional costumes and play a ball game with local boys as a courting routine. We observed this in all the villages over to Phonsavan and down to Vang Vieng. A lack of contact from the ‘west’ has maintained their traditional life.

Our van and driver (who would have had to have been to most careful and slowest driver we have experienced in Asia) eventually delivered us to Vientiane, which was more like a large town that a capital city. There were great restaurants, many wifi hotspots and internet cafes and one small cafĂ© that sold the world’s best smoothie. Fresh fruit and vegetables abound!

Buddha Park was an interesting visit, albeit a little tacky. Giant concrete Buddhist statues that were created in the 1950’s are dotted through the park. The sculpting of these alone could have been no easy feat. The local bus ride out there was very entertaining. Everyone knew where we were headed!

The Lao have a notion that too much thinking is bad for the brain and they feel sorry for people who think too much. In general, they avoid anything that may cause undue psychological stress. Unless work or play contains an element of fun, (muan), it will probably lead to stress. This belief is reflected in their laws and government attitude.

Lonely Planet write about a French saying: ‘Vietnamese plant the rice, Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow’.

Maybe this underpins all that is Laos.

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