Chiang Rai and Doi Mae Salong: Ain’t no mountain high enough

It’s an interesting time to be in Thailand, a country that is still in deep mourning for its beloved King.  We knew that a number of festivals, concerts and the famous Ko Phangan Full Moon Party had all been cancelled (none of which really impacted us), but we weren’t too sure what the day-to-day mood would be like.  The first thing we noticed when we arrived in Chiang Khong was the black and white ribbons on the gates and entranceway of almost every public building.  There were also heaps of large billboards, including some high-tech digital ones, depicting the King throughout his life – playing an instrument, with his family, as a young man overseas and meeting various dignitaries.  There are shrines to the King on almost every street corner (I’m not sure whether that’s typical or not), and the clothing stores have almost exclusively black and white clothes in the window.  Aside from all of that, everything feels very much like business as usual from a tourist’s perspective.

Our first night in Thailand was spent in Chiang Khong, a border town where people typically only stay on their way to/from Laos.  There’s not a great deal to do there, so we took the opportunity to take care of a bit of life admin – currency exchange, new SIM card and a bit of grocery shopping.  We were up bright and early the next day for our first experience with the Thai bus service.  After our experience in Laos, I can honestly say that the bus to Chiang Rai was a pleasure.  It was a massive old red school bus, full of rust and with no AC, but we flew through the countryside with the windows down and the doors wide open and it was awesome.  The roads here are in much better condition as well, which meant I didn’t have to spend the entire three hour journey wishing I’d worn a sports bra.  All in all, a very nice trip.

Chiang Rai isn’t exactly a place brimming with must-see attractions, but we wanted to stop here before reaching Chiang Mai, and to use it as the base for an overnight bike trip.  It’s a pleasant enough place, and we spent our first night at the night market eating big plates of greasy tempura and mystery meat (“I think it’s pork”, “nah, it’s definitely chicken – look at the texture”, “oh hang on, you’re right, I think it is chicken”, “but it tastes like pork” . . . .).   We took a quick spin round the shops, added to the souvenir collection, and retreated back to our guesthouse.  Our guesthouse was really great – it used to be a kindergarten and the owners have left lots of the original fittings and decorations, so that it has a very cool retro school-house feel.  There are still old desks and chairs, height charts on the walls, building blocks etc.  It was definitely a find!

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It was time to hit the road on Thursday.  We had originally wanted to hire a couple of motorbikes, but we were tackling a fairly hilly ride and thought that a manual motorbike might add to what was already going to be a bit of a challenge.  In the end, we hired a couple of Honda Clicks 125cc – Campbell’s patriotic black and white, and mine a very racey electric pink.  To make up for our lack of gears and horsepower, we selected the 2 most badass helmets from the shop, and we were off.  The bikes took a little getting used to, as did the Thai traffic and the fact that we were back to driving on the same side of the road as home.

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Our destination was the hillside town of Doi Mae Salong.  Doi Mae Salong has an interesting history – it was originally settled in the 1960s by soldiers from the Yunnan province in Southern China, following their defeat in the Chinese civil war. As a result, the town feels more Chinese than it does Thai – most street signs are written in both languages, but the culture and cuisine remains primarily Yunnanese.  One of the best things we have ever eaten was this braised pork leg with steamed buns for lunch.  We ate it so quickly, because (a) it was delicious; and (b) we were both secretly gutted we had to share, so it was a bit of race to see who could hoover the most.  The highlight would had to have been the steam buns though – such a nice change from boring old rice which, let’s be honest, is just a super bland vehicle for getting other more delicious things into your mouth.  These buns were the business!

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Overtime, Doi Mae Salong became known as the epicentre of the opium trade in the golden triangle (the area where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar intersect) and has a fairly shady reputation that it’s now trying to shed.  The Government has poured money into agricultural initiatives , including tea farming, to move the locals away from opium poppies.  The region is now famous for making some of the best quality tea in South East Asia.  The surrounding countryside is dedicated to tea estates, and tea shops and tea tasting are the main things enticing tourists to visit.  We’re not actually into tea, but the ride to Doi Mae Salong promised amazing countryside, great views, and a few interesting things to see on the way.  We visited a beautiful remote temple covered in wind chimes and bells, an unusual health retreat with a manmade geyser, and then climbed all the way up to Wat Santikhiri (elevation 1,367m).  There were times when we weren’t sure that the Clicks had it in them, but they had way more guts than we’d given them credit for.  They were absolute troopers and we hooned up and down the hills with no drama at all.

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One night in Doi Mae Salong was plenty, so we made our way back to Chiang Rai this morning (clocking up 300 km) and headed straight through town to see Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple.  The Temple is a little bit of a mystery, mainly because it’s not actually a religious temple, but a private art exhibition put together by a very unusual Chiang Rai local – there are actually cardboard cut-outs of the man around the Temple where he’s fist pumping and posing like a motivational speaker.  The whole thing is weird, but the Temple itself is actually pretty special.  As the name suggests, it’s entirely white and accented with lots of silver and mirrored glass tiles.  In addition to traditional Buddhist imagery, the artist has also used pop culture references and there are model heads of The Terminator, Spiderman and Wolverine hanging from the trees.  There’s also a disturbing installation of thousands of hands that reach desperately up from the ground as you cross the bridge into the Temple.  Like I said, weird.  Don’t forget your sunnies if you ever plan on paying a visit – the glare from this place will make your eyes bleed.

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Tomorrow we’re headed for Chiang Mai, where we’ll have one night in town before heading out to the Elephant Nature Park to volunteer for a week in the dog rescue centre.  There are over 400 dogs at the Park who need their shit shovelled, ticks removed and bellies scratched.  We’re not entirely sure what to expect, but we’re excited to be spending a week giving something back (especially after a year of taking care of number one), and  being able to show a little kindness to some pups in need.  However it pans out, you can guarantee it will be totally different to anything we have ever done before.  Here’s to new experiences and all of that!

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XX

Luang Prabang: Viva Laos Vegas

We’ve spent the majority of the last week and a bit in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site and (arguably) the most beautiful and popular place in all of Laos.  It’s been a super relaxed time with most days consisting of doing not much of anything.  Our wee apartment just 15 minutes out of the main town was a haven, but we made the effort to leave for some excursions and to add the following to our tally of Laos travelling highlights.

Lai Hua Fai:  Through good luck, rather than good management, we were in Laos for Lai Hua Fai, or the Festival of Lights.  The Festival coincides with the end of Buddhist Lent and is celebrated throughout Laos, although it is a particularly big deal in Luang Prabang.  The  festival went something like this:

  • In the lead-up to the ‘big day’ every village and temple in the city was hard at work making a wire/paper mache boat to take part in the festival.  The boats were large and incredibly elaborate.  At the same time, people decorate their homes and local temples with hundreds of candles, lanterns and crepe paper decorations.  It was an especially lovely time to be staying in the ‘burbs’, where we could see our neighbours preparing for the celebrations and sense how exciting and meaningful the occasion was for them.

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  • On the day of the festival, all of the boats were wheeled into the centre of town where they were judged and a winner decided.  By mid-afternoon there was a really festive vibe in the air (it reminded me of the day of the Santa Parade).  PA systems played music all through the town, dozens of stalls selling floral offerings had popped up and preparations were being made to close the roads and kick off the events.

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  • When night fell, each boat was lit up with hundreds of candles and paraded down the main street accompanied by musicians and the village people who made it.  It was a little bit like an Olympic opening ceremony – a girl walked down the street first holding a sign with the name of the village/temple that the float belonged to, then came a whole lot of people singing and dancing or holding candles, and then the float followed.  There were a lot of floats and a lot of people, so the whole parade took well over an hour.

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  • As the parade drew to an end, everybody converged on Wat Xieng Tong.  The boats were lined up once again, and then taken down a very steep set of stairs, across the road and down to the Mekong.  This was the part of the night where things got really crazy – everybody wanted to see the boats set adrift and set off their own small offerings alongside them.  The Police had a hell of a job keeping things under control, especially since the road was still open to traffic.

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  • Finally, everybody wandered along the banks of the Mekong and watched as the current caught the boats and sent them down the river.  We took the opportunity to release some offerings of our own and make a wish.  We then sat on the shore secretly hoping that one of the boats would catch on fire (of which a few did), burn spectacularly and sink in front of us.  Not very festive, but it was entertaining.

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Food:  Luang Prabang summed up all the best things about Laos food:

  • Fruit Shakes and Baguettes.  Every place we have been to in Laos has had a strip of identical carts offering fruit shakes and baguettes.  They all have the same menu (there’s about 40 different baguette fillings on offer), and jostle good-naturedly for your business.  We have lived on fruit shakes and baguettes as cheap lunch options, and because they are so damn good.  Paying $10 for a juice from TANK is really going to sting after this.
  • Laos noodle soup is the best noodle soup I have ever eaten.  People rave about Pho in Vietnam, but get yourself over here and into a bowl of piping hot noodle soup and you’ll know you’ve hit the jackpot.
  • Laos BBQ.  On almost every street corner there is a makeshift BBQ selling the most delicious bbq meat and fish.  Everything is on a bamboo skewer and you just select your pork belly, river fish, chicken feet or whatever and they fire it up for you and off you go.  There were a couple of late nights on the Beer Lao where we walked home muching a BBQ chicken breast on a stick. I know we like to think that we have mastered the BBQ in New Zealand, but we could learn a lot from the roadside BBQ masters in Laos.
  • Coconut Cakes.  These little cakes are the best thing out – they don’t look like much, but when you bite into them they are full of gooey coconutty goodness.  Five Kip for a little banana leaf boat full of them is money well spent.

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Friends:  We were lucky enough to spend a couple of awesome evenings hanging out with Rico, a German guy that we met on our boat cruise in Halong Bay (Mum and Dad – he’s the blonde one).  We had bumped into Rico earlier when we were in Vang Vieng, but couldn’t get our acts together to catch up.  We made sure that we didn’t make the same mistake twice and had a lovely dinner, and drinks at the riverside bar, Utopia, in Luang Prabang.  We also spent the night of the Festival hanging out with Rico.  Rico is also doing extended travel around SE Asia and it was great to share stories and tips.  We are hoping to see him again in Cambodia, where we might hire bikes and have a bit of an adventure together.

Sai Bat:  Sai Bat is the morning ritual where hundreds of monks from around Luang Prabang leave their temples to collect food (alms) from devotees.  The food comprises the monks one meal of the day, and is prepared with love and care by the local people.  At sunrise, there is a silent procession of monks through the main streets of Luang Prabang collecting food from the devotees who have been waiting quietly for them since the early hours. We were originally reluctant to go along to Sai Bat, because there have been a lot of reports that the whole event has turned into a tourist spectacle, where people disrespect the monks by not observing protocol, shoving their cameras in the monks faces and generally acting like dickheads.   Thankfully, on the morning we went along there was very little of this going on, and so we were both really pleased to have made the effort and seen it.

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Kuang Si Waterfall:  We left it until our very last day in Luang Prabang to visit the Kuang Si Waterfall.  We picked up a scooter in the morning and made the hour or so journey out of town to see the Falls.  I had heard they were spectacular, but they were even better than expected.  The Falls themselves are beautiful, but the real star of the show is the dozens of terraced limestone pools that water continually runs in and out of, at the bottom of the Falls.  They reminded me of pictures of the Pink and White Terraces at Lake Tarawera.  We were woefully underdressed for the hike to the top of the Falls, but did it anyway and it was well worth the effort.  You can swim in the Falls, which would be awesome, but wet togs and a couple more hours on a scooter didn’t seem like such a hot combination for us.  On the way to the Falls you also pass a bear sanctuary, where dozens of bears rescued from bear bile farms or circuses live a lovely peaceful life.

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Hillside Lifestyle Resort:  We spent our last two days in Luang Prabang at the Hillside Lifestyle Resort, about half an hour out of town.  It was super peaceful, with really just the manager Pierre, and the resident five cats a dog, Buddy, to keep us company.  The major drawcard for the Resort was the fact that it had a pool.  After sweating it out in town for a week, we were ready to move somewhere we could take a dip.  The fact the pool water was murky green was a bit off-putting at first, but we’ve dealt with that before and there was really nothing stopping us from getting in.  The only downside to the Resort was the unwelcome visitors – spiders the size of saucers, who set up digs in our bathroom on the first night.  It’s amazing how long you can hold a wee, when the alternative is having to go to the bathroom with eight hairy eyes looking at you.

And now for the lowlights:

“Luxury” cruise of the Mekong:  We decided to leave Laos with a bang and booked ourselves on a luxury two day cruise of the Mekong from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai (the Thai border).  We were promised a luxurious boat, gourmet food and a lovely couple of days lazing in sun loungers and feeling pleased with ourselves.  None of that actually happened.  The shit hit the fan early when we couldn’t reach the boat pier in Luang Prabang due to road closures.  Our driver dumped us unceremoniously on the side of the road and told us that we would be picked up by someone from the cruise (i.e. someone who cared a damn sight more than he did).  We bounced back from that and were just settling into our loungers when we realised that we had boarded the boat minus our camera.  Cue mad panic, backpacks being searched, undies and other personal items being flung about, and the horrible realisation that our camera was 100% definitely not with us.  We knew we’d packed it in our backpack, so the only place it could be was the van we caught from the hotel.  Two hours later and more US dollars than I’d like to mention, we had arranged for our camera to be transported via slowboat to meet us at the Thai border.  It was either that or rely on the Laos postal service and neither of us was having a bar of that.

Having sorted all of that out by lunchtime, we were just starting to relax into the cruise when there was an almighty thump.  You didn’t need to know much about boats to know that it wasn’t good.  To his credit, the captain kept his cool (I’ve heard many a foul mouth tirade across the shores of Lake Taupo over more minor boating catastrophes – yes Dad, I’m looking at you), pulled the boat onto the banks, stripped down to a fetching pair of maroon Y fronts and was off to investigate.  An hour later and we hadn’t moved.  It was at this point that we were told we were going to have join the public boat for the remaining five hours of the trip.  The public boat sucked the big one, and was all the things we had hoped to avoid.  It was hot and cramped, there were 50 people, one loo and seats that had been taken from old cars and just dumped on the deck (not even screwed in place).  I had to sit next to a very abrasive German woman, who looked particularly put out at having to share one of her four seats with me.  She made her displeasure known by sighing a lot, and putting her bare feet as close as humanly possible to me, without actually touching.  Lisa and I used to play a similar game on family road trips (“you can’t do anything, I’m not actually touching you, ha ha ha!”).  It was annoying then, and it’s still annoying now.

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Day two of the cruise was a roaring success by comparison, and we finally got to relax and take in the scenery of the Mekong.

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Nakaraj Princess Hotel:  We had to spend a night in Huay Xai while we waited for our camera to cruise up the river to meet us.  Given we had sweet FA to actually do while we waited, we decided to book into the Nakaraj Princess Hotel, which boasted three restaurants, a casino, shuttle buses into town, duty free shopping, a mini-mart etc.  It seemed like the perfect place to kill time.  We could not have been more wrong.  The entire place was a ghost town.  There was one restaurant, the mini-mart was abandoned and the casino was across the street, boarded up and surrounded by tumbleweeds.  We wandered down to the restaurant for dinner and were given a laminated A4 piece of paper with six pictures on – one of sandwich, one of instant noodles, one of unidentifiable meat things . . . you get the gist.  There was no internet, no television and no one who spoke English.  The whole experience was totally bizarre.

Today we (finally) crossed the border from Laos into Thailand.  Our three weeks in Laos were incredible, and we’ll be leaving with lasting memories of a beautiful country, amazing people and a calmness that we haven’t experienced many other places.  But my ultimate Laos memory will be of bikes and brollies.  It is such an amazing sight every morning  to see hundreds of school children, monks and office workers, take to the roads driving one-handed on their bikes, so that they can steer and also shield themselves from the sun.

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The next week in Thailand will be a whirlwind as we make our way from Chiang Khong to Chiang Rai, (hopefully) tackle our first overnight motorbike trip, and arrive in Chiang Mai ready for a week volunteering in the dog shelter at the Elephant Nature Park.

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XX

Vang Vieng and Kasi: Space Oddity (aka “This is Ground Control to Uncle Tom”)

Our last night in Vientiane was a big one, as we took up residence at the Billabong Sports Bar to watch the ABs slaughter South Africa.  We were expecting the bar to be a lot busier than it was, but it ended up being us, a lone South African and a whole bunch of middle-aged Aussie expats who live and work in Vientiane in the mining industry.  There was great banter, but sore heads the next day and the not-so-appealing bus ride to Vang Vieng to deal with.  The bus ride turned out to be just fine – a little cramped, but no biggie.  The only person really not enjoying it was the toddler in the front seat vomitting curdled milk into a tiny plastic bag held by his Mum.

In the short time we’ve been here, we’ve had some other pretty interesting experiences on the Laos public bus network – there was the driver who made us all wait in the sun for 40 minutes while he and his family had a full sit-down meal when we were only 20 minutes from our end destination, the one-eyed driver who made us sit surrounded by a hundred partially defrosted chickens, the bus with no air-conditioning that drove with all the doors and windows open, the driver who chain smoked for the entire journey and then spat out the window so that it flew back into my face and last, but certainly not least, the man with the semi-automatic rifle who boarded our bus in the middle of nowhere, walked up and down the aisle a few times and then got back off.

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We arrived in Vang Vieng with moderate expectations, because we’d actually been in two minds about whether to bother including it in our itinerary.  Vang Vieng has a chequered past having risen to fame in the early 2000s for drug and alcohol-fuelled tubing trips down the Nam Sou River.  Tourists used to arrive in their hundreds to stay at cheap boarding houses, eat pizzas peppered with magic mushrooms and then tube down the river, stopping at bars on the way and throwing themselves into the river on death-defying rope swings.  The problem was that not everybody was death-defying.  People started dying in Vang Vieng from overdoses, bad drugs, drowning and breaking their necks, and it was happening regularly.  Two Aussies died within the space of a week in 2009, major heat was applied, and the Laos government set to work cleaning the place up.

There are definitely still traces of the mayhem, and people who visit looking to recapture a little of the crazy in Vang Vieng.  The most noticeable remnant of the bad old days is the the cafes and restaurants that play Friends and Family Guy episodes on repeat, while hungover backpackers lie on couches eating fries and nursing hangovers.  There’s also the charming Sakura Bar – “drink triple, see double, act single”.  However, on the whole, the town has rebranded itself as a outdoorsy, nature lovers paradise, and it wears it well – once you get away from the eyesore that is town, Vang Vieng is a beautiful spot surrounded by limestones cliffs and rural life.  You can rock climb, kayak down the river, visit caves and waterfalls, go hot air ballooning and cycle the countryside.  It was this side of Vang Vieng that we wanted to see, and it was well worth the trip.

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On our first full day we hired bikes and rode out to Kaeng Nyui waterfall.  It was supposedly a five km ride from town, but distances here are a lit more fluid than that.  In reality, it was five kms to the first turn-off, another km to the ticket office, another km to the carpark and a km trek to the falls.  It was an incredibly tough ride (Meegan – we should have taken your advice and steered clear of the Vang Vieng roads!), but the pay-off was worth it.  There were multiple levels to the falls, which cascaded into small pools that you could swim in.  We were close to spontaneously combusting by the time we arrived, so were straight into the water in our clothes and shoes, and it was the best.  The ride back to town was nowhere near as bad, given we’d fulled up on Laos energy drinks (straight glucose) and were practically flying.

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We closed out our time in Vang Vieng with a kayaking trip down the river.  Our guide, Mr Sa, told us in no uncertain terms that just kayaking was ‘not fun’ and that we should be going zip lining as well, or getting plastered on Laos Buckets by the side of the river.  Despite the hard upsell attempt, we stuck with the kayaking and really enjoyed it.  There were some cool little rapids in the river, which made it a bit more exciting and the current made the 10km pretty easy on the arms too.  Mr Sa was a bit disappointed that we smashed the half day trip in an hour and half, but we weren’t too phased.  We spent our last afternoon in Vang Vieng drinking fruit shakes and Beer Lao, watching the long boats go up and down the river and the kids muck around on the shore.

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Despite having an awesome time in Vang Vieng, it’d be fair to say that we’ve both been feeling a bit blah for the last week, or so.  There is definitely a certain level of fatigue that comes with moving around all of the time and living out of a suitcase and (at the risk of sounding like total brats) things can start to seem a bit same old, or same same but different, as the saying goes here.  So, it was with high hopes that we boarded the bus yesterday morning destined for Kasi and our trail bike tour with Uncle Tom.  We were both really hoping that the trip would be the kick up the pants we needed, and help us feel a bit more energised for the next wee while.

Uncle Tom is a self-described “fat welshman” tasked with teaching us how to ride manual motorbikes, before letting us loose on the Kasi countryside for a trail bike tour.  We arrived in Kasi in the early afternoon, where Uncle Tom was waiting to take us out to his property in his sidecar.  Uncle Tom has a flat above a workshop full of bikes, which sits on the same section as a guesthouse and restaurant/karaoke bar that is run by a local family.  We ditched our gear, hoovered some lunch and got straight into the lessons.  Campbell could already ride a motorbike, so he was let loose on a neighbouring paddock to refresh himself, while Uncle Tom set me up on rollers in the garage to get started using the clutch and gears.

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It wasn’t long before I was allowed to graduate into a paddock myself and, after an hour of running through the gears and practising emergency stops, Uncle Tom decided I was ready for the road.  Apparently I was a very quick learner, although I suspect he says that to all the girls.  And with that, we were off.  We drove from one end of the village to the other, dodging school children and goats, and then right up into a muddy paddock where I could practice more emergency stops, crash starts, skidding and how to deal with mud and potholes.  Uncle Tom and I had helmets with a radio connection, so he could talk me through things as we were on the road.  It worked a treat although, as well as tuition, I also had to put up with his singing through the radio, including his personalised version of Space Oddity.  Campbell got to spend the afternoon hooning about, and he and Uncle Tom had a bit of a blat on a more technical trail at the end of the day.

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We called time after four hours.  After a quick shower, we debriefed over a few cold ones in the restaurant.  It was after hours by then and a whole bunch of employees from the local bank had settled in for after work drinks.  They were obviously a few drinks in by the time we got there, and the karaoke was humming.  It took a couple more Beer Lao to convince us, but our table finally joined in.  Uncle Tom started us off with a great version of White Wedding, I tackled Wonderwall and Gangsta’s Paradise, and Campbell rounded things off nicely with Jack and Diane.  We were shouted a round of beers by the bank manager who especially appreciated our efforts, and got treated to a Laos dancing lessons. It was great to get to know Uncle Tom a little better, especially since he  turned out to be one of the funniest people we have ever encountered.  His sense of humour ran somewhere between appalling Dad jokes (the ones that make you shake your head, roll your eyes and groan) and the most inappropriate “I actually can’t believe you just said that” jokes.  It was a fantastic night, with a lot of laughs.

We were up early this morning to get ready for the formal trail ride part of the tour.  Uncle Tom wanted to let the village children (who ride their bikes to school five abreast) clear out of the village before we hit the road, but at 8 am it was time to get started.  We ventured through the village and then things started to get interesting – we rode up gravel hills, through a herd of goats, through various villages, through enormous mud puddles, across wooden bridges and through the most exquisite countryside that we have seen anywhere on our travels.  We missed seeing the paddy fields in full bloom when we were in Sapa, but we got to see them in all of their glory in Laos.  It’s hard to describe how incredible the scenery really was – these photos don’t come close to doing it justice.

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Uncle Tom was keen to ensure that Campbell (or Malcolm, as he insisted on calling him (for no apparent reason)) got to do something a bit more adventurous during the ride so, with about an hour left to go, the two of them buggered off for a bit to do a far more muddy and technical trail.  Judging the by the state they came back in, it was certainly a challenge.  We returned home shortly after that with four hours of ride time and 100 kms under our belt.  The sense of satisfaction from having picked up a new skill and then using that to see a part of a country that we would never have discovered otherwise, was something else.

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Uncle Tom got us fed and watered and then our time in Kasi was at an end.  We were back on the public bus on our way to Luang Prabang.  Our visit to Uncle Tom delivered way more than we could have hoped – we can both now ride proper motorbikes, we saw amazing untouched country, we sung karaoke with a Laos bank manager and we have a new lease on life and a whole lot more enthusiasm for the next few months of our adventure.

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XX

 

 

Vientiane: Take me to the River

The Laos capital of Vientiane seems to get a pretty bad rap on most of the travel blogs and websites that I’ve read.  People say that it’s boring and that there’s nothing to do.  Granted, Vientiane is not a place that’s going to set your world on fire but, overall, I think the criticism is a bit harsh.  Vientiane is definitely a lot quieter and calmer than other places in South East Asia but, to me, that’s part of its charm.  The pace of life bubbles along at roughly the same speed as the Mekong, which skirts along one side of the city.  The people here are friendly, but slightly more reserved and, while there are plenty of street vendors and make-shift markets, there is a refreshing lack of hustlers and people wanting to part you from your money.  The other big difference we noticed here is that there are comparatively few scooters.  There are also traffic lights and other road rules that people actually follow.  The whole thing makes for an incredibly relaxed experience.

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Our time in Vientiane was structured around trips to the Royal Thai Embassy, where (for a whole lot of boring and infuriating reasons) we had to arrange special tourist visas for our trip to Thailand.  Because Vientiane is so close to the border with Thailand it is a favourite spot for people doing a visa run from Thailand – bus loads of people cross the border every day and stay a night or two here while they arrange a new visa to continue their travels in Thailand.  A good percentage of the people look like they went to Thailand on holiday a few years ago and never left – there’s a definite twitchy, Trainspotting vibe about them.

We’d been warned that the whole visa process would be a two day debacle (one day to submit, one day to pick up) and that the queues would be horrendous – think NZ Post the week before Christmas.  Fortunately, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as we expected.  It was definitely up there on the “organised chaos” spectrum, but not the total shit storm we’d geared up for.  Having navigated this particular obstacle course several times before, the twitchy Trainspotters had a wealth of information about the process and were more than willing to help us out.  We’re now licensed to travel in Thailand for a couple of months, so it was well worth the effort.

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When we weren’t sweating it out in the tourist mosh pit at the Embassy, we took a little time to enjoy Vientiane itself.  One of the biggest draw cards for Vientiane is its position right on the banks of the Mekong.  Every day at about 4 pm the main road along the river is shut to traffic and a huge night market gets set up.  The shopping wasn’t really our cup of tea (tacky plastic phone covers, Hello Kitty clothing, and tiny tiny t.shirts), but the atmosphere was great.  Locals and tourists all gather on the river promenade and drink Beer Lao, eat BBQ meat and watch the sun go down over the Mekong.  For those feeling more active, there are also large public aerobics classes where, for whatever reason, everybody dresses in the same colour and does epic old school aerobics moves like the “lasso” and the “grapevine”.

We also took a trip to the less-visited Ben Anou food market, which is also only open in the evening.  Vendors set up their stalls and carts in a street behind the outdoor sports stadium and the locals drive up on their scooters, point out what they like, and it gets packaged up for them to take home.  Effectively, it’s one very long drive through.  The food is primarily BBQ meat (chicken meat, chicken feet, chicken insides etc), but you can also get pre-prepared curries, desserts, Lao sausages and some other less identifiable dishes.  I have it on good authority that the Lao sausages are the business.  I have no first-hand knowledge of this because, by the time I asked Campbell if I could have a bite, he was mashing the remains of his into his gob.

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We also paid a visit to the COPE Visitor Centre.  COPE provides support to UXO (unexploded ordnance and bomb) survivors.  Laos was one of the most heavily bombed countries during the Vietnam War – between 1964 and 1973 the US dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos.  It was the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for those 9 years.  10 – 30% of those bombs did not explode.  They are littered around Laos (particularly in rural areas) and hundreds of local people die every year, or are seriously harmed, when they step on them.  Operations to systematically locate and remove UXOs are underway, but there is a long way to go.  Organisations like COPE provide prosthetic limbs, physio and rehabilitation and occupational skills to survivors.  It’s an amazing operation and a trip to the Visitor Centre was definitely worth the very sweaty walk to get there.

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On our last day in Vientiane we hired a scooter from our hotel and made our way out of town to vista the Buddha Park.  The Buddha Park is less of a religious site and more of a sculpture exhibition – it includes over 200 sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu inspiration.  The sculptures were all created by one man who, reading between the lines, might have been a little bit “different”.  The designs fuse Buddhist and Hindu images in a way that is uncommon, and “bizarre” (according to the fact sheets at the Park itself).  The place was a little bit eery and reminded me a bit of Carlucci Land in Wellington which, as far as I’m aware, is also the brainchild of a slightly eccentric fellow.  I haven’t actually been – that place gives me the willies.

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After a quick break for lunch and to get the sweating under control, we ventured back out in the afternoon for a cruise along the Mekong.  There was also time for me to get behind the wheel of the scooter and have a bit of a blat.  I haven’t ridden a scooter since I was in Thailand with my girlfriend, Heather, almost ten years ago.  Back then we didn’t give a shit that we hadn’t ridden bikes before; everyone else was hiring one, so we did too.  We were absolute nightmares, almost crashed multiple times, provided endless hours of entertainment for the locals, and were a menace to ourselves and everybody else on the roads.  It didn’t matter though – we were bulletproof.  Those were also the days when we could get blind drink without a hangover, and eat KFC without getting fat – a lot has changed since then.  Still, it didn’t take long to get the hang of it and, after a few laps of Don Chan Palace carpark, I was feeling 24 years old again.

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We’ll be spending tonight (our last night in Vientiane) at the Billabong Sports Bar, where we hope to see the ABs crush South Africa.  Tomorrow we board our first Laos bus and are headed for Vang Vieng.

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Sapa: Wrecking Ball

Our journey to Sapa started with a bit of a hiccup.  Our flight was delayed from Ho Chi Minh, so we missed the night bus and ended up staying an extra night in Hanoi.  We boarded the sleeper bus first thing the next morning to get to Sapa by lunchtime and still have some time to explore before trekking the next day.  As expected, the bus was very much designed for Vietnamese people.  If I sat just the right way I could almost stretch my legs out straight inside my Vietnamese coffin, but Campbell spent the entire six hour journey folded in on himself like an origami crane.  The novelty factor meant that it wasn’t the worst six hours ever, and we both managed to catch a few zzzs.

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We arrived in Sapa shortly after lunch and spent the afternoon mooching round town and getting last-minute provisions for our trek.  Sapa is a really interesting hillside town in northwestern Vietnam.  Minority groups from the highlands make up the majority of the population and there are a variety of different tribal groups, including the Hmong, Dao and Tay.  Very few minority people live in the town itself, but a lot of the women and children come into the town every day to offer trekking services and homestays and sell handicrafts to tourists.  The make-up of tourists in Sapa is also pretty interesting – the demographic seemed to be primarily intense middle-age European hikers, and bohemian backpackers (think guys with shitlocks and girls with partially shaved heads and aggressively short fringes).  In amongst that, there is the standard tour bus crew and a fair few Aussies (as has been the way throughout most of Vietnam).

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It wasn’t long after arrival in Sapa that I started to lose my nerve.  The 40km “medium to challenging” trek that had seemed like such a good idea from the safety of the office many moons ago, suddenly seemed like an incredibly stupid adventure that we were ill-prepared for.  Sure, I was looking forward to the amazing scenery and a bit of getting back to nature, but I was less keen on the reports of rivers of mud, it being “far more challenging than anticipated”, steep uphill ascents and tribal ladies who would follow behind and point and laugh every time you took a tumble.  All those hardcore hikers strutting round in their hardcore hiking boots and hardcore hiking jackets had also given me a bit of an inferiority complex.

Day 1:  14 kms

The first day of the trek dawned and it was my worst nightmare.  We woke to torrential rain and heavy mist that blanketed all of Sapa town and most of the countryside that we were supposed to be enjoying and photographing on our walk.  I was not amused.  After trying (and failing) to devise multiple reasons why we could/should postpone, we traipsed down to the Sapa O’Chau booking office to meet our guide, Pe, and get started.  There were plenty of other anxious looking tourists at the office, including our trekking buddies, Susannah and Fabrizio, from Italy.  Despite being decked out in head to toe trekking gear, they admitted that they were as nervous and unprepared as we were – they’d also tried to postpone their trek.

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The trek started out easy enough as we wandered down the main road on our way out of town, but it did not take long for shit to get real in a major way.  We veered off the main road after about 20 minutes and straight onto muddy, almost vertical tracks through the rice paddies.  The rain from the morning had turned the tracks into mudslides, and we didn’t stand a chance in our sneakers.  We had some Hmong groupies who had followed us from town who ended up having to hold our hands and help us navigate the paths.  We’d been told not to accept help from these ladies (unless you wanted to go home with a pack full of handicrafts), but when the going got tough we couldn’t grab hold of their hands fast enough.  Even with their help, we slipped, fell, tripped and slid our way down the paths, and were bleeding, muddy and broken after the first hour.  Campbell was the only one of our group who managed to stay upright the entire trip which, as you’d imagine, made us all hate him and his gangly limbs just a little bit.

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When we were learning to water-ski, our friend Leezy used to say that if you weren’t falling over, you weren’t trying hard enough.  Applying that same motto to trekking, I can hand on heart say that I tried really really hard; perhaps harder than anyone else in our group – I simply could not stay off my arse.  My lowest moment came when I slipped down a path and face planted through a bamboo fence and almost went straight into a rice paddy.  According to Campbell, I resembled a human wrecking ball.  The Hmong women were not impressed that I’d poleaxed their fence, and were a little less forthcoming with the handholding from then on.  We made amends shortly afterwards by buying some friendship bracelets and giving a generous tip – they’d been lifesavers!

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By the time lunchtime rolled around it had finally stopped raining, and we could relax enough to look up from our feet and take in the scenery around us.  Sapa is really beautiful and unlike anywhere else we have been on our travels.  The landscape is hilly, with great parts of the hillside cut into terraced rice fields.  Rivers cut through the valleys and tiny tribal villages are dotted around from the valley floor, to the highest peaks.  It is stunning. Our trip coincided with the rice harvest, which had been done only a week or so previously.  This meant the landscape looked a little more barren than it would have when the rice was still in the ground, but we got to see some of the harvest and processing in action.  There is only one rice harvest in Sapa per year (compared to two in more southern Vietnam), so there is a lot riding on getting a bumper crop every time.

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After lunch it was a fairly easy three hour walk to our homestay for the night.  None of us was really sure what to expect, but the homestay was fantastic.  We were staying with Miss Co, her husband and two children.  Us tourists had our own loft to sleep in, while Miss Co and her family slept in a nearby house.  It was close quarters with the Italians, but sliding around on your arse for six hours has a way of bringing people together, so no one really minded that we could have all spooned if we’d wanted to.  Dinner was an incredible Vietnamese feast, which we all ate together on tiny wooden stools that were perfect for the locals, but like dolls’ house furniture for anybody else.  We were having trouble walking at this point, let alone trying to get up and down from midget chairs.

Dinner also meant our introduction to rice wine (or “happy wine” as it’s known here), and some traditional Hmong drinking games. Hmong people do not typically have access to cards, or dice, so drinking games utilise a chicken’s beak.  Miss Co’s husband did the honours by eating the head from the chicken we’d had for dinner, and it was game on!  Essentially each player has to throw/roll the chicken’s beak and if it lands flat (i.e. if it’s the same way up as it would be when still attached to the chicken) the person it’s pointing at has to drink.  It didn’t take long to polish off a two litre bottle of rice wine, with Miss Co’s husband and Campbell ending up having to drink the lion’s share.  Amazingly, despite not speaking a word of English, Miss Co’s husband became a lot more conversational after a bit of rice wine and managed to put his few English words to good use with scathing sarcastic comments and insults that had us in hysterics.

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Day 2:  16 kms

The weather gods heard our prayers and we woke up on day two to a stunning day.  Pe had prepared us for the fact that the first few hours of the trek that day would be really difficult and muddy, but the sun had already started to dry things out nicely.  It was just as well, since we woke up in various states of agony.  Putting our wet shoes and socks on, and hauling our packs onto our backs for round two was all kinds of miserable.  We were also feeling the effects of the not-so-happy water, meaning it was a subdued start to the day. We all came right after the first couple of kms and enjoyed the first part of the day trekking up to a beautiful waterfall, and up to some amazing look-out points.

The heat meant that day two was just as challenging as day one, albeit for totally different reasons.  We were all starting to lose the plot by lunchtime, which is possibly the reason that, despite the conditions being much better, I still managed to fall into a stream and trip over a rock.

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After carbo loading on fried noodles for lunch the afternoon was much easier.  We got a welcome break from the rice paddy tracks, and spent most of our time wandering through villages on proper roads.  It was a really nice time to meet some of the locals and especially the kids who were home from school for the weekend, and were running around everywhere!  People in Sapa don’t have a lot, so the kids were playing with old tyres, climbing trees, tormenting the farm animals, mucking round at the school or church, or pretending to ride their parents scooters.  A lot of the children were also doing chores, and it wasn’t uncommon to see really small children looking after a herd of buffalo, drying the rice harvest, or helping their mothers with embroidery and other crafts to be sold in town.

 

We also stopped at a couple of handicraft shops where we got to see how some of the arts and crafts are made.  The local tribes create amazing fabric from hemp, which they dye with the leaves and flowers from the indigo plant.  It’s a laborious task that includes harvesting the hemp and making the fabric, harvesting the indigo and making huge vats of dye, dip dyeing each individual swatch of fabric multiple times until it is the right blue/black shade (an icon of the Hmong people) and finally embroidering or block printing the fabric.  It is a labour of love and the finished products are beautiful.  Selling the handicrafts to tourists is an essential financial top-up to the annual rice harvest.

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We spent our second evening with a Tay family, who lived in a traditional Tay home on stilts overlooking the rice terraces.  Unlike the Hmong people, Tay people typically live in large extended family groups, so we were treated to visitors of all ages and stages throughout the evening.  Our hosts had three small children who kept us entertained all evening by playing up, which we thought was cute, but was close to making their mother homicidal.  It was another banquet dinner around the table, followed up with the mandatory rice wine and a very early night.  We were all fast asleep by 9 pm.

Day 3:  8 kms

The bodies were sore, but the spirits were high when we woke up on day three.  We knew we only had a short trek ahead of us, and we were all looking forward to getting the job done.  Pe had blatantly lied when he told us the walking would be flat, because we’d only gone a km when we staring down the face of some massive hills and steep gravel inclines.  We were rewarded at the top with a quick visit to a local school, where the kids were having their morning tea break and doing running races and long jump competitions on the porch.  We wrapped up the walking with a trip to the river to soak our very tired and disgusting feet and to reflect on an awesome three days.

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Day three was also our wedding anniversary, which we celebrated with a couple’s foot massage back in Sapa town, pasta and burgers for dinner and a few beers on the rooftop of our hotel.  It will be a memorable anniversary for many years to come.

Tomorrow we say goodbye to Vietnam and take to the skies for our trip to Laos.  We have very little planned and are interested to see how things pan out.

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