Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Laos - Second Chances...

Laos is the second country I had been to on my short travels last year.  I was having adverse reactions to my anti-malarials (something I will avoid this year by not taking any, probably much to the chagrin of one avid reader of these pages who is just finding this out) and was frankly not in a mental or physical state to fully enjoy myself.  Coming in from Northern Vietnam and heading to Northern Thailand, I knew I would be covering the same ground as last year, missing out the 4000 Islands near the Cambodian border in the south.

We start the journey in Hanoi, as yet another crazy ass Vietnamese border shenanigans must be related. I was picked up from the hostel by a moped, who's driver proceeded to weave through the Hanoi rush hour traffic with me & my bags on the back, whilst having a nice (or so I assume) chat on his mobile.  I was still not fully over the effects of the crash going into Hue & I was to say the least a tad nervy for the few - but too many - minutes I spent on the back of his bike.  I was deposited by the side of the road & he went off in search of other people for the bus.  Having collected us, he then left again, leaving us wondering what was going on, until he came back with a taxi.  Most confusing as we were expecting a sleeper bus.  We all piled in, with no idea of what was going on & were eventually taken to the bus station..  That turned out to be the easy bit.  Aslo the nicest as, while I the bunks were small as usual, I somehow bagged the entire back row of 5 beds to myself!  We were rudely awoken at 6am by the bus driver telling us to get off so we could go through immigration.  Apparently the bus had stopped at the border 3 hours earlier, but as it was closed had to wait.  So we went in search of food.  Or rather, everyone else did as I had changed all my Vietnamese Dong into US$ in Hanoi (apart from some I would later find in the pocket of some shorts.  Grrr....).  An hour later we were finally allowed to leave Vietnam but not before their final surprise. The border guards, clearly low on petty cash for snacks and knowing that, stuck miles from anywhere, we were in no position to argue, demanded 1$ before they would even acknowledge our existence.  As anyone who has worked with me knows, I'm not very good in this sort of situation.  There was some mild remonstrations between myself and 2 other English Lads, Matt & Martin with the guards, mounting to the fact that we had paid our visa fees and they had no legal backing for this action.  Even our bus driver was not willing to help and just waved our complaints away. We eventually gave in, paid, watched the cash go into a drawer, and walked to a nicer man who checked we had indeed had our passports stamped. The worst thing was, this was our last impression of Vietnam - police corruption and wanting to squeeze everything out of Western travellers.  I acknowledge that we are in a better state financially than the majority of people living over here, but we are not here to be scammed.  We are not walking dollar signs.  We have no income while we are here.  And, most importantly, we do not want our experiences of a wonderful country sullied by a couple of greedy officials.  Then insult was rubbed into injury and we were made to walk over the hill through no mans land to Laos, leaving our bags on the bus.  We spent easily half an hour getting our visas done, and I'm sure they managed to scam another dollar out of us for stamping the visa, before the worst bit happened.  We walked out of the immigration building to find... no bus.  We assumed it was just delayed behind us so waited.  And waited.  And waited.  After an hour we started to get a bit concerned so raised a query with the Laos border guards.  Who merely either ignored us or laughed at us.  Anyone who's worked with me see where this is going?  Yup.  I got a bit mad.  It's just as well they spoke little or no English, as shouting in a government officials face that you're going to throw him in a gorge if he doesn't find out what is going on may get you into a spot of bother.  I was ashamed of my response to the situation, or rather the lack of assistance being given.  I thought this part of me was gone.  Still work to do...  A couple of Ukrainians on the bus walked back through no mans and to see what was happening & came back to divulge that the bus was still in Vietnam being searched by customs due to lack of papers for cargo being transported by locals.  This calmed the situation & we waited for the bus.  Finally, 2 & 1/2 hours after entering Laos, the bus turned up and we continued to Vientiane.  From door to door the journey took 24 hours.  I had not eaten in longer than that and was starved.  It was a great burger that night!

And so I started my first real Vientiane experience.  I was only here for 4 hours last year while I got a train to Thailand.  This time I had to sort out my visa for Thailand.  As a British citizen I would have a 30 day pass into Thailand, but I want to stay here for quite a while, and go into Myanmar.  So I decided to get full visa with double entry. On the first morning I walked to the Thai Embassy, was redirected to the Thai Consulate, filled my forms in and waited to be processed.  At this point I realized that, despite my research, I needed Thai Baht to pay or my visa ans not US dollars which I had changed all my spare money into, so I got it all changed into Baht at a stupid rate.  Then I found out that I had to pay 1000B per entry. I did not have enough due to the 'exchange rate'.  Thankfully a Dutch guy lent me the money so I could pay and collect my passport the next day.  I never did get his name, but thanks!

My first tourist event was the COPE Centre.  Laos as a major issue with un-exploded ordinance (UXO) from the Vietnam War when USA bombed the country as possible route from Russia to Vietnam in an attempt to stop the flow of weapons to the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong.  As a result Laos became the most heavily bombed country in history.  Amongst other weaponry, 240 million cluster bombs were dropped on the countryside.  The impact on the farming culture was devastating.  Unfortunately the effects are still being felt.  Cluster bombs have a 30% failure rate, so approximately 80 million remained on the ground following the war.  They are often activated by farming activity or by mistaken as toys by local children, resulting in serious injury and death.  Worse still are the mines and other ordinance that was dropped.  Scrap metal brings a healthy price, and often the danger is considered worth the risk.  COPE was created to assist families who have lost loved ones and people who have lost limbs.  They provide assistance, prosthetics and aid to the families in what is an ongoing problem.

The next day we were offered a fee 'Mystery Tour' to a waterfall by the hostel.  They wanted to see if it would work as a day trip in the future.  They were sure we would be back in time for buses that had been booked & for me to collect my passport.  This was not to be.  What was thought to be a 40 minute drive to the waterfall was 3 hours.  On the final drive through the forest the tuk tuk was unable to go up one of the hills with 15 people in the back (plus 2 in the front & 1 on the roof), slid back down the hill and reversed into a ditch.  It was not difficult to extricate the tuk tuk from the ditch, but we did have to walk up every hill from then on. But it was worth it.  The waterfall was beautiful and tranquil and we played in it for hours until hunger set in & we headed back (walking up the hills again) .

On the way back a couple of American girls, Whitney and Jessica, started talking about a burger they had eaten the previous night near the hostel.  Apparently it was the best burger ever.  The gauntlet had been laid down.  We had to test this burger.  Rather than head for the shower when we got back to the hostel, we piled out of the tuk tuk & went straight to Ray's Grill.  The bacon cheese burger did not disappoint.  Perfectly seasoned and moist it may well have been the best burger I have ever had (and the Philly Cheese Steak I had the next day was incredible!).  Whitney & Jessica got to live another day...

Which for me meant going to the consulate to get my passport back, while everyone else went to Vang Vieng - party central.  I took the opportunity to walk around Vientiane and just let myself be absorbed b it, something I did not have chance to do before.  It really is a nice city, complete with a fake Arc de Triomphe!  It has quite a European feel.  Wide boulevards and avenues mix with a pleasing way.  I am glad I got to see this city properly.

A quick bus journey the next morning got me to Vang Vieng.  I had only spent 1 day here before, and it did not end well.  Thats's all you need to know.  It is a backpackers haven.  Lots of cheap hostels, cheap bars showing endless repeats of Friends (although I did find one that showed South Park one night!), cheap drugs.  The main attraction is tubing - travelling down the river in an inner tube, stopping at the frequent bars to drink & party, before floating on again.  They had problems previously due to the number of bars - over 20 in a just  few miles.  Obviously alcohol and inner tubes doesn't mix well and there were many deaths.  Add into that rope swings and slides into waters to shallow and fast and something had to be done.  There are now 4 bars (if you count the last one, which most don't) and the tube has to be back at one of the 2 tubing centres by 6pm, when it gets dark, or you lose your deposit.  But it was not my intention to tube, but instead to see what else Vang Vieng had to offer.  From talking to Whitney & Jessica they were interested in climbing and so we had made a loose agreement to do a 3 day climbing course.  I just had o find them.

 I bumped into them straight off the bus while trying to find my hostel.  They had a tuk tuk for the day and we decided to check out the Blue Lagoon, a general chill out area a bit out of town based around a deep pool with a cave system nearby.  And here I found my greatest discovery - Cerin!  I had barely seen him since Hoi An and it was great to catch up.  We went into the caves and had a great time playing drums on the stalactites in the dark.  These were not the safest of caves - no walkways or ropes, just signs advising of deep death filled holes.  Health & safety clearly not a priority!  Cerin was actually leaving the next day, but at least we were on the same route.

Day 1 of climbing was easyish.  This was the first time I had climbed outside.  It is very different to an indoor wall.  Firstly, stone hurts more when you fall.  Secondly the holds are not colour coded.  You have to find the ones which feel best, which give the best platforms for the next move.  Also the holds are not nice and moulded - rough, sharp limestone cliffs welcomed us.  The morning was spent top-roping - straight climbing with someone holding the rope below (the belayer).  The afternoon stepped things up - we were lead roping.  Here you climb but take the rope with you.  You are only safe when you attach the rope to the clips on the wall.  Fall here and it's a 6 foot drop or more.

The worst is when you get to the top.  Despite the safety rope you clip yourself to the cliff with, it goes against all human nature to untie your rope at the top of a cliff.  Drop the rope and you're stuck.  But after 2 days of this it became normal.  We slowly got better.  But the fear never leaves you.  Even an experienced climber told me on the last day that he still had moments of doubt when he was climbing, just overthinking things and giving himself doubts.  He likened good climbing to Yoga.  You have to meditate on the wall and become calm.  I do understand this.  Only climbing can I truly empty my mind of all other things.  I just need to make the next step...

I was aware that I was quite verbal while climbing.  How bad this got became apparent on the second day.  We were joined by Kate, Maddy & Jenny.  Maddy later told me that my continuous expletives kept her calm as she felt that if someone more experienced was having trouble, then she was probably doing OK!

After 2 days of this we took a break.  Not sure what to do with myself I wandered into town for breakfast & ran into Kate.  The decision was made to go tubing with Maddy & Jenny. So we headed off to collect our tubes, jumped into a tuk tuk & went to the launch site. It was vastly different from last year.  Only 1 bar remained from the 4 which made up the first 100m.  There is no sign that the first 2 bars ever existed.  I didn't even get past the third bar before (now the first) but we gave it a miss altogether this time & ventured into new territory.  It is a very peaceful experience to float down a river in an inner tube in the sun, taking in the scenery and having a chat.

After about 10 minutes the second bar turned up.  A line is thrown out to haul  you into shore and the drinking commences.  We stayed a few hours enjoying the ambiance, playing volleyball and boules, and laughing at people who were taking there drinking much more seriously.  We made sure we left early enough to make it back to town while it was still light and proceeded to paddle furiously to make sure we did.  It was a relief when a face appeared above me to say I had made it, followed by a mad rush back to the tubing centre to get my deposit back!

After a nice, relaxing day, it was back to business.  Day 3 of the climbing course stepped things up - lead roping much harder climbs needing new skills to navigate the cliffs and a lesson in abseiling.  I had done this as part of the canyoning in Vietnam, but that was starting from the top of the cliff.  Here they taught us how to use your rope from lead climbing to abseil from the top of the climb.  Again, very nervy.  The teachers told us about a couple who were doing this in America - and dropped the rope.  They were stuck on the cliff for 3 hours until someone came down & could help them.  The possibility kind of stays in your mind while your trying to sort the ropes out, but feeling when you get it right and descend the cliff is fantastic!

And that was it for Vang Vieng.  The next morning I headed up to Luang Prabang with Maddy & Jenny.  I had had a lot of fun here last year and had pretty much done most of the things worth doing.  What I hadn't done was trek through the jungle and rice paddies to the Kuang Xi waterfalls.  And it wasn't this time either at $47 each!  So, after spending a well needed day off (travelling can be exhausting if you don't stop now and again!), I headed out to the waterfalls with Maddy, Whitney & Jessica (who had come up on a later bus) on mountain bikes.  I would prefer a proper off-road route, but a 72km round trip was exercise enough, with a couple of long hills that nearly had us walking. But the waterfall at the end is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.

A 3-tier waterfall opens into a series of turquoise pools, the water cascading down.  The water was very cold, and full of little fish which like to nibble your feet (even mine...) and perfectly refreshing after the bike ride. Just the problem of the ride back...  Which I had to do sooner than wished as I was booked on to a cooking class with Ciren. After failing to do one in Vietnam I was determined to do one here, even if it meant going hell for leather in stupid temperatures. I only just made it, but it was worth the rush.  They actually allowed us to cook our food here, as opposed to the course in Phonm Pehn.  The dishes were a revelation.  I had not been to keen on Laos cuisine from last time but found it to be generally quite good when I had eaten it this time.  But these courses were something else.  The fish steamed in bamboo leaves was sensational, a bit like the Cambodian Amok but without the coconut milk. And the chicken stuffed in lemongrass was delicious and took some skill to get right.  Along with a starter and the obligatory sticky rice (Laos style) this was a great meal, but the courses own chefs had been working hard to create even more dishes - pumpkin salad and buffalo laap, a Laos specialty of minced buffalo, mint and basil and very tasty.  This made quite a feast for us all and set a very high standard for future classes!

We had a couple of options for how to get to our next stop - Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Either an 23 hour bus journey or a slow boat up the Mekong which would take us 2 & 1/2 days to arrive in Chiang Mai.  The choice was easy - scenery, relaxation and  new experience won out.  We had heard about this trip from people coming the other way. And we found there was a reason for this.  Going in our direction we were going against the current - resulting in a 9 hour boat journey each day.  But we got to sleep, read (a lot) and just enjoy the relaxed life.

Finding accommodation each night was a bit stressful as everyone goes in search of rooms at the same time and most places are full from people coming the other way from Thailand as those boats get in earlier and nowhere can be pre-booked.  The second night, at the border town of Huay Xai was particularly bad due to lack of rooms and also not knowing where we had to go the next day - the drop off point for the slow boat turned out to be a long way from the boat that would eventually take us over the river to Thailand the next morning, which itself we did not know where it was.  After inquiring at several guesthouses and with tempers fraying (not mine, actually) we finally found what could be classed as clean, serviceable accommodation.  For one night it was fine.  Especially when we found out the next morning that it was just around the corner from the Laos check out post & the cross border ferry...

But that's Thailand.  And therefore a different chapter.  Which I'm still living.  So you'll have to wait.  I'll give you a sneak preview though - I've not been doing much!