|Final Statistics: Alex & Maz||Total distance: 93,550km|
|Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ||Now settled in Sydney, Australia|
|Final Statistics: Martin||Total distance: 79,698km|
|Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia||Now settled in Bristol, UK|
The Hidden Tribes…..
Laos, Country 18, Diary entry 28th March - 11th April 2006, Total distance in Laos: 1627 KM
Laos, a small country, landlocked between China, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Having spent 10 years from 1963-73 as the hidden arena for ‘the secret war’, with the USA dropping an average of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years, leaving two million tonnes of bombs scattered round the country, we had been warned not to venture off the path in Laos. We knew clean up projects had been ongoing for years, but trying to clear an average of half a tonne of explosives per person in Laos, is no mean feat! Wondering how different Laos was going to be from the sterile, disciplined land of China, we took one giant step for mankind and entered country 18!
In actual fact, our travels through Laos was probably the first country we’ve felt relaxed, not rushed and had time to just chill rather than chase our tails the whole time. It was a real treat.
After thanking and waving goodbye to Mark, and passing through the borders with no major problems (apart from not being initially allowed out of the country) we managed to find some food in the first town we came across. We had agreed that we wouldn’t be driving off road unless we saw an already marked track, as none of us fancied getting blown up!
With much of Laos being mountainous, the roads were still as tedious to drive on as they had been in China. However, after the horror stories we’d heard about the state of the roads, we were pleasantly surprised to see them covered in tarmac. We’d been expecting dirt for a lot of the way.
We managed to find camp by the side of the main north/south highway with an average of one car an hour passing by. After setting up the tents, we had our obligatory first passer by. A young boy carrying a gun. However, this was not your average gun; it didn’t even look like a gun to begin with, so much so that it sparked debate between us. Confirmation came when the next boy trundled past the cars from the mountains. Not really knowing what to make of us, he just smiled and walked by, but we were ready and managed to have a good look at his appendage. A very long thin barrel that looked like a walking stick really, which is why we weren’t convinced it was a gun, but it was an old musket with what appeared to be a flint lock trigger. Friends who’ve passed this part of the world previously said they felt uneasy in the Northern area, so we didn’t really know how safe a place it was. We had a couple of beers before bed, Dutch courage for us just in case we were disturbed in the middle of the night and crashed out.
We woke early the next morning to the noise of a truck pulling up. Taking a sneaky peak out of the tent, the truck had since passed by but a motorbike had pulled up with two people on it. We decided it would be best to move on so packed up and carried on towards Luang Prabang, the ancient Royal capital, set amid beautiful scenery on a bend of the mighty Mekong River.
Passing through the mountains, we noticed the changes almost immediately. Laos is covered in forest, but with the amount of slash and burn being carried out, I’d be surprised any trees are left in the next twenty years. The air was thick with smole and ash falling as we drove through the north. Back to living a life out in public, rather than the hidden existence behind big modern cities like in China. Huts on the edge of roads, people and children milling about wherever you looked. In Laos, a child is the latest fashion accessory….. EVERYONE has one strapped to them! Young children, mothers, fathers, uncles, sisters, brothers, all helping out… no one escapes.
Back to wildlife chancing their luck on the roads, pot bellied pigs, chickens and chicks roaming the fields. Once again, Martin managed to increase his count on the scorecard and ticked off another ‘chicken hit’. This must be where the saying originated from as the chickens have a particularly kamikaze approach to crossing the road.
Having made a detour to a waterfall we never found, we gave Max’s Navaho Idiot skills, sorry, Indian skills another honing while we tried to find Pak Ou caves. Again, his navigation satellite must have had a knocking during the night, maybe he needs to brush up on his Girl Guide skills, as he was not on form! Too-ing and fro-ing we eventually found the beach side from where we could hire a boat to take us to the caves. Two big caves in the side of a limestone cliff, both full of buddha statues. In their hay day there were thousands of statues, many of them gold, but today the majority had been removed. The upper cave is pitch black so you need torches….guess what we didn’t take… :o) The boys did their best at lighting it up with all 3 camera flashes giving the effect of a strobe light at a party, so we saw only a little of it.
We made it to the outskirts of Luang Prabang by dusk. We found a restaurant with a riverside view and in our best sign language asked if we could camp on their drive. Not sure if the message had got through, we ordered food and beer and settled into the evening! We realised the message had got through when I saw two people on the roof of Tinfish. Wandering over to see what they were up to, following an anguished Martin, they had prepared our tent ready to put up. So I helped with the final manoeuvre and then showed them around the car, which is what I think they were angling for.
Luang Prabang is a sleepy town. With it being the second largest town in Laos, we were expecting a little more than 2 main roads and the market street we got. We spent a couple of days just relaxing, exploring the place and getting another rim welded on Tinfish :o( Martin hadn’t been feeling well on the first day, so we left him keeping the loo company while we hired bikes and went to visit some of the numerous Wats scattered around the town. The first one we cycled to had 2 monks entertaining anyone who passed by. Young guys, 16 and 18, who had already been in the monastery for 6 years.
The Wats are beautiful, some more than others, decorated with gold leaf, stencils and very life like statues. The most impressive one was the Wat Xieng Thong, the Golden City Monastery. This temple which epitomises in its low sweeping roofs the classic Luang Prabang style of temple architecture, and patronised by the monarchy right up until 1975. Next door to this is the red chapel, with detailed mosaics on the outside, showing rural village life. Another building in the courtyard houses the royal funeral carriage, another impressive way to be paraded round the town when it’s time!
We ventured round the night market and found BBQ food…WHOLE breasts of chicken for us to devour. It had been a while since we’d had any recognisable chunks of meat. We then ventured round the stalls selling handicrafts. The next day was admin, laundry and catching up on sleep day. Oh, and the odd foot massage. Max, Martin & I went to get pampered and squeal like girls as we had our feet tickled and pummelled by the professionals. I’m a girl and therefore allowed to, but the boys were so embarrassing! I’ve seen less wriggle from a slippery eel covered in soap suds than Max when the cream was put on his feet. Martin and I guessed it was a ploy to show his ‘more feminine side’ to the girl who was doing his massage, on the off chance she was single!
Knowing hill tribe treks were on offer in town, we went to talk to All Lao Service Co. Ltd to see if we could drive to some of the more remote villages. We felt we’d had our fair share of trekking on the trip so far, so decided 4 wheel drive was the order of the day. Dubious at first as we explained what we’d like to do, the outfit thought we were trying to get routes so we could start our own business up in Laos!!! A little extreme I thought, but after much persuasion we managed to convince them that we weren’t secret agents trying to steal their business, but just wanted to explore the area safely with our own car. We were expecting a normal tourist set up with handicraft shops ready to sell their goods to us, but this couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
We had to take a guide which was actually crucial. A young guy called Xong (Song) who had a real lease for life and adventure. He had a hand drawn map of the area and spoke 5 languages which you really need in these remoter places. He was fab. It started as a 4x4 adventure and as he'd never done it before really got into the swing of things, helping guide us up and down tracks. It seemed to be as much an adventure for him as it was us. He was a real godsend when we got to any village translating conversation for us, although it's always funny trying to talk to the people when neither of us has the others language! Driving up one road, we were greeted by locals with a piece of bamboo covered with a banana leaf lid. Enquiring as to what it may be, they showed us, which at first glance looked like a tube full of maggots. On further inspection, it was actually rice soaked in whiskey, obviously a little pick-me-up while working in the field. It was surprisingly nice.
The tracks on sections of the route were a little scary to say the least where the track was so small, we nearly had to scrape the side of the car to stay on the road as there was a sheer crumbling drop the other side! All exhilarating stuff :o) The tribes we met along the way were amazing. So friendly. They looked like normal Loa people, no real costumes so to speak which is how I normally envisage tribes and so welcoming..... that was once they'd got used to us! On the first day we passed a few villages, stopping at each to ‘talk’ to the locals and take photos. The children would come running out of their houses and dirt play pits to follow the cars down the road, and before we knew it we were surrounded by the whole village. Young and old were out to find the catch of the day, in the form of bugs… Holding a long bamboo stick with the end covered in sap, they’d wave it in the air in the trees and sooner of later get a catch for dinner later. We had a great day and before the sunlight faded, found a great camping spot on the top of a hill with a view of the whole valley below. We cracked opened the beers, toasted Martin’s ‘half time’ birthday and watched a beautiful sunset.
Up at the crack of dawn the next day, we were greeted with locals who came to check on their cows who had been grazing in the field we stayed in. We began admiring the knives that they had strapped round their waist and cheeky as he always is, Max offered to buy a knife off one of the men. Happy with their deal, they shook hands and Max went off with a smile on his face with his new bargain.
We met a young family on the road beginning their days work in the field. The father carrying a flint lock rifle. Xong asked him if Alex could fire it… with a leaf as a target on a tree, he aimed at arms length and fired - he did very well actually, managing to get two holes in the leaf and powder burns on his face! It was quite a loud bang and there was smoke everywhere after the shot. We carried on further into the hills and spent the morning driving through more villages. We passed a family on the road before reaching our final destination. Happy to partake in conversation with us, we were treated to a musical accolade by one of the older gentlemen who played his instrument and danced around the road! We then managed to squeeze nine of them into and onto our cars, with Max and myself clinging desperately on to not much on the roof of Tinfish, holding all of their bags of food and live chickens. “Just up the road to the next village” didn’t sound like a long way, but with the roads being very bumpy and steep, it was harder than we thought trying to stay on the roof!
Once our passengers had alighted, we miraculously had another one waiting. A lady who wanted to go to the village we were heading for. No problem, Martin sat on the roof of his car while I drove so her 20kg bag of rice could take prime position in the front seat and Max sat on the roof of Tinfish again (for his sins) making sure the rest of her bags arrived at the destination too. With the amount of luggage she had, we presumed she was moving house. Just up the road, was actually 30 minutes or so and proved to be a very uncomfortable ride for the boys, so much so that after Martin had nearly fallen off the car a couple of times, he changed positions and stood on the back of his car instead. We reached the village in one piece and dropped the lady off.
We then made our way through the village to find the chief to make sure it was OK to stay the night. As we drove through, we caused quite a stir with children running in all directions petrified of us. It was strange to see and hard to imagine, but I guess with two massive trucks driving through, containing giants (compared to them) speaking a foreign language, with white skin which they had never seen before, they had no idea what was happening. It must have been like the aliens were landing.
When we pointed cameras at them, they would run off and hide. It was really funny. They were curious though and that's the great thing about digital cameras, you can see the picture on the back, which they loved. You could see it was a real struggle for them, do they run and hide from these strangers or have a peek at the back of the camera to laugh at their friends who were on the back of it.
We also videoed them and the screen on our camera can be turned round so the person being videoed can see themselves. This worked a treat (which has with many people we've met over the 8 months) and it was a real battle for them to not stare and look at themselves or run away with fright!
The chief welcomed us warmly and we were allowed to camp at the top of the village on some barren land. Once we were settled, curiosity and whispers soon set in and we were surrounded by people wanting to take a look. Many of the adults came for a peek with little faces following behind. I wasn’t sure who was more scared, the scores of youngsters creeping up the hill or Martin being faced with all these children! The chief came up to socialise with us and Xong suggested that we give them a welcome drink…….out came the Chinese water! It’s awful and tastes like grappa I guess. They must have thought we were poisoning them! Still they drank it, albeit pulling a contorted face while the nectar went down. We then followed up with beer to help wash the taste away. Out came some nibbles for them to try, but one of the old codgers told the kids if they ate any of the biscuits we’d brought we'd take them back to the UK, so they wouldn't touch them to begin with! However, he was more than happy to have his fair share of the tipple.
We entertained the village for 3 hours by a variety of ways. We played Toy Story on one of the laptops; this was a real revelation for them as they’d never seen anything like it. Interestingly they laughed in all the right places and we had over 50 people, adults and children, glued to the screen for the whole film. Others were curious about the car, but would only look from the outside. I guess I can only compare it to when we were younger and fascinated about going into an airplane cockpit. All the gadgets, widgets, thingummyjigs and doodahs enticed some of the older children into the car eventually and that was it….. It wasn't a case of trying to get them in, it was how the hell do we get them out!!! At one point I think we had about 7 kids in the car.
It was an experience I was really hankering for as it’s actually been really hard to get remote for most of the trip. Sounds strange I guess, but each country has people with the same routine and land is land..... people utilise it. We got the radios out and tried teaching them how to use them. They didn’t really get the hang of it, but enjoyed it all the same, even if all we could say was ‘Hello’! We packed away the kit and realised that bits were missing from our cutlery bag. 2 steak knives, tongs and a salad serving set. At first we were concerned that the knives were gone as we didn’t want the children to hurt themselves, but then we remembered that these kids grow up playing with knives so at least they nicked something useful!
The next film of the evening was Pirates of the Caribbean and as they’d never seen the ocean before this caused quite a stir. We would have been entertaining all night had we not been lucky enough to be hosted by the chief. We were given dinner after we'd entertained the village. We entered the wooden hut, lit by oil lamps as there was no electricity. No windows, dogs and cats roaming freely around, shiny mud floor from years of trodden routine, seeds scattered with chickens pecking freely with one rooster having a particularly hard time finishing its cock-a-doodle-doo. Cobwebs were as much a part of the décor as the tools hanging from nails around the room; you would be forgiven for thinking you were in your garden shed. The only splash of colour was the animist shrine pinned to the wall, as the chief moonlighted as a shaman.
All the food was cooked on an open fire. We had sticky rice, which is different to the rice you get in the lowlands of Laos. It only grows higher in the mountains. Tastes the same really, but you pick a load up in your hand and mould it into a ball before eating it. We also had chicken (any bit it seemed except the meat) and the broth it had been cooked in with chunks of pumpkin to make a soup. Very basic food and these guys have that sort of thing daily. I guess they know no different. We were extremely privileged, as the chicken had been especially slaughtered for us. We returned to our tents to find 6 of the villagers guarding them with guns! Feeling safe in our surroundings we bid our guardsmen goodnight and zipped up our tents.
The next morning, we woke to most of the village checking we were up. After giving the chief a morning tipple of Speckled Hen, we asked him what he though and he said it tasted bitter! We had breakfast with him and his wife, sticky rice, pumpkin soup and pork fat. We visited the school which caused a lot of chaos as we photographed the children hard at work. We eventually left them in peace, but by now we were warmly welcomed and the children extremely excitable, so I think it must have been a while before class settled again. We retuned to the cars to be greeted by more villagers ready to wave us off, including children who were not in class. We pulled out the blow up globe we’ve been travelling with to show them where we came from and where we were now. Fronted by bemused faces, we asked Xong to translate, to find they had no idea the world was round! We left the globe with them hoping they would find it useful in class and bid a fond farewell to our new friends.
We picked up the lady who had hitched a ride with us the day before as we were heading in her direction. Bags strapped to the roof, her and Xong squeezed into the back seat of Tinfish, we headed back towards modern civilisation. Along the way we stopped at more villages and found more men with more knives. After a quick market session of all the knives in the village being put on display for us to have a look at, we finalised a deal and handed over our dollars. Alex was keen on the guns, so out came a variety for us to look at. They demonstrated the loading of the gun, pouring gun powder down the barrel followed by a handful of brown seeds. A paper cap was then placed underneath the hammer action, which when struck would ignite the gunpowder in the barrel. Another practice session was in order and Alex was cheered on by onlookers from the village as he fired the gun. Max then had a go and also managed to get his target. With another deal struck, both had bought a gun for souvenirs. We then carried on our journey, stopped for lunch to have a taster of the bugs all the villagers raved about and then dropped off our extra passenger safely at her home.
With the world becoming a smaller place, I’m not sure how long it will be before the village is subjected to the modern intrusion of generators, metal roads and regular tourists. All I know is that we were extremely lucky to have such a special experience, one that is very hard to find nowadays. We’d like to say a BIG thank you to Xong for being such an excellent guide and also to Chanhxay Lue from All Lao Service Co. Ltd, for trusting us and drawing us a map so we could visit his sisters village!
The next day we visited a local water fall near Luang Prabang where we splashed and played in the water like juveniles before heading towards our next destination, the Plain of Jars. Huge, stone jar-shaped vessels are spread over a large area in no particular pattern dating back from between 300BC and 300AD. Debate still reigns over origination, dates, hows and whys, but one postulation was that the jars were funerary monuments. Artefacts photographed by one early French archaeologist have since disappeared, leaving later researchers to question the validity of the work, with new claims that the jars were used for either rice storage or wine fermentation. Either way, it was a nice walk round a large field, filled with craters from the war, carefully negotiating the narrow pathway cleared from UXO (unexploded ordance).
We camped nearby and had a leisurely start to the day. Deciding to have a shower, as soon as I got my kit off, miraculously a farmer in a field appeared from no where and a motorcyclist sped by! We then drove to Vang Vieng. We had a very scary experience on the way as we travelled round a bend to find the road newly tarred. Literally. Martin came round the bend to see our car going sideways!!! Quite scary and we really thought we were going off the road. Luckily we hit gravel again which sent the car swerving in the opposite direction to the skid. Thankfully we didn’t veer off the road but the whole underneath was now covered in black tar, which inevitably got on us and everything else as soon as we got in or out of it.
We’d heard mixed reports about Vang Vieng, so decided to check it out for ourselves. It’s a dump. Backpacker central from what we could see with 2 main roads running through the town. Money’s being poured into the place, as tarmac roads are under construction but each restaurant (and there are many) had about 5 TV’s with a choice throughout the town of Friends, The Simpsons or a movie night. So conducive to conversation, we sat in silence distracted by whatever crap film was on while munching on our tea.
There are caves around the area to explore on the opposite side of the river, so thought we’d camp nearby one as it should be quieter. Having had a session of trying to clean some of the tar off the exposed bits of the car with fly spray (a trick Alex’s mum used to use on her children when they came back from the beach in Bahrain covered in tar!) we waded the cars through the river, and parked up in what seemed to be a large field. We’d just managed to put the tents up when the locals arrived with guns. The spokesman of the party told us it wasn’t safe and wanted us to move. Reluctant to pack everything away, Martin and Alex went to check out where they wanted us to move to. The village school. Placating our onlookers, we moved the cars ready for our early morning wake up call of playful school kids. Unfortunately, we didn’t even get that far. Fast asleep, we were rudely awoken by more men with guns. This time the police. We ignored them to begin with, but they were persistent so the boys got up to see what the problem was.
We were told we shouldn’t be camping but in a guesthouse. Declining their kind instructions as it was now 1 o’clock in the morning, we said we weren’t going anywhere. The leader of the pack then became far more officious than need be and demanded to see our passports. Obliging, the passports were handed over. Details were scribbled down on a scrap of paper before being told we would be allowed to stay as long as our passports were left in the safe hands of our officials, which we would be able to pick up in the morning. Declining their kind offer again, we told them they would not be keeping our passports and so they decided they wanted to search the cars. Trying hard not to laugh at this ludicrous suggestion, we realised we weren’t going to get any sleep until they had searched the vehicles. So, we negotiated they could indeed search the vehicles as long as they let us stay put and return our documents. A deal was struck.
Martin showed them a couple of boxes but after looking at the state of the back of his car I think they realised early on they wouldn’t be able to find much under all the chaos! Hoping they wouldn’t find the guns and knives we had purchased earlier in the week, they went straight to the back of our car and pulled out our spice box. Opening it up, they immediately focused on our herbs. Picking out a big tub, they opened it up and suggested to Alex ‘you smoke?’. Desperately wanting to retort, ‘well you could if you like but I’m not sure it would get you very high’, he reserved himself and told them it was oregano. After a quick smell, they put the box away and carried on looking round the car. Eventually they left us in peace. After what felt like 10 minutes, our 7am morning call arrived. Martin awoke to his worst nightmare - a schoolyard of children. I’ve never seen him get up, pack away his tent and move on so quick!
We visited the caves nearby. A steep climb up, you enter the wide mouth of the cavern before descending into the main hole. Venturing further into the cave, you turn past a big boulder to find yourself going deeper and deeper. The cave was much bigger than we expected and we lost ourselves for a couple of hours in the pitch black with just a failing head torch to lead the way, looking at the stalagmites and stalactites. We had worked up a sweat so after climbing back down to the lagoon we jumped in to cool down.
Set up for tourists, there were rope swings to play on so we took full advantage of pretending to be monkeys and climbed up the trees to swing about. The hours passed by so we decided to see if we could camp by the lagoon. Max in his fluent Lao went to ask permission, returning with the thumbs up. We went to buy food before returning to cook a sumptuous feast on an open fire of marinated tandoori chicken, potato salad, fresh salad and French stick.
We were woken early the next morning by locals constructing some sort of bamboo structure. However, as soon as we got up they stopped making a noise and went on to do quiet jobs. Why does that always happen? We ended up spending most of the day relaxing at the camp and then ventured down the road to another riverside play area. We spent a couple of hours flying off a high wire into the river and a much higher swing. Our immortal friend Max was beginning to show signs of his age (and I’d like to point out he’s by far the youngest player – mentally by a long, long way) with only being able to manage a couple of high swings before retiring to the spectators corner in the fear of damaging himself further. Exhausted after our games afternoon we decided to stay another night at our lagoon campsite. Another feast ensued and we went to bed with satisfied, swollen tummies.
The following day took us to Laos’ capital, Vientiane. There’s not much to do here really, with one site 30km away near the border which we had planned to see just before crossing over into Thailand. Tinfish went into Toyota for the 50,000km service, so we mulled around the town for a couple of days while the car was being fixed. With room getting tighter and tighter in the car, it was nearly bursting at the seems with all the little tit bits we keep buying, so I decided to ship some cold weather gear home to make more room. Max did the same, as he was preparing to fly back to the UK for work via Sydney to see a friend. With already bringing out much more than he should, we didn’t think even Max would be able to charm and sweet talk an extra 40kgs through the airline! Especially as he had plans to keep shopping.
We eventually picked up Tinfish, managed to miss the only site we had planned to see and made a dash to the border. Opening up my passport, I realised that we had actually outstayed our welcome and the visa expiry date was clearly stamped 10th April. Oops. We headed straight to customs. Well, look innocent, smile sweetly and they’ll never notice I thought to myself. We stamped the cars first with no problems then continued to immigration. Max and I went through as foot passengers, while Alex and Martin took the cars through. We handed over our passports and without a glimmer of concern, the official stamped us out of the country. No problem.
The boys had been gone a while, wondering what bureaucracy they were having to endure with the cars we suddenly caught a glimpse of them being escorted into an office by an official. They obviously hadn’t looked innocent enough and had been hauled over by the immigration cops for outstaying their welcome!! Double oops. With one officer saying they needed to pay a fine of $10 and the next saying it should be $20, they obviously didn’t have a clue or were trying to pull a fast one. Martin suggested they pay the fine but Alex was having none of it. They were told they had to go back to Vientiane to get an extension to the visa before they would be allowed to leave the country. The documents were handed back as they left the office for Vientiane. As soon as they were outside, Alex headed straight for the lady who stamped our passports. Martin followed in his tailwind not wanting to be left behind and the next thing Max and I knew was them walking hurriedly towards us telling us to get in the cars quickly so we could leave the country. Those of you who are under the illusion that it’s always me who defies authority are sorely mistaken :o)
We loved our time in Laos and it’s definitely a place I would recommend people to visit. It still has the laid back feel of an undeveloped country, with tourism on the increase but not in your face. How long it will stay like that with main roads being built from Bangkok through to Beijing is anyone’s guess, but with the friendly faces that greet you wherever you go, it’s definitely a must see. Apparently, the French had a saying when they were controlling the area which I think contrasts the Vietnamese's China like industriousness with their neighbours more supine attitudes very well; the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Laotians listen to it grow.
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|Comment from Ant|
|so there is a heaven on Earth - it sounds blissful|
shame their first introduction to Western society was Toy Story and Speckled Hen!
mind you, that sounds the perfect Sunday afternoon to me...
thanks for the great diary entries, keep 'em up!
|09 May 2006 @ 14:10:50|