Happy Laos New Year!!

On our way back to our plush $15 a-night room, after our two day trek, all we could think about was a cold shower and the king of luxuries; AC.
All our dreams and prayers were answered for us as we entered Luang Prabang; we noticed a woman at the roadside with a big drum of water besides her and a pan in her hand. Old rusty (our minibus) slowed right down for some reason, and as we were about to pass her Kong yelled out ‘Falang! Falang!’ and pointed to our open passenger window. Within seconds our sweat and dirt stained bodies were now soaked in cool water; Laos New Year had begun.
After 10 minutes of doing drive-by soakings of school kids on push bikes with the dregs of our drinking water, we retreated into the hotel and had a well-earned collapse.
The next morning we left Luang Prabang for the town of Vang Vieng in a minibus on a 6 hour terrifying mountaintop rollercoaster ride. We try not to complain too much or judge people’s way of life here in Asia but one thing we despise is the way they drive. Common sense would tell you not to overtake a bus with a blind-bend up ahead and a 600ft drop into a jungle to the left of you but not here in Asia! Simply crazy on the roads.
We arrived in Vang Vieng still in one piece so we plonked down our bags in the closest guesthouse and practically stormed into town looking for some good grub and that relaxed hippy feel that the town was fabled for.

The islands of Vang Vieng
Opening our menus we were greeted with the options of Happy Shakes, Happy Pizzas, Happy Pancakes etc with a choice of either weed, magic mushrooms or opium. We were a little too hungry to go for these options.
On our quest for the ‘relaxed hippy feel’ we realised that clearly times have changed. The town is now over developed (and still getting bigger) and that chilled-out vibe has been replaced by a drug-fuelled and paranoid town over-ran by drunk, loud, boisterous, teenage gap year kids walking around half cut and half dressed, covered in paint with a distant stare to their eyes. The locals call them ‘the zombies’.
That evening we found the perfect bungalow on the very edge of town with a bed that faced an all glass wall overlooking nothing but farmland and the limestone mountains that surround Vang Vieng.

Motorbikes go over this bridge too!
The next day we moved in and spent most of the day in our hammocks enjoying the view, but not enjoying the breezeless 36 degree heat. That night, through our window, we were treated to a spectacular thunderstorm that went on for hours. It did borderline scary, but neither of us were going to admit that.

How lardy-dar

The following morning we set out to do the thing Vang Vieng is famous for; Tubing. Basically, you get on a tractor inner tube and float down 3km of soothingly slow river with limestone cliffs towering above you. If you do it sensibly i.e. don’t take magic mushrooms or opium, and don’t drink too many Lao Lao buckets (nearly a whole bottle of 45% whiskey and maybe half a can of coke to make up the rest) you will assuredly get to the finish line safe and sound.

Psyching up for the water with a bucket of Lao Lao and a dash of cola

During the Lao New Year two people reportedly died on the river possibly from drowning or possibly from jumping in head-first where the water level is at about a foot (well, it is the end of dry season) but you can be damn sure they weren’t sober. Last year 86 Falangs died this way on the river.

I just did a pee pee
After three days we decided it was time to move onto Laos’ capital Vientiane to enjoy the up and coming New Year in a more civilised location.
Our first night in the capital was a rare treat. We had found a Belgian bar with a fine selection of imported classics such as Kwak and Bachus. Two hours, four drinks and $26 later, and with a pleasant but expensive buzz, we headed out onto the street to find the same old Laos fare for dinner.
We arrived in Vientiane on 13th April and the next day was the official start of the New Year when people visit the local Wat to bless the Buddha and each other. It was also the beginning of solid hardcore water fights. The first day was a great experience; walking the streets with water guns, but to be honest we didn’t stand a chance as all of the locals had hoses or pick-up trucks with ten people on the back with buckets and water bombs. Being Falangs we were high on the hit list.

Ready for action
With all of the beer and waterfights one would expect to see altercations and aggression but that is not the Lao psyche so for the four days it was all good natured. 
There was one moment of near riot when five Japanese men turned up drunk in a pick-up truck (even the driver) and started soaking everyone that passed the café we were eating in, including pregnant women, old ladies and people going to the temple to worship. Jen got up to tell them off and to calm down but they ignored her, ten minutes later when they got out of hand Gareth, two falangs and a local Lao got up to angrily confront them and they soon put their tales between their legs and retreated back to their truck. Apart from this it was all very peaceful and friendly.
Beerlao had set up a beer tent and stage with a sprinkler system inside to keep the crowd constantly wet while listening to club songs and (terrible) Laos music. The constant wetness was a blessing after the ridiculous heat but it also made us a little homesick. England, don’t take the rain for granted.

Early in the day – within an hour it was PACKED
Day two of the four day celebration was exactly the same as day one but with less enthusiasm from us, day three was a pain in the arse and day four was just a nightmare. We would have spent the day at the hotel if our room had a window but alas it didn’t, so once again we found ourselves on the street dodging kids with water guns and adults with hoses.
After six days in the capital we had had enough so we got onto a bus to a place called Tha Khek to the south, a journey taking five hours, which turned out to be close to torture…

Hill-Tribe Trekking (Part 2)

After leaving the village it was another two hours of 60 degree inclines before we reached our homestay. After the quite emotional introduction to the first village, by the time we arrived at our final destination we were too exhausted to really notice its charms. In comparison to the first Hmong village (Hmong are a hilltop tribe found throughout the mountains of Laos, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam) this was more like a town; everything we’d seen two hours earlier but on a much larger scale. Kong explained that there were actually two tribes, Khmu and Hmong, 50ft apart. The villages were called Par-pm and Mor-gomg, both speaking their own languages e.g. Hello in Par-pm was Nojon, and in Mor-gomg was Smileu .

Over-looking the two villages

We were taken to our homestay which was a small guesthouse opposite the local shop (it sold Coke, torches, crackers and, of course, the ubiquitous Beerlao). Our sleeping quarters included a mattress, a bed sheet and pillows, quite a luxury considering the locals sleep on wooden floors; the whole family together.

Our bed

Kong put dinner on to cook then he escorted us around the villages. We noticed a woman carrying head sized watermelons on her back and we couldn’t resist! After Kong took the watermelon back to our homestay we continued the tour.

Although we were still a little achey we didn’t mind the few inclines and muddy surfaces, it is, after all, a way of life for those living in these mountain villages. We walked past the local showers (we decided to put the camera away at this point); women wearing sarongs and pouring buckets of cold water over theirs and their children’s heads. Surprisingly there were no men at the showers and we never did ask why.

We can’t show you ladies in the shower so here is a nice picture of us.

One of the larger buildings stood atop a hill overlooking the villages, Kong explained that this was the local school which was attended by the children in the two villages and the Hmong village two hours away. We had brought with us a selection of books we had bought at a literacy project in Lunag Prabang called Big Brother Mouse and gave these books to the school. This initiative began in 2006 when books were very rarely published in Lao, even now lots of children have never read a book other than their own school textbooks. Big Brother Mouse organise book parties in rural villages which consist of a few hours of games, talking about books, refreshments and an art lesson then they give every child a free book that could be the first book they have ever owned. If you are interested in finding out how you could get involved then check out http://www.bigbrothermouse.com and if you happen to be in Luang Prabang then go along to one of their conversational English sessions and sit with a local to help with their English; we did, and now there are about four Laos with a distinctly Scouse English accent…

The local school

By the time we got back to the guesthouse it was fairly dark and Kong told us that he needed to go to the local official to inform him of our presence in the village but only once we had been fed. Sitting outside our hut, dinner was served and it consisted of a pile of rice and a plate of boiled veggies, or should I say some god-damned tasty rice and veg. So simple and you could taste the lack of electrical appliance. As the village had no electricity we were given a gas-light by our host while we ate.

Dindins and our maleria tablets

When it was obvious that we had finished our hostess came and sat with us, by this time Kong had left us, so we thought it would be an opportune moment to get out the Lao phrasebook. Within no time we realised that she didn’t even speak Lao! Apparently this is quite common as slightly over half of the population actually speak the language. It didn’t take long for the children to find the ‘Falang’ (the endearing name given to caucasian foreigners) and be mesmerised by our fork-knife-spoon sets. We couldn’t eat the whole watermelon so we shared it out to the children and our hostess.

Kong cutting up the watermelon. Those kids look excited.

Hello Falang!

Lying in bed our senses were heightened by the sounds of snorting pigs, howling dogs, clicking crickets, singing geckos, and a lone gun shot in the distance.

Day 2
This day was all about kayaking. We left the village bright and early and took the hour and a half shortcut to the pick-up point.

The route took us along a river which flowed into the Mekong. The journey took approximately 3 hours with the occasional stop at sandy banks.

We are actually brilliant
Gareth! You’re doing it wrong!
A big cliff
Looking out to the Mekong

The two days were fantastic and we would recommend to anyone visiting Laos to do a trip like this. We went with Phone Tours and you can find them on the main road in Luang Prabang. Ask for King Kong.

Hill-Tribe Trekking (Part 1)

Jen’s riverboat travel-sickness played a part in our hotel choice upon our arrival to Luang Prabang; Gareth chose the first one he found once we had climbed the bank of the near depleted waters of the Mekong. The hotel was slightly above our price range but we wanted a little comfort in order to relax our newly tattooed, travel-worn bodies. It also helped that Gareth may have picked up a stomach bug after eating a not-so-appetizing tuna sandwich.
Our ever-so-charming hotel and ‘beach’ front
Luang Prabang was just what we needed. UNESCO declared this city a world heritage site in 1995 due to its cultural significance. The city centre is dotted with French colonial buildings spliced with an Indochinese influence and a stunning Wat (a Buddhist temple) made from gold and emerald. We particularly loved the French wine shops, filled top to toe with, you guessed it, wine, and we sat for hours people-watching and sipping the second cheapest wine on the menu.
We could have stayed in this most magical city for days but we were looking for adventure. We decided to book ourselves onto a two-day hill-tribe trek followed by kayaking down the Mekong River. We got our names down first and fast, and second and last, as it delightfully turned out to be. When we arrived in the morning at our pick-up point we were greeted by our guide who introduced himself as King Kong (real name Kong). He informed us it would be just him and us for the whole trip.
We were hustled into a black rusty van, which looked like the terrorists van from Back to the Future. The drive to our drop-off point was just a typical Laos ride mainly consisting of the heart-in-mouth Asian habit of over-taking on bends.
We were dropped off at the bottom of our mountain and used the flat-ish terrain to get to know our guide Kong. He spoke good English and was able to talk to us about anything we asked.
Goodbye civilisation!
After about an hour and a half we could hear children laughing and two little heads, aged about 2 and 4, popped up over a hill we were walking besides. Kong told them not to be shy and to say hello but that made them all the more coy. Eventually their mum stood beside them talking to Kong. He translated that she had asked if we wanted to see her house. We walked up towards her farmstead and saw the small wooden hut her family called home for six months of the year. The family consisted of the wife, husband, two children and an uncle, and they spent their time growing and harvesting hops. We were handed round woven mats to sit on while we rested and talked, although Gareth couldn’t rest too much having sat on an ant hill.
Having a much needed rest from the 36 degree sun
Gareth taking a well deserved break from his photographer duties
As we were leaving we gave the boys an exercise book and pencil each and told them they could use it to draw pictures. They seemed really pleased and were probably too young to have seen an exercise book before so it was quite a novelty for them.
We continued on for another hour and then had lunch sat overlooking a scorched field. On our trip along the Mekong we saw blackened and burning mountainsides a-plenty. Farmers in Laos burn their land like this as a traditional method of crop rotation. This method is known as Slash and Burn and is considered bad practice due to the impact this has on the environment; vast numbers of mature trees and wildlife are destroyed resulting in severe deforestation. Flights in the area have also been cancelled due to the thick smoke.
View out to burnt field 
After lunch we progressed slowly but surely uphill, crossing streams, which Kong would hop over like a mountain goat, Gareth would generally walk through with his waterproof boots and Jen would fall into due to her slightly inappropriate Reeboks.
Yes, it is quite likely that Jen fell into that stream 
After five hours we turned what could be described as a corner and right there out of nowhere was a village. Vegetable patches surrounded by rickety fences, sturdy wooden huts surrounded by chickens and pigs, children screaming and laughing simultaneously, unstable bridges that had to be walked across down the middle otherwise the planks would lift and you would slip into the stream 6ft below. We walked towards a shaded spot where there was a large tree stump for a table and benches encircling it. As we sat and caught our breath a few curious women approached, the men were working the fields. One elderly woman sold us simple handmade embroidered bracelets, another lady, who we realised was deaf, stood near to us, occasionally smiling at us then concentrating her smiles on her newborn.
Cute little piggies

A Hmong Tribe Hut
During a short tour of the village we met a friend of Kong’s. They joked and chatted together for a couple of minutes, he looked young, like a teenager, but he held himself with the confidence of a man. Kong later told us that he has two children already. Him and his wife were married at 14 and 12 respectively, and they’ve been married for two years.
A Hmong tribesman – note the gun across his back 
After our tour we were off to our village for the night. Earlier Kong had pointed to a dirt track on a mountain-top to our right which we were actually walking away from and mentioned to us that we were heading there. By this point we were soaked in our own sweat and couldn’t feel our feet so this news wasn’t received well. Gareth even told Kong that he must be lying. Kong wasn’t lying.
To be continued…
See you next time!

The Mighty Mekong – Our Two Day Voyage

Starting from the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong River runs through China‘s Yunnan province, BurmaLaosThailandCambodia and ends in Vietnam. The Mekong, in essence, is the source of all life in South East Asia.

We crossed the Mekong when we left Thailand and entered Laos, getting from one bank to the other by long-tail boat. We then took a two day journey down the Mekong starting in the border town of Huoay Xia, travelling 6 hours then staying the night in a town called Pak Beng and finally, the next day, arriving at the city of Luang Prabang after another 6 hour journey down the Mekong river.

Leaving Thailand, entering Laos