Laos by boat

With Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand I spent a considerable amount of time plotting my itinerary, which involved tricky decisions about which provinces to visit, which ‘must see&…

Source: Laos by boat

Laos by boat

 

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With Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand I spent a considerable amount of time plotting my itinerary, which involved tricky decisions about which provinces to visit, which ‘must see’ things to include etc. all within the confines of visa restrictions.

With Laos my itinerary was determined by what my wounded body would allow me to do. Sadly, on crossing the border I had to forego the famous Gibbon Experience: two adrenaline-filled days traversing the jungle canopy on ziplines and sleeping in a tree house surrounded by gibbons. Instead I embarked on two-day boat ride down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang and treated myself to a superior cruise with just 8 people in a lovely wooden boat as opposed to the 70-80 people crammed onto the public boat.

Good decision! The boat was very comfortable, crew delightful and the plentiful regional food delicious. My fellow travellers included a couple who work for the Arts Council so we had lots to talk about, including our mutual respect for my beloved Tricycle Theatre and several mutual colleagues.

The Mekong is a narrower river than the Irrawaddy (my trip from Mandalay to Bagan) and there is more life on the riverbank. Over the course of two days we travelled 310km enjoying National Geographic scenery; mountains, farmland, hillside villages and children playing or fishing on the riverbank. There were also lots of water buffalo bathing and grazing – roaming free as farmers replace them with machines.

One of our stops along the river was to visit a remote Khmu village. The Khmu are the largest minority ethnic group in northern Laos. Agriculturalists who practice animism, they live and work communally storing rice in elevated buildings with unusual mice traps and apparently practicing magic. The villagers were clearly very poor and dint loom all that happy with their lot.

By contrast, further downriver we stopped off at a Maung village where they make Lao Khao (a.k.a. Moonshine) from fermented sticky rice. We watched the process then drank the blow-your-head-off result. This villages were very different from the Khmus. They were better off, sunnier and more welcoming, inviting us to play boules – a throw back to French colonisation, and eat with them. I reckon the air is filled with whisky vapours, making everyone permanently high.

We docked in Luang Prabang at sunset on Easter Day and I had my first glimpse of this sophisticated town with tourists wearing chinos and polo shirts!

Visiting the charming night market I was struck by how quiet the market was and how gentle the female stall holders were – quite a contrast to the noisy, more commercially-minded Thais. Even the night food street, heaving with diners was less frenetic than in other places…….. oh and the fish baked in lemon grass was sublime.

Historic Luang Prabang is perfect respite for weary travellers. It offers lovely treelined streets filled with magnolia and bougainvillea, artisan shops and cafes. It also has a fabulous palace and several beautiful temples. In Laos the structures are made of wood with dramatic sloping roofs sweeping almost to ground. Typically painted red or black with gold writings and carvings many are covered in intricate glass mosaics making them real works of art.

I haven’t exactly been burning the candle both ends but in LP I went to a open air screening of ‘Chang’ a silent movie made in 1925 with incredible live footage of villagers being chased by tigers, marauding elephants, monkeys up to monkey business and live folk music. The film went missing for 60 years and there is no record of the equipment used to get such amazing footage. David Attenborough would be mightily impressed. I met a mice bunch of people there and shared a few beers.
I also went to a traditional story telling theatre to hear legends of Luang Prabang; how Phu Si hill got its name and the shaping of the two mountains, to the accompaniment of an evocative bamboo instrument called a Khene. It’s been decades since anyone has told me a ‘Once upon a time’ and it was engrossing.

My only excursion outside the city was to Tat Kuang Si waterfall deep in a forest. The drive was through roads with teak trees as far as the eye could see and on arrival I came face to face with Moon Bears (of which no mention in the guidebook). They are friendly enough when behind a fence but, no surprises, they can be quite vicious.

I’m a bit sceptical of must-see waterfalls. Like caves, every major province in every country boast stunning examples of both but in reality they usually disappoint. Tat Kuang Si was the exception. The water flows over limestone , the particles collecting calcium carbonate which reflects the light making the water shimmer a chalky turquoise blue. Unable to get my dressing wet (knee wound became infected and I had to get a course of antibiotics from the doctor), I couldn’t swim in the natural pools but I enjoyed watching youngsters diving off high board taking selfies.

Before leaving LP I crossed the rickety bamboo bridge linking the north and south of the town and took a short stroll. Goodness knows how, but I managed to loose my wallet. Honestly, the two things you tell your kids not to do is ride a motorbike and loose their money. Well in true gap-year style I managed to screw up on both within a week!

We are heading into low season now so everywhere is a bit less crowded which is nice, but it continues to be extremely hot and hazy.

The next leg of my journey towards the Vietnam border was by Sorngtaaou (half minivan/half Tuk Tuk). I wasn’t expecting a 3:5 hour journey bumping along on a bench with my leg hanging out the back but once again the scenery was spectacular, mainly following the course of the Nam Ou river so the time passed quickly. My destination was the delightful village of Nong Khiaw, a starting point for travellers travelling north, nestled along the banks of the river.

Simple boats transport locals and intrepid travellers up river to Nuang Ngoi, another delightful stop-over village and thus on to Nuang Khua, the final stop before the border. I was fortunate to be in a boat with 5 locals who generously shared their lunch of rice, beef and fiery sauce with me in exchange for crisps and nuts. One of our party was carrying a sack which he kept a tight hold on the whole way. I was told it contained a horn but of what animal I didn’t dare ask.

The river was scattered with locals harpoon fishing or prospecting for gold, children swimming and playing naked, strange pink buffalo mooching around and all against a backdrop of soaring karst mountains and azure blue skies. The only negative was a couple of areas of deforestation to make way for hydroelectric stations being built with Chinese investment. Enough said.

We had to keep shifting side to balance the boat as we navigated rapids and boulders. Luckily we had an expert at the helm and it was exhilarating. Not so another boat with 18 people packed in. They hit a rock which gouged a hole in the side and had had to bail out quick smart. Stranded on the rocks, we took half of them in out boat and arranged for another boat to come and collect the others. At one point I got completely drenched but apart from that it was yet another stunning journey.

Nuang Khau was a bit of a dump, providing the only below-par room I stayed in in Laos. There was also a huge wedding to which the whole community had been invited so there was nowhere to eat apart from a noodle stall where randomly I met two Frenchmen my age who I subsequently crossed the border with. Every cloud has a silver lining n’est ce pas?

So that was it for Laos. Just 8 days travelling in a ‘V’ shape from west to east. I enjoyed Luang Prabang and I absolutely loved travelling along the Mekong and the Nam Ou, visiting places off the tourist trail and meeting little known ethnic minorities. To be honest I didn’t want to go to Vientiane or Vang Vieng anyway, so apart from the frustration of being semi-immobile I felt I’d had an authentic experience of the country.

Next up Vietnam which is going to be SO different.

With Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand I spent a considerable amount of time plotting my itinerary, which involved tricky decisions about which provinces to visit, which ‘must see’ things to include etc. all within the confines of visa restrictions.

With Laos my itinerary was determined by what my wounded body would allow me to do. Sadly, on crossing the border I had to forego the famous Gibbon Experience: two adrenaline-filled days traversing the jungle canopy on ziplines and sleeping in a tree house surrounded by gibbons. Instead I embarked on two-day boat ride down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang and treated myself to a superior cruise with just 8 people in a lovely wooden boat as opposed to the 70-80 people crammed onto the public boat.

Good decision! The boat was very comfortable, crew delightful and the plentiful regional food delicious. My fellow travellers included a couple who work for the Arts Council so we had lots to talk about, including our mutual respect for my beloved Tricycle Theatre and several mutual colleagues.

The Mekong is a narrower river than the Irrawaddy (my trip from Mandalay to Bagan) and there is more life on the riverbank. Over the course of two days we travelled 310km enjoying National Geographic scenery; mountains, farmland, hillside villages and children playing or fishing on the riverbank. There were also lots of water buffalo bathing and grazing – roaming free as farmers replace them with machines.

One of our stops along the river was to visit a remote Khmu village. The Khmu are the largest minority ethnic group in northern Laos. Agriculturalists who practice animism, they live and work communally storing rice in elevated buildings with unusual mice traps and apparently practicing magic. The villagers were clearly very poor and dint loom all that happy with their lot.

By contrast, further downriver we stopped off at a Maung village where they make Lao Khao (a.k.a. Moonshine) from fermented sticky rice. We watched the process then drank the blow-your-head-off result. This villages were very different from the Khmus. They were better off, sunnier and more welcoming, inviting us to play boules – a throw back to French colonisation, and eat with them. I reckon the air is filled with whisky vapours, making everyone permanently high.

We docked in Luang Prabang at sunset on Easter Day and I had my first glimpse of this sophisticated town with tourists wearing chinos and polo shirts!

Visiting the charming night market I was struck by how quiet the market was and how gentle the female stall holders were – quite a contrast to the noisy, more commercially-minded Thais. Even the night food street, heaving with diners was less frenetic than in other places…….. oh and the fish baked in lemon grass was sublime.

Historic Luang Prabang is perfect respite for weary travellers. It offers lovely treelined streets filled with magnolia and bougainvillea, artisan shops and cafes. It also has a fabulous palace and several beautiful temples. In Laos the structures are made of wood with dramatic sloping roofs sweeping almost to ground. Typically painted red or black with gold writings and carvings many are covered in intricate glass mosaics making them real works of art.

I haven’t exactly been burning the candle both ends but in LP I went to a open air screening of ‘Chang’ a silent movie made in 1925 with incredible live footage of villagers being chased by tigers, marauding elephants, monkeys up to monkey business and live folk music. The film went missing for 60 years and there is no record of the equipment used to get such amazing footage. David Attenborough would be mightily impressed. I met a mice bunch of people there and shared a few beers.
I also went to a traditional story telling theatre to hear legends of Luang Prabang; how Phu Si hill got its name and the shaping of the two mountains, to the accompaniment of an evocative bamboo instrument called a Khene. It’s been decades since anyone has told me a ‘Once upon a time’ and it was engrossing.

My only excursion outside the city was to Tat Kuang Si waterfall deep in a forest. The drive was through roads with teak trees as far as the eye could see and on arrival I came face to face with Moon Bears (of which no mention in the guidebook). They are friendly enough when behind a fence but, no surprises, they can be quite vicious.

I’m a bit sceptical of must-see waterfalls. Like caves, every major province in every country boast stunning examples of both but in reality they usually disappoint. Tat Kuang Si was the exception. The water flows over limestone , the particles collecting calcium carbonate which reflects the light making the water shimmer a chalky turquoise blue. Unable to get my dressing wet (knee wound became infected and I had to get a course of antibiotics from the doctor), I couldn’t swim in the natural pools but I enjoyed watching youngsters diving off high board taking selfies.

Before leaving LP I crossed the rickety bamboo bridge linking the north and south of the town and took a short stroll. Goodness knows how, but I managed to loose my wallet. Honestly, the two things you tell your kids not to do is ride a motorbike and loose their money. Well in true gap-year style I managed to screw up on both within a week!

We are heading into low season now so everywhere is a bit less crowded which is nice, but it continues to be extremely hot and hazy.

The next leg of my journey towards the Vietnam border was by Sorngtaaou (half minivan/half Tuk Tuk). I wasn’t expecting a 3:5 hour journey bumping along on a bench with my leg hanging out the back but once again the scenery was spectacular, mainly following the course of the Nam Ou river so the time passed quickly. My destination was the delightful village of Nong Khiaw, a starting point for travellers travelling north, nestled along the banks of the river.

Simple boats transport locals and intrepid travellers up river to Nuang Ngoi, another delightful stop-over village and thus on to Nuang Khua, the final stop before the border. I was fortunate to be in a boat with 5 locals who generously shared their lunch of rice, beef and fiery sauce with me in exchange for crisps and nuts. One of our party was carrying a sack which he kept a tight hold on the whole way. I was told it contained a horn but of what animal I didn’t dare ask.

The river was scattered with locals harpoon fishing or prospecting for gold, children swimming and playing naked, strange pink buffalo mooching around and all against a backdrop of soaring karst mountains and azure blue skies. The only negative was a couple of areas of deforestation to make way for hydroelectric stations being built with Chinese investment. Enough said.

We had to keep shifting side to balance the boat as we navigated rapids and boulders. Luckily we had an expert at the helm and it was exhilarating. Not so another boat with 18 people packed in. They hit a rock which gouged a hole in the side and had had to bail out quick smart. Stranded on the rocks, we took half of them in out boat and arranged for another boat to come and collect the others. At one point I got completely drenched but apart from that it was yet another stunning journey.

Nuang Khau was a bit of a dump, providing the only below-par room I stayed in in Laos. There was also a huge wedding to which the whole community had been invited so there was nowhere to eat apart from a noodle stall where randomly I met two Frenchmen my age who I subsequently crossed the border with. Every cloud has a silver lining n’est ce pas?

So that was it for Laos. Just 8 days travelling in a ‘V’ shape from west to east. I enjoyed Luang Prabang and I absolutely loved travelling along the Mekong and the Nam Ou, visiting places off the tourist trail and meeting little known ethnic minorities. To be honest I didn’t want to go to Vientiane or Vang Vieng anyway, so apart from the frustration of being semi-immobile I felt I’d had an authentic experience of the country.

 

Next up Vietnam which is going to be SO different.

Time for Thailand

Crossing the border from Cambodia into Thailand was quite a palaver. There is an extensive no man’s land on either side, huge queues at passport control (despite not needed a visa) and then chaos finding the onward bus to Bangkok to match the colour of sticker id been allocated. Many hot hours later I arrived in the centre of Bangkok and after the tranquility of sleepy Battambong felt like I’d landed on another planet. Khau San Road is a neon lit, music pumping, scantily clad waitress luring, tourist trap. Luckily I was met by a friend of my brand new son-in-law who took me for dinner and drove me to my hotel.

Thankfully the hotel I had chosen in the historic quarter was quiet with a pleasant courtyard and a pretty pond full of humungous carp. The friendly staff gave me a dark blue cold drink which is made from the Butterfly Pea flower. It’s delicious and apparently good for maintaining healthy eyes (very important to us macular degeneration suffering Greenwoods), but despite searching for it all over the city I couldn’t find anywhere to buy it.

I decided to limit my sightseeing to the historic quarter which covers the amazing Royal Palace (puts Mandalay & Phnom Penh in the shade); Wat Pho (gives the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon a run for is money), the Nam Chao Phyara river throbbing with water-traffic and the obligatory sunset on Golden Mount.

Some less touristy things I did were to visit the night flower market which was a riot of colours and unbelievably cheap. As it happened to coincide with Mother’s Day in the UK I felt I should give someone a gift so bought the sweet receptionist at my hotel an orchid for about 50p; to stroll through a shopping mall bursting with bolts of silk of every colour and pattern, ending up at a Bangkok’s main Sikh Temple when I was invited to join the congregation for a simple lunch, sitting on the floor in silence; to discover ASEAN cultural centre and the Siam Museum which satisfied my thirst for knowledge of SEAsia and Thailand without being too taxing.

There’s an irritating scam in Bangkok whereby TukTuk drivers give you false information. For example I was told Golden Mount was closed on Sundays and that I should go with this man to some laughing Buddha and again I was told it would cost me £25 to take a boat upstream because there were no public boats until 4pm (it was 10am), whereas I found the public pier and a ticket for 25p. Beware!

 

I’m trying to avoid airports if I possibly can but I decided to fly to Chiang Mai because after the heat of Bangkok and two months in the road I felt I needed a bit of a rest, plus bizarrely its cheaper than the bus or the train. In a flash I was checking into Riverside House which was to be my home for a whole week. Huge excitement when I discovered I had a massive bed, a view of the garden and pool and best of all a wardrobe into which i could finally out my clothes.

Apart from being an epicentre for mosquitos, Chiang Mai is a charming town/small city with an impressive moat and city walls from behind which the Lanna kings ruled northern Thailand from the 13-15 century. With hanging lanterns, municipal flowers, ‘walking’ street filled with local crafts and tons of good places to eat, CM is perfect for recharging the batteries. I whiled away the week visiting the city sights in the morning and reading by the pool in the afternoon as the thermometer climbed to 39 degrees in an unusual heatwave.

The only down side to where I was staying was that it didn’t have any nightlife which either meant very early bed or making my own entertainment. Here’s how I occupied myself: A couple of evenings wandering round the markets and grabbing street food, a couple of yoga classes (maybe one day I’ll get to enjoy it), a manicure and pedicure, cycling round town seeing all the temples lit up, an NGO dance and fashion show for the Shan people who have crossed the border from Myanmar and need help integrating. It was a bit chaotic with long gaps between acts and horror of horrors, there was no ‘ask’. It was as much as I could do to stop the fundraiser in me from jumping up and doing i for them.

As you can imagine by now I’m a bit of an expert of local markets. Chiang Mai’s most famous market is called Warorot. My mission was to find Butterfly Pea and a pair of XXL white cotton knickers (white dress requiring the latter) both of which turned out to be impossible – Oh for M&S. However, after some hilarious charades and pictograms I found a bath plug in a plumbers merchants so at last I’m able to soak my clothes thus avoiding laundries shrinking, losing or turning whites the colours of the rainbow.

Chiang Mai gave me my first exposure to the H’mong tribe. I particularly like their clothes and accessories. The older women wear bright colours and heavy weaves typically in raw cotton or linen using geometric patterns and patchwork, the young less so, other than back in their villages.

The other thing I enjoyed was ‘monk chat’. Certain temples, of which there are dozens, advertise the opportunity to sit under a tree and chat to a monk. I had been fortunate enough to witness the service when a novice monk is ordained. He goes from processing round the temple wearing white and collecting then distributing coins to approaching the abbot on his knees, accepting the saffron robe and alms-bowl, retreating on his knees and returning clad in his new garments, all to constant chanting. His proud family were watching, mother with tears in her eyes, father clutching wads of money. It was a very spiritual experience.

I also stumbled upon what I thought was a marriage but turned out to be a funeral (should have twigged as everyone was dressed in white), for a senior abbot complete with dragons and a live band playing great traditional music. Being ever curious I made my way round the back of the temple and found myself immersed in crowd of people distributing food and drink and all too keen to encourage me to join in. It always pays to be a bit nosy because you never know what delights you may find!

I therefore used my chat-time to find out more about Buddhist rituals and way of life generally, to which I find myself increasingly drawn.

I had one day of feeling completely wiped out; headache, tired limbs, nausea, not wanting to eat. I reckoned it was heat exhaustion so I stocked up on rehydration tablets and slept. I also finished reading a gruelling book about human trafficking – Boys for Sale by Marc Finks. Not a book for the faint-hearted.

Batteries suitably re-charged it was time to spend my week with the elephants at ‘Journey to Freedom’. I’ve written a separate blog about this. If you missed it it’s at wanderingminstrel.org: Understanding Elephants.

On returning to Chiang Mai after the most amazing week, I immediately had a 90 minute Thai massage. It was blissful. I had in mind to climb a reasonable size mountain during my travels in Thailand. So I planned a few days in Chiang Dao to climb the 2200m limestone Doi (peak), followed by a short hop to Tha Ton to take the river boat to Chiang Mai then on to cross the border into Laos.

Best laid plans and all that……I was thwarted on both counts, the Doi because of forest fires and the river because of lack of water, both caused by the unseasonal drought.

Revising my plans I visited a 14km Tham (cave) with impressive stalactites or is it mites(?) and then organised for a guide by the name of Tan to take me bird watching in the nature park at the foot of the fiery mountain. We saw humming birds and nut hatches, swifts and birds he couldn’t identify, plus lots of lovely butterflies and we also walked through an coffee plantation – Arabica coffee growing well in central and northern Thailand. It was lovely and cool under the forest canopy but sadly all the bears, monkeys and tigers disappeared about 10 years ago. Tan invited me to his home for lunch where his hairdresser-slash-aerobics teacher wife sang songs to me Karaoke-style, her favourite being the Celine Dion song from Titanic ‘Near, far, wherever you are etc’. Tan told me she had no idea what the words meant but she was blissfully ignorant. She also showed me her aerobics moves with instructions in English like ‘grapevine’. It was all a bit surreal.

If you ever find yourself in Chiang Dao, stay at Dreamhouse guesthouse owned by Oy and her son Ou. It’s a rural idyll. Nothing but birdsong, stunning views and simple meals and if you’re lucky, the chance to exchange stories with Oy who is one of the wisest and most serene people I have ever met. We talked of loosing loved ones (her daughter in a car accident when she was 20 and her husband after a long illness a few years ago), the complexities of families (her brother is dying but his new wife won’t left the family visit), providing for those we leave behind and the power of meditation which guides us to be content with a simple life and not trying to change things or people. I treasure those conversations.

With no water in the river it was a local bus to Chiang Rai for the penultimate leg of my journey. I had a 2 hour stop in Fang which the Lonely Plant doesn’t rate but it happened to be market day and it was one of the best local markets I’ve been to so far with lots of women in traditional dress and a huge variety of stalls. And guess what? I found Butterly Pea AND white knickers. What a result!

The mountain road from Fang to Chiang Rai had the most dramatic scenery I encountered in Thailand. With a backdrop of huge mountains, fertile valleys, farms and shambolic villages, there is nothing I like more than to don the headphones and listen to some cracking music watching the scenery roll by. Thanks bro’ for the excellent compilations.

Chiang Rai is very different from Chiang Mai. It has two major attractions, Wat Rong Khun a.k.a.the White Temple and Baan Dum a.k.a. the Black House – often referred to as Heaven and Hell respectively. They are unhelpfully 13k outside of the city centre in opposite directions so the best way to visit them is to hire a motorbike.

Rong Khun simmers like a million stars but when you get up close it’s in fact white paint with glass mosaic. A work in progress by the famous artist-come-architect Chalermchai Kositoipat the main temple has stunning murals and there’s a gallery full of his beautiful celestial paintings. Hopefully my photos give you an idea of how beautiful it is.

So that was heaven, and now for hell – my own personal hell. On the road to the Black House I came off my bike thanks to a driver pulling out in front of me. I scrapped my keen and elbow pretty badly and naturally I was shaken but thankfully no more than that and yes, I was wearing a helmet. The driver stuck around until he saw I was ok then on my way back into town I passed a military hospital so i thought it prudent to get checked out. I was seen straight away by 6 nurses all giggling as a screamed at the pain of having the wounds cleaned and dressed. Total time in the hospital 30 minutes, total bill £5. Who says the NHS is the best in the world!

So I never made it to the Black House. I limped back to the city where I picked up an £80 bill for damage to the bike only for the owner to tell me that in Thai law the driver who caused the accident should have paid. Hey ho. I reckon in the UK the bill would have been £800 so I should count myself lucky.

Unable to do anything too active while my wounds healed I decided to take a few road and boat trips. I therefore headed to Chiang Khong and then across the border into Laos, of which more in my next blog.

To sum up my time in Thailand. Like it or not, Bangkok has to be done and the palace really is spectacular, the countryside in the north is beautiful, the people are engaging, the food is pretty good and my week with the elephants was an amazing experience. I met some exceptional locals, typically on local buses, and after my accident everyone was very kind but I didn’t meet any fellow travellers for more than a passing meal. I can’t comment on the islands because I didn’t go south, preferring to save my island experiences for my future travels to the less touristic spots in Indonesia and Malaysia but I regret not visiting the Bridge over the River Kwai, death railway and the British WWII cemetery in Kanchanaburi which is only a couple of hours from Bangkok. I’m not sure how that wasn’t on my radar but it’s a good excuse to come back, next time hopefully without any traumas!