Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Wednesday 8th September 2004

Monday saw me take a boat trip upriver, to the Pak Ou caves. It was a two hour sidle up the Mekong, but the scenery was riveting and time melted away. In addition, the boat made a stop at a village called Xang Hai, but known locally as "Whisky Village", and indeed, most of the trackside stalls the villagers had set up were designed to sell various different types of local brew to rich tourists. I left with a small bottle containing an undetermined red spirit, which I shall crack open on my return to London - if it doesn't smash in my rucksack first, like the bottle of rice wine I bought in Borneo (where the villagers use the old ruse of getting the tourists legless before flogging everything they can - I still wonder, 7 years later, how Tom ever got through customs with that Iban machete).

Sheer cliffs rise out of the river, topped with primary forest. The Pak Ou Caves can be found in one of of these cliffs, and consist of a lower and an upper cave, both littered with small discarded wooden Buddhas (about 4,000 in all), as well as some larger more permament shrines. I reached the upper cave by climbing over a hundred sweaty steps through a forest chiming so loudly with insect noise, that at times I suspected oversized and malevolent mosquitos were hiding in the bushes, the piercing noise being their laughs as they ridiculed my over-expensive malaria tablets, before they pounced and sucked the life out of me.

Such paranoid fantasies were forgotton as I reached the top, partly from the sight of the gate to the upper cave, ornate gold painted wood embedded into the rock, next to a 12 foot tall corpulent buddha, but mainly because I was exhausted and unfit. I rented a torch, as there are no lights inside, and as I wandered into the gloom, my torch sweeping over various niches in the wall illuminating countless Buddhas in varying states of decay, I couldn't help but allow myself a slight Indiana Jones fantasy, despite the thousands of tourists who have come before.

Once back in town, I decided to climb Phou Si, the big chunk of rock in the middle of Luang Prabang. I struggled to the Wat at the top, congratulating myself on all the exercise I was taking. There, with a dozen other backpackers and a monk, I enjoyed views of the town, which appears to swarm with palm trees when viewed from above, and watched the sun set behind the mountains. I also, when no one was looking, played around a bit with the Sovet anti-aircaft gun casement that still sits next to the Wat.

Having descended, I made my way down the narrow and busy food market, enjoying the smell and sight of the various matter cooking. I had intended to eat there anyway, but was impressed by the efficiency and salesmanship of the little girl (who can't have been more than 10) at whose stall I ate. One minute I caught her eye, the next I was seated on a bench at a table, with an appetising(ish) plate of food before me. She pulled in the customers and took the money, while her mother silently tended to the cooking in the background.

I found a quiet restaurant at which to enjoy a Beer-Lao before bed, where I made aggressive friends with a tiny black and white kitten, who attacked my bag with such energy that I was afraid it was going to throttle itself with the strap. Ah, the loneliness of the long-distance traveller.

58 - posted at 15:53:31
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Tuesday 7th September 2004

Eventually I found the guesthouse, and the next day (Sunday) I spent most of my time idling along the streets, constantly engaged by my surroundings. I wondered at how, despite increasing tourism and Mastercard and Visa stickers in the doorways of many shops, the place retained so much soul. I think much is do to with the fact that UNESCO has conferred World Heritage Status on the town.

On the Nam Khan, the river running parallel to the Mekong, forming the peninsula that much of the town is situated upon, what I would term Dragonboat racing was taking place, and many Laotians were crowded along the banks watching the events. As I walked further along the river, what seemed like chanting grew louder, echoing through a loudspeaker. As I drew nearer, I readied myself in expectation, powering up my camera, primed to record some Buddhist ceremony. Instead I found bingo, the repetitive echoing obviously being the most recent number. It was taking place under a striped awning, as part of the Dragonboat festivities.

Another highlight was chancing across a cosy English language bookshop called L'Estranger. It has many secondhand books for sale and hire, and a comfortable wooden reading room upstairs, where I lounged for an hour, finishing off Francois Bizot's brutally honest and tragic The Gate, while almost guiltily, given my reading material, sipping local green tea in luxury.

Towards sunset I decided to experience the recommended Lao traditional massage. Consulting the Lonely Planet, I found the pages listed only one place in town as offering 'legitimate' services. I can only assume that one of the intrepid writers of this series of overly moralistic guidebooks sacrificed himself for the greater good by trying every service in town until he ceased to be outraged. The massage was good (although predictably painful at times as I heard bones crack somewhere in my chest) and to the Lonely Planet's credit it was populated, aside from myself and an Asutralian gentleman, by locals, being tucked away on a dark steet. I thank the guidebook for this, as I didn't much fancy patronising the places on the main street, their windows full of beaded travellers, gurning while a masseuse kneaded their tired feet. I hasten to add that I have nothing against beaded travellers. Although not sporting a tee-shirt imprinted with the Red Bull logo in Thai or three-quarter length trousers, my beard is coming along quite nicely.

57 - posted at 12:59:53
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Monday 6th September 2004

The bus left Vientiane at 6:30am. This obviously meant I had to leave my guesthouse even earlier - this did, however, have its advantages. I noticed, looking down into the damp quiet street, from the open landing outside my room, various lines of saffron-swathed monks stretching into the distance. They were patiently waiting while women, kneeling outside their homes, filled the monks' alms bowls, one by one, with what must have been either money or food. I noticed further groups of monks and benevolent women on the streets from the back of the tuk-tuk as it took me to the bus station.

The journey was 10 hours. Although the bus was fairly uncomfortable, and recent attacks on buses travelling Route 13 leaving both locals and tourists dead played slightly on my mind as I tried to ignore the mosquitos dancing up the inside of the windows, any inconveniences were forgotten once I looked at the surrounding countryside. For much of the journey the road wound around inspiring forest covered mountains, over which disparate cloud rolled lazily. The journey was a fitting prelude to Luang Prabang, on whose streets I strolled later in the afternoon. The place is beautiful, like one of Italo Calvino's more fantastical Invisible Cities. Walking through the streets seems to me to be like entering a dream - everywhere the quiet murmer of unhurried life forms a soundtrack to scenery of giant overhanging trees, countless wats, and streets of traditional rattan houses, fluttering butterflies, chickens, dogs, children and a monkey.

That night I wandered down a dark alleyway back to my guesthouse followed by the lone chanting of a monk from a nearby Wat. It would have been a sublime moment, had I not begun to realise that I couldn't remember where the guesthouse was, and that street-lighting is not yet de rigueur in these parts.

56 - posted at 10:04:36
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Sunday 5th September 2004

I travelled into Laos with Gitte, a Danish girl I met on the bus up to Nong Khai. From the guesthouse we could see the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge spanning the river. Hearing the name of the crossing point, I had imagined some kind of rickety rope bridge, appearing out of the Thai jungle, swaying across a deep ravine, and immediately disappearing into the foliage on the other side. Of course it is nothing of the kind - simply a plain concrete road bridge, efficiently crossing the Mekong.

The bridge didn't seem that far off, so we decided to walk, an ill-advised yomp in the increasing heat - and after a mile or more we gave in and hopped on a tuk-tuk. Resisting the tuk-tuk driver's insistence to take us to travel agents on the route, that would give him a commission if we agreed to their unnecessary visa services (as visas are available from Immigration on the bridge for a cheaper dollar price) we were soon over the border and in Vientiane, where we checked into separate guesthouse, Gitte's budget being much more prohibitive than mine. Not that the Mix-OK guesthouse was particularly hard on my wallet. I paid about 3 pounds for a little room, with a double bed (there were no singles left)and a ceiling fan that sounded like a helicopter perpetually landing.

I wandered around Vientiane for a while, first up to Wat Sisaket, a traditional Lao monastery, built in 1818, and, because it survived the Thai sacking of the city about a decade later, the oldest Wat in Vientiane - it is fairly small and I meandered around the Buddha filled cloisters, grounds and central sanctury hall for half an hour before heading back onto the streets. Vientiane has the air of an old colonial outpost, where, probably owing to reading too much Orwell and Greene, I imagine white-suited minor diplomats to sweat out the years, worrying that they have been forgotten by their governments. The place has a pleasant gentle pace, despite the constant rattle of motorbikes, tuk-tuks and trucks. On tree-lined avenues, old French colonial houses crumble away, surrounded by undergrowth and palm trees. They sit comfortably next to the more modern low-rise buildings and tangles of over-head power lines that run along the streets.

I had agreed to meet Gitte for a bottle or two of Beer-Lao and some food in the evening. I spent a few hours chatting and eating with my new friend in a restaurant where the guard at the gate checked Gitte's bag, as apparently some one had thrown a bomb into the place recently. I couldn't drink too much of the highly recommended beer however, as I planned to get up very early the next morning to catch the bus further north.

55 - posted at 09:48:37
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Thursday 2nd September 2004

Apologies for any typos and the like, but the connection here is slow and I have sleep I should be doing. Or something.

The reason for this sleep I blame on 2 things: Economy class (OK, I was spoilt with the whole long haul Hong Kong flights) and the family in front of me on today's (yesterday's?) flight. I thought my idea of hell would be the sound of a child crying for all eternity. And by crying I mean whining, screaming and probably making the odd retching sound too. But now I realise it is four children doing the above almost non-stop for over 11 hours. With the parents at either end of this maelstrom of agony doing nothing, except raising their voices in Arabic once, which only increased the volume.

As a result I stumbled into a damp early morning Bangkok with an icy pain slicing into my temple. Not the best start. But I managed to (eventually) find the ticket counter - and the North/NorthEastern bus station itself - after the very kindly intervention of a couple of Thais who wondered why I was deep in a local market at 7.00am. And then I sat on a bus for 9 hours (trying very hard to obey my own strict jet-lag rules and not nod off) until I got here, Nong Khai, a pleasantly laid back northern Thai border town. Tomorrow, all being well, I will head over the 'Friendship Bridge', which spans the Mekong and get a stamp in my passport that shows off I have been to Laos.

54 - posted at 14:27:53
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