As John Lennon famously wrote, "And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?" Allow me to tell you. I have spent Christmas Day floating down the Mekong River in Lao, eating some absolutely superb food, having a coupl e of drinks and returning to my room to write this.
Let's get back to where we were. Chiang Rai, I believe. Visa time ticking and yet again I had to leave a great place and move on. Isn't it a great irony about travelling that when you do it you keep wanting to stay places? A fairly uneventful local bus trip of a couple of hours and arrived back in the border town of Chiang Kong (Chiang Khong). It has become undoubtedly a lot larger than it was last time I was here, but still remains a border town and border towns seem to have a strange sense about them. They are generally far from the capital, prey to the slightly dubious "business activities" that borders engender. It is still a pleasant little place, pretty quiet, well normally it is. Trust me to pick one of the three nights of the annual so-called food festival. On the way up the street, I had seen a pretty large stage with a fairly decent looking PA and light rig set up. I wandered along, having not even consulted my guidebook, and decided on a beer in the Green Tree Guesthouse, bar,, restaurant, art gallery and photgraphic gallery. Well, it is a wooden shack really and it was the photos that attracted me. I wandered in, ordered a beer and was served it by an English guy whose work the art and photography was. He ran it with this girlfriend who was form one of the hilltribes judging by her dress but don't ask me which one, I have not got that sorted out yet.
No point in going any further as they had rooms, so I organised one for the night. I'll tell you about it shortly. Having dumped the bag, it was explained to me that there is a three day food festival in the town at this time of year with live music. Well, no second invitation needed, I dispatched myself tout de suite back down the road. It loked like it had been set up in either a carpark or possibly a buss station with plenty of room. It was a food festival by virtue of the fact that there were many food stalls about the place and I did avail myself of a few of the delicacies on offer, but the main draw was the music. The "house band" really was very good, and there were various singers, I think local heroes by the reaction they got, and although I didn't understand a word, the music (Pop Thai) is seriously catchy. A very pleasant night where I was one of onhly a handful of Westerners which is a thing I always love.
Back to the room, both literally and in the sense of the blog. Let me describe it. The building was stilted, with the room secured by a padlock which was slightly unecessary as it took an almighty heave to open the door or indeed close it from the inside. There were cracks in the floor you could have put a bicycle wheel down. There was one bare bulb which my ciagrette lighter outshone, a fan (unecessary as it wasn't that hot so far North) with no apparent electric source to plug it into, a balcony in imminent danger of collapse with a hammock that might just have accomodated one of the Seven Dwarfs and a door that didn't lock. The mosquito net looked like it had not moved for a decade. In short, it was perfect, I absolutely loved it. I adore staying in places like this. It is what I go travelling for. Had I not had to move, I would have happily stayed here for a week.
Move, however, I had to , and after a cup of lovely coffee and a packed lunch to take away for the slow boat, I wandered down to the pier where the border lies, and my first glimpse this trip of my beloved Mekong. I think I mentioned before that it is probably my favourite river in the world. I can't explain it, there is just something about it that really gets to me. Thai immigaration is a breeze, quick althoug important stamp on the passport. If you don't get it you can have serious problems trying to get back in. A five minute journey on a little skiff and I had crossed my first border this trip and was standing in the People's Democratic Republic of Lao, a very different country although it obviously looks outwardly much the same. After a fairly frenetic but good-natured scrum at the visa office and a $35 dollar bill, I was in. I was interested to note on a poster, whilst waiting in the queue for the visa, that Kyrgystani residents only pay $30 and I was wondering exactly how many Kyrgystanis visit Lao annually.
I knew the way so I ignored the blandishments of the various tuk tuk drivers and wandered the 15 minutes or so to the slow boat pier. If any of you ever plan this trip, and I do recommend it, forget just about everything you are told. The boats do not leave at 10, they are always later, it is not a long walk to the pier, it is 15 minutes maximum, you do not need to get a ticket in advance, you buy them at the pier (up the steps on the left past the boules pitch) and you do not need to book a room in Pakbeng, there are plenty. So with the travel tips out of the way, let me tell you about the journey.
There is always a danger in returning to a place you love, that it will not live up to your memories. I did this trip about seven years ago and I have written on several travel websites that they were two of the best days of my life. That still holds. To move slowly down this majestic river with the astounding scenery and glimpses of riverside life is something everyone should do before they die. Last time I was here, I got on a working cargo boat, about 50/50 travellers and local people with the hold full of bags of cement, rice, chickens, various boxes of fruit. You name it and it was there. All the travellers climbed on the roof, produced bottles of Mekong whiskey and Beer Lao and tried to catch the sun whilst the Laotians sat inside, ate sticky rice and tried to avoid the sun. We stopped frequently at hamlets not even served by roads who relied on the boats, and I clearly remember wading knee deep up to the beach lugging various baggage ashore. It was all part of the fun.
Things have changed. We were herded onto a boat with no cargo facility at all, merely hard benches packed so closely as to render them all but useless to large foreigners. They crowded the boat to the point hat it was up to the gunwales in calm water at the pier, and it was only when several travellers remonstrated, that they agreed to put on a second boat, where about half the passengers went. Eventually, about an hour late, we took off. Absolutely no way going on the roof, I suppose they have lost one too many partying backpacker overboard so we were cramped inside. I ended up standing most of the six hour journey as it was more comfortable. Where previously we were jumping ashore to buy Lao lao (local moonshine) in water bottles now we were compelled to buy hugely overpriced drink from the bar which seems to have been installed in all the boats. Fortunately, not even expecting such luxury, I had a few beers with me.
I really do not know what the local villagers are doing now, perhaps roads have been constructed to the villages and I know there has been much road building in the country since last I was here. Apparently, the boat crews have worked out there is more money to be made from the increasing numbers of tourists than there is from their traditional way of life. Eventually, off we went and the Mekong worked it's magic on me as usual. I could stand and watch it go by all day. I got friendly with a German couple, a family from Derbyshire and a Greek guy who seemed somewhat amazed when I spoke a little of his own language with him.
Well, the river hasn't changed, as you would expect, although I did notice a lot less of the fishermen perched like monkeys on the huge limestone rocks that littler the banks. Perhaps it is not the season. Eventually, just after dusk, we reached Pakbeng. Now it seems to me that Pakbeng only exists because it is about halfway from Xuay Hai and Luang Prabang. It is a convenient staging post for the boats that provide (or at least provided) the lifeblood of the region. Last time I was there I am sure it did not have a paved road into it and was really a backwater. Now, it is a bit bigger and consists of a strip of guesthouses and an Indian restaurant I know for a fact did not used to be there. I avoided the crush of hotel touts at the pier and picked one I fancied the look of. A decent, clean room although basic. Still, it was only £3:50.
When I got into the room, I decided to lie down for a little while before heading out for a bite to eat. All of a sudden I didn't feel too great. No stomach problems, I just felt wiped out, and a bit achy so I just lay in bed from half six at night until I was awoken by my early morning call at eight next day for the boat. During the night, though, I had made a completely schoolboy error and forgotten that the power in Pakbeng goes off at aobut midnight and doesn't come on until dark the nest night, it really is that remote. A late night trip to the loo necessitated my fishing about in my suitcase looking for my Maglite torch. I really didn't fancy the concept of a Lao loo by braille.
Made the boat in good time the next day after struggling down the perilously steep track, and then the fun really started. They had decided they were only going to take one boat dowen on the second leg and no amount of cajoling them would alter that. Although the boat was marginally bigger than the one the day before, it was still stupidly crowded. I had to sit on the floor (thankfully I had my inflatable cushion) in a tiny space although I didn't have to put up with it long, as I spent the next eight and a half hours being used as human ballast. Because of the overcrowding, everytime the boat hit the slightest of turbulence it started rocking about wildly and the crew were gesticulating wildly at us to move from one side of the boat to the other.I really don't know why they put their craft at risk like this just to make a few extra kip on what must be a lucrative run for them. Ther are always plenty of tourists making the trip and I have no doubt we were paying a lot more than the local people, which isn't a problem. Speaking of local people, the overcrowding was compounded when we did make a stop or two to load them on. Whilst it added to the local flavour, and they were as friendly and the youngsters as cute as they always are, it must have put the boat another 18 inches in the water. Fortunately, we arrived in one piece about half five in the evening.
The Mekong is still my favourite river, and the scenery and sights are still breathtaking but, at the risk of sounding like a travel bore, it was a commercialised and sanitised shadow of the wonderful adventure I had had not so many years back. If anyone is contemplating visiting this region, I would recommend it, as the Mekong is something to see but prepare yourself for some discomfort Personally, I don't think I'll bother next time but what a different way to spend Christmas Day.
Having made Luang Prabang, I ran the gamut of taxi men and hotel touts and wandered to the place I had chosen but it waqs full so the lady suggested the place next door. Now, it will never win boutique hotel of the year but it is clean, has hot water and even a TV and the bed is comfy What more could you want? The fact that it is about £5 a night doesn't hurt either. A quick shower and off into the night for a bite to eat. Remember, I had only had two baguettes in two days and was in need of something filling.
Well, I didn't go far wrong there. There are two roads on either side of the hill that dominates the town and they are just coming down with resturants, bars and guesthouses not to mention souvenir shops, travel agents and massage joints (of the legitimate sort I might add). As an aside, Lao is a much different place to Thailand. Prostitution is ilegal and very frowned upon, and it is illegal for a non Lao to sleep with a Lao they are not married to. Indeed, by law, all non Lao must be in their accomodation by midnight but I don't think that is enforced. If I can upload the photo, I will let you see the notice on my hotel room door. Apparently, I am not even allowed to make blue movies in my room! On a whim I picked one of the restaurants on the strip called Sabaidee (Lao for hello) and liked the look of the prosaically named Set 1. It may have osunded prosaic but what a meal.
If you have been following this from earlier, you will remember I described a meal in Mae Hat, Koh Tao where a brazier affair surrounded by a reservoir is put over charcoal set in your table and you basically make a soup of barbecued meats, veg and glass noodles yourself. This was a similar setup, although I defy any one human being to eat the amount of food offered. Shrimp, squid, chicken, pork and beef accompanied by tomato, about three kinds of wild mushroom, the local watercress, pak choi, some sort of a flowering plant and Heaven knows what else. You then season the whole affair with tamarind sauce and chopped garlic. The idea is to fill the reservoir from the "soup" which is really stock and get cracking. It was delicious and a suitable repast for the Christmas meal. I was on the point of asking the waiter to send my compliments to the chef, then I remembered it was me and it might have seemed conceited. The service was attentive and very friendly so, as it was Christmas, I had a couple of cocktails although I rarely drink spirits. The lychee martini was particularly good.
PDR Lao really is such a different place from Thailand and in Luang Prabang, a big tourist destination, there is generally a 10 o'clock curfew on the bars. Whether in celebration of Xmas or whether it was because it was Friday night but some of the bars stayed open late and I crossed the road to the Lao Lao Garden which was, you've guessed it, totally surreal. This is a word you are going to keep haring from me as it is the only one that aptly describes some of the sights. This place musrt be garish enough ordinarily given the number of lights that adorn the two bars and the staircase to the eponymous garden but in this season it was outlandish. A huge fuly trimed Christmas tree had been erected, along with all sorts of seasonal lights and decorations and all the staff were wearing Santa hats and red scarves. Imagine Santa's Grotto on acid and you will be close.
I played a couple of games with a long haired Italian who took every opportunity at gamesmanship and downright cheating, so I beat him twice and then told him he was "cattivo" which seemed to surprise him. Look it up if you like but it is not terribly complimentary. Deciding enough was enough, I took myself off to my room where I wrote some of the above.
Today, a quick visit to a couple of wats of which there are literally dozens. At one, I was engaged in conversation with a 16 year old monk who explained he would like to practice his English. We had a great chat andhe explained much about Buddhism to me that I did not know. A very pleasant time followed by a very unpleasant one.
I had seen signs for UXO Lao Visitor Centre which I took to be unexploded ordnance, i.e. bombs, and I was correct. I followed the signs and came on the place. Three Lao men were sitting eating soup and playing cards and, although it was obvioualy not open, they invited me in. Friendly as always. What is inside is horrifyng in the true sense of the word. There are photos of the operations they carry out defusing bombs and there are also some fairly graphic and disturbing photos of the effects. Well, bomb injuries are never pleasant to look at. I believe I am right in saying that Lao is the most bombed country in the world and as a result has the greatest per capita incidence of amputees in the world. I've seen them. The figures on their Ops board are equally horrifying. The sheer scale of the problem beggars belief. In one school playground they defused no less than 350 bomblets. Can you imagine children playing amongst so much explosive, it is appalling. There are Tshirts for sale although the man did not have the key so I will definitely return on Monday to buy one, that is a T-shirt I have to get.
I will conclude this episode in the LaoLao Garden bar I mentioned before having just watched the last few minutes of what appeared a fairly boring 0-0 draw between Birmingham and Chelsea. Tomorrow is not yet decided, such is the joy of my travels. I may score a motorbike and explore the local villages and the waterfall or I may have another day of "wat-bashing" in Luang Prabang. Most likely, I will give myself off the day I have promised myself and do a lot of stuff for Virtual Tourist, the website I write tips for. For those of you that do not know it, search the internet for Virtual Tourist and then search for memebers, my username is planxty. You can see a lot about my previous travels there, and after five weeks I really should get some more stuff posted. I know it will take all day to do even half the stuff I have amassed.
Yet again I am having trouble sorting out my photos on this damned computer, The supposedly user friendly Picasa system is certainly not friendly to a berk like me. Hopefully, you will get a few images, if not, bear with me.
I hope to post again soon if a giant Mekong catfish (look it up on Google) doesn't get me!