(Or Laos ... my t-shirt says Lao, my atlas says Laos)
07.02.2013 - 15.02.2013 34 °C
Chuc mung nam moi to all of you and we hope the year of the snake brings you all the delights and dreams it's meant to ... I'm not sure what they are but the Vietnamese seem pretty excited by it all.
Anyway, we're just back from our little wander around the hidden charms of Laos and we've had a really beautiful time in a fantastic country full of lovely people, stunning scenery, and general easygoingness (if that is a word). We flew into the capital, Vientiane, which turns out to be a very small and compact city with loads and loads of Westerners and very few Laotians. It's a very laid back place with lots of monks and Buddhist temples and proved to be a gentle and genuine introduction to the Laos way of living. The golden reclining Buddha was particularly good. Our hotel was rubbish, though, and is a cautionary tale about not believing everything you read in a Lonely Planet guide. I don't know where they dug their description up from but our room was nothing like they said. C'est la vie. After a couple of days pottering about we took the 10 hour bus ride north to the fabled town of Luang Prabang. Well, it should have been a bus. Actually it turned out to be some bloke with a minibus who crammed 12 of us plus luggage together and headed north. It's actually a pretty spectacular drive over some hugely impressive mountains and valleys, lots of hairpin bends, unmade roads, beautiful villages perched precariously on stilts on cliff edges, kids, cows, ducks, goats and babies wandering across the roads and stunning views. I'm not sure Jill enjoyed it quite as much as I did as she was sat right above the rear axle and felt every bump in the road for 10 straight hours.
Luang Prabang appears to be Gap Year heaven and is even more laid back than Vientiane. It is a picturesque town harking back to the days of French colonialism and has 33 Buddhist temples (or Wats), lies at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan, and stills exudes a wealth of charm and tranquility. Things move very slowly here. Our accommodation improved here. We were picked up in an old open top American army jeep by Khone, who together with his wife Khoun, run a small group of self built bunglalows on the outskirts of town. They are pretty basic but just brilliant and set in a peaceful and pretty valley. And Khone and Khoun (and their extended family of sons, daughters, nephews, waifs, strays, dogs, cats etc.) are really lovely people. It was a stunning place to stay!
In town we visited the Royal Palace which had an amazing hall, got templed out by the masses of wats (Wat Xieng Thong was particularly good), Jill got a quality foot massage from the Red Cross, I gave blood, we ate vast amounts of cakes and drunk lots of tea in various cafes, ate the best vegetarian food since we got to SE Asia in the night market (80p for all you can eat), watched the Tak Bat at 5.30am when the apprentice monks collect alms from people, took in the local ethnic market, and generally watched life drift by against a backdrop of mountains, rivers and sunshine. It was a really relaxing and beautiful few days.
Midway through our time here we headed off to the Elephant Village Sanctuary to spend a couple of days looking after elephants that had been used in the logging industry but were now too old for work and were too domesticated to be sent into the wild. They were really well cared for and looked after here and we got to learn how to be a marhout and ride them as well as bathe them in the morning. They were gentle creatures and it was a unique experience for both Jill and I to care for them. I highly recommend it as a trip for the TAPAS group who would thoroughly enjoy the time with them. Perhaps someone would like to suggest it to Ms McBlain?
All that left time for was a return bus trip to Vientiane, this time on a proper bus which ended up as an 11 hour journey, with copious amounts of vomiting, and even more copious amounts of phlegm coughing and spitting from the crew ... one assumes they had a spittoon as they never opened the window or door to spit out. Delightful.
All in all, a marvellous week or so in an incredible country that we both loved very, very much and will return to forthwith.
So, it's back to school tomorrow, and Jill kicks off her voluntary work with the Christina Noble Foundation on Tuesday. We're off to Hanoi with the MUN group on Wednesday week so we'll let you know how that goes in due course. Until then, we hope you're all well and had a lovely half-term. Let us know what you've been up to. We miss you massively as ever. It's goodnight from me ... and it's goodnight from him / her.