Sunday, October 14, 2007


Well at long last I am updating my blog and posting pics of life in Scotland! These were taken in Northumberland in Septemeber when I went to spend the weekend with my cousin James.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Plain of Jars

Well, no one took us up on our offer to share a taxi to Phonsavan (the tour agent didn't encourage anyone as he was not going to make enough money, we soon found out...) , so it was back on the bus for us. And actually it was rather pleasant, even with Hmong ladies, with their babies on their backs and lots of live chickens wrapped in shawls, motorbikes strapped to the roof and AK47 wheelding bus guards - apparently the whole of northern Loas is bandit country but there have been no attacks for ages... Every bus journey is an adventure and you just pee on the side of the road if you need to, as there are land mines everywhere and not much between towns - the excellent invention of the sarong, comes in handy as a roadside screen.

Phonsavan is a realatively new town (after the Americans decimated the old capital city with their bombs in the secret war....the American senate and public were not told about the bombing of Laos until 5 years after the Vietnam war ended as they "scilenced" journalists), which consists on nothing much more than a main road, the market and bus station. We ended up staying at Kong's based on the old airstrip, formally built for drug running in the days of opium and now the local travelling fair ground and area used by the local driving school. Yes, I actually saw a tuk-tuk driver learning to drive, but clearly the lessons are not based on obaying the law...

The main reason though for us heading to Phonsavan was to visit the ancient Jar sites. The jars are amazing and are huge - each weighing at least 1 or 2 tons and the biggest weighing 13 tons carved out of huge chunks of stone which were carried to the sites. It is believed that they were used as funerary urns or water vessels for caravans of travellers in Eurasia, others beleive that they were put there by a tribe of giants and many myths and legends surround the stone jars and the sites. We visied all three of the sites, all really different as they are situated in very different areas with our guide, Locum who was fantastic. When visiting the sites, you become painfully aware of the devestation wreched by the bloody Americas during the Vietnam war, and their war on communism, in total contravention of the Geneva convention. They dropped over 900 000 tons of bombs on Laos, a ton of bombs, every 8 minutes for nine years solidly, more than all the bombs dropped over Germany and Japan in WWII. American pilots also dumped bombs, and were encouraged to do so, on Loas if they couldn't find their Vienamese targets or if weather conditions were bad, so that they wouldn't have to go through safety checks (only carried out if you were landing with unexploded ordinance on board) when landing their planes back in Thailand... A third of these bombs did not detonate and as a result there are millions of unexploded ordanace all over the country, trapping the Loatians in povery as they can't grow enough food, build roads, go into the forest as they are constantly killed by land mines and bombs. MAG (Mines Advisory Group) is doing a great job clearing things up and we went to vivist their offices in town, but the clean up will take decades and the USA is doing nothing, just continuing to drop the same types of bombs (designed specifically to kill civilians) in Afganistan, Iraq, Kawait, Cosavo etc...

After visiting the first two jar sites, Locum took us to meet his family as we drove through his village which gave us a real taste of Loatian life. We met his Dad, with his three wives, 13 children as well as his 110 year old great-great grandmother. She is now looked after by her grand children as she has out lived all her children. It was then off to the last jar site before seeing the most brilliant sunset.

As the following day was Lindsay's birthday, we decided that we needed a bit of a chilled one, and it was raining, but a bit of loa-loa (locally made rice whiskey) kept our spirits up and got the party strated in the booming metropolis of Phonsavan. Then it was back on the bus for us yesterday, off to Vang Veing reknowned for its adventure sports. Today we rode 12km on dirt roads, with granny bikes to go caving and climbed one of the limestone outcrops and tomorrow we are kayaking from Vang Veing to Vientianne. We have turned into adventure women. On the local front, if you are in the UK and wanting weed then just head to Lindsay's house. Her ex-boyfriend recently went round to her house to check that it hadn't been damaged in the floods only to find that the new tenant "a divorced travelling salesman" is actually a horticultralist and has turned her whole house into a three storey hyrophonic nursery for dope in Doncaster!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Living it up in Laos

I must admit that it is hard not to have a good time in Laos, whether it is messing around in the mud and rain while cycling on granny bikes, or having a delicious dinner on the banks of the Mekong or just chilling out drinking a cuppa tea and finishing your book. We arrived in Laung Prabang, on another "VIP" bus. Ha ha ha, as we were rounding a mountain a whole row of seats just collapsed on the floor! Luckily there was no one hurt and it was funny at the time.

Laung Prabang is really pretty and a beautiful small town in northern Laos. Lindsay and I have really gotten into the swing of things and it's no wonder that we have already spent 5 days here exploring the Wats, the tiny streets and markets and the sites around the city by bicycle. Yesterday we went off to the Buddha caves, which are on the banks of the Mekong, in cliffs of limestone and contain old Buddhas which have been damages, it's like Buddha's eternal resting place. Up the stairs to the caves, small children were trying to sell us everything from a tarantula on a piece of string to stones. We were a bit puzzled about the religious significance of these objects but none the less they were trying their best "You buy? Lucky-lucky, good for Buddha, good for you". When you are not at a religious site this chant changes to "You buy? Lucky-lucky, good for you, good for me".....

On other hand we have been living according to the advice of the official Laos Guide Book....
Coffee: "After 11am you will only find Nescafe red cup which is to be avoided"
Health: Fear not. You are not in the back woods of south America where you are never sure which Gomez or Sanchez pharmacy will be open for business...."Tiger Bites? Very bad, especially in the rainy season. You will be comforted to know that your family will read about you in their daily newspapers." and "Mosquito bites. Beware of the females. Paludism and dengue fever is waiting to pounce." and "Hepatitis, Japanese encephalitis: if you have not been vaccinated, it is too late for you."
Internet: "No bug. For 1000 kip you can even keep in touch with your mother in Europe! Isn't that nice?"

This morning we did some more watting, as we had saved the best wat til last - an amazing temple, covered in gold leaf, stencil designs and with mosaics covering the outside walls. Extremely beautiful. After another hot day, we set off up the mountain to a waterfall with a series of blue, blue pools to swim in. Ahhh! It was so nice to be cold again and to feel refreshed. while we were in the forest we also visited the Asiatic black bear and tiger rescue centre where the animals have been rescued during illigal animal trading and poaching. it was really good to see the animals being kept wild, in huge enclosures and being reabilitated back into the wild.

At the moment we have been prowling the streets of the town, approaching strangers to enquire whether anyone wants to join us on our intrepid adventure to Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars. We are trying to avoid a 9 hour bus journey by going by minibus, but I suspect that most people think we are mad to go, as most people's first question is "Where?" - not a good start.... But we will find some fellow travelers. Buddha we look out for us and we have put up a sign in the travel agent's window. Otherwise it is going to be one long bus journey tomorrow and a very sore bum.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Scammed again! Will I ever learn....

Yes, scammed again and I though I was becoming a street smart Asian traveler. Clearly I was mistaken... So we bought our bus tickets from Hanoi to Vientiane from a reputable travel agent, paying $15 dollars for a better, air conditioned, VIP bus that went all the way to Laos. Off Lindsay and I set, determined to be optimistic with me quoting my little book of wisdom by the Dali Lama (I have used it to fix the air conditioner at 3am and adopted it as my Buddhist philosophy for any situation in Asia, as when in Rome...), knowing that it is a long (24-30 hour estimated) and bumpy bus journey. Well, the first bus left much to be desired and was fully of Vietnamese travelers. After being pushed into my seat by a lady who had taken it upon herself to organize the bus, I swiftly got out my pack of antibacterial wipes to clean the window next to me and the arm rests etc.... And then we set off.... For the next 6 hours, we were jerked about in our seats as the bus driver (on a mixture of speed and red bull) alternatively drove in first gear or decided to overtake five trucks on blind corners and spent 80% of the journey driving on the wrong side of the road. As this was a VIP bus, it had a toilet the size of a shoe box on board so not only were we accosted by diesel fumes but of naphthalene and urine as well. By this stage I had been wedged into my seat by the person fully reclined in front of me (naturally my seat didn't recline) and my life flashing before my eyes every 30 seconds, every time the lights of oncoming trucks blinded us and the blast of horns kept us awake.

At 1:30pm we were dumped at the most revolting cafe on the side of the road and told that another bus would pick us up in an hour and would take us to Laos. This was OK, as hopefully the next bus would be better and we could rest, use the loo and get something to drink.... that was until I saw the toilets. After wading through waste water from the kitchen into what was the "WC" and seeing the stacks of morning glory (water spinage) resting on the floor near a puddle of urine which were about to be cooked, and other things too unmentionable I run out and Lindsay and I sat in miniature plastic chairs on the side of the road for the next 2 hours. At 3:30am a Laotian bus arrived and stopped when they saw us. Thank God we had been stranded with an English couple who have been working in Vientiane for the last 2 years and they were able to chat to the bus driver to find out when our bus was expected. We soon found out that our bus was non existent and we had been scammed. But within seconds of finding out that we had been scammed the Laotian bus offered us a ride to the border and onto Vientiane. It was full and every conceivable bit of spare space was crammed with boxes, bags of litchis and suitcases, but they made space in the isle and there we perched for the next 8 hours hunched over our backpacks. Though the bus was full, the attitude of the Laotians towards us was amazingly friendly and they were so kind to us. I can't say that the remainder of the bus journey was pleasant of luxurious and you had to jump from arm rest to arm rest and hold onto the ceiling when you wanted to get out of your seat and out of the bus. There are photos of our escapade but they are on Lindsay's camera and I will post them soon.

Otherwise being in Laos is fantastic, it is so quiet, there is no traffic, no-one is trying to scam you to your face and it is so laid back. After a fantastic back massage, a delicious $1 meal and a good nights sleep we were almost as good as new! Yesterday, while drinking coffee and chatting (it's been raining quiet a bit) I met my first fellow South African traveler, Matt originally from Natal who now lives in Oxford. Soon we were all swapping travel guides, tips and recommendations and later met up for dinner etc. Today Lindsay and I decided to be slightly more active and we rented bikes and rode around the town in the rain, viewing Wats and temples (and often stopping to play with the kittens in the temples, taking shelter from the rain) and shopping of course in the morning market. Thank Buddha! As I left my camera in the market and it was still there when I got back and was being looked after by the sweet Laotians who ran the store. The signs and local advice they give you are halarious and I will have to devote an entire entry to them. Off to Luang Probang on a "proper VIP" bus tomorrow morning so fingers crossed and hopefully the Dali Lama and Buddha will look after us again.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

From Hue to Hanoi

On our first evening in Hue we bumped into Abi and Hannah, (a crazy pair of sisters from Holland) who roared past us on their motorbike, and convinced us to join them on a trip to Bach Ma National Park the next day. After picking up a few more travellers who we met later that evening in the bar across from our hotel, we set off early the next morning up the mountains where it was at least 5 degrees cooler and great to be out of the city. The day was spent trekking though the jungle surrounded by butterflies as big as your hand, to an amazing waterfall and fresh water pools to swim in. The next day we explored the historical side of the city and wondered round the mosoleums of the emporers and the citadel which is incredibly beautiful. Coming back along the river I met an old lady who came up to meon her boat, who had a pet roaster on board! Her chicken was clearly the love of her life and she kept hugging him. Along the way we sampled some of Hues specialities which included a crispy rice pancake filled with srimps and beansprouts and served with herbs and a peanut sauce - delicious!

After a traumatic overnight bus journey - people kept singing, whisteling, playing Vietnamese music on cellphones and the lady behind me kept on hitting me on my head? - we arrived in Hoian. While trying to find our bearings we bumped into the usual crowd who have been travelling on the same route up the coast and decided to go to Ha Long Bay the next morning. The bay is very beautiful although unfortunately quiet poluted and there are hundreds of limestone islands as far as the eye can see. The highlight of the trip was kiyaking around some of the remote islands one evening as the sun was setting, and then drinking wine and eating lichees on the deck of our chinese junk, with everyone as the stars were coming out. We also had a great group of people on board and 5 minutes into the journey we were all chatting away and swapping stories.

The last few days in Hanoi have been very lazy, with us passing the time shopping, drinking iced tea, taking in the sites and sleeping in. Cris, Alice and I are loving the fact that we are in one place for more than a few days and are enjoying justhanging out as we will part ways on Sunday. I am off to Loas on a mamoth bus journey with Lindsay who was on our Ha Long bay trip - at least we will have moral support and can laugh about things together and Cris and Alice are off to China. It is going to be strange leaving them after we have spent the last 3 weeks together while they have taught me how to master chopsticks - I am now a pro, bargain like an Asian and learn a few esentail Portuguese fraises - very useful while shopping!