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!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Finding faith in Vietnam

The last two and a half weeks in Vietnam have been interesting and filled with ups and downs. After arriving in Ho Chi Min and catching flu and a chest infection in the delta, things went from bad to worse after my antibiotics were not touching sides with my stomach bug and I landed up in hospital for the night. The next week was spent in my hotel room and thank goodness I was staying somewhere nice and I had a sweet Vietnamese lady who ran the hotel looking after me. After debating whether I should catch the next flight home I decided to just take things easy and have been traveling slowly up the coast with my case of the black lung!

My first stop after Ho Chi Min was the beautiful mountainous town of De Lat, where it was cold enough to sleep without aircon and a fan and I even wore a jersey one evening. When the average temperature is between 35 - 40 degrees this is something you get excited about. In De Lat I met up with Alice and Christina, who are Japanese, but grew up in Brazil and we have been traveling together for the last 10 days after we bonded riding in a tiny cable car high about the hills of town. After riding an elephant with 2 very sweet little Vietnamese girls, exploring the surrounding temples and the orchid gardens we left De Lat and headed over the mountains to Nha Trang on the coast were the order of the day was some sun, sea and sand and it we ended up going on a crazy snorkeling trip with a floating bar in the sea, and after the boat crew cooked us a delicious lunch they formed a boy band and sang us songs in the middle of the sea from the 60's!
The next stop along the way, after a grueling 14 hour bus trip where a strange Vietnamese lady decided to sleep on top of me at 3am and a numb bum, found us in the really quaint town of Hoi An. The small streets are lines with amazing Chinese and French colonial buildings which house cafes, art galleries and tailors who can whip you up anything from a pair of shoes to a suit in a few hours! To explore Hoi An we hoped on the most decrepit bicycles you have ever seen and after mastering driving on the wrong side of the road we set off hoping that it was safer than the millions of motorbikes that drive around Vietnam. Red lights are ignored, pedestrian crossings, even when they are green are invisible and to cross the road you have to have blind faith in a higher power and step into the traffic - hopefully behind someone larger than you.
Some more Cham temples later (unfortunately very badly damaged by bombing in the Vietnam war) and after picking up our silk tops we hopped on the bus again to Hue were we will spend the next few days before the final stretch north to Hoian. As much as I am loving traveling and meeting new people along the way, I can't wait to be home in 6 weeks time and to having a good home cooked meal!