Friday, 20 July 2012

Volume 2: Journey to Huay Xai

The arrival at the bus station brought about our first dose of reality in Laos - dirty squatting toilets that you have to pay to use and the VIP bus leaving late. We certainly were leaving the comfort of the Dances behind. BUT all in all, it was actually a very comfortable bus ride after all the horror stories I've read and heard about south east Asia. We had air conditioning that worked (no, not just open windows as Dad suggested) and fairly comfy seats that reclined, the only complaint was that we were limited on leg room, probably because we are both somewhat bigger than our Asian friends. And it only left about half an hour late and took 12 hours instead of 11. But A LOT better than I was expecting, especially as lunch was included, all for only 10 quid.

The best part about this first leg of the journey was how much of Laos we got to see pass us by out of the window. Leaving Vientiane we witnessed a bizarre mix of rather more traditional wooden housing on stilts and then grand pink and white homes with over-the-top ornate Greek columns and even bronze eagles decorating the fronts. In a country where the majority of the population lives on $2 a day, you have to wonder who on earth is staying in these monstrosities. We quite quickly passed the city outskirts and got into the real countryside where we could watch people planting rice, ploughing their land (sometimes with a motorised machine and other times with buffalos) and actually wearing those stereotypical Asian flat cone hats. For the next 10 hours or so we felt like we had travelled back in time. The land itself was pretty amazing to watch pass us by: beyond the rice paddies in the foreground, great mountains rose up behind covered in green. I am not sure if they were monoliths or some other geographical rock formation thing I am not familiar with, but these mountains, that looked huge compared to the flat ground before them but could probably be called miniature as mountains go, just seemed to have been thrust out of the ground and then coated in green as bamboo and other adventurous trees grew from their steep sides. It would turn out this was just the beginning of the end of flat land for us.

The road slowly became windier and as the bus was forced to wind more, it became slower. We were also getting higher and higher until a break in the trees would reveal a sheer drop just a few metres away from the bus. Our average 20km/h speed at this point probably explains why a distance of roughly 370km took us 12 hours. The view was simply stunning from so high. We could see layer upon layer of hills covered in jungle with low lying cloud threading in between the valleys, later in the day occasionally catching glimpses of a river below. Amazingly, there were also settlements up here, houses starting on the ground by the road and supported by stilts on their other side to provide a flat floor and prevent the home slipping down the mountainside. Even more amazingly, as dark fell I could see electric lights and televisions in these wooden and thatch dwellings, the walls sometimes made of woven leaves more like a basket than a building. In the middle of nowhere in mountainous Laos, modern technology meets ancient construction. That image was a bit of a mind bend to think through.

We gratefully arrived in Luang Prabang, hopped in a tuk tuk and found a hostel before grabbing a very cheap 1 dollar dinner in the night markets and then heading to bed. The next day we started at 5am getting up to watch the daily alms giving ceremony. Local people sit on the pavement with a big bamboo pot of rice and place handfuls in each monk's pot that passes. And there are a lot of monks to feed - they make a very orderly, quiet queue down the street for their breakfast, all with shaved heads and dressed head to toe in orange robes. We walked toward the north of the city where the rivers meet as there are fewer tourists up there and you can see the monks in more peace. We watched them line up and exit their wat while listening to the gongs sounding the start of the ceremony. Many of them were just boys and though they live a life of abstinence and disciplined meditation regimes, you could still catch glimpses of the young adolescents that they were - some dragging their feet or tapping another to check out the funny looking falang in their pyjamas (i.e. Lorna and I). It was a quiet and peaceful show of Buddhist culture that we felt really fortunate to witness, managing to mostly avoid seeing it slightly soiled by tourists jumping on the bandwagon and joining the locals in rice giving. It is a connection between the people and the monks, it is about doing a good deed and believing it will earn them merit for the future life, it's not just charity as we know it. So for us, it was better just to watch than try to join in.

To be continued.... (I need to catch a train to Bangkok now)

It has been a while but I finally have those key ingredients of time, motivation and internet. I am currently on Koh Lanta, a tropical island off the south west coast of Thailand and not too far from Malaysia, our final country to visit on this trip. Unfortunately I haven't been feeling quite 100% for the past couple of days so I am wisely staying inside out of the sun, deeming myself brown enough (for now), and figured this would be a good use of my time.
As Lorna keeps reminding me, there are far worse places I could be sick - the beach is a hop, skip and a jump away with the pool even closer if we can't manage the small waves.

Anyway. I need to rewind almost 3 weeks back to Luang Prabang.

After the alms ceremony, we took a well deserved nap until the more reasonable hour of 9am. Breakfast in the JoMa bakery was not quite as exciting as we thought it would be and the crowd inside it would indicate. It was expensive by Laos standards and just familiar Western food. We paid 90,000 kip for two of us compared to 20,000 for the cheap dinner the night before. But I suppose if you miss home and miss bread (as one Dutch girl we met did after she had spent 3 months in China) then it's worth swinging by.

Our main goal for the day was simply to arrange our boat tickets to get to Huay Xai. With that achieved, we were free to wander around the old Royal capital, significantly and uncomfortably hotter than 5am. We followed the Mekong to discover Wat Xieng Thong, I think the oldest temple in the city, and were stunned by its glittering grandeur. We had seen only one wat in Vientiane properly that turned out fairly disappointing and passed by many kitsch and gaudy modern ones in the car around the city. Xieng Thong was in a different class entirely. The main building housed several Buddha statues, adorned with gold cloth with offerings of candles, flowers and food at their feet. Black and gold lacquer designs decorated the walls. There were a couple more smaller building-shrines that were further beautifully decorated but my favourite part was actually a few of the outer walls. Shining metallic pieces were favoured for the mosaics there, the most intricate depicting everyday life: men catching fish, fighting and in their homes. It was quite a spectacular mural.

After spending some quiet time with Buddha in a smaller shrine (more because it was a lot cooler in there than outside rather than a new found religious compulsion) we headed out for lunch overlooking the river. I got to use my few words of Laos again, struggling through 'no meat' but getting there in the end. We had a refreshing papaya salad, a typical Lao (and Thai) dish and Lorna managed to get it down despite worrying about the liver worms you might get from eating the fermented fish that the Laos love to include in it. Fried rice with vegetable was certainly a safer follow up.

The former Royal Palace was our next stop on a necessarily leisurely tour of the city - we were both suffering from the heat. Aside from the palace itself, there was also an excellent exhibition of photos by Hans Georg Berger who spent some time with a monastery that had just taken in a group of boys to revive Buddhism in that area. The pictures were fairly revealing of the spartan lives the boys must live - meditating in the wilderness with no shoes, learning the reality of Buddha's command, "Nothing whatsoever should be clung to."

The palace symbolised quite the opposite attitude to life. The word 'opulent' has never been overused so much as then: wandering from one magnificent red room with glittering glass mosaic'ed walls, like Wat Xieng Thong, then onto another covered in a painted mural of Lao life, then peeking into the massive bedrooms of the former royals, their predecessors looking down on them from huge pictures. There was even an entire room dedicated to holding the gifts bestowed on the former monarchy from foreign governments, including two pieces of the moon from the US and a boomerang from Australia. It was strange to remind myself that the former owners of this lavish home were taken from it and left to spend their last years in a cave, eventually dying due to a lack of food and appropriate medical care.

We left as the place closed to return to the guest house to recover from the day's heat and ready ourselves for a better explore around the night markets. As it turned out, unlike other parts of south east Asia, there is little need to steel yourself for a foray into a Lao market. After about 20 minutes of wandering down the neat lines and crouching to the floor for negotiations and better inspection of the goods, Lorna and I realised that we were actually whispering softly to each other and the vendors. In fact, we sat stunned (in the middle of buying bracelets) as it hit us that the only thing you could hear clearly was other falang, speaking loudly, generally in English, above the gentle rustling of the rest of the market. We left, after a good few hours, with the start of our gift shopping done and a new love for the quiet, unobtrusive Lao people.

The next day marked the start of another long journey, this time by boat. To our delight, it was a pretty long wooden river barge that had a point at each end, sat fairly low in the water, had now windows but instead was completely open except for wooden posts supporting the roof. The scenery was not unlike our bus ride in terms of the greenery, mountains, and settlements but it felt different from the perspective of the river - looking up rather than down. A few of the hills had been shorn in places, leaving stumps and roots, I wondered if it was for building, fire or to clear the land for farming. Some of these settlements were far from electricity pylons. Bamboo fishing poles were jammed between rocks toward the middle of the rapid river to be collected, hopefully with dinner, later. It was a lovely, sedate way to watch Laos pass us by and even more comfortable than the bus as we had a table, two toilets, you were free to walk around and you could even buy food and drink.

In an attempt to convey the trip in a way I am struggling to a few weeks on, here are a few snippets from my journal:

"I am curiously happy to watch a[n Asian] man a few seats awa enjoy a cigarette and coffee, the river and jungle passing by next to him. It reminds me of another time, now long passed to be replaced with practically dressed backpacking falang."

"The river is not churning and angry but instead flat and brown, placid enough to reflect the green of the banks. But we make waves."

And on the second day, after a night in Pak Beng and a 'lubly jubly' meal from a man whose advertising extended to promoting his wife's excellent culinary skills (to be fair, we were not disappointed):

"Surprisingly, the river has widened out again and the banks have flattened out to better resemble a flood plain. There is a large ominous grey storm cloud dominating the large expanse of sky visible out our 'window'. There are mountains in the distance but made indistinct by the cloud.

It is finally raining."

We arrived in Huay Xai that evening after two days of reading, writing and debating (as can only really happen when Philosophy student meets Law student). With much looking at our surroundings of course. And our surroundings in Huay Xai now included looking across the river to Chiang Kong, Thailand. We found a guest house before darkness fell and then ventured out to see what we could of the town at night. It was not quite the holding pen that we were expecting and actually passed a couple of very enjoyable evenings and one day in the small town. That night we had a great dinner in a restaurant that had small huts on stilts instead of booths or tables and all the other clientele were Laos in varying degrees of drunkeness from the delicious local rice beer aptly named 'Beerlao'. We also made the acquaintance of a charismatic and incredibly enthusiatic young lady eager to sell us everything we might need for the Gibbon Experience, our next stop (and really the only reason anyone hangs about in Huay Xai).

We had another day of prioritising admin stuff but after seeing the Gibbon people, we had a wander, spying some funny looking dogs and checking out the local wat on the hill. There we were called over by a novice monk to have a chat. His name was Syphaeng Vongpha Chith, he was 18 and had just transferred to Huay Xai from Udomxai where he has been training in the monastery from the tender age of 13. And what was the first thing he asked us after the introductions were over? If we liked Manchester United football club. After my feeble football talk peetered out, Lorna made an even more feeble attempt at explaining rugby which she prefers over football - "It's like football... but with your hands..." His English was really quite fantastic as he was learning part time and he managed to understand and answer my questions about the alms ceremony, explaining it was all about merit for future lives. Half an hour later, we left the wat fairly bemused and went in search of food, finding our first pad thai, despite still residing on the Lao side of the Mekong. Beyond that, we bought the few things we did need from our enthusiatic shopkeeper and tried a little snake whisky (fairly disgusting and hilariously 'medicinal') before hanging out on our balcony, watching the quiet life of Huay Xai go on its business.

The next day our long anticipated adventure in the tree houses would begin.


  1. I do know more than I am about to tell you but I can't remember it all. However part of the reason the moutains are funny shapes is due to the unbelievably extensive bombing of Laos during the Vietnam war. I am surprised you haven't mentioned land mines actually (or is it case we worry!?)

    1. So I guess you didn't read my Vientiane entry? Where I have a couple of paragraphs devoted to COPE museum that details the secret war...

      Also, although small for mountains, they are still too big to have been made that shape by cluster bombs. And most of the bombing was concentrated in the south where the Ho Chi Min trail crosses into Laos, and then only one province has a lot in the north and I am pretty sure we skirted around it on the way to Luang Prabang. All in all, I pretty sure geography is the answer for the mountains.