Sunday, 29 January 2012

sleepy savannakhet

24th - 27th January 2012

Savannakhet, Laos

               As previously mentioned, the Vietnam new year or Tết, means I have to wait until the 30th before I can get a visa allowing entry into their country. With this unavoidable obstacle in my way, I therefore had a week burning a hole in my pocket and after weighing up my options, decided to make tracks down south to investigate the riverside city of Savannakhet for a few days. Savannakhet is actually the second largest city in Laos after Vientiane, although you would hardly know it from the quiet often deserted streets which connect this sleepy city together. The way of life here is extremely laid back and an amusing sign summed the city's and indeed the country's outlook towards life perfectly - 'remember this is Lao P.D.R. (People Democratic Republic)  - Please Don't Rush - no one else is.' On the overnight sleeper bus down from Vientiane I got chatting to a Finnish couple whose names were Ilari and Hanna and subsequently we have spent the past few days exploring this peaceful city together. Hanna is in the middle of a SIX year psychology course - the normal length of a degree in Finland apparently - and Ilari has just finished his mandatory sentence in the Finnish army, now returning to his studies which had been halted by this national law. On one of the days spent in this lazy riverside town, we hired some bicycles with the intention of going to visit a monkey forest that was on the 'things to do in Savannakhet' poster, which had been plastered to the wall outside the small tourism office in the central square. After being told that it would be a MILLION! kip to hire a tuk tuk for the return journey - as it was too far away to cycle - we made new plans to follow a cycle route which looped out into the countryside north of the city passing by the Dong Natad forest, That Ing Hang temple and Bungva lake before returning to town from the east. With the route mapped out and supplies for the journey purchased, we set off at about midday under the glare of an oppressive sun which raged fiercely over our heads. The road was mercifully flat and we barelled along on the main highway out of town and after cycling for about 45 minutes reached the police box which we had been told to take a right turn at.  After a few more kilometres we saw the sign for Dong Natad and turned off into the forest. As concrete gave way to dirt, we approached an archway of trees that welcomed us into the shade, which came as a great relief, as during the last hour the sun had grown in intensity. Entering the protected area we cycled along narrow paths littered with fallen leaves and tree roots which had broken through the forest floor. The sun, although restricted from entering this peaceful sanctuary, still sent ribbons of light through the trees which were refracted endlessly by vibrantly green leaves. We cycled along these dusty paths for about 20mins before reaching a break in the trees which revealed the Nong Lom lake that nestled at it's center. Thousands of reeds jutted through the surface of this tranquil lake and we stopped by the waters edge to cool down and rest, enjoying the total silence which muted the area. Only the chirping of birds and the gentle whistle of the wind through the leaves broke the serenity of this most peaceful setting. 
                            Turning back, as we wanted to fit in all the sights along the route before sundown, we returned to the main road and cycled on until we reached That Ing Hang; stopping awhile to enjoy a cold Beer Lao in the park which spread across the road from the temple. By this time, the late afternoon hours were dragging the sun from it's lofty throne in the sky; diminishing it's strength minute by minute, so we quickly set off again in the hope of being able to watch sundown from the shore of Bungva lake. Sipping on my beer, I approached a congregation of ladies who were selling their BBQ'd chicken snacks by the side of the road in order to ask directions for the lake, as the simplified map that had been given to us back at the tourist office was very basic. With the correct road signaled by a wave of hands, I returned to my bike, smiling to myself as I heard 'farang' being cackled behind me in gossip - a tell-tale sign that they were making some light hearted joke about the silly red headed foreigner on a pink bike. Setting off in what we hoped was the right direction and with my bike failing to keep it's chain on the back sprocket - requiring continuous reattachment - we finally came to a sign for Bungva lake and so headed off down the dusty path which led to the shoreline. Cycling through the village which lay before the lake, crowds of ecstatic children ran out from their houses to enthusiastically greet us, yelling 'SABAI DI!!!!' at the top of their voices; while their elders simply smiled and waved from wooden porches. Nearing the water, to our surprise we were greeted by a restuarant bar which had set up shop on the bank of this vast lake. It consisted of a series of about twenty thatch roofed huts which lined the shoreline. The lady who was working there, greeted us with a broad welcoming smile and rolled out some groundmats in the hut we chose down by the water. A tray containing three Beer Laos and a bucket of ice was then delivered to our hut and I spent the next hour or so enjoying the setting with my new found Finnish friends under the orange glow of a fading sun. While in Vietnam, Ilari and purchased a Chinese set and sitting back in our hut he attempted to teach me the rules which I struggled with greatly. The game differs from actual chess in that a river runs down the middle of the board which certain pieces can't cross. In addition a castle area exists on either side from which the King cannot leave. The hardest thing about the game is learning the functions of each piece, as they are only differentiated by the Chinese symbols that mark them which to my untrained eyes all look very similar. Following my swift defeat, I went and sat on a log by the waters edge where my fascination with sunsets was once again indulged, as the golden time piece in the sky performed yet another fantastic closing ceremony in an explosion of colour, using the lake as its final resting place. A fisherman collected his net from the water in front of our hut which was by this point, bathed in the glorious orange glow of a dying sun. Birds swarmed over the lake, while dragon flies danced on it's surface bewitched by the colours it emitted from it's dark depths. Finishing our beers as the sun sank from view; the day ended and the journey back into town was made in almost total darkness. Luckily Ilari had a head torch which lit the potholed roads as we glided back towards Savannakhet; eventually to be greeted by street lights that welcomed us back after a long day in the countryside.


French colonial rule is reflected in the architecture of the old quarter. Many of the buildings are now unfortunately in a bad state of disrepair.
The location of Savannakhet.
I'm going to start putting up photographs of things that just catch my eye and have no real meaning. Thought this fence was pretty cool, not sure why.
Some boats moored down by the Mekong.
Monk patrol.
The sunset on my first night in Savannakhet.
Cycling through the Dong Natad forest.
Nong Lom lake.
That Ing Hang. Been awhile since I've seen a temple......oh wait, scratch that, I can see one out of the window of this internet cafe! They're bloody everywhere!
The huts which dotted Bungva lake.
Hanna, Ilari and Me.
The baffling Chinese chess board.
The sunset over Bungva.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

a sunset over vientiane

24th January 2012

Vientiane, Laos

        Throughout this trip, I had been fortunate enough to witness the rise and fall of the sun in many glorious settings, and my final evening in Vientiane yielded yet another mesmerizing sunset.
       Following the departure of my Australian counterparts, who were making their way south in search of Laos’ 4000 islands, I was once again by myself. After an unfortunate setback caused by an elusive Vietnamese visa, a week was burning a hole in my pocket, as I was unable to leave for that Soviet stronghold until the country’s embassy reopened after a National holiday. Rather than stay in the urban jungle, I decided instead to spend some time in the sleepy town of Savannakhet, which lies on the banks of the river Mekong, about 275km south of the capital. 
The bus was due to leave around 8pm, so the day was spent wandering the streets, browsing book shops and chatting to inquisitive locals down by the river. By early evening, my walk had brought me to a central square where large steps led down to a sandy beach which lay between the promenade and the Mekong. Removing my flip-flops at the bottom, I ambled towards the river across the comforting sand, still warm from a dying sun which, in its final hour of strength, shone valiantly in the early evening sky. 
Approaching the water, local fishermen were gathering nets and mooring their boats after a long day on the river, no doubt intending to relinquish their treasures to the restaurants in town later that night. Looking to the sky, the sun had set its sight on the horizon, hurtling towards the staggered silhouette while the moon introduced itself to the fading canvas. Hovering above the horizon of houses which lay on the other side of the river, the golden globe cast a single pillar of orange light across the flowing waters which rippled under a gentle breeze. Looking around me, small pockets of people dotted the river bank, who like myself, had been drawn towards this cinema of light. Young couples immersed in each other’s company, their golden faces lost in a perfect moment. 
Adjusting my gaze to the water, some local kids stood on the bank, amusing themselves by skipping stones across the surface, each impact sending tiny undulations through the sun glazed water.  Above their playful antics, the sun entered its final act, radiating a wide spectrum of intense red and orange light that merged with a fading blue sky in a symphony of colour. Golden spears reflected off the water to illuminate the city behind me, painting the buildings with a rich gilded hue. Minutes later, the grand time-piece made its final farewell to the day and slipped beneath the silhouette of buildings on the horizon, and in doing so, handed its guard over to an infant moon, eager to begin its twilight vigil. With the performance over and my departure time rapidly approaching, I dusted the sand from my shorts and headed back into town.


Friday, 27 January 2012

buddha park

20th - 24th January 2012

Vientiane, Laos

              Arrived in the capital of Laos on the 20th of January after a short but very enjoyable stint in Vang Vieng, although it had left me a little worse for wear. It seems that beer had dragged me unscathed through the perilous dangers of tubing but it could not protect me from the stinking cold which ambushed me upon arrival in Vientiane and lingered for a few days. I rolled into town that evening just as the sun was making it's  final descent  in a cloudless sky accompanied by the three Aussies: Devon, Sally and Jasper. A new city and so started the familiar process of hunting down a cheap but habitable place to rest our heads. For many travelers, Vietiane is a necessary pit stop en route to southern Laos or as a base from which to embark on longer journeys to Vietnam. As far as cities go it's not the most exciting place to be but in my few days spent there I did find a little to do which I'll run through here. To bring you up to speed with my plans, I had headed to the capital intending like many to sort myself a visa for Vietnam from the embassy; unfortunately this was not be as straight forward as I thought. Due to poor timing and lack of foresight, I arrived on a friday night and was told by my hostel that the Vietnamese embassy was closed for the weekend. The following day after investigating opening times, I then found out that the Vietnamese had decided to have their New Year at the most inconvenient of times. It almost seemed as if they weren't aware that Biggles wanted to get into their country.... and as a result of their celebrations the embassy would not be open for another week. No visa, no entry; Vietnam annoyingly is the only country in this region of South East Asia that doesn't allow you to get a visa on their borders - unless you fly in. I therefore had a week to fill before I could get the all important stamp in my passport and so I spent a few days checking out Vientiane before booking a bus ticket down to Savannakhet a few days later.

             On the morning of the 23rd, set off from the hostel in search of  the curious Buddha park. Buddha park  itself sits on the river Mekong about 27km from Vientiane.  The only reason I went to see it was because of the marvelously eccentric story explaining it's existence that tickled my curiosity so much I had to go scope it out. The park houses a massive collection of concrete sculptures which were created under the direction of Luang Phu Boonlua Surirat. This self styled holy man claimed to have been the one and only disciple of a cave-dwelling Hindu hermit who lived in Vietnam and when Boonlua returned to Laos in the 1950's he put together this park of ferro-concrete sculptures.  The park depicts a vast range of deities from the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon and were created so that Boonlua could spread his philosophy about life and his ideas about the cosmos. Making my way down to the local bus station, found the No.14 bus stand, hopped onto a rickety metal carriage  and waited to set off. It's become apparent in Laos that no timetables really exist for the buses as it seems that a bus will only leave when it has enough people on board to make the journey worthwhile. I therefore waited patiently on the back seat as people gradually trickled on before finally having enough to leave. Fifteen minutes later and with a reasonably full bus we lurched out of the station setting off into the countryside surrounding Vientiane. As we got further away from the city, the condition of the road gradually descended from unbroken tarmac to dusty roads which were littered with crater-like potholes. Navigating these  bumpy highways we finally pulled up to the entrance of Buddha park about an hour later. The park itself was every bit as strange and surreal as the history surrounding it and I was greeted by a giant concrete head whose mouth served as a doorway into a multi-level giant urn containing sword wielding gods and the snarling faces of various Hindu deities. The riverside field was littered with surreal statues such as three headed war elephants and plump giggling buddhas. Near the end of a park a giant and sinister Buddha head  rested on the ground whose body had been replaced by a giant serpents body. A dual-tail whipped up behind  this terrifying deity presenting a concrete orb to the sky. Walking around, rows upon rows of multi-limbed Hindu deities lined the park; each arm brandishing swords, axes, maces and other weapons of death. An hour or so was enough to see all the statues, walking back to the main road and flagging down a passing bus to get back into the city.

Sally, Devon, Jasper and Me.
The location of the capital.
Groups of youths patrolled the streets celebrating the New Year.
Cheeky dragon.
The back of the local bus to Buddha park. Waiting for it to fill up.
Arriving at Buddha park.
The view of the park from the giant urn. Along the left side rested the giant reclining buddha.
About to be gobbled up.

More statues of Hindu-Buddhist deities.
Weird snake Buddha.

Monday, 23 January 2012

tubing in vang vieng

18th - 19th January 2012

Vang Vieng, Laos

                I spent over a week in Luang Prabang, which is certainly no bad thing as it's a beautiful city but it was longer than I had initially anticipated. The reason for the delay was that after three months I finally succumbed to a nasty case of food poisoning which in all honestly was long overdue and  probably deserved.  Deserved because the previous night I had been boasting to Niall and Amy - an Irish couple I first met in India - that during my whole time spent in the Raj, I had managed to avoid any stomach problems as if I was some iron bellied superman. It is a foolish man who decides to tempt fate with the gods by spouting such brazen talk as I was that night, and needless to say the following morning I was struck down with some nasty bug. During those dark days, I reached probably the lowest point of the trip so far which saw me slumped over the toilet in the shared bathroom of  my hostel, overcome by merciless and relentless bouts of violent and uncontrollable vomiting. Still what doesn't kill you makes you stronger and the affliction soon passed allowing me to enjoy my final few days relaxing in the serenity which Luang Prabang exudes in abundance.

                In a previous post I bemoaned the fact that saying goodbye to new friends on the road is a sad but inevitable part of traveling, as everyone is moving along their own unique and wildly varied paths. From time to time though these paths unite and remain aligned long enough to allow you to continue traveling with these new found acquaintances; until the next fork in the road presents itself of course. On the final day in Luang Prabang I bumped into an Australian fellow by the name of Devon who I first met in Chiang Mai and he told me that he was heading to Vang Vieng the next day. Devon had also arrived in Luang Prabang on the slow boat and whilst on board he had befriended two other Aussies by the name of Sally and Jasper from Melbourne and Sydney respectively, who were also planning to go to the lawless town of Vang Vieng. As chance would have it  a few hours earlier I had also booked a bus ticket there so we arranged to meet up the following evening once we had both arrived in town in order to go and do what everyone does in Vang Vieng; tubing. If you haven't heard of tubing, what it basically involves is floating down a river on a rubber inner tube, stopping off at several bars which line the banks as you go, all the while sinking further into an inebriated stupor. Once suitably plastered you then proceed to fling yourself down one of the 'death slides' or hurtle out into the river on a giant rope swing.  Now so many stories surround tubing, each of which play up the horrifying statistics concerning how any people die doing it. Hayley and Karen who had been there prior to Luang Prabang told me, 'Oh yeah an Aussie died last week on the rocks' and 'Be careful down there, 22 people have died in the last year'. Many people who visit this dangerous place come away with some form of injury as buckets of whiskey combined with shallow water and sharp rocks make for a predictably dangerous recipe. A wry grin indicating pride swept across Hayley's face as she showed me a monstrously impressive bruise on her leg; her very own 'Vang Vieng Tatoo'. Early the next morning I said goodbye to Hayley and Karen who were gearing up for a flight down to the south islands for full moon shenanigans, and hopped on a minibus headed for the south, uncertain at what the next few days would bring. The countryside of Laos is very mountainous and as a result the 231 km which sits between the two cities took about 7 hours to cover but the views en route certainly made up for any discomfort. As the cool morning breeze gave way to the stifling heat of midday, the sun's surging rays pierced the windows of our little mini van  as we cantered along  slowly but surely on the belly of a giant concrete snake which meandered its way past huge cliff faces and imposing mountain tops. Finally we rolled into town and in another spot of luck I bumped into Devon, Sally and Jasper walking along the main high street. After finding a place to stay just down the road we went out for a few beers in preparation for the lawlessness which would surely follow on the river the next day. Walking along the dusty roads which connect the small settlement together, it became apparent that this is a town which has been changed irreversibly into a playground for the west as all the bars play endless  reruns of 'Friends' and 'Family Guy' series to hordes of hungover tourists while the restaurants mainly serve up pizzas, burgers and french fries. As an example of traditional Laos culture, it has to be said that Vang Vieng fails miserably, however as a place to have a rollicking good time it ranks up there with the best of them. All the restaurants had their own 'happy' menus and the beer flowed cheaply from the abundance of bars which populate the town. On that first night we were given a glimpse of what lay in store for us the following day, as wounded soldiers from tubing made their way back into town howling and chanting from the convoy of tuk tuks which shuttled into town after an intense day on the river.

      After waking up the next day in some degree of discomfort from the hangover which had managed to creep its way into my morning, I made my way over to the Vang Vieng guesthouse to meet the others. After Jasper and Sally had gone to bed the previous night, Devon and myself had told each other we would have a quiet one so that we would be fresh for tubing the next day but unfortunately 'a quiet one' is a concept that Devon struggles with and in his defence I guess I was only too willing to follow. Now I've met some big drinkers but that legend of an Aussie can drink till the sun comes up and I'm sure that if he bled, Sang Song whiskey would come pouring out of his veins. I think I got to bed around 2am after munching down the best sandwich I think I've ever had..... but looking at the state of Devon the next day it was clear that he had sessioned on until dawn with these crazy Tazmanians we ran into at Jai Dee's, a cool riverside bar down the road from our guesthouse. With the introduction of Sacha, a friend of Devon's from Adelaide, the team of four Aussie bogans and a ringer pom assembled to get stuck into a day of tubing. We all hopped on the back of a tuk tuk, briefly stopping to get our rubber inner tubes from the warehouse en route to the river. After a short stint along dusty potholed tracks we arrived down by the river and caught our first glimpse of the gigantic party which was already raging at one in the afternoon. The fast flowing currents of the Nam Xong sped past the first bar which was filled with bucket-chugging tourists each racing towards the same goal; total annihilation. Crossing a rickety wooden bridge we entered the fray and took our drinks down to the waterside where wooden platforms jutted into the river. The sun was shining, beer pong was in full swing and the music was blasting - a combination suited perfectly for merriment. While the others finished off their drinks, Devon and I sneaked off and surprised them by floating past, fists swinging in a decidedly upward fashion 'U.T.A.!', until we reached the next bar where a man on a small wooden platform threw a line out to reel us in like hungry fish to the slaughter. It took us an hour or so to reach the second bar and it didn't look like we would be reaching all twelve bars which line the river; and we didn't, but that wasn't a concern as everyone says the first couple of bars are the best anyway. This second bar had a lage wooden tower that rested on straining wooden stilts and had a large zip line attached which sent punters flying into the waters below. A few of us had a go, finished another game of beer pong and hopped back in our inner tubes to reach the next bar which boasted a dangerously high rope swing.... Climbing the staircase a queue had formed for this monster of a ride and it felt like queuing up for Oblivion, although any nerves had been quashed by the Beer Lao which circulated my veins. Waiting in line, people boasted through their drunkenness about how many flips they were going to do and excitement was rife. As I started up the last few steps, a lad ahead of me who was way to drunk to be so high up, grabbed the handles of the rope swing and leapt from the platform. Unfortunately his intoxicated arm muscles gave way immediately and he ended up dropping about 15 metres down onto his shoulder. As he crawled out of the water he slumped on the river bank and it was clear something was wrong. To the crowd's horror his shoulder had been completely dislocated so that a large bump now jutted out of his skin at the point of impact. With my turn next and brimming with confidence from what had just happened, I stepped up to the plate, got a firm grip on the handles and leapt into the abyss  swinging into the blue sky above before returning to earth with a huge splash. Staggering out of the water below I briefly talked to the guy who had dislocated his shoulder but all he could mumble was 'Another bucket'll sort me out'. Lad. The fourth bar was to be our last of the day as the sun was starting to set bringing the coolness of shade into the valley and being wet in a rubber tube no longer had the same appeal as it did earlier. In addition a few members of our team were a little worse for wear, me included and so around 6pm we headed back to town to get our deposits back for our tubes. A reckless day in a lawless town. Next? Vientiane followed by Vietnam!

           In the absence of any photographs - as I didn't want to risk drowning my Canon camera - I wrote a poem to make up for it. It's the first poem I've ever properly written and I'm not sure why it's about tubing but it came to me last night and I like it. It lacks traditional structure or any discernible rhyming pattern but it's a form of expression and I guess that's all poetry ultimately boils down to.

As the sun reaches its zenith in a clear blue sky,
so begins a new day on this river of inebriation.
Down a dusty path a convoy of metal carriages draw near,
filled with fresh faced revelers each relishing the promise of uncertainty.

European pop clashes with the tranquil melodies of the valley,
while nature's wooden elders lament the age from their lofty thrones.
Down in the river below, reckless young souls drift towards oblivion,
trapped yet content within floating rings of their own fleeting consciousness.

Today is like any other day in this limestone valley of intoxication.
Forever to be repeated like the American TV shoes in town;
forever to be lost in the annals of time.


Sunday, 22 January 2012

snapshots: luang prabang

9th - 17th January 2012

Luang Prabang, Laos

Arrived in Luang Prabang on the evening of the 9th. The city was designated a world heritage sight in 1995 by UNESCO and as a result accommodation is fairly expensive in comparison to the rest of Laos and Thailand but still ridiculously cheap compared to Europe. Superb value for money though because this room cost me about £6!
If the accommodation was expensive then eating was most certainly the opposite. Every night I would go to the night market where for 10,000 kip (12,000 kip to the pound) you were given a plate and faced with a large spread of platters each containing piles of delicious noodles, rice and fried vegetables. The only limitation was how much food you could pile onto your plate as it was a one serving affair. Needless to say I had an Everest sitting on my plate every evening. Communal tables with benches were available to eat on where I got chatting to a few other travelers.
Sisavang Vong Road. The central high street which cuts through the middle of town. Luang Prabang itself sits on a peninsula of land and it's tip marks the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.
The Laos version of the famous tuk tuk.
Climbing up Phou Si; the sacred hill of Luang Prabang which rests in the center of the peninsula. The black headed serpent snake is called a naga. A striking image prevalent in Buddhism and Hinduism.
The top of Phou Si presented some truly dazzling views of the green mountains which surround Luang Prabang. A late afternoon sun raged on the horizon bouncing light off the rippling currents that raced past in the Mekong.
Along the main high street rests the Royal Palace which is now home to the city museum. It was constructed in 1904 by the French whose influence can be seen throughout the country as Laos was a French colony for the first half of the 20th century.
Niall, Me and Amy.  I first met this Irish couple in Jodphur, India and unbelievably I bumped into them again in a local cafe. This is us at the bowling alley.....At11pm all the bars close in Luang Prabang at which point everyone goes bowling! Obviously.

Caught some monks going for a dip in the Nam Khan on one of my walks.
Wat Xiang Thong under development. Nicknamed the 'Golden City Monastery' it was built in 1560 and is famous for it's elegant curving roof which according to the rough guide is compared by locals  to a mothering hen sheltering her brood.
A local builder having a break from repairing the Wat Xiang Thong. Nifty hat.
Due to the French connection, Laos snacks come in the form of crunchy baguettes filled with ham, bacon and chicken. This woman became my regular as she made a darn good sandwich.
In another coincidental meeting, bumped into Karen and Hayley who I met in Chiang Mai at the local food market one evening. They said they were going to check out some waterfalls the following day and so we met at noon to go visit the Kouang Si waterfalls together.
The idyllic crystal clear pool of Kouang Si.
It was possible to jump off the waterfall into the ice cold refreshing waters which were so clear they didn't look real. A rope swing also sent people hurtling into its clear depths.

Karen, Me and Hayley.
On the final day with  the girls went for a bike ride around town, heading first over the river where we cycled along dusty paths through small local villages. Also got this cool shot of a monk, protected from the sun's savage stroke by a big umbrella. A surreal twist on it's associated function back in England.
Ending the cycle ride down by a small beach which rested on the shores of the Mekong.
A slow boat heading off up the Mekong under a later afternoon sun.