A Travellerspoint blog

Laos

Goodbye Laos


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The top ten things we've learnt whilst in Laos:

1. Chicken fried rice is most tasty when eaten in a filthy looking, roadside "cafe" (aka someone's home!)
2. Big stone jars are cool!
3. We actually DO have standards of hygiene when it comes to accommodation.
4. Tubing is boring - next time opt for the kayak!
5. "Friends" NEVER gets old! Oh Joey, we love you!
6. We like steak and red wine.
7. Joma Cafe is our downfall.
8. We knew very little about some shocking, and relatively recent, history.
9. Bowling at midnight just outside the city bounds - a great way around the UNESCO curfew!
10. Boats don't sink, no matter how many people you pile in them!

Posted by Tam-Jo 17:10 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

The bus journey from hell

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As I have been telling Tam repeatedly for the last week or two, you can't come to south east Asia and not do an overland border crossing - it's an experience. You also can't come to south east Asia and not do a hellish long bus journey - it's an experience. We decided to do both at once, and it was definitely an experience!!! Here is a round up of our 26 hour ride from Vientiance, Laos, to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Hour 0: Our minivan was late to pick us up from the hostel. While waiting I managed to unwittingly befriend a child named Kola. As those of you who know me will testify, I don't like children - they are scary! They can also smell my fear and are drawn to me. For a good twenty minutes I was left to enteratin Kola, who even drew me a picture of a chicken to take home with me (I subtly left it there!), whilst Tam ignored my discomfort and got on with more grown up things. These things included falling to the floor after breaking a plastic stool - very funny! The minivan eventually arrived to take us to the bus station.

Hour 1: The bus. Us nine foreigners were the last to arrive at the bus station and on seeing the condition of the bus that we would be spending the next 26 hours in decided that there must have been a mistake. There wasn't. The only room left on the bus was in the last two rows. Five "beds" (reclining chairs with a little hole for your legs beneath the headrest of the chair in front) made up each of the last two rows, meaning that those in the last row had to clamber over the people in the row in front to get to the aisle. We were, of course, in the back row! We settled in and made ourselves comfortable for the journey ahead.

Hour 3: BANG! Yep, the tyre below me blew out. Did we have a spare? Ha! As if! Course of action? Flag down every passing bus until we found one that had a spare tyre we could steal! And back on the road we went!

Hour 5: Dinner stop. Everyone off the bus!

Hour 9: We arrived at the border. It didn't open for another five hours. But it had been a bumpy ride until then so none of us had had much sleep. Plus the engine was right beneath us, meaning that our seats were hotter than the sun. So the five hour wait at the border was a welcome relief and we all managed to grab a couple of hours of kip.

Hour 14-16: The border crossing from hell! Into Laos emigration to queue to have our passports stamped. This took a good hour. After trying to get back on the bus half of our group were turned away and pointed in the direction of the border. Our passports were checked and we were ushered through the barrier and into no mans land. It was raining, and muddy and we were all wearing flipflops. We couldn't see more than a few metres in front of us because of the mist but there was nowhere to go but forwards. Our walk to the Vietnamese border was long and punctuated by having to dive out of the way of several passing trucks that seemed to appear out of nowhere. When we eventually reached immigraton we were told that, even though we all had valid visas arranged in advance, we had to pay a "stamp fee" to get into the country. One of the girls we were with started to argue with the man behind the counter that was dressed in military uniform and demanding the money, until we reminded her that he was the one holding the stamp and there was really no way of getting out of paying him! Then ensued a game of cat and mouse with our bus and the Vietnamese border crossing guards: we tried to get on the bus, the driver wouldn't let us. The border control guards told the driver to let us on the bus, fifteen minutes later a different border control guard told us all to get off. Our bags were all taken off the bus and we were marched down the hill to have them scanned whilst a guard checked our bus. We loaded everything back on the bus, had a minor argument with the man at the money exchange place who was talking on his phone instead of exchanging money, then got back on the bus! For some reason, although this was all very difficult to do at 7am, I LOVED IT!!! What an adventure! Onwards!

Hour 22: We were meant to be in Hanoi. 200km to go. It had been a bumpy ride so far!

Hour 26: We arrived in Hanoi! Whoop! We got a very cheap minivan into town and then walked to our hostel through the crazy hustle and bustle of the Vietnamese capital!

After a very disappointing KFC (we've managed to avoid fast food for the last month - don't judge us!), we collapsed in front of HBO! It was an exhausting 27 hours, but what an experience!!

Jo xxx

Posted by Tam-Jo 23:38 Archived in Laos Tagged vientiane hanoi Comments (1)

Tuk-tuk tour

And a broken stool

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A lot of sightseeing was in order for today and to help accomplish this we decided a tuk-tuk was in order. It took over 10 minutes but we managed to haggle down a tuk-tuk driver to a reasonable price. Expert negotiators we are!

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Our stops for the day were:
- That Dam: The Black Stupa
- Patuxay: Victory Gate, the Arc de Triomphe of Laos
- Pha That Luang: A gold covered Buddhist stupa

Then back to the hostel to wait for our 530pm pick up for the sleeper bus to Vietnam. Whilst waiting for this pickup, Jo managed to befriend a child called Kola and I managed to break a plastic stool just by sitting on it, falling on my bum in front of everyone! We also stocked up on food from JoMa to take on board the bus with us. Neither of us were holding onto any hope that the bus would stop anywhere half decent for dinner!

I'll let Jo tell you about the "joys"of the 24 hour sleeper bus. I'm still bitter that we've had to resort to this mode of transportation!!

Tam xx

Posted by Tam-Jo 23:34 Archived in Laos Tagged vientiane Comments (0)

A bunch of buddha's

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Obviously, today started with breakfast/lunch at JoMa cafe! Then, on our way back to the hostel, we were accosted by another tuk tuk driver who offered to take us around the city for an extortionate amount of money. Feeling fed up of being chased by ridiculous tuk tuk drivers who assumed we were stupid falangs, we tried our hand at haggling him down to a more sensible price for a trip out to the buddha park, 40 minutes outside the city. We even had input from an old (and therefore probably wiser) Australian man who kept telling us the driver was asking for way to much despite having no clue where we were going! We got him down to less than half price! Win!

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After a very bumpy ride, we arrived at a piece of greenery in the middle of nowhere. We had a very confusing conversation with the driver who we thought was telling us we had fifteen minutes there before he drove off (he was actually telling us we had one hour, and thought we were telling him we wanted four hours there, at which point he looked terrified! Hahaha!). So, the buddha park - basically a park full of buddha statues. Pretty cool! Plus some random round tower with a very unsafe staircase to the top and no barriers when you got up there to stop you toppling to your death from the sloping roof..... we like to live dangerously :-) After twenty minutes we were done, much to the relief of our driver.

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Back to the hostel for a quick freshen up before heading back to the French restaurant for an exact repeat of last night's dinner.... what can we say?! It was that good!!

Jo xxx

Posted by Tam-Jo 23:27 Archived in Laos Tagged vientiane Comments (0)

Another minivan!

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A three hour minivan from Vang Vieng to the capital Vientianne started our day. Thankfully neither of us were poorly today!

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After checking into our hostel (which is more like a nice hotel!) we went for a walk around the centre, starting with a snack in our favourite cafe, Joma, first! We walked along the bank of the Mekong river, admired a giant statue on the riverbank (still not sure who this was a statue of!), visited a temple then gave into the heat and headed back to the hostel.

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This evening we had dinner at an amazing French restaurant next to the fountain down the road from our hostel. For the equivalent of about £5 we had a three course dinner of onion soup, fillet steak with baked potato and three sauces and fruit salad with lemon syllabub. We both think it was the best fillet steak either of us have ever had!!! They even had a decent house red wine which didn't cost a fortune so we shared a carafe. It was sooooooo yummy (we have been seriously deprived of wine since we left the UK)! Something tells me we'll be heading back to the same restaurant tomorrow evening!

Tam xx

Posted by Tam-Jo 23:10 Archived in Laos Tagged vientiane Comments (0)

Tubing in Laos, the tame way!

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With Tam feeling a little better today, we went for a wander round Vang Vieng after breakfast. It's a pretty small place, so that didn't take long! But we stopped at a bar by the river for a pretty undrinkable lemon/orange juice, and to watch the stretch of river that in previous days was full of loud, drunk 18 year olds.

Vang Vieng had become known as the party place of Laos over the past five or six years. A typical visit in the past would have involved tubing down the river and stopping at the numerous bars on the way, which offered a variety of hazardous activites from zip-lining to rope swings and bridge jumping. What had once been a beautiful area, with some amazing karst scenery, had evolved into the Magaluf of Laos. We were not that keen on going to the place, except for the scenery and the fact that it is somewhere that no traveller misses on a trip to Laos. But over the last month we had heard rumours that the governement had shut down the majority of the bars along the river, due to the ever increasing tourist death toll (26 last year, most from idiotic drunken rope swinging/ziplining into rocks or parts of the river that were too shallow!). So maybe it wouldn't be so bad? Wrong! Now it was just like Blackpool in winter! Depressing!

Anyways, we did the obligatory tubing along the river and avoided the two bars that managed to survive the shut down and were still spewing drunken teenagers back out into the water. The scenery was spectacular. But two hours is a long time to sit in a rubber ring and float down river, especially when your ring is too big for you and you keep falling through the middle! By the end we were a little delirious with boredom and the cold, and very, very jealous of the kayakers! A quick tuk-tuk ride back to the hostel, followed by a shower to warm up and we were back out on the streets again in search of food. After bumping into some people we'd met in Thailand, and listening to their very hyper 18-year old chatter for twenty odd minutes, we found a restaurant near the river showing Friends and serving the largest banana pancakes I've ever seen! Bliss!

Tomorrow we move onwards to Vientiane, the capital!

Jo xxx

Posted by Tam-Jo 02:28 Archived in Laos Tagged vangvieng Comments (2)

Room hopping

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Today we travelled by minivan to Vang Vieng. It was only around a four hour journey but for me, it was horrendous! My first bout of travellers tummy. I spent most of the journey concentrating on not throwing up (thankfully I was successful in this)!

On arriving in Vang Vieng we hopped into a tuk-tuk with everyone else from our minivan for a cheap ride into the town centre. From there, it was a ten minute walk to our hostel. By the time we checked into our room, I was ready to pass out in bed (I wasn't coping well with the bad tummy!). Unfortunately, we ended up moving to three different rooms before we could relax. The mosquito screen in the first room was broken so that was a deal breaker (we are in a malaria zone after all), the beds were literally like rock in the second room (we were being fussy today!), the third room however was "perfect"! It even had reception for the HBO channel (which none of the other rooms managed to achieve despite us stealing a digi box from another room)!

And so I finally got to go to bed! And Yogi Bear the movie was on HBO. Perfect!

Not much else to report on. We made it out down the road for some dinner (which for me consisted of no more than three bites of potato) whist watching some episodes of Friends...a lot of bars and restuarants in the town show Friends and South Park non-stop!

Then an early night! Rock and roll!

Tam xx

Posted by Tam-Jo 02:22 Archived in Laos Tagged vangvieng Comments (1)

That Vietnamese b*tch stole my makeup!

Quote from the local shopkeeper who swears she is not racist!

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On the agenda for today? The Plain of Jars. This is actually what we made the 14 hour round trip to Phonsavahn to see. After checking out of the hotel, and buying a very unhealthy breakfast of crisps and cookies, we jumped on our tour bus.

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We visited three jar sites today, as well as an old Russian tank, and a whisky village. Lets start with the jars - huge (and I mean huge!) stone jars dotted all about the place on hilltops. There are two versions of what these jars are and how they came to be. The local version: lots of stone was glued together using sugar cane juice and boiled cow skin, they were hollowed out, and then used to store water or whisky (water in the small ones, whiskey in the big ones, naturally!). The UNESCO version: the stone was quarried from the hills and hollowed out. The sites are cemetaries, with the large jars possibly used for cremations while the smaller jars were then used to contain the ashes and bones of the cremated. So, mother, you asked what they were and there you have it! Being scientists, Tam and I lean towards the UNESCO version despite our deep respect for whisky!

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There are, in fact, many, many jar sites, although we only visited three. But the UXO's that litter this area of Laos prevent tourists from being able to visit many of the other sites. Even at the sites we visited, which were deemed safe, you were advised to stay on clearly marked paths, as outside these paths UXOs had not been cleared - another classic example of health and safety madness ;-)

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After this, we visited a 77 year old lady in a local village who has been making Lao Lao whiskey all of her life. Obviously we were expected to try some, and try some we did. It knocked us out a little, but we survived!!

After the tour we legged it back to our hotel to grab our things and get to the local bus station for what we thought was our 6 hour 4pm bus to Vang Vieng. When we got to the station we discovered that the bus didn't leave until 4.30pm, we weren't actually yet booked onto it (despite having paid for it at the hotel!), and it was actually a 9 hour journey....... hhhhmmmmmm........ maybe the lack of a ticket was a sign not to get on the bus? We took it to be! After a quick confab with the man that owns the hotel we stayed in last night, we grabbed a tuk-tuk back to town, checked back into our hotel and swapped our public bus tickets for two seats on a minivan tomorrow morning! Much more sensible!! Our night was topped off by a hilarious conversation with a local shop owner who had just noticed some of her stock of makeup was missing - very funny, but perhaps you had to be there!

Jo xxx

Posted by Tam-Jo 19:59 Archived in Laos Tagged phonsavanh Comments (0)

An education

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Most of our day was spent travelling to Phonsavan on extremelly hilly and windy roads in a minivan with next to no legroom (and this coming from two girls who have very short legs!). We did stop for some chicken fried rice on the way though which was lovely.

On arriving into Phonsavan, we were greeted by lots of young men waving signs for various guesthouses in the town. We saw a sign for ours so we jumped in the van! On being asked if we were staying in the hotel or the guesthouse, we assumed it was the guesthouse based on our stingy budget. We should have been wary at this stage when one of the guys was saying how it was extra cheap! He grabbed our key and showed us to our room. The first thing to hit us was the smell. It smelt like toilet. No joke. And the room was awful...the sheets looked like they hadn't been cleaned in weeks...the towel looked like it hadn't been cleaned ever...we felt dirty just standing in it (bearing in mind our standards have dropped considerably after travelling for over three months!). The doubt then started to creep in as to whether this was in fact the place that Jo had booked. We were supposed to be paying more than $10 for the room, which in Laos should get a decent (ish) place, so we were confused. They didn't take our name when we walked in (even though we had booked in advance and had paid a deposit) and the name on the front of the guesthouse was slightly different to the sign the guy was holding up and to that on our booking confirmation. Something wasn't quite right!

Jo had noticed that there was a hotel across the road with the same name to the guesthouse where we had been dropped so we hatched a plan to run across there to check if they had a booking under our name. Because of the language barrier, this was not easy to determine but they did have a twin room for the price on our booking confirmation so we took it! Phase two of the plan...retrieve our belongings from the dodgy guesthouse across the road! This was surprisingly easy and within ten minutes we were in our new room which looks like it may have actually been cleaned within the last month! Score!

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We spent a couple of hours this evening at the MAG office here in Phonsavan. MAG is the Mines Advisory Group which is a UK based charity which among other things, is working in Laos to clear unexploded ordance (UXO) and help people living in affected areas to live more safely. Whilst Jo and I were both aware that Laos had been affected during the Vietnam war and that unexploded devices in the country from this time are still causing a problem, neither of us had any idea of the sheer scale of it. Some of the things we have learnt:
- Laos is the most bombed country on the planet.
- More than two million tons of ordance was dropped on Laos by the US during the Second Indochina War (Vietnam War) between 1964 and 1973 which is more than the US dropped on both Germany and Japan combined in WW2.
- This bombing of Laos is known as the Secret War. The US bombed Laos in secret and in direct vioation to the 1954 Geneva Accords and 1962 Geneva Conventions which prohibited the presence of foreign military in Laos as it was declared independent and neutral.
- There were more than 580,000 bombing missions on Laos during the Vietnam War which is equivalent to one bombing mission every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.
- More than 270 million cluster munitions were used, of which an estimated 80 million malfunctioned and have remained in the ground since (it is estimated that 30% of all ordanance did not detonate on impact).
- Of the ordanance which failed to detonate, only around 1% have been cleared to date. The rest remains in the ground.
- Approximately 25% of of the country's villages are contaminated with UXO.
- There have been around 300 new casualties annually over the last decade from UXO.
- Over the last decade around 40% of these casualties have been children.
- UXO are contributing to poverty in Laos by preventing new land from being developed.
- At the current rate, it will take another 150 years before the people of Laos are safe from UXO.

We also watched an hour long documentary which highlighted some of the issues we had read about at the centre. It was difficult to watch at points but it really highlighted to us the issues which Laos is facing even now as a result of something which happened four decades ago.

If any of you would like to read more about what MAG do all over the world, have a look at their website: www.maginternational.org

Tam xx

Posted by Tam-Jo 19:45 Archived in Laos Tagged phonsavanh Comments (0)

Another peaceful sit-in protest

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We spent most of the early part of this morning running away from tuk-tuk drivers who were chasing us with offers of rides to Kuang Si Waterfalls.... we were actually planning on going to the waterfalls today, but we were not about to pay the extortionate fares quoted to us on the way from JoMa cafe to our hostel. They soon wised up to the fact that we knew they were trying to rip us off and quoted us a more reasonable price, but we were too annoyed with them by then to accept! Some may call us stubborn, I like to think we stick to our decisions! Unfortunately for us, the tuk tuk driver we booked through our hostel turned out to be one of the drivers that we had refused earlier..... awkward!

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Anyway, skipping past that, off we headed on the 40 minute ride out of Luang Prabang to the falls. First stop, the bear rescue centre. Very interesting. Onwards! Before we even got to the waterfall we stumbled across a number of unbelievably blue pools which looked very inviting, except for the fact that it was a cold day and the water was freezing!!

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The waterfalls themselves were amazing, and the hike up to the top was very enjoyable, even if we weren't exactly wearing the right footwear (I went native in the end - barefoot!). After an iced coffee at the cafe we decided to go for the plunge! Soooooo cold!

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On our way back to Luang Prabang our tuk tuk broke down - typical! But it gave us a chance to wandered around the local village while our driver changed the tyre! Then back in Luang Prabang we managed to get into an argument with a woman about bus trips. We were hoping to book seats in a minivan to Phonsavahn for the following day but were informed that you needed to book seats a day in advance. It seemed to us that the lady behind the desk just did not like us and did not want to book us tickets. We fell back on our old faithful tactic of sitting down and refusing to move. After a lot of pleasantries, some very logical arguments and the eventual realisation that we were not leaving without bus tickets, the lady finally gave in and booked us on the minivan. WIN!

Tonight we plan on heading out to look around the night market and I'm sure we will end up spending a fortune on souveneirs again! We are totally back in our travelling groove after the Christmas break!

Jo xxx

Posted by Tam-Jo 19:36 Archived in Laos Tagged luangprabang Comments (1)

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