Friday, September 30, 2005

The Smile Bar.

We ended up spending all of yesterday down on the island, here in Vang Vieng. Just across the rickety bamboo bridge is a few small bars, with little raised huts along the edge of the river. We'd been down there the day before, so we headed back down there yesterday to get some pictures of the views.

An afternoon stretched into the evening, which soon became a late night. As the only people there for most of the time we sat and chatted with the owner, drinking Beer Lao. I'm not sure what time we left, I know it was somewhere in the early hours.

We made it across the bridge without any incidents. It wasn't until we were traversing some sizable puddles that the problems started. Sam lost a sandle in one of the large puddles. We tried to fish around for it but it couldn't be found. Somehow, I'm still not sure exactly how, I saw Sam start to fall backwards. I've seen her do this before, it's something she is quite adept at when drunk. She just went over, flat on her back into this huge muddy puddle. SPLASH!!!

I pulled her out, and having given up on the sandle, she staggered on with just one. Sonn the one became none, as she discarded that too, deciding that one sandle was of no use, and made walking back to the guesthouse a pain anyway.

Back at the guesthouse I managed to get some pictures of the drowned rat, before she stripped off her sodden clothes, dumping them on the bathroom floor. So when she got a shower, so did her clothes. Seemed like a sensible thing to do at the time, she says.

Anyway, luckily we hadn't booked an activity for today, so we had time to recover. More HBO! We have however, booked an activity for tomorrow, my birthday. We are going kyaking and caving, so should be fun. It looked lots of fun, when we were watching them all come passed us yesterday while sat at the Smile Bar.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Here Comes The Sun.

At last the weather has broken here in Vang Vieng and we have some patches of blue sky. Today we doing pretty much what we did yesterday. That being, bugger all. HBO drew us in again this morning, but we've managed to drag ourselves away and are planning to look into doing some caving tomorrow.

Don't know how long we'll stay in Vang Vieng, at least until after the weekend I'd have thought. It's my birthday on Saturday. 36!!! But Sam says seeing how I don't believe in birthdays, we are not doing anything. So more morning HBO, a late lunch, a beer or 2 in the afternoon, then back to the guesthouse for another HBO fix, followed by a wander down Khao San Road, more food more beer, and then to bed, lulled to sleep by the distant sound of HBO on the TV.

We emailed this guy we've been put in touch with about voluntary work. Not sure who he is really, some government dude running recycling and organic farming projects here in Laos. See how it goes, you never know. If we just keep chipping away at these people eventually they will give us something to do just to get rid of us. Some sort of special blind-folded mine clearence thing. They tie our arms behind our backs, blind-fold us, spin us round a dozen times and point us towards a field.

Anyway, the sun is calling so time to sign-off and do something with the day. What's that Sam? HBO?! Err... Hmmm... Oh, go on then! No... No... Let's go watch 2 series of Friends instead with all the lost people...

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

What Makes Sticky Rice Sticky? And Other Thoughts.

It's something we've wondered for a while, and never had an answer to. "What makes sticky rice sticky?" Usually greeting with an odd smile but no definative answer. We've talked to other travelers, who too have never had the answer to this mystical question.

Well we now know. When we went to the Buddha Park, and had the impromptune English class, we were given The Knowledge Of The Sticky Rice. It's like knowing the answer to Life The Universe And Everything... What makes it sticky?.. Cooking it for longer! That's it. Over cook it, stick it in one of the little basket things it comes served in, you have yourself sticky rice. Oh well at least we know now.

Another thing, that is funny to us but probably no-one else. We have done a full tour of the Nazim chain of restaurants in Laos. Well if 3 makes a chain. Luang Prabang, Vientiane and now here tonight in Vang Vieng we completed our Top Trumps of Indian Restaruants here in good old Laos.

You can tell we have not done much today, by the fact that we've had time to think about this stuff. If you think this is bad, wait until I get on one about my idea for a chain of bar/restaurants called SAME SAME... But I'll leave that one for another time.

The Real Khao San Road.

We sat around and watched a dozen or so episodes of Friends, as the torrential raid beat a steady rhythm on the tin roof above us. As the crecendo built the sound from the TV was drowned out. The remnants of the Typhoon that had hit China and Vietnam had reached us. We knew that there would be no let up today.

After a few hours the rain subsided enough for us to make a break for it. Running across the sodden street, leaping over puddles and dodging rain drops. Sheltering in a shop front we collected supplies, and headed back to the guesthouse. Quick turn-around. Dropped off the bag of shopping, and went back to find a bar.

We'd passed a place that had some mellow tunes drifting through the damp tropical night air. Finding it easily we headed in, depositing ourselves on a knee high platform of matresses, cushions and a low table. "Two Beer Lao, please." I said hplding up two fingers to be sure. The owner smiled a broad cheeky grin, nodded and said, "Two Beer Lao." He held up four fingers. I smiled back and continued to brandish my two, "two." A nod and a smile, and a "yes, two." Still holding up four.

Two beers arrived. We sat in the low lit, low-fi, low seated bar, enjoying the music. It was good to here a decent tune after being subjected to so much Thai pop for the last few weeks. The low lighting came from a lamp built out of three Bar Lao crates, and created the perfect ambience.

As time drifts and bends it becomes less and less important. So a while later, a dark figure approached from his place at the bar. He sat at the table close to us, strands of thick smoke weaved through his long greying hair. Sam called him over to come and join us. Then our night began.

Pete, a true wandering trubadore. He reminded me of Billy Connelly, if Billy Connelly had dropped out of society and become a free soul wandering around Asia. We drank, we talked, we deconstructed the world and decided our world view was right. What better to do when you are sat in a bar in the middle of Laos.

The electricity cut-out, and the vibe was broken temporarily, as people scuttled around in the dark retrieving and sparking into life half used candles. Soon the vibe returned and soon after the electricity followed. We were briefly joined by a French guy, who drifted off to another corner of the bar. We continued in the same vain until it was almost closing time.

Pete suggested that seeing how it was his last night, we should grab some bottles and head back to his guesthouse. We agreed, although I was by now a little worse for wear. So we three set-off, I a little behind, finding harder than most to negotiate the murky water filled pot-holes. Leaving the dim lights of Khao San Road behind we trudged down a dirt track until we reached almost to the river.

Rounding a corner we came upon the guesthouse, hidden from view. A place so small you would be mistaken for missing it. The owner we were told was from Norway, he appeared half asleep from a doorway as we approached. Apologies for "such a late hour" were muted, and waved off. Afterall it was only ten, but operating on Laos time it felt appropriate. We all sat around on the veranda and carried on where we had left off only minutes before. The owner's son came out and joined us, he was on holiday to see his dad.

Deep discussion and lots of laughs, it came time for us to wend our way home. Plus the beer had ran out. We hugged Pete and wished him well on his journey. The walk back was not as bad as I'd feared, we soon found ourselves outside the guesthouse. Bed was delayed by an attempt to watch a film on HBO, but was a non-starter. One-by-one we drifted into deep relaxing sleep.

Morning came, but we managed to ignore it. Picking up where we left off, we attempted HBO again. This time we stuck a full film. Well almost, as Sam started to doze just towards the end of The Hulk. It was around one in the afternoon, so it was time we faced the day. The rain had died off, which we'd partly used as an excuse not to venture further than our beds so far that day.

Now well, we've eaten, and feel fighting fit enough to tap-tap-tap away at a keyboard for a while. Answering emails, up-dating the blog, the daily technological grind of staying in touch with the world out there.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Street OF Friends.

We hit Vang Vieng today. What a place! A small town, really small, just on the edge of the northern mountain ranges. Great scenary, and loads of activities to get into here. Just had to come on and mention the weird set-up here. They have a Khoa San Road, like in Bangkok. Except that here it is no more than a pot-holed dirt track lined with bars and guesthouses.

The weird part is the bars that have these stilted seating ares that you can chill-out on, while watching episode after episode of Friends. Nothing else! They just repeat Friends series after series on big TV's, while you sit and eat, drink and whatever else you may want to do!!! They do teh 'happy pizza' here!!! Don't ask, you don't want to know. Let's just say they involve special mushrooms!!! Not advised, the Lonely Planet has a special section on the UNhappy pizza experience.

Anyway, just a quicky. Off now to catch the next episode...

Monday, September 26, 2005

Another Month In Laos.

We got up early today, sent off some more postcards, and went and applied for a visa extention. We thought that we may have to wait a day for it, but with lots of smiles, a lot of "khop jai" (thank you), and they let us have it the same day. All good fun running from little window to little window, getting a form here, handing it over there, paying the fee back across there, then collecting the passports at the end over there!

We also went to visit MAG (Mines Advisory Group), the UK based NGO I mentioned before. Jamie the Brit running the project here had sent us a map of how to get there, so we found it tucked down a little dirt track quite easily. We sat and chatted for a good while. He told us about the work of MAG and showed us airel images that he just got from UNESCO of the Plain Of Jars sites that we had visited. It showed what had been cleared and what was still potentially covered with UXO. It was amazing to see from over-head the masses of craters left after the bombings by the American Air Force.

He also gave us a lead on maybe getting a foot in the door on voluntary work, giving us the contact details of a woman who coordinates the work of the NGO's here in Laos. So once again fingers-crossed, but definately not holding our breath this time.

After we got back to the guesthouse, Sam crashed on the bed and I went and exchanged the book I'd read. I swapped it for one by a writer called Jim Dodge, entitled Stone Junction. It's part of the Rebel Inc. series, same as Brautigan stuff I have read, so should be good.

Tomorrow we plan to head back up north to Vien Vieng, about a 5 hour bus journey from here. It's beautiful up there, and it's also near to the WWOFing place if the NGO/volunteering path just runs cold.

Current Black Jack scores (although we've not played for a while) are, 42 to Sam and 52 to me.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Vientiane: Not Much Doing.

Another day in the Laos capital. We're getting a bit stir-crazy here, as there isn't a lot to do. I'm feeling pretty much better, nearly back to fighting fit. We decided to move guesthouse, the other one was too much like a prison cell. We moved just round the corner to a better place, with air-con and a TV that shows BBC World. It is $15 a night, but worth it, just so we can have some space and not feel so hemmed in.

The problem with guesthouses in Vientiane is that they differ so much in price and standard. For around $5 you are lucky to get a bathroom, and the places are usually pretty shit, damp and smelly. Then it leaps up to $15-$30, when you are more likely to get a place that is of a half decent standard, particularly if you are sticking around a while.

We've decided to extent our Laos visas. so tomorrow that will be one of our missions. The other is to go to the MAG office. One to offer a small donatation for the fantastic work they do, secondly to see if they need any volunteer help, whatever that maybe.

We want to get out of Vientiane, so am not going to stick around for our Vietnam visas. We'll extent our Laos one, then head up back north to Vieng Vien. There we can do some WOFFing if we want, as that was our fall-back plan if the volunteer thing didn't come off. There are too many goody-goody Christain yanks getting all the volunteer jobs. I over-heard some talking last night. All clean-cut, on gap-year or placement from university. Jobs for the boys again. Same all over the world.

Yesterday we went to the Buddha Park, about 32Km from Vientiane. Like the place we visited in Thailand, this was created by a monk. However, unlike the Thailand one, this place was bigger and the statues were not painted in bright primary colours.

We managed to get ourselves there by public transport, which was a bit of a feat in itself. Still not knowing when we should get off, we enquired of some young monks as to when we should disembark. They too were going there, so we simply followed their lead.

On entering the park, there is a interpretation of Hell. You enter through a huge 'hell-mouth', the path leads round the dark inside and up more some stairs. Level after level you make your way up through hell, until you crawl out at the top. There we sat, Sam a little nervous of the drop below us. I ended up chatting with one of the young monks who'd been on our bus. Sam needed to feel the ground beneath her feet, so we all got down and the monk explained some of the images that were represented in the park.

Soon the rains came, so we headed for shelter. After about an hour or so they stopped. Making our way back to the road to get the bus, we had a quick look around the gift shop. And there we stayed for about 2 hours. We ended up talking to some people from the nearby village, they wanted to learn English from us. So a 2 hour lesson in English language, culture, slang, etc... followed. We had a great time, and saw lots of buses fly passed as we chatted. If we'd have missed the last bus we'd been told that someone would put us up.

We did however manage to get what I think was the last bus to Vientaine. It had been a long day. We'd started early, going to the post-iffice to send more cards to people, and then to the morning market, before we'd gone out to the Buddha Park. So we grabbed something to eat, had tried to have an early night. I finished the book I only started the day before, The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. Sam carried on reading the other book I'd just got, Mr. Nice, the Howard Marks story. She's given up on the JG Ballard she was reading.

I crashed as much as our deeply uncomfy bed would allow, Sam unable to sleep, spent a lot of the night reading. So with little sleep, and still not feeling a 100%, that is why we decided to shift out and find a better place to stay for the last two days in Vietaine.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The Lao Capital.

We left the Plain Of Jars in the early morning. A 6.30am mini-bus to the bus station, with Brad, Brett and Sarah. Oh and the Belgium couple too. We grabbed a Lao coffee, to give us the kick-start we needed. The spoons they use at the restaurants around here, are all aluminum. Apparently they are made from melted down crashed U.S. planes.

All of us grabbed the 7.00am public bus to the Vientiane (or some such spelling). All except the Belgiums who opted for the 7.30am VIP bus. We crammed on, I got the seat over the wheel arch, so spent the journey with my knees under my chin. Another hair-raising, high-speed ride through the twistiest and tiniest mountain roads imaginable. The scenery was stunning, but Sam only got to see it when she dare open her eyes.

9 hours or so later we arrived. The Belgiums arrived at the same time we did, and had had just as a manic journey as we had. Except they got water, a Twinky and a fresh towel. Not much compensation really. We piled onto a tuk-tuk with a woman who was moving house, with all her possessions.

Getting off in the traveler part of town, near the Mekong where all the guesthouses are. A little wandering about negotiating a good room deal, and we dropped our bags, glad to finally be here.

This is our second day here now, and we have not done much. Everyone else has moved on. We, well more particularly I, have a stomach bug of some kind. Both of us have the runs, but I've got the cramps to go with it. Today I spent until about 1.00pm in bed, I didn't sleep much last night. Sam went out and got herself a foot massage, leaving me to die! Just about dealing with it, just aware that we can never be too far away from a toilet. Oh well, it's all part of the experience I suppose.

Picture of us both, chilling on the veranda of our bamboo hut in Sukhothai. Posted by Picasa

Picture of the tiny gecko. Posted by Picasa

Picture of the Tiny Corner, our favourite haunt in Chiang Mai. Posted by Picasa

Picture of the gate to Indo-China. Goodbye Thailand, good-morning Laos. Posted by Picasa

Picture of our 'monk mate' making his Buddha image. Posted by Picasa

Picture of a Reclining Buddha, on a hillside temple complex. Posted by Picasa

Picture we like of some Buddhas, from a temple in Luang Prabang. Posted by Picasa

Picture of Sam at the waterfall. Posted by Picasa

Picture of our friendly boat driver, who took us to the waterfall near Luang Prabang. Posted by Picasa

Picture of us waiting for the monks to arrive, very early, before sunrise/ Yawn! Posted by Picasa

Picture of the monks in Luang Prabang collecting alms. Posted by Picasa

Picture of some of the jars, just a few among many thousand. Posted by Picasa

Picture of a paddy field near the Plain Of Jars. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Missing In Action.

The first part of this entry I wrote days ago, but the computer locked up and I lost the lot. Gutted!

Mad Monk-day Morning

We dragged our sorry arses out of bed at 5.30am to go and see the monks collecting alms. Staggering down the street all blurry-eyed, we settled ourselves on the curb of the main street of Luang Prabang. As the sun slowly rose, more and more people started to gather. They lined up along the edge of the street, each carry gifts of food for the monks. After about half an hour the monks started to appear. A long line a bright orange in the early morning light, made its way down the street.

We joined the end of the long line of people. At the market the night before we'd bought some fruit, which we had brought along with us. Silently the monks filed past us, opening the lid of their alms bowls, so that we may deposit a piece of fruit in each. The elder monks lead the way. Not far from the front, showing his high position in the monastery, was our 'monk mate'. Without raising his eyes, he whispered, "Good morning, how are you?" We smiled, responding in hushed tones that we were well.

As well as those offering gifts of food and money to the monks, there was also the beggars. They sit with a basket in front of them, waiting for gifts from the monks. The monks take some of the food they have been given and place it into the baskets. These are usually cheeky young boys, who end up laden down with biscuits and sweets.

It rained most the that day, so we stayed in, read and played cards. That night we had our weekly food treat. L'Elephant is a French/Lao restaurant, and very posh in that colonial kind of way. A 3 course meal with wine cost us a huge 25 pounds. A real splurge on our part, but well worth it as the food was very good, with such a meal in the U.K. costing well over a 100 pounds.

Heading South.

We got up the next morning, and left what had been a nice base for a week. At the Luang Prabang bus station we met an Aussie guy called Brad, who was traveling to Phosavanh. This is the main town for seeing the Plain Of Jars, the mystical Neolithic site. Here thousands of huge stone jars litter the countryside. It is thought that they were likely burial chambers, but no one is quite sure.

We climbed aboard the local bus, for what was a 7 hour journey through the mountains. Apart from the locals the only tourists on the bus were ourselves, Brad, a Belgium couple and a couple from Scotland. We settled in for the long ride ahead and noticed the guy in the seat across from us. AK-47 in hand, he 'locked-and-loaded', ready for the journey ahead. A little un-nerving, he was there for our protection. Route 7 through the mountains is somewhat notorious for bandits. Buses have often been held-up, so the armed escort was supposed to make us feel better. The fact that he spent most of the journey asleep, with his feet resting on the barrel of the gun didn't quite instill that feeling of safety.

At times that bus ride was a little hairy. Mud-slides partly blocking the road, parts of the road at one point had fallen away. The driver didn't seem phased by any of this as he swung it around every tight hair-pin bend. As we neared Phosavanh we heard a loud pop, and then a hiss. We'd blown a tire! Once again not phased by this the driver merely carried on into town.

From the station we grabbed a mini-bus into the small town centre, found ourselves a guesthouse and went out to have a look around. There isn't much to see. Pretty much we who'd come in on the bus were the only westerns here. Brad had gone out to find a bank and been accosted by a Californian girl, who was there with her Aussie boyfriend. They were looking for people to hook up with, so that the trip out to the Plain Of Jars would be cheaper. It was arranged for us all to meet in an Indian restaurant later that night.

So there we were 11 westerns in total, chatting and getting along well. 8 of us wanted to go to the same place, to see all 3 sites that are available to be seen. Well that have been cleared of UXO (Unexploded Ordinance). A deal was struck with a tour company, we ended paying $3 a piece, a bargain. Most people filtered off to bed, to get ready for the early start the next morning. That left only Sam, myself and a Spanish guy called Jose wandering the streets looking for the most happening place in the town. We found the night club. Well we say night club, and the sign outside did too, however it looked like something all too different. The nearest description would be a village hall disco, or a cheap and nasty wedding. Lines of tables and plastic chairs, bad discos lighting, and strange western songs covered by Lao or Thai artists. Needless to say we only stayed for one drink, then headed for bed.

Plain Of Jars

The next morning we all met up at the tour office. The 8 of us were made-up of Sam and Myself, Brad, the Scottish couple (Ian and Mary), Brett and Sarah (Aussie & Yank), and our clubbing partner Jose. Off we went towards site 1, of The Plain Of Jars. After a short drive we pulled up in front of a huge sign. At the top a big Skull-and-crossbones on a red background, with the letters MAG next to it. MAG stands for the Mines Advisory Group. A U.K. based bomb disposal organisation. They listed on the sign how much area had been cleared, and how many bombs had been found there. Next to that another sign advising us to stay within the white markers, as outside the marks it was still quite literally a mine field.

Anyway, taking heed of the notices we set off to find these famous jars. Oh and did we find jars! Some over 2 metres high, and a good few feet across, they do quite litter the landscape. Carved from stone they were well worth seeing, and as mystical as had been made out. Apart from jars at site 1, there is a cave. It is thought that this was the crematorium, where bodies would be burnt, before been interned in a jar. It was also used as a shelter during the mass bombing of the country by the U.S., in the war they never fought! The secret war, the war they said never happened. Well we saw the craters, lots of them. The landscape is pock-marked, a moonscape still after nearly 40 years.

We moved on, to site 2 and then site 3, which we liked the best. By this time it was becoming a case of a 'jar was a jar'. The walk through the paddy fields and over the rickety bamboo bridge made this particular site the best. At one point I was behind everyone else, as we moved in single file through the paddy field. Both Ian and I had the same idea, that this was just like a scene from a Nam movie. All we needed was the smell of Naplam, and VC soldiers hidden among the rice paddy.

Apart from the 3 sites, we also visited the Whiskey Village, which wasn't actually making any whiskey that day. We got to try the Lao Lao which is produced there. A lethal local brew, made from fermented sticky-rice. Also we got to see the famous Russian Tank. An empty shell that had been stripped down of anything useful, sat rusting in a field.

As we traveled from site to site, village children ran from their houses to the side of the road, waving like mad at us. Like a day trip from a lunatic asylum, we waved back with just as much enthusiasm.

That night we all met up for dinner again. It had been good to hook up with a group of people for a day or two. Especially when they were all interesting people to spend time with and chat to.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

2 Lost Pairs Of Pants And A Funeral.

As would be residents of Lunag Prabang we've finally made a decision, about moving on. We went to see out monk mate, building the Buddha. He mentioned that the festival that celebrates the end of the rainy season, is on Sunday. Now, seeing how this is a boat festival and we are sat right bang on the Mekong, then we thought it made sense to stick around. This would be a good place to witness our first celebration/festival since we've been away.

So after Sunday, well that'd be Monday, we'll be heading off for the Plain Of Jars. A place of great mystery, by all accounts. A vast area covered with huge stone jars, hundreds of them scattered across miles. No one is quite sure why they are there. Some think that they were used for storing the ashes of the dead, the size of your jar denoting your status. After the Plain Of Jars it's full-steam-ahead to the capital of Laos, hopefully to meet up with the boss-lady of the UN out here.

Sam had the laundry just at the back of us do a load of washing. When she got it back she was missing 2 pairs of pants. All we can think is that they got tangled up with some other travelers stuff. So there could be some poor bloke been accused of all sorts, because his girlfriend found a pair of Sam's pants mixed with his.

We've noticed everyday while we've been here, a gathering of people just at the top of a street near where we are staying. They sit there day and night around tables, either eating or playing cards, dozens of them. Last night we found out what it is all about. As we wandered through teh crowd there was a western face among them. So Sam stopped and asked him, what it's all about. He was a German who ran an IT school in Luang Prabang. It turns out that it is a funeral, or a wake of sorts. The body of the relative was inside, and all the family sit around outside for 2 or 3 days. This lot however seemed to be going for the record, as they couldn't bury the lady until all the relatives had arrived, many of them travelling from across the world.

Today we went to the waterfall near to Luang Prabang. This guy has been asking if I want to go since we got here, he caught up with me last night and we shook on the deal. So today we headed off with him and his family, by boat somewhere down the crazy river. After a half hour or so slow boat ride we pulled up, jumped off and was loaded into a tuk-tuk. One hell of a bumping ride down a dirt track for another 15 minutes got us to near the waterfall, only a short walk away. Some people come from Lunag Prabang, by tuk-tuk all the way, they must be mad. The waterfall was truly breath-taking, I don't mean in the "Wow! That is breath-taking, isn't it?" way. I mean it quite literally took your breath away. We climbed onto rocks just in-front of the rushing waters. and found we could hardly catch our breaths.

Lots of wandering, admiring the view and becoming all snap-happy, we had a great time. A really beautiful place, well worth the $10 each the whole trip cost us. The liesurly journey back against the tide took a little longer. However we sailed close to the bank, so we got to see close-up the rain forest and amazing rock formations that line the banks of the Mekong. Stopping for 5 minutes, just outside Luang Prabang at our guide's village, we were greeted with squeals of "Falang, falang..." As a load of cheeky little boys ran down to the rivers edge, stripped down to their pants and dived in the river. The whole trip was massively enjoyable, and it was good to get out of the main town for an afternoon.

Tonight I think we are heading for the Night Market, which is full of all sorts of handicrafts. Time to do some present buying I think.

Oh by the way. I finished One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, I'm now reading Philip K Dick's, The Man In The High Castle. Another all time classic. Plus the current Black Jack scores are 38 to me, 32 to Sam.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Too Chilled Out To Leave.

Another day in Lumang Prabang, and the talk about when we leave has hardly come up. We know now that we have emailed the UN, we have a week to get down to the capital. So that should motivate us to get off our arses.

The problem is that this place is so laid-back, such a slow pace of life, that it infects you with that same way of going about things. Or not going about things, as the case maybe.

Last night we went back to the "arty-farty" book shop, and watched a movie upstairs in their chill-out bit. The place leaves you with a very mellow feeling. All housed in dark wood timber house, the downstairs is filled with books to buy, exchange or borrow. A small staircase takes you up to the laid-back chill-out area, lot of cushions and low tables. Here you can eat, read or just relax to the mellow vibes wafting from the music system. Anything from Edith Piaf, through Zion Train, all the way to Dead Can Dance. (How happy was I to hear Dead Can Dance being played.) Just off the National Geographic lined chill-out space is the Art Gallery, with a current exhibition by a local female artist.

The place is so good we went again this morning for breakfast. We borrowed books on Laos, got ourselves a pot of Lao Coffee and were away. We've decided it would be good to try and improve on the couple of words of Lao that we have picked up. We are hoping that a friendly monk may help us out on this one, as pronunciation is a hard one to get your head (and mouth) around, you could end up saying something totally different to what you wanted.

It is soooooo... HOT! Today. Hence why we are in an internet place with air-con, just to get a break from the scorching heat. Anyway, we are off now, nice temple we want to check out. And maybe that friendly monk somewhere along the way.

By the way... You can't hire motorbikes in Laos. Not that we would anyway, but if you do want to, then you can "borrow" one from somebody. Maybe then you could give them some money for "petrol". If the police catch you on one then you have to get them to ring your "friend" who you "borrowed" the bike off, to confirm that it is true that you just "borrowed" it for a bit.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Door-Stepping The UN.

We've spent a few days looking around Lunug Prabang. getting a feel for the place and Laos culture and way of life generally. It's an easy going life, and quite easy to slip into. However, today we got it together and set ourselves the goal of finding the UN.

Previously we had been down to UNESCO, but most of their project work is based on construction, and infrastructure. They had pointed us towrds the UN, but we still were not quite sure where the office was. So we quite literally got on our bikes and went out to find them.

After cycling right round the whole of the town, asking around at different places. We seemed not to be getting anywhere. Never daunted we kept going. We'd narrowed it down to somewhere near the Provincial Adminstation Buildings. As we came up to them we spotted an office about Foreign Relations, which seemed in about the right place to where we were looking. The gates were locked! So we cycled around the back, and happened across a UN van parked up.

Squeezing ourselves through some half open gates with our bikes, we parked them next to the van and edgily walked into one of the offices. Explaining ourselves to the women we came across, they got what we were trying to say. There in the same office at the time doing some photocopying was a UN Volunteer. He greeted us with a smile, taking us off to meet with his boss, the Project Coordinator for the region.

Once again welcomed, although they seemed a little suprised that we just turned up on the door-step, he explained what work they were engaged in. Giving us named contact for the Programme Manager in Laos. Thanking them, we headed off with a bit more of a spring in our step. Now to get down to emailing and getting our heads around all the different opportunities that seem available to us.

This time we left through the front gates, passed the security guard. He hardly batted an eye-lid at us cycling out of the gates we had not even come through in the first place. We had asked this same man directions the day before, so he had a look of recognition on his face for these two cheeky falang who'd just door-stepped some high-up officials in Laos. Well the thing is, you don't get if you don't ask, do you?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Slow Boat To Indo China (Part #2)

We got up early, breakfasted, bought supplies and headed back down to get on the boat. We all crammed on again, and the whole routine started again. I managed to finish the book I was reading, which I really enjoyed. Wrote the first part of this journal entry, tried to sleep (not happening), look at the mountains and forests passing by, etc... This time however, they crammed more people on than ever. So many so in fact, along with bags of wheat and rice, that there was hardly any room for people to sit. A lady kept coming up and down the boat rearranging big sacks, and making big falang move, just so the boat was balanced out and didn't tip over.

We saw the fast boat pass us on a number of occasions. A few yards away from us they would pass. Half a dozen people packed tighter than we were, crash helmets on as if they would protect you from the strong undercurrent and hidden branches just beneath the surface. We all drew breath when these things went by, shook our heads, and were thankful that we were on the slow boat. Whatever the conditions and the constant danger of a numb bum, we had things far, far, better than those poor souls.

Around about 7 of so hours down the Mekong we reached Luang Prabang. The old capital of Laos, it is now a UNESCO World heritage Site. What this means is, that the French after years of colonial rule now feel guilty. This guilt manifests itself by them pouring aid into the town, giving the people jobs. These jobs seem to exclusively about building covered sewerage systems underneath the pavements. They dig a long channel down the edge of the road, and then build a brick pavement over the top. They are building them everywhere.

Before we even had one of these pavements under our feet the touts for the numerous guesthouses landed on us. One guy among the many offered to pay out tuk-tuk ride if we went to his guesthouse, so we did. It was nice enough, if not a little expensive. 250 baht, or $8, or about 80,000 kip. The whole money situation in Laos is deeply confusing. Their currency is Kip, but they ready accept U.S. Dollars and Thai Baht. Or any combination of all three. They only do rough conversions, so you are never quite sure where you are at with it all. The first thing we did the next day was go and get our U.S. Dollars changed for Kip. Dealing with just one currency, and getting used to that, makes life a whole lot easier.

Our new American friend stayed at the same guesthouse, so we had dinner together that first night, and went out to explore the town the next day. We are staying on the pennisula, in the older part of the town. You can see the French colonial influence in the architecture, and yes it is true what they say, it is a beautiful place. Also we got to wind down, and get a feel for the real Laos. Chilled is an understatement. Laid back in the extreme. Life goes slowly in Laos, people coast from place to place. There are almost no cars, just motorbikes, the odd taxi, and people milling around on bicycles. Being such a small place, and the heat not being too oppressive, it is easy to walk anywhere in Luang Prabang. Which is what we have done basically for the past two days.

We've milled around the streets, sat outside streets cafes and restaurants. Meandered around the market, and sauntered around the pennisula. We even wandered around a temple or two, and ended up talking to a young monk who was building a statue of a sitting Buddha out of bricks and cement. He explained this was one of many he was to make while a monk, but he planned to go to university and travel after he had finished his time as a monk. He was learning English, French, Spanish and was going to try Japanese, although he said he was leaving learning German for another lifetime. We chatted, and we helped him with some of his questions about English.

There are so many young monks here. Buddism was banned for a long time in Laos, only being allowed again in the last few years. It is still a communist country, even if it has opened its borders and the U.S. has lifted trade sanctions. Laos is the most bombed country ever! Over 9 years during the Vietman War, the U.S. dropped $2.2 million worth of bombs on Laos every day. The country is still littered with UXO, and it is thought that it will take another hundred years to clear it all. So in this country you do not wander off the beaten track.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Slow Boat To Indo China.

Our last night in Thailand, we wandered down to a place only a hundred yards or so from the border crossing, overlooking the Mekong. A last few Chang in Thailand before we got to sample the delights of Beer Lao. Across the water we could see the lights of Huay Xai, where we would land by ferry the very next morning.

Up early next morning, a packed lunch provided by our wonderful guesthouse owners, we headed for the border. Passports stamped and a 5 baht fee paid, we walked down to the jetty to catch a short ferry ride across the river to the Laos immigration in Huay Xai. A few minutes later and we clambered off the boat and into Laos.

Here semi confusion kicked in, no one too sure of where to go, what to do, or what the hell was going on. Bewildered Falang (Laos version of Thai Farang), littered the streets. We managed to get through immigration without much hassle. Found where we needed to be to get our slow boat ticket, we paid and were pointed towards a waiting taxi. A cramped, bumpy ride found us dropped off in god-knows-where.

At this point the wandering Falang became sheep. Just lost little sheep following each other around, no-one quite sure where to go. As we neared the jetty, a guy requested our passports, pulling out an official looking badge and putting it round his neck as he asked for them. We refused, saying we went wherever our passports went. He eventually threw up his arms in despair, telling us we couldn't get the boat if we didn't hand them over. He then wandered off to accost other bewildered sheep.

Others caved in easier than us, and seeing how now a large number of people had done as requested, we relented also. A short wait in a restaurant we'd been pointed to, sat in slightly unsettled amusement, the guy returns with a whole bunch of passports in his hand. Handing them all to me I dug out Sam's and mine, before handing the bunch over to the nearest grasping hand.

We were told that Laos PDR doesn't just stand for 'Peoples Democratic Republic', but also 'People Don't Rush'. So the fact that the boat left an hour lat was of no suprise. A small cheer went up when we eventually set sail, then we all settled in for a bum numbing 6 hour journey ahead of us. Crammed in on a low to the water, thin river ferry, on benches with little or no leg room, means you have to get along with the other sardines. We chatted with John and Shuri (another unsure spelling), who sat behind us. He was a friendly Irish lad, traveling with a whole bunch of mates. A real lads on a world tour thing. She was an American, who'd spent the last 10 years living in the U.K., and was traveling alone. All of us with a good 50-60 others, on the slow boat to Lunag Prabang. A slow leisurely ride down the famous Mekong River.

This is the stuff that dreams are made of. Even now as I lean on the side of the boat to write this entry, I look up and have to check myself. Spectacular scenery almost beyond description. Thick forested mountains rise up of both sides. Low clouds leave wisps of themselves as they skirt across the tops of the dense rain forested peaks. Every so often we get small signs of life, as small bamboo shacks peek from the undergrowth. This really is the middle of nowhere, and so we were soon to reach its arse end!

We stopped at the aforementioned arse-end-of-nowhere just as the sun was starting to set. Pakbeng is a little village that is as thin as the road that its buildings hundle against. It goes something like this... To the left... road, building, MOUNTAIN!!! Or to the right... Road, building, RIVER!!! With no room for error. Everyone disembarked and made there way to one of the small guesthouses in this 'no' horse town. Sam, Shuri and myself dumped our stuff not far from the pier. Well I say pier, I mean a couple of planks leaning against the river bank. The place we stayed was a good sized bamboo built house, charging only 60 baht a night. We all showered, changed and headed out to explore wherever it was we were. That took all of 10 minutes, so we went to eat at a place overlooking the Mekong.

Food, conversation, and finally a Beer Lao. (Here please note it's Lao and not really Laos. The 's' was added by the French by mistake.) Anyway, there are a lot of other things on offer in Laos. Within 5 minutes of me being there, a guy appeared at the balcony window waving a bag of opium at me. A young lad swaggered down the street, whistled up at me and asked if I wanted any weed. In fact I must have been offered opium and weed more than half a dozen times, in the space of a few hours. Declining politely we moved on.

Electricity was intermittent to say the least. But at 10:35pm it was lights out pretty much everwhere. Laos is famous for closing down early. Our guesthouse still had its lights on, so we stayed downstairs for another drink before bed, with the other falang that were staying there. Come 11:00pm and a young bloke came and ordered us all upstairs and to bed. Amused by this, we all turned into whispering school children as we huddled round candles on the large balcony. One lad caught hold of a cockroach that squealed in the most ear spliting high pitched noise. A Laoation lad crushed in between his hands, and the noise stopped. Soon things died down, the opium pipes came out, so we said our goodnights and headed for bed.

The low buzz of whispered chatter could be heard through the paper thin bamboo walls, the scent of opium wafted through the air. This place was a big change from Thailand, it was going to take me a while to get my head around this, although I knew this was not the whole story on Laos.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Chiang Khong and on into Laos.

Spent one night in Chiang Rai, at a "quite" guest house (150 baht). When I say quite, that was until about 5 in the morning when the traffic started, and kept us both awake. Anyway, we got up pretty early, considering the bad night's sleep, and headed for the Bus Station.

We got the 12 O'Clock bone-shaker bound for Chiang Khong, the small border town on the banks of the Mekong (not sure on the spelling here, both frowning). Anyway, spent last night at a guest house just 300 metres from the border crossing. We still have not decided how to do the crossing and trip down south. The slow boat which takes 2 days is more likely than the crazy 6 hour speed boat.

One more night here, and then we head off into Laos. Looking forward to it.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Chang Rai.

We've made it to Chang Rai, been here about an hour now. The guest house we were looking for is closed, so we need to find another one. We've plonked ourselves in a Dutch style resturant that has free internet. We got a huge cheese burger. As Sam says, "meat and cheese, heaven!"

We said our goodbyes to Chang Mai last night, and to the inhabitants of the Tiny Corner. We got a picture wth Eat, so we'll post that up soon.

Sam went and got a Thai Massage yesterday, while I was uploading the pictures to the blog. She apparently was thrown all over the place, and at one point found herself suspended in the air. She also says that she ended up in more positions, and was more intimate with the lady doing the massage, than she has with me!

The trip up here was quite something, driving through the mountains. We played a hell of a lot of Black Jack, but had to stop, the twisty turny roads meant that the cards kept flying about the place. The current score is 27 games to me, and 20 to Sam.

P.S. I went and ate one of the those big water bug things a couple of nights ago. The one that is as big as your hand. Sam even tried a bit last night. She keeps calling me "bug breath'. Which I feel is a bit unfair, seeing how she has partaken too.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Our favourite Budda. Posted by Picasa

The temples of Old Sukhothai. Posted by Picasa

No.4 Guest House in Sukhothai. A great place. This was our bamboo hut that we staying in for a few nights. Posted by Picasa

Sam with her new boyfriend. :-) Posted by Picasa

The monkeys in Lopburi are kept well fed. Look at the huge pile of bananas. Posted by Picasa

The monkeys of Lopburi. Don't feel sorry for him, we where the ones in the cage, he was outside! Posted by Picasa

Three huge chedi. Posted by Picasa

A tuk-tuk! Posted by Picasa

This one managed to keep his head. Posted by Picasa

When Burma invade Thailand, they chopped the heads off all the Buddhas, as a sign of disrespect. Posted by Picasa

The temples of Ayuttaya. Posted by Picasa

Our doggy island friends. Posted by Picasa