There was a bit of a bad news/good news start to this trip…..
Firstly the bad news….
On the morning of the day I was to fly to Bangkok to join the group, I received a call from Thai Airways advising my flight was over booked, and I had been one of the people “bumped” off the flight. They had moved me to the afternoon flight the following day so I’d arrive 12 hours later into Bangkok.
Then the good news…
When I checked in for my flight the next day I’d been upgraded to Business Class. Even better news it was one of Thai’s new aircraft so I got to try out their sleeper beds. The beds were great and Thai’s inflight service was excellent.
I finally arrived into Bangkok and checked into the New World Lodge. The hotel is fairly basic but clean and in a great position, close to Khao San Road where the night markets is and is used as the departure point for a lot of tour groups.
I discovered just how quickly and easily you could get around Bangkok using local transport. Most of the day was spent sightseeing using a combination of local boats along the Chao Phraya River, Skyrail trains and canal boats. The canal boats being the most interesting due to the fact they don’t actually stop at the stops. They just slow down and passengers have to scamper in and out at a very rapid rate.
That evening our luxury 1st class sleeper train to Chang Mai was cancelled due to a landslide near Chang Mai and replaced with an 11-hour overnight bus trip. We arrived not so fresh at 5am in Chang Mai then boarded our minivans for the 5 hour drive along very windy bumpy roads to the border crossing. The magnificent scenery almost stopped you from noticing just how bad the roads were.
We finally arrived at the boarder crossing on the banks of the Mekong River and had our first glimpse of Laos. After clearing immigration we boarded longboats and were taken to the Laos side of the river to a town called Houay Xai. Laos is a very poor country and Houay Xia is one of the poorest areas, mainly made up of farming communities. That afternoon we visited a local H’moung village to meet with a schoolteacher. He proudly showed around the village then shared a meal and some locally made rice wine with us I think you have to be a local to appreciate the taste!
Up before sunrise to head down to the Mekong River to board a luxury local boat for a 10-hour trip to the ancient capital of Luang Prabang. It’s not a bad way to spend 10 hours, travelling down the Mekong Laos to the left and Thailand to the right. Tropical jungles and small villages appeared and disappeared amongst the early morning mist and the rising sun. One moment we’d be in a thick fog unable to see anything then a moment’s later brilliant sunshine. The Mekong is a very dangerous river to navigate, very shallow in parts with powerful currents and whirlpools. We stopped off along the way at Pak Ou Caves. The royal family originally used these caves for New Years parties, now it’s a place where old Buddha statues are stored. Climb the steps into the lower cave and there are 1000’s of different Buddha statues all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately all the valuable gold and silver ones were stolen in the late 1990’s.
Luang Prabang is a very beautiful town with a mixture of French colonial and Laos architecture and may old and beautiful Wats. The whole town is a world heritage sight. It has a lovely feel to it, with wide streets and almost no traffic. The pace of life is very laid back here, the few vehicles on the roads (mainly bikes & motor bikes) travel at a very slow pace. Oh and the French influence also means great coffee, croissants, restaurants and excellent French wines. A great place to sit, relax and soak up the local culture, or if you really want to relax spend the afternoon at one of the many day spas. If shopping is more your thing there is a great night market where you can buy some really beautiful local handicrafts.
An early start this morning to see the Alms Ceremony. Every day at approximately 6am the monks walk silently through the streets in single file accepting offerings of food from the local people. It’s an amazing sight, lines of saffron robes for as far as you can see.
The rest of the day was spent on a bus travelling along winding roads to Phonsovan. The scenery was once again beautiful, steep hills with small villages and rice paddy’s and jungle. It’s amazing how so many of the huts were actually perched on the edge of the cliffs with the road on one side and s sheer drop on the other.
Laos has the unfortunate reputation of being the most bombed country on earth. At the time of the Vietnam war, during what is now know as “The Secret War” 1/3 of the 3 million population of Laos were killed by US bombs, which were dropped approx every 8 mins day and night. The most heavily bombed area was Phonsovan. This became very apparent when we headed to the Plain of Jars. These huge ancient stone jars are in the worst hit area.
As you walk around the plain of jars it starts to sink in just how may unexploded ordinates are still in Laos. There are signs telling you it’s safe to walk between the white markers as all the cluster bombs or “bombies” as the locals call, them have been removed. On the other side of the markers only the ones visible to the eye (above ground) have been removed. There are still 1000’s under the surface in this area.
After the plain of Jars we visited a local H’moung village on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Walking in the fields next to the village we saw exposed unexploded cluster bombs!! There was even one inside the village fence where the children play. It was marked with a stick so the children new not to touch it. 100’s of Laos’s people are still killed each year by unexploded ordinates “UXO”. Being so close to these deadly devices was a very scary but surreal experience.
The fun part of the day was getting to the Khmu Villiage to buy their local woven fabrics. We followed our local guide through rice paddies, climbing bamboo ladders over barbed wire fences, crossing bridges made from a plank of wood or a piece of bamboo. Then came the suspension bridge spanning a fairly large river. The bridge was made from wires and planks with rather large gaps and very narrow cross beams more of a stick than a beam. Through a few more rice paddies, across a couple of smaller streams using bamboo & tree trunks for bridges we finally reached the Khum village. Scenery on the way was beautiful. We were surround by green hills rocky mountains & rice paddies, all very lush and so green. There was also plenty of wildlife along the way water buffalo, cows, turkeys, chickens, dogs, cats, ducks and frogs.
The trek in the heat and humidity was well worth it. When we finally reached the village we were welcomed with water and shown the many beautiful weavings the women had created. It all started out quite slowly just a few of the women shyly handing us their garments then the others joined in, we were soon bombarded with scarves and table runners. It was a really fun way to shop. Oh and the only way back from the village to our bus was the same way we got there.
Only a 5-hour drive today along picturesque and winding roads to Vian Vang, a small town on the banks of the Nam Xong River. It’s the adventure capital of Laos, and much more of a tourist town than any of the others. There are lots of restaurants serving local and Western food. Most of the restaurants have a couple of TV’s in prominent places playing American TV shows like Friends and The Simpsons, over and over and over again. I did get to experience this first hand. One afternoon a few of us went to lunch at a caf?laying Friends. During lunch and our 1st episode of friends it stared pouring so we opted to stay until the rain eased off. This took about 2.5hours or 5 episodes to ease off.
No point in being in the adventure capital, if you don’t do something at least a little adventurous. So today a few of us took the local transport know as a “Laos Tractor” to a waterhole for a swim. I know that doesn’t sound all that adventurous but a Laos Tractor is a little different to your usual tractor. It’s basically it’s the front part of a small tractor. Instead of a steering wheel it has long handlebars and is attached to a trailer where the driver and passengers sit. These Tractors can travel over just about any terrain as well as through very deep water. Much more fun than your average taxi ride!
Back in the bus for a 3 hour drive to the capital Vientiane. What a shock to the system being back in a bustling city where you actually have to wait for the traffic to clear before you can cross the road. The afternoon was spent sightseeing around Vientiane. My favorite being Laos’s version of the Arc De Triomphe, which was known by the locals as the “Vertical Runway”. The reason for the nickname is that concrete was donated by the USA in the 70s to repair runways. Instead of using the concrete for the repairs the Arc was built. From the top it has fantastic views across Vientiane. We also managed to fit in a quick trip to the local market on the outskirts of Vientiane. It was an amazing place you could buy just about anything there – food, clothes, car parts, gold even satellite dishes.
Our last day in Laos was very special. Imaginative Traveller operates a Responsible Travel project in Laos. We all donated a few dollars to the purchase of a water cooler, which we then took to a primary school in Vientiane. When we arrived at the school all the children were lined up in the playground waiting for us. Speeches were made photos were taken, the children had even had gifts for us, hats and caps they’d made from recycled bottles and cardboard boxes. Our whole group proudly donned our hats said our thanks then sadly headed to the airport for our flight back to Thailand.
After packing so much into such as short time in Laos (the tour our famil was based on is usually a 14 days) it was off to the Imperial Hotel Kho Samui for a few days to relax and unwind.
The Imperial is a 4 star Mediterranean style resort set on the hillside right on Chaweng Beach. The rooms are spacious and have all the amenities you’d expect in a 4 star resort. They all have balconies and many have beautiful sea views. The white buildings, hilly landscaped gardens and pool right on the beach make it very picturesque. If you don’t want to be right in the middle of everything it’s a great place to stay, only a short taxi ride into central Chaweng to the many shops and restaurants. Kho Samui has a lot to offer – great restaurants, beautiful beaches, excellent diving spots with an abundance of coral and fish.
I’d never been to Kho Samui before and really enjoyed it, but my favorite place was Laos. It’s relatively untouched by tourists and everyone we met was friendly and welcoming. I went there knowing very little about the country or it’s culture and came away with so much more than I expected.