Posts tagged ‘Laos’
In ways it feels like only yesterday that Gary and I said tearful goodbyes to our Mums and Dads and set off with our names sewn on to our shiny new backpacks, hardly able to breath for all the excitement/nerves/sadness/happiness and general overwhelming flow of emotions vying for our attention. Yet somehow, we have found ourselves a few days short of halfway and, even more alarmingly, out of Asia. Somehow we have become semi-seasoned travellers. Gone is the lettering on our bags – the victims of a hundred careless baggage handlers – and the brand new look. Now everything we own smells like Asia; all our clothes have bobbles around the waist from chaffing backpacks; we don’t bounce out of bed at 7am every morning; we barter for everything even when it’s inappropriate; and we start sentences with the ever-infuriating “Well when I was in Laos/Cambodia/China/East Timor…” We could be gone for years or it could have just been days.
Leaving Asia, after having such a fantastic time, was more bitter than sweet. Granted Oz could offer us all the comforts of home – chocolate, television, air conditioning, home cooking, cleanliness and the ability to communicate – but would it surprise us with impromptu religious processions in the street? Would we have the fun of blind ordering creamed yams because we couldn’t read the menu? Would there be the same backpacker solidarity that we found in rural China or Vietnam? Would we be able to buy and sell motorbikes without a drivers license? Would we be able to afford even the most basic of things? Hardly.
As a tribute to our favourite continent we decided to compile a bit of a nostalgic top ten list. After much squabbling and a few punches we came up with a list that surprised even us. Whenever asked we always say that we loved Japan and Thailand most yet China seems to have housed most of our best memories. The main difficulty lay in choosing just ten – how could we leave out watching the Hong Kong skyline come into focus from the Star Ferry or the Full Moon Party in Ko Pha Ngan or having our teeth rattled out of our heads in Timor Leste? It was hard but here it is – our ode to Asia. It’s been emotional.
10.Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos
Choose getting wet. Choose taking off all your clothes in front of strangers. Choose sunburn. Choose throwing yourself into a fast-flowing river. Choose drinking from a bucket. Choose falling out of a tractor tyre. Choose dropping your camera in the water. Choose dancing on tables. Choose 100 new friends, Choose killing your liver. Choose falling asleep at 5pm. Choose writing on your face in permanent marker. Choose risking your life for the best matinee party ever. Choose tubing in Vang Vieng.
9.The onsen experience, Japan
For most people being naked with a big group of people is about getting dirty. In Japan it’s about getting clean and let’s face it, there are very few times in life where you will have the opportunity to perch between two naked Asian women in an outdoor thermal mudbath high in the mist-shrouded mountains. The Japanese onsen experience, be it in the dedicated town of Beppu or a public facility in Tokyo, will change the way you feel about bath-time forever.
8.Food, just about everywhere
Slurrping down bowls of ramen at noodle bars; discovering mango and sticky rice at a roadside stall; bagging 20 Indonesian fried bananas for 40 cent; eating an entire fish on a stick; figuring out where M&S steal their recipes from over a bowl of fish amok; and the endless search for the best Thai curry. Who said eating in Asia just meant pad thai and fried rice? Yes there was enthusiastic vomitting and 100 odd boxes of immodium but it was worth it to be able to say – “Can you make that Thai spicy, not farang (foreigner) spicy?” And thanks to fantastic cooking classes in China and Thailand we may never have to eat western food again…
7.Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan
The phrase ‘fresh sushi’ never rang as true as it does in Tsukiji Fish Market where fishermen and chefs meet to haggle over a 70 tonne tuna fish or a handful of live prawns. While the rest of Tokyo is still sleeping, skilled tradesmen gut fish with one hand while texting with the other and demonstrate just how easy it is to turn an eel inside out.
6.Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat was one of those extremely rare, heart-stopping moments. We’ve seen our fair share of religious sites from simple wooden structures in Kyoto to the ancient stupa of Borobudor and even the gold-plated royal temple in Bangkok but nothing has come even close to seeing the light change Angkor Wat from a vague black shadow to a spectacular glowing pink, orange and yellow marvel. Never has getting up at 4am been so worthwhile.
5.Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
There are very few places in China where you can find peace and quiet but over three days in Tiger Leaping Gorge our only human interaction was around a camp fire on our last night when we finally met the eight other hikers doing the trail. During the day we edged across cliffside waterfalls, dragged ourselves by the fingernails up the last of the infamous 28 bends (more like 128 bends), clung onto fraying rope ladders for dear life and sat and stared in awe at the mighty Yangtze as it roared past Middle Tiger Leaping Rock.
4.Diving in Thailand
“Two thirds of the world’s surface is covered by water. How can you call yourself a traveller if you’re happy to settle for less than a third?” reads a sign in Ko Phi Phi. Diving in Thailand opened our eyes to an entirely different, entirely superior world full of vibrant colours, swaying reef and curious fish. Away from the blaring music, honking horns and obnoxious tauts we perfected our backflips and were adopted by schools of Sergent Major Fish.
3.Biking in Vietnam
Yes there were near death experiences, crashes, break-downs on mountain peaks, monsoons, burst tires, broken engines, dodgy chains, hit and runs, guilty pay-offs, police bribes and painful sunburns but as the saying goes – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Biking around Vietnam we managed to get off the very sticky tourist trail and see a whole other side to a very beautiful country. Of course it didn’t hurt that we got to know some great Aussies on the way too.
2.Halong Bay, Vietnam
Once listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam is a spectacular blanket of silky water broken by hundreds of dark shadows – giants hunched over as if in sleep. Add to that a traditional oriental junk, some fantastic food, a handful of great new friends and a liberal serving of alcohol and you have a New Year’s Eve to remember (or not remember). And as we all know, the only cure for a hangover is to run out of bed and leap straight from the deck of a boat into freezing cold water. Heaven.
1.The Great Wall of China
We had been on the Great Wall of China for around an hour and a half before we saw it. It’s hard to miss something that big (some say you can see it from the moon) but in the blanket of fog that had fallen over Beijing that cold winter’s morning we were more concerned about getting off the damn thing alive than we were about visibility. Subzero temperatures had left the wall coated in black ice, making an already precariously delapidated wall even more impassable. As we shuffled along, using our hands and bums to keep us from falling off the edge and into the abyss, the strangest thing happened. We turned a corner and all of a sudden the fog cleared and the sun came out. Stretched out before us was an endless stretch of sandy brickwork zig-zagging its way up and down the hilly landscape. We stopped dead, totally speechless. Bloody hell, we were on THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!
All our pictures from Asia are available in the gallery
In temples across Laos Buddhists have tried to teach illiterate lay people about the principles of life through paintings and murals. The general message is always the same – the afterlife is divided into two levels. On the bottom you have hell, full of heathens scampering up trees to escape rabid dogs and men fighting dragons with whips. On the top is heaven, packed to the seams with men and women in bejewelled headresses folded double in prayer, worshipping Buddha all the live long day. I always thought that hell looked like more fun. Who wants to spend every second of their afterlife in prayer when they could be out galavanting with dogs, dragons and men with the heads of elephants?
Luang Prabang is a bit like that – the heaven to Vang Vieng’s hell. Or if you are a horny twenty year-old male, the hell to Vang Vieng’s heaven. For culture buffs though, its always love at first sight with the UNESCO World Heritage city.
For every sandwich stand in Vang Vieng there are two temples in Luang Prabang making the city a patchwork quilt of shining golden spires and colourful glass-encrusted walls. Traditional wooden shopfronts line the quiet streets where chattering monks amble in pairs, bundled up in their saffron robes with sun umberellas swaying in their wake. Washing lines on every corner feature long swaths of orange cloth flapping in the breeze and tourists that wander off the beaten track often find themselves in the courtyard of a school where wooden benches are lined with baby monks jotting notes about religious customs or reciting english verbs with their teacher.
In a word, Luang Prabang is monks – big monks, small monks, wrinkled monks and fresh-faced monks. So what better (not to mention more beautiful) place to do your penance after a week of sex and alcohol-fuelled hedonism in Vang Vieng?
Your detox starts at 5.30am when you dress and hurry down to the marketplace to join the hoards of other tourists settling themselves onto kerbsides with the air of an audience awaiting the opening of a show. A gong sounds and the sun, obeying its command, begins to rise. The crowd goes quiet and digital camera screens blink into life. It starts quietly with a dozen or so performers lining up, heads bowed, studiously ignoring the flashingcompact cameras that have been thrust in their faces. They shuffle out of the temple and patiently wait for the pushy photographers to let them through. As they move towards the crossroads similar groups of monks can be seen working their way from every direction.
Eventually they converge politely at the junction where devoted locals have been sitting cross-legged for the last hour, awaiting their turn to give the monks their offerings of sticky rice in return for a blessing and hopefully another day of happiness and good fortune. As they sit patiently waiting for the monks to file past, westerners jump in front of them, blocking their outstretched hands in their quest for that one iconic shot of the monks taking their alms.
Meanwhile you sit outside Joma Bakery marvelling over the good grace of the monks and lamenting the destruction that irresponsible tourism can cause to ancient customs. Never fear though, as we found out, Luang Prabang does have more to offer than temple-hopping and a relaxed cafe culture.
After visiting Buddha’s footprint and more temples than you could count on two hands Gary, Laura and Joe (who happily were still with us after forgoing a 9th day of tubing in favour of the bus journey from hell) were getting pretty fed up of having to follow me around as I preached at them about the significance of this shop front, that shrine and those statues so we decided to use our last day together (sob!) to visit the waterfall nearby.
Unwilling to pay double price for a tuk-tuk (the driver quoted us 50,000 each, we countered with 35,000 and he said “Okay, 30,000!”) we ended up with the reject of the bunch and spent the next hour choking on carbon monoxide, trying desperately not to vomit while clinging for dear life to the handrail as our drive rounded corners on two wheels and challenged every passing motor to a race.
It was worth it though when we arrived to discover that the waterfall is also home to a bear sanctuary which you can visit for free and watch huge black asian bears swing in hammocks, munch on branches and wrestle with their siblings. The waterfall was uninspiring at first as we tramped up a hill to find drops of around 3m leading to rock pools full of barckpackers. The further uphill we climbed the better it got though, finally culminating in a huge waterfall whose path you could trace to the very top and the last few metres of which had to be scaled from inside the waterfall.
The following day we said a teary goodbye to Laura, Joe and Laos and boarded the slowboat to Thailand. Two days, 20 hours onboard a boat, three border towns, one kilometre onfoot, 30 minutes of coughing up dust on a tuk-tuk, one great Tikka Masala, one ferry, one argument with a tuk-tuk driver, one new friend and six hours in a minibus later we landed filthy and exhausted in Chiang Mai.
Note: Signs around Luang Prabang ask visitors to wear longsleeve tops and trousers when watching the alms, not to use flash photography and to keep an appropriate distance from the monks and alms-givers if they are not participating in the ceremony. Visitors are welcome to attend the alms, they say, but are asked not to give alms themselves unless the ceremony has personal value for them. Giving chocolate, as we saw one westerner doing, is not particularly respectful.
More pictures from Luang Prabang are available in the gallery
Somewhere in the heart of Laos the sun is beginning to set over a shallow, brown river in a dusty little town. The silence is broken by the patter of tiny feet making their way hurridly over a make-shift wooden bridge. As he gets nearer to the other side the little boy cuts the corner, leaping onto the bank, tripping out of his tshirt and shorts and tearing into the river. He is welcomed by a torrent of water, kicked at him by a group of gleeful kids. They spend the next few minutes splashing about together before their fun is destroyed, as always, by their mother. Seated on a rock downstream, she calls them one by one and they reluctantly skulk over to be scrubbed from top to toe with a hard bar of soap. Water buffalo look on from the shore where a row of stilt houses are set off by a misty backdrop of hunched karst mountains and slouching palms.
A few kilometres upstream on the same river the silence is punctuated by noises of a very different kind. A guy screams in terror as he flails through the air, working his arms and legs as if climbing an invisible ladder. A collective gasp escapes the gathered crowd as they wait for him to come crashing down on top of two twenty-ish, bikini-clad girls who are floating down the river in tractor tubes, beer cans in hand, blissfully unaware of their impending doom. Miraculously he lands face flat in the 2m space between them and the crowd errupts in rowdy applause. Interrupted from their silent reverie, the girls look around in confusion before spotting the guy gasping for air nearby and the river swing dangling 30ft above his head. “Awesome!” they scream as they grab hold of the end of a rope thrown out to them and are dragged ashore to another bar on the river. “Tubing rocks!”
The girls climb up the bamboo ladder to Bar II and are quickly lost in a crowd of one hundred nearly-naked bodies splayed out on mats and dancing energetically on tables and benches. Although the revellers vary in race, shape and size they all have one thing in common – every one of them is clutching a coloured bucket densely populated by chewed straws. As the song changes to a popular tune (“Oh. My. God. I LOVE this song. Lisa, it’s our HOLIDAY SONG! We HAVE to dance!”) the alcohol inside sloshes over the edge and onto a dozing party-goer who opens one eye, assesses the situation and then licks off the renegade liquid.
If you have ever wondered what would happen if you gave a bunch of twenty-something year olds with no responsibilities unlimited alcohol, river swings, slides, ziplines, a mud volleyball pit, a handul of self-run bars and no clothes then Vang Vieng should feature pretty high on your travel wishlist. Until recently Vang Vieng was just a small town in a beautiful location (after all, tourists were only permitted to enter Laos in 1990) until one day someone said “Wouldn’t it be fun to float downstream in a tyre tube? Wouldn’t it be more fun to do it drunk? Wouldn’t it be even more fun if you didn’t have to load a keg into your tube, if you could just hop out and go to a purpose-built bar enroute?
A few years later and the experiment is complete – a tourist town dedicated to partying. Whatever your poison they have it in Vang Vieng laced with rocket fuel M-150 and costing only one dollar on happy hour. And what’s better, the next day when you are exhausted, sick as a dog and totally confused (what happened, whos shoes are these and why in God’s name does it say ‘My Daddy loves me too hard’ on my back?) Vang Vieng can provide you with the best hangover in Asia complete with scrumptious breakfast rolls and bars where you can stretch out and watch Friends or Family Guy re-runs all day.
They built it and we came. We partied. We recovered. We partied for another three days. Then we fled to Luang Prabang, clutching our livers and wondering how on earth anyone could do that for 380 days. That guy must hate himself. I hate that guy.
Along the way we picked up some great friends – two bubbly sisters from Oz (Amanda and Amelia) and two Kiwis (Joe and Laura) who were dating/broken up/still in love/so totally over each other/definately not sleeping together in that double bed. After two weeks of not making any friends in Cambodia we were starting to make use of our Break-up-o-meter so it was with absoulte pleasure and not a little desperation that we latched onto Laura and Joe for a week of witty banter and friendly abuse. I love those guys. Even if they did cause us major internal bodily harm, almost start a punch-up in Vang Vieng and give me some kind of strange, digestion-related disease*.
*note: these things may or may not have been Laura and Joe’s fault but they were there at the time and they’re Kiwis so let’s just say it was.
P.S. note to Laura and Joe: It’s dead not did and men not min. Get it right!
More pictures from Vang Vieng are available in the gallery
When the french ran Indochine they had a saying that went; “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow” so when we landed in Vientiane we readjusted our pace to ‘barely moving’. This allowed us to remain nonplussed when the queue for visa stamps was an hour long because the staff were busy chatting and dozing; when our bus collected us an hour and a half late; and when it turned out that there really was nothing at all to do in Vientiane. Afterall, in a city where no-one wants to do anything other than occasionally watch the sun set over the top of a beer, why invent activities?
That said, they must be doing something right because Vientiane is a very beautiful, easy to enjoy city and someone must be cleaning it on the sly because I know for a fact that Asian cities don’t keep themselves clean (ahem, Phnom Penh). There are a few downers though including horrific accomodation standards, terrible electrics and a bad internet service. All in all though, the capital of Laos is a breath of fresh air after full-on Cambodia and hectic Ho Chi Minh. Two very lazy thumbs up.
More pictures from Vientiane are available in the gallery