Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Sun

I'm so glad that I left North Laos. As beautiful as Louang Prabang is, and as comfortable as I felt in Vientaine, I have discovered that the South is the Laos I had imagined.

I decided to travel VIP bus because for £10 more you get a large bed, though you have to share with a complete stranger. I was lucky to share with Marcus, a 32 year old German and not one of the drunken crowd that was only interested in the price of Beer Lao. We couldn't believe it when we were woken up by the conductor having arrived at our destination, fresh and rested. I am now in Champasak Province and you can't imagine how different it is to what I saw up North. The skies are piercing blue, pristine forest covers the mountains and even the Mekong seems cleaner.

Travelling with me now are Marcus and Catherine and Alnort, another French couple (they seem to be everywhere these days). Once again we crossed the Mekong, over to Champasak, a small enclave that was once the seat of Royal Laos but is now no more than two streets that cross at a grand fountain. However it's a lovely place, the remaining French colonial style houses mixing with traditional Lao wooden ones. The main reason though to come to this town is to visit Wat Phu Champasak.

Although small in comparison to the grandiose Angor Wat over in Siam Reap (Cambodia) this is the largest and most important Khmer site after Angor Wat and its importance has been recognized by UNESCO who have now declared it a world heritage site.

Walking up the very narrow uneven steps the sweet smell of the Monoi trees in bloom overwhelms your senses. And looking back there is a great view. Beyond the Baray, the ceremonial lake, a mixture of paddy fields and forest carpets the land as far as the eye can see. One of the great things about the site is it's location.

The lower slopes of Phu Pasak, colloquially known as Mt Penis, set the complex among beautiful heavily forested mountains with not one single fire in sight. We decided to go there by bicycle but soon discovered that cycling 10 kilometers under a smoke free scorching sun is not the best idea, especially as we had agreed to take a French Cambodian lady with us who didn't feel strong enough to cycle the whole distance. Nonetheless she repaid us with a great guided tour explaining the meaning of many of the sculptures. Cycling back we were treated to the most amazing sunset.

As the sun set behind Phu Pasak the clouds circled the mountain, like the ring of Saturn. Time seems to have slowed in this place. I am bewildered by the pace of life, by how no one ever seems to be in a rush and will not want you to rush them. This seems to be particularly true down here, but it may just be the heat. And I am loving it.

After all my time in London this is so refreshing, though I'm sure I will want to kill someone if I need something urgently and they go at their own pace. I once read something the French use to say about their colonies in Indochina. 'The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow'. Although I am certain that they didn't mean it as a compliment, I can see how appealing this way of life can be. If you ever wanted an antidote to the rat race, I have found it.

We are all going down to the 4000 islands for a few days. They may not be the highlight of Lao culture, but I am in the mood to just relax and while away my day in a hammock, reading my book and drinking fruit juices.

With the occasional lao lao thrown in for good measure of course...

Friday, 27 March 2009

Learning to COPE

My new friends that work in the COPE centre with a few Lao beer.......

I like Vientiane, it is a charming small town, probably one of the smallest capitals in the world.
After having travelled around the North for a while it was good to go into shops, shops that sold things, things that I may want. Things that I mostly could not afford but at least I could touch.
One of my main reasons to come to Vientiane was to visit COPE and discover more about the great work these people are doing.

In 1961 JFK gave a famous speech to say that America wanted peace in Laos. To prove it, over a 9 year secret war, the US dropped more bombs in Laos than the Allies did during the Second World War. As America fought Vietnam it worried that Communism could extend through Laos and then down to Thailand. Certain areas, especially in the South, such as the Hoi Chi Min Trail were so heavily bombed that its people were obliterated. As this was a secret war there were no rules of engagement and civilian populations were massacred. Worryingly, one third of those bombs never exploded and every year thousands of people are injured or killed by the UXO (Unexploded Ordnance). COPE's work is to provide as many prostheses for the injured as possible and to raise awareness of their plight.

Sadly, in a country as poor as this, the value of scrap metal is undeniable........rising commodity prices mean that the scrap metal value of a long cluster bomb carrying case can feed a family for 2 or 3 months. But as the kids and adults try to lift the bombs they sometimes detonate or they step in one of the hundreds of 'bombies' that were spread from the main bomb.

I was lucky enough to be invited for a few beers with a group of prosthesis doctors and other staff from the clinic. It was a great afternoon, and I learned more about their work. They were all very welcoming. As Sommay, one of the staff, explained to me, every time they fit someone with an artificial leg they give them a new lease of life. The prosthesis may be considered slightly crude by Western standards but they are a lot better than having nothing to walk with.

One of other aims of COPE is to work with other organizations to try to ban cluster bombs. After what I have seen, I am ashamed that we ever built them and that they are still around.

Mr Buman was a source of everything you want to know in life. My favourite sentence was, 'when you learn english you speak, you then drink beer lao and all speak no listen'

There were other great people that loved to tell me things about their job, like Summay and Bi. They were so polite and made me feel embarrased for wearing a vest.

As amazed as I was by the work these doctors do, some of them trained abroad and could probably get a better life elsewhere, I was more stunned by the work of the UXO clearing units. These units are a mix of Laotians and former army engineers from several countries who criss cross Laos, especially the South, clearing these instruments of death.

The Cope Laos Website

One last thing I love about this town are their tuk tuks, a mixture of Harley Davidson and supermarket trolley, with drivers as mad as Hell Angels.

On a haze of Lao beer, and with the taste of dried smoked squid in my mouth, I am going to make my way South hoping that, as I have heard, everything is greener and the skies are blue........

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Hello Kitty

I have often wondered in the last few months how more surreal life can get but every time I am amazed to discover that things can and do always get even stranger. 

My bus journey down from Louang Prabrang to Vietane, the capital of Laos, was one of those moments. Most people avoiding sitting with me on buses in Laos. In a country where the average person is shorter than Kylie or Prince legroom is very restricted and the space you do get makes Ryanair feel like Business Class.

So as I'm getting myself ready for a 16 hour journey my heart sank when I had, not one, but two people sitting with me. Tickets are sold until every seat has been filled, then extra plastic stools come out in the walkway. Then once every possible space has been taken it is time to compress - I guess it is all about densities. To make matters worse, the child that was sitting beside me decided the best place to rest her head was either on my arm or my chest and even had the cheek to complain when I moved.

Travelling on our bus were two armed guards with what looked like kalasnikovs. 5 years ago a bus was attacked on this route, by bandits, and all the passengers were killed. It was just all too surreal, very much Laos though.

I found this sign very amusing, how exact!!!

There are no public toilets except in major cities so both men and women have to relieve themselves by the side of the road, but you can't go too far, partly cause it's pitch dark and partly due to the amount of unexploded bombs still left in the country.

I was going to treat myself to a new room for the next few days but as I arrived at 6am, I had to take the only thing available...a bunk in a dorm!!!!

To make my life just that bit more entertaining my bank has blocked my card again. So, after another journey from hell part 2, I decided to chill and go to the gym and even managed to barter for half price admission!!

But the best bit of all was the bike I rented to get to the gym and around town. I shopped around and once I had found the cheapest place by far I realized that the only one they had with a basket, an essential here, was a pink Hello Kitty one!!!!

I know now that I am not the only gay in the village because two local camp members of the tribe approached me while I was cycling.......asking me one thing or another while I was trying my very best not to get killed. I also had a guy and his girlfriend who wanted to know where I rented it from as they thought it was so cool and kitsch - I was just so embarrased.

Anyway, it will be one of my enduring memories of this little pink Hello Kitty bike......

One bit of very exciting news though........I am going to Nepal in April.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

New Friends

I love this pic I took in a bar, after lessons from Ignasi...

One of the best things about travelling alone is the need to meet people, to make friends. After leaving Charles in Mysore and travelling for two days on a train it hit me that I was on my own.

Someone said to me that you need to love yourself to travel around on your own, so I guess I have been desperate to find new friends.

Nonetheless, I have met some good companions. Some approach you to save money on accommodation, some to kill the boredom that their friends or partners' company brings, and others simply because they are friendly good hearted souls.

Laurent, Alexandra., Melanie, Arnod, Alexandre, Sage and Olf...

I am so glad I met Alexandra and Laurent, so kind and caring. Alexandra was worried about me travelling alone, as I am as dizzy as she is, but she had her own personal bodyguard. Laurent was big and beary, and his heart was just as big as he was.

As I travelled up north I met Arnod and Melanie, my Frenchies, they were so stereotypical, I loved them, with their love of wine and food, we even discussed chicken a la Dijonaise while eating buffalo in one of the villages.

My favourite, but also most hated, was Sage, the 19 year old Canadian girl that approached me at a bus station to share a room. As much as she irritated me sometimes I admired her natural demeanor, her ability to relate to the locals, even though she then killed it all by screaming 'this is so coooool'...

And I also met Roberto. He asked me, on a bus, if I knew any cheap guest houses and if I wanted to share with him and his friend. Alexandro, his friend, was a nice guy, but something about Roberto was disarming. He had worked as a builder in Parma to pay for his degree in economics and once finished, close to a breakdown, he went travelling. He is what I used to love about myself, but braver. I would have never, at 23, spent a month in Borneo on my own. Kind and witty, he is probably one of the most fascinating people I have ever met. So Italian and so not Italian. At 6'1”, with ginger afro and a strong muscely body he didn't fit the stereotype.

The worse thing of all about travelling is that you leave all these people behind. Cristel, Carles, Ignasi, Roberto, Alexandra, Laurent, Melanie, Arnod, Alexandre, Sage...but I will probably come across them somewhere again....

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Villages and Forests of Northern Laos

My three day trek through the far North of Laos has been a depressing experience.

I came to this part of the country under the impression that I was going to find a pristine environment. The Lonely Planet talks about 96% forest cover. Sadly, I would say it's more like 9.6%. Forests are being chopped down at a mind blowing speed. I was expecting a level of some degradation after what I'd seen in other parts of the country, but I had also been told the National Protected Areas were exactly that, protected. I'm afraid however that the Nam Ha National Protected Area is scarred by logging and fire all over. We stood next to a sign for the NPA with a background of smoke and barren land.

The joint action of industrial scale logging and slash and burn agriculture by the locals has resulted in kilometers and kilometers of brown or blackened hills.

Were once stood biodiversed forest now rubber tree plantations dominate. I also came here to visit the villages that belong to some of the several different ethnic minorities that live here, to partly discover the real Laos. This was more rewarding. Although you always have the feeling that you are intrusive and almost in a circus the villagers seemed to be as interested in us as we were in them.

Particularly, I enjoyed the late night signing. The Akha, the ethnic minority we visited, have a long oral tradition that is passed down through songs and verses.

Late night singing from the villagers...we tried to follow them but could only come up with Happy Birthday!!!

Certain things shocked me, especially seeing a dog being slaughtered and then roasted as part of a ceremony of remembrance for a recently deceased. That was probably the most foreign, alien thing I have ever experienced. And I couldn't avoid feeling extremely sorry for these people.

I saw extreme poverty in India, but also an incredible potential. This country and its people are so poor, but once they've finished destroying their environment tourists will no longer come, and one of their main sources of income will disappear. Having said all of this I have to recognise that my first day of the trek was fairly enjoyable, as we walked through forest that had been kept untouched...for tourists.

The sad thing was that on parts of the path we could see through the trees other areas being logged and burnt. I'm waiting to hear what other people tell me about the South before I decide whether to give up on Laos or carry on.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Bus Journey from Hell

My bus journey to the far North of Laos has been a disheartening experience. It was not the atrocious conditions of the bus journey itself, but the smoke, forest fires and level of environmental degradation I saw during our slow progress. I had booked an express ticket, but I can assure you that there was nothing express about it.

My not so express bus...

As we drove North and away from Louang Prabang the roads got worse and the noise in the bus every time we hit a pothole more deafening. I was convinced the bus was going to fall apart before I reached my destination. Further proof of this was when we hit a slightly deeper pothole and my seat collapsed backwards.

As with every bus journey though you always get an insight into the local psyche. I'm not sure there are many other places where people will happily wait when the driver decides to make an unscheduled stop to watch a swine being loaded into a pick up truck!!! Not only were people happy with the stop but more and more people got off and joined in the discussion of how to transport the animal safely.

Nuclear winter over North Laos and food available in the market...

As we travelled North I was hoping for the skies to clear up and the smoke to weaken. Sadly, it was the opposite.

Fires were raging across the mountains, either burning areas that had just been logged or land being opened up for agriculture. The Chinese are munching through forest at an unbelievable speed - it's the price this country is having to pay for the help they're getting in building roads and other infrastructure projects. The most depressing thing is that these people are desperately poor, 75% live in less than $2 a day.

Their natural resources, namely timber and hydro power, are being squandered by its aging elite. As children sit naked and dirty by the road, the Communist Party prepares itself for organizing the Asian Games of 2009, its officials easy to spot in large black Audis or similar.

I have met a French couple, Melanie and Arnod, and a very young Canadian, Sage, so I'm travelling with them for the next few days. I'm sharing my bedroom with Sage to keep costs low, although I can't believe someone can sleep on so late, it must be a question of age.

We spent our first day here in Luang Nam Tha cycling around the valley, visiting some of the villages, some locals weaving, some just whiling away their days, and some old lady smoking opium on her pipe while she carried bamboo.

Arnod is a profesional photogropher so I am determined to learn as much as I can from him while I can. Tomorrow we are off to Muang Sing for a three day trek in the National Forest of Mah Han near the Chinese border.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Temples in Luang Phrabang

My last day in Louang Phabang before making my way into the mountains.

I spent the day cycling around visiting the many temples that this beautiful city hosts.

Wat Xiang Thong is the most important temple in Laos and holds its holiest Buddha.

I loved this picture, it's almost like a ghost is sprinting away from the bell...

This small statute of the Buddha reminded me of early Roman art.

Monks crossing the river...

Later on I decided to get out of town and take a ferry across the Mekong to visit a village there.

While visiting Wat Long Khoun I met two of the apprentices from the temple and they offered to show me the caves of Wat Tham. The caves hold some of the Buddhas that are too damaged to be shown in main temples. Won and his friend were non stop talking machines, mostly about football.

Chinese Warriors protecting the entrance of the temple

Won and the other students by the main temple in Wat Long

Tomorrow morning I am attending the local monks procession and then I'm off on a bus to the North to hopefully discover the real Laos and do some trekking.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

A Day in Louang Phabang

After three days traveling we decided to have a lazy day, while at the same time soaking in the town. Louang Phabang is of a fairly small size and set at the confluence of the Mekong and the river Nam Khan. The old town is formed of streets full of colonial houses in subtle colours, palm trees lining every street. Everywhere you look monks in saffron robes seem to wander, happily, under their umbrellas.

As Crystel and Carles were leaving soon to go back to Bangkok I moved to smaller accommodation then later on we met to visit the Buddhist School.

Ignasi, the Catalan that is cycling around the world, joined us. I am amazed by the will power he must have. He has cycled on his own through most of New Zeland, Malaysia and part of Thailand, before meeting to come here with another two German guys.

After Crystel and Carles left I had dinner in the buzzing night market with the cycling group.

I am planning to go North to visit some National Park. I heard today that in the last two years the landscape around it has been seriously degraded as a result of Chinese timber extraction. I am hoping that it's not so bad.

Crystel, Carles and myself by the Buddha of the School Temple...

Ignasi and myself, have a look at his blog in my blog list...

I love the next two pics, they really give you a sense of this town....

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Slow Boat Down The Mekong

Taking a slow boat down the Mekong from Houayxai in the Northernmost border between Thailand and Laos has been an unforgettable experience, the perfect introduction to what is meant to be one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

As the sun set behind the mountains and I admired its red reflection on the water, my somber mood from the last few days lifted.

On Sunday we had left Chaing Mai very early in the morning.

We arrived in Chiang Kong on the Thai side of the border mid afternoon on Sunday and I was slightly worried about crossing that late on the day. I had had a bad experience crossing in the afternoon into Cambodia.

However, both Crystel and Carles were keen to get to the other side, and clearly there was not a lot going on in the town.

After getting your passport stamped out of the country you take a long boat for a short journey across the Mekong. Despite my worries getting into Laos was very simple with little paper work given to us on arrival, although at $36 I thought it was steep.

It was easy to find a guest house, and now that I'm not traveling alone, a lot cheaper.

There was a festival in the evening organized by the local temple. The simplicity of their games and prizes gave me an idea of how different this country is from Thailand.

From this town most people take a slow boat down to the old capital, Louang Phabang, or some may go to the North part of the country where there are some of the wildest and greenest landscapes.

I aim to visit the North later on in the trip so I decided to take the slow boat the following morning. At the beginning I was a bit disappointed with the boat, it seemed full of tourists and maybe not the cargo boat I had hoped for. In hindsight I'm glad I at least had a seat. Also cargo and locals joined us later as it stopped in several places throughout the two days.

We stopped over for the night in Pakeb, some God forsaken place set up to provide accomodation to tourists on these boats. It wasn't a particularly nice experience. As soon as we arrived the local kids, and some men not so young, rushed onto the boat, and started taking people's backpacks, hoping you will pay them to take it up the hill. The problem was that it had become dark and all the bags had been left in one part of the boat all together.

In the dark no one could see where their bags were, so people started getting a bit cranky. It didn't help that each time someone located their possessions they had to retrieve it from an 'unwilling non English-speaking Lao'.

After getting a room with my two new travel companions, we joined some other people for dinner and some free rice whiskey, an evil white creamy drink, but really what were we expecting for free?

The whole town shuts at 10.30pm when the electricity is switched off, but as we had an early start we were all happy to hit the sack. I'm afraid though that I decided to go on a little bit of sleepwalking. I woke up slightly frightened in the back garden in my boxer shorts and wondering where the hell I was. It took me several minutes to realize that I was in 'the middle of nowhere' and that I needed to get back to my room.

The journey down the river takes you through some outstanding landscapes. There are lush semi tropical forests, sandy beaches mixed with sharp rock formations and some farmland. 75% of the country is covered by unmanned vegetation half of which is forest, a result of a lightly populated country. As we travelled down for two days we hardly saw any villages at all, getting a sense of how empty this country is, especially noticeable having crossed from Thailand.

My only regret on taking the boat at this time of the year is that the lights and colours are diminished by the smog that covers the region. Farmers are busy slashing and burning and the smoke got thicker as we got nearer our destination.

On the second day a mixture of smog and fog reduced the visibility even further and an eerie feeling embraced us we travelled east towards Louang Phabang. As tributaries join the Mekong gets wider and deeper, though it also seemed to be getting a lot more polluted with bottles floating on the surface all along the way.

I met some very interesting people on the boat, and got a few ideas for my trip. I'm really considering going onto Burma, although it's going to be a hard one to do on my own, and I won't meet many people there. However, everyone says it is a fascinating country, completely untouched by tourism.

There were 3 guys with their bikes, one of them Catalan. He's cycling around the world, and his final leg will take him through Mongolia, China, the old Soviet Republics, Iran and then back to Europe... now that is a trip!!!!

I am going to spend two or three days in Louang Phabang. The old capital sits in a valley of green mountains and was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1995. It is a beautiful mixture of local architecture and French colonial style.

Boats docked by the Mekong...