Visa application seems to be a minor affair but plenty of form filling in. Through in about 20 minutes and $72 lighter.
Ken is our guide who is far more personable than the last one we had in Siem Reap. The Hotel (Sala Prabang) is different, split into a number of houses along the river front road none of which are joined together. We are not in the main part of the hotel but one of the other buildings and the rooms are basic with no storage for clothes. Another 3 days living out of suitcases- not an ideal scenario, am not liking this hotel already, especially the musty smell and the strange door arrangement for the bathroom.
Not overly hungry as lunch in Siem Reap and Vietnamese airlines food filled a hole. Go out into town into the street market which is awash with coloured lights, colourful garments, toys and materials. It is very much like a town with a strong hippy scene, similar to Key West, USA. I suppose given Laos history, the French colonial style architecture is to be expected. Lovely quaint old buildings abound.
Sit at wine bar on pavement and eventually retreat back to Hotel via a street Creperier who charges 20,000 lek for 2 creps (about £0.80p each).
Manage to Skype Mel on a very good picture, much better than when we tried to Skype Sarah last week. Mel’s voice still very croaky and her ear still hurts. She has been off work for a number of days and actually got told off for going in when she was unwell! Nothing like Park House.
Sunday 2 December
Breakfast at this hotel is over the road from the main part and like the hotel is basic self service. The advantage though is that you can sit and watch the Mekong river meander on it’s long journey to the South China Sea as well as the numerous fishing and other craft that ply the waters.
Even here, the current is strong and some vessels have to make a detour to counter the tide.
Today is a city tour which is given by Ken who delights in telling us all about all the temples in Luang Prabang, their and it’s history and he fact that he was a monk for 6 years, does not know how old he is or what his birthday is but seems to be well educated.
Ken has not travelled out of Laos though and told us that his village in the north was a few hours trek from the nearest road.
As neither Sally or I were feeling 100% today, probably the last thing we wanted was a guided tour of several temples, but tours we got. The one other part we saw was a museum of traditional clothing with a history of marriage of tribespeople.
We were even shown postcards of a tribes woman bearing both breasts indicating she had two children and one postcard of a younger woman showing one breast as she has only one child! Bizarre.
One of the temples is now a museum devoted tot the former king’s possessions. Very ornate in parts but basic when it came to the Queen’s quarters and that of the king’s mistresses. It is said that if the king asked a girl to be his mistress she had to accept or be killed during the lifetime of the king. The present kingdom ceased in 1975 and the Royal family now lives in Exile in France.
Afternoon at leisure, which for Sal and I was mainly spent sleeping! I am now officially templed out and dinner at l’elephant which lived up to it’s trip advisor reputation.
Wandered through market with a few items to buy, got talking to some Australian school /college students who didn’t like their accommodation also but were looking forward to their visit to Sapa and Halong Bay.
The young have so many opportunities that we never had.
Monday 3 December
Not a temple in sight on today’s programme! Instead, a trip down a dusty road that is being rebuilt, to an elephant “camp”.
Today’s mission, should we choose to accept it, is to ride an elephant for 90 minutes. After a brief introduction at the Elephant camp, Shangri Lao, our guide, “Phone”( pronounced porn!) invites us to “get onboard”.
Surprisingly easy so far, and the elephant starts off without any pause for us to survey the surroundings of our new mode of travel. Passing the new construction that will be the extra lodges to stay in, we descend to the river, crossing slowly with the elephant keeping the end of his trunk above water for most of the crossing.
The elephant made the crossing look easy, despite a fast flowing river, the other way. All the time, Phone was taking pictures with our cameras as it clearly was not going to be possible to take still photos whilst riding an elephant as I discovered when trying to use the little camera. Up the other side into some fertile area and the up into the jungle, up and up we went, the elephant not worrying once about the path although Phillip & Sylvia’s one was livelier at 11 years old and kept stopping to munch on the way. After a while both Phillip and I were invited to sit on the elephant’s head to replace the mahout. Even more trepidation as we set off, this had not even been considered by me before we set off.
The top of the leg joints of the elephant were right underneath my bum so I then had a 20 or so minute ride with a bum massage, interesting!
After a brief stop at a view point, fantastic views, I resumed the position on the basket next to Sal and we continued. Nearing the end of the journey, the path was very steep down and due to yesterday’s rain, a bit muddy, so I am glad I was not on the elephant’s head.
Dismounting, the elephants returned and we walked briefly to the waterfall area and then Down to the river and our boat back to the camp.
But, what we had not realised, was that in the middle of the boat was a table set for four – us!- and lunch was served.
After lunch was eaten, we never gave it justice, it was just too much, it was back to the camp and time for a look around the hotel accommodation.
Only three rooms at the moment but three more planned. The rooms have beds overlooking the river and jungle, are ensuite, have tea and coffee facilities and the cabins are completely separate from each other.
This had been one of most fantastic experiences of the holiday.
Back in the nice van after passing a game of Petanque ( laotians started playing it about 10 years ago and it has become quite popular) and back along the bumpy road we stop at a village to see some weaving and then back to hotel to pick up Ken who is to take us to a craft centre this afternoon. More weaving, more craft work, it’s almost as many as temples. Possibly the highlight here, though was the silkworm Poo tea which Phillip tried. He said it was ok and he isn’t renowned for “just being polite”.
On to a craft centre that specialised in paper products and watched a girl make a Christmas card out of paper mâché.
After the ubiquitous purchase it was back to the hotel in readiness for dinner at the Blue Lagoon, finalise packing and bed.
Tuesday 4 December
Yet another early start as the boat cruise leaves at 7am.
We did not have time to stop and watch the daily procession of Monks between 5 and 7 am when they walk around town for offerings – it would have been one early morning too much although we did manage to catch a glimpse this morning.
We say goodbye to Ken and, along with 2 Belgians, 2 Swiss and two other Brits, we start our two day journey to the Thai border, staying overnight at a lodge on the way. The weather is, as has been so far in Laos, cloudy in the morning but by 10:30 was to clear up. Breakfast on board and we settle down to watch the world go by.
There are three types of public transport going our way, ours, which is boat built for 40 but would feel cramped with half that, a speed boat for which you have to wear a helmet but is bumpy, gives you back ache but does the journey in 6 hours, or the slow passenger ferry which is considerably cheaper, with no food and water on board. Our one came with a bar and had meals included.
The Mekong is indeed a mighty river, as we had found out on our cruise around the delta at it’s exit to the South China Sea in Vietnam. There, it was bordered by many houses, fishing villages and craft of all kinds. Here it is still fast flowing but not so many commercial craft, though craft that take people from one side to the other abound, both large and small.
As the mists burn away, the mountainous jungle becomes clearer and we see little villages scattered by the waterside although as the monsoon heightens the water level considerably, they are invariably up a steep incline from today’s water level.
The rock formations change too, from the reddish colours that were evident in Luang Prabang to a white limestone by lunchtime.
We stop off at a cave at a junction in the river and climb the 30 or so steep steps to see, yes, you’ve guessed it, Buddhas. Over 400 here and another 200 in an upper cave that we do not have time to go and see. There is one are with Buddhas in every square cm as of space – perhaps irreverently, described as a “where’s wally” area.
In 2006, the river level virtually reached the cave and appears to be the highest recorded level of the river here. You can see trees where their roots are visible and are reaching out to the river, some 10 or so meters below so the monsoon does increase the river’s complexion dramatically.
We stop after lunch to visit a village Ban Bo (Ban means village) which is, after a steep climb on the sand full of people selling scarves, throws, bags, and other items they have made. The village has no electricity but has running water from a spring in the mountain. Nevertheless, they do boil the water, and use some for Whisky making. Education to secondary level is In the village but for secondary they go to Luang Prabang to stay there for a few months at a time, quite expensive. Again, the ubiquitous purchases are made and we set off down to the water’s edge for our onward journey.
Still forests surround the water and the occasional group of water buffalo, some pink, some dark are in evidence but surprisingly little bird life oth than what looks like a kingfisher or two.
The captain steers the vessel through what can only be described as treacherous waters with consummate ease, and we pass through passages where the water flow gives way to whirlpools and eddys formed from the rocks below. This is all done without any navigational maps or guides! It is noticeable that every time he passes a fishing vessel or very small bamboo craft on the water, he slows down to protect the small craft from our wake – very considerate. There are less and less small craft as we get to mid afternoon, it is just too hot of them to venture out, I bet they are all sleeping.
Every so often we pass very small hamlets of houses, perhaps two or three with some people working the land at probably subsistence level. The sand brought down from the mountains of China and Nepal has deposited itself on the banks and is used to grow a crop of peanuts which for the villages is a cash crop.
Whilst no one appears to be tending them, there are footprints in the sand showing evidence that the crops are not neglected. Fishing lines and pots are in abundance although the fishermen set them up in the early moong, leave them all day and retrieve their catch later on. An occasional woman walks by the water with contraptions for gold panning and whilst none were seen on our journey actually panning, it is, we understand quite common.
The captain suddenly slows down and we enter a narrow passage with high jungle on both sides and many a rockfall showing that a rockfall had sent trees and debris into the river to be dispersed downstream. A path, probably big enough for a car had been hewn into the south side of the gorge and a group of children frantically wave at us. We don’t stop.
We arrive at our lodge at Pakbeng just before dusk, a delightful cabin on stilts equipped with a very welcome mosquito net but fear we might have already been bitten before we get chance to put it down over the bed. Tent sleeping with a difference!
Evening meal followed by good discussion with Belgian couple and Swiss couple before returning to our lodge and an early night. Let us hope we are insect free.
Wednesday 5 December
Another early alarm call 5:30 for a 6:15 breakfast and 7am start. Good night’s sleep so the mosquito net did it’s work.
More of the same today with early morning fog clearing about 10:30 and dense river side jungle interspersed with a few hamlets. Various different rock formations along the way and several groups of locals harvesting and selling hops and maize. We pass a couple of groups of people panning for gold and two commercial freighters in their way to Thailand to buy cement for use in Luang Prabang.
Stop before lunch in Ban Houi Phalam that only two years ago received electricity. They were hospitable, there were lots of children all of whom seemed to be well nourished. The village had a school and within the last week or so building work had started on a new medical centre. The pencils were we,ll received it seems and an address taken to send our photos we had taken to them as they hardly ever get photos of themselves. The girls all giggled when they saw their photographs on our cameras.
Return to boat for lunch and then on to the Thailand border although stop beforehand to pay the boat tax of $5.
2:30pm and we leave Laos behind on the port side and we now have Laos on the starboard side and Thailand on the Port side. Another two hours to go on our cruise which has flown by and was another absolutely fabulous experience.
We get to the end of our cruise at Huay Xai which is a hive of activity with boats crossing from side to side carrying lorries, people, luggage and probably many items of produce.
We go past the passenger crossing point, land at a congested freight crossing point, disembark onto a tuk tuk which wends it’s way back to the crossing point where we pay our $1 exit fee, buy our boat tickets, watch the porter struggle with cases down the ramp, board the small long tail type boat without our luggage and cross to Thailand. Hopefully our luggage follows in the next boat about a minute later.
Possibly the most backward country we have ever visited which has only been open to the outside world for a few years and really needs to be seen soon before the crowds of tourists get there. The government are keen to encourage tourism and it is indeed a beautiful country to see. We will be back but not to stay at the Sala Prabang hotel in Luang Prabang.