Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Northern Laos with Jessie and Vickie

Happy Siblings and the Mekong



The first thing I must put straight is why this blog is still under the title 'Siamese....' when I am writing about Laos (rather than Thailand). The answer to this barely a riddle is not that I wish to insult the Laoitian people or make a historical reference to certain occasions of Siamese dominance over their northern neighbours but that during 18 generally great days in Laos I was too laid back and distracted to stare at computers and by the time I have got round to a bit of blogging I am against all plans not still in Laos...nor in Cambodia... but back in Thailand in a mid-sized town known as Ubon - but more on that later!

LAOS

After a very confused meeting with Jess following a standard night in Bangkok and a flight up to the border it, seemed right to start our time in Laos in a simply delectable restaurant in the village like capital of Vientiane.

There we were, Jessie (my lovely eldest sister - the shortest in the pictures), Vicky (a friend of Jess since she was even tinier then she is now), Dave (Dingo) and myself. A lively occasion of anticipation for what the next two weeks in this new country would hold - NO - 4 completely shattered people barely able to make it through the meal without falling on their plates. Oh well - better start the stories the next day.

After some wanderings around a town that has less life than Petersfield (where my mum lives) which included some nice shopping at a market, getting caught in a rainstorm and failing to see the famous Wat, the start to what was a wonderful couple of weeks was further delayed by a 'discussion' Dave and I had with our hotel. Without going into details of the proprietor's dispicable actions, the girls had to go on ahead of us and I had a chance to use some of those argumentational skills that I am meant to have or at least should have considering I am starting work a month today.........aaaahhhhhh!). During this period I also contracted my first illness for months. Again, c'est la vie - have patience with me starting one last time...

Two British boys jumped on a 'VIP' bus parked by a mighty sway of the Mekong river - a rushing red mass which was to be our companion throughout this startlingly beautiful land. On leaving the very downbeat capital (a real oddity in this part of the world) we were treated with scenery that improved to the point where it rivalled nearly any I have ever seen. A lush country of thick vegetation between lime-caste hills and rushing streams. It was a real delight and, despite a bit of flu, I drew some deep breaths of sweet South-East Asian air and moved back into my normal happy optimistic travelling self. The good vibes did not stop there. A big smile broke out on our faces when on arriving mid torrential downpour at the backpacker haven/hole (depends on who you talk to) of Vang Vieng, Jessie and Vicky were waiting for us and a cup of hot chocolate was waiting on the menu.


References to 'hole' are only applicable to the couple of streets of restaurants dedicating themselves to showing 'Friends' repeats and selling 'special' shakes. Like equivalent places all over the planet, there is very little connection to the host country.

The setting of the place is more than special. The closer we got the more lime-caste hills sprang up until we were in a fantasy-like landscape of dirty red water, deep green vegetation clung to pointy outcrops and enshrouding mist. For those who have been fortunate to visit the area around Guilin in China, the scenary is comparable though perhaps a patch less dramatic here in Laos. A perfect place to put the feet up, watch in wonder at the world around you and well... that's pretty nice isn't it.

We spent a couple of days in VV doing optimal activities to kick my flu - tubing and partaking in beverage.


Tubing - Something so simple, yet recommended to me from travellers far and wide, this essentially involves being dropped into the water a few miles upstream with a tube and your swimmies, lying in said tube and letting the mighty fast-flowing river (logs et al) take you down stream for a couple of hours. The journey is permeated by the flinging out of the occasional rope from a riverside bar and obligatory stop-off (a small panic ensued when Jessie floated past the landing point, fell out of her ring and clung to a piece the wooden jump point as a guy rescued her tyre-tube). For many this is an opportunity for a smoke and drink, but, as always, we were good.

One fun-filled activity we partook in ("we" meaning the boys) was to swing off a high raised platform over the river, pummel into the middle of the stream from some silly height, have just enough time to come to your senses, swim for all you worth to a rope dangling in the river and tug yourself back to relative safety. The trick is to judge your landing so to avoid the aforementioned chunky pieces of timber constantly floating down stream - nice. The most memorable part was simply lying back as the water flowed fast beneath and lashed from above. Time for a little chat and some jaw-dropping scenery viewing.

Beverage - A minor incident involving some salsa dancing with Israelis and the loss of a flip-flop. I swear I intended to stay dry, but it is impossible to watch and do nothing as Americans pretend they can drink and challenge you to a contest. They left in their wabbling place.

Very shortly after arriving back in from said night, I was on a bus (feeling surprisingly good) heading a days journey north to Luang Prabang - the raved about World Heritage Sight that was an old Lao capital. So I drifted to sleep flanked by continually remarkable scenery as the hills became slowly less pointy and larger - picture less fantasy more drama. On waking I realised my error. I had mistaken a lack of hangover with continued intoxication and had to do the standard shutting down trick as we wound are way up, down and around verdant hill to our northerly destination.

LUANG PRABANG


With aims of heading further pole-bound snubbed by little brown crawly things freaking my sister out, we ended up staying a full week in and around this simply delightful place. It is a decidedly low-key town (this is Loas after all) but is remarkably charming and has weeded its way into my 'favourite places' list if any such thing existed.

The heart of the town is a few parallel old streets situated in a thin peninsular formed by the mighty Mekong on one side and the Khan river on the other, the latter eventually wrapping around the northern end of the town as the waterways converge. These streets are filled with an interesting mixture of hundreds of year old Wats and palaces alongside charming French colonial era maisons and restaurants. This allows you to spend your days in long cafe sessions (the French really do/did know a lot about food) punctuated by leisurely walks, river cruises and finised off with a few drinks in the minuscule 'lively' pocket of town just over the hill.

There is nothing like sitting back with a drink and good company as something as magnificent as the Mekong flows to your side. What affected me most was the silence of the monster. So many thousands of cubic tons of water and..... nothing. I have seen no example of man so wondrously combining peace and power. Relaxing in the awesome shadow of nature - I love it. Add the marvellous view from the 'mountain', the knowledge that somewhere in this river are couple of meter long catfish and the occasional trip to the after-hours Vietnam bar and you have a great place to just chill.

KUANG XI





It is a shortish trip away from town to a piece of protected rain forest that contains Kuang Xi waterfall. That we made this trip no less then 3 times gives an illustration of how great it is. Out of the rain forest and down a series of beautiful and spectacular terraces runs, roars and trickles a 30m waterfall. Apart from the opportunity of feeding a healthy looking tiger, the highlight were a number of natural pools which you could jump in and swim around. Crystal blue and just a little bit chilly, they were refreshing in the heat.

The higher you climbed and the more 'Danger' signs you past the better the pools became until just before the top you have a large pool surrounded by smaller ones at the foot of a large drop. Even better, you have it almost to yourself. Picture it. Jumping off the sides and floating to the very precipice of the falls - dropping beneath and beyond, the full extent of the forest clad valley unfolds. Jess and Vicky showed great spirit in climbing up and over falls to find this place, as did the comedy Dutch boys on our final day, but the extra-slippery conditions of the first occasion when Dave and I christened 'extreme flip-flop waterfalling' go down as the most adventurous. A very very special place.

ADVENTURE TRIP





After all this relaxing, Dave and I were just itching to do something active. This combined with Jess and Vicky's wish to do something 'quite' active and we booked up 2 suitable days of interest. On the first day Dave and I would do a hard trek to where the girls spent the day playing with elephants. After a night in a net on a stool, we would then kayak together back to Luang Prabang.

By both accounts the playing with elephants went very well.

The trekking went excellently. We made it emminently clear to the guide that we wished to have a challenge and he extended and changed the itinerary accordingly. In baking heat of over 40 C we trekked up steep steep inclines, through sticky forests, along small streams ducking below the branches - in a fashion that bought numerous Vietnam war movie clips to mind- up and over ridges to views that knock your eyes back into your head and immediately tune you into what is so evasive in Blighty - life, force, nature - whatever you wish to call it. You can catch a glimpse of one particular valley on the photo above but it doesnot do justice. Sweating but resolutely happy, we stopped for an hour or so on a workers shelter close to the top of a rice clung ridge and just took in everything around us. One of those moments that will stay with me for as long as I have a couple of marbles to knock together.

It is worthy of note that a quite colossal tropical storm passed over during the night. Strange, there were Dave and I soaked through but sleeping like babies while the dry girls in the middle barely slept. I woke up just in time to catch the girls returning from cleaning their elephants in the river and after brekkie the kayaking commenced.

I have never to my knowledge done an extreme sport with my sister (this goes against the evidence of a photo with my sister and I at the age of 4 in teddy-bear skis, but as I can not remember it I discount it), so jumping in a kayak down grade 2 rapids on a very fast flowing tributary of the Mekong was bound to be an interesting experience. I can not but help feeling protective of my sister. Partly because of how small she is and more than partly because of the shared blood running through our veins.

Generally it was a beautiful relaxing journey with the males doing more than their fair share of the paddling but loads of fun. One more than interesting incident did occur as we entered a fast set of rapids at the wrong angle, speeding towards trees in the middle of the river (wet-season). Before I knew it I was clinging to a tree branch in a desperate attempt to stop Jess at the front of the boat from smashing into a another tree at rapid velocity. The plan just about worked, but soon after the current tipped us over and we were both dangling off the side of the kayak struggling to keep hold of our paddles. Such little moments of adrenaline usually sort themselves out and this one was no different with us both able to scramble back on board as we rushed out of the rapid and continue down stream. I shall definitely have to do more of it in future.

A wonderful 2 weeks with Jess and Vicky came inevitably to a far too rapid close and before I knew it they were on a plane heading back to Bangkok and Dave and I were on another all nighter down to Vientiane. It is sad how time rushes by fastest when you are it the most, but this can be applied to most of this year for me. It has gone by in a blink of an eye, despite more memories then I can fathom. Back to the girls. It was a delight to spend time with both of them. Vicky was a sweetheart putting up with flu for the majority of the time (which I am afraid may have come from me) and travelling with Jessie was simply something I have to repeat.

No more rambling. Like time, we were on the move. A hectic day of mad sorting in the capital (we finally got to see the Wats) and then another mammoth (well at least baby mammoth - mammet?) journey overnight all the way to the bottom of Laos. And it is there in Pakse that I will take up the tale and I can forewarn that those were some interesting days indeed....
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