Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Heading down to Four Thousand Islands - running out of time in Laos!

September 1st. Can't believe it is already September! Arrived from my overnight bus into Pakse around 5:30am. I really couldnt see very well at all from my dreaded lurgy red eye disease, so a lovely tuk tuk guy drove me around to about four different clinics to try and find a doctor! Apparantly doctors in Laos don't like to get up early so we finally got a pharmacist to help.. so nice of the driver who translated and even helped me put the drops in my eyes.. what more could you ask for!

However, he did drop me off at the wrong bus station where i sat for an hour and a half (after checking like ten times!) waiting for the next bus to Champasak, but apparantly he thought i said Ban Muong Tho.. ahhhh.. no! Oh well, finally realised i was in the wrong place, so took a tuk tuk to the other bus station, where i waited for another 2 hours for that bus to fill up and then we were off! Got chatting to a lovely boy called Kekong, who guess what.. wanted to practice his English! This was a real local bus, where if kids need to go to the loo, they just drop their trousers and have a wee! I was the only tourist here but having a great time and feeling quite adventurous...then two lovely young chappies got on board! Hit it off with Silas and Matthew (both from London) right away. Really nice guys.. oh yes and Jean-Yves, a farmer from outside Paris, also jumped on just as we were heading off! This bus was seriously PACKED....but everyone was in good spirits, sharing fruit and monkey nuts and whatever else we bought from the sellers who would mob the bus everytime it stopped! So after a bus and a ferry ride and then back on the bus, we arrived at Champasak!

Champasak, famous for its ancient ruins, is a really relaxed place to hang out and we met definitely the smiliest man in the entire world, Mr Khong, who ran our guest house! He literally laughed at everything any of the guests - or himself - said - what a jolly fellow, or maybe he was on some sort of happy pill - who knows around here, anything goes! Great place - chilled out with hammocks and a beautiful view of the mighty Mekong (yup, that river gets around!). We were to find a similar scene throughout all the Four Thousand islands (or Si Phan Don to give it its correct name) that we pottered through over the next few days.

Technically the Four Thousands Islands are literally made up of thousands of isles and sandbars that rise from the Mekong River – this area is the widest part of the river’s breadth, expanding about 14 kilometers or nine miles. The islands can be seen from January to March but as we were there during rainy season, many of the islands were submerged.. but still a gorgeous place to visit!

So after we all checked in, it was off on the bikes again for Silas, Matthew, Jean-Yves, Darryl (an English guy at the guest house) and myself! Super hot today as we biked up to the Wat Phu Champasak ruins.. which were so beautiful and in the midst of being restored (have to admit i posted my LP book home so cant give you too much details on the historical perspective here.. i know, it kills me too, you are all desperate to know (yeh, right!!!). We climbed up to the top, and what a view we had. Silas boldly went where no man has gone before (ok slight exaggeration) but he did find the famous and somewhat elusive elephant rock, that has some amazing spiritual meaning that i dont know about!! But hey, it looks good! . Checked out the museum afterwards then we all headed back to the guest house for some, you guessed it, well earned beer Lao! Met up with Jeremy and Nadine, a lovely couple (Irish and Welsh respectively) who filled me with lots of stories about India where they had just been for 5 months! Really got me excited about that trip I have to say...

Had a great nights chat - one of those evenings where you have deep, meaningful conversations about life, love, religion, politics - everything you shouldnt really talk about with people you dont know very well, but we had a great time. Jeremy even got his guitar out - he is a beautiful singer, so we had a fab finish to a great night! (well, apart from the Korean man who got up to tell us off for being too noisy, wearing only his boxer shorts - nice look!). So glad i managed to squeeze this part of the trip in as it wasnt originally on my itinerary - hey, its the new me, going with the flow and not planning every single second of my trip.. well, im trying!!

September 2nd. The boys (did i mention how great they are - too too funny, they have been best friends for ever) and I are off to Don Khong today. Silas is a quad brother - so interesting - with three other brothers and sisters (obviously). He works in TV in London but his family live in Brighton so we are going to meet up when im home visiting my brother, Myles! Matthew is going to be a trainee solicitor in copyright law with a music firm (and couldnt be further from your perception of what that type of person is!). Also met a lovely guy from Switzerland, Oliver, who had just arrived... super nice and definitely a traveler not a tourist (from some of the amazing stories he told me! wow!). Anyway the boys and I were soon off to wait for our "bus" (always a loose term here) to turn up for our next island, Don Khong, which it did pretty quickly, even tho' the local guy told us it wouldn't be around for another few hours! Hmmn. So on to another ferry that took us across to Don Khong; yet another beautiful island. Great guest house with lovely folks again! We relaxed for a while then as we were only going to be there for one night, we all felt the need to explore so it was on to the bikes and off we went! Pottered around town then headed out to the countryside a bit... you can bike the whole island which is just 34km but we all felt that was a tad too energetic especially in the heat (ok good excuse we just couldn't be bothered!) so we just pottered along, cycling through lovely wee villages, till we came upon some gorgeous kids who found the boys hilarious, especially when they held hands and biked along the road together - dafties!

On our way back to town, we passed a big gang of wee boys jumping in the river from a rope swing. Now Silas and Matthew had been talking about swimming the whole way back, so of course they jumped right in with the kids and what a laugh they had. The wee boys were delighted to have Silas and Matthew join in; at one point Matthew threw this tiny boy in (he wanted to) but he looked shell shocked when he came out.. then laughed his head off. So cute! Then two little girls who were watching the whole proceedings gave me flowers .. i put them in my hair which started a whole new round of giggling. These kids are so gorgeous!!! I want to take them all home!

September 3rd. Up early again today (one island after another folks!).. as we were catching the 8am river boat down to Don Det. Yet another idyllic setting -we stayed at Mama Tan's. She was officially crazy from chewing too much betel juice (either that or a tad too much wacky backy .. she was lovely but a little strange - she apparantly liked you if she slapped you around a bit.. lucky me cos i got alotta slaps...a little strange but whatever!). We hung out in the hammocks for a while, then as was our pattern, we jumped on some bikes and headed off to the local waterfalls . .which were absolutely gorgeous! All that water and the incredible heat made us want to go for a swim, so we found this "beach" that some French people had told us about! Hmmn more of a bay really and even then, that was pushing it! We didnt care and jumped right in - ahhh the cool water - fab! Until, and we had been swimming around for quite some time now, we saw the local kids bringing the water buffalo in for their afternoon dip - and no surprise, once in they were quite impressive with their poohing abilities. Sorry but its true. We must have been swimming around in tons of buffalo pooh and not realising it! So - quick smart out of there for us, we had our picnic lunch and then headed back to our guest house.... it was SO hot! I mean i love the heat, but really the last few weeks were scorching! We went in search of the perfect rice field shot -couldn't get it so decided to take a silly one of me sitting in a rice field instead!!

These last few days are probably some of the most relaxed I've had on my trip. I mean who can ask for more - sunshine, hammocks, biking around.. just magical i have to say! Thanks Matthew and Silas for a fun, fun time (and yes, you both look quite charming in your new head gear.. they snuck into Madam Tan's closet for some bizarre reason.. but they do look good, in an 18th century kinda way, right? I had to put this shot in boys.... too good to miss!). And yes, i do humbly apologize for spreading the dreaded red eye lurgy to you both.. so, so sorry!!! Such a nice memory of our time together - not! So it's goodbye to Four Thousand islands as we all head off tomorrow to the border crossing and into Cambodia for a whole new adventure! I have to say I always thought Vietnam would be hard to beat but i have loved my time in Laos, and I'm really sad to leave. I had met a ton of people who said there is no way you need to spend a month here- but I could easily have stayed another month! So Laos is now edging up there to equal or maybe nudge ahead of Vietnam.. but lets see what Cambodia has to offer! Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Kayaking down to Vientiene

August 27th. Decided what better way to leave Vang Vieng and make my way down to the capital, Vientiene but by kayak. Most people take the bus but that's way too pedestrian for this intrepid traveler!!! Ramona was game too, so off we set for a fun packed few hours! After about five minutes of us being in the kayak together, our guide, Ayer, very politely asked me to switch kayaks! Basically cos i was completely rubbish and couldn't steer my way out of a paper bag! So I moved into a new kayak with Ning, a brilliant guide who knew that i liked to fall into the water alot.. so we did. Alot!!! And he loved it. Cracked up, especially at me trying to get back into the kayak.. oh yes very ladylike there! Ayer had explained that there were three main sets of rapids we would go through today, and due to it being the rainy season, the rapids were really quite big! Now I've white water rafted before and loved it but never in a kayak. Ramona hadn't done anything like this before so was a bit nervous but also really excited... so off we set.

Hmmn - remember i said i liked to fall in! Well, second set of rapids, there was a giant whirlpool that we were all to try and avoid 'cos it was so big! No - i fell in.. the first two times i was sucked down, no problems! The third time i have to admit I was getting a tad panicky.. but luckily i caught the rope from Ning and all was fine! Phew! After all this hard work, we stopped for lunch - amazing BBQ lunch presented beautifully in banana leaves by the boys, who cooked it by the side of the river! Unbelievable! After lunch we kayaked further down the river then had to say a fond farewell to our guides, such nice guys, and jump in a minibus to Vientiene....wish the river went all the way but unfortunately not, so back on the bus!!!

Arrived in Vientiene late afternoon and Ramona and I had scouted out a fab place to stay. Yes folks...I'm going upmarket for a few days! And what a lovely feeling it was...i have to say it felt like utter luxury...and for the giant price of $7.50 each - wow we were really splurging!! We headed out to find a specific Chinese restaurant we had read about - Ramona and I are obviously foodies - can you tell? But after walking for hours (ok at least one!), getting ten different directions (again!) and a tuk tuk driver who kept telling us "yes, yes" i know where it is, then driving around and around asking directions himself.. we gave up and headed for the street stalls - fantastic food so all ended well! Ever had a tamarind shake anyone - deeeelicious!

August 28th. Decided today would be spa day.. ahh the weary traveler has to regroup sometime! Headed out to Wat Sok Pa Luang for a traditional Lao sauna and massage, found in the grounds of this temple hidden away in the forest a few kilometres from town. Before we "spa'd" it, we pottered around the wat, and were almost immediately attacked by a young novice monk, studying at teacher training college, and a temple boy who both wanted to practice their English! Told you - it happens everywhere! So we sat with them for about an hour then very politely made our exits towards the sauna. Not before hearing 2 or 3 monks singing at the tops of their voices "D-I-S-C-O!!" from nearby! Hilarious to hear!

So on to our traditional sauna! Very interesting in that both men and women used the sauna together. Everyone changed into sarongs and just hung out chatting away.. pretty funny to hear the same ole' lines "So where are you from? How old are you? Do you like Laos?" in the misty depths of a very very hot sauna!! Just a little strange how relaxed everyone was.. wouldnt happen in Vietnam or even Thailand i dont think! After our herbal sauna (it smelled gorgeous, lotsa lemon grass!) it was on to the somewhat skanky looking beds next door for our traditional massage. But wow! What a massage it was.. i felt like i had been bent backwards, forwards and upside down by the end, but it was fantastic! There's alot to be said for having a massage in the open air in the middle of a forest (ok baby forest but still!)..

August 29th. And now a little on Vientiene, the capital of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos which many people just fly in and out of, as rumour has it there's not much to see or do here! I really liked it here; imagine more of a small provincial village than big city, with a mixture of French colonialism and some more socialist style buildings. Lots of construction going on, some gorgeous buildings, some really dilapidated ones too; and lotsa rain unfortunately, so everytime you went out you got mud all over you! Tons of funky French bakeries and cool restaurants; a really nice vibe here! And the people in our hotel couldnt be nicer!

We decided today was a big bike day, and there is no better way to bike around Vientiene than with Ms Kitty! LOVED our bikes and everyone had a chuckle as we pottered around town! Thinking of buying one when i get home - they are too cool, you know! Started off by visiting Patuxai, an interesting replica of the Arc de Triomphe, built in 1969 from cement provided by the US which was originally given to build a new runway - oh well, this is much prettier! We climbed the stairs to the top and looked out over the city, great views.

Next stop on this boiling hot day was the amazing Pha That Luang, a beautiful and massive golden temple. It is the most important national monument in Laos and a symbol of both Buddhist religion and Lao freedom. The golden stupa, 85m high is so over the top, but yet really beautiful at the same time! Spent quite some time here; its always intriguing to me how ornate and over the top these wats are, from cities to tiny villages, its incredible how goldy and intricate and seriously bling bling they are! After our hard day (teehee!) we chilled out then went to the Sunset Soltera bar on the river front, and relaxed away, thinking about how lucky we were to travel, see all the amazing things we have seen .. ahh its the life folks

August 30th. Today is market day for me .... and what a market! As usual, i got completely carried away (somehow i think im a Russian heavy weight wrestler who can carry 25kilos on my back no problem - or is it lbs?? whichever is heavier that's what im carrying!). There were some really beautiful things here so made some fab (if somewhat undesirable ie heavy!) purchases for folks back home. Then it was on to the crazy Xieng Khuan Buddha Park about an hour out of town for a visit! Lets just say the mini-bus for about 26 people had at least 50+ on it and me the only tourist, everyone was quite curious so i had a few stilted conversations. Everyone is so friendly here - you gotta love it! Anyway, the Buddha Park is mad - a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist figures sculpted by local folks out of cement in the late 1950's under the watchful eye of Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat who fled Laos for Thailand after the 1975 revolution. With the giant reclining buddha one of the highlights here, (see me in the pic; shows how big this thing is!) it is definitely a quirky, unique and interesting place to visit! Got chatting to a lovely French lady who had just moved to Vientiene with her husband and two children, so she gave me a lift back to town, and we had a great old chat... yet again, how lucky am i to meet such nice people!

Isn't this arty shot just great - i LOVE my new camera!!! Sorry i digress!! Got back to find Ramona had contracted a deadly travelers disease .. nah, just being dramatic.. She had an awful case of "dreaded red eye lurgy AKA conjunctivitis"... it was a really bad case tho'. And of course, as luck would have it (or had my luck run out..) i very soon got it myself. Really bad case actually, tons of gunk in your eye, really hard to open them and to see (ok sorry for the very visual description but i thought you might want to share my pain).. mine started the night i was heading off on an overnight bus to Pakse on my way to Four Thousand islands.. yup, its a really good look, but hey, its not the worse thing that could happen, although i do look a bit like someone beat me up pretty badly... but onwards to the islands I go!!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Onwards to "happy" Vang Vieng....and a wee bit of volunteering!

August 19th. Took the overnight (ish!) bus from Phonsaven to Vang Vieng and arrived around 2am to a deserted concrete section of town. Really wierd especially at that time in the morning. Met by a guy from a local guest house (impressive entrepreneurship staying up that late to get business!).. so of course we went to his place for the night! Couldnt sleep but luckily my room, although had very dodgy wiring (looked like the place could go up in flames at any moment!) had satellite TV so watched HBO for hours.. ahh the joy of a TV again. Hadn't watched it for weeks so quite nice to just chill out while it poured down outside - yup, think we are now well and truly in the wet season here!

Got up later in the day (still early - you know me, can't waste any time lolling around!) and packed up. Didn't fancy that wiring for another night!!! Checked out the town - yup, another one street town - bit wierd cos the way Lonely Planet describes Vang Vieng, you get the feeling its way bigger than it actually is. The other descriptor from LP was that tired travelers come here to chill out, take alot of "happy" products - shakes, pizzas, garlic bread -you name it, if it has "happy" before it, then you know its laced with either opium, ganga (im learning as i go with all these names) or magic mushrooms! The police know about it but although it is illegal, as long as you dont get out of line, its sanctioned somehow. Very wierd but hey, whatever works for folks!

So you walk down the street, and just like the good ole' LP says, there are bars of floppy cushions and couches, full of exhausted (apparantly in many cases, very hung over folks!) travelers, sitting eating western food watching re-run after re-run of Friends (what an indictement of western culture that that is what people want to watch - what must the Lao people think of us!) or The Simpsons. Nowhere could i find a cafe/bar without a TV so sat down and as i waited for my breakfast i heard a boy say to his girlfriend "Come on, we've seen that episode of Friends before, lets head over to The Simpsons" - what!! How weird is that! Definitely a bizarre wee place, although very beautiful too! Similarly to Nong Khiaw, tons of giant limestone mountains surrounded the town, and so lush and green, just lovely.

Moved to Pan's Place with Adam and Kathryn... great guy called Neil from New Zealand runs it with Pan and her sister Ping! Very laid back and relaxed place...we went for a walk about town (another 2 minute job) then decided due to the stinky rainy weather we would hang out and watch a DVD - picked "Kundun" - quite appropo to learn about the background of Buddhism, while in one of the many Buddhist countries in South East Asia! Into town for dinner - pad thai for me (think i've managed to have it for about 1 month straight now for either lunch or dinner - i do LOVE it!)....and who do we bump into again but Ariel from the Gibbon experience who we left in Luang Prabang! Nice relaxing night of beer Lao, card playing and lotsa chat - what more could you ask for!

August 20-26th. Lotsa pottering going on these days. Had to say my fond farewells to Adam and Kathryn as they were heading off to Vientiene by bus - can't believe we have been together for over 2 weeks.. amazing how time flies yet at the same time you feel you have known your new pals for ever; and you know me, i get so attached to people so quickly - lucky ole' me!

I had decided to stay here for another week and volunteer at the Organic Farm. Read about it in Lonely Planet so headed up there on my bike to check it out. The farm is located in the village of Phoudindaeng, about 4 km north of Vang Vieng. Perched on the banks of the Nam Song river amidst the jagged limestone mountains that surround the Song River valley, Vang Viang Organic Farm was founded by Thanongsi Soangkoun in 1996 with the goal of introducing organic farming methods in an area where chemicals and deforestation were ruining the land. Today, the farm is a vibrant center for a variety of projects that center around the organic production of mulberry trees, along with organic fruits, vegetables, and poultry for the restaurant. The mulberry trees provide leaves to feed to the silk worms, plus mulberry tea, mulberry wine, and mulberry shakes. Wages support the many villagers who work at the farm and the profits provide assistance for the whole community. Pretty impressive! And, then there are the volunteers who come for a few days, and then sometimes stay for weeks, like Nikki and Rob, an English couple who had been volunteering for three weeks. English teachers of all abilities are always needed, and its a really relaxed atmosphere! Those of us who do volunteer have the opportunity to interact with many of the local villagers, who represent 3 distinct cultural groups (Lao, Hmong, and Kmou).

The kids are amazing! Classes were every day from 5:30-6:30 (for the younger children aged from about 3-10)then from 6:30- 8pm for the older students who ranged from 10-21. I also met Ramona at the farm, a feisty Australian who was a brilliant teacher with tons of energy that the kids loved. After speaking with Ramona, I decided I definitely wanted to help out so checked with Mr. T who runs the farm, and got the ok to start right away - yah! Wow - over 50 kids in each class, so much excitement especially the little ones who practically break the door down to get in.. and then how gorgeous they all are. When class ended the little ones all came up and hugged us, and said "see you tomorrrow miss!". So cute!

Some of the lesson plans Ramona and Nikki organized were really effective with the older children, especially in getting them to practice their pronunciation (their written English is really pretty good!).. for example, the class was divided into two teams and we gave points out to those who a) could pronounce some pretty hard tongue twisters and b) had the confidence to come up in front of class and do it! Red lorry, yellow lorry was a really tough one for them. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers was a bit easier! The standing up in front of class was a lot harder for some of the girls so we really had to encourage it, but when they did great, they were so delighted with themselves, it was fantastic to see!

Some of the folks in the older class were very curious that i wasn't staying at the farm (most of the volunteers usually do!) but cycling in and out of town every night. I had my headlamp so there were no probs about riding in the dark, but they were very concerned and all said "arent you scared miss?" and "be very careful miss" every lovely and thoughtful of them; I thoroughly enjoyed my first class but felt like a bit of an idiot as I waved them off saying, "I'll be fine, don't worry about me" and then my stupid chain fell of my bike. So sweet how they boys came over and fixed it for me.. gotta love those Lao men.. such gents!

Got into a bit of a routine here in Vang Vieng. Most days, up and out for breakfast, did some pottering, went for walks, one day i decided to try the famous Vang Vieng tubing. Essentially you sit in a giant tractor tube and float down the Nam Song river, stopping off to jump off giant rope swings and have swigs of Beer Lao on the fun fun! Another time, Ramona and I went for a great cycle through some of the local villages; the people are so warm and friendly. Laos really is just such a great place, I have to say! Then later in the afternoon it would be time to head up to the farm for classes, which i totally loved. Also helped out a bit with a brochure the farm was developing. Ramona was editing it and needed some new pics so my new camera to the ready, and off we went! But back to teaching!! It is quite amazing what you can get out of volunteering.. I always wanted to do it at home but never had the time, and although it's only a week here, you really get to know the kids quickly and they are so affectionate and happy to have you teaching them! This little girl called Ngun (not sure about spelling!) took a wee shine to me (ok it doesnt look like it here but she and I were inseparable trust me!)and every day when i came to class, she would run over and hold my hand! I'm telling you, your heart would be pretty full by the end of class; and for anyone wanting a baby or having any maternal instincts at all, this place certainly reinforces that feeling! In fact, I wanted to squeeze a few of the children into my backpack (if it wasnt so bloomin' full already!)...So you can kind of see why I had such a wonderful time here in Vang Vieng and was pretty torn about maybe staying longer or moving on to Vientiene.. I'd love to come back and teach for longer next time! But for now, it was lots of fond farewells - I mean how can you not be affected when some of the older kids say things like "I'll never forget you. You were a good and funny teacher and I want you to know I will work really hard to improve my English and thank you for every thing".... and I was only there for a week! I'm not telling you this cos i've got a big head.. more to illustrate how incredible all these children were and how they really appreciated what little teaching you could provide (especially me, 'cos im pretty rubbish to be honest, even tho' i love doing it!). Love it so much I'm thinking that might be my big career change when i get home... well, that's today's idea - things will probably change tomorrow! So there you go - a fab time in Vang Vieng, but now on to Vientiene I go!