Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Laos

After arriving in Beijing on the train from North Korea I had 6 hours to kill before heading on another train south to Kunming, capital of the Yunnan province. The journey was 40 hours (3174km) so I ended up doing almost 4500km on trains in three days in a row (and that's only half of the Trans-Siberian journey!). I boarded the train in Beijing and found my bunk in a carriage that was like a massive dorm room filled with Chinese people travelling home at the end of the Golden Week holiday. I really wish I had been able to speak Chinese, but again my charades served me well....but there is only so much you can discuss using gestures so spent a lot of time staring out the window at the countryside and chowing down on my two minute noodles...the staple diet of Chinese travelers.

Chinese dorm train (aka "hard sleeper") which was actually very comfortable!
In Kunming I stayed with Lawrence, the brother of a woman called Sarah who was on the Central Asia trip with me. He was great showing me around and getting much needed admin like washing done! From Kunming I caught an 8 hour bus to Jinghong. The landscape changed dramatically en route with rubber trees, banana palms, and tea plantations - much more tropical, and muggy and warm too. Feel a bit silly now having half my bag filled with puffer jacket, polar fleece and thermals leftover from Central Asia camping! On arrival in Jinghong I had no place to stay so after wandering the streets around the bus station for a bit eventually went into a local jewelery store where they spoke english and asked if they knew of a cheap hotel. The owner took me (and backpacks!) on the back of his scooter to some dodgey backstreet hotel, which I thought might have been a mistake, but it was cheap and perfect for overnight stay. I got a bus to Laos the next day...the bus was filled with people, most of the vegetables from the market and the odd animal!


Two chickens in a bag checking in at the bus station
Arrived in Luang NamTha, Laos after getting visa at the border (a process that was remarkably quick and easy compared with my past few months of travel). I was quietly stoked as there was a Canadian and Spanish man on the bus and the visa was cheapest for NZers, nice work! I found a room for $6 (its cheaper to travel round here than it is to live at home) and then hired a bike and went exploring. The bridge over the river on the map was non existent so ended up carrying my bike across much to the amusement of the farmer on the other side! It was beautiful lush green countryside with rolling hills and rice fields. I met a couple of Canadians and a South African who were keen for some jungle trekking, so we signed up for a two day trip and headed off into the jungle the next day. Our guide did the whole trek in jandals and hardly slipped...have decided us western tourists are too precious with all our gore-tex and hiking boots and need to go back to basics and toughen up! We spent the night in a bamboo shack, in bed by 8 with the sounds of millions of insects to lull us to sleep.

Rice fields

Jungle trek lunch, green banana leaf pouches filled with sticky rice

Trail was steep and muddy in places, had to do a bit of de-leeching at times

Our guide and two locals preparing dinner

Village at end of trek, this little pig went to market...

Five of the people I met on the trek were heading in the same direction as me so we caught a bus the next day, great to have some friends to chat with when you are going solo! The bus was packed with locals and whatever they could stuff under the seats and in the aisles, one bus at the station had several motorbikes on it's roof. I spent an hour on a wooden stool in the aisle before I got a seat, which I then had to share with another woman...you get used to cuddling up to the locals on public transport here! Had overnight in a village on the way before catching a boat down river to a stunning place tucked in the mountains called Muang Ngoi Neua which is only accessible by boat and where electricity is only available for 3 hours a day when the generator is on. Did some cool walks up river valley to caves where the villagers lived for two years due to threats from bombing raids. Was also lucky enough to be there when the twice-montly market was on, with people from all around the river communities coming by boat to buy and sell. It also happened to be pouring rain, making bare-foot through the mud the only way to walk!

Not even the driver had his own space, a guy was lucky enough to be able to use the his shoulder as a pillow...and the woman in pink made changing gears difficult!

On a boat on the Nam Ou river weaving through the mountains

Jungle in the sun rays

Muang Ngoi Neua streets

View from lunch...ahh life is tough!
From Muang Ngoi Neua I headed to Luang Prabang, the Laos version of Queenstown, with heaps of tourists and everything from elephant rides to kayaking on offer. I had to leave my new-found travel buddies behind in Muang Ngoi Neua as they had more time than me and had fallen in love with the place, rightly so! The highlight of this transfer was having a bag with a chicken in it between my feet for three hours (he had no hole for his head like the photo above though, poor thing)! On arrival in Luang Prabang I resisted the urges of the local tuk tuk men to give me a ride and hired a bike to get to the Tad Se waterfalls. I got a city bike with no gears and a basket as it was cheap, which I regretted after an hour and a serious hill to climb in 30deg+ (the man at the hire place had warned me too!). It was well worth the ride though as the waterfalls were absolutely incredible, weaving through trees and there were several pools you could swim in.

Chickens in the restaurant near waterfalls...I went for the vegetarian option that day

My own private boat ride across the river to the waterfalls, Bob the Builder driving

I asked a Spanish man who was drinking beer and smoking a massive joint to take this pic for me, am surprised its in focus!


From Luang Prabang I caught the overnight sleeper bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It was a 10 hour journey and instead of seats you had these kind of recliner pod seats, like an almost-business class seat on a plane, which would have been amazing had I been 5ft4! I slept like a baby, in that I was awake every hour wanting to scream! No, it wasn't that bad and was actually surprised how quickly the time passed, and its a great way to travel as you save a nights accommodation along the way. Vientiane is on the banks of the Mekong river near the border with Thailand. I reckon there are more Toyota hilux per capita here than in Kurow! Spent a couple of days exploring the city by bike.

Vientiane version of Arc de Triomphe - Patuxai - built to remember those who fought in the struggle for independence from France

Hammer and cicle (Laos is a single party socialist republic) and Laotian Flag along banks of Mekong

Outdoor gym in the park
Got on another night bus to head to southern Laos, this bus was much older than my first sleeper bus experience and I was very fortunate to have the "bed"to myself as its the size of a large single and many people were sharing with strangers. I was on the top bunk, and with a bus with shot suspension and crappy roads meant I spent most of the night trying to make sure I didn't roll off the side. Arrived in Pakse and jumped on a local bus for the remainder of the journey to 4000 Islands (in the Mekong River, near border with Cambodia). The local "bus" was just a truck converted into a bus, the norm in Laos. I think the driver felt sorry for me and invited me and another lady to sit up front in the cab, so I didn't get to cosy up with the locals, but it was definitely a far more comfortable ride! The system was that the people in the back would ring a bell when they wanted to get off, and the driver would beep the horn in every town to see if someone wanted to get on...worked a treat!

Our bus being loaded up

At every stop local people would try and sell food to the passengers...I think these were some kind of flattened roast chickens
I caught a ferry across the Mekong River from the mainland to an island called Duan Khong, which is the biggest of the 4000 Islands (there aren't actually 4000, most are submerged) and rented a bike to cycle around the island. Its very un-touristy and I got a great taste of local living cycling through the rice fields, which on a hot day shimmer like a big inviting green swimming pool. I went past a couple of small schools and the kids were very interested in a very sweaty, crazy foreigner on a pink bike!

Family home...might leak when it rains, but at least there is satellite TV!

Farmers harvesting rice

Nothing like a swim on a hot day!

Cheeky school kids

View from restaurant overlooking Mekong
I visited another of the islands, Don Det, which is slightly smaller but is equally as lovely as Duan Khong. I grabbed a bike again and set off exploring, coming across a brilliant restaurant which was perfect for watching the sunset. From the 4000 Islands I caught a boat back to the mainland and a bus on to the Cambodian border for the next stage of the adventure. 10 days wasn't really enough to see all of Laos, and would have loved to have stayed longer in places, but I managed to see some very beautiful spots, only one big spider (something I was very worried about on the jungle trek!), and meet some great people along the way.

My standard Laos exploring transport, complete with basket for $2/day

Don Det village

Sunset over Mekong looking towards Cambodia on otherside of river

Fishermen on the Mekong


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