We woke early throwing open the curtains to see where we’d arrived in the dark. Wow! what a breathtaking scene met our eyes. We were in a room overlooking the Mekong river. We wondered outside to soak up the atmosphere. We could hear the dogs across the river waking and a lone cockerel doing his wake up call. We sat out on a lovely balcony for a really good breakfast. Which was just as well coz our next section was crossing the border into Laos.
Immigration was interesting. Crowded, with people jostling for position to get at the tiny window to hand in their passports for stamping. The next step was to get on a what looked like no more than a dug out canoe with a canopy. We wobbled our way onto it carrying our backpacks and sat very precariously, trying not to dangle anything in the water at our feet. I must admit that it did cross my mind that ‘I hope this isn’t the boat that we were spending the next two days on’. But we needn’t have worried it was only to cross the river to the Laos immigration on the opposite bank. Once that was all sorted we were led to a house boat. Beautiful teak wood. The family lived on board plying the Mekong River for business. The husband had grown up on the boat (as had the generations before him) learning the river from his father. The river was treacherous, one wrong move and the boat would be smashed on the numerous jagged rocks lying just under the surface. The river level changes dramatically with the seasons, and the rock formations that we were sailing past admiring, were actually beneath the water after the rains, making the route ever changing. Amazing navigation. So for two days we shared their home, with them providing a lunch on board too. Excellent food.
We stopped along the way at a village, not a very comfortable feeling, in as much as, these people had been displaced by the government from their more familiar areas at higher altitudes to farm the river banks and thereby give them a ‘better life’. I wondered if anyone had asked them. It struck me that after generations of farming at high altitude, knowing your crops, to get displaced to grow unfamiliar crops at a different altitude, must suck! Their farming was very meagre and so they have been persuaded to allow the tourists to come and visit so they could sell things. As soon as the boat pulled in, hoards of little girls shadowed us, each one trying to get you to buy their particular bracelets. Unfortunately, these were not hand made items but mass produced friendship bracelets probably mass produced in China. If you tried to take a photo they would ask for money. Hardly any boys to be seen, only the very young, as from a young age they go out farming or fishing with dad early in the morning.
We visited another much nicer village further on down stream, where we saw them using various gadgets. It was a much more established village with people just going about their business. They were drying some newly picked peanuts, which was one of the crops that they traded. All their houses were on stilts which was quite odd since they were so far above the river level, till i realised the water levels reached up that high, and it was high, during the rainy season. As i was wandering about ambling my way back to the boat i past a house with a cockerel hanging by its leg. It looked as if it had been sitting on its perch which it was tied to, and fallen off. Maybe it fell asleep. Any how, i beckoned to a young girl and showed her the poor thing hanging there. She called a little boy over and said something to him. The next thing he climbs up the side of the building and rescues it, putting it back on its perch. I gave him a round of applause and called him a hero, and waved goodbye to their smiling faces.
A bit further down stream we stopped at the Pak Ou cave Temple an amazing couple of limestone caves, that could only be reached by the river. It had thousands of Buddas of various shapes and sizes. They had been brought as offerings by the people of Luang Prabeng and the king at the new year celebration and also when the King used to come to meditate on political decisions and bring a new image each time.
It took us 2 days to travel down the river to Lung Prabeng, stopping one night at a place called Pak Beng about half way. Luang Prabeng has got to be the favourite place so far. A small town which can be walked around. Lovely atmosphere. Lots of temples and Monks. It is the custom here for the monks to file around the streets of the city before day break receiving food from the locals and any tourist who happens to be up early enough. I did manage to get up early enough one morning to give it a go.
Early in the morning the streets are empty and the shop keepers sweep the pavements and put down mats to kneel on. People come round selling sticky rice in little leaf woven baskets or bananas or such like to give to the monks. I gave bananas, I sat on the pavement as you have to have your head lower than the monks to show respect. As they file by you put 1 banana in each pot that each monk carries. We had a few days there, and just about saw everything, before the long drive to Vientiane.
It soon became apparent that this was going to be a bit cramped for this section of the tour, as the back seat of the small bus was piled high with our luggage, cutting down on five of the seats. This left only enough seating to be crammed into but only if you used one of the fold down seats that flap down across the isle. I got the best seat on the bus, mainly due to the fact that i was the hobbit in relation to the rest of the group who were all like avatars, mostly over 6 foot tall. There was one little seat behind the passenger seat that no-one else could fit in. Yippee! I got great views of the road ahead.
There was also no damping on the suspension, the shock absorbers were totally shot, so it was a bit like being in a boat bounce bounce bounce. When ever the driver hit the breaks they grabbed, which threw us forward, building up our core muscles nicely. I think he needed new break shoes, It felt like metal on metal to me. At one occasion smoke started coming out of the fuse box but the fast reaction of Chantha our guide, snatching the fusebox cover off and knocking away the loose wire saved the day before any real damage was done.
However the scenery was beautiful, climbing up into the mountains around lots of switch backs. Passing Teak forests, Bananas, bamboo, and what looked like Pampass grass but they call Boklau which they stuff cushions, mattresses and make brooms out of. The vegetation changing as we climbed. At one Pit stop at the top of one beautiful valley there were little huts or sleeping platforms overhanging the hillside, on spindly looking legs. But lovely to try, and good photo places. It was now costing us 1000 Kip for the loo, sounded very expensive but in reality was only pennies. The landscape changed from here on to massive volcanic plugs, and we stopped for lunch at yet another beautiful place overlooking the mountain (volcanic plug) Phukhoom Peak at 1600 metres high, looked bigger to me. We had lunch at a long table overlooking the view however i was amazed that the end of the table was about 6 inches from a sheer drop into the valley, but with no fence wall or any barrier at all. No one seemed at all fazed by it, and i just thought blimey! back home the health and safety would have a field day. We live in such a ‘nanny state’.
Arriving in Vientiene in late afternoon, we dumped the bags and scuttled off the the riverbank to find a cheap restaurant. We have become known by our tour leader Thye as the ”Snakey Tourists” since we never go where he advises to eat since they always seem to be the most expensive in town. Either on commission or concerned about our health, not sure which. The girls i’m travelling with are on a budget so always like to find their own restaurant, which works out well as i like to eat what the locals eat too, and i’m always glad to save some money.
Sat 26th – Next morning was an early start, we went to the park to do some exercises before going back for breakfast and getting back onto our trusty bus and on the road by 7.30 am. We visited a Big stupa which houses the relics of Buddha brought back by one of 5 monks who went to India to study. One big stupa with 32 smaller stupa surrounding it, symbolising the 32 perfections one has to achieve on the road to enlightenment. The statue of the monk sitting infront of the temple rather resembled Gandalf.
Next stop Sisaket Temple which is a museum and still being renovated. This one is different in as much as its just plain stone blocks, none of the glitz and glitter of most of the others we’ve seen. This is the original design of the one built in Bangkok, apparently the king went to Thailand or Siam as it was then to study and had a replica built there. The one in Bangkok is a very grand one in comparison, but i prefer the Laos one, much older.
We finally left Vientiane and hit the road again, we past the war memorial of all the Lao people who died during the American war with Vietnam. They were unfortunate to be place between two warring factions, there were literally thousand upon thousands of little stupa in row after row. Very sad sight. I can’t believe how these people do not hold any animosity towards the Ameicans, but their philosophy is ”what is past is past”.
Today i have mainly been sleeping! on the bus couldn’t keep my eyes open. So saw very little of the view today we arrived in Savennahket where during our brief stay we visited a local shrine where at certain times of the month governed by the moon phases, the youngsters of the town come to the shrine to pray to find their love. Then they go out and trawl around the town checking out the local talent mostly on there scooters which every one seems to have. We had a meal that night that we cooked at the table. Each table had a hole in it where they put a bucket full of embers which is covered by a domed plate, it has a gutter around the base of the plate where you put a stock that you cook the veggie in, and cook the raw meat on the dome. Very nice.
Sun 27th – Early start. Well it was bound to happen some time during the trip, i guess the barby style meal didn’t agree with me, got a bit of a runny bum, so went without breakfast. We headed to the border with Vietnam. A funny thing happened to us on the way. The driver suddenly slowed down and seemed to be feeling a lot of play in the steering. He pulled in and looked under the front of the bus, then returned with an old bicycle inner tube. I wondered if the power steering had failed and wondered if they were going to make a temporary fanbelt. They asked if anyone had any scissors!!! The driver slowly drove on till he found a petrol station to do his quick fix so we had a public loo, bless him.
The driver and guide used the scissors to cut long strips of inner tube, then disappeared under the front of the bus. I got down to have a look what the were doing thinking that the fan belt had gone or something. But no it was the steering arms. The ball joints on the end had come loose so they wrapped the rubber tubing around and around it in a figure of eight and voi-la tis fixed and back on the road we get. Did the trick. That’s what i like to see a bit of bush mechanics.
I started to create a little ditty about this 3 day bus ride as we bumped along.
As we trundle along route 13, bumpety bumpety bump
Breakshoes snatching, snatching, jerkedy jerkedy jerk
The fusebox smoking as a fuse dislodges, smokedy smokedy smoke
We climb up hill, down dale, up and down, bumpety bumpety bump
Steering ball joints fail swaying swaying, swervety swervety swerve
Fixed the wobbly joints with rubber and tape bumpety bumpety bump
Bush mechanics in action, thats what i like bumpety bumpety bump
We arrived Vientiane despite the bus, bumpety bumpety bump
Never was much of a poet.
We didn’t really loose much time though and soon we arrived at the Vietnamese border.