A Travellerspoint blog

Thoughts on travelling so far...

sunny 30 °C

At the moment I'm taking advantage of rare contact with a computer courtesy of the hostel, which affords the luxury of typing on something other than my phone. I'm feeling rather guilty about this, given the blazing sunshine outside and it being the last of our three days in a town (Luang Prabang) which undoubtedly merits more. Nevertheless, a kind of saturation point has been reached - one gets to the point where only so much visual stimulus and culture can be absorbed before feeling like a pair of eyes wandering aimlessly while the same old thoughts trundle on beneath. Already we are a third of the way through this 6 month trip, and although it feels like it only really started properly when we entered Laos just over a week ago (Vietnam was the polar opposite of this country, extremely hectic), we ask ourselves - what is changing? One of the main things I was curious about was how my thoughts would respond to being freed from the 9-5 routine, like mental blinkers being removed. But despite more interesting dreams (for me, at least), generally the same old preoccupations remain despite the physical distance...you take yourself with you, after all!

We had good intentions about engaging more with the culture of these countries, in addition to doing some form of voluntary work(s), but I am ashamed to confess that either of these have yet to truly materialise. In terms of the culture, this was possibly a naive expectation given that however much one thinks of oneself as a traveller, one is really only ever a tourist. We stayed in a village homestay with native tribespeople in the north Vietnam mountains, but the experience was purely a commercial one; and given the disparity in incomes between both parties it will only ever be thus. It is possible to view traditional dance, music and theatre in all of these places of course; but the shows accessible are designed for tourists. As for the voluntary work, anything physical has been ruled out by the heat! We've found a fantastic literacy project here in Laos, as well as trundled down to the local library to donate to their initiative whereby one can buy books which they distribute once a month by boat to remote villages. Getting involved in any depth is slightly hampered by the fact that we rarely stay in one place for more than three days, but the overwhelming impression is that these projects need money more than anything else. So in a way, it's really helpful to see firsthand what these projects are achieving; and we fully intend to donate more fulsomely once we're back and earning again next year. (Amusing aside re: the library - it is full of Buddhist monks on the computers, all on Facebook!)

Well, tomorrow it is Xmas and we will be moving on somewhere different again; with new thoughts, impressions, and experiences to come...only a fraction of which will ever make it onto here; as writing notes from each day, going through the photos, and keeping the blog fully up to date could genuinely keep us occupied for much of the time we are out here; it is difficult to get the balance between experiencing and recording! In any case, merry Xmas to everyone that is reading :)
/Caroline

Posted by caro7 01:33 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Laos 3

The early morning bus to Nong Khiaw bumped and swerved along a mountaintop route above the clouds. Pure deep blue sky above us and spangles of sunlight bouncing up from the valleys as we wound up and down and around endless peaks in a dizzyingly serpentine fashion. At the highest points we were looking out across miles of cloud. By afternoon jagged heights and sheer drops had turned to gentler hills and wide rivers. We passed though neat tiny villages, with pigs, cows, dogs and chickens in the dusty road, and children, occasionally wearing clothes, jumping up and down waving at the bus. The afternoon sun turned to gold then dusk, and cooking fires began to light up the roadside, with houses, trees and hillsides silhouetted in smoke. Two towns no distance apart on the map but still an all-day journey, and one of the most captivating bus journeys we've ever had, anywhere, in fact.

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Nong Khiaw is not at first sight a name to inspire ecstatic rhapsodising of any kind - until you've been there. And then it's Ahhh, Nong Khiaw... The town lies on a river low in a valley and is freezing at night, misty in the morning and scorching by midday. We cycled a lot, along the river and around the hills and the nearby villages. We were Sabaideed a lot, and high-fived by a big group of boys on bikes as they whizzed past on the way to school. We saw more wartime cave shelters, this time with no meeting rooms, offices or emergency rooms - just caves, with signs marked 'Ammunition area', 'Governors area' and surprisingly 'Art area'. But now just caves again.

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We also did a lot of just sitting. This was particularly wonderful. We sat on the balcony of the guesthouse and sighed at the ethereal morning mists wafting through the trees on the hillside opposite. We sat on the balcony and giggled at the mischievous goats who came in each day to nibble the guesthouse lady's vegetable garden. We sat on the balcony and just watched the river and the boats go by, and the changing light on the trees and the water. Hence, Ahh... Nong Khiaw... It is impossible to hurry here. Everyone, locals and visitors alike, moves at the slowest pace possible, which we referred to as the Nong Khiaw Shuffle. You are enveloped by a benign sense that everything will be fine, and nothing is really worth getting stressed about. Even the guesthouse lady laughed about the goats eating her veggies.

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And on the subject of food - the town may be tiny but is full of good places to eat. Favourites were a lovely restaurant where we went at least twice a day run by a sweet young Indian couple that did real home-style Indian food, zingy masala chai and the best melt-in-your-mouth naan I've ever had - a six foot long cluster bomb shell adorning the wall just in case it was all feeling too idyllic. A cute backpacker place with a memorable breakfast of a big flat cake of sticky rice dipped in egg and fried, to be eaten with liberal quantities of chilli sauce - sets you up perfectly for the day. Again, bomb shells everywhere, painted with peace signs and flowers. We tore ourselves away from Nong Khiaw after four happy days, because if we didn't leave then, we never would.

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Posted by mountaingoats 15:58 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Laos 2

Vieng Xay - literally, City of Victory - is a small quiet town of jaunty coloured bungalows and tidy flower beds, in odd contrast to the bombastic triumphalism of its name. The forests and limestone cliffs full of caves encircling the town hold the answer.

As you know, the US bombed Laos daily in from 1964 to 1973 in a grim subplot to the war on neighbouring Vietnam. Why? To prevent supplies reaching the Vietnamese guerillas. Laos was not at war with the USA, but assisted the Vietnamese communists by allowing their supply routes to pass through Laos, which evidently provided the US with all the justification it needed to drop bombs on Laos the equivalent of every eight minutes of every day, for nine years. Laos could do very little other than take cover. And Vieng Xay is where they went.

The limestone peaks that surround the town contain numerous large natural caves. During the war, these were enlarged to create living space for up to 29,000 people; the complex also had a hospital, a newspaper printing press and its own telephone network. Oh, and the government. Whilst being bombed daily by the USA, Laos was also trying to rid itself of the French colonial regime. The independence movement adopted Vieng Xay as its base, and a new government was set up there. So this sleepy picturesque little town of pastel bungalows is where independent, communist Laos was born.

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We came here to try to get a sense of what life must have been like for ordinary people at this time, as well as understand the country's history a bit better. When the US began bombing Laos, many rural people had never even heard of America, let alone had any idea why this far-off country was destroying them. What was it like for them? How did they live with the daily nightmare of hearing bombers and fighter planes approaching, and the sound of explosions and gunfire coming nearer and nearer? Having to dig trenches covered with branches for children to run along to get to school. Being able to cook only at night inside the caves in case the cooking fires were visible to spotter planes. Having to do all farming work at night, planting and harvesting rice fields in total darkness. Spending long dark days and nights in the dusty airless tunnels.

What was it like? I don't know. I stood in the caves trying to imagine the thud of bombs falling outside and hundreds of frightened, traumatised people huddled in silence and darkness inside. I tried to imagine children who never knew any other childhood than this, for whom darkness and bombs were normal. And I tried to imagine how it was possible to find the will to continue even the most basic functions - getting food, cooking, eating, washing, sleeping, making a living - under conditions that were beyond impossible to live with, for so many years. But I couldn't imagine, and I don't know if it's possible.

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I will refer quite a lot to this 'secret war' because of how much it has shaped our responses to Laos. The natural beauty of the country and the gentleness of these ultra-laid back people would be a joy in any case, but in the context of this horror and destruction they gain a particular poignance. As I mentioned the legacy of the war is still very real and exploding every week - an unignorable fact. And Laos doesn't want you to ignore or forget. Bomb shells are displayed everywhere, reused as planting containers, barbeques and decorations in cafes and bars. In our favourite restaurant in our favourite town, we would be sitting enjoying a meal with a six foot long cluster bomb casing hanging on the wall in front of us. It's idyllic here but it's certainly not paradise.

From Vieng Xay we moved on for a quick stopever in Sam Neua, another high-altitude town of crisp air and intense sunlight. I don't know what the occasion was but lots of young women were dressed in elaborate finery of black velvet, bright silks, spangles and headresses, looking most resplendent as they zoomed though town on their scooters. And from Sam Neau we took a magical mountaintop journey to what was probably the most beautiful place we stayed in, in a country packed with beautiful places.

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Next: Ahhh... Nong Khiaw...

Posted by mountaingoats 06:31 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Laos 1


View Asia 2012 on mountaingoats's travel map.

We arrived in Laos after a memorably uncomfortable ten-hour journey from Vietnam. The small, elderly, rusting, suspension-free bus was first filled with sacks of rice and crates of fruit, and the passengers and their luggage were then squeezed into the gaps. Further sacks of vegetables, agricultural fertilizer and pig feed were piled in along the way, so that the aisle was eventually three sacks deep. This formed the seating for the unfortunate additional passengers picked up en route, though not as unfortunate as those who had to sit on the steps, or crush three into two seats. We were lucky with our rice and potatoes - we met a couple of guys who travelled the same route on a bus full of dried fish.

Grinding towards the border, the landscape took on a new character. The industrial flatlands and functional concrete housing surrounded by rubbish became gentle hills, winding roads, forests and tidy little villages of wooden houses. Grey skies turned to clear bright blue. Once we crossed into Laos it became non-stop glorious scenery, all dramatic peaks, wide rivers and jungle, even more gorgeous in the evening light as the sun began to set. The crumbling road was barely wide enough for the bus and the route up and down mountains was all hairpin bends, blind corners and vertiginous precipices. Reflecting on my imminent demise when the bus plunged over the edge as it surely must, I decided I could accept this scenario if the last thing I saw of earth was this beautiful landscape.

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A few quick facts about a little country you can be forgiven for knowing nothing about. Firstly pronunciation: it's a silent S, so it's not Louse, it rhymes with Wow (and not with Chaos). It's about the same size and nearly the same shape as Britain, but with a fraction of the population and a rather different standard of living. It's communist and always has been - the hammer and sickle flag is flown everywhere. The French added the superfluous S to the country of the Lao people during their stint as colonial overlords in the 19th cenrtury. No-one knows why, including the French. The other colonial remnant is the baguette. The language and religion of the French were jettisoned upon independence, and the S was formally dropped when Laos was renamed the Lao People's Democratic Republic in the 1990s - so only the baguette remains. But Laos is still in common usage, and is quicker for me to type so I'm sticking with it.

Laos has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country in history, thanks to the USA's policy of covertly dropping millions of tons of explosives on it in the 1960s and 70s. In a secret war running concurrently with the assault on Vietnam, bombers pounded this tiny land every day for nine years. And it's not over - hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs still remain, with a terrible toll of lost lives and limbs to this day. More on all this in future posts.

There are two other important things to know about Laos. Firstly, it is the home of probably the most relaxed easy-going people on earth. Nothing bothers them and everthing amuses them. Secondly, Lao children are the cutest I've ever met - inquisitive, confident, bright, comical and full of fun. Sabaidee! is the universal Lao greeting. It's a joyous word and you feel happier for just saying it. Even better is small Lao children squeaking Sabaideeeee!! at you and then giggling when you say it back. The instant transformative effect that Laos had on us is best illustrated by the fact that I spent most of the first evening here with a small black kitten sleeping on my lap. Yes - I, Lesley, the feline-averse. Yes, a kitten (and I'm not normally very keen on children either). In Laos you walk round at a fraction of your normal pace. You find yourself stopping to look at the reflection of trees in the river, or watch a butterfly, or gaze at the clouds and the changing light, Things like time and getting stuff done become irrelevant. Things that would normally really bother you don't, and you find yourself feeling that actually, you know, everything will probably work out ok. And it does. Complete mental reset. A wonderful place - we like Laos an awful lot.

Oh and a third important thing - Laos does the best sunsets.

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Next: the caves that became a secret city during a secret war.

Posted by mountaingoats 16:19 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Vietnam 6

Leaving Hanoi, the train announcements included a helpful reminder that corpses are not allowed on the train; also that mad or diseased persons are not permitted to travel. An informative though quite lengthy lecture on the contribution of the railway workers to the communist revolution follows, and finally we're off.

The railway lines through Hanoi have only a few trains passing through each day, and the rest of the time are used for driving along, cooking, eating, selling things, eating and hanging out, the same as any other Vietnamese thoroughfare. These activities are only slightly disrupted when trains come through. It was extremely disconcerting to see people sitting on their little plastic stools eating, quite oblivious, only inches away from the train as we trundled by, and stalls with piles of fruit almost within arm's length.

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We spent the remainder of our time in Vietnam in a pleasant little town on the way to the Laos border called Ninh Binh (pronounced Ning Bing). We knew we would like it from the first day when we went for a bike ride and enountered a herd of goats bleating in a tunnel. Goat-reverb joy! We also encountered an unexpected and quite beautiful temple carved into the base of a mountain. The scenery is breathtaking - more limestone pinnacles disappearing into more ethereal mists. Elsewhere eerie, treeless, bleak landscapes of misty flatlands. Like Norfolk, but with more water buffalo.

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The main reason for taking this route was to see the Cuc Phuong National Park, again much more beautiful than the name suggests - and to visit to the Endangered Primates Rescue Centre.

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North Vietnam is home to all sorts of wonderful monkeys, which are captured by Chinese traffickers, assisted by impoverished rural Vietnamese, and driven over the border to China and sold as pets, or for food. The rescue centre rehabilitates animals seized from traffickers, some of which are now very rare, and prepares them for release back into the wild. They do a truly excellent job - check out their website.
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An added bonus was a quick swing by the Turtle Conservation Centre, Cuc Phuong's other big conservation effort. Turtles are also captured in large numbers to be sold to China as luxury food, and the centre does great work in illustrating the wonder of these under-appreciated creatures. Interesting turtle fact - turtle eggs that are incubated at 26 degrees or less will produce males, while warmer temperatures produce females. Who knew! I have nothing but admiration for people that devote their lives to helping unglamourous species like this.

From here we left Vietnam, after a mercifully brief stay in a border town which can only be described as an abject shithole, and moved on to neighbouring Laos.
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Next: we arrive in Laos - and it's gorgeous.

Posted by mountaingoats 23:08 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

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