We were up at 06h30. I went to collect the laundry (which I discovered was B5 per item, not kg, which we had thought was unbelievable and it was reasonable, especially as she ironed it), while Michael went for a shower. Then I showered while he paid for our drinks and we left B100 for the use of the shower and toilet. We stopped off briefly at Speedy Internet Cafe to send emails to Land Rover Monthly magazine and Charles D'Andrade for Firestone. We got to the immigration at 07h35 to discover it only opens at 08h00!
A woman was there at exactly 08h00 and by 08h04 she opened the little window and swiftly started processing passports. We were directed to the customs office about 150m further along to have our carnet stamped. The officer there told us we needed an import form (one of which he showed to us, which had a carnet page from a recent British Land Rover attached to it). So, he sent us to another customs office about 200m further on, which we discovered was the port, the proper customs office was actually about a kilometre along. I asked the guy at the port what time the ferry leaves and tried to confirm it was B300. He said it was B2,500 and it left from the same place as all the passenger long boats. Sure enough, I looked across and saw three vehicle ferries, but I wasn't keen on the price!
We fetched Nyathi and drove down to the proper customs office where they efficiently stamped our carnet and sent us on our way. We drove down to the port where we had seen the trucks going down, but saw they were offloading all their cargo onto boats and we couldn't fit Nyathi on. So we drove down to the passenger 'terminal' where a horrible little man (who was unfortunately the owner of the three ferries) said to Michael "you know how much?". Michael promptly quoted B300 and the man snapped back saying B2,500. Michael said he was a slimy individual who did not seem to care whether we went or not and was not open to bargaining. So we played the waiting game.
We drove Nyathi back up to the main street where we had breakfast and waited to see if any other vehicles were coming down (so we could share the cost). Just as we were finishing our tasty (if a little cold and overpriced) English breakfast at the Oasis cafe, we saw three trucks with heavy loads drive down toward the ferries. Michael hot-footed it down there to see them parting with at least B2,000 a piece! Unbelievable - what a rip off! The driver told Michael to speak to the freight agent at the top of the road, which we duly did and he told us it was B2,200 and said he could speak to the ferry owner (which suited us). Unfortunately he also insisted we have our papers checked and of course that resulted in us needing more paperwork (thankfully for only B12) and apparently it was required to get on the ferry (although nobody asked us for it). We drove down to the ferry owner and he still asked us how much we would pay. I quoted B2,200 (in Thai and told him we wanted a receipt). He said OK and without delay we were on the ferry, feeling a little smug that we could have fitted on the other ferry with the trucks and now he had to send a second one with just us on it. However, at $65 for a 10 minute crossing he is clearly profiteering and it left a bad taste in the mouth which slightly soured what was, until the very last moment a wonderful stay in Thailand which we feel really reflects its slogan 'The Land of Smiles'.
Entry into Laos was relatively easy. We drove off the ferry and a smartly dressed man wandered up to Nyathi and told us we had to go to Room 7 at customs and then on to immigration afterwards. We thanked him, walked up the stairs to the customs office and were helped by friendly officers. We first had to go into one office and pay B200 (or $5), not sure quite what for, but with our receipt in hand we went back to Room 7 and the officer stamped our carnet, smiled and said goodbye, so that was easy. Our next stop was to have disinfectant sprayed on all our tyres for another fee of B200, for which we received a receipt. After so many months of travelling almost hassle-free, we had to remind ourselves not to feel irritated, as Laos is probably comparable to the Central American and some African countries. Immigration was a little slow in the 'meet and greet' area, stamped us in without any questions (we obviously filled the forms out OK).
Unfortunately the bureau de change was closed until 13h30, so we had and hour and a half to waste. We bought two ice cold cokes for B18 each and wandered up the naga (snake) lined stairs up to Wat Chom Kha Out Manirath. The wat was well maintained and decorated with mosaics of green glass and china. The view from the bell tower was spectacular, although I didn't get to see it in person as females are not allowed to climb the stairs.
We wandered back down and I made friends with a cute ginger kitten who was more than willing to let me pick it up and stroke it, even rewarding me with loud contented purring! We sat (conveniently) in the shade of the owner's shop house and fed it (and their dogs) some cat kibbles. We drank a bottle of their cold water (B10) and got our first kip in change. A local tuk-tuk driver sat and chatted to us and told us there was a bank up the road which was open. He offered us a ride (good businessman), but his fare was doubled for both of us, so Michael went with him to change money ($1 =102900) while I stayed and played with the kitten. He was back within ten minutes and as a result we got on the road just before 13h30.
The tarred road (which lasted for about 10km) was badly potholed and there were lots of school children riding their bikes alongside it, which made it hard to avoid the holes. Soon it became that awful powder dust varying in colour from yellow-brown to rusty red. We already new when we arrived in town and saw the state of the vehicles there, that we were in for a dusty couple of days! However, the scenery more than made up for it. Within half an hour we had passed through most of the low lying villages and began to climb into the hills. Although the immediate surrounding foliage was coated in a thick crust of dirt, the jungle beyond was, for the most part, lush and green, without too much evidence of agriculture and logging.
The road was being upgraded for the last 130km we drove today and it was fascinating to watch the large earth movers dumping load upon load into the backs of the large lorries which would trundle off slowly, but soon pick up pace leaving a heavy, hanging dust fog in their wake. Thankfully we weren't caught behind anyone for too long and at one stage we stopped to offer a broken down bus our services, but it seemed they were fine, so we left them fixing their clutch.
The villages en route were intriguing with a number of people dressed in traditional hill tribe clothing (though I'm not sure which group - I'm still getting to grips with that). The clusters of houses alongside the dusty road and deeper in the jungle reminded us of Africa. The more remote villages had no buildings of concrete or tin and were all constructed with bamboo, leaves and woven palm fronds. They stood on stilts above the ground, with cool shady areas underneath for storage and working. There were also lots of smaller 'houses' with their access ladders lying on the 'veranda' ready to be pulled down when needed. They look too small for human habitation, but rather fancy for storage, although the protective non-climb corrugated iron around the top of the stilts indicates it is to keep animals on the floor below - so we'll have to ask one of the locals.
We found a terrific campsite on some flat grass about 30m away from the road, next to a river (which, by what we can see, is used by trucks for washing). There was a lone house opposite, but nobody came home before 23h00, so that we could ask permission to camp. We did ask a lady a little further back along the road if she thought it was alright to sleep here (Michael got to try out his Lao - phak yu nii dai baw) and she nodded that it was OK. So we spent a very pleasant evening blasting the dust off Nyathi and out of the cab, cooking and eating dinner, washing the dust off ourselves and gazing up at the very impressive array of stars up above. We don't think we've ever seen stars this dense and bright in the northern hemisphere!
The morning traffic started early, with the haunting calls of the water buffalo, to people shouting and singing and trucks rumbling past leaving clouds of dust in their wake. We had a few visitors to our campsite, but none who lived in the house opposite. They all stood and watched us for a while or walked around Nyathi to have a closer look. A while later we saw a man walk into the house across the road so we went to talk to him (well, it was more like playing charades). In the end we managed to thank him for the place to sleep and we left him looking pleased with two buckets which we gave as a token of our thanks and his two children were delighted with some biscuits!
The road was as dusty as the day before, which made our cleaning attempts last night somewhat futile, but at least we were clean to start off with. The forest was still shrouded in mist which gave a light coolness to the air, which was welcome.
We stopped off in the village of Vieng Poukha where I had read there was an eco-trekking venture which was set up with funding from the EU. We spotted the building on the main road and I went to have a look while Michael watched a competitive-looking game of tok-rah. The 'office' was a large, simple room which doubled as a classroom for teaching the guides English. They had well written descriptions of each of the different treks available along with the costs and how that money was distributed to the villages, markets, guides etc. It looked like the scheme was professionally organised and that they took particular care regarding intrusion and the sensitivities involved in visiting other cultures. Sadly, we were the only tourists around and the cost for two people was almost $90 for a two-day one night trek of about 25km. The cost came down to $22 p/p if there were 6-8 people, but we didn't want to risk waiting for other tourists to arrive, so we drove on. A bit further north we came across a little hand-painted sign pointing to Ban Nam Vang village 9.3km up a small dirt road. We thought it would be nice to drive up and see what the village was like.
The road was pretty narrow in parts, particularly where the cliff side had collapsed due to erosion and on a couple of occasions Michael hugged Nyathi as close to mountainside as possible to keep far away from the precipitous edge. The road climbed steeply through beautiful forested area and led us to the village on top of a mountain. At first the villagers eyed us strangely, but then curiosity got the better of them and they all came closer. Nobody could speak any English. There was one man who spoke some Lao, but he didn't understand my rendition of it! Through perseverance and repetition I think he got used to my strange accent and with the aid of my trusty phrasebook and a bit of gesticulation we had some type of communication.
At first we all stood around Nyathi and we explained that we were travelling around the world, then we quietly smiled and talked to the children to win their confidence over a little. To be fair, I don't think the village had ever seen foreigner travellers drive up to their village before and they weren't quite sure what to make of us. We asked who the village head was and we were introduced to shy, quiet man. We made what little conversation we could and after some time we asked if we could take pictures of the village. They led us through the village up a dusty hill where we got a better perspective of things.
After many questions and explanations we learnt that there are 850 people in the village and I understand from text and pictures I have seen about the various hill tribes, that the village is Kui Sung. They wear dark plain jackets with detailed edging and the women where their long hair bound in a bun at the front of the head, secured by a comb. As our communication increased a little they let us take photos of them. The children (and adults) were extremely excited to see the pictures in playback mode. Soon some of the bolder children were keen to have their photos taken, although some were still a little bashful, but keen to see the end result.
I saw one of the women (whose cute baby I'd been playing with) had gone and changed her jacket and I could see she wanted a photo of her and the baby. She was keen, but still shy and Michael took a lovely picture of them both. The village head invited us into his house where he wrote out his address for us (in neat Lao script) so we can post some photos to the villagers and from the interaction I gather the lady whose photo we took is the chief's wife and she is the same age as me.
The villagers all stood at the door peering in to see what we were up to. We saw clusters of people come and go and at one stage there was a commotion when two bulls started fighting and everyone fled at once! After an hour or so, we said our goodbyes. Michael gave the village head a donation for the community along with some pens for the school and we made our way back down the mountain road.
We stopped for lunch alongside a river and filled ourselves up on the tuna salad I'd made last night. It was tasty and refreshing meal to eat in the heat of the day. Afterwards we felt a bit sleepy so we pulled in a little bit further into the bushes (and shade) and pushed the tent up. In the end, I had a sleep while Michael read downstairs and played Civilization. I slept for about an hour and then (frustratingly) spent the next two hours waiting for Michael to finish his final move of the game! I went for a walk along the river and spotted a beautiful blue iridescent kingfisher sitting in a branch dangling over the water. I have to say I saw very few fish, but there were thousands of tadpoles!
A young boy on his bicycle stopped to talk to me at about 16h30 and he seemed to understand my Lao quite well. I made out that he goes to school, lives in the next village and was 12 years old. He spoke a bit of English too (well, about a dozen words) and, like me, wasn't shy to give it a try! I gave him a cold Coke for his ride home. He told us it would take almost two hours to get to Luang Namtha and that the road was twisting and dusty. He asked if we were going to sleep the night next to the river and when we asked if that would be OK, he said yes, so that's what we did. We spent the evening listening to the loudening chorus of frogs, but didn't manage to see one.
We slept well and got up early. We had a warm wash and headed for Luang Namtha. We were glad we hadn't driven further yesterday as we would not have got very far before it was too dark to drive safely and there weren't any spots as nice as the one we were at. It was hazy again, with the air often filled with smoke from the slash and burn cultivation practised here. It is sad to see large tracts of the forests decimated and the soil is so sapped of nutrients that soon nothing will grow, so they move on to another piece of land and start he whole destructive process over again! Still, there are parts that are lush and green and are a delight to drive through...
Luang Namtha, while a pleasant little town, was not particularly captivating so we decided to check our emails at the internet cafe and then push on to Muang Singh. We met Yirrie and Gisar (from Munich) and after a short conversation we offered them a lift to Muang Singh. We arranged to pick them up at their hostel in half an hour. To pass the time we sat and had a delicious banana cake at the internet cafe and watched the people going by. Then we stopped off at the market (which was very pleasant) where I bought some fresh vegetables and fruit and we met up with the others.
The road wound up into the hills through some lush forested (protected) areas. The bonus was that the road was tarred (with the odd pothole and sandy bit), a pleasure to drive on compared to the awful powder dust. We stopped en route in to take pictures of some cute piglets and the surrounding forest. Michael also took the opportunity to blow more dust off Nyathi. We also more and more villages drying out their grass on the road edge. Once dry they beat them on the ground to shed all the seeds and then they are used either for brooms, or roofing.
We drove through Muang Singh and decided to continue directly to Adima Guesthouse which was 8km further along the road to China. We were all keen to be in a place a little further away from the town and noise. When we arrived at the guesthouse we met an old man you was not particularly enthusiastic and a young guy who could speak a few words of English. Yirrie and Gisar took a room and after some convincing the young guy said it was OK for us to park in the garden and sleep in Nyathi.
We had an early supper, cooked by the manager, Sak, who also speaks some English and is very helpful. Grumpy Man (as I have affectionately named him) explained gruffly that there was no chicken (which put paid to all our dinner choices) and then he did an entertaining demonstration of how chickens are killed because of the Asian flu! So we had a quick rethink and placed an order. Michael had beef laab (very spicy minced meat with lime, chillies etc.) and I had phad Thai. We met the other travellers staying at Adima - Kat (German, living in China), Karl (English, living in Ireland), Neetye (?) and Raout (from Israel) and Mel and Al (from Australia) and spent a pleasant evening drinking and chatting with everyone. We also got acquainted with the resident animals (including One-Eyed cat).
We made up some hot water and had a shower in Yirrie and Gisar's room. The temperature was in the low teens which felt pretty cold to us! When we went to bed we had our beanies close at hand.
We had a leisurely start to the day, only getting up after 08h00. We were greeted soon afterwards by the an old wizened woman (whom I think was from the Akha tribe) who wanted to sell us bracelets along with a small packet of opium, which we politely declined. She also asked Michael if he had any coin as she wanted to sew them onto her hat. After rooting about I found a South African R5 coin. However, she wasn't all that delighted as she asked for another one (I gather from looking at her hat that they are sewn on in symmetric pairs). I couldn't find one, but I told her I'd have a look later.
We met another girl called Piou who lives in the Akha villages about five minutes up the hill and she said we could come and visit her. We told her that sounded nice but we wanted to eat first, so she said she'd come back a bit later. We had a tasty breakfast with the crowd down at the restaurant and said goodbye to the Israeli couple (who had come for a 'tour' of Nyathi earlier). Piou came back and we negotiated a 'fee' of 35,000 kip for her to walk with us through 2 Akha and 1 Yao village. So off we set off down the dusty road and across the paddy fields, over a rickety stile and up a hill to see the first Akha village (where Piou's sister lives).
The houses are made mostly from woven banana leaves or wood and have either thatched or tin roofs. We saw a group of people digging and levelling foundations for a house. They would swing their hoes into the hard earth and loosen up a length of ground and then get four children to weigh down a wooden plank (plough) while six adults pull them through the soil. It certainly didn't look like the most efficient way of doing things, but it was interesting to watch. The children were also helping with the hoeing work - they start from an early age!
Then we stood and watched a woman weaving cloth for a skirt. Apparently the Akha women do everything from growing the cotton, to spinning it into thread, then weaving it into lengths which are ten dyed and sewn into skirts. We had to pay for the privilege of taking a photo, although she asked for 5,000 kip she was satisfied with 2,000 and a pen for her child. We tried having basic Lao conversations, as we could only say 'hello' in Akha, but none of the villagers we met spoke Lao.
Then we walked back across the field and across the road, past Adima Guesthouse and up the hill to the village just 5 minutes walk away from Nyathi. Pi-ou had lost her enthusiasm entirely and was complaining of a headache (I'm not sure if it was genuine or not). Anyway, she asked how much we'd pay her for just the two Akha villages and Michael agreed 25,000 kip. I think she got a very good deal for 2 hours walking, but we both felt more comfortable walking with someone, as the villages were quite specific entities. At the entrance to her village were the trademark spirit gates. They believe that if you walk through the gates you must enter someone's home in the village or you are considered a thief. She took us into her home where we met her aunt and brother, who sol us two overpriced bracelets (we're getting out of practice with our haggling) and gave us the 2,000 kip change in peanuts!
The interesting thing was that we got to see inside their home. The Akha build their houses on stilts and there is just one large room, nominally split into different sections for cooking and sleeping (bathing takes place at the communal well and I didn't dare ask where toilet business happens!) They had a cute black puppy which has spread itself across the floor to soak up the coolness of the timber floor.
We watched an old woman spinning cotton on a large square 'reel', with her grandchildren pestering her in the process. We stood and watched the Akha life going on around us, although the village was distinctly quiet. There were kids play fighting for our benefit and two old women were working at the well.
We wandered slowly back down to Nyathi where I had a sleep in the hammock which Michael strung up between the vehicle and a tree. When I woke up Michael had disappeared and then Yirrie and Gisar said they were going to walk to the Chinese border, so I joined them. The walk was very pleasant (about 3km there). The border post was quiet and laid back (only used by local people, foreigners have to use the immigration point at Boten). We stood and watched the off duty staff playing a serious game of volleyball, acting as ball boys when the ball came hurtling in our direction! After a while I asked them if we could take photos of them playing, but that would have had buildings in the background, so I had to suffice with a picture of the road leading up to the security boom. Apparently within kilometres of entering China you can see how they have totally destroyed the indigenous forest and in some places, they have replaced it with large plantations of rubber trees. Sak (from the guesthouse) was telling us that the Chinese pay the Akha tribes 1,200 baht for a ton of sugarcane and the Yao receive almost triple that (though he couldn't tell us why).
Michael in the meanwhile had gone off to the Yao village as that was where he'd been told the others went. When he didn't find me he came back to be told by Grumpy Man that I'd gone to China! So, having been deserted by his wife, he went back to the Yao village where he was befriended by some children who were enthralled by his 'two little dickie birds' game. The excitement enticed other children and apparently he soon looked like the Pied Piper of Hamlin. He said they came in dribs and drabs throughout the time he was there. When it grew dark a group of them followed him home across the paddy fields, over the three streams and to the nearby Akha village where they then asked for 5,000 kip each as guide fees! He laughed and said no way, so they said 1,000 each would be OK. He waved goodbye, smiling at their cheek and they all dispersed into the village.
We both had nice hot washes (courtesy of Nyathi's heating system). We all spent a pleasant evening together eating, drinking and talking.
The old wizened woman came back to visit this morning. I had found another R5 coin, which Michael gave her and he asked her if we could take her photo and she declined, unless we wanted to paid her! I wasn't very impressed and told Michael she didn't deserve the coins, I was feeling uncharitable. Then a few children arrived, some of them Michael's 'guides' from last night. They saw our watermelon and asked for some. It wouldn't have been nice later, so to their delight Michael cut them each a slice and they tucked in like there was no tomorrow. With watermelon in hand, they all waved a cheery goodbye and set off down the road.
The old woman was loitering a little later and I saw she had something wrong with her hand. I was feeling a little more charitable by then and I offered to have a look at it. She explained (through Lao charades) that she fell on it while working in the fields and it was quite swollen. She had it wrapped with a filthy old rag which was holding some herbs against her skin. I got her to wash her hands thoroughly and I put on some anti-inflammatory gel and wrapped it in a clean bandage. Then she showed me her little grandson's skin, which was covered in sores and scabs that went all the way from the top of his back up into his hairline and around his ears. The area wasn't particularly clean so I cleaned it and put on some iodine. He was such a brave little boy, I could see him wincing, but he never cried or moaned. I applied some homeopathic cream and sent them on their way with a biscuit for the little boy for being so brave. I told the old lady to come back tomorrow at 09h00 if she wanted to.
Then I had a refreshing shower and joined the others for s delicious breakfast of banana pancakes and maple syrup (courtesy of our visit to Canada). We spent the morning chatting in the shade of the restaurant and watched the women working in the fields below. A little later we were joined by Meredith from Florida, who has come to stay for a few days. Then we all decided to wander up to the Yao village where they were still celebrating New Year. It was nice going out in a group together and the local people were very friendly when we walked along the raised perimeter of their rice fields. We walked up a long dusty road and into the village.
Everyone sounded happy and you could hear animated discussions in Yao slipping through the slats of the wooden houses. We stopped off at one house where Karl and Kat had been 'partying' yesterday and they invited us in. Michael and I wanted to buy some of their colourful hats. Before we knew it they had us seated on their small bamboo stools around low tables eating laab, rice and an assortment of other dishes. They were eager for us to wash it down with large doses of lau-lao (rice whisky, akin to fire water). Fortunately the table where Meredith and I sat was much more subdued than the other one, so the lady kindly brought Meredith tea and I had some beer. I paged furiously through my phrasebook and made a bit of conversation with the people around our table ascertaining who was married to whom, which children belonged to whom and how old everyone was. The others were encouraged to match the locals with drinking lau-lao and beer. Soon Karl was singing show tunes, much to the amusement of everyone around the room. Michael went back to Nyathi and brought back some Heineken beers and drinks for the family to say thanks for their hospitality. We left feeling fuller than when we arrived and I bought a bag off the hostess and Michael and I both sported our silly-looking hats! Karl tried to give Michael a smooch when I took their photograph and they both ended up falling into the woodpile.
Further up in the heart of the village the locals were getting into the New Year spirit. There was quite a lot of activity and everyone was having a lot of fun. Many people, both young and old were gambling using what I'd call a Lao version of roulette. There is a mat with 6 different characters (tiger, snake etc.) and then three big dice with identical characters which are released off an angled board by pulling a piece of string. The stakes started at 1,000 kip (US$0.10) and the players were very good at drumming up the suspense by releasing one of the three dice and a time, ooh-ing and aah-ing and then throwing their hands up and shouting whatever the final outcome. There was a group of kids playing their own game and the youngest was about nine!
Then there was the more benign (if your aim is good) game of throwing darts at balloons to win a prize of two wafer biscuits if you hit two balloons and a jar of pickled quail eggs if you hit three! I hit only one, so no prize for me.
The villagers were all very friendly (not just the alcohol soaked folk) and encouraged us to join in the fun. Once their shyness evaporated, the children played games with us too. Their were so many fantastic photo opportunities, but the people weren't keen to be singled out for photos, so I just kept my camera at my side. It was fascinating just to sit and watch all the activity and they way in which everyone interacts and looks out for each other.
One young girl, whom I'd waved to earlier (when she was feeding the pigs outside her house about 50m away) came and stood nearby me. She seemed friendly and more importantly, her baby was fascinated by me (or my hat). I asked if I could take their photo and she said yes. I told her I would post some to her and then she invited me into her house where I met her cousins, mother, father and sister. They offered me food and beer, so I had a small cup of beer with them. Then she put a mat down in the doorway and I got to take photos of her little son. Sadly, the lighting wasn't the best, but he was a happy little thing and smiled nicely for the camera. Afterwards when we were chatting at the table he seemed keen to come to me so I sat and played with him on my lap. A bit later I heard telltale gurgling noises coming from his nether end and lifted him up off my lap quickly. The mother was mortified (as they don't were nappies under their clothes, but I convinced her it was no problem and I was used to little babies!
I said my farewells as I could tell the light was beginning o fade outside. When I emerged from the house I couldn't see any of our group. Then I found Kat and Karl, but no Michael or the others. I gathered they must have gone home, so wandered back with Kat and Karl, who then got roped into entering another house and another party, but I carried on. I am glad I did, because by the time I got back to the guesthouse the sun had disappeared and there was just a pink glow of fading light. I could only just pick out the raised terraces between the rice paddies and I managed not to get my feet wet when jumping across the streams!
I discovered Michael wasn't back yet, so he, Yirrie and Gisar must have got roped into some celebrations somewhere. Meredith and Rachel were home and they kindly got me a flask of boiling water to have a nice hot shower. They spotted a beautiful snake going across the path and into the grass, so I ran to get the camera. It was dark, so the photos weren't brilliant (I couldn't see where I was aiming and didn't want to get much closer), but here it is...
Then the three of us sat down and I brought out one of our bottles of Australian wine we'd been saving. It was delicious and when the others all came back they joined us with a small glass. We all ate dinner together, and had a great time chatting excitedly and exchanging stories about our day.
We did a bit of cleaning up this morning and got Nyathi ready for the road. The old lady arrived with her grandson and some of her other family in tow. her hand was looking less swollen and he still had the bandage on, so I just put some more gel on and wrapped it up again.
I couldn't believe how much better the little boy's sores looked. There was a marked difference and he was even quite happy to see me! I did the same thing as yesterday, but this time explained everything I was doing to the one girl who could speak Lao and one or tow words of English. I left them with the cotton wool, buds, iodine and homeopathic cream and made the instructions as clear as possible. They were very appreciative and the old lady gladly posed for a photo this time, with her grandson hanging tightly onto his 'medicine'!
We both had hot showers and then went down to join the others for breakfast (which was delayed by an hour waiting for Sak to come back from the market with ingredients). Sadly Karl, Ka and Rachel had to leave before they ate as their taxi arrived. We had a delicious egg, tomato and onion omelette on a baguette, followed by a banana pancake with maple syrup. We said our farewells and hit the road. It was very good of the guesthouse to let us park in their garden free of charge - thank you!
The drive to Udom Xai was very pleasant. we were hoping to find a quiet little forest camp somewhere, but the route was peppered with small villages all along the way and we found ourselves arriving in Udom Xai at nightfall. The first hotel we tried wouldn't let us park in their yard, even though we were prepared to pay for a room - they were worried Nyathi would damage their concrete. We bumped into Yirrie and Gisar en route to find another hotel and had a quick chat. The Fu Shan Hotel were happy to let us park in their yard and use their toilet for no charge (plus she gave me a bunch of bananas and invited me into the lobby to watch some frightful Thai soap opera! They spoke only Chinese, no Lao nor English, so communication was tricky and their menu was only in Chinese so we had a large beer there and relaxed a while, but decided to eat somewhere else.
Annoyingly low range gear linkage broke, so we levelled the vehicle using the crawler gears and tomorrow when we go to Luang Prabang we'll have to get the linkage fixed. We went for a wander into town and came back again after five minutes as I wasn't feeling too great. I went to sleep listening to my MP3 player (trying to drown out the noise of the throbbing hotel disco and all the cracker and firework explosions) while Michael went to the internet cafe and met up with Yirrie and Gisar. When Michael came back about two hours later he told me the disco was actually a busy bordello - still it was a safe, if noisy place to stay.
At 05h00 the crackers started! Luckily we both managed to get a bit more sleep, but were up and on our way shortly after 07h00. We stopped briefly to watch the monks doing their early rounds to receive alms from the villagers. Annoyingly the camera was set on manual focus and I hadn't noticed so all the tighter shots were blurry and this one from afar was the best of a bad bunch...
The road was fine, although it had stretches of gravel interspersed with the tar. Once again there were lots of villages lining the road and we saw boys walking along the road sporting old-fashioned swimming goggles (pushed up on their foreheads) and small fishing spears in their hands, but no fish! Some of the villages have a great position overlooking the wide rivers, which makes life much easier for them than for those in the highlands.
We arrived in Luaung Prabang late morning. We kept a look out for potential places to stay on the outskirts (where we could park Nyathi and do some work on her), but thought we'd try in the town too. Most of the hotels and guesthouses were clearly unsuitable, but we spent about 1.5 hours driving through the streets peering into any places with gardens and courtyards. In the end we found Phou Vao Guesthouse up on the hill overlooking the city (about 1.5km from the action). There was a perfect place to park Nyathi at the end of the row of rooms and we could run electricity from the room out to the car. It was a bit more than we'd wanted to pay at $6 for the room, but for the facilities (electricity, hot shower, air conditioning, fridge, television - Lao/Thai, place to store things) it was worth it.
Happy that we'd found a good place we went for lunch at a shady outdoor restaurant overlooking the Mekong River. We watched the boats come and go, played with the restaurant cat and ate an average meal. We drove back to Phou Vao Guesthouse and settled in. We unpacked jerry cans, boxes and a few other items from the side compartment and put them in the room out of the way. Michael set about removing the broken linkage piece and tomorrow he'll take it to be welded. We also took the opportunity to top up al the oils and had a great hot showers afterwards to scrub clean!
In the evening we walked down into town and discovered there is a bustling night market. There were beautiful things for sale including cotton bedspreads, silk scarves, table linen, lampshades, clothing etc. I bought a couple of lampshades for just $1.50 for both and a cotton/silk scarf for $3 (which I'm going to use as a table runner). We bumped into Kat and Karl in the market and Kat helped me to bargain with the seller (she has good practise from living in China and drove the prices down quite a bit). I was hungry so we went to a restaurant where I had tom yam and the others all had a drink. We wandered back down through the market, which was being dismantled and there were bikes, scooters and tuk-tuks manoeuvring all over the place. The people work hard for their money here, whether its in the fields, or a daily effort of setting up stalls and carting goods to and fro. We made an arrangement to meet the other tomorrow and wandered back home.
In the morning I walked into town and did errands while Michael pottered around with Nyathi. I discovered that tourists are no longer allowed to hire motor bikes so I got myself a bicycle for $1 a day. I got us a baguette and watermelon for lunch and exchanged money, where I met a 'crazy man' (as described by the man in the bank) who was trying to offer me 20 baht, I told him thanks, but no thanks and he wandered off. One of the annoying things I saw today was people selling wild birds they had captured. They look so pitiful in the small cages. I made sure the sellers didn't see me taking the photo as I didn't want them to think I thought it was interesting or good!
I went to the internet cafe to check our emails and rode around the outskirts of town in search of a suitable looking place to do welding for us. The roads were dusty and bumpy beyond the city limits and were hard on the backside (now I really appreciate what the shocks do on our mountain bikes!) I have to say though, that the town is lovely. In general it is well presented and maintained and despite the number of tourists, it is a great place to relax and watch life go by.
I made us tasty baguettes with ham, cheese, tomato, onion, mayo and chilli for lunch. It was so nice to have good French baguettes again. In the afternoon we took Nyathi for a test drive to see if we could diagnose the droning sound we'd heard the other day, but she wouldn't make the sound! We drove for a good 5 km up into the hills and she emitted her favourite loud squeak noise, but nothing else. We had both the gear lever and gear box shield plate removed so it was very hot and noisy.
Michael took the linkage piece off to get it welded and I stayed behind and did journal entries. I wandered into town to met Kat, Karl and Michael at the 'pancake man' at 19h30. Michael hadn't arrived by 19h40, so I suggested the others went to the market and we'd catch up with them. I left a note with the pancake man for Michael in case he arrived and I directed him to the pub we were going to. Karl was still trying to negotiate a price for an opium price and despite serious haggling, never got her down to the price he wanted to pay. By the time we got to the pub it was after 21h00 (and happy hour) and no Michael, so I rode back home. Michael was in town all along, but we'd just not managed to catch up!
I went into town to morning to find out how long it takes from Luang Prabang to get visas for Vietnam (4 days). The problem is that it's Friday, so there was nobody at the embassy to call and make 100% sure it's OK for us to enter with a vehicle and carnet and we don't want to spend the $110 if we can't get in with Nyathi! So we've decided we'll do it in Vientiane. I saw Kat at a cafe and we chatted for a while and then I looked at the books to swap. I saw a book of personal memoirs from the killing fields, so I want to go back tomorrow and swap two books for one.
I spent a long time in the internet investigating travel route and shipping options. It seems the Asia to Mediterranean ships seem to dock in Italy first and then Turkey, but it only adds two days so we're not too bothered. I read reports that Nepal is a no-go area at the moment, so we'll probably just head to Turkey as America is beginning to beat the war drum with Iran too, so it's probably easier, quicker, safer and cheaper (as we can't afford to ship twice if we encounter problems). I rode back down the main road past the royal palace and back home.
Michael spent the afternoon chasing up the welding shop and doing some maintenance on the computer. The keyboard and mouse keep sticking which is damn annoying when I'm trying to copy and paste photos into the diary, never mind typing the actual journal - ggrrr!
In the evening we were both feeling incredibly lazy and we just went to a restaurant nearby where we had a barbeque Lao-style. We were the only foreigners sitting outside in the BBQ section. It is quite a novel idea. They have the table legs cast into concrete 'chimneys' with a small brazier in the centre of the table filled with hot coals. They give you an aluminium domed grilled with a deep lip around the bottom to perch above the coals, upon which you place a piece of fat to drip down the surface ready for the meat and the other goodies you boil in the water with herbs (which you pour into the lip). Then they bring you all the raw ingredients, meat, garlic, chillies, a basket of coriander, cabbage, spring onions, two eggs and other green stuff plus thin rice noodle. It was a fun and interesting experience, but a bit fiddly to eat and not great value for money.
In the morning we went and extended our bike hire for an extra day and then we had a tasty lunch with a fluffy chocolate pancake, drizzled with chocolate and a scoop of ice cream - a delicious treat. Michael spent the afternoon sorting out the linkage for Nyathi, which required close supervision. I did some journal writing and spent ages sifting through all the photographs to select some for the website.
At 16h00 I went for an excellent massage (by Phou) at the Red Cross Centre. It cost only 32,000 kip ($3) and the proceeds help them to provide aid in various forms to the poorer surrounding communities. Then I rode up to Sisavanvong Street and spent some time wandering through the quiet back streets which wind through the (mostly) neat homes, shaded by tall palms.
Towards the far end of the peninsular there are many different temples and the places exudes a sense of tranquility. It's wonderful to see that life can take on such a calm pace only 500m from the bustling tourism trade and night market. I heard loud, rhythmic banging coming from one of the temple compounds and on closer inspection saw a group of novices encircling a big drum and thrashing it in turn - it looked like hard work!
I met up with Michael and we went to Walkman Village and bought the third and fourth series of West Wing and I got the latest Corrs CD. Then we relaxed and had a cocktail and afterwards went to Nazim's Restaurant for an excellent Indian meal of chicken tikka masala, rice and hot fresh naan bread!
Today was almost a repeat of yesterday. I worked on the website, while Michael (at last) got the linkage piece sorted. He also tried to connect the laptop to download, and send mail, but had no success.
In the early evening, I went for a second massage, but this time it was an old woman, who was pleasant enough, but useless. She was clearly bored and did more half-hearted pressing and squeezing, than any type of fluid massage. When she finished ten minutes early I didn't complain. Michael was meant to meet me to go for a steam bath, but after waiting for 15 minutes, I just went in on my own. The steam bath area had a cubicle for women and one for men and a relaxing area on the veranda, where they supplied tea or water for refreshment. There were a few tourists, but it was mostly local people using the facilities and the women's steam room was packed. Women were standing and sitting and it was a bit too close for comfort, but the ladies were all very pleasant and there was a relaxed, happy atmosphere. I did two sessions of 10 minutes and that was enough heat for me! I felt great afterwards, and wished Michael had come because it would have done his persistent cough some good! I rode back home to look for him (but he was still with the machining shop), so I left him a note and went back into town for dinner as I was famished and had only eaten a yoghurt the whole day. I took a photo from our hotel of the sun setting over the outskirts of the town.
In the meantime, he'd come back to Nyathi and fitted the (now complete) linkage piece. He read my note and joined me later at Nazim's. We were going to hand our bikes back in but discovered that it would cost at least the same for the two tuk-tuk rides, so we decided to hang onto the bikes instead.
As our Valentine's Day treat we decided to go on a day excursion on the Mekong River. We were up early and rode into town to the travel agent. We paid our $10 for the riverboat trip to the Pak Ou caves and then the Khouang Sy waterfalls in the afternoon. It was all done in a laid back Lao style which we simply relaxed and enjoyed. While we were waiting or the boat to arrive we ate some absolutely scrumptious pain au chocolat.
We took a 1.5 hour boat ride up river. The boat was better looking than most and had hard school room style seats fitted into the side of the boat, each adorned with its own thin, gaudy draylon cushion. The boat driver, his wife and their delightful two and a half year old daughter were very friendly and told us how much time we had at each stop. One of the fascinating things to see was how they make good use of the sandy river banks in the dry season to plant crops and vegetables. The first place was a lau-lao village where we saw how they made the potent fire water. We sampled the three different kinds and bought a small bottle of the plain rice wine, rather than the ones made from red rice (too sickly) or sticky rice (cloudy and just plain disgusting). The other gruesome offering was pickled snake and scorpions on bottles, which needless to say we turned our noses up at. I also bought a beautiful turquoise blue silk scarf.
The boat ride was extremely pleasant. There was a cool breeze and it was fascinating to watch the driver negotiate all the rocks, sand banks and strong currents. We met Sarah (a photographer from London, currently working in Cambodia) and we spent the morning talking to hear and wandering around together at the various stops. She has lived in a number of places around the world including South Africa and Ghana, so we had lots of things to talk about!
The Pak Ou caves were interesting, but not particularly impressive. They were set in limestone cliffs which in themselves are fantastic, but the whitewashed walls and steps make it all look a bit tacky.
We paid our 5,000 kip to get in (which we thought was included in our ticket) and walked to the upper cave first. The cave had a big fat happy Buddha outside the entrance and within the cave there were hundreds (over 1,500 according to the guide book) of small Buddhas and other religious images which had been left by worshippers. The cave went about 50m into the mountainside and we used our head torch to get a better look at them all. In the lower cave, it was much the same, although it was not as deep and had more larger, more modern statues.
For the return journey the boat was going straight into a strong headwind which was whipping up the water and creating a slightly rougher and wetter ride. We saw two guys on a shallow dugout bobbing steeply up and down over the waves. The Mekong River looks treacherous with so many hidden obstacles and countless whirlpool and strong currents and undertows. Some tourists take their lives in their hands and take a speedboat from Luang Prabang to Houay Xai, which is an eight hour journey taken at breakneck speed. Crash helmets are compulsory and probably help more to deafen the din of the roaring engine than to protect you if the boat flips.
The other intriguing thing is the presence of alluvial gold. On the shores when the water laps up onto the sand you can see millions of little gold particles moving back and forth. During the dry season some of the locals set up temporary houses on the sandbanks in the middle of the river and pan for gold. Our last stop was at a paper-making and weaving village. The paper is made using a very similar process to the elephant dung paper at the National Elephant Conservation Centre in Thailand. I would have liked to have bought something from the guy, but his prices were three times that at the market (for the same product) and I didn't think it was worth the premium. Sarah, however, bought a beautiful silk scarf. We watched the women weaving - it is an intricate and rather tedious process, but intriguing to watch.
We discovered we'd paid over the odds for our ticket and, on top of that the trip to the waterfalls was not via boat, but a tuk-tuk, so we insisted on getting half our money back, which they did rather grudgingly! We decided instead to have lunch, a sleep and then to wander around the temples.
We arrived at Wat Sene while the novices and monks were in prayer. It was wonderful to hear their rhythmic chanting and to watch the proceedings through the window. Michael met Mae (a novice at the temple) who told us we could even go inside if we wanted to, but we declined. Afterwards we chatted to him for a while. His English was very good and he really appreciated the opportunity to speak to speak to someone from England. He had an exercise book of words he'd written down which he found troublesome (like scatterbrained, nervous, scent vs aroma etc.) so we explained he meanings and in turn, he taught us some Lao words.
In the evening we went and bought the DVD set of 24 and a few CDs and met up with Sarah. She and Michael patiently watched me measuring up duvet covers at the night market and bargaining with the sellers. At the end of the evening I came away with two sets, plus another one, which is being made overnight for me to collect in the morning at 10h00! We had drinks down by the river and then moved up to the 'main' road and had a late supper. On the way back home we returned one bike and kept the other. Fist of all, the owner said we couldn't use the rear seat as it was only for children (hogwash), so we said OK, I'd walk and then she wanted the bike back which Michael had hired and at first he smiled and said that he liked the one he was on, then she demanded it back and he said no and rode off toward home shouting to me in Afrikaans that he'd wait for me around the corner. Then the owner and her sister got really stroppy with me and wouldn't take the money from me for the bike. They said I must go back to the hotel and fetch the other bike. I explained we wanted that one because the seat was higher, but they were simply being a pair of bitches, even after we'd given them 5 consecutive days of business. Eventually I told them I was going to the police and I walked off. Unfortunately the police station was closed so Michael lifted me back to the hotel feeling really peeved! To make us feel better we watched lots of West Wing episodes and got to bed very late!
Annoyingly at 06h00 some very inconsiderate guests started banging about on their minivans and talking loudly to each other right next to Nyathi. I really wanted to get up and tell them to shut up, but I held my tongue! We managed to get a bit more sleep once they left at 07h00, but we had loads to do so we got up just before 08h00. We started sorting out all the stuff we'd accumulated in the room and I asked Wan to do some last bits of washing for us. She was so lovely, after she did the initial 10kg load she said she'd do Michael's overalls etc. for nothing, but we insisted on paying her for those and the few things this morning. Then I had a shower and hot footed it down to meet Yii who had made the duvet cover for me. When I got there at 10h00 she was sitting on the pavement exactly where she said she'd be. She was delighted I paid her $25 for the set (including the two pillow cases) and off she went. I rode back to Nyathi, where Michael was busy packing.
We had our last great hot showers for a while and checked out after 12h00. It was expensive for us to pay $36 for six nights, but it was very convenient for us. We worked on the vehicle, I got to do journal catch up and we had hot showers, air conditioning when we wanted it and a fridge so cold it made slush puppy ice drinks! The staff were all very friendly and when we left Kou gave me a lovely appliqué make up bag and purse she had sewn.
Next stop was at Walkman Village where we tried to return the faulty set of 24, but it worked on their system, so we didn't have much choice but to keep it.
I went to the market to buy fresh fruit and vegetables for the trip. We ended up wasting 40 minutes because Michael was told he couldn't park in the big parking area outside the market. I thought he'd decided to go and show Nyathi to the guy who repaired the linkage piece. I looked up and down the main road, and then sat out in the heat of the day cursing him for taking so long. In the meantime he sat around the corner cursing me for taking so long in the market. Then I spotted him walking into the market and we both got into the car just pleased to get on the road.
The journey was very pleasant through hilly country side with the road edged by lines of villages overlooking the valleys (which were mostly covered in crops, or fallow in recovery). Every now and again there were tracts of forest and tall reeds with pale, willowy seed grass at the ends, dancing in the wind. We drove until dusk and found a spot about 15m off the road above some forest. We were visible from the road, but the local people who stopped to say hello didn't seemed worried about us. I made dinner and we sat and watched West Wing, which was interrupted by a group of men who wandered over with torches to check us out. They were friendly, but told us it really wasn't good for us to camp there and were keen for us to go into a village instead. Michael asked if they were police and the guy seemed quite pleased to show us their red official registration plates hidden under the civilian ones). We told them it was too noisy in the villages to sleep and eventually they said OK and left.
We crawled into bed and fell to sleep quite quickly, although we both were thinking to ourselves that according to the guide book this route used to be unsafe because of bandits - damn guide books, they add to your paranoia! However, just before 03h00 I heard a car pull up and I could have sworn I heard someone cocking a gun. I woke Michael up and he got dressed and climbed down into the cab. There were about 5 of them in a minivan, one guy had military trousers on and one had an AK47. They couldn't speak much English, only to say we must go, (I also thought he'd said gep bon - which was the mahout command roughly meaning 'give it to me', but with the intonation it could mean so many things). Michael stayed in the driver's seat and told them we were having problems with the car and they said we must leave it and come with them, he laughed and said that wasn't possible. To reinforce our car trouble ruse Michael put the fuel cut out switch on and of course the engine wouldn't turn over. They still seemed insistent , so we decided that if they were the police, they had good intentions as they were the second group to stop, so we should go with them. If they were bandits of some sort they would have done something bad already. Still, we felt nervous. Michael got out and opened the bonnet and pretended to fiddle with something. then after a few tries we started the engine and they told us we must go back the way we came, they wouldn't let us push on to a village in the direction of Vientiane. Three of the guys stood to our left and the guy with the gun to our right, so we went in the direction they wanted us to. They drove behind us and in the meantime I got the satellite phone out and put it in my bag which I stuck under my jumper (we both conceded that it was very likely to be unnecessary, but we'd play it safe). I also stashed a small amount on money on me. After pulling over at one of the earlier villages, where we could see people still had lights on in their houses (at 03h15!) they told us to continue and after about 10km in total we came to a big village where they told us to park in a clearing next to lots of other trucks in front of the main market. It was amazing to see at 03h30 some people were up and about filling water drums and preparing for the day ahead. They were surprisingly quiet and were conducting conversations in a Lao whisper.
With our nerve wracking episode ended, we thanked our escorts for their concern and went to sleep.
It was surprisingly peaceful in the early hours (aided by ear plugs), we expected to be unable to sleep by 05h00, but we only woke up at 06h30 as the trucks around us were beginning to move. It was the same convoy we'd been following from Luang Prabang which had massive construction equipment on board. We wanted to get ahead of as many of them as possible so we quickly brought the tent down, slipped into the cab, waved to the locals and got out of there within 5 minutes of waking!
The drive was wonderful. We watching the sun creeping up in the sky, the roads were in good condition (our guide book said the journey was hellish and long) and there were lots more lovely village en route. At first everyone seemed too tired to wave or greet us, but soon enough people were incredibly enthusiastic, shouting hello and jumping and waving, giving us the thumbs up. An encouraging start to our day. We love watching village activity unfold in the mornings. Loads of children on their bikes battling up the steep hills and then racing down the other side heading for school, little ones playing together in the ditches, or others helping their mothers with the chores sweeping, digging etc. People fetching water in two large buckets or 5 litres containers bouncing at either end of a flat bamboo rod over their shoulders.
Just before lunch we were both feeling very tired and decided to pull off into one of the forests, park in the shade and have a nap. We slept for over 1.5 hours, undisturbed, and felt so much better for it. We had some cold watermelon for lunch (it was too hot for anything else) and headed for Phonsavanh to see the Plain of Jars. We were glad we made the detour.
The jars which are carved from granite and stand up to 3m high are still, in many respects a mystery. They date from around 2,000 years ago and evidence shows them to be giant mortuary vessels. The local legend is much more fun. They believe that Chinese King Khoon Chuong and his army had a massive party following a battle victory and they had the jars made to brew vast quantities of lau-lao. As far as we could see there was only one jar which still had a lid and we couldn't help thinking how much hard work it must have been carving them out of granite.
There are three different sites and we visited the main one, where the greatest concentration of jars are found. The sites are being supported by international aid in co-operation with the Mines Advisory Group (UK). They have already done a substantial amount of work mapping the area, working with local people teaching them about the value of the site from a historical and tourism perspective, clearing the areas of UXO (unexploded ordnance) and marking out safe pathways across the plains. It is sad to see that some of the jars were destroyed by American bombing in the area. Having said that, in a perverse way, witnessing the effects of the war on the area probably draws more tourists, because it adds another dimension to the plains.
We were quite amazed at the number of bomb craters visible across the plains and how enormous some of them are (with diameters of almost 15m and depths up to 6 metres). It must have been absolutely terrifying for the local villagers. We visited one of the caves where the communist Pathet Lao hid and there are two particularly large bomb craters right outside the entrance.
Due to the Plain of Jars' strategic importance it was heavily attacked, with over 500,000 tonnes of bombs dropped on the plains, plus additional thousands of ordnance jettisoned over the area by aircraft returning from Hanoi to the base in Thailand. The locals have put the bomb casings to good use as pot plat holders, fence posts etc. Many homes and small shops have bombs on display outside and there are a number of scrap metal merchants who seem to make a good trade, though not so much as in the past.
Afterwards we drove through the town of Phonsavanh to pay a brief visit to the MAG offices, look for baguettes and see if we wanted to stay the night in the town. It was nice enough, but we decided to drive back to the forest where we had our afternoon nap instead. The villages around Phonsavanh reminded us very much of the prairie towns you'd encounter in a Wild West film. We had to pay a toll for our return journey (we'd already paid 5,000 kip on the way to the plains) and we got to take a photo of the poor macaque who was chained up on his 'guard post'.
Unfortunately, when we got to the forest a bunch of people who'd been working there, were standing at the entrance road, so we drove on instead. After many pauses and consideration, we found a spot out of site of the road in a recently burnt plain, with a few trees on the edge, which wasn't ideal, but it was OK. I cooked up omelette (well, scrambled egg it turns out) and we both had filthy black feet by the end of the evening from walking through the blackened grass. We had wonderful hot 'baths' and then sat in the cab to get our dose of West Wing.
We slept very well - it was so quiet. We made an early start as we wanted to get to Vientiane, if at all possible, before the Vietnamese embassy closed. The road was quiet and still covered in a combination of mist and smoke.
We stopped a little into the journey and had some paw paw for breakfast. We saw a few hunters in their trademark green uniforms, with their beret-style caps and different kinds of rifles (often home-made) slung over their shoulders We also took photos of the bamboo aqueducts which some of the more innovative villages had constructed. We saw one that ran for about 100m down the hill and alongside the road to the village! We had a chicken fatality today. It was standing on the verge and all of a sudden chose to run right under Nyathi. When I looked in the rear view mirror all I could see was a flurry of white feathers floating through the air. We also encountered one of the heavy laden trucks which we'd shared a sleeping spot with in the village the other night. We managed to get past him, but watching him squeeze under the power lines was interesting.
We drove back through Phou Khoun and headed south. We passed through mountains first and then plains filled with crops and bright green rice paddy fields. The villagers also had their own little vegetable gardens of lettuce, spring onions and herbs in boxes on stilts outside their houses. We drove over a number of bridges spanning green rivers, with lush vegetation on the banks and people swimming and washing in the slower currents.
In Vang Vieng we had some lunch and a bit of a rest. The road had the odd stretch of dusty bumpy surface, which made journal writing a bit tricky, but I got quite a bit done. We arrived in Vientiane just after 16h00 and managed to get to the Vietnam embassy at 16h20 and they closed at 16h30. We completed our visa applications and they told us there should be no problem taking our vehicle in, it's complicated, but possible is what the man said. We paid $55 each and then discovered later that if you do it through an agency it only costs $45, but then we would have lost a day.
We drove directly to the most promising looking guesthouse (Chaemchanh) only to discover that it looked imminently suitable but they had just put up a nice new wall around the place and a concrete slab for the gate to roll along and it was still wet! Then we spent ages trying to find the Auberge du Temple without any success. We wandered all around the area it is meant to be, but had no luck and no signs to guide us.
We drove along the road next to the Mekong River keeping our eyes peeled for a place big enough to park Nyathi, when we spotted a white Land Rover parked next to a restaurant. It had jerry cans and a box on the roof so we went to investigate and saw it was Dutch registered. The owners weren't in the restaurant (we loitered near tables to hear if anyone spoke Dutch and asked a few people) so we left them a note on their window, as it appeared they were probably 'camping' there, but were out. We met a Scotsman who suggested another hotel with parking at the rear (Ekkelath), but when we went there the owner was out to dinner. We did find one other possibility, but in the end we went back to the white Land Rover. We met Gert and Miranda, who have been on the road for 16 months and travelled through Europe across the Middle East and Asia. www.overlandx4x4.nl
We had a terrific rest of the evening exchanging stories and looking at each other's vehicles. We went to the restaurant and had a drink and swapped hints about places to visit etc. They had found a hotel to have a hot shower and had been parked in the restaurant car park for 4 days.
We had an excellent night's sleep. I can't believe we were able to sleep in an open car park in a capital city and it would be so quiet. We had some breakfast and swapped GPS coordinates with Gert and then they headed north, so we said our farewells. We met Fay, one of the restaurant owner's sons who owns the cafe opposite. He speaks excellent English as he lived in the UK for three years. He is such a nice guy and he said it was no problem for us to stay. A little later he even drove Michael into town to get an oil pressure switch.
I went and exchanged money and found two travel agencies who said it would cost $30 and three days (excluding today) to get a Cambodian visa. I decided it was worth going to the embassy ourselves, although Michael needed a bit of coaxing. We drove there and arrived just before 11h00 (they close from 11h30 to 14h30). However, they only accept applications before 10h30 and collections in the afternoon. I couldn't leave the forms there for Monday, we have to come back, but the good thing is that at the embassy it is $30 for a same day issued visa and $20 for the 3 day process, so it was worthwhile after all!
We went back to the Nyathi where we both read our books (Michael - Laos history, and me - Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields). Reading the memoirs of children who survived Pol Pot's regime was really eye opening and rather poignant. It was hard to put the book down. I made us a refreshing salad for lunch and Michael also had a peanut butter baguette. Then we went for a wander around town. We went to a great bookshop and browsed for a while, although all the material was very expensive. We visited the National Museum (formerly the Revolutionary Museum) which was worthwhile for 5,000 kip. They have some information on the early history of Laos, including archaeological information and dinosaur fossils etc as well as impressive bronze drums with intricate carvings and a collection of gold Buddha images locked in a iron barred case. There were displays on the different ethnic groups and minorities and of course a large section dedicated to the 'courageous rise of communism and the evil deeds of the American imperialists' (it was blatantly biased, but still interesting to see). At 16h00 the museum closed and we were among the last to leave.
We had a drink in a bag from a roadside stand and wandered through the streets looking at clothing stalls, DVD shops, fruit stands and lots more besides. Vientiane is a laid back place and probably the calmest capital city we've visited. We watched the sunset over the Mekong and had dinner at the restaurant. We had a lovely hot shower at the Oasis Guesthouse and then we had a sneaky sleep, and only got up at about 21h50, which is a little late for going out in Vientiane. Most places close up at 22h00 or 23h00. We found one quite festive bar where we had a tequila sunrise cocktail. The next place we got to was closing at 23h30, so we went back to Nyathi and watched West Wing until after 03h00!
The dustbin men arrived just after 05h00 and shouted goodbye to us as they left. We managed to ignore the music of the rumba dancers (no kidding, each morning from 06h30 until 07h30 they have music blaring from the speakers and about a dozen people practice dancing on the concrete square between the restaurant and Fay's cafe). This morning it was the cha-cha! Still the view when we wake up isn't bad, as we overlook the restaurant 'neighbours' who have a wooden house on silts, in amongst palm trees and, thankfully, no noisy cockerels.
I spent the morning doing journal updates with both fans blowing one me in he cab. Michael wandered down town, checked emails and read his book. We went for lunch along Fa Ngum road, which was tasty and relatively cheap, but the long dark hair we found in Michael's curry was off-putting. It was cooler today, only 37°C in the cab, whereas yesterday it reached over 41°C. We had a couple of visitors to Nyathi from America, the UK and Belgium.
I spent the rest of the day importing photos into the website. I had a towel up on the window and the windscreen shield up to keep the boiling sun out. I also had both cab fans directed on me and it was still too hot. In the evening we had dinner at the restaurant and met Fae's brother, Adam who we spent quite a while chatting to. As they were closing up the place they asked us if we'd like to go with them to the Nam Ngum Dam for a picnic tomorrow, so that should be nice.
We did some cleaning up in the vehicle and had some brunch at the restaurant. Adam said it would be easier to all go in his car to the dam, which was about 90km from the city, so we drove with him, his mum and friend. First of all they stopped to get some drinks and then they bought an enormous bunch of bananas and a watermelon. Michael offered to pay, but they wouldn't accept. The drive was interesting and took us through some smaller village and along the river. Adam was a calm and controlled driver. Michael was teasing him that he wasn't like other Lao drivers as he used his indicators! The tar had sunk in various places making for a bumpy journey, which made us appreciate the smooth ride we have in Nyathi. However, the car was air conditioned which was a luxury we are not used to.
The dam was built in the 1960s and flooded numerous Lao Su villages which have now been relocated 52km further south toward the city. Laos sells the surplus electricity to Thailand and the dam is pretty impressive. We also learnt that one of the islands is used as a natural prison for about 500 serious criminals where they grow their own crops and live 'freely' on the island, which is protected by police.
Although we weren't hungry Adam's mum insisted we join them for lunch as she had chosen to eat at the restaurant rather than just have a picnic. They order a variety of dishes including tom yam, som tam, battered fish and chicken and an enormous steamed fish which was incredibly moist and delicious. It was certainly a fancy 'picnic'.
The dam is teaming with fish and we got to see one of the freshly caught catfish at the restaurant on the way out. Apparently in the wet season the dam rises by up to 12 metres and laps at the undersides of some of the buildings on the water's edge.
Afterwards we drove down to a riverside picnic area and had some watermelon. There were the most beautiful orange daffodils sprouting up all over the place. It was a popular spot, but most groups of people only stayed a short while and left again. We walked down to the river to get a better view of the dam and were very impressed at how clean and clear the water was.
Then we drove home through a back route of small villages filled with happy drunk people, who wandered out into the road at their will (or not as they case may be), along with cattle, chickens, goats and the usual road hazards. We arrived home just as the sun was setting. We offered to pay for lunch, or at least contribute, but Adam declined saying we were their guests, which was ever so kind of them. In the evening we had a sneaky, hot shower and watched Tai Pan.
It was a hot day, so we did nothing very energetic. We went to the Cambodian Embassy first thing. When I asked if the passport could be ready at 15h45 because I had to go to the Vietnamese embassy too, they said it would be fine. Michael in the meanwhile filled up with diesel. We drove back to the restaurant and I made some final additions to the website. Michael synchronized, got it onto the laptop and headed off to an internet cafe to upload it all. I spent part of the day just relaxing in the restaurant, drinking ice cold fruit shakes and reading up on Vietnam.
Michael spent a large part of the day grappling with various internet cafe systems, annoyingly about 30 minutes before the upload was complete the internet cafe lost all power, so he gave up and came back to Nyathi.
I went with a tuk-tuk to collect the Cambodian and Vietnamese visas, which went without any hassle, now I hope the embassy is right and we don't have any hassles getting Nyathi into Vietnam.
We went to dinner at Nazim's and had tasty chicken shai korma, rice and rotti. We wandered through town a little and then I came back to go to bed and Michael completed the website upload.
I didn't sleep well last night and although I really wanted to get a photo of all the rumba dancers this morning, at 06h30 I just didn't have the will. We got up at 07h45, tidied up around Nyathi and said our farewells to Fay. Unfortunately we didn't get to see the rest of the family.
We went to Orchid Guesthouse and paid $1 for us to have a nice shot shower before hitting the road. We stopped off on the way out of town to buy a dozen Lao beers for just $10. The beer is excellent, definitely the best we've had in SE Asia. The road out of town was busy with all the usual activities and then we turned east along Route 13 for Pak Xan. The drive would have been more scenic (with small towns and green paddy fields), if there hadn't been a distinct increase in the amount of litter scattered everywhere. It was a real pity. One of the interesting sights we saw was a lage Buddha in transit - it looked a little bizarre travelling along the road in the back of a truck.
As we headed along Route 8 the scenery became very dramatic and thankfully, the litter non existent. The road began to wind up through the mountains among forest covered limestone karsts. They were doing quite a lot of road works, which made it a little dusty, but nothing like on the way to Luang Namtha from Houay Xai. Nyathi was doing well until Michael got a little suspicious when he noticed two drops of water on the windscreen. He figured it was far to hot to be rain, or dew falling off foliage and he looked down at the bonnet to see a few more bits of water flicking up and back at the windscreen. He pulled over immediately and then the steam came pouring in through the air vents into the cab.
The bonnet was extremely hot when we lifted it up and then Michael saw that we had blown a hole right through the centre of the nylon radiator sealing plug. There was steam everywhere and we were hoping we hadn't blown the cylinder head gasket. So, it was time for a little road side repair. It took us ages to gouge out the remains of the brittle nylon cap, with me holding a teaspoon underneath to prevent any pieces from falling into the radiator housing. All the time we were having to beat away lots of little bees which are attracted to your eyes, ears and anywhere else slightly moist and they bite! So we had our 'electric bat' which was very good at killing them all. Michael though it would be better to remove the identical plug from the thermostat housing to put in the radiator, and then find another solution for the thermostat housing. Unfortunately, when he tried to remove the other plug it promptly broke in the same way as the first one! So, a bit more gouging and then we had to find two suitable plugs! Luckily in Michael's little box of tricks there were two metal fittings with the correct thread, so we were able to use those. We filled her up with water and watched the temperature gauge very closely.
Just one kilometre up the road was a look out over the Sala area. It was spectacular and made a perfect campsite. We drove in behind a large viewing pagoda, which screened us from the road and afforded fantastic views of the mountains and valleys.
I made soya spaghetti bolognese for dinner and Michael synchronized emails etc. It was fantastic to eat dinner by moonlight and listen to all the creatures of the night in the forest. We thought we heard a troupe of monkeys crashing in the trees, but when we walked closer, the sounds stopped. We had a very peaceful evening, which was very welcome.