Asia LP: Track 6 (Laos)

A very Finnish beginning to Laos

Laos began in much the same way as Vietnam ended: in the mountains, getting ripped off at every turn, with stray dogs free and wild birds in cages. As Al repeated for the fourth time that morning: ‘this is the last bus I’m ever taking’, yep, it felt like a bit of a shitty start. However, Alleykat ever open-minded, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, braved our first ever bus border crossing, made some Finnish friends, Aino and Jussi, and enjoyed the much warmer weather that Laos brought with its sunny disposition.

The morning leaving Vietnam heaved with frustrations, we’d booked TanNayNay a seat on the bus; paying almost as much for our long bike (specifically specified as a loooong, two person bicycle) as we did for our own seats. We rocked up, with a fellow from the bus company, let’s call him Steve, leading Al astride TanNayNay on his motorbike, and Kat in the minivan with all the baggage. So far, so good we thought too soon. Not so much, when we arrived at the bus station and the man who’d lead the bike to the station “suddenly” realised just how long TanNayNay was – and that she couldn’t possibly fit on the bus. For a while, both of us talked calmly and slowly, assuring the driver and our little “friend” Steve that we had definitely got the bike on the bus before and all we needed to do was take out the front wheel. An unbelievable half an hour later, we still hadn’t left and TanNayNay had been walked onto and off the bus twice. The driver and Steve were “positive” that there was absolutely no way that they could get the bike on and this culminated in them demanding that we should pay extra, again, for the privilege of having our bike on the bus (even though there were a number of motorbikes riding scot-free in the luggage compartments already). As we refused for the fortieth time (given we’d already paid her way handsomely), the bus began to drive off. Al finally snapped and shouted ‘Ok! Ok! Fine, we’ll pay!’ And somehow, 10 US dollars, argued down from 20, made all the difference to the tight packing situation and TanNayNay fit neatly. Unbelievable.

Of course it was all about money.

The rest of the passengers were bordering on livid, given that we’d all been waiting for almost an hour now to leave, and we got a few unfairly angry glares on our way to our seats, even though the whole thing was simply a ploy to get more money and not our fault. I know, dear reader that you’ll be shaking your head and asking why didn’t you just pay straightaway? Principle, that’s why. Why didn’t we just ride? We would have, but we were on our visa’s last day and the distance to the Vietnamese/Laos was far more than was rideable having not already left, it just felt like nothing was in our favour.

The wretched start to the day was topped off by the realisation that we’d left behind at the hotel our entire bag of food: oodles of fresh fruit and veggies, nuts, muffins, coffee and our jar of good expensive peanutbutter. It was too late and we certainly couldn’t just ask the bus driver to pop into our hotel, despite rumbling right past the street it was on only minutes after pulling out of the bus station. The bus trip began as uncomfortable and was worsened quickly by the seating arrangement: the transportation of goods across borders certainly wouldn’t fly in many first world countries – not only were the last five rows of seats taken up with luggage, perishables, and children’s enormous plastic play things, but the entire floor of the bus was carpeted with 60kg bags of corn, making cramped conditions even less comfortable. Along the windy way, we picked up ten or fifteen more people AND their luggage, which was shoved unceremoniously about the heads and appendages of the people at the back of the bus, and the new passengers themselves were made to perch on tiny red plastic chairs, like oversized dolls at a child’s playtime tea party. It became quickly apparent that the money we paid to get TanNayNay on the bus was chump money, tourist tax, anything they could get; it infuriated us (Al) further, prompting a fifth declaration for the morning about hatred of busses and a total ban on any participation with them in the future. Ever.

The eight hour trip through houses on stilts and arid fields awash with white and yellow cabbage butterflies was manageable because we knew it would end and we had a place lined up in Savannakhet. Jussi and Aino were lovely, and once we’d located the Leena Guesthouse (a challenge in itself) we popped out to dinner altogether at a Japanese-run cafe called Chai Dee. There we dined richly on green papaya salad, spicy curry and of call things, homemade coriander pesto pasta. Our time in Savannakhet was cushioned by comforting presence of kind people: we weren’t ripped off at the guesthouse, we had a clean room and were positively surrounded by Nordic people! Jussi and Aino left, but in their place came more Fins: a well-travelled fellow named Juho and his friend, a different Jussi. To our party came three from Norway: Thomas, Asloug and their tiny daughter Rachel and it was a pleasure to have some new friends to dine and chat with sporadically.

We couldn’t locate the market after searching twice, and so ate almost every meal out, enjoying the properly vegetarian options provided by a number of restaurants. Lin Cafe became our local morning haunt with the powder-white faced ladies and amazing breakfasts of fruit salad, yoghurt and muesli, Chai Dee featured at least once a day where we got to know a little of Moto the Japanese owner and his fruitful working life. At a vegetarian-specific restaurant, we met Brian, a man from Vas Vegas. His fiancé’s aunt ran the shop and he was on a six month visit, helping out where he could. Brian’s heritage was Philippino and Chinese, as well as Las Vegan and from Guam. He’d found love in the form of Apple, whos English was better than almost any we’d encountered before. The two of them helped us out with creating our usual magic collection of useful phrases, questions and niceties in the Laotian language. They also directed us to ‘7’, not 7 Eleven, where they knew there was some ‘Western’ food sold, including oats! And you know how much Alleykat loves their oats for breakfast (and if you don’t, you can read about it HERE).

The first of the rains came in Savanahket, a monsoonal deluge at around the same early afternoon rendezvous each day. The rain gods had their alarm clocks synchronised and would pour enormous buckets on the whole town for no more than forty five minutes at a time, after which they’d invariably get bored and go to bother some other weathered relatives.

Ken from Canada brightened our last two days with his infectious positivity and bubbly chattiness. He’s lived almost permanently in Thailand for five years following an horrific accident in which a train collided with him – but as a huge credit to him, it hasn’t affected his ability to strike up a friendly, thought-provoking conversation in mere seconds. The morning we met, we’d covered poverty, Michael Jackson, psychology, pop culture, good food, baking, Bangkok and South East Asian politics before we even swapped names!

Our second last day was made a little uncomfortable by a youth who was also staying at Leena’s – he hovered outside the room knocking relentlessly, peeking through the curtains and generally harassing Kat who was unsure of what to do. Eventually Al swung past and told the boy off, and we informed the manager he was bothering us. The whole experience was little irksome, but we learned that there are a few towns in Laos where older teenagers travel to on weekends to try drugs away from the claustrophobicly watchful eyes of their families, a strange but not altogether unbelievable trend. That evening, perhaps tied to drug taking, but more likely simple run-of-the-mill accident, we witnessed a motorbike crash, a horrible helmetless tumble with a gruesome soundtrack and colour palate. We were left shaken, read HERE for why.

In the four and a half days we were there, the movie and blog for Vietnam had been eked out and we were ready to ride again. Our stay was extended by one full 24 hour period, the Internet in Laos was proving to be the slowest we’d encountered in ALL our travels and uploading the video took about fifty times longer than we’d planned for.

Back on the Bike!

They say Laos was once called ‘The Land of A Million Elephants’; this is definitely not true anymore, not the moniker nor the elephants (there are closer to one hundred in all of Laos, probably fewer) – but it could still be saddled with the title: Ten Thousand (million) butterflies, Ten Thousand Utes, Ten (hundred) Thousand smiles, Ten Thosuand Pointy Mountains, or perhaps most fittingly, The Land of Ten Thousand Goats. The beardy larrikins are everywhere, bounding, head-butting, grazing, bleating. Their little kids are so frolicsome, so happy and chirpy, who wouldn’t want ten thousand of them in every province?! .

After a good whack of time off the bike, save for a few kilometres here and there, Kat was ready to try her hand and her back by getting dissed in lycra bicycle shorts and casting a leg over TanNayNay. The morning greeted us with a fine heat by 8am and once we’d had our last (and best!) breakfast at Lin’s Cafe we were fuelled and fit to ride. The first thing that struck us was that nobody really seemed to be at work, a far cry from the hubbub of Vietnam where people were awake in the tiny hours of the morning (three AM, anyone?!) working in the feilds, opening the shops and eating at the hundreds of little impermanent shops along the roads. There were people awake, we could tell because the second thing we noticed was that everyone seemed excited to see us and want to say hello. In Cambodia we were charmed, if sometimes slightly irritated, by the incessant bellowing and helloing by every squeaky child in our vicinity (read about it HERE), where as the Laos people of all ages cracked huge grins and waved heartily at our passing tandem freakshow.

Riding roads next to the Mekong was relaxing and calm, the small undulating hills felt like happiness under our wheels, the quality of this smile-inducing tarmac was suitably high too, a few charcoal craters here and there, but it was mostly smooth sailing on well-sealed roads. A few honking horns for the ‘horn count’ but none of them even slightly in anger or with a tinge of rudeness, all just hellos AND on such a low decibel level, they were not even too much for Kat’s super sensitive ears. We’d pulled in for lunch at a nice little middle of nowhere place where we were overcharged, as is custom for Falangs, but the vegetarian fare was very good, and actually meat-free, not just meat-removed or worse, meat-related, and then the weather turned. The wind hinted at our general area with provocative gusts and heady, I’m-almost-upon-you blasts. There was a period of an hour or more where we were convinced the daily rain we’d experienced in Savannakhet would roll in, but no – just tempestuous winds, thickening atmosphere and a slight shroud of darkness. Tempting the weather to break on us, we rode on but no rain came.

The day’s riding got us to a little spare-change town and, drawn into a ‘resort’ by the of billboarded offer both of a restaurant and a place to stay, within a few minutes we were in a little tiny thatched hut of a room and we were ok, if a little uncomfortable. Ready for an early bedtime (such party animals, us) we went to the restaurant just as dark was closing the day, and were served in a haphazard way by a couple of giggling girls: one transgendered with neon fushia talons and the other dowdy and lankly raven haired, whose dubious hospitality skills and botched service would unfortunately be indicative of that to come. Mostly, I think they just couldn’t get over the fact that we were white. They even sent someone away with the news of “falungs” to be gawked at and so a few more youths, their amuzement clunky and poorly hidden behind hands gesured in prayer over their laughing mouths. It was a little off putting to have an audience, but we’re not unaccustomed to being stared at. Our closely scrutinised meal consisted of one nice veggie meal and another awful thing: meant to be papaya salad, the beautiful fresh simplicity of which is pretty hard to stuff up but they over flavoured it with too many chillis (possibly to see if we could cope – we couldn’t) and some fermented sauce, we don’t usually waste food but it was totally inedible.

Then, an hour after getting tucked firmly back into our shanti-home, the music started… music loud enough to wake the dead, the thundering augmented bass shook our eardrums seismically until midnight, rendering sleep an impossibility, let alone pain-free ears. And then, as if our aural senses hadnt been assaulted enough, the roosters had a go for a while. A terrible night’s sleep indeed.

More people seemed to have joined in on the holiday celebrations and laizefare attitude toward work during our second day back on the road, which started far more favourably than the first had ended: half an hour’s worth of conversation with a young Laotian fellow named Neece. He’d travelled to this holiday spot with his whole family and was inturning at the resort intermittently between parties. His English was very good and he was pretty excit to practise with us, asking us all sorts of questions and bating us for some back. We left him as he’d begun his first task of cleaning out the chicken coop positioned right behind our ex-bedroom.

The day’s festivities were quite low-key and aqua-themed, with kids all along the road chucking buckets of/spraying super soakers of/hurling plastic lollie-bag bombs of water at us (mostly ineffectively). We were enjoying the pleasant ride: not just for the leafy green surroundings for some of the second day, but the drivers – totally pleasant and content to give us both space and time (neither of which gifts we are used to receiving!). Unfortunately our bubble of the kind, caring, swine-free attitudes and dispositions of the Laos drivers was burst by the frantic, emotive squealing of two enormous black pigs strapped unceremoniously to the back of a passing van. They were clearly in pain and in great distress; and wouldn’t you be too, if you were tied supine onto the rear bumper bar of a van with your head dangling perilously close to the gravelly roads, jolting violently with every crossed indentation, and the fumy stench belching out at you from the red hot exhaust pipe? Where are the Buddhist objectors?! Where are the objectors full stop?! Why do we humans treat animals so poorly? It maddens and saddens us.

That afternoon we met a girl just before we stopped for the night, who could speak nigh-on perfect English and humoured Kat’s claims of being “pregnant” to get out of drinking beer with the raucous women at the small food market we’d paused at (just to make this clear, Kat’s not pregnant, she doesn’t like beer). We came to the quick realisation that everyone seems to be getting into the Laos New Year – traditionally celebrated as a water festival and completely turned monstrous or magical (depending on how cynical you are) with the additional food dye and pastel powders thrown with the water. We aren’t sure how traditional the heavy drinking is as part of the festival but it seems to have taken just as strongly as water throwing.

Wiley Alee of Alleykat argued the guesthouse proprietor from 60,000 to 50,000 because we like small victories. We had watched the cogs turn in his head when we initially asked the price for one night, the slow rotating teeth fingering into each other as his mind worked hard at making him as much money as possible, he started at 70,000.

The Antlightenment

After enjoying a spot of Hunger Games, we needed an intermission and so turned on our bedroom light, only to discover our floor covered in fine-dining ants, an army thereof. It would seem the lights outside had attracted a smorgasbord of flying inchworms and the ants, who had clearly been living here in the middle of nowhere, Laos, for a while and have thusly learned a thing or two about these lacewing drongos. Now, how this massacre went down we’re not exactly positive, and dear reader, I’m sure you’ve got questions, but for now we’ll hazard a guess or two and after you can feel free to agree or write a strongly worded letter of objection. As you’ve no doubt had experience with ants, unless, dear friends you’ve lived a blessed life inside a Tupperware container, you’ll know for the most part they don’t fly, not to hunt anyway. Lacewings on the other hand are like blind larvae on the ground, like excited seals out of water, but are slightly better off in the air, although they are kind of kamikaze light addicts while in flight. I’d speculate the ants knew when to pop their heads out the door and check on their flighty-wormy prey, just to keep combative tabs on them. I’d hypothesise, when these flitty-flappity lace-winged idiots had quite literally flown their wings off after what I can only guess was a whirlwind of empassioned fly-sex, and were reduced to the floor-based status of their vastly more intelligent, exoskeletoned brethren, the ants were already at action stations ready to swarm for the kill. Or, if not to the jugular slice then and there, they were at least ready and able to carry their meat still wriggling, one, two or three a squirmy piece, all the way safely from the ground outside, inside our room and into their nest.

So, why have I flapped on about this for such a long time? Well, goodness knows, but that wasn’t the end of the saga. Being the ‘unfazed-by-ant-infestation’ gromits we are, we elected to grab a slice of delectable peanut brittle, switch the lights off and resume our movie and with that, promptly forgot about the living black on our floor. The movie ended satisfactorily and we braved the lights-on motion once again. The ants were gone! And so were the thousands of silently protesting grubs they’d been lugging about. Ok, they hadn’t completely disappeared, but their numbers had fallen so steeply that the tiles were once again visible and it was really just a few stragglers left behind (they’d probably stopped for a sneaky snack on the way). Captured by their sudden disappearance, we sleuths traced their movements more carefully and it came to light that their nest, now replete with all kinds of dead bug goodies, was actually in the darkness directly underneath our mattress. Perfect.

Half way through putting up our faithful little tent so we could still sleep on the bed we’d paid 50,000 kip for, the manager and some of his friends came to save the day – with a broom and bugspray! Venturing outside we realised that our little infestation (which we must reiterate, we weren’t too bothered by, considering ants are definitely here with more rights to land and spoils of said land than us) was not the be all end all of the situation. The bathroom roof had grown wings and the floor was wriggling. The steps up to the line of four conjoined rooms we were a part of were covered in lines of what would easily have been a million ants or termites. Apparently the whole place had been newly and idiotically built atop an ant hill. We tried to ward off the bombastic friend of manager with his can of spray, believing very firmly in a pacifist approach but alas, he couldn’t be stopped. We moved to the ant-free room next door and the manager’s wife came and made the bed in the room we’d just vacated as though we hadn’t just alerted them to the fact the whole thing was resting directly on a volcano of ants. And such was our antlightenment.

Feeling like a presenter on the set of Grumpy Old Men

We’d timed our stay in South East Asia fairly well, the dry season or the “winter” season begets a couple fewer tourists and a more manageable climate for bike tourers. The landscapes we were uncovering with our bicycle and our eyes were terribly dry and craving water, the rice paddies were cracked mud, wounds in the earth caked into huge scabs by the relentless sun and absent liquid. The dust sometimes plumed up around us, gritty shoulders of roads making TanNayNay’s belt drive squawk and creak in complaint. People it seemed were mostly on hold, waiting for the life-giving rains to return – and suddenly, there were at the celebration of the Laos New Year, the wettest celebration in the world, I suppose to welcome in the start of the wet season.

The Laos New Year is similar to the Lunar New Year celebrated in many Buddhist countries and is a generally colourful and loving experience. In Laos, the story is no different – the hospitality from strangers was often turned up to eleven, and we felt buoyed on by the continuous capituatlion and recapitulation, the calling and caterwauling of ‘sa bai dee!’, ‘hello!’ The people of Laos were instantly more likeable to us than any of our South East Asian leg thus far.

These two days, unofficially three days, and super unofficially (but officially practised) whole week, are celebrated mostly via a nation-wide water fight. The majority of participants are nothing short of jubilant, loving every bone-soaked minute, shrieking with delight and dousing everyone who walks, rides, motors or attempts to sneak past. No one is free from being targeted: grandmas, delivery men, dogs, entire bus-loads of tourists caught unawares and of course, especially not Alleykats riding a bike. In our first couple of days out of Savannakhet, we thought we’d pretty much seen what it was going to be like: occasional groups of children armed with water pistols ambushing us a few times during the day. What we weren’t prepared at all for was the extent to which everyone gets involved – not just in being wet, but in the watery deluge springing endlessly forth from whatever vessel their arms could manage. Pots, saucepans and 25 litre cement buckets were among favourites but, hoses, crockery and super-soakers complete with camel-pak style backpacks for vital refuelling were not uncommon.

Alee’s only hint that he wasn’t in love with this celebration was when he needed to go out and eat some dinner and really didn’t feel like being watered along the way, otherwise his face was fairly upwardly turned during this many-day soaking. Kat on the other hand felt a lot like a Grumpy Old Woman on the ABC show: the first day was fine and fun, enjoyable and easy to cast in a positive light when simply considering the happiness surrounding every impromptu outside shower, the silliness of it and indeed the refreshing temperature-lowering effect one relinquishes from being dunked under water. However, the second day, Kat felt a bit like a cat, a grumpy old cat who didn’t like being uncomfortably wet and was even more uncomfortable with the idea that a nation so thoroughly in want of an ongoing water supply would be scandalously wasting every precious drop of tap water.

In Paksan, a large town midway between Savannahket and Vientiane, we paused at BK guesthouse run by Soy Muong Hane and her lovely English-profficient daughter, Seng Keo Syhavong. BK is a fourteen year old, highly recommended guesthouse named after great grandparents who were furniture makers and intricate wood carvers to boot. The family were thoroughly wonderful and tended to Kat for two nights, who had managed to contract a rather poorly-timed dose of tummy bug.

At a restaurant in Paksan we made a rather disturbing discovery in the same pig-abusing theme as on the road: after dining richly on green curried vegetables and sticky rice, we noticed the three restaurant dogs, who had some serious pep, paying attentions to a sack in the corner. Then the sack moved, and grunted and finally after being harangued by the inquisitive dogs too long got up with a defiant and plainly terrified snort and attempted to walk away. Unfortunately, as the poor little thing was sewn into the hessian sack and left there for anyone’s guess how long, it was rather incapacitated and could only manage a few steps before getting tangled and rolling around aimlessly. After a minute of noisy distress it managed to thrust its little snout through a small “breathing hole” and complained loudly to anyone who would listen. We were stunned into sad silence, what could we do? Demand they let it go? Complain to the manager? Leave without paying? Nope, nothing made practical sense and soon enough the manager himself came out and took the poor thing inside after dumping it roughly into a crate. Again, we asked ourselves, isn’t this supposed to be a Buddhist country? Surely they value the sacred life of all beings? It was a heads up to the treatment of animals worldwide, really, not simply a single case of animal cruelty. Kat wished she could feature on Grumpy Old Women and vent about it.

After riding on and off, making further up the road, the fourth day of a nasty bout of giardiasis, Kat was forced to hop in a small, open-backed van (for all intents and purposes of argument, a bus) and Al, the beast who hates busses, rode to Vientiane alone. Upon arrival, Kat was taken for an inexpensive ride on a tuktuk to a guestouse on the outskirts of Vientiane, where Al joined her a few hours later to spend one night in a room with ten thousand mosquitoes. The next morning it was time to roll up and out – we needed to be in Luang Prabang in order to meet Kat’s mum and dad the next day!

Alleykat go separate ways (yet again) en route to Luang Prabang.Early bird Alleykat made it to the Northern bus station at 6:30am and when we began unloading the panniers from TanNayNay’s sleek purple frame, the bus drivers were already making more than enough room under the bus in a distinctly TanNayNay sized shape. Al put a halt to their efforts, indicating that he was in fact going to ride the road to Luang Prabang on the bike. Stunned into immobility, the drivers then shrugged good-naturedly and went back to their early morning collecting of VIP bus customers. After a brief grasp of each other we parted and Al rode off on a very light bicycle indeed, armed for his ride with only the bare necessities of helmet, double-layered knicks, iPad, video camera and pump.

Busses vs bikes

After leaving Al to his ride (one Kat deemed slightly unnecessary given the bus boy’s kind, free offer to stick TanNayNay under the hull and for it to be an easy ride) Kat clambered inside the VIP bus. Aide from a couple who were mid-argument, mosquitoes were the only other passengers inside at this early stage. Gradually the bus began to fill up and the seat next to Kat was filled by a diminutive, smiling Laotian man of perhaps 20, although he could’ve been 40 given the beautiful, ageless faces of the Laos people. The first two hours after our late departure, Kat didn’t notice anything much as she was obsessively looking for her other half, the riding machine Al. We did pick up many people and their belongings on the way but picking up speed was another thing altogether. At 65 kilometres in, there was the man himself, stomping on the pedals and looking like a bit of a madzer/maddie all alone on a bicycle built for two. Upon this sighting, Kat promptly burst into tears and felt a bit lonely and miserable.

The rest of the ride was a mixed bag, the hills seemed enormous and never-ending, the gradients appeared to be impossibly steep, rocking the bus back on its haunches most of the time. The driver very sweetly pah-pahed the horn to encourage a variety of animals off the road: dogs, cows and even chickens were spared by this kind soul. Kat discovered a few hours too late the reason the mosquitoes were particularly interested in her: the couple behind were carrying perishables with them to their destination and inevitably, the once frozen meat had unthawed and had puddled around Kat’s bag sitting on the floor in front. Yep, the bag was wet and bloody and the perfect drawcard for single mosquitoes on the prowl for a feed. Disgusting.

We paused a few times for a creepy communal piss stop: initially the bus staff hopped off and unzipped, watering the bushes next to the bus, the men quickly followed suit and relieved themselves within centimetres of eachother and in very close quarters of the bus. This was notable, a typically male idea to have a bathroom break where people without convenient vessles to pull out of their pants and empty their bladders, aka women, couldn’t join in the activity. One woman led the way, wading into the scrubby bushes and finding a quiet spot to go, and a few female passengers took her lead. But it wasn’t quite the same. The bus also needed frequent pit stops, the brakes had to be hosed down lovingly as we lumbered around the steep hills and valleys, the bus rolling around tentatively at the whim of the wilderness.

Busses suck and bikes rock, this is true. This mantra was no doubt pumping through the veins of every cyclist along the way: there were Westerners on flimsy road bikes, backpacks strapped to the rear; there were grandmas rolling around every village bikes piled high with goods and food; there were four brightly dressed boys riding their little hearts out, miles from anywhere, staging minature versions of Le Tour on the crappiest full sized bikes, loving every sweat-drenched minute of it. Bikes win, every time!

The second half of the ride was paved with positives and negatives: knowledge that Al was riding this gave rise to some serious jealousy, the scenery was just too incredible and massive to enjoy at all from a bus seat! Conversely, the road quality left a lot to be desired and the drivers weren’t particularly careful when cornering, often crossing onto the wrong sides of the road around blind corners – this had Kat worrying for Al’s safety, especially during his night riding sections. There were many sad scenes languishing among the beautiful; a huge amount of deforestation, raping and pillaging the land, entire hillsides and newly tree-free sections burning, it wasn’t enough to revel in remaining greenery, it’s all going to go isn’t it? We’ve learned about deforestation for the sake of prosperity and there are a number of countries giving aid and investing in the reallocation of land purpose: namely China and a few Western parties interested in Laos, who are building infrastructure and taking invaluable care of many Laos people, but are also responsible for the ravaging of the land without much consideration for the environment, the natural flora or fauna.

Kat made the terrible realisation that this is what our lifestyle drives, it is our new obsession (in the West) with palm oil and similar commodities dictating that the beautiful sacridity of the Laotian landscape should be remoulded, nay decimated, by machines and fire to eventually give birth to palm and pine plantations. It was unbelievably saddening, but appeared to only effect a few passengers on the bus: none of the Laotians looked remotely surprised at this destruction, and only a handful of French fellows looked similarly disturbed, mouths agape mirroring Kat’s face.

Punctuating the green and blackened landscape were a variety of watchers of the bus: an old grandma seated up really high, another with a perfect vantage point was a small child in his own little shelter, a wooden hut nestled amongst the woodland. There was a family having lunch under a tree, many collections of kids on the side of the road, some waving, some working: holding interesting instruments to spear fish or rubbish to sell.

The Laos people are known for their extremely relaxed and easy-going nature. Both their Buddhist religion and affirmations promote it: unless there’s an element of fun in what you’re doing; don’t do it! This gives rise to lax punctuality yes, but also to a generally positive demeanour and a severe lack of stress. We passed loads of colourful people at technicolour weddings and too, people everywhere milling around on the streets. Many towns we drive through seemed deeply involved in communal cleaning activities: many families washing their clothes altogether, lots of fishing and swimming and people getting about dressed only in towels. It seemed, from a brief speculation, that life in these hills isn’t fast paced or particularly eventful, but that it has all the trimmings of a happy, fulfilling existence; lots of communicating and collective activity, lots of smiling and talking and visiting. Perhaps not so different from our lives back in the concrete jungle.

Family reunions and fancy residences

After a single night stay in a hostel alone, a pannier-laden Kat staggered up to the very grand entrance of Hotel De La Paix. Greeted with a warm smile, eucalyptus scented wet face cloth and a freshly squeezed cool glass of orange juice, she checked in ahead of Ruth and Andrew who were in the air above and Alee who was still over the hills and far away. Before long, the warming sound of their voices drawing her out of the lavish, apartment-sized room, Kat’s mum and dad arrived and the were hugs and kisses all around. They couldn’t believe the luxury of our surroundings either! A few hours of catching up and frequent happy hugs, it was time for Al to be rolling in – he’d been aiming to set off at 5 that morning and had estimated a twelve hour effort would get him to Luang Prabang nicely. Around twenty minutes before his ETA, there he was, drenched with sweat, dirty and smiling his face off.

Serendipitously, we’d finally managed to be in the same place at the same time as some fellow bike tourers. Having heard from a few friends and the Internet that two intepid women, Jude and Astrid (foonsonbikes) were essentially riding the route we were doing but in the opposite direction, we knew that meeting up had to happen. Given Kat’s parents had just flown thousands of kilometres to see us, we thought we’d better run the idea past them, but of course had their blessings as with a very similar situation on our first night altogether in Uzbekistan with cyclists Alena and Marcel (read about it HERE). So, in the waft of happy-family smiles, we arrived at Pizza Phan Luang ready to meet our counterparts. In the heady sweet scent of a mosquito coil night, we six devoured some delicious pizza, possibly the best Alleykat had eaten since Albania’s fresh vegetably rounds of pastry. Al had two to himself, needing to recoup some of the calories lost in his massive two day self punishment, aka 372kms through the hills. It was a great delight for Kat to be in such loving company, with her mum and dad on either side, her lover across the table and two new but amazing new friends.

We worked out that Jude and Astrid who were in Luang Prabang for the second time (having ridden around South East Asia extensively they loved this place so much they’d returned before their upcoming border crossing into China just a few hundred kilometres to our north) and were staying one more night and couldn’t help ourselves but make a second dinner date.

In the morning we went to the hotel library for the first of many free breakfasts. On offer was everything on the menu; one could quite literally order everything detailed and out it would come, no questions asked. Al made a mental note for our last morning: eat everything on the breakfast menu. We begun the day well fuelled with coffee, tea, freshly squeezed juice and seasonal fruit platters. In compliment to this we also had muesli, natural yoghurt and honey, pancakes, waffles, English breakfasts and a bread basket akin to the Magic Pudding – cut and come again indeed!

The manager was gorgeous, we first met her at breakfast with a tiny kitten nestled into a bilum at her front. Some patrons had discovered the mewing kitty on the road and had, knowing full well she was a softie for animals, given the poor thing to her. Her “puppy” was an enormous year old Rottweiler and the exact opposit to the palm-sized kitten at her whim. They were all extremely lovely.

The next few days spent in Luang Prabang were pleasantly untouristic. We’d been warned that the city was somewhat overrun by tourists: hippies, louts, technology-hungry holiday makers and noisy families. We felt like the only visitors in most places we roamed! Sure, we still stuck out like a fly in the soup, our pale skin attracting stares and tuk tuk drivers deeply confused by our preference for walking, but we didn’t feel a part of the plague of tourists that are so often a blight on the landscape. We walked easily, there was nowhere we had to be so we wandered through small streets and decorative temples, we climbed the main hill to drink in the view and an iced tea at the top. We wandered along the periphery of the little headland that makes up most of Luang Prabang’s city centre, admiring the seasonal bamboo bridges and general living of life in the rivers.

Lunch and dinner were, without exception, delicious and varied affairs: we ate again with Jude and Astrid at Utopia, this time not foreign food but vegetarian versions of local delights, laap, papaya salad, sticky rice and pancakes. We bid a farewell to the gorgeous couple who were making their four-wheeled way off into the wilderness the next morning – on two bikes, there’s nothing to stop the adventure.

Learning about the Kamu people

Ruth and Andrew had organised a two-day Mekong river expedition, and we set off (after delectable free breakfast, of course!) and were met at the river sided by Lod, our local guide. Lod was born in a small town close by Luang Prabang and has lived in the town most of his twenty-something years of life. Tourism and guiding are an excellent outlet for someone as multilingual and personable as he. We had a wooden river boat to ourselves, but for the cabin crew and the owner of the lodge we were headed to, French Olivier. The caves half way into our four hour river run were interesting with their gilded collection of golden Buddhas and looming spooned-out rooves. We were most excited by a giant purple gecko living in a groove above our heads, spending minutes admiring his 35cm length and big-eyed beauty.

More animals were the shore fodder of the trip: this time elephants. As aforementioned, Laos used to be called ‘Land of One Million Elephants and a White Parasol’. Now, the parasol means royalty so, you might have guessed that the number of elephants isn’t actually referring to the literal meaning. It is referring to a past ruler of Laos and elephants were once associated with being the battle horses of war: the more elephants a kingdom had, the stronger it was during warfare. No doubt, there was an element of truth to it, there were probably hundreds of thousands of elephants in the country at one time, however now that number has been well and truly decimated. Sadly, the number in the wild had dwindled to a meagre 800 in 2008 and has doubtless dropped greatly since. Poaching is just too potent a drug for many people, a sickening trade is ivory. About another thousand, a single thousand elephants live on in Laos to assist people in tourism and occasionally for farming purposes, but gradually the extraordinarily expensive creatures are going to die out unless the government, who are perfectly positioned, with their easily amicable access to foreign aid and the likability of elephants, to make a difference.

We arrived at Kamu Lodge, named for the group of people who live in the village next door, the Kamu people. They are one of a few, perhaps three main groups who live amicably in the hills and dales of Laos. Lunch was served before Lod took us out for the few hours of scheduled activities. Admittedly, we four felt a little like raising a collective eyebrow of suspicion at the planned ‘archery’ and ‘panning for gold’ but were happily proven wrong.

We began by wandering a short way into the heart of the village. After getting over our initial feelings of dickheadery (one does feel a little put off by being so obviously an invader of real people’s real lives: it may look like a movie set, but it ain’t!) we enjoyed learning more about the lives of the Kamu people. One of Laos’s traditional peoples, they plant rice, net for fish and hunt. But of course there’s more to life than that, the family groups share child raising duties and food production alike. The children all go to primary school where there are four classes but only three teachers so one class is alone at any time. This proved not to be a problem for the kids however as we happened upon them entertaining themselves by singing traditional songs of the area. No, it wasn’t staged on our behalf, this is just how school is for the village children, the teachers were doing a stellar job with the noisy, rather tuneful racket going on next door.

We learned that traditionally, girls are married off early, somewhere between 12 and 18 they are married to a young man from one of the next villages along the Mekong. The age gap is traditionally no more than about six years, one gets the feeling there’s no shortage of children being produced to find a good future match with. The next village back towards Luang Prabang is much larger and has three tribes living altogether peacefully, and due to its size, also has a high school where the boys and some of the girls attend. We learned about Lod himself, living in this village on and off, hunting wild cats in the jungle surrounding and selling their pelts and insides in Luang Prabang. It sounds a little barbaric, and of course as concious, conscientious objectors we were a little stunned at the gay abandon with which Lod described hunting with self-made weapons as a common place, fun activity. Very occasionally, a family will sell enough sticky rice, farm animals and animal goods to move up in the world: uproot to Luang Prabang. There didn’t seem to be any joy or activity lacking from the small village consisting of less than 50 families, but it is very difficult to get an accurate understanding of a place and people with such a limited aspect.

We wandered out of the village, passing the single generator for the whole group and too their single shared satellite dish: they may not have running water, a sewerage system or hospital, but they do have access to the world via television. It was then time for the activities to commence. Archery first, with a home made crossbow was actually serious fun, Al and Ruth hit the purple banana flower target the first time, Andrew on his second try and Kat mauled the target directly above and below the main attraction. It was surprisingly fun, we all wanted to have multiple attempts! Kat and Andrew learned how to harvest rice and fasten the small flaxen bales together using one strand of the rice plant, we all watched Lod fish and another guide pan for gold. These activities are genuinely a part of everyday life, not simply a novelty tourist attraction, they’ve been developed over hundreds of years and perfected using new and different materials, change happens when no one is watching.

On our way back down the Mekong after glamping (glamour-camping, look it up) overnight at Kamu, another village was visited, this time specializing in rice wine or ‘rice whiskey’ production, Andrew and Al had a slug at 9:30am for good measure, Ruth learned about weaving and silk production and even bought some beautiful, intricate scarves.

Upon our return, Kat and her mum wanted to continue the trend and so visited Ock Pop Tok. Ock Pop Tok translates into East meets West and was started by a Laotion woman and her English best friend (thus East and West) who came together to manage and create a workshop to employ and empower women in Luang Prabang. It was so successful that its reach now extend all over the country, sourcing the different kinds of weaving art and artisans and paying them duly. It has put a halt on the dying out of techniques and styles only practised by a few women throughout the country, instead enhancing their earning and creating outlets and providing a real, money-making vocation for women and girls all over. We learned about the creating of silk all the way from tending to the silk worm larvae until they form a cocoon, then shedding it and laying more eggs to continue the cycle. The cocoons are then harvested, once abandoned, and each provides a huge length of fine, pure silk. The process involves hours of reeling and winding and colouring with natural dyes, gradually creating the thicker, velvety strands used for weaving. The meticulous work is done by many women and girls, with utmost respect for the master weavers: grandmas and great-grandmas who’ve spent their lives perfecting patterns and methods. The results are splendidly beautiful.

Back in the haven that is Hotel De La Paix, Al and Kat discovered we’d been moved into a new room. A massive upgrade, we now had our own pool! Yes, it wasn’t enough that we were constantly surrounded and spoiled by total jewel-dripping luxury, including a massive infinity pool in the grounds of the hotel, now we could have midnight nudie swims! Our new backyard joined onto Kat’s parents’ one – that’s right our apartment-sized rooms had backyards and gardens, so we of course shared in the extreme relaxation of a private pool.

Highly recommended to us had been the two waterfalls close by: our bike touring friends Alena and Marcel thought highly of ‘Kuang Si’ and even more so of the smaller ‘Tad Se’. We decided on the second falls as apparently there was lots of hiking and opportunities for whole private pools on offer, however, were thwarted by the weather: the Tad Se falls dry up in the dry season and so instead our tuk tuk driver more than happily dropped us off 35km out of town, saying, with a wave, he’d wait for us.

The sun bear sanctuary was a surprise, around ten bears were right there, hanging out in a fairly well constructed micro environment, they live a real life Catch 22: they can’t be wild and live freely like they should because they’d be instantly poached for their valuable gall bladders or pelts, but they shouldn’t live in captivity because they’re wild animals and aren’t suited to an enclosed life. A few had gone a bit balmy, rocking and pacing, typical behaviours of a confined creature and the rest had occasional clashes for territory, claiming ‘their’ swing, ‘their’ paddling pool, ‘their’ climbing frame. An admirable effort made on behalf of the hunted bears but a long way to go to create something symbiotic.

Along the narrow jungle path, crystalline blue water appeared seemingly from nowhere. Quite suddenly we were walking alongside of craggy ponds, drip feeding each other from a waterfall high above, and all with a fringe of water babies: Laotians and Westerners alike dabbling about in swimming costumes, necking sneaky beers, frolicking in the shallows and even washing themselves ceremoniously! Our party of four was after something a little less alcoholic than was on offer in a few of the pools so kept wandering, soon to be rewarded for our efforts with a magnificent face of water splashing gallantly from above, we marvelled at its beauty from many angles and too at the continuing perfect blueness of the water all around us.

Our eyes were drawn to a sting of ‘hikers’ in all shapes and sizes coming from or disappearing to a climb next to the waterfall. Upon following with our feet instead of just our eyes, we discovered a steep scramble of a walk almost vertically up the rocks next to the face. Excitedly, we clambered our way up this near wall of a walk, picking our way amongst rocks, trees and seemingly unclimbable nature-made walkways (we’re pretty sure it was a dry waterfall bed!).

Once at the top the other hikers had disappeared, leaving us alone in the sudden opening out of the top shelf. We caught the tail end of one of the groups and had a giggle as they were gondolaed across a deep section of the sky-high river by a ruddy, diminutive Laotian fellow, he didn’t make a ripple in the water’s surface alone but with great lumbering tourists aboard his bamboo ‘boat’, he did well not to let them sink! Instead, we crossed this section on foot, rather nimbly picking a path trailblazed by Andrew (Kat’s dad), enjoying the frigid waters lapping up our feet. We promptly lost the others, assuming they’d taken one of the many pathway options, but didn’t fret as they looked less likely than we to know where they were going (there were no signs at all!). Our way down was perfect: a little less steep than the way up, but just as exciting and beauteous.

Part-way down we almost walked through the web on a pleasantly enormous spider who was sitting in the middle of the pathway casually spooling her fine silk around a plainly terrified fly. She was the largest Alee or Kat had seen since Korea, perhaps even including the monsters there! After filming her activities (of course we did) the rest of the wander down was perhaps a little less gung-ho!

We made it back in one piece, energised although rather sweaty from our climb. Mango smoothies apiece and a brisk strip off at the water’s edge and we were in… well, Ruth was in! The rest of us followed at a saunter, Al first, then Andrew and finally Kat whose teeth were chattering as soon as a single toe was grazed along the azure water’s surface. Once in, it was heaven, we were four of about twenty people spread widely around the Pamukkale-esque pools, although for a few mintues there, we probably made enough noise for all twenty!

Our way out of the park was clouded a little by guilt: we’d already made our driver wait a good few hours and were about to ask him to wait some more! Alee had noticed a few advertisements around town for the Kuang Si Falls Butterfly Park, we had to visit. We wandered 300m down the road heading back into town and were greeted by some gorgeous bouncy barking dogs and a mostly nude made swimming in a waterhole not dissimilar to those we’d just left. Ineke (and her husband Olaf, whom we’d just seen the full form of) are a couple from The Netherlands who were looking to make a differen in the world, in Thailand they found their opportunity to do just that: they are working on a variety of sustainabilty projects with the locals and the governments as well as running the butterfly park which strives to educate people about the beautiful incects and their enviroment. Ineke took us on a short tour and finished perfectly by letting us get close to the creatures themselves. Two baskets full of sleepy butterflies were opened magically in front of us and most enjoyed the opportunity to lick some salt from our saline-streaked bodies. We had a lot of fun learning, looking and listening – the couple are looking to get volunteers on top of the one lovely woman they already have so, dear reader, if you’re interested, contact them!

The next few days were busy and interesting. We visited the UXO education centre and learned about Laos’s firey past: during the Vietnam war (named The American War, here in South East Asia for obvious reasons) Laos was bombed more heavily than any other country. In fact, it remains the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. The UXOs are unexploded ordinants, parts of cluster bombs, similar in potency now to land mines, which are spread over much of the country decades after the war has ended. These present a constant threat to the Laos people who are killed (one every day) and maimed (numerous daily) by these hidden ‘bombies’. Children play with them, adults strike them in the fields or dismantle them for scrap metal. Laos is a terminally impoverished country with a huge percentage of the population living well below the poverty line, like over 70 or 80 percent of the nation. These UXOs are being dealt with, but the process is painfully slow, so in the mean time, the numbers of specially trained people (just as many women as men) are growing and their brave efforts are gradually ridding the environment of this artillery that was a part of a war they weren’t involved in. There are hundreds of education officers working tirelessly everyday, educating grandparents, parents and children about the dangers of these UXOs. The education office was well done and had lots of information and options for aid. A saddening but also uplifting expereince.

We made our way through the city, mostly by eating out at amazing restaurants. Tamarind is one similar to that in Siem Reap we visited: run by a foundation which trains impoverished, limited educationally or violence-effected children to work in the hospitality industry as chefs, waiters and owners of restaurants. The food was among the best we’d had in South East Asia, sans any outlandish price tag.

On our last full day together, a real scorcher, humidity up to our sweaty necks, we crossed the river on a car ferry and wandered along the other side. We four found ourselves a town differing completely from the civilised ease of Luang Prabang, instead with a small-town, real-world feeling more closely associated with Kamu village. We spent the early morning walking to the ‘other end’ of the dusty track via the temples, children of merry go rounds and a woman harvesting lurid red bugs from their favourite tree for her family’s lunch no doubt.

On the way back, out of nowhere, we had water unceremoniously dumped, cheekily flung and sneakily sprayed at us. Alleykat had been right, no one is off limits, we’re all doomed to the same watery fate. Kat felt for her folks who she’d assumed had avoided the worst of the Laos New Year madness, but water fights it seems are just part of the course in Laos.

And then, quite suddenly, our eight days were done. A final breakfast (no, Al didn’t eat all seven breakfast options, but did quite satisfactorily with three and a half as well as two whole bread baskets and a few cappuccinos) and checking that everything was packed and said goodbye. This time the tears didn’t wash away the rest of Kat’s day (as they had last time in Uzbekistan) as a little under five months was the only thing in between the next happy reunion. We waved them off around the corner and there we were, alone, just Alleykat again. The staff at the hotel allowed us to stay inside at perfectly cooled temperature before it was time for a quick lunch and ride to the bus station. Al was planning to pull an all-nighter over the hills and far away to Vang Vieng (220km with 5500m of climbing!) and Kat would again be hobbled with the panniers in the bus and meet him at a well-recommended hostel there later in the evening. Al rode off on Kat for what they both promised would be the last time.

Stormy weather brings us back together

Similar to the bus trip there, the bus trip back was a smorgasbord of visions seen foggily out of the dirty bus window: kids swimming in the rivers, people washing themselves and their clothes at any available water outlet and general mountainous beauty. This time the bus driver wasn’t a sweetie who gently pumped his horn to mind animals, instead he hankered for a quick trip without really knowing how to manage a bus: grinding the gears, clunking up and down aimlessly before smashing into the closest to manageable. We spent hours climbing like a snail behind lumbering lumber trucks and trying to make up for it by slamming down the hills swerving into oncoming traffic. A glimpse of Al at 45 minutes in was all Kat had to go on, but safe to say he was stomping it! She was then plagued with thoughts the rest of the time about the fact he maybe he’d forgotten his head torch necessary for navigating the pitch black ahead of him. To pass the time Kat gorged on New Girl, counting herself a firm fan of Jessica Day’s once again, and sat semi-reclined next to a fellow who didn’t mind sharing some nuts or a laugh at shared incomprehension at each others’ language.

Kat’s final destination of Vang Vieng was not that of the bus, they were travelling on through to Vientiane. Knowing this was highly stressful because in the darkness, one has no idea where they are, in addition to this, the driver and bus boy didn’t seem to speak any English or even Laotian because no matter how many times Kat got up out of her seat trying to exit at the wrong place (after wrongly hearing Vang Vieng come out of the bus boy’s mouth) he did nothing to alleviate this need. Luckily, the one other Westerner of the bus did seem to know where she was thanks to navigation on her iPhone and we hopped off at the same time. Once off and with all our luggage hurled at us hastily, we hopped into a Tuktuk with Megan from the US and we tripped into the unpaved backstreets and were inside and unpacked by 1am. That was when the first thunder clouds split open and the racket of watery sheets being flung from the heavens indicated Al’s trip might be a bit wetter than he’d hoped for.

Al’s arrival at 3:30am was hailed by the sudden raised whisper of ‘Kat Webster!’, and continued in a wet, bubbly fashion, he insisted he was wide awake and could ride on until Vientiane, but hit the pillow fairly hard once showered and de-double-knick’d. Kat on the otherhand was awake listening to the storm raging around their nice dry room until 5.

Our first day began with a big leisurely breakfast of pancakes, fruit, muesli and yoghurt, while we listened to a Dutch girl sitting behind us with a few other intrepid backpacking mates narrate the day, the weather, last night and the whole world. She got on Al’s nerves, who doesn’t like talking for the sake of talking, but seemed fairly harmless. The day was full of rest and food, the sun was piping hot, in the mid-forties, so we watched Tarantino’s True Romance and had more rest – surprisingly enough the all night ride of 220kms took quite a bit out of Al. The day ended with a long chat with Megan who is also a long haul traveller who does lots of WWOOFing and learning about the world.

Our second of two allotted days in Vang Vieng was a bit more eventful, we rode to the Blue Lagoon (number one on Trip Advisor) along some rather rough roads and through some very real villages and arrived to find that the talkative Dutch girl from yestermorning who’d been bitching about the lagoon being ‘just a river that hoons flung themselves into’ was actually correct, but too, that the hoons weren’t too bad and it was rather nice to bob around in the freezing cold, perfectly aquamarine blue water.

That night we went to a second ‘rated number one on Trip Advisor’, a local restaurant with quite good food, but terrible service. This seems to be fairly topical in Laos, more so than in Cambodia or Vietnam, the food generally takes a while to come out and more than that, the waiters and waitresses seem unbelievably uninterested in their customers. We’ve been left waiting, we’ve had to get our food ourselves because the waiters are too busy on Facebook or their phones to go and pick it up from the service counter (yes, really) and there’s just a general attitude present in restaurants. We encountered the strange disparity all the way along the Mekong: not so much in Savanahket or Luang Prabang, but elsewhere we got the feeling that they really, really didn’t want us in their restaurants. A disparity because the rest of the Laos people are generally so welcoming and kind and friendly toward us, especially on the bike, but then the frustration or shame perhaps at having Falung (white people, foreign people) in your restaurant just wasn’t worth it. We’ve been turned away by many an eating place along our way, which is just very strange behaviour.

Pedalling South

Finally! Yes, it has been a long time since we’ve had our bicycle decidedly facing home, but this is it! We’ve started to ride south and won’t stop until we reach Melbourne. It seems strange, because we have been riding home from Amsterdam the whole time, but since Kyrgyzstan, we’ve been riding in circles a bit, not really on track to Melbourne.

The first day of the 155kms to Vientiane was wonderful, rolling through undulations and lush land, there was a thousand metres of climbing over this first day, but as Kat had suspected, the bus rides had made the gradients and the roads seem much more extreme than they actually were. There’s something about being saddled up on a bike that makes the hours and kilometres roll by in an agreeable fashion. What wasn’t so agreeable was witnessing our third motorbike crash. The second had been in Paksan during which one completely mangled motorbike was run over on a bridge (no lights, no doubt) and then this, the third. A girl and her younger sister, both helmetless, were the victims. Again we were alerted to it by the horrific sound of metal scraping sideways on bitumen and the dull thud of humans colliding with hard surface. The younger girl had her hands and legs skinned and was screaming in pain, the older had smacked the road hard and was spitting blood and possibly teeth, but forced them both back on the bike, shoeless, to continue the trip home or hopefully to the hospital. The collection of three thongs lying hopelessly on the tarmac as we passed stuck us, this is a common sight on the roads in Laos, lost shoes, mostly thongs. Horrifically, motorcycle accidents may be the culprit. It amazes us that people here insist on riding without helmets or any protective clothing. The day was punctuated with a few rest-and-yoga stops for Kat’s back and ended in a small town and a room complete with more lace-wing flies and bed bugs than is desirable.

The second day began fortuitously: with a handful of amazing fried bananas. Our day would be measured in fried bananas in fact, we collectively ate about 20 during the few hours roll in to Vientiane. We located a not-too-expensive hotel, and after checking in with the Thai consulate, things got messy. We discovered that even after leaving ourselves ample time to get ourselves a normal, overnight visa for our next leg in Thailand (we’d rolled in on the 29th and had to be out by the 4th) we had our well-laid plans thwarted by public holidays. Not one but two holidays around the weekend we were also straddling put us in a particularly frustrating position. It turned out that we got around it by a cat’s whisker: by extending our Laos visa for two days (at a cost) so we could pick up our Thai visa after the long, public-holiday extended weekend on Tuesday. So much for a quick, easy get away into Thailand, right?

The last days were spent meeting new friends: Akira, a Japanese man we met one evening at a Kwik-e-Mart turned out to be a wonderful man, full of surprises and stories. He did a numerology reading for us then and there and a few nights later paid for a few hours of drinks for us. He’s here volunteering for a governmental planning and building initiative and is making friends left, right and centre.

Finally, on Tuesday, a full four days after we’d planned to cross out of Laos, we were reunited with our newly visa’d passports (notably the last visa we’ll have to apply for on this trip) and rode across the Friendship Bridge to hungrily waiting Thailand.

Don’t forget to catch our film on Laos!

[vimeo id=”94099611″ width=”600″ height=”350″]

More of our Asia LP

⇒ Track 1: South Korea

⇒ Track 2: Japan

⇒ Track 3: The Philippines

⇒ Track 4: Cambodia

⇒ Track 5: Vietnam

⇒ Track 6: Laos

⇒ Track 7: Thailand

⇒ Track 8: Malaysia and Singapore

⇒ Check out our Central Asian series HERE

⇒ Try out our European series HERE