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L A O S

30.05.2011, 21:45   ---   Sabaidee

My first two days in Laos I spent on a so-called Slowboat. From the border I headed down the Mekong River along with plenty other travellers and a few locals. The river itself is just ugly, dirty and brown, but the beautiful landscape around it easily makes up for that. The Mekong winds through dense green rainforests, past some little villages, locals take a bath in the water, wash dishes, do their laundry, fishermen casting their nets… while on board there’s plenty of time to enjoy all these impressions with a cold beer. We spent the night in Pakbeng, a simple line-up of guest houses, and the next day we faced another 8-hour boat ride until we got to Luang Prabang. That were two totally relaxed days and especially way more comfortable than a bus!

Luang Prabang is a nice little town, which somehow managed to keep its calm and original character, even though it seems to be on every traveller’s itinerary.
Situated right in the town centre is a little hill with the temple Phu Si on top. The temple is everything but spectacular, but even more so is the fabulous view over the town from up there. Together with two others I went up there for the sunset, which made it even better – simply amazing!
The next morning we took the chance to witness a stunning Buddhist tradition: Buddhist monks solely live of alms from the public and each morning at around half past five they walk through town in order to collect food. Many people are sitting and waiting along the street with food and then hundred of monks walk past in their orange robes. And instead of just watching them we also bought some rice and bananas to give it to the passing monks. A great moment!
Apart from the mentioned there’s not much to do in Luang Prabang, but not far away is the Kouang Si Waterfall, a series of big and small falls plunging into many pools and lots of opportunities to refresh from the tropical heat. The biggest of all pools is even deep enough to jump from the rocks or to swing down from a tree on a long rope. :-)

That’s about it for my first days in Laos and I gotta say I already love this country! Beautiful landscape, delicious food and extremely friendly people. Not even the Thais can keep up with the Lao! “Sabaidee” everybody’s calling with friendly smiling faces and one seems to be honestly welcome.  


01.06.2011, 10:30   ---   Shadows of the war  

Who would’ve expected Laos to bet he heaviest bombed country in the world? Sad but true, during the Vietnam War the US Army dropped bombs of more than 2 million tons over Laos , because they expected Vietnamese troops hiding there and also to destroy transit routes. The worst affected area is Xieng Khuang Province around Phonsavan, where I’ve spent the last days. And like the bombings alone wouldn’t have been terrible enough, also about 30% of the bombs failed to detonate. Almost 40 years after the war tons and tons of UXO (unexploded ordnance) still make this area a dangerous environment for the locals. At the same time it causes wide-spread poverty among the people as there are too few safe fields to grow enough food and in the end people even have to plough dangerous new land. Every year many people get badly injured or killed by bombs and also house and street constructions are high-risk affairs. The clearance work is continuously making progress, but it will still take more than 100 years until the people can live here safely again.
Only few travellers come to this area of Laos , and those who take the journey don’t come for the bombs, but for the Plain of Jars, only a few kilometres from Phonsavan. At several different places there are huge stone jars of unknown age, each one weighs between 600kg and 6 tons and their purpose is still a mystery. Several theories and myths exist, from urns and burial ceremonies to victory parties of giants which are believed to have lives there. The truth will probably never be found out. Marked trails to the three biggest jar sites are cleared of bombs by now and make it possible to visit these unique places, which gives the locals new and badly needed work opportunities. A registration as World Heritage Site would help to increase the tourism, but before that will happen the Plain of Jars has to be completely safe and cleared of bombs.  


06.06.2011, 21:00   ---   Spicy

In good company it’s always surprising how fast time passes, just like in Vang Vieng. The Spicy Backpackers was full of great people and so at check-out today I had to notice that I stayed much longer than planned…
Vang Vieng is a little town which sadly doesn’t have much left of the lao flair. Instead it’s cramped with bars and guest houses, you get the best sandwiches in the world, the menus are full with western food and the bars are showing all episodes of Friends and Family guy from early morning till late. And even the nationwide curfew from 23:30 o’clock doesn’t seem to exist.
Most people don’t even notice the picturesque landscape all around… Mountains, rainforests, green rice patties and lots of caves. Along with Johannes, a German guy that I met in Luang Prabang, I rented mountain bikes to explore the area on our own. Only a few minutes away from the town centre we found ourselves right back in the familiar Laos , we climbed a mountain to enjoy the views from up there and finally went to the Blue Lagoon. It’s indeed nice and blue and especially a welcome refreshing bath in the heat. We also explored one of the many caves right next to it, which was really bizarre! Even though quite unspectacular and bright in the beginning it turned out to lead surprisingly deep into the mountains. It took us about half an hour to reach the end of the cave, past incredible rock formations and when we switched off our torches it was as pitch black all around us as I’ve never seen it anywhere else before. Not even the slightest ray of light got there, a very strange feeling… but so cool! :-)
The biggest attraction in Vang Vieng though is the tubing. You rent a large air-filled tube, they take you a few kilometres up the river from where you float back to town past heaps of bars along the shoreline. So you spend the day pretty much with buckets of alcohol, drinking games and free shots, many bars have water slides and swings and it’s just a massive party! Well, people in Laos apparently have never heard of our European safety standards and sadly injuries (and even yearly deaths) are not uncommon. Luckily we all made it safely and the next day we only had to cope with the extremely resistant spray paint, some mysterious bruises (I just got rid of the last ones…) and a hangover. ;-)


10.06.2011, 22:30   ---   Hit the road Jack  

After a short stop-over in the overpriced Capital Vientiane I went to Tha Khek. And I didn’t take just any bus, but the fanciest and most comfortable one I’ve ever travelled with! Well, but even the nicest bus can break down and so we had to kill our time in the middle of nowhere, while the driver tried to fix it and the scruffy local buses drove past.
Eventually we made it to Tha Khek and the next day I took off again for a scooter-tour together with Britt, Fredi, Lena and Tore (we met on the bus). Nobody cares about a driver’s licence, we got a 5-minute instruction including a short test drive and off we went to the Kong Lo Cave about 200 km from Tha Khek. The road led through beautiful scenery, past little villages, the kids along the road excitedly waved at us and were happy like little kings when we waved back, the adults were working hard on the rice fields… We spent the night in a small village and the next morning we left quite early for the Kong Lo Cave. With a length of 7 km it’s the biggest cave in Laos and absolutely breath-taking. With little boats we drove inside, the reflexion of the water makes it look even bigger, the huge stalagmites are glowing in the spotlights… beautiful!!
Three hours later we were back on our bikes. Fredi, Lena and Tore headed in a different direction, while Britt and I took the direct way back to Tha Khek to catch the next night bus. We came through very well as we knew the way now and also didn’t have to take the planned rain-break. And then: BAM – a puncture! Of course there was no village anywhere in sight and so there was nothing else to do than flagging down the next bus. In a matter of minutes they loaded my scooter on the roof, Britt followed on her scooter and at the next garage they dropped me off. The tyre was quickly fixed and off we went again. But it didn’t last all too long… only 10 km farther the tyre was flat again, this time at least not far from the next garage. For less than 3 USD I got a brand new tube and finally we could make it back without any more problems!

At night Britt and I left Tha Khek, this time on a local bus, which was pretty much the complete opposite to our fancy VIP bus on the last journey! Old and rickety, everything was shaking, holes in the windows, non-existent suspension, the aisle fully loaded to the back with various goods and only Asian-sized legroom (definitely not fitting for tall Europeans!). But we were so tired from the last days that we couldn’t be bothered and fell asleep straight away. Now we are at Don Det, a little island in the very South of the country. Yes, an island! Laos is not by the sea though, but the Mekong is so wide down here that there’s easily enough room for over 4000 islands. Today we simply haven’t done anything! We were just lazy, chilled in the sun, read, slept… nothing exciting, but extremely relaxing! :-)


15.06.2011, 10:15   ---   Bye bye Laos

At first sight Don Det disappointed me a little. I don’t know why, but for some reason I had the picture of beaches and clear water in my mind… but the Mekong is just as ugly brownish as elsewhere of course and the only beach we found was anything but inviting for a sunbath. But once we got over the first disappointment we were actually very glad that we went there! The whole atmosphere at the island is so unbelievably relaxed, laid-back and peaceful, the few locals in the villages live their daily routine and no traffic apart from very few tuk-tuks and scooters. After our busy day of doing nothing Britt and I rented two bicycles and cycled to the neighbouring island of Don Khon (across a connecting bridge of course ;-) ), went to a fantastic waterfall, slurped a fresh coconut and – what a surprise – relaxed quite a lot again. :-)

Next day Britt took the bus to Bangkok and I went to Tat Lo, a little village off the beaten tourist tracks, comfortable cool climate, once again amazing locals and a few pretty waterfalls. One evening when I lay in my hammock in front of the bungalow watching a movie on my netbook, all of a sudden there was a bunch of little kids all around me curiously staring on the screen. Well, “Brüno” is maybe not all that suitable for children… so I quickly switched to a harmless Walt Disney and the kids were totally stoked.

My time in Laos is already over now and I’m sitting on my bus to Vietnam . This country with its ease and serenity is definitely one of my favourites so far, landscape-wise absolutely stunning, the locals incredibly open-hearted, friendly, laid-back and authentic and even the cows on the streets are more relaxed than anywhere else – I’m curious what’s awaiting me in Vietnam !

   

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