20.1.17 Vientiane, a trip down memory lane

Today we strolled around some of the sights we saw in 1999 but started the day in a coffee shop, something new. I can’t remember where backpackers and westerners would spend their time when we were last here, probably hostel bars, but they certainly would not be drinking machiatos while using free WiFi on their smartphones in stylish coffee shops. In the dark recesses of the past, I remember people would read books and chat to each other swapping travel stories. Its much easier to be introverted and aloof nowadays.

Anyway, I enjoy my machiato and sit staring into the middle distance, appearing aloof without using my smartphone. You can’t sit around stylish coffee shops all day though, especially if you’re married to Alison, who soon demands we actually do some tourism.

We walked past the Presidential palace and down the main road to the Patouxay monument, built from US cement intended for a new airport in 1969. We selfie, then are asked to be in a photo, then are asked to take photos. Its a snap happy time.

After a plate of holy basil fried chicken in a workers cafe, we walk to Pha That Luang, the most important national symbol in Laos. Eighteen years ago I took a picture of a monk sat mediating on its wall which I love enough to hang in my hall at home and I want to revisit the scene. Unfortunately, its currently covered in scaffolding so my hopes are dashed on the rocks of reality. 

We walk into a temple next door and sit quietly at the back while a ceremony unfolds under the Buddhist images. We start to feel a bit self conscious as it appears to be a monks initiation with his family attending, but as is often the case in south east Asia, an unexpected welcome gesture happens as a bloke brings us a bottle of ice cold water each. We thank him. 

We walk back into town on an unconventional route, looking at a bit of light industry as we go. It may not be top of the tourist sites but we like to see all of a country, not just the shiny bits. Learning about a foreign country isn’t just monuments, waterfalls and statues, back street life and food is also interesting to us.

We near the hostel and have another memory to revisit, a whisky related one. We previously had tried Black Horse Laos Whisky, my Dad used to work for Lloyd’s bank whose logo is a black horse, so it seemed appropriate! We found a shop which sold it for 12,000 kip or £1.20 a bottle so bought one. After a sundowner beerlao or two it was opened and swigged. The soundtrack to this whisky in 1999 was U2’s Rattle and Hum so the headphones come out and we indulge in Laos whisky and Irish blues rock. Its an understatement to say we have a good time.

OK Edge, play the blues……..

19.1.2017 Vang Vieng to Vientiane (and 21 years of happiness…..)

Another day, another bus! A later start allowed us to have breakfast of fried pancake with banana and nutella for Guy and the slightly more heart stopping nutella and peanut butter for me. We were slightly regretting not having listened to our Geordie mate and put ice in our beer last night…….but the pancakes helped!

Although we had paid for a minivan to Vientiane we were all bundled into an ancient ‘VIP’ (in name only) bus on which no seats worked, some reclined of their own accord, some were bolt upright, refusing to budge. Ours were the freely reclining variety which was unfortunate for the couple behind. There was very little complaining though. We also noticed that we were some of the youngest on the bus, the GreyPacker has really taken off here, with loads of middle aged (to clarify that is 45-65 age bracket now) backpackers spending their kids inheritance, seemingly doing it themselves.

The views out the bus window were still of a poverty stricken country but with kids laughing, smiling and having an afternoon wash in the Mekong. The roads are being created as as we trundle slowly along in our ancient, old bus avoiding the piles of aggregate and freshly smeared tarmac which would complete the road, in Laos time.

Entering Vientiane, it seemed very different to last time, there is more development and less dust, which is not surprising.  It still is very provincial looking though, not a fast food chain in sight or even a 7/11. (Although we saw an advert for Hard Rock Cafe a few days later…..not sure if it was a fake).

We are dropped off on a street about 5 min walk from our hostel, we checked in and we were delighted to see a fridge and a balcony available to us. Sunsets will be fun!

The beauty of being in a former french colony is the legacy of bakeries they left behind, this seemed a naturally sugar laden way of celebrating our 21 years of happiness together. One massive cinnamon roll, a mango crumble and 2 hot chocolates later (my request for iced chocolate falling on deaf ears) we crawled out Joma bakery and continued on our wander around this shabby, half built but wonderfully laid back city. 

A sign promising white wine for 20,000 kip (£2) drew us in, and being sensible we ordered food as well, the heart shaped falafel were delicious! 

We needed to stock up our fridge, so went to the shop for beers, laughing cow cheese and pepper salami. Oooooohhhhhhh la la! Sunset was taking place so we showed off our synchronised drinking skills and relaxed with a view over the local bank.

A walk down the Mekong was quite different, a road has been put in (although only in 2012) for traffic to cruise down the riverside, the level of the river is less (due to Chinese dams upriver) and a massive night market was in progress. Ignoring all that we went straight to food, following our noses to the smell of grilled mests, we had chicken, Laos sausages but the Som Tam we ordered never appeared, so it was a protein heavy meal, accompanied by Beerlao, obviously.  Leftovers went to a feral dog who woo’ed us with his big brown eyes.

18.1.2017 Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng 

We had an early start, 6.30am, packing in torchlight as there was no electricity. Soon enough we were in a mini van with some lanky Americans on our way to the town of Vang Vieng which we had fond memories of last time, not least because Guy had his curly locks cut off there at the most picturesque barbers ever.

It was a short 4 hour drive, although we stopped for breakfast half an hour away from Vang Vieng, so arrived at 11.15am. Our hotel was plush, with riverside view as we were avoiding the noisy, drunk, young backpacker scene. 

Vang Vieng has had a chequered history since we last visited, it was the centre of the backpacker drinking, drug taking scene which when combined with tubing, kayaking and other sports ended up in a few deaths. Eventually the government cleaned the village up and it returned to the backpacker drinking and kayaking scene, but not both together, and drugs were frowned upon.

A wander round the town made us realise that although the scenery is still stunning, karst landscape all around meant you could walk out of the village to appreciate the views, in the village it is all bars, cafes, restaurants all showing re runs of Friends, with backpackers more likely to be watching that than taking in the scenery. It is all a little Costa Del Sol, gone wrong.

The roads and streets are still dusty and being built, it is very much work in progress.  There are baguette, pancake and fruit shake sellers everywhere for the backpackers munchies cravings. To be clear, photo below is of the pancake, baguette and fruit shake seller not of a backpacker with munchies! 

There is even a 7/11 lookalike where we stopped for our first Magnum in Asia, and possibly the last as it was the same cost as plate of cheap rice n veg!

We found the barbers that Guy had his haircut last time, it has now upgraded to a beauty parlour due no doubt to Guy’s previous visit. View is still stunning.

The temperature and humidity were rising, so we stopped for shade and fruit shake, and overheard a conversation between some young Americans about an Irish bar. Well, we had to check it out, we have been to an Irish bar in every country on this trip, a fact we are very proud of. It was called Gav’s Bar, or another sign said Ger Bar and yet another sign said Gary’s Bar, you choose! As it was too early for a beer, 3pm, so we did more wandering and reminiscing. 

At 4 pm it was the right time for a beer and we went to Earth bar, to be greeted by a young lad with a soft Geordie accent. He had come here in 2007 and not left, fell in love with the country and a girl, opened a bar just by the river overlooking party island. We got prime sunset viewing seats and chatted to him, he told us about his burgers and how he had seen the cows being slaughtered, and how they gave them one last good meal before the inevitable end. Our dinner choice was made. He also advised having ice with our beer. We double checked him, ‘Are you sure you are a Geordie?’ He laughed…..

There was a sunset beer and the booming bass of party island to take in.

Then there was a beer to have on our balcony, no point in paying for a balcony and not using it, is there?

Then we needed to visit the Irish bar, I missed the last step on entering so fell in like a drunk backpacker. We sat next to some Aussie youth who were having a conversation about how over 40’s should have their own bars…….we left after one beer and I managed not to fall out of the bar like a drunk, old backpacker.

We made our way back to Earth bar, got Tree House spot, overlooking the stage and rest of the bar. We ordered the best burgers we have had on this trip and settled back feeling very relaxed (or drunk!) and enjoyed the live music.

We made our way back to our plush hotel like the aging, drunk backpackers we are, happy in the knowledge we were leaving the kids to party on!

15-17.1.17 Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is beautiful. Let’s just state that up front. 

Nestled where the Nam Khan river joins the Mekong, the green, leafy, laid back streets are decorated with French colonial buildings, Buddhist Wats, magnolia and palm trees. Young buddhist monks wander the streets in bright orange robes, using umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun. Its a pleasure to just wander around its back streets, getting lost.

The old concrete architecture has been renovated in places and now houses boutique clothing or coffee shops serving deep, rich, tar-like Lao grown coffee, accompanied by ginger bread pancakes or apple and tamarind tarts. The cafes wouldn’t look out of place in London except the palm tree-lined Mekong flows past, slow and unstoppable. Sitting and watching the river at Saffron cafe became a simple treat, like all the best things in life.

Bakeries abound, offering sugary gluten treats to those in need of a change from rice. Baguettes, croissants and cake offer a reason to pull up a chair in the shade and take a break from the sun. 

For the holidaymakers, plush spas offer massage and body treatments. For the backpackers, the Red Cross have an hour body massage for 50000 kip (£5) and your money goes directly to help fund them which soothes your conscience too.

Its a place so hazy, even the songthaew taxi drivers just shout at you without climbing down from the comfort of their drivers seats. 

We spent a few days here enjoying the ambience. The day would start twenty metres from our hostel, where a 7.30am yoga class on a wooden deck overlooked the Nam Khan river. Feral dogs would roam on the sand banks in the river, congregating and playing together like small kids. After yoga was coffee and indulgent breakfasts watching the river flow by.

Our day would be spent exploring streets, visiting Wats or museums. We enjoyed the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre where we learnt about some of the tribes in Laos and their costumes. We visited a scheme called Big Brother mouse setup to help local students practice their English with tourists. I chatted to three Hmong lads who hoped their English skills would help them find good jobs. 

In the evenings there is a night market where souvenirs are haggled over. I have to admit that of the five nights we spent here, three evening meals were Indian curry. You can take us out of England but you can’t take away chicken tikka masala.

14.1.2017 Luang Prabang

Every time we tried to get out of bed the electricity went off, so we decided we should have a lie in. 

Eventually we got up by torchlight and went to a coffee shop, Saffron Cafe, which by buying their coffee you were helping the local farmers.  I had a double expresso and Guy had a double macchiato, seriously! We sat by the Mekong river and breakfasted on a Breakfast burrito and gingerbread pancakes, surely this is the pinnacle of middle class travelling…..in Laos…….

We spent a few hours wandering around the town, it is stuffed full of boutique hotels, French colonial buildings – most of which are now hotels or cafes, Spas and handicraft shops, very different to before and a bit of a shock.

Our mission for today was to get a hostel for the next few nights, we got one which was cheaper, with a window (no more dressing by torchlight in the blackouts) and with less of a man’s urinal aroma about it. Result!

In between photographing the town we sat by the river we had a coconut and scooped out the flesh for some nutrients.

Indigo Cafe appeared in front of us, we had been recommended this bakery so dived in. We wheezed our way to the rooftop terrace and found it full of people on laptops, mute, so we went back downstairs and had a tuna, caper, dill open sandwich.  

Guy was most disappointed there was no avocado. They even had a sign to tell us middle class travellers there was no arvo.

More walking through the town, we politely declined offers of songthaw rides to the caves and waterfalls (we had done that in 1998!!) and enjoyed the sunshine. It was 30 degrees and the sky was blue.

We had a very important appointment at 4 pm with Mum and Dad for a birthday Skype, which was lovely despite a pigeon dive bombing us.

Evening descended and we managed to have a glass of red wine in hand with a cheese and salami ‘platter’.

Dinner was a repeat of last night, curry and beer. Honestly, what did you expect!

13.1.17 Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang

Today its a nine hour bus ride to Luang Prabang. We get picked up at 8am at our hostel by a songthaew which is a small pickup with two benches in the back. It drives 20 metres round a corner and we park up and wait for 20 minutes. If you think that sounds frustrating, travel in Asia may not be for you!

The person we are waiting for does not show up so we continue to the bus station where we are dropped near our mini van. Unfortunately for us, it is already full of locals so we are left with the back seats. As a kid, the back seat was cool, the place to sit, but with nine hours of potholed Laos roads ahead, it fills me with dread.

The journey starts well though with Ronan Keating crooning “you say it best when you say nothing at all” a phrase well quoted in the Roberts household, especially at the end of minor disagreements. This is a false impression of what is to come though, a brief moment of happiness before we are turned into squash balls and bounced and thrown around the inside of the van.

The roads are bad and following the rain, very muddy. We go through villages of bamboo huts with palm leaf roofing. It looks idyllic but it is for me, an unimaginable life. We turn onto a bigger road which is smoother and we bounce less. Toilet stops come and go and soon we stop for lunch over-looking a valley. 

We don’t eat but look at a selection of caged animals. Our non eating bus mates feed two monkeys some bananas but only after a degree of teasing which they enjoy.

The afternoon is spent being thrown from side to side as we twist along mountain roads with beautiful views down tropical valleys. It may be some of the best scenery we have seen on this trip. It’s heavenly and then improves as we join the Mekong which we follow into Luang Prabang. Buildings become more frequent, traffic thickens, the roads get dustier and we arrive at the southern bus station in only eight hours.

As we disembark and gather our bags a songthaew reverses up to us and we are soon on our way past French colonial buildings, through leafy, laid back streets where cafes, restaurants, spas, and boutique ethnic clothes shops soak up the last of the fading sunlight. We have gone up a level in the numbers of westerners too and there are young travellers, middle aged families and elderly tourists all enjoying the delightful Laos city.

No one is at the hostel, so a lad from the hotel next door checks us in and after a humid walk round the block and a thirst quenching cold beerlao we return to pay the hostel owner.

Tea is an Indian curry accompanied by cold beerlao at a restaurant overlooking the Mekong. Its a great moment in a trip of many.

9 – 12.1.17 Luang Namtha

We were very happy that we got a inexpensive, nice room with an en-suite in the sleepy northern Laos town. We spent four days coughing, sneezing, sweating and instead of tourism, lying in the room. Its rained a lot too.

The many local restaurants and cafes have supplied us with vegtables and rice and the BBC iPlayer has kindly supplied entertainment. I have continued to shout at my phone who can play chess better than I can.

We both feel a bit sad that we haven’t explored this laid back, friendly place but you can’t choose where you are ill.

8.1.17 JingHong, China to Luang Namtha, Laos

After four months on the road, today we head to Laos in South East Asia, where we plan to spend the winter months. This morning we realised we could meet gap year travellers born in the year we last visited Laos, eighteen years ago. Ouch!

Our seven hour journey starts at JingHong southern bus station on the 11 o’clock.  The bus looks tired with broken seats, curtains and cobwebs which we don’t mind but a group of young Laos tourists don’t like at all and they hold their noses as they board.

We drive through the delightful JingHong set on the Mekong and begin the steep ascent out of the city. After about 15 minutes a car drives past and shouts at our driver who pulls over. The car stops too and a man gets out and shouts at us before driving off. A commotion starts on the bus. The drivers mate darts out of the door followed by one of the Laos lads and I follow to see them closing the boot. The drivers mate runs off down the hill and we get back on the bus which turns around and heads back down the hill. The other passengers are stood scanning the road and I can only assume the boot was open and our luggage is strewn over the road. We catch up with the drivers mate who gets back on and we continue down the steep hill. Everyone is shouting and looking out of the windows. We have a conversation about what we would miss the most and secretly, I think Al dreams of a new wardrobe. After 10 minutes we turn around, head back up the hill and pull over at the place where we first stopped. We all pile out and check the boot and there is only one sad gap in the middle of the luggage, where a suitcase belonging to one of the Laos lads used to sit. I feel really sorry for him but he doesn’t seem bothered at all. The girls in his party do all of the negotiations with the drivers mate.

We carry on through pretty valleys on a road so new its still being built. Concrete works scar the landscape and aggregate and tarmac trucks slow our progress on hills. We go through many tunnels, one that is four kilometres long and so thick with dust that fog lights just make the dust storm seem pretty. In this tunnel, on a bend, we overtake a truck. We get diverted through thick mud, follow a truck that is emitting plumes of smoke from his engine, stop in the middle of nowhere to pick up passengers and nearly slam into a truck stopped for repairs on a hairpin bend.

At about 3pm we stop for food at Mengla. The drivers mate tells us we can’t wait on the bus but we have to go into the bus terminal, through security and wait in the departure lounge for 20 minutes. We go through and see the bus drive away. Forty minutes later the bus returns and all our bags are on the back seats. There are bunches of vegetables in the overhead compartments, under the seats and presumably in the boot.

A form is passed around and we have to complete name, nationality, gender and passport number. There are twelve of us on the bus and we are the only westerners. The drivers mate isn’t happy and we have to fill it in again as some people had done it incorrectly.

We arrive at Mohan, the Chinese border town where feral dogs with broken paws run across the road. We stop and are immediately boarded by about five money changers. We get offered a poor rate but haggle and are happy with the outcome. We walk with our hand luggage into Chinese immigration where we complete a departure card and get our exit stamp. We walk through no mans land to the Laos/China border marker for the obligatory photo then onto Laos immigration.

At the Visa on arrival desk we pick up two forms to complete and hand them back with a passport photo and $70 and our visa is quickly printed into our passport. We queue at the desk for our stamp for 30 days entry and we only take slightly longer than our Laos bus mates who are waiting by the bus outside the immigration building. It has taken no time at all though, as we have gained an hour. The whole enormity of China uses one time zone and so Laos is an hour behind.

At 4.30 we drive into Laos!

At 4.40 we stop at the customs building where the driver and his mate get off but only 10 minutes later we’re through! At no point have our rucksacks left the bus or been checked.

The roads on the  Laos side are not as complete and progress is slower. We wait at one point for a giant roller to compact dirt before we drive over it. The bumpy road twists through low green hills and the sun drops adding an orange tinge. We pass small villages of wooden huts where kids chase after chickens in scenes very different from those we saw on the other side of the border. There is a sign for a golden triangle checkpoint which tourists were discouraged from visiting eighteen years ago. 

At 7pm we arrive in Luang Namtha, only 2 hours late and we’re dropped at our hostel. Our rucksacks are passed through the bus window.

The hostel recommend a place to eat and although we are both tired and ill, we have to toast our return to a country we loved so much.