Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Four thousand islands destressing

There are borders that are rivers [Laos, Thailand] and there are borders that are mountain ranges [Laos, Vietnam] but, at the southernmost tip of Laos, the border with Cambodia is formed by a band of waterfalls. Across the falls and upriver from them is an array of islands, numbering up to 4,000 if you count the very smallest of them, amongst which the Mekhong laces its way. But, on reaching the falls, the river ceases to be useful as a waterway: to overcome this, the French colonial authorities built a railway [the only one completed in Laos] from a jetty on one island [Don Det] across that island, over an elegant bridge, across another island [Don Khon] to a jetty below the falls where goods could be loaded again for the route downriver to Saigon. The islands are quietly rural, growing rice, kapok, coconut palms, teak and hosting tourists [mainly backpackers] in stilted huts along the water's edge. Here they occupy hammocks and watch the river and its traffic while time slips by with the current's flow. It's a beguiling place, a little like Bali was 35 years ago but without that island's dramatic beauty of landscape and culture. Here the charm is in living among small-scale farmers, chickens, ducks and pigs underfoot, cows and water buffalo nearby, cycling along sandy paths, exploring the rural landscape and life and the relics of colonial history - and slowing down.

As backpacker hotspots go, this place is mild and inoffensive - no video bars showing The Simpsons, for example - and just a short walk from the landing beach on Don Det takes you past the thick of it and the places to stay become more spaced out until it's unsullied riverbank again. Later, as DonKhon and the railway bridge heave into view, a few more places to stay appear and then, on the next island, something like a road [what a shock!] and some more upmarket guesthouses. Most places are just $3 for a simple room, a hammock and a stunning view, but for two nights we splashed [ha!] out on a floating room on a bamboo raft - which sank perceptibly in the brief while we were there. Otherwise, the first and last places were similar in many ways but the last was in a quieter, prettier and more remote location.

Every paradise, in my experience, has its devil [packs of dogs and murderous undertow in Bali, I remember] but here the worst we've found so far was a Temple Fair that went on at deafening volume through all of one night just across the river. Whether or not this can count as 'reculer pour mieux sauter', the unwinding here has been good after the rigours [such as they were] of travel through Laos [and Vietnam]. It's also good to step back for a spell before facing the uneasy implications of entering a country just a few kilometres away that was for some years in the late 1970s the scene of the most widespread and brutal reign of genocidal terror that this area has ever seen. And the world rarely. The knowledge of that having happened so close at hand is perhaps one devil in this gentle, slow-paced, mellow paradise.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Mekhong sunsets

Heading south down the handle of the pan that is Laos, you first reach Tha Khaek, literally "Guests' Landing" - the guests being Thais and others crossing the Mekhong from the west. Faded French colonial buildings, some in the last stages of decomposition, add a certain j.n.s.q. to an otherwise faded post-colonial town. Had to do another trek, for comparison at least, south versus north, well versus sick. In the final analysis, north easily beats south (for dramatic changes of angle, primary forest and ethnic riches) and well of course wins out - but I'd rather have been sick when walking through flat sandy scrub between the sights of the area - caves, springs, strange lakes, rapids (and the required visit overnight stay) and traded it for being well while exploring the hilly forests of the north and the hill tribes who know how to have fun.

Savannakhet could perhaps be translated as the "fringes of heaven" but, as it was, it repeated Tha Khaek on a more condensed scale and with more atmosphere. Another Thai town faced it across the water - Mukdahan, not Nakorn Phanom, and another sunset lit up the golden temple roofs across the mighty Mekhong. After alarums and excursions at the border, (sent back in disgrace to get the full tally of stamps from Immigration), J made it into town a day late and so a day late to travel on the Pakse. This began today at 7.30 leaving the hostel and should have got us safely to Pakse by 1 p.m. or so but the bus had a puncture on the rear offside tyre (not a first for me) and aggravated our accommodation problems on arrival.

Pakse ditto on the Mekhong and ditto sunset this evening - but this time the land across the water is still Laos as it widens out approaching Cambodia. There was another, but much larger, temple festival south of town which wound up today (we missed the climax by 24 hours). As a result, everywhere was booked out and for her birthday J is having to share one of the most basic rooms we have yet encountered. Tomorrow south to the 4000 islands where the Mekhong meets Cambodia and where Irrawaddy Dolphins play. Radio silence then until Cambodia so this is me signing off for a while.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

All the fun of the fair!

I've escaped the cold into the mellow warmth of the South. It is less interesting scenically or ethnically but at least the danger of frostbite has receded. Tha Khaek is nothing special ditto the room but ....

... today was the first day of a temple fair some 6 km out of town. So I hired a bike (good move) and pedalled out through straggling ends of town then rice fields and then spent the day watching the set up, eating grilled fish and som tam, watching girls and boys takraw (3-person team, volleyball rules but heads and feet only permitted) also conventional volleyball and football, lots of stalls (mainly plastic tat!), ferris wheel and DODGEMS! The last was really excellent: I went on three times and the years just fell away!

The atmosphere was so relaxed and people so friendly. The guy on the dodgems disco had fun making fun of me in Lao and broken English and as the sun set over the temple on the edge of the Mekhong I turned for home with a warm glow.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Old dogs unlearn old tricks

As someone keen on route planning, I'd be expected to do better than this. One basic rule is, surely, "In winter, start from the south and work north slowly". It's what I did right in India (second time) so why was lured like so many others by the prospect of down-river trips (in this area mostly north to south, some west to east) to take the clockwise route through Laos and Cambodia (basically, north to south)? Cambodia is going to be baking in March while Northern Laos, now bitter, is more likely to be mellow. In February, Cambodia has been a bearable 30 odd while here it's well below 10!

So what now? Head south!

Route planning in the north of Laos is hard enough with the roads running for French colonial convenience across the country to Vietnam (west-east) and very few indeed north-south. Those tracks that do exist are pretty basic but, with better weather, I had a route plan which ended by bypassing Vientiane entirely by using one of the most challenging of them. Now, however, I'm facing a straight run through the night to Vientiane and on from there on the 15th Feb. I passed up on the 8 a.m. bus because it would have delivered me into the capital at midnight. I hope the 2 p.m. bus will carry me through the night and arrive at dawn. Hopefully, that's one old trick still remembered: "reculer pour mieux sauter"!

Happy Valentines everyone!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Fascinated AND freezing: a big ask!

The days of the trek were hot, hot; the day of R&R was tepid but today, as I set out for Muang Sing in an exposed-sided vehicle, it got colder and colder.

The road wound upwards beside a series of rivers and away from degraded forest deeper and deeper into the real thing. At its best, the untouched (literally virgin) forest has such texture and variety, including a range of colours, not just shades of green but all sorts of hues from many flowering trees - that the beauty is heart-aching if you consider it's doomed. Still, for now, it's amazing.

Arrival in Muang Sing, had I been in possession of a working circulatory system, would have been fascinating, particularly for the diversity of peoples living there, from the Akha, literally in the dirt, squatting round small log fires (a lot of that today) through many racial or tribal affiliations to the Chinese strutting around as if they ... well maybe they think they do. And such a range of buildings, styles, functions, faiths. The location is at one of those hidden crossroads of Asia, in this case where Burma, China and Laos come together and it had its historic role as one stop on the China Road. A place to visit in the warm, but not today. I turned round twice, had a quick, late breakfast and was on the next pick-up down the hill to Luang Nam Tha again - but not before I'd dug out some serious extra clothing. And then, pausing only to change some money, onto the next ordinary bus down to Udomxai. When I began that leg, I had every intention of following my itinerary, exploring various points in Northern Laos but it only seemed to get colder, though lower and a bit further south - and so if it's as cold tomorrow as it is today, it'll be the bus straight to Vientiane and then the next one out and south, south, south. Ironically, J left Vientiane this evening, heading for Hanoi, which - reportedly - is colder still. We might be meeting up earlier than expected.

Watch this space.

Meanwhille, England is having something of a heat-wave, or so I hear. Hmm!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Sick and sixty? Don't go trekking!

Anyway I survived!

One went south to Vang Vieng and now Vientiane, to try to get a visa and flight to Vietnam: the other, preferring to explore Laos more fully, went north, to Luang Nam Tha. The bus from Luang Prabang was eventful in terms of disintegrating tyres - one shedding tread, another throwing a puncture shortly before the end of our journey, leaving us arriving well after dark, in a bus station 12 km out of town. (When I asked why, it was a convoluted tale of vested interest - the tuk-tuk drivers and the landowner - and grand ambitions for the expansion of the town, now only one main drag and a few side streets).

Perhaps too keen to make the best use of my time I booked a trek for the next day when I could instead have just hung out and seen the last day of a Black Thai festival. It wasn't clear then that I was ill and really the only negatives as the trek began were a slightly gripy stomach. By lunch, I didn't feel like eating anything and was beginning to feel a bit weak. I'll spare you all (!) the details of the symptoms: suffice to say that the guides plied me with oral rehydration salts and kept me going. By the end of the second day I could hardly drag myself along, any uphill section being more and more impossible.

Anyway, for a fit person, the trek would have been good - plenty of varied scenery and terrain, enough info on the forest and the people living in it, vivid examples as we passed of the threats to the forest from the hill-tribes cutting and burning (they can be fined say $500 but they have no money with which to pay, living as they do at subsistence level) and an interesting overnight stay in an Akha village. Iron Age meets I-pod age: the kids were fascinated by South Park on antiny screen but then they were also amazed by the marine iguanas pictured on my T-shirt!

Up here in the far top-left of Laos, the Chinese influence is tangible and maybe ominous. Such a large and populous neighbour to such an underpopulated and weak little state! It won't be a re-run of Tibet, I suppose, but a slow case of economic infiltration and who's to stop it?

My next move depends largely on J's luck with Vietnamese plans. If she is sucessful, I will have time to explore more of northern Laos before heading south to the 4000 islands region. If not, it could be a quick dash south via Thailand to the southern tip of Laos and then Cambodia.

LATER, Next day ...

A day of rest and careful eating has put me back in the right direction. Last night I missed out some details that bear repeating:

The trekking party of eight (maximum) was made up of two couth Australians from Melbourne (a great contrast to some Aussie Yahoos we have encountered) who rather disapproved of the gang of five - three US girls (around 20 y-o, volunteers in China) who specialised in singing in the forest but also entertaining hill tribes kids, and their attachments, a Swedish photographer and a Frenchman, who finally decided on the trek which of the remaining two US girls he was interested in! And our guide, a Black Thai (tribal definition not dress code) was barely 4 foot tall and the girls couldn't resist trying to list Snow White's diminuitive companions and discussing which one he might be. (If there had been a Chirpy among Snow White's Seven, it would have been him.) I am going to attach a photo of him bending over the fire, which doesn't really show his size but indicates the English football team he (possibly) favours - that or the part of the anatomy where the garment belongs: take your pick. (As you see, I am getting better.)

[The picture of the forest above shows the patchwork of primary forest and cleared or secondary forest typical of the trek zone - despite it being in a National Protected Area.]

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Wheels meet straps in Luang Prabang

The tourist world can perhaps be fairly divided into those who trolley their baggage along behind them on little wheels and those who hoist a Bunyan-like burden onto their backs, attached with straps. Both types merge and overlap in Luang Prabang. The wheelers fly in from Bangkok, Vientiane, Chiang Mai and elsewhere in propeller-driven aircraft: the strappers arrive by land and river. In this charming town, they join into a stream of humankind flowing along roads and alleys, among cafes and markets and off on treks and excursions. There are more strappers in the food market and more wheelers in the chic restaurants overlooking the Mekhong but, for example, on today's trek and kayaking trip (excellent btw, especially the kayaking, white water and all) we strappers met and thoroughly enjoyed the company of a New Jersey couple who had just flown in and were next off to Bangkok, Siem Reap (for Angkhor Wat) and Bhutan!! And these are American liberals who agree that the last 8 years have been a living nightmare for all right (left) thinking Americans. And in our hotel - at $25 a night hardly a bank buster - very few of the clients carry their bags on their backs and yet the wheelers don't seem to eat children for breakfast.

Why/how is Luang Prabang so charming? Location: remote, among forested hills, between two rivers (one being one of "the great rivers of Asia"); character: Northern Lao mixed with French colonial, untouched (largely) by local wars, unspoilt by OTT developments (i.e. nearly all buildings just 2 stories and all new ones must be); facilities: most of what a travelling westerner might seek plus a variety of activities both cultural and recreational. If you knew or can imagine Chiang Mai 30 - 35 years ago but with curbs on buildings and transport (no large vehicles in centre, for example) and add the grace and charm of the Lao (and a flavour of old colonial France), you have it.

And yes it is hard to leave! I could blame sore arms and wet clothes post-kayaking, but in reality I could be leaving for Luang Nam Tha and northern trekking tomorrow but I've put if off for one more day. Also, I could plead, it's one more day for the weather pattern associated with the blizzards in China to move away ..... As it is, I can't believe the place will ever be as charming again, with a new Chinese-Lao airport project in train which will allow much bigger planes to land - and then how will this place cope? Another golden-egg-laying goose slaughtered? Let's hope not!

The picture is of a little girl in a village deep in the countryside we passed through on our trek today. No TV or electricity but a school with two teachers and, apart from passing tourists, at least two flourishing handicrafts operations. The girl was completely oblivious of us but was engrossed in playing with the simplest of toys - something like two round stones set on an axle.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Battle of Backpack Hill

It's one of those hotspots on the backpack circuit and the reason why people choose the clockwise route round here: the 2-day slow boat down the "mighty Mekhong" from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. I should have read the signs long before bit it wasn't really until the morning, with the boat being loaded well beyond capacity, that it began to look as if "pleasure trip" wouldn't be a description for the experience. Eventually, the numbers of encumbered westerners trudging down to the quay prompted capituation: a second boat was made available and we started downriver - thoroughly late of course -with two pretty full boats but with most of the luggage (almost exclusively backpacks) piled high on ours. I confess that with age I get more anxious but my worries were about getting a seat at the start, getting a room at the end. The real drama of the day I hadn't foreseen.

The trip unfolded with minor and major incidents, including the second boat breaking down and its occupants transferring to the third craft of the day. The scenery was beautiful and the river varied, with interest too from the various tribespeople living along the shore. But the benches were hard and upright, except for reclining bus-type seats for the lucky few - and a six-hour spell was perhaps 2 hours too long. As it was, with the delays and incidents, we didn't reach Pak Beng, our overnight stop, until sunset, which is of course very sudden in the tropics. Twilight, what twilight?

Given the number of travellers, and the small size of Pak Beng, our strategy was for J to go ahead with her day bag to get a bed for the night while I retrieved the big bags. We had been warned in the guidebook of the local boys who would seize the bags and extort a ransom for their release - so it was not a total surprise that, as we pulled in, the boat was besieged by a boarding party of boys between 8 and 13. By the time I got to the stern, it was pitch dark and our boat were hemmed in on both sides by other boats. Visible only by random torchlight, the huge pile of bags (luggage for most of the 130) was covered by a seething horde of young bodies, heaving bags back and forth with no obvious system but apparently intent in removing trophies off onto the boats on either side. Some knowledge of Thai came in useful to shout something meaningful at the boys and call for the captain to clear them out - to some effect. The bigger boys were still delighting in hurling bags around with no apparent thought to contents or system. Luckily there was another westerner to hand, a Canadian as it turned out, and I shouted to him for help in making a chain to pass the bags forward up the boat while I set about grabbing bags out of the pile, wrenching them from the hands of the boys, eating away at the tumbled hill of backpacks. I really had a surge of frenetic energy as I passed out virtually all the bags one by one along the chain until I finally saw mine , grabbed it, and got it onto my back alongside my day bag - but J's pack was not to be found among the few squashed and mangled bags that remained strewn around the Battlefield almost like corpses. The Battle was virtually over and travellers whose bags had not been passed out could come in and pick over the dead and dying that remained. Fortunately, J's bag had been one I had passed out in my flurry of adrenaline ... and somehow with the remnants of that rush I slung it onto my front and staggered and clambered out of the boat and up the bank to where J waited. In the space of one short battle, she'd been to the far end of the village, perhaps 500 metres, checked several rooms, chosen one and done the necessary before coming back down the the jetty.

Unsurprisingly, the second day, although longer, had little incident once a rabble of stoned-out Aussies had been winkled from their beds and we were able to start some hour or so late. Still, we got to Luang Prabang just in time for Jackie to find a room before it got totally dark. As it turns out, today is the first day of Chinese New Year so there's more pressure than ever on rooms here. It's a beautiful town, now World Heritage listed, and another tourist honeypot.

On the boat we met a French couple working in China full of stories of the recent blizzards and the total transport snarl-up over the New Year with power lines down and trains not running. Apparently a million people were waiting for trains in the centre on Kwangchou (spelling?) and were being fed by the army. Compared to nightmares on that scale, the Battle of Backpack Hill rates not a mention. Still, I think that for me the priority will be to seek even more carefully for the road less travelled. That's not to say, however, that Angkhor Wat is off the itinerary. Sometimes the crush is worth the hassle. I hope.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

No time for literary flights of fancy - just an update

I last left you en route north from Trang to Chieng Rai via Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I'm now in Huey Xai, having crossed into Laos from Chiang Khong this afternoon (Sat Feb 2)

Bangkok was impressive, especially to one who had known it in days of traffic jams, pollution, incompetence and general disorder. Now as well as the skytrain, there's a metro - can this be a good idea in a city so close to sea level and so prone to flooding? Anyway they work a treat and help keep the roads clear and the buses that remain, smooth-running and relatively empty. Of course, the place was still dirty (check your fingernails after a couple of hours and see!). Jim Thompson's Thai House was still well worth a visit and the canal beyond now relatively clean and a major urban thoroughfare.

Another overnight train and we arrived in Chiang Mai and immediately escaped to Chiang Rai by bus. We found a secluded guest house by the river, run by hilltribes people, and started to unwind. Lots of good Thai food in the market - sit in the middle and order from a range of different stalls. The guest house also had a branch in the hills outside town in a hill tribes village and we went up there for two nights. I'll try and upload an image of the huge spider that was claiming squatters' rights in our bathroom. Unfortunately, the weather turned against us and it was wet and cold but still serene and calm.

Down now at river level and in the returning sunshine things are warmer. Tomorrow Jackie is heading for Luang Prabang by riverboat while I'm considering risking a trip into the northern hills before meeting up again. Maybe in Luang Prabang my literary muse will return but no promises!