21 February 2009
Viang Vieng, Laos
18° 55' 33.66" N
102° 26' 45.16" E


What a couple of weeks we've had. Totally exhausting. I'm really glad we got the visa before leaving Thailand - there were 3 French people on the bus who hadn't bothered and they had to offload their backpacks and make their own way from the border into town, which may just qualify as the most expensive 20km trip in the world.

Vientiane, the Laos capital city is very odd, almost like a French town in so many ways. It's totally full of Europeans, about half of whom are tourists and the rest working for the UN or various NGO's. For such a small country with such a small population (about 6 million) there seems to be a lot of charity work going on. I was a bit surprised that we were able to get relatively fast internet connections almost everywhere we've been so far. I have my worries about the computer though - it's been overheating for about a year but is getting seriously hot now and my iPhone may be on it's way out as it's only holding it's charge for about a day rather than a week if I don't use it.

We stayed at a beautiful and brand new boutique hotel in Vientiane for a few days, but they wouldn't move on price, even though they were just about empty and we were talking about staying for another week. Peter found a not quite so new but better located guest house with very fast cable internet rather than WiFi so I was in heaven - strongly recommend this place to anyone staying in Vientiane - the Thawee Guesthouse. We saw a poster on the door advertising the annual Elephant Festival. We hadn't intended to head that way, but it sounded too good to miss. Following my previous boasting, I've had a couple of falls, so prepared myself for the journey with enough muscle relaxant to keep the leg cramps at bay. Unfortunately, this medication turns me into a zombie for a couple of days if I take a full tablet, but I didn't really have much choice as the journey was going to be horrendous - overnight trip on a rickety bus on partially unsealed roads. We made a toilet stop about half way, I don't remember a great deal about it but I do remember squat rather than western toilets - no problem, I'm quite used to them now, but I couldn't get up. I was grabbing hold of something on one wall and the door handle with the other hand, but every time I got about half way up down I went again - at least I had the sense not to go down in the direction of the toilet. Too much muscle relaxant maybe? I have no idea, but this was odd because it was my upper rather than lower legs that were giving out. I was stuck there for about 10 minutes, up and down, before Peter sent someone looking for me - fortunately he was able to climb over the top of the cubicle, pick me up and unlock the door and carry me out. I was then showered in kindness. On the bus there was a South Korean nurse, who checked out my cuts and grazes and dressed them, then Lyanne, a masseuse from Viang Vieng came forward and massaged my legs and feet until I could walk - albeit with Peter and Lyanne almost carrying me back to the bus. We caught up with her a here yesterday - literally bumped into her in the street, and I've had a couple of emails from her now. It goes to show that there is a lot of kindness out there. Also helping me were 2 more South Koreans who spoke perfect English, and who were doing their national service as a UN peacekeeper and teacher respectively. There was also the legendary Sangjin Park, yet another South Korean who is a teacher at the university at Sayaboury, basketball coach, swimming coach and known to everyone in Laos I think. He spoke fluent Laotian as well as English. Peter was talking to someone wanting to practice their English the other day and he mentioned Sangjin Park - the guy was blown away that we knew him, and even more so when Peter rang him on the mobile phone and put him on so he could speak to him. Made his day.

So, to Sayaboury and the Elephant festival. Things are still a bit hazy both from the muscle relaxant and the super-dooper pain killers - I did some serious hurty to my back by falling up and down in the toilet - but on arrival we were shepherded to the village hall where for the grand price of 30,000 Kip (A$5 or a couple of quid) each per night we were billeted to Mr Toey's house. Sayaboury doesn't have hotels or guesthouses, just families willing to put up people coming for the festival, pot luck where you get, but did we get good for our 3 nights. Mr Toey and his family treat us just like we were a part of it. We were thrown in right at the deep end. There were kids ranging in age from 7 to early 20's - the younger ones ran riot the whole time we were there.

Mr Toey and his wife had a full blown row, probably about him sneaking off drinking with Peter, and I was convinced she was going to hit him with something big and hard and kill him. The whole elephant festival is too blurry for me to remember much of it, I can't remember the monks blessing the pachyderms, or the elephant beauty competition, but there are some great photographs. On the last night, Peter and Mr Toey sneaked out for one last drink (or two) but fate was to intervene. The first place they went to, one of the younger kids showed up and before they knew what was happening, the good lady was on the way. They spotted her and took off before she could get to them. They ran through a field and dirt patch and found a roadside stall with cold beer. Before they had finished the first beer, the lady who ran the stall got a call on her mobile phone - someone had seen them and reported back to base; Peter said he could hear the screeching coming through the phone from where he was sitting. It was so funny. For hours, they were sneaking here and there managing to keep just a few steps ahead of a very unhappy and agro wife. We had a marvelous time - it really was great. The family had so little, but never had a meal without asking us to join them, and the 60,000 Kip per night was obviously spent on beer, which seemed to be in an endless supply. From Sayaboury we went to Luang Prabang and stayed there for a few days - it's a beautiful town with UNESCO World Heritage listing, so hopefully it will stay that way. The bus was almost full, but we got lucky and Peter sat next to a lady who had a guesthouse with her French husband which was as good as she had claimed and one of the few in town with free Wi-Fi. It really was a lovely place, and we've met up with Andy, staying in the room next to us who has ridden his BMW Dakar trial bike from England. Sounds really interesting, going through the middle east and India but it was too hard to get through Burma so he had the bike shipped from Nepal to Bangkok.

He and Peter did some running repairs to the bike, and hopefully we'll catch up with him in Chiang Mai which is our next stop and we'll be settling in for a couple of months. Andy has a friend there with a fairly good workshop and Peter is looking forward to getting his hands dirty for the first time in a couple of years. We came from Luang Prabang to Viang Vieng and were lucky to have found a fantastic little guesthouse with a really friendly young couple running it. They had the most adorable toddlers imaginable, and again, whenever we passed by and they were sitting down to a meal, we were invited to join them. We've met up with Andy again here, and he's hooked up with Amy, a Kiwi on her way to China for work.

The boys have been out tubing - a pub crawl using tractor tyre inner tubes down the river rather than bothering to walk. Amy said it was great fun but it's all a bit too much for my back, I'm afraid. Especially the flying fox type things - even the photographs are scary. We're heading back to Vientiane tomorrow for a few days, then back into Thailand - not sure where, we'll have to see where the buses from Vientiane are going to. We haven't been able to co-ordinate flights, and it looks like Roshan isn't going to India now, which is a real shame - India is going to be hard work, and having someone who speaks the language (not to mention the fact that he's a man-monster therefore a personal body guard) would make things so much easier. Laos has been OK, but it'll be good to get back into Thailand. The local food isn't all that good (with the exception of some amazing sausages) although the western meals at restaurants, which we've been having a fair few of, are a quite a bit cheaper than in Thailand. The people seem less jaded and more friendly towards tourists - sex tourism is strictly off the radar here, and Laos women get into big trouble if they are found in the company of a westerner (he just gets fined and deported), so they probably haven't seen the ugly type of tourist which makes Thai's dislike us westerners so much. And we discovered Beer Lao which is probably the nicest I've ever had. I'm not a beer drinker; don't like the taste, but this is really nice and refreshing. For those in England, beer of course means lager everywhere in the world except the UK, rather than the mad man's broth going by the name of bitter or best that we know as beer. Confused? You will be.