Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Glamour-kayaking on the Nam Ha river, Northern Laos

Wow kayaking was magical. Yet again I felt transported to a real-life fairground where dreams are realised.

I arrived at the trekking agency all glammed up in my 1950's swimsuit with matching sarong, over-sized sunglasses and a smattering of warm clothing. Needless to say I got some strange looks, but if I'm to run a vintage stall in Affleck's Palace I need to keep up appearances. In stark contrast my kayaking companions, looking like they'd just stepped out of a dire Decathlon advertisement, who boasted about huge river rapids in Tibet, capsizing on the mighty Mekong, blah blah blah. I must admit it was then I started to regret having told my guide that I'm a keen kayaker; I wasn't so sure a gentle paddle on the sea measures up to grade 3 river rapids. I had a helmet and life jacket (much to my dismay as it ruined the Fifties moviestar look I was attempting) so what could go wrong?

Absoutely nothing. Fortunately for me as it's dry season the rapids weren't too scary, in fact in parts we had to wade as the water was so low. I must admit I didn't do too much wading, I left that to my wonderful guide Pon. The reason for this was not that I didn't want to get wet and ruin my outfit, but for the fact that I didn't have appropriate shoes to get out into the water (the day before I'd sustained a rather nasty graze on my perfectly-pedicured little toe). My seemingly unsuitable outfit was actually far more appropriate than any outdoor getup as it dried off in the sun far quicker than those silly slacks where you can zip off the bottoms to reveal a pair of even more hideous shorts. They are surely the most unfashionable clothing invention ever, apart from the awful fishmen's pants which you see every other traveller wearing. Yes I know the trouser-come-shorts are designed for practicality not catwalk glamor, but rather smugly I can report that my companions were kayaking in cold, wet clothing the next day, whereas I was dry as a bone.

Anyway I digress, back to the kayaking. The scenery was incredible - traditional village life was taking place in a spectacular mountainous backdrop as we meandered along the clear waters of the river. We saw young boys fearlessly spear fishing, rugged fishermen huddled around makeshift fires on the shore, wrinkled old women smoking pipes, pretty fresh-faced women sewing in the villages, dusty children playing and chattering farmyard animals galore. I cannot express enough what an enchanting two days it was, made even better with a few thrills of the rapids along the way. AND I never fell out, which two of my "experienced" kayakers did.

The hills and valleys of Northern Laos are sparsely populated with a hotchpotch of ethnic groups from all over South east Asia, each having their own language, culture and traditions. The area we visited is home to the Khamu and Lantern hilltribes who were most welcoming. I found the Lantern tribe the most endearing; they seemed the most unaffected by Western ways. Their clothing was distinctive and interestingly the women keep their eyebrows shaved to show that they are married. Give me a wedding band any day. They found us equally as fascinating, for although they see many trekkers, we are still a source of curiosity and sometimes great amusement. You have to get used to being stared at, just as we at times were staring at them in amazement. I met a lovely old women who moved places just so she could sit opposite me and stare for what seemed liked hours. The many creases in her crumpled face must be able to tell so many tales - if only we could've communicated. I reckon she must have been impressed with my outfit though. I bet the women of the village are copying the look as I write. Keep a look out for the next Lonely Planet Laos, where the author describes traditional tribes trussed up in 1950's starlet dress.

Our home for the night was a basic bamboo hut at the edge of the river, next to a ramshackle Khamu village. Our guides cooked the most delish traditional Laos food over an open fire. We ate tender, smoked BBQ buffalo, spicy Lao salad, sticky rice, piquant roasted aubergine stew and a mediterranean-tasting tomato sauce. Yum. One guide, Su, persisted with his fishing until we had fresh river fish - the freshest fish I have ever eaten - it went straight from the river to the BBQ. The guides are jack of all trades. They are accomplished chefs, builders, fishermen, musicians, kayakers....... The list is endless, so different to many young people at home who cannot boil an egg, never mind skin a chicken (or a civet cat - we didn't eat one but we saw the discarded fur next to the tell-tale cinders of a fire and our guide explained what had been cooked there). Waking up to the dawn chorus of scores of frogs and forest birds was beautiful. It was slightly chilly, but the guides were on hand with a cup of coffee and a wonderful breakfast to give us energy for the second day of kayaking. Paradise.

I've been told that my next stop, Chaing Rai in north Thailand, is rather touristy, so I have decided to stay another day in Laos. I'm reluctant to end this enchanting fairytale life I am living, so I'm going further north to see if I can get a homestay, before an early start at the market in Muang Sing. My guide recommended it as the best way to see the many ethnic groups come together in one place. He also recommended a great place to eat dog. There's no accounting for taste, but I simply cannot bring myself to chow down on a cute canine. Eating a Babe look-a-like is bad enough, but I draw the line at a hairy hound. Besides, Scamp would never forgive me.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

tubing tales

I have only just recovered from the aches and bruises I sustained whilst tubing (floating in a huge inflated tractor innertube) down the river in Vang Viene, northern Laos. The scenery was glorious - families washing and playing on the river bed, goats gamboling on the sides of the dramatic mountains, lush vegetation at every twist and turn of the winding river. What a contrast to the party atmoshere I had just left behind where young backpackers flock - it has been likened to Ibiza. They congregate in bars, shoddily built at the side of the river, get as high as possible on a cocktail of local grog, buckets (sandcastle buckets filled with spirits) and Lao beer, then risk their limbs (and lives) by throwing themselves into the river from rickety rope swings.

Of course I couldn't help but join in, although I remained sober as I didn't want to return home in a body bag. Apparently a few people die each year from this crazy pastime. I imagine those that meet their maker on this beautiful stretch of river do so after too much liqour. It has to be said it is amazing fun. Yet again I was reminded of the knicker-wetting fairground rides I enjoyed as a young girl. This time it was like the rapids at Alton Towers, with a few deadly rope swings for good measure, some as high as 15 feet.

I wonder if many tubers appreciate the setting in which this traveller funfair is set. One guy I chatted to as we floated peacefully down the river seemed more eager to get to the next bar than soak in the stunning setting surrounding him. I'm all for a bit of fun but I found Vang Viene a bit too much like Benidorm. The beauty was spoilt by tacky wall-to-wall bars and restaurants showing repeat episodes of Friends and serving substandard Western fayre.

The Organic farm was far more my cup of tea. I woke every morning to the sound of goats, which I helped feed. My view was of stunning mountains, mulberry tress and numerous other trees bearing exotic fruits such as papaya. It was so peaceful, a welcome break from Joey and the gang.

The photos at the top are of my friend Jess and me in the opal waters at the waterfall on the outskirts of Lunag Prabang, the beautiful royal city. My next stop is Luang Namtha (it will take me at least ten hours by local bus tonight), where I am going kayaking and trekking to see remote hill tribes, then it's off to Thailand by slow boat which will take two days.

Monday, 19 January 2009

vic in vang vieng, laos jan 20, 2009

having spent a wonderful few days in the capital, a couple of which were with an interesting guy from ghana, i am now back on the tourist trail. it was time to leave after he mentioned joining me at the altar. he had fallen for me because i am "quite" beautiful he said, but i think what really did it for him was my moustache, which he told me he liked a lot. damn, i knew i should've shaved it off after movember, maybe then he wouldn't have come on so strong. maybe i should keep the tache though if it's such a man magnet; i might be offered another pair of slacks. future suitors please note, i'd prefer the slacks to a trip down the aisle thank you very much. even a drink would do for starters, as long as you can pay for you own.

i am now in backbacker hell in a beautiful place called vang vieng. having arrived last night, i was amazed to look down the road this morning at dramatic mountain scenery. shame about the proliferation of backpacker bars screening friends and the simpsons. i am off to stay at an organic mulberry farm 3k from this tourist trap.

Friday, 16 January 2009

The only falang in the village

Having moved hotel rooms at 11pm the night before last after finding myself lying in bed in the previous occupant's piss, then last night listening to my next door neighbour drunkenly trying to determine if his hooker was male or female, travelling for 2 days and 2 nights to get to Kong Lo cave was a breeze. I won't dwell on the hotel traumas, such are the delights of budget travel, but the trip to the cave deserves a mention.

I chose to use public transport rather than the quicker tourist VIP bus. I wanted to experience the real Laos by travelling with the locals. Also I needed a break from the banal traveller chat about how cheap a room was, how high someone got last night or how they managed to save 15p on a tuk tuk ride from a driver who hasn't got two grains of rice to rub together.

The first 11 hours of the journey were spent with Weun, from Laos, and her husband Cvchau from Canada, who looked after me so well and were such interesting company. We shared the bus with at least two dozen large sacks of rice, copious crates of clucking chickens and about fifty passengers, some of whom had to sit on the rice in the aisles. The roof of the bus was buckling under the weight of the luggage, which included numerous planks of wood.

The next leg involved three trips on a sangthaew, a converted truck with narrow benches. These get so cramped that on many journeys passengers hang off the back. This journey was no exception. On this occasion my travelling companions consisted of young chicks (of the poultry variety), coconuts and various building materials. People don't have their own cars so public transport is their only means of moving things from A to B.

I spent the night at a homestay in a village close to the cave, living as primitively as the locals. My bed, a thin matress on the balcony next to a family of three women in the corner of the hut, was protected from the cold open-air only by a sheet pegged onto some string. I don't know how they sleep there every night. A simple meal of chicken, vegetables and the ubiquitous sticky rice was prepared on a stove resembling something from the stone-age. It was an enlightening and sometimes difficult experience; I was the talk of the town. The family watched as I ate my dinner, fascinated by this alien in their midst. I know I wanted to get away from travellers for a bit, but I was the only foreigner in the village (although it was more League of Gentlemen than Little Britain). It was frustrating not being able to communicate with my gracious hosts and I missed my privacy, for they watched everything I did. Once again I was grateful for the life I miss so much in Manchester. What a privilege though to be welcomed into their home. It came at a price however, $5 for dinner, bed and breakfast.

The trip so far had been such an adventure, but nothing was to prepare me for the specatular journey I was about to embark upon through Kong Lo, where a winding river diasappears into a magnificent pitch-black limestone cave. It was like being on a boat at night, for what seemed like a very long time. The dark, cavernous walls looked like menacing trees, my flashlight simulated moonlight. I was fondly reminded of many exhilarating trips on The Goldmine, a fairground ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach - the spray from the river, the cluncking of the motorised wooden boat, the sheer black tunnel, yet this time it was scarily real. I felt a medley of emotions from glee to terror, yearning for the other side yet not wanting the ride to end.

For many the highlight of the trip is the abundance of gold-hued stalagmites and stalactites. Impressive though they are, the climax for me was reaching the other side of the cave. The juxtaposition between the eerie gloom of the cave and the bright stunning beauty of the mountains and river on the other side was astonishing. It's a good job I enjoyed the trip; we had to repeat the 7km, hour-long voyage to return to the village.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Lazy days in Laos

Having spent a peaceful week in Don Det on the Four Thousand islands, I can't help but return to a reflective tone for my latest installment.

Of the 4000 islands, only 33 are inhabited, therefore many of the islands remain in their stunning natural form. Wonderful waterfalls, mystical mountains, breathtaking butterflies and bountiful birdlife - the beauty of the islands is indeed a sight to behold.

Island life is so simple. One reason for this is the lack of electricity. Families get up with the sun to make the most of the daylight. They spend their time fishing or doing other indigenous activities such as coconut farming. Children swim in the mighty Mekong, rides bikes or play with their farmyard friends such as the hens and their new-born chicks that roam freely all over the island. That's when they are not chilling - Laos life is very laidback and nothing is done at a hurried pace.

Evenings are spent huddled around the fire, which for many families is their sole source of energy. They don't have sinks, showers, dishwashers or washing machines. Instead washing is done on the banks of the river. It is a wondeful sight seeing whole familes bathe togther, giggling and screaming with delight.

We can learn a lot from these uncomplicated lives. Laos people have very few possessions, energy consumption is low, the family is at the core of every day life and more importantly, they are happy. I hope that when electricy hits the island in May this simple living remains. Somehow I doubt it.

Of course there are generators on the island, otherwise how else would us travellers get our crushed fruit shakes or listen to our knock-off CD's? They go off at 10pm however, when the whole island becomes still but for a few stragglers playing their guitars around the glowing scarlet embers of the fire. For me it's time for bed; lazing about all day is exhausting work.

Love Vic x

P.S. I saw the dolphins as the sun set over the Mekong - what an amazing experience.

Friday, 2 January 2009


I was assured by my friends that I would meet a few fitties on my travels. Well so far I've not met the man of my dreams, but I have had some interesting offers.

First there was Jan, a Thai who plied me with whisky in an attempt to get me to his room to "boom boom". I don't think he meant he wanted to listen to music with me.

Next there was Peter, a Nepalese tailor, who tried to woo me with the lure of a free pair of black slacks "depending on how friendly we become". I wonder how friendly we needed to be for say a shift dress or a full three-piece suit? I didn't wait to find out.

I've had some interesting encounters with Finnish men. The first, Yaloo, a bearded bloke (alas not the folky type, more akin to Captain Birdseye's facial forest), offered me a drink. I accepted at his insistence, only to find out he had no money to pay for the damn drinks. There was something wrong with his cards he claimed. Stupidly I footed the bill. Some things never change.

The next Finnish guy told me he was looking for a wife and invited me to his room within minutes of meeting me. I spent Christmas eve with him (not in his room I might add). I bumped into him and his mate yesterday. We are going to the "breathtaking" Four Thousand Islands together today. It's an important wetland habitat for both bird and aquatic life. I hope to catch a glimpse of the rare Irrawaddy dolphin, of which sadly there are only a few left. Let's hope the Finnish guy is interested in more than just bird watching.

Happy New Year from an intrepid traveller in Laos

Well I survived the sparrow. I have since eaten piglet on a stick, but was not adventurous enough for the tarantula-like spiders or grasshoppers.

One of my best friends has complained that I was coming over all "Bob Geldof" on her. Never mind the sickly soul-searching, what's the gossip she asked? I guess my blogs have been rather reflective and a tad melancholy. Of course there is gossip but this is a blog being read by many so I have to keep it clean. I promise today I won't dwell upon my visit to The Killing Fields that reduced me to tears, or the jaw-dropping splendor of Angkor Wat, but instead I'll tell you about events leading up to New Year's eve.

I decided to eschew a night on Pub Street in Seam Reap, Cambodia, for a cultural night in Thailand on the Laos border. The usual party would have been fun, but I'd had plenty already (what do you think is making me look so happy on the swing at the full moon party?). I didn't travel thousands of miles to celebrate with a piss-up in a place called Pub Street, something I could do any night of the week. Instead I set off on an intrepid journey across the border to find out how the Thais celebrate. Unfortunately my NYE didn't live up to expectations (does it ever?). It was fun seeing all the revellers, but the Thai pop music does tend to grate after about five minutes, and there are only so many piglets a girl can eat. Would you believe that Babe is my favourite film? It's part of my small video collection (I also own 1001 Dalmations and Free Willy) and it's the only movie I can quote from (baa ram you.....). The journey to my NYE destination was, however, unforgettable.

For the next 24 hours at least, I did not see one Falang (westerner). It had been my plan to get away from the well-trodden traveller trail, and that I did. There is something exhilarating about going to areas where there are no tourists. It was a little unnerving at times, but not once did I feel scared. It was fun riding on the back of my taxi moped to be met with stares from the villagers. My driver told me that only a few falang use this crossing, which explains why I was such a spectacle, riding pillion with my blonde hair flowing in the wind as we raced by remote, rustic villages. When I got to the border I realised that hardly any locals used the crossing either, so I was fortunate that I managed to communicate with the non-English speaking Thai border police that I needed to get a taxi. He looked at me like I was mad. Looking at the filthy face framed with wild, scarecrow hair in the reflection staring back at me from the mirror later that evening, even I was disturbed. I realised that I must have seemed like a mad English bag lady, especially as I was muttering incoherent Thai.

Someone was shining down on me. The kind border control officer flagged down a lift with a Thai family. He was much nicer than Ram, the Indian border control officer I met in Nepal who locked Al and me in his officers' mess. You think I would've learned my lesson then about remote borders. Anyway, Niang and her family were wonderful. Before I knew it, I was speeding through the Thai countryside in the back of their wagon, balancing myself on a load of charcoal sacks and gas cannisters, hoping to God we didn't crash or we'd go up in flames. Niang explained she and her family had been building a bridge in Cambodia. What felt like two hours into the journey I was offered a seat in the front. My hosts didn't speak English so I had to endure more Thai pop music. At least I was safe and sound, although I was headed 100k in the opposite direction to my original destination. Niang said I was a strong woman to be travelling alone. At this point I feared I was more stupid than strong, but I have learned my lesson not to cross remote borders near nightfall when you have no clue what to expect on the other side.

The generosity I have experienced whilst trying to get off the beaten track has been wonderful. Last night I dined with a young group of Lao revellers. Again they spoke no English, instead tapping me on the shoulder to indicate they were inviting me to join in with their new year's day meal. Although we couldn't converse, I spent an enjoyable evening eating, drinking beer and listening to R&B. Okay so the R&B wasn't so enjoyable, but it was marginally better than Thai pop music. (I miss music so much. The only respite I get from my over-played iPod and terrible Thai warblings is MySpace when I use the internet. I'm listening to Manchester band The Nightjars as I write this. Check out the tracks Valentine and You Set me Reeling, they're sublime. It makes me pine for home.) The evening only cost me a dollar, but experiences like that are priceless. I wouldn't have found this in the ubiquitous traveller cafes that you find at every turn.

Tomorrow you (and my mum) will be pleased to know that I am joining two guys for my next adventure, all platonic I might add. My friend also asked me if there'd been any romance. Well that's a whole other blog. I'll treat you to those tales tomorrow.

Happy New Year.

Love Vic xx