Monthly Archives: October 2011

Day 27 Luang Prabang

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

Beautiful temples, beautiful old houses, beautiful old cars. Delicious food, delicious fresh fruit shakes. Spectacular night market of paper lanterns, silver jewellery, silk clothing, jade Buddha statues, lacquer paintings, hill-tribe coffee beans, going on forever. Peaceful monks, quiet traffic, relaxed market sellers, no pestering from tuk-tuk drivers. Cheap, comfortable, characterful, calm.

The pearl of the orient.

Day 26 Luang Say Residence, Luang Prabang

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

Two rashers of richly flavoured, melt-in-the-mouth bacon and two fried eggs, layered between warm, soft toast, thickly spread with butter. Freshly squeezed orange juice, ice cold. Steaming hot coffee made from locally grown beans. Clouds hanging in the west between the steep hills either side of the river, sun rising above the palm trees to the east, fishermen casting nets on the opposite bank. Blue skies brightening, fellow travellers murmuring contentment in the comfortable warmth and stillness of early morning.

It’s a shame to have to leave.

We cruise on past the slowly paralaxing hills and mountains, impenetrable forests of trees, palms, vines and creepers overhanging the river, reaching back in an unbroken carpet to the distant peaks and hilltops. Brown Mekong water is the only opening, signs of human life are scarce.

We stop at a village, where there are plenty of people but the life signs are weak. No smiles, no laughter, the children are silent. Women sit with their woven silk scarves for sale, standard greetings delivered in a monotone, gaze directed at the floor, expressions flat. The village is almost silent, there aren’t even animal noises. The only activity seems to be the man distilling rice whiskey. Even the chickens seem subdued, as solemn as the cruise passengers who exchange glances and whisper discomfort.

There’s a swiss tourist pointing a 200mm zoom lens in the face of a glum looking villager. The camera must be worth more than the entire village earns in a year.

A girl of perhaps 13 or 14, apparently with mental and physical disabilities and seemingly on her own, holds out a hand for money, fingers twisted by deformity. She has red scrapes and bruises on her left cheek, long black hair partly hiding it. Her right hand is black and red, badly burned and swollen, held awkwardly in obvious pain. It isn’t dressed, it probably hasn’t even been cleaned. The nearest doctor is probably a hundred miles away, and this girl is on her own.

It’s deeply upsetting, and it feels completely wrong for people to be walking around this village as if it’s there for our entertainment, snapping photos to compare over lunch on the boat. It’s a depressing place, but perhaps the most notable observation is that for all the apparent poverty and glumness, the villagers are happy enough to keep churning out more children.

I and a few others leave the group and return quietly to the boat, wondering what on earth you’re meant to do in a situation like that.

Lunch seems a guilty pleasure. There’s yellow curry of tender chicken with big chunks of buttery carrot and soft potato. There’s more of the silky smooth stir-fried vegetables. There are bite-size chunks of rubber, battered in concrete and fried in garlic. Perhaps it’s pork. I’m being sarcastic about it but certainly not complaining, sitting here with such ample provisions after seeing how the locals live.

We cruise on in our luxury.

When you read about an ancient cave filled with thousands of Buddha statues, you imagine something quite impressive. It isn’t, but the line painted on the cave wall at least 20 feet above the river’s surface showing the high water mark of 2008 is hard to believe. To fill such a wide river valley to that level would take an immense amount of water.

Arriving in Luang Prabang I am greeted by a squadron of staff and driven to the hotel. My suite is the entire top floor of a building straight out of a Merchant Ivory movie. It has every imaginable amenity, the staff are impeccable in their dress and service, the pool is superb and the bar perfectly creates the colonial atmosphere. The surrounding palm foliage and mountain vista completes the scene.

I remember the poor little girl back in the village and feel both lucky and guilty. I vow to find an appropriate organisation providing medical services in Laos and make a donation, wishing I could do more.

Day 25 Luang Say Lodge, Pak Beng

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

Arriving at Thai immigration at 8 am, I get my exit stamp and pay 40 baht for the ferry to Laos. It’s a tiny, unstable, overloaded little boat that is almost submerged in the silted brown waters of the Mekong, but a few minutes later we’re across and still dry. Border formalities on the Laos side are equally simple – they’re obviously only interested in the $35 fee.

The Mekong cruise company deliver us to our boat, and we’re away. It’s a sunny day, the views of jungle and mountains are expansive and photogenic, the boat is quiet and spacious, there is locally grown coffee and beer, and I settle into a very relaxing day with ease.

An early lunch is the best food I’ve had for weeks, with star of the show being fresh Mekong catfish with fragrant lemongrass and a delicate pinch of chilli, baked to perfection wrapped in some kind of leaf. It smells superb and melts in the mouth with a taste that is both delicate and powerful. I go back for seconds, and enjoy it with a cold glass of Beer Lao.

After lunch we stop to visit a village. There’s no pier, the captain just rams the boat into the sandy river bank. The village is just as you would expect, apart from the giant satellite dishes adorning each hut.

Children of all ages gather beneath the stilt huts and watch us, the older ones motionless, the youngest chasing chickens and trying to pick up piglets. The older ones exchange words with each other and laugh, eyes still on us. Some cling to the wooden stilts supporting the huts, others march forward to press faces into camera lenses. They laugh and joke with each other while a dozen cameras are pointed their way, tourists captivated by these impossibly cute Asian kids with their big eyes and beaming smiles. The biggest smiles and loudest laughs come when the kids see themselves displayed on a camera screen, the older ones seemingly making fun of each other and pulling silly faces, as if they’re saying “ha ha, you look like such a dork in that one!”

It feels slightly odd just wandering around watching the village residents, but they are obviously used to it and the adults take little notice.

Back on the boat I take another cup of Lao coffee, relax with Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and scattered conversation with the other passengers – two brits, two dutch, two Germans, an American family of 6, a Singapore-based aussie girl and her mother, and two backpacking German girls.

The afternoon drifts by along with the views of wooden huts, water buffalo, jungle, palm trees, hills, mountains and fishing boats. Then we arrive at the wonderful Luang Say lodge, a delight perched above a bend in the river. The cabin brings to mind Robinson Crusoe from the outside, Bertie Wooster on the inside.

A glass of wine on the terrace is the perfect accompaniment to the slowly darkening sky, but sadly it’s too cloudy for a good sunset. Dinner is a buffet of Lao minced pork salad (the “salad” element being chilli), red chicken curry, spring rolls, sticky rice, beef skewers, and stir-fry vegetables, enjoyed in the company of English couple Ashley and Wendy, and the two German girls Sonja and Christina. The wine is good, the food is great. The jokes are bad, but the laughter doesn’t stop, everyone having had a great day.

Sleep comes easily despite the deafening insect chorus of chirping crickets, gargling frogs and screaming cicadas.

Day 24 Chiang Khong

image

image

7 hour bus ride made tolerable with noise cancelling headphones. No sign of floods in Chiang Khong, but no sign of any other people either. Hotel seems empty.

Still, here on schedule and ready to cross to Laos, which I can see from the balcony of my hotel room, in the morning, hopefully in time to catch the boat to Luang Prabang.

Day 23 Chiang Mai

image

image

image

Typhoon Nesat has been down graded to a tropical storm but is still heading towards northern Thailand. The flood waters in Chiang Mai have receded and clean-up crews are out, but heavy rain to the north might cause problems tomorrow.

Today is mostly sunny, so I rent an ER 6 with an unfortunate number plate and go for a blast. Two-wheeled freedom feels good, only slightly marred by the lack of protective clothing and total lack of confidence in Thai maintenance skills. Fun bike though, very fast steering and good low-down punch. Views from Doi Suthep spoiled by rain, but what a road. If you come to Thailand on a bike, do that road. Two lanes going up, no traffic, and 5 miles of sinuous, well-cambered tarmac snaking up into the clouds. Great fun, and quite challenging in the wet.

The night bazaar area is no longer flooded so I check out what’s on offer. Apart from food and drink, Thailand is so much more expensive than Vietnam and Cambodia. I can’t find a decent knock-off watch, and even the knock-off lonely planet guides are twice the price they are in Cambodia. It’s mostly just over priced tourist junk, and the town is mostly just a tourist town. It’s a little busier now the flood has gone, and the den of iniquity that is the Loi Khor road is an entertaining way to pass an evening. When the night bazaar comes to life it’s quite enjoyable, and there’s some nice food on offer, if you like to take chances…

It’s a much more enjoyable town when it’s not flooded.