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Land of a Million Elephants

Greetings from Laos, probably the most laid-back country in the world.

As you may remember from last time, after a hectic month of travel in Vietnam, I decided to take the easy option and fly to Laos (what a wuss!). I arrived in Vientiane on the 20th July, my birthday, and got a taxi from the airport to my selected hotel. This was not the same hotel as I stayed in on my first visit to Vientiane, six years before, which remains firmly imprinted in my memory as the very worst place that I've ever stayed. I probably have stayed in worse since, but none have made such an impression as that filthy place, which had used cotton buds lying on the side and rats scampering around the floor.

Whilst in the capital, I walked to the Patuxay monument, which resembles a miniature Arc De Triomphe. It was started in 1962 - but never finished - and was built using money given to Laos by America to build a runway. A plaque on it admits: "From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete." - such honesty is very Lao. I thought, with my previous visit in mind, that the roads leading up to it looked most impressive; they were paved, unlike in 1998 when they were just dirt roads; the traffic is still unbelievably light. Vientiane is unlike any other capital city that I've ever been to - I'm not sure that there is such a low-key capital city anywhere else in the world.

From Vientiane I was to return to Vang Vien, a sleepy little town three hours north along route 13, a road which technically is still at risk of bandit attacks by the Hmong - the guys that were trained and armed by the CIA to fight the communists - although no foreigners have been killed on the road for a couple of years now. I'd heard a lot of talk about how awful Vang Vien was now, and how the town had lost its soul. My memories were of stunning scenery and magnificent sunsets, and of tubing peacefully down the river - I felt sure that things could not have changed that much. My guidebook told me that the opium dens had been shut down, and replaced by cafes serving happy pizzas and shakes, and rather bizarrely TV bars showing old episodes of Friends . . . and it was true! A section of the main drag was indeed home to the "Friends bars", four or five cafes with rows of seats facing large, blaring televisions; canned laughter assailed me from all angles as I walked past, wondering whether I had slipped into the Twighlight Zone. Of course these are not for the benefit of the Lao people, but for the tragically unimaginative travellers that can think of nothing better to do in such beautiful surroundings than sit glued to a TV. People are strange.

Since I'd arrived in the country, the weather had been rather damp. Granted this was the rainy season, but I'd expected mostly sunshine with a few hours of rain, like I'd seen elsewhere. The excessive precipitation meant that the river was flowing quite rapidly, and the tubing trip that can take over four hours in the dry season was down to 45 minutes or so. Whether for communist reasons, or just because the Lao are nice guys and want to avoid competition, all the firms offering tubing trips take it in turns, so that on any one day only one company operates. Sorry, have I explained what tubing is? It's is the simple pleasure of floating down the river in the inner tube of a tractor tyre, a peaceful pastime, and most enjoyable when you are passing by spectacular karst formations. Another change since I was last in the town is the placing of several "bars" along the way, where you can sup a Beer Lao as you take a break from the water; Beer Lao, incidentally, is possible the nicest lager in the world. I'd hoped to explore some of the surrounding countryside, and waited a few days for a break in the weather . . . but it never came. After a few days I gave up and decided to move on, a little disappointed not to have seen another great sunset, and beginning to wonder whether I should just resign myself to a month of rain during my time in Laos.

My next destination was Phonsavan, the town nearest to the mysterious Plain of Jars, and also one of the areas heaviest bombed by the Americans. I chummed up with three Australians, and an English couple whom I was to spend the following week with, and we arranged a tour to see the jars the following day. I was really looking forward to the trip, and wondered whether my expectations of the jars were unrealistically high, but no - they were great! The jars are in various sizes up to 600 tonnes (although the smaller ones have been nicked, and only the larger ones remain in situ), and can be found at numerous sites in the area. Explanations vary between the locals' stories that the jars were used to ferment lao-lao (Lao rice whisky), and the archaeologists' theories that they may have been used for ritual burial purposes (a few jars were found to contain human remains), but nobody knows for sure. The lack of organic material means that is is impossible to carbon date them, so no one even know how old they are. An added factor to make the day more enjoyable was that at last the rain had stopped - by the afternoon we even had blue skies and sunshine!

Jars aside, the area was full of the unavoidable evidence of the Americans' un-relentless carpet bombing campaign. Laos remains the most bombed country in the world, having had the equivalent of a plane load of bombs dropped on it every eight minutes around the clock for eight years. UXOs - unexploded ordnance - are widespread, and continue to claim lives - mainly those of children, who play with them, or hunters, who try to break them open to get at the gunpowder. The bomblets, or bombies, are left over from cluster bombs, and are at least less dangerous than the landmines found in Cambodia, and other places. The landscape is scarred at regular intervals by bomb craters, out of which grow pine trees, for some reason. Our guide showed us the place where a US plane had gone down. Only tiny scraps of metal remained of the plane today, as most of it - and any other downed plane - have been melted down to make spoons! I liked this idea a lot. The resourceful Lao people have also made use of the shells and bomb casing used against them, by incorporating them into their houses. One of the guesthouses in town used them to support its sign, and inside had a horrendously huge collection of grenades, bomblets, guns and the like.

My next stop was Luang Prabang, a charming town on the Mekong River. Along with Joe and Julia, the couple I'd met in Phonsavan, I stayed in Seng Phet guesthouse - a lovely place run by a friendly family that provided free tea and bananas, and had a cute little kitten! I stayed in Luang Prabang for nearly a week, visiting a few of the 66 Buddhist temples, having a Swedish-Lao massage, chatting with my friends over Lao coffee, and generally enjoying the relaxed ambience of the quaint town. One day a group of us visited nearby Tat Kuang Si waterfall - which is, I think, the prettiest waterfall I have ever seen. The area is also home to a number of Black Asiatic bears and a young, female tiger, all rescued from poachers. There was another attraction in Luang Prabang that gave me much pleasure, and that was the night market - I shopped and shopped, and in the end had a shocking six kilos of souvenirs to send home! Fingers crossed it all arrives.

From Luang Prabang I caught a songthaew - an open sided truck with two bench seats facing each other - four hours north to the town of Nong Khiaw on the Nam Ou river. There I caught a boat up the river to Muang Ngoi, a small settlement that stretches a short way along the banks of the river, and is inaccessible by road. The brown water churned as we chugged upstream, causing waves and eddies on its surface, as if it were boiling below. As we approached Muang Ngoi, I saw a number of wooden, stilted bungalows overlooking the wide river, and resolved that I would stay in one of those. After some looking, I selected a simple place (they are all simple, not a room in town has a private bathroom, and no fans as the generators provide electricity for only three hours an evening) with a private balcony afforded some shade from nearby trees, and slung up my hammock before showering in the wooden shack which guests share with the family that owned the establishment, and heading off with my camera to explore,

My first impressions were that the small town was home to an inordinate amount of animals - especially chickens, of all descriptions, the silly birds chasing one another around the place - and small children, who seemed endlessly inventive and always seemed to be playing a different game involving stones, seeds, sticks and pieces of string. The main street was of compacted mud, and bordered by two concrete drainage gullies. A cheeping drew my attention to one of these, and I found a gang of little ducklings running up and down, pausing to drink from the remnants of puddles. Old women, lined and minus teeth, shouted gossip to each other; chillies dried in the sun; turkeys strutted and dogs prowled purposefully; a group of men were playing kataw, a game similar to volleyball, but where the feet and head can be used, and the ball is a small woven rattan one.

It is possible to do treks to see minority-peoples' villages from Muang Ngoi, but I have reservations about that sort of thing - going to stare at the natives in their homes - I prefer my interactions to occur naturally or not at all, and would rather not invade peoples privacy. This might sound a bit hypocritical as I was staying in a remote village, but the difference is clear in my mind. Muang Ngoi began to be visited by tourists in 1999, one of the restaurateurs told me, and tourism has really increased in the last three years, so that it is now the main source of income for the place. The resident population is around 700, he said, which is swelled by 120 backpackers when the place is full; I was pleased to be there in the low season, with just a sprinkling of fellow farang.

Other than eating, admiring the view, and soaking up the sleepy atmosphere, I went on a walk to a cave with a stream flowing from it, along a muddy path past paddy fields. I'd hoped to go on a guided walk to a waterfall, but persistent rain resulted in abundant mud, so I wasn't too disappointed when there were insufficient numbers to go. I was persuaded to go tubing by a New Zealander, and got so cold that I lay in my warmest clothes, shivering under a blanket for hours afterwards, feeling most unwell.

On my last night there I slept out in my hammock. I began the evening in bed, reading until the generator went off at nine. A little later I felt sure that I was being bitten, so turned on my torch to search for the mosquito that had found its way into the net draped over the bed. The beam of my torch illuminated a cockroach that was sneaking around the seam of the net, so I decided instead to sleep outside. Admittedly the logic of this is rather suspect - abandon a netted bed as it had a mozzie and roach in it, for Outside, where there are infinitely more mozzies and roaches! I enjoyed my night amongst the elements, although I cannot say that I slept all that well, catching only a couple of hours in dribs and drabs.

To be honest, I didn't sleep well the whole time I was at Muang Ngoi. This is largely due to me always having to get up five or more times in the night (god knows what I'll be like when I'm in my dotage - I'll have to sleep on the toilet and be done with it, I think). If I'm in an ensuite room I can usually shuffle there and back without waking up fully, but if there's a hike to the bathroom, then I usually have a struggle getting back to sleep. Thanks to a combination of darkness so black I couldn't see my hand in front of my face, suspicious rustlings in the undergrowth outside my room, and an overactive imagination, I often found myself holding my breath trying to work out what was lumbering around outside. In daytime I could see everything from tiny chicks, through pot-bellied pigs, to albino water buffalo with cowbells on wandering around, but at night my mind conjured up much more sinister beasts.

After four days I felt it was time to move on, so I caught the boat down the river, and a bus west to Udomxai, where I am now. I'm just going to stay here long enough to recharge my camera batteries, catch up on my sleep, and take advantage of the slow and unreliable Internet connection before heading to Luang Nam Tha. Up until now, all the roads I've journeyed along have been paved, but that will change from here on in - or here on out, as I should say, as I'll be slowly making my way to Huay Xai (pronounced 'way sigh') and the border with Thailand. A quick glance at a map will show you that my plans for Laos have been rather unambitious, as far as covering ground goes, but that's really the way to play it here. Nobody rushes, and it would just be frustrating to try. Much better just to slow down and enjoy the Lao way of doing things.

I'm glad that I visited Vietnam and Laos in the order that I did; I've enjoyed both countries immensely, but they are very different. After all the full on travelling in Vietnam, it's nice to take it easy and have a rest in Laos.


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