Matthew's News and Gossip

Matthew's News and Gossip

A man with no talent, but armed with a digital camera, can waste lots of bandwidth

Saturday, January 11, 2003

Christmas in Laos.

OK this may sound like the title to a new Disney movie starring Goldie Hawn and some computer generated chipmunks, but it's much worse. It's the true hideous story of how in Vang Vieng, Laos, Lish Woodgate survived an assasination attempt three times by the diabolically-intentioned Ann Larson (OK two were by me) and then foolishly decided that due to her injuries she was unable to go on the next day's rafting trip (which resulted in Wildside rafting keeping all her money!) Despite Ann's attempt to lure Lish into a deep dark cave and abandon her there, and then deliberately hold her under a capsized canoe, I rushed to save her (or more accurately capsized my canoe and banged hers setting it free and possibly stopped her drowning).
I did make up for it by capsizing her twice when I was driving! Well the second time we were merely resting (stuck of course) against the middle support of the bridge when Ann's accomplice in another boat attacked from the rear. A great time was had by all (after all it was only a $7 day-out, somewhat cheaper than my normal rafting trips in California). Lish got her revenge that night by slipping a Mickey Finn into the yogurt that Ann and I shared, resulting in a lot of giggling and great difficulty in finding our way home and/or getting out of bed the next day! All the Vang Vieng photos are here

As I metioned we were supposed to raft back to Ventiene as Lish had to go back to Thailand to try to win a bet with her friend Jane by accosting some innocent Englishman. But instead, as her hand was a little bust up, we took a minibus, which was a little less crowded than the public bus we took up from Vientiene To Vang Vieng but cost a little more. Luckily for me, Gabrielle Howatson showed up from London for a quick week's fun and games. Gabrielle not exactly being your backpacker type, I moved up a class (or actually about 3 classes) of accomodation and had a week's holiday from my holiday, so-to-speak.
After a day cycling around Vientiene (again! my third, but all the pics are here including a bunch of stuff I'd missed before, nearly seeing the Vietnamese President who was in town, and having a drink by the Mekong in this gorgeous sunset) we travelled by London taxi (really!) from Gab's highly expensive hotel to fly to Phonsovan in the Plain of Jars. From the airport there, after Gabrielle managed to negotiate us a driver, minibus and hotel room for about 20 times what I would have paid and about 15 times what they were worth, we set off for a quick trip to the Jars. The Jars are 3,000 years old. They are somewhat the Laos equivalent to Stonehenge (which I visited this past summer) other than the Jars are much smaller, are in several different places and were moved by elephants, proving that the ancient Lao people were either less strong or cleverer than the Ancient Brits who dragged their stones by hand! Here's Gabrielle and me on a jar. Of course no one knows why the jars are there other than to stand in, but my favorite theory is that they were used for brewing beer.

After spending the night in a bloody cold $35 hotel that should have cost $3, but charged an extra $32 for the view, the next day we went to hunt down a poppy field. The invite to the poppies were cued when I remarked to the guide that I was surprised to see yet another new 4 X 4 pickup truck swing by us when Laos is supposed to be one of the world's poorest countries. He said "But they have a good business: Heroin!" After the leaves are pollinated by bees and fall off, the poppies are scored at night and the milk is collected, dried and either smoked as Opium in the village or moved to a secret site for processing. Not much of the wealth from the drug trade sticks in the village, another consequence of the evils of prohibition (for more see here). In the village near the poppy fields were we saw a few old bombs which having been dropped in their thousands in the War are now used as flowerpots, house supports and fences. I thought that this photo of the Blonde and the Bombshells would amuse some of you. All of the Plain of Jars photos are here

So our brief trip to Phonsovan ended with me throwing the ball to this Hmong girl (here with our guide) as part of their ritual courtship ceremony. She dropped it--so either I'm chucked or have to marry her. The plane to Laung Prabang made it over some steep terrain for a daredevil landing. We spent 4 days including New Year's Eve hanging out in Wats, checking out the Namthas, looking over the town and Royal Palace from the nearby hill, assaulting cats, going up the river to the Pak Ou caves that are full of discarded Buddhas, and generally eating, drinking and living very, very well. New Years Eve dinner was $50 each, or about 10 times what I spend on a usual night out here!

Lang Prabang is a very beautiful and (for the moment) laid-back city right on the confluence of the Mekong and another smaller river. But it is now on a tourist direct flight route going from BangKok to Soukathai to Ankor Wat. Consequently it's much more expensive than the rest of Laos or Thailand. I only hope that the same people don't find out about Hoi An in Vietnam. The full Lang Prabhang set is here.

Gabrielle had to leave to return to a life of right-wing agitating and husband hunting (not necessarily in that order) at her new job in London, and I downgraded from the lovely Hotel Souvaphon to the mush less delightful "Heritage" guesthouse. I actually went into a brief depressed funk after Gabrielle left--it was great having her (and Ann and Lish) around and not being a solo traveller, having to tell the same story again and again and make new friends ! So an interesting discovery is that I miss my friends!

I'm not sure how Gabrielle would have taken Northern Laos as there is no way to pay up and get better service there! I set off on a boat up the Nam Ou river accompanied by three Swedes and a Dutch movie-directing couple. One of the Swedes had a Laotian wife he'd met in 1990 (Several years before tourists were really allowed in!) ! She later defected to him via East Germany (about 10 minutes before it ceased to exist) and they've been married for 12 years now! He also drew the first guide to backpacking in Laos. A couple of years later he bought a ticket to Laos from a travel agent on KhoSan Road in BangKok who tried to sell a copy of his own guide back to him!

The river trip, with huge cliffs and moody misty mountains was very, very beautiful even if it was raining. We ended up in Nhon Kiew, another tiny town where the locals (as in the rest of Asia) all watch TV oblivious to their beautiful surroundings. Of course we managed to use the meagre electricity supply in town to good order as Djurgarden "Pride of Stockholm" fan Chris and Michiel (to his wife Sonja's) chagrin set up a concert hall using only a broken boom box and chicken wire, and everyone had far too much Lao-lao.

I took a smelly truck down a fabulously beautiful road via several more Hmong villages, past lots of Hmong girls playing with their balls (although the truck wouldnt slow down and all my pictures were taken hanging off the back!) The photos from the Nam Ou river and bus trip (plus the LaoLao evening) are here.

I ended up in the boom town of Oudamxai near the Chinese border. Although everyone had new 4x4s (this LandCruiser retails in the US for over $50,000, average annual income in Laos is $350--you work it out!) and there were lots of mansions (by Laos standards) being built, here wasn't much going on in Oudamxai other than thousands of people selling lottery tickets. I ended hanging out with some French people in a disturbingly cold sauna (run by the Laos Red Cross), and then having a massage from a man who kept leaving to go off and do something else, until thankfully he was replaced by a woman who really knew what she was doing. $2.50 massages are one of the great pleasures of south east Asia, once you get used to the brutality factor and the lack of new age music! We then had a fabulous Lao barbeque, which was the best meal I had in Laos but made me the sickest I've been on the trip since India!

Next was a hair raising 4 hour bus journey, which when it wasnt broken down, went past yet more Hmong girls looking for husbands. I survived using Immodium but during the journey I was not spared the conversation of an apalling drunk from Bristol. Thankfully he went on from my next stop, Laung Namtha. There the eco-treks into the jungle were full, and the rafting from our "friends" at Wildside wasn't going, but the mountain bike ride around the villages and up to a waterfall was alot of fun--not least because I was dragged into a 65th (or was it 85th) birthday party for this local grandee in one village. There I was forced to eat some disgusting mix of pig entrails (look at the bowls) and discuss the Laotian war of independence in some kind of broken French. Luckily after an hour or so I managed to escape by showing them that the sun was going down and would have to navigate home in the dark if I didn't leave immediately! So I got off with only drinking 5 shots of Lao-Lao (their disgusting and incredibly potent rice whisky). All the pictures from Oudamxai to Laung Namtha are here.

After becoming best friends with every tourist in town, I ended up finding a Dutch/Romanian couple who wanted to take a boat to Thailand. Carel and Magdelana proceeded to bicker their way down the Nam Tha river much to my amusement. The scenery was beautiful but the slash and burn agriculture is decimating the forest. After a very quiet and uncomfortable night in the boatman's house (no electricity in this village!) being amusingly harrassed by his grandkids, but also being woken by Roosters at 4 am, we got back into the boat and had a sunny cruise down the rapid-filled river until it joined the Mekong. We plodded up to Houxai being overtaken by lots of very aptly named "speed" boats, as apparently that's how the drivers cope with the noise. The short set of photos from the Nam Tha is here

My journey into Thailand at the border crossing was not exactly aided by my somehow throwing my back out as I got off the ferry and I had to get various other travellers to carry my stuff up the hill into Thailand! Luckily after a gorgeous sunset over the Mekong there was a minibus leaving for Chang Mai almost straight away and I was levered on with the assistance of Vicoden. I'm now in Chang Mai, where I spent most of the first day searching for a hotel with a soft bed so that I could sleep off the worst of the back ache. Thank god for Vicoden! Ironic that the only opitates I've had in the Golden triangle are ones in pill form that I brought with me!

So now I'm sitting around Chang Mai. I seem to be avoiding all kinds of tourist actiuvity on offer here, although I might take a cooking class soon. I probably will not take a quick jaunt into Burma, although my Swedish friend (from India) Mia is there and is going to wait by a fountain to meet me (no Internet in Burma, eh!) on a certain day at a certain time. And of course I ran into Dave Russell (from Ireland via BangKok & San Francisco) who's last known comunication said he was on his way to Egypt!

So now you're all up to date again!

posted by matthew  # 5:40 AM
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