Goodbye Laos and photos

Slightly cheating here as we’re already in Vietnam.

Photos of our time in Laos are available in the Photos menu items or a link is available here.

Let’s start with the good. The plain of Jars was one of the most amazing sights we have ever seen, Allan fulfilled a travel ambition to see the mighty Mekong, the sculpture park was spectacular, the French food was unbelievably fantastic and the hospitality was generally very warm and genuine.

However, Laos as a travel destination was a challenge. It beat us. We left for Thailand for a few days during our allotted 30 days. Infrastructure, particularly transport was very difficult. A “simple” 150km bus ride can take 10 hours, airplane tickets (for tourists) are relatively expensive for those on a budget, tourist sites are often only accessible by car/driver, hotel standards – except the wonderful Ban Sufa – aren’t in the same standard as Thailand or Bali and the food is not as varied or tasty. A special mention must be made to the damn restaurant in Luang Prabang that made Allan ill for a week, although this could happen anywhere in the world, so slightly unfair.

All this must be taken in context. If we had been on a 3 week holiday and on our normal holiday budget, I’m sure we would have had a great time. We must also remember that Laos is a very poor nation, it has been dealt a horrible deal in the all too recent past and wasn’t even open for any visitors until around 30 years ago. We hope that Laos PDR reaches it’s full potential and UXO becomes an acronym that no-one knows the meaning of.

An Original vision in Concrete and a new one in Glass

Our last full day in Laos and we made an escape out of the capital for a day trip to the original sculpture park and also to the makers of the fine amber nectar that we have been drinking for the past month – Beer Lao.

We did the 30km journey including a quick shout of hello across the Mekong to our previous hotel in Nong Khai and a last part of the journey where the poor tuk-tuk had to weave to find any tarmac on the rapidly disappearing road. If anything, this park was even more spectacular than the one over the water. A huge reclining Buddha was the centrepiece but was enough to keep us fascinated for over an hour. Click on the picture for Chloe and the Buddha.

Next was a trip to the Beer Lao factory. We had heard there was tour of the factory. There is not. However, in true Lao hospitality, they decided to give us a free beer each as a compensation. Very nice, however, would have definitely preferred to see the whole factory.

They really are missing a trick here; Charge all the tourists a fair price, show them around for an hour and give them a beer. Everyone seems to like Beer Lao, it would be on the list on the must do things in Laos!

Allan’s mum ChALLANge (Part 1 and 2)

Here it is. The final result of Newcastle vs Man City, it ended 1-1 as I saw 2 goals – 1 for each side. At least that’s what I saw after turning the game on after 5 minutes. There was some rumour that something happened in the first 5 mins – I choose to ignore that. Honestly, well played lads, but still no points. And Jonas, well…

And the second part (slightly delayed due to a dodgy Internet connection). I’m sure I got the score right for the Spurs match, 11-10 to us. Although this could be entirely wrong. Back to reality, it sounds like we were lucky to get nil. At least Maggie from KCC will be happy!

Christmas Day in Laos

Here’s what our “busy” Christmas Day consisted of:

1. Up at 7am with the dawn

2. Pressies! A strict 125,000 Kip limit (£10) was imposed. Chloe gave Allan a huge fabric stuffed Gecko and bag of sweets. Allan gave Chloe a small stuffed Gecko, cinnamon soap, Thai cookbook and some caviar. You may wonder why Geckos – well they are our favourite animal of the holiday so far as they seem to eat or try to eat the nasty flying things that want to eat us. Something about your enemy’s enemy I believe.

3. Breakfast with said caviar. Yum.

4. Lie down, sleep.

5. Listen to Xmas playlist including Jona Lewie, Slade, Wizzard, The Darkness, Olivia Olson and obviously, Kirsty MacCall & the Pogues. Plus some Adam & Joe for some reason.

6. Xmas lunch. Simply the best food we have had all holiday at a heavenly French restaurant called Le Central. Vegetarians look away now; Foie gras, scallops in wasabi, the most tender lamb known to humanity, chocolate and mango cake, and coffee & hazelnut ice cream that reminded Chloe of holidays in Brittany as a child – all very Proust. Washed down with French Rose, water and coffee. Thanks Yves for the wonderful food and also recommendations in Hanoi.

7. Lie down, sleep. In a massive way.

8. Quick drink

9. Call Allan’s family. Skype seemed to fixed enough to do this although a few “over” at the end of every sentence helped. Glad to see that the presents bought back in September all arrived safely and seemed well received! Allan managed to say Happy Xmas in Lao to complete what was a very generously easy chALLANge from his brother – Hohoho.

10. Did a video call to Chloe’s family. The wonders of technology still amaze us sometimes. Although the video quality was pretty poor it was still possible to tell that Doug was doing some Dad-dancing in the background and Eli trying to “chair” the chaos. Sound was ok and a totally free experience except Chloe discovering that her head was being projected onto a massive screen whilst her struggling to make out the tiny faces the other end.

11. Watched the first part of Dr. Who Xmas special. Unfortunately last year’s one, this year’s will have to wait until March.

12. Lie down, sleep.

13. Allan laughed at the Oz Cricket score (oh, sorry, that was actually the 26th Dec)

SEASONS GREETINGS TO ALL – PEACE, LOVE AND MINCE PIES FROM ALLAN & CHLOE xx

And he’s REALLY looking

Today is a day like any other in Vientiane, this lowest of low key South East Asian cities. Chloe desperately tries to wake the Christmas spirit by insisting on a £10 present challenge, watching Scrooged on Christmas Eve and downloading Slade from iTunes. Meanwhile, Allan revels in the lack of festivities and strips the holiday down its bare bones purpose – an excuse for eating unnecessarily rich food and then sleeping it off.

Vientiane is not a shopping mecca, and we both buy each other patchwork stuffed gekkos (the most beloved animal of the holiday so far, for its ability to eat six-legged crawling things). However, Allan goes for the smaller gekko option and somehow also manages to find lumpfish caviar and cinnamon-flavoured soap. So we have Christmas smelling showers and eat caviar on toast for breakfast. That’s Allan, channelling the Spirit of Christmas Present whilst muttering ‘bah humbug!’ under his breath.

Here’s the most Christmassy image we could find of Vientiane – a spooky lifesize Santa outside the hotel opposite. It watches us.

Jar jar mint

The reason we flew 150 miles in a propeller plane to the wild west (or east) town of Phonsovan was to see the incredible Plain of Jars. Hundreds of carved stone jars ranging from knee-high to over six feet tall, scattered across a bleak landscape. No one knows for sure what they were for, but theories range from burial urns to the discarded whisky cups of giant warriors.

There are actually around 50 separate sites scattered across north east Laos, only 7 of which have been cleared of unexploded ordnance so far.

We approached the site using the marked paths, as signs everywhere shouted at us not to stray. Paths are edged by occasional painted white stones. Considering the potential danger, this would seem excessively low key anywhere else, but given the ubiquity of the bombs it was unusually tourist-friendly.

We were the first visitors of the morning, so had the place to ourselves for about half an hour. It was silent, cold, still. The jars sat there, being mysterious, much like Stonehenge. It was unlike anywhere else we have been. The pictures speak for themselves. As Allan said “this place is mint”.

A deadly legacy

Laos was bombed a lot during what we mistakenly call the Vietnam War. And ‘a lot’ equates to over 2 million tonnes of bombs, a huge quanitity of which was directed at Xieng Khouang province in central Laos. It has affected every possible part of life here for the past 30 odd years.

Not just the obvious initial effect of the bombs. It is estimated that around a quarter of all bombs (specifically the cluster bombs) did not detonate and Laos is left with a horrible legacy of huge numbers of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO). The constant danger of UXO has prevented towns and farms being expanded, infrastructure being built, kids being able to play away from known safe areas, spectacular possible tourist sites being accessible; as well as the constant danger of simply standing on the wrong part of the ground or picking up the tennis ball coloured/sized (see previous post) cluster bombs. Just horrible. And the USA still refuses to release the design of the bombs used.

Fortunately, some amazing work is being done. MAG (www.maginternational.org) are coordinating efforts in the area and with success. Education programmes, local employment and clearances are happening and there was news today that USA have donated some additional money, but even with this effort it is estimated that it will take over 100 years to fully clear this area of Laos.

Happy New Hmong Year

Our second happy new year of the holiday, having missed one in Indonesia. Only another two to go before March.

After another short hop sponsored by Laos Airlines and Imodium (for Chloe), we arrived in the plains of central Laos in a place called Phonsavan. We then discovered that it was the Hmong people’s new year. Now, Allan instantly felt an affinity with the Hmong people as there are three different ethnic groups; White Hmong, Black Hmong and Striped Hmong. And they like to drink Whisky.

New Year for the Hmong people seems to involve 3 days of courting for the singletons. Brightly dressed lassies and motor-cycling lads standing in rows throwing tennis balls for each other to catch whilst chatting each other up. Our 1/2 day tour  of the plain of Jars (see one of the next posts) was briefly interupted whilst our driver tried his luck with one of the local beauties – unfortunately unsuccessfully we believe.

Sporting champions spotted

Whilst walking down the street, we spotted the new ASEAN (Asia/Pacific) Pétanque – French Bowls – champions getting in their luxury transport and the iPhone was available to capture this glorious moment. It was only spoilt by the valid question from Chloe of “Why are France allowed to play in the Asia/Pacific championship?”

Answers  to the usual address please.

Laos en France

Lao Airlines then did short 40 minute hop from Luang Prabang to the capital Vientiane. Seems like quite a busy city, although for our R&R we decided for a bit of a treat ($70 per night, wow) to book a place called Ban Sufa, which is around 30 minutes drive outside the capital.

Our arrival here was nothing short of a shock to all senses. The place itself is in the middle of the countryside, has huge grounds but with only 6 rooms, seperate, detached bugalows that are bigger than our flat in Vauxhall, is run by a French couple who decided to move to Laos a few years ago. Oh, and also, the owner is a gourmet French chef.

Nothing to do here apart from play with their dog (friendly coissant-eater) read (depends on the book), go to the swimming pool (freezing), sit in the sun (warming), look at the sunsets (amazing) and eat French food (mon dieu, magnifique!). Exactly what we needed.

We must leave here after our allotted 5 days otherwise they will find us still here in March about 10 stone heavier in a catatonic state of relaxation. It took all our effort to type this update for our dear readers, and dinner is in but three hours…

Ban Sufa – http://bansufagarden.com/