After a few days in Chiang Mai we set ourselves for pastures new once again, this time we were heading for Laos and the experiences a new country and culture have to offer.
Both of us were looking forward to further challenges, things had gotten pretty comfortable in Thailand, the tourist route so well travelled that it was rare you ever felt like you were really out of your comfort zone.
Laos has the reputation of being 10-15 years behind Thailand in terms of its tourist industry. Given its recent history that’s quite understandable…Per capita, Laos is the most bombed country in the world…..Yeah that’s right, hard to believe isn’t it? To give you an idea of the extent of the bombing, if you averaged out the frequency of US bombing between 1964-1973 it would equate to a bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for the whole 9 years. Laos had more bombs dropped on it during that time than were dropped by all sides in the whole of WW2….. And all part of the Vietnam war, a conflict that they were neutral in.
Some of the history of the country was covered in Manufacturing Consent, the book by Noam Chomsky, so I had an idea of some of the historical background, and was eager to learn more about the country and how it is recovering from the devastation caused during the Indochina wars.
So we literally squeezed ourselves into a minibus, and set off for he Chiang Khong/Huay Xai international border crossing. The journey was a pretty hair-raising one to say the least, our driver fancying himself as Sebastian Loeb in the making, tires screeching as we overtake lorries while hurtling round blind corners-little did we know that this would be good preparation for the journeys to follow in the mountains of Laos!
Giving us some respite from the terror onslaught, we stopped off in Chiang Rai to visit Wat Rong Khun-otherwise known as the White Temple. Neither Jo or I had read up on the temple beforehand, and so we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. On approach the first impression is that you are beholding something truly magnificent-like when Superman first sees the Fortress of Solitude gleaming in the sunshine, quite breath-taking:
On closer inspection, things start to get a little bit weird…Take a look at the photo above again, notice anything? Anything like the bizarre statues in the foreground?! That was just the start of things, around the grounds, hanging from trees were the heads of various horror film characters-Predator, Freddy Kruger, Pinhead & Jarhead all featuring. Things got even stranger inside, where the temples walls were depicted with images of Michael Jackson, Hello Kitty, Superman, Terminator and Harry Potter! Turns out that this is actually privately owned by an artist called Chalermchai Kositpipat, and is actually an art-exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple. It does serve as an active temple, but more of a tourist attraction than anything else. It really was quite bizarre-especially not knowing its background before visiting!
Somewhat baffled, we plunged ourselves back into our own personal vehicle of terror and set off to complete our journey to the border. Our entrance to Laos was rather more sedate, over the 4th Friendship Bridge that straddles the mighty Mekong River that separates Thailand and Laos.
And so that was it, we’d made it-we were in Laos, the third country on our South East Asian adventure. Our first stop was a night in Huay Xai, a small town near the border crossing where many travellers rest up before setting off into Northern Laos. Time for us to familiarise ourselves with the currency, the Kip, and attempt the language. The currency is particularly difficult, currently £1 is worth 12,000 Kip, so you’re always dealing with large numbers when paying for things. The conversion isn’t difficult, just simplify things so that you’re working at 10,000 kip to the pound and you’ll always be overestimating costs-no problems….It’s just getting used to having to pay 100,000 Kip for a night in a guesthouse, it feels like you’re handing over a lot of money!
Fed, watered and rested, we got up early the next morning to make our way for our first stop proper, Luang Namtha, and our first efforts at travels on a local bus. If we thought that the previous days’ journey was terrifying, that was just the warm up. Now faced with roads that snake and carve their way through the mountains, we got on a decrepit old bus that looked like it was ready for the scrapheap. The general rule of thumb on the bus seemed to be, if there’s a modicum of space, then there’s room for one more-and soon we were jam packed to the rafters for departure. So we headed for the mountains, at some points I think that it would have been quicker to walk up some of the inclines, and then during the descents we would be treated to the occasional wrecked truck lying prostrate in the ditch, just a nice little reminder of the perils that the road offers! It took us roughly 6 hours to travel 150Km, and yes that’s only an average of 25km/h, but I assure you that the downhill sections were perilously quick!
Eventually we made it, shaken & stirred, but in one piece and we headed into the town to explore Luang Namtha. The town services a national park area in the Northern Highlands of Laos predominantly known for its hiking and kayaking-given that we’re here in dry season, a jungle hike was the obvious choice. The town is literally centred on one main road that passes through-and there wasn’t really much else there at all. A few guesthouses, a couple of restaurants and some tour offices-that pretty much sums it up! So we found a guide and opted for a single day hike-the following morning we would be setting off into the Nam Ha protected area for a day in the jungle. It was that evening that we first encountered Lao style balut at the street market that was quite something else-not that we actually tried it, but for those of you that don’t know balut is a developing duck embryo that is boiled and eaten in the shell. Literally you have a ducks egg with the top open, and the head being presented for you to chow down on, definitely something that sits outside of our comfort zone at the moment!
Onto the hike, and it really was great to get out into the jungle for the day. The hiking was of moderate difficulty, which was perfect for just the single day. We passed through primary and secondary jungle areas, before finishing the hike through some rice farms-really was quite stunning:
Fantastic to experience and very much washed the memory of the previous days’ bus journey away, only problem being that we now had to think of the bus to our next stop, Luang Prabang-a mere 9 hours across the mountains…