09 February 2011

Laos II

(View the rest of the photos here)

The riverfront at Vang Vieng

This picture sums up Vang Vieng pretty well for me. The town winds along the river, with looming mountains to the east and west. One side of the river has posh hotels perched all along the river, the other seems to be where most of the locals live, and herd their cattle along the riverbank. The bridge between the two is cheekily privately owned, lucky for us it was the dry season or our stubborn free river crossing may not have ended so well. The river is a crazy shade of red due to some roadworks upriver spilling clay into the water.

Pay to cross the bridge?? No thanks, we'll wade...

Yes, the river really was this red.
Our adventures in Vang Vieng included rockclimbing both sides of a small canyon, which was very cool. Our climbing buddies were 3 Dutch girls who had obviously gone shopping together for the most high tech sporting equipment before going overseas - however, it didn't help them reach the top, unlike the scrappy tenacious Aussies. Our climbing guides knew the wall so well they practically talked us to the top. I particularly liked the tree roots from the fig trees at the top which made their way casually down the cliff all the way to the bottom. After 4 not super difficult climbs we were feeling pretty hardcore.

Rock climbing with the Dutch Goddesses and all their matching sporting gear
That speck near the top is me!
Of course, we spent our fair share of time in cafes, admiring the view. :)

This should have been a nice photo.

Onto the tubing phenomenon. It's what Vang Vieng is famous for - which is a little bit strange, given how beautiful the town and it's surrounds are. People hire a tractor inner tube, are packed onto the back of a truck and dropped 3km out of town, to float their way from riverfront bar to riverfront bar back to town. This sounds quite peaceful but the bars are fairly crazy, serving buckets of spirits and providing entertainment such as tall things to leap off and flying foxes into the river. Unsurprisingly, people die every year!

Bamboo Adventure World for drunken grown-ups
We chose to kayak part of the way to the capital, Vientiane, rather than catch the bus the whole way. This was an awesome experience. We paddled about 20km but it felt like 5 because the river was flowing so quickly. Except for the bit where Natalia and I were almost swept down the wrong fork while the rest of our crew paddled merrily on without noticing we weren't there. During our lunch stop I bravely leapt off a fairly tall rock into the river.

Kayaking is a much preferable method of transport
Contemplating the worst case scenario before jumping of an 8m cliff (into the river)
We only spent one day in Vientiane. It's a nice city, but fairly uninspiring (hence no photos). We had an awesome night with Andy, a med student we met rock climbing, and Will, the Laos national basketball team coach (don't snigger). They had both recently settled themselves in Laos so we followed their lead to great food and bottles of BeerLaos before flying out the following day. 

Well that's about it - thanks for reading and perusing my photos :)
over and out


The first thing we noticed on arrival in Luang Prabang, Laos was (apart from the 3 superfluous zeros on all of the currency) how quiet it was compared to the bustle of Siem Reap. To be fair, Siem Reap sees millions of tourists per year, but the locals in Laos seemed to be much more relaxed. Even in the markets people offer their wares once, then seem to get bored and go back to chatting with their neighbor. 

Vat Sen Buddhist temple

 Brent and Karen had already been here for a couple of days, so we met up with them and spent a relaxed few days sightseeing around the town. Luang Prabang is a beautiful World Heritage listed town set on a peninsula between the Mekong and one of it's tributaries. At various points in time it has been the capital of the country, colonised by the French, the Japanese, and somehow missed being carpet bombed during the Vietnam war (unlike most of the rest of Laos). The town is famous for the bright orange-clad monks who lead a silent parade every morning through the streets, collecting alms from the locals in the form of sticky rice. There must be hundreds of monks in residence because you see them wandering around the town all the time, to the point where images of orange robed monks with black umbrellas are on most of the souvenirs for the town.

Morning markets in Luang Prabang
Karen had contacts with a group of people (mostly Australians) who help out at the local orphanage school on a regular basis. Although there are some kids who go home to their families during school holidays, there were a surprising number of kids left behind over the two week break. Unfortunately the staff are on holidays too, so the kids usually just get rice during this time. We were invited along for the day they had organised to go and supply them with some more nutritious food - in the form of pieces of cooked pork and cucumbers. Unusual - but portable! It was a pretty funny day, watching the adults trying to get the kids to go and get their bowls, then round them up into lines to collect some food, then get them back again when there was still some leftover, all with significant language barriers.

Lyn handing out food to some of the boys from the orphanage
The next exciting thing we did (apart from attempt to visit all the cafes in town) was an adventurous day a little way out of town where we got to ride elephants!! One of Laos' nicknames is "land of a million elephants", and we were told that most of the elephants seen in the nearby countries (eg Thailand) have been taken from Laos. There are obviously very few truly wild elephants left; they are such wide roaming creatures with destructive habits to feed their requirements for 150kg of food per day - so it is best for relations with all concerned if they are controlled in some way. We heard a story of one overnight elephant riding trip where the elephant got off it's chain in the night and demolished the entirety of a large market garden, much to the distress of the Mahout (elephant trainer) and the owner of the garden. Many have been used for logging and the ones that we met were ex-logging elephants in "retirement" playing with tourists.

"just a little bit more grass..."

Natalia making friends by bribery with papayas

We rode the elephants into the river bareback, sitting on their necks. The Mahouts told them to sit down in the water while we washed them. I should add that elephants don't seem to be the most obedient of creatures, but fair enough that if you are that big you can ignore a puny human who is shouting at you for quite some time. Especially if you have better things to do (like eat). The mahouts eventually convinced the elephants to dunk their heads in the water (with a trunk up like a periscope) which resulted in Brent and Karen being catapulted off the front. My elephant dunked 3 times - I was very wet but didn't fall off! 

Wet... but happy (Brent's photo)
Brent and Karen left the following day, after a very pleasant evening taking advantage of local cuisine and red wine. They headed on to Phonsavan, a town near to the Plain of Jars sites. They span an area of hundreds of kilometers, dotted with thousands of mysterious large stone jars which keep archaeologists scratching their heads. 

Natalia and I stayed in Luang Prabang for one more exploratory day before heading south to Vang Vieng. The bus trip involved winding through some tiny towns perched precariously on the side of the road, next to a massive dropoff. This meant that everyone used the road as the main place to exist - slightly concerning as we hurtle along with questionable brakes while very small children lay out tall grass heads on the road for making brooms. I bet the broom industry is the most hazardous in Laos.

Mountainous terrain between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng

Next stop - Vang Vieng, tubing and adventure centre of Laos.

05 February 2011


Hi everybody,
I thought it was about time to upload some photos from our recent trip to Cambodia and Laos. You can check out all the photos to go with the following drivel here.

Natalia and I flew to Phnom Penh with Brent, my workmate from DEC. Brent’s partner Karen met us at the airport, as she had been in Cambodia for 2 weeks working with primary school teachers and small kids. She had had a lot of stories to tell about the kids in the orphanages, including a few “cute, small ones” that she wanted to take home with her. She shared these stories with us over a few cheap cocktails at a pub overlooking the bustling streets and the Mekong. Brent and Karen were going directly to Laos the following morning so we bid them farewell on the colourful streets after admiring the local aerobics initiatives that took place along the esplanade.

Natalia and I caught the bus from PP to Siem Reap, the tourism hub of a town next to Angkor Wat. We spent 3 nights there, with one full day (sunrise to sunset) exploring the temples. Sunrise was spent at the main Angkor Wat temple, with the hordes of other tourists trying to get the ‘postcard shot’ of the temple silhouette and reflection pond. After jostling shoulders with everyone for about an hour, the sun rose and crowds dispersed throughout the massive network of stone buildings.

The morning tourist crowd for...

shots of the Angkor Wat silhouette

My favourite temple of the day was Bayon, with towers adorned with large, peaceful buddha-like faces smiling down at those walking through. The faces were even happy enough to trigger Natalia’s “smile detection” on her camera. I was also interested to see the photogenic orange-clad monks from the town coming to pay their respects to the temples. They were such a splash of colour against the monochrome buildings.

We had thought about riding bicycles between the temples but in hindsight were glad we chose to get a tuk-tuk driver as the temples are deceptively massive and 3-4km apart. We were both exhausted by the time we got to the last temple for sunset.

The rest of our time in Siem Reap was spent exploring the town, and escaping the very loud three-day wedding that was taking place next door to our accommodation. These are traditionally held at the house of one of the happy couple, and involved lots of loud music, chanting and speeches through what sounded like a megaphone. Although we couldn’t understand the words being spoken, Natalia and I were convinced at one point that a few scenes from “Monkey” were being played out – I guess drunk people with megaphones act the same all over the world.

At least the wedding was only during the daytime so we busied ourselves with the various cafes and shops around town. Cambodia in general seems to have a huge constituent of non-government organisations, so there are plenty of local artisans selling beautiful bits and pieces for their various organisations. I bought a few pieces of silver jewellery that contained brass from bullets and ordnances left over from the Vietnam War.

Our last morning at Siem Reap was spent doing a bird-nerd tour at a local lake. We saw 40 bird species in one morning, including 3 kingfishers, purple herons, whistling ducks... and some cute puppies in a basket (yes I know they aren't birds). Onwards for a flight to Luang Prabang, Laos, where we met up again with Brent and Karen.