Several of the places we have visited over the past few months during our travels have been described by our Lonely Planet or Rough Guide as "Travelers head here for a few days and end up staying for weeks", "people find it hard to leave" or "travelers have a habit of getting stuck here". Well I have concluded that the common theme for these places is the abundance of weed or ganja being sold on the street. Conclusion; The Lonely Planet is actually a subversive guide to getting high ...
We are in Luang Prabang, Laos. Its a World Heritage city thanks to the rich French architecture dating from the French colonial occupation. Aside from the architecture, it's impossible to miss the splattering of French influence; From Cafés to croissants to Vin Rouge to Le Ville de la Maison to driving on the Right. It all feels like I am on vacation in the south of France right now. Oh and its a "place people get stuck" which means you'll find weed being sold on every street corner by the revenue seeking Tuk-Tuk drivers.
Night Market, Luang Prabang
Its also a world apart from travelling in Burma. Suddenly there are lots of travelers and tourists. Many restaurants with fine food. The towns night market is exclusively given over to selling souvenirs to the throngs of tourists. We have even met one fine chap wondering the town begging, dressed only in a loincloth and sporting the remnants of what was a full set of teeth. After three days we must have seen the chap a couple of dozen times. We thought professional beggar ... which was confirmed when I saw him zoom off on his motorbike, wearing jeans and T-shirt late one morning. We now laugh and give him a vroom-vroom-vroom every time he comes to beg at us. He can't help but let out a cheeky smile, at which point he wanders off on his quest for easy tourist dollars.
Laos is also home to Beer Laos, probably the best state brewed beer in the world according to most of the travelers I met and Sarah who had it trumped up well before we arrived in Laos. I have to say, I now agree.
There is also plenty to do around Luang Prabang. We went Kayaking for the day on the Nam Ou river. This was one of Sarah's few trips on a Kayak so we opted for a two man sea kayak of the super stable variety. I got to drive with the rear seat and despite some pretty good manoeuvres to avoid bailing out in the rapids ... we eventually did, with one rather large wave hitting us side on. After an immediate yelp from Sarah, we went in. Sarah did not look too pleased once we were in the water, nor did she look too impressed at my driving skills once we got back in the boat. Conclusion; heading for the biggest rapids is not always the best idea to keep in your better-half's good books!
Tad Sae Waterfall
We also rented Mountain Bikes for the day and visited the Tad Sae waterfalls. Rather than one waterfall it consists of a couple dozen cascades and pools which provide a great place to have a dip and escape the heat of SE asia. Surrounding the waterfalls is thick Jungle, confirmed after Sarah went for a short walk with some friends around the top of the waterfall and encountered a Tiger Snake...so called because of the markings and just as dangerous as a tiger due to their venomous bite. Thankfully this snake hurriedly wandered off into the jungle.
To get to Laos we need to transit through Thailand. I must admit I've not really been attracted to Thailand as a place to travel in. My experience of Bangkok a month ago was not something I chose to write about. Ok its a very useful hub, got a rather nice Royal Palace and is a big metropolis which means you can just about buy about anything you want. But I could not help generalise the sort of traveller that this place sees. There are the twenties brigade, that is, 20 something travellers on an hormone fuelled holiday to a Thai beach somewhere. Then there were the 50 something year old men with what appears to be an 18 year Thai girl attached to one shoulder. The Koh San road, touted as the main travellers haunt in Bangkok, was a bit tacky really. Full of hundreds of travellers and the accompanying entourage of sellers touting such things as street food, accommodation, travel, bars, cafes, tatoos, massages, 'special' massages, ping-pong and the like. It just was not my cup of tea.
The Slow Boat to Luang Prabang
So this time round we opted to fly to Chang Mai in Northern Thailand and overland to Laos. Chang Mai was much nicer than Bangkok, but I really have not got much to write about, probably because I did nothing but eat, sleep and go shopping for our next Lonely Planet. I was glad to move on and catch the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang, a two day trip along the Mekong river. They also operate speed boats, a one day trip, which we debated, but passed. The speed boat is a long boat with a huge diesel engine strapped to the back ... it goes so fast that you have to wear full head crash helmets! As they passed our slow boat, I was impressed ... It looked very much the 12 hours of adrenaline fuelled danger, dodging the river debris at very very high speed. The slow boat was very relaxing, allowed me to catch up on some reading and watch the world go by. We stopped overnight in Pak Beng, a small river town, with nothing there other than a curry house with the best curry I've had outside India.
Young Monk Watching working elephants being cleaned in the river
Our plan was to visit the Plain of Jars, a bizarre plain full of Granite boulders carved into Jars. But we have got stuck in Luang Prabang. So instead we are going to miss the Plain of Jars and head directly too Tha Khaek, which is a big limestone area and the top caving area in Laos. I am quite looking forward to getting underground.
Oh and if you have not checked out the latest Muse album, The Resistance... You should, its rather good.