Friday, December 09, 2005

Bangkok to Liverpool

Last day! Screaming hangover from hell from the Long Island Iced Teas. All ideas of a day trip to Ayutthaya out of the window. Eat loads of fruit and eat three muffins from Suk 11's excellent breakfast selection.

Decide to go to the KSR. Get skytrain and river taxi again. Sit in a couple of bars and watch Sesame Street for a while. KSR is one way, a policeman sits by his bike and gives tickets out every two minutes until he is bored. Bare chested english drink beer, loud israelis slsp each other on the back. Hippies sell handbags and maps. Expats rub tiger balm on themselves and inhale Vicks like its something new. Have a couple of M125's to try and come round.

Remember about the roti shop round the corner. Lovely chicken massiman and roti.

Jump back on river taxi and all the way to Nonthaburi. Wander round buy some fruit and back to Suk.

Really just killing time now and camp out at Cheap Charlis until 20:30 and get taxi to Don Muang. 'How much you want to pay?' 'Just put the the meter on' 'No' The stupid thing is the price I actually negotiated was less than the meterd fare and the tip I would have given. So he got 240baht instead of the 300 he would have got if he had been straight.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Chiang Rai to Bangkok

The extremely pleasant staff at Ben Guesthouse gave us a lift to Chiang Rai airport which is 10km from town in their pickup for the 08:20 flight to Bangkok. A quick coffee and swift boarding for the one hour fifteen minute Air Asia flight .

Arrived at Domestic Terminal and joined the taxi queue of about four people. Turn left out of domestic arrivals and 50 meters to your left is the same taxi rank as international arrivals.

Tell the person in the booth where you are going and take the ticket which you give to the driver. Taxi to Sukhumvit Soi 11 was 150 baht on meter and 70 baht expressway charges plus 50 baht airport charge.

Checked into Suk 11 about 11:00. Single room with AC 500 baht. The thing I like about Suk 11 is the age range of the peolple who stay there. It is not a preserve of the 18-25 backpackers but a good mixture of people staying for many different reasons.

Had lunch at Yeung Lee on Sukhumvit on the corner. This place was her 22 years ago when i first visited bangkok as a 22 year old. It has not changed one bit and the duck on steamed rice it still the best i have had anywhere. One plate of this and a large Singha was 140 baht. bargain.

Took the BTS Skytrain from Nana to Saphin Taskin (single journey ticket 35 baht) and then the orange flag boat (13 baht) to Ratchawongse (Pier 5) for a wander round chinatown. Walk straight on to the traffic lights turn right and then just wander around the alleys. Good Sui mai for 3 baht each and nice Har Gow (Pork dumplings) for about 6-7 baht.

Back the same way to Suk 11 for a freshen up then a few beers at Cheap Charlies and then eat at Mrs Balbirs an Indian Restaurant on Soi 11/1 which has been recommended in many guide books. I suspect it has changed hands, I found it expensive and dull.

Few long Island Iced Teas at the cocktail cart outside Suk 11 and to bed

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Houay Xai to Chiang Khong to Chiang Rai

Up early and a couple of Lao Coffees later its border crossing time. The border crossing in half way down the main street. This is probably one of the easiest (lax) crossings you could do. Hand your passport in at the window and receive it back with an exit stamp in about 30 seconds. You can themn go back into town and spend your remaining kip before jumping in one of the waiting longtail boats to take you across the Mekong to Chiang Khong (5,000 kip – pay on boat).

Thai immigration on the other side is just up the hill. Fill in the arrival card and enter visa free in about two minutes. Wainting songthiews can take you to the bus station for buses to Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai (20 baht per person).

The bus to Chiang Rai was 54 baht and took 3 hours including a stop for axle welding and the rivers lunch. We arrive at about 13:00 at the bus station and walk the ten minutes or so to Ben Guesthouse. Again this is a recommendation from Travelfish which comes up trumps. It is in the quiet area of town about 10-15 minutes walk from the night market. It is an old teak house with incredibly friendly staff. R=Rooms 150-300 baht depending on fan/AC/shared/ensuite. A very relaxing place after three days of travelling.

Houay Xai

A sleepy border town however unlike Pakbeng it does not seem a trap. Had planned to stay at the Sabaydee Guesthouse however it was full. Tried the Oudomaphone across the road that was about the best accommodation I stayed in Laos (US$5, 200 baht). The rooms were tiled, had hot water showers and were immaculately clean. Recommended.

We were all completely knackered and eat a good Chicken with holy basil and rice at the Riverside Restaurant and I was in bed by 21:30. A very long day.

Tommorow is the border crossing into Thailand and onto Chiang Rai.

Slowboat (Day 2)

Up at 07:30 and had a quick coffee or two and purchased an overpriced and underfilled sandwich from the waiters come drug dealers at Bounmy Guesthouse. Strolled down to the slowbaoat pier in Pakbeng. Bought a ticket tp Houay Xai (85,000 kip). I ws directed to a much smaller boat than the day before.

Now the yanks were getting twitchy. The planned to get to Chiang mai in Thailand that day. i kept my mouth firmly closed. When asked El Capitane said he did not know when we would arrive at Houay Xai, maybe four or five. I had heard before that the slowboats deliberately dilly dally so everyone misses the border closing at 18:00. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Everything went fine until about three thirty when the crew decided to stop at every village on the banks of the Mekong for a Beer Lao or two

By 17:00 tempers were becoming frayed and he finally admitted that due to the currents we wouldnt make Hoay Xai until 18:30. However he could drop anyone who wanted to make the crossing off at the speed boat pier and then they could get a tuk tuk at a cost of 5,000 kip each which would get them to lao's immigration in time. The Tuk tuks packed with irrate Americans reached the border at 18:05 - it was shut.

It didn't bother me but this is an obvious ply that fills up guest houses in Houay Xai and andds to the governments coffers in visa overstay charges.

We were not bothered anyhow but its worth knowing if you time poor and have no days left on your visa. They do the trip every day and could easily start at 08:00 or 07:30 and be in plenty of time. The trip took about 10hours

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Pakbeng

I have to say that Pakbeng was one of the worst places I have ever satyed in my life. Not the place itself nor the place I stayed (Bounmy Guest House - 150 baht a night and no rats with an excellent restaurant), but just the attitude. If one place gives an indication of what Laos might become, like many other South East Asian countries, this is it.

They have quickly learnt that you are either fresh off he boat from Chiang Khong and like a startled rabbit in a car's headlights or you have come from Luang Prabang and realise you are trapped for the night.

Everything is overpriced and of poor quality. You will be gone in the morning. The waiters and cooks double up as opium and dope dealers. End of Pakbeng rant.

Slowboat (Day 1)

Left Heritage Guest House at about 06:30 to watch the monks walking through town for alms.

It was a sight you probably dont see on such a scale anywhere elsein the world. Cool. Had a couple of black coffees and bought a tuna baguette and some water for the slowboat journey.

Arrived at the pier at about 08:00 and checked in at the ticket booth. Boat left at 09:00. The boat was only about half full and I was glad to see had cushions and a large supply of Beer Laos.

Some people were asking how long in would take from Louang Prabang to Pakbeng. Six hours? Seven hours? Don't believe a word, upstream it takes nine and a half hours. Yes nine and a half hours to Pakbeng.

The journey however was pleasant with great scenery, water buffalo and elephants along the banks. We arrived at Pakbeng in near darkness at 18:15. Not a bad day and had met some interesting people and some complete bores to.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Louang Prabang (Part 2)

A very lazy day just wandering around the old city and walking along the banks of the Mekong. This really is beautiful place, very quiet and relaxed. The type of place thats make you think "I could live here"

I went to the Royal Palace Museum a shrine to the moarchy which was overthrown in the late 60's by the new regime. It is s fascinating insight into the royal era of Louang Prabangs history in an amazing building decorated with japanese glass murals.

Visited a couple of Wats.

Took a boat to the other side of the mekong (10,000 kip) and had fried rice with beef at avery nice no-name restairant for 8,000 kip. Great views over the mekong back to Louang Prabang.

Met up with a couple of people early evening and went to one of the oudoor restaurants at the junction of the night clothes and food market. They have a large assortment of vegetarian stuff with rice and noodles for 5,000 kip a plate (add 10,000 for a barbecued chicken breast or a whole fish).

Ended up in a bar by the Palace (Naos Place) with a couple of guys one Japenese one English had a few beers and a Lao Lao and back to Heritage House for a sleep. The whole of Louang Prabang is asleep by 22:30 so its not exacltly a party town but in some ways thats what makes it so pleasant.

Plan to go to Hmong village, organise slowboat and visit waterfalls today.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Louang Prabang

The day started of at the bus station on the old airstrip. Bought a ticket from the station for the VIP bus to Louang Prabang. Big coach type bus so plenty of legroom. Cost $7. Better than the minibus I reckon and takes about 1 hour longer. Left at 10:30. It is the only bus I have been on where the driver was crippled and appeared to be paralysed donw his left hand side. Oh well!

Stopped several time for toulet and sick stops and for lunch. We had chickens under our table. vian Flu eat your heart out.

Arrived at bus staion about 3km outside town. Tul Tuk into town 5,000 kip per person (they want 10,000 but take 5,000 without much hassle.

Drops of by post office on main drag. Checked into Heritage House in centre on old city and paid ten dollars for location more than anything else. It is quaint with little green shuttered windows.

Was just about to take a wander and met Phil who I bumped into in Nong Khai. We went to a barbecue place on the mekong with some of his friends from Vang Vieng.

The barbecue was great buffalo, beef and pork that you gook yourself over charcoal on your table on a grill surrounded by a moat that you fill with garlic flavoued stock and cook your vegetable s, noodles, eggs etc in. Whole thing for two 25,000 kip recommended.


Had a couple of beers and decidedto go to a local lao disco miles out of town. My oh my what a ball. The musidwas a sort of Thai technopop and everyone looked about 10 years old but boy was it rocking. Unfortunately it closed at 11.30 because of National Day today. Back home and tucked upby 12:00.

Going to take a walk around Louang Prabang today.

Cheers

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Vang Vieng (Part 2)

The tubing was a laugh, very relaxing and beautiful scenery. Whole thing costs US$3.5 plus one dollar extra if you want a dry bag for camera and money. Most of the bars along the river have swings, zip lines and jumping areas to hurl yourself off. All obviously sell Beer Lao and some offer free Lao Lao (very dangerouus). Whole trip actually took more like 4.5 to5 hours with all the stop. Great fun though as long as you don't get to drunk and burn to a cinder.

In the eveningwent fora pizza with Alan and Olivia who I met floating by. Had pizza fordinner (well it is VV after all) Can't remember the place but one of the roads off Pizza Street, hence they were edible. About 25,000 kip for a Calzone.

Was fairly knackered and went to bed aout 22:00.

Got up erly again and had more noodle soup. I have had enough of eggs andbaguttes now. Took a Green Ecotours trip (at main intersection on Pizza Street) for US$15. There all much about the same price anyway.

The trip was basically 09:30 - 17.00. About 60 percent of it Kayaking, 30 percent trekking and going through two caves and 10 percent transport. Its well worth it though and you even get to stop at the Organic Mulberry Tea Farm, although they appeared to be out of Mulberry Shakes but had all the others, odd for a place thats sole raison d'etre is Mulberry production.

Just had a shower and a Beer Lao at Sunset Bar (straight on over the bamboo bridge). I find it more relaxed than the Island Bar.

Will find somewhere that sells Laos food tonight, not as easy as youwould imagine here.

Bus to Louang Prabang tommorow US$7.5 and departs 09:30 and takes 6- 6.50 hours.

Cheers

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Vang Vieng

I am now in Vang Vieng.

A minibus picked me up from the Phone Paseuth Guest House at 10:00 and transfered to another minibus which then did the run along Highway 13 in three hours and fifteen minutes. Not too bad at all.

Some interesting peolpe on the bus non more so than the German bloke with his thai rent boy. How can anyone be so thick skinned to thing in normal to take your rent boy on a tourist bus? Arrived at Vang Vieng just after 13:00.

Had a quick look at travelfih website witha British and Australian couple and decided on Riverside Bungalows. The accommodatio ranges from simple huts with a fan an mossie net for US$3.80 up to large rooms with AC and ensuite for $12. I plumped for the simple hut mainly because you don't really need AC at this time of year. The huts have spectacular views over the karsts and are away from the main drag with its pizza reataurants showing endless re-runs of Friends and selling happy and happy happy pizza. It is a bit of a backpacker centre but it is quite easy to avoid most of the 'scene' if you make a little effort.

Overall I reckon it is well worth it.

Last night I eat at Erawan about the poshesst place in VV. I went mad and ordered steak, french fries, green salad, baguette, glass of red wine and a Lao Lao lemonade. The bill was 85,000 kip (four pounds 25 pence) and this really is splasing out. Lunch was noodle soup with pork down by the river in one of the little shacks in the picture.

Today i am going tubing (US$4) they pick you up in a tuk tuk and drive you 5Km upstream where you launch yourself into the river on a large tractor inner tube and float back downstream back to town. Whole journey take 2.5 to 3 hrs and there are stalls along the way selling Beer Lao.

Going to get some sunblock and look into some trekking, caving and kayaking for tommorow.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Vientienne

The actual place I am have been staying is the Phone Paseuth Guest House it is very central right next to Namphu Square on Pangkham Road. US$15. Very clean and recently renovated by the looks of things.

Saturday night I eat at Le Provencal on Namphu Square and went for pizza, I need a days break from rice and noodles. It was very good with anchovies and olives and spicy sausage. The effects of all the travelling caught up with me and after a few Beer Laos was tucked up in bed at about 22:00.

Sunday woke up at about six a clock and went for a stroll around down by the Mekong but not a lot doing at that time. The laos people seem tohave retained a lot of the beter frenc influences like long lunch hours, siestas and Sunday closing. Founf a cafe open at about 09:00 and sat around drinking Cafe Laos and eating some eggs and baguettes.

Walked to the morning market and on to Patouxai - a large victory arch. From here I jumped a tuk tuk to That Louang, the buddhist stupa and national symbol of Laos.

I forgot to mention that Saturday early evening I got completely lost. Once you get away from the familiar territory of Setthathilat Road, the Mekong and Namphu area it is easy to become disorientated. Once I realised I was lost I just kept on going and mooching around ten hailed a tuk tuk bachk to Namphu for 6,000 kip. I am quite glad I got lost as I saw many things I might not have seen otherwise.

Went for lunch at Sabaydi Restaurant on Setthathilat Road and had Fried noodles wit chicken (15,000 kip). By then it was becoming hot so sat for a couple of hours in Khop Chai Deu on e of the most popular farang bars with a pleasant outdoor patio. Draft Beer Lao 6,000 kip a glass.

Hired a bicycle for a couple of hours in the afternoon and then decided to investigate getting to Vang Vieng on Monday morning. All travel agents sen to do minibuses for about 45,000 - 50,000 kip or $US5. I was going to just get a bus from the bus station but laziness kicked in and I booked with an agent. The minibus leaves at 10:00.

Went back to the hotel about 16:30 for a shower and a change of clothes then set of along the Mekong to find one of the riverside bars for sunset. Its a good walk past all the drinks and food stalls that set up late after noon then eventually you come to a sring of bars. Got chatting to a couple of aussies who taught at a university in Bangkok and were on a short hop over to Laos. They were good to talk to and we had a laugh over a few Beer laos and some Lao Lao.

I eat at NaZim, an Indian place down by the river on the main drag. Mutton curry, nan bread, rice and a large Beer laos for 37,000 kip. It was excellent.

Its now Monday morning and am typing this as i wait for my bus. I hope all of you at home are enjoying your work!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Into Laos

Well it was really simple really.

Hired a bike yesterday morning for 28 baht and had a little peddle west of Nong Khai past the Friendship Bridge out into the countryside. Boy oh boy it was hot. I have not lost the ability to ride a bike but breathing at the same time is not easy. The paddies were green and the little stops for Chang refreshing.

Got back to Mutmee for lunch and had Tom Yam and more Chang.

Headed out east in the afternoon to the Sculpture Park about a half hour ride. All sorts of statues Buddah, Ganesh you name it he modelled it.

Back to Nong Khai and Mutmee for prawn curry and rice.

is little cheese in Thailand Gromit.

Attempted the evening cruise along the Mekong but not enough takers (10 minimum) so had to drink some Sang Som, fortinately some people fro Burnley helped me finish the bottle..

Early to bed and actually learned how to work the IPod speaker system I bought whilst bored in Manchester airport.

Getting to Laos

Chicken Soup and Rice up at corner place - 35 baht. Tuk Tuk to bus station 40 baht. Get on bus 10 baht, get off bus. Immigration stamping thing. Get on bus 10 baht (groundhog day) get off bus. Fill in form and have 30 dollars ready plus one extra because its a Saturday. Hand all in at IN window (you open window they wont, stare as much as you want) They will then shut window. Move two meters to right to OUT window. Wait until window opened and your name (Mr Ben) is called. Get in big queue. Receive lots of stamps in passport and proceed to Laos.

Head left and drink Beer Laos.

Taxi to Mali Namphu GH. 100 baht. Did you confirm your reservation Sir? Go nextdoor and check in to different place. It's one think I hate about Asia, everyone assumes you won't show.

Lazy lunch. Now get this. Broccolli Soup, baguette, pork steak in red wine jus with real chips made of proper potatoes, mustard, camenbert, coffee and red wine for 7 US dollars.

Going to hire a bike now!

Friday, November 25, 2005

Liverpool to Nong Khai


I had already decided to go straight to Nong Khai rather that stop over in Bangkok. This sounded like a good idea. Little did I know that it would take 22.75 hours from Lime Street to the check in desk at Mutmee Guest House in Nong Khai.

It all started at 09:15 on 23rd November with an 11 pounds 70p return to Manchester Airport. Having succesfully navigated the Fast Track Ticket machine and necking a double Espressso the train left on time.

I only really noticed the fog about St. Helens, it didn't really click until I saw the depatures board. Every other plane, apart from mine to Amsterdam and another to Paris, both Fokker 70's, were on time, but obviously the Fokker has problems with fog that other planes don't. So a 3 hour delay.

Terminal 2 really is the pits one bar - a pseudo french affair "Bar des Voyageurs" staffed entirely by sultry east european staff with an attitude to boot. Kilkenny was the least obnoxious brew at 2 pounds 99 a pint.

The flight eventually departed at about 15:40 which at least meant only two hours in Schipol.

The flight to BKK left on time. The internet check in came up trumps. I reserved seat 21H by the emergency exit with acres of legroom. Thank you "seat finder". Unfortuntely a rather large dutch man had.reserved seat 21I so what I gained in one direction I lost in the other.

The plane landed at Don Muang at 12.07 on Thursday 24th November. I now had a four hour+ wait for the Air Asia flight to Nong Khai.

In the meantime I reaquainted myself with Beer Chang and had a good pork with holy basil and rice at the Silom Village Restaurant.

Air Asia flight left eventually at 17:00 getting to Nong Khai 45 minutes later than scheduled at 18:00. From here a quick 100 baht minibus to Mutmee Guest House (Tickets from Limousine Service Counter by exit to airport)

Had a reservation at Mutmee and checked in to my sigle room at 130baht (less than 2 quid) a night. Was increaddibly tired now but wanted to stay awake until about 22:00. Forced a couple of Beer Chang down and had a large fresh water fish with a coconut cream and chilli sauce. Excellent.

Mutmeee is all it promised to be. A very relaxed guest house with lovly gardens overlooking the Mekong River.

Beakfast today consisted of and omelette and a Laos Coffee.

I am now going to hire a bike and cycle along the Mekong for a few hours then take a short river cruise tonight.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Bangkok to Vientiane (Redux)

Bus

OK get the bus from the Northern Bus Station (Morchit), don’t try and walk from the Skytrain stop. Get a cab or get a cab all the way there.

Bangkok – Nong Khai - Vientiane

Bangkok. – Nong Khai:

Transport Co. Thailand AC Bus (
545baht, 614kms, 10hrs, Departs: 20.30,21.00, Arrives 06:30, 07.00

Nong Khai -Vientiane
Transport Co. Thailand AC Bus/Lao PDR bus

07.30 Nong Khai Vientianne 30 baht TC Thailand
10.30 Nong Khai Vientianne 30 baht TC Lao PDR
15.00 Nong Khai Vientianne 30 baht TC Thailand
18.00 Nong Khai Vientianne 30 baht TC Lao PDR

The Nong Khai - Vientiane route is about 30 kms and will be covered in 30 minutes, excluding the time that will be spent at the border crossing.

Train

Bangkok – Nong Khai - Vientiane

Bangkok – Nong Khai

Get yourself to Hualamphong train station in Bangkok (Taxi or skytrain/subway)

Train number: 137 * 133 77 69 *
Bangkok (Hualamphong) depart: 05:50 18:30 20:00 20:45
Bangkok Airport (Don Muang) depart: 06:42 19:25 20:45 21:32
Ayutthaya depart: 07:26 20:11 21:21 22:11
Nong Khai arrive: 17:30 07:20 06:00 08:55

Fares about 500 baht or less depending on class, speed and air.

See here

Then bus as above.

Flying

Bangkok – Udon Thani – Vientiane

Its taxi to Don Muang time. About 250 -300 baht including toll fees.

Bangkok – Udon Thani

You can buy your tickets online at
Nok Air or Air Asia online or at 7 Elevens, ATMs and airport counter service.

Typical fares on Nok Air at the end of this month are 1450 baht. Air Asia run at about 1250 baht

Flight times

Nok Air

Depart: 06:00Arrive: 07:05

Depart: 12:20Arrive: 13:25

Depart: 17:40Arrive: 18:45

Air Asia

Depart: 16:15
Arrive: 17:15

Udon Thani – Vientiane

Buses (timetables adjusted to meet planes)

07.00 Udon Thani Vientianne 80 baht TC Thailand
09.30 Udon Thani Vientianne 80 baht TC Lao PDR
15.00 Udon Thani Vientianne 80 baht TC Thailand
17.00 Udon Thani Vientianne 80 baht TC Lao PDR

The Udon Thani - Vientiane route is about 80 kms and will be covered in a little more than an hour, excluding the time that will be spent at the border crossing

All buses stop at Nong Khai

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Out of planning into real time - two weeks to go!

Panic! Hair too long! Not enough time!

Two weekends to go. Next weekend off to
Center Parcs in Cumbria with about six kids and eight adults. That does Friday midday to Monday midday in. Archery and the Green Room?

Still need to buy trousers and a couple of shirts. At work all week trying to find sites in Liverpool to re-cycle other peoples rubbish.

Hair cut Wednesday?


Match on Saturday - Portsmouth at Anfield.

Need to buy wall tiles, flooring and lights for bathroom. Marc doing bathroom whilst away. Sunday ?
Wash clothes.

Pack - what?

I have always loved this. Nearly as much as
Chanchao's driving guide to Thailand


"Dear Fellow Travellers...

Something tells me I'll catch some flack for this, but after making fifteen trips to Asia in as many years,this is my packing checklist. Yes, it's a lot of stuff. Yes, I travel "heavy". Yes, I'm TOTALLY self sufficient, and prepared for ANY kind of travel situation! I never bring all of these things, but I always bring most of them, especially the lighter items. I figure: if it's small and doesn't weigh much, what the heck --- I might as well bring it since I'm taking all that other junk anyway.

Wash up and Medical: Shaving cream, razor, extra blades, deoderant, hand soap, washcloth, headband, shampoo, comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, toothpicks, floss, vitamins, aspirin, cold pills, Sudafed, nasal spray, swimmer’s ear drops, eyedrops, eyemask, Melatonin nail clipper, tweezers, Q-tips, condoms, etc. Imodium bandages, Neosporin sunscreen, lip balm, mosquito repellent, insect sting reliever, small padlock, tie-wraps, drain stopper (for sinks and bathtubs without one!)

Miscellaneous: Daypack, umbrella, compass (OK, you’re walking in Bangkok and the sign says Ratchadamri Road, but which direction are you going?) Nylon cord, adhesive/sealing tape (Always gets used up), ziplock bags, big plastic bags, knife, fork, spoon, chopsticks (option), Swiss army knife, mini scissors, flashlight with extra batteries, bulbs, 2 or 3 lighters, candles laundry soap, vegetable scrubber (for scrubbing clothes & cleaning shoes!), toilet paper, bath towel, loufa (it weighs nothing and will scrape away that ground in backpacker dirt!), mosquito net (option), inflatable pillow (option), sleeping sheet (option), (a bedsheet sewn up like a sleeping bag; good for warm climates and good when your guesthouse bed is grungy!), immersion heater, camping pot (option), instant food, snack foods (option), particle mask (for walking in Bangkok!)

Reading/Writing: Zipper envelope with pens, pencils, envelopes, paper mini world atlas, address book, visa photos, extra business/personal cards

Books: Reading books, guidebooks, local maps, songbook

Gifts/Show & Tell: Little presents, photos of self, home, family, etc. postcards, old stamps (a cheap bagful from a collector's shop --- light, cheap educational gift for kids!)

Valuables and carry on: Passport, traveler’s checks (with seperate list of numbers), ATM card, credit cards, personal checks, visa photos, money belt (to wear INSIDE your clothing), cash & local currency , plane tickets, sunglasses (worn at “night” to help beat jet lag on the plane), glasses cas, ear plugs, eye mask, Melatonin (in carry on bag)

Clothes: Nylon pants (great for travelling!), other pants, jeans (option) (not great for travelling), 3-5 prs underwear, 3-5 prs socks, 1-2 pr shorts, 1 swimsuit, 2 T-shirts, 2 good shirts, 1 pr good shoes (option), sports sandals (better than cheap Asian “flip flops”, which are named that because they have no traction --- wear them to the outside toilet at night and when you step into the first puddle, you’ll flip flop right onto your ass!)

Other medical items: (all optional). Flagyl (in case of dysentary), Antibiotics, Dettol, etc. (for first aid; this stuff will kep infections from getting worse in Asia), Moleskin (for trekking; in case of blisters).Thermometer, Acetazolamide (for altitude illness if trekking on high mountains)

Photo: (all optional) Digital SLR camera and camera kit with 25mm lens, flash, batteries. Extra lenses, U/V, Sun, other filters, tripod, beanbag. Mini binoculars

Electronics: (all optional) IPod, MP3 player, shortwave radio, antenna, calculator, mobile phone, all adaptors, telephone extension cord (more for business travel --- sometimes it’s great to have a nice long phone cord in the hotel room), AC adaptors, extension cord, etc. Mosquito zapper & tablets (Like an “electric” mosquito coil; buy it in any Asian department store, it really works)

Hiking/Trekking gear: (all optional) Hiking boots with oil & extra laces (for serious trekking only!), parka, 2-4 prs heavy wool socks and an altimeter "

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Vieng Xai

A rather spooky town, Vieng Xai is the living time capsule of a grandiose moment in Lao history: the victorious culmination of a three-decade Communist insurgency that cut the country from 200 years of Thai and French colonialism.

It is also, by any stretch, a ghost town worthy of the Twilight Zone crumbling with vestiges of jingoism and failed pretensions to Soviet grandeur. A very spooky town.

The town's central monument - a prematurely ageing cement statue of a rifle-toting female farmer, a soldier and a worker whose foot rests triumphantly on a bomb marked "USA" - has the flimsy amateur feel of a backdrop in a school play.

Never has a lesser word been said in jest. God bless America.

Weeds and piles of rubbish overrun the courtyard in the boarded-up cultural centre, while the giant circular Party emblem mounted above the centre's entrance is flaking apart, its faded Lao flag barely recognisable and the star on its wreath dangling by a nail.

It's hard to imagine how this loop of streets once merited the distinction "City of Victory", or even just "city", much less that leaders of the Lao revolution envisaged it would become a remote cultural oasis and symbolic cradle of Marxism in Laos.

Of course, these were men who barely saw a full day's sunlight in more than a decade. Then again, maybe this is an apt symbol.

Lying at the base of a limestone mountain range between Xam Neua and the Lao-Vietnamese border at Nam Meo, it was from Vieng Xai that the Lao Communist Party (the Pathet Lao) waged its "30-year struggle" against a succession of coalition governments and US-backed Royal Lao forces that ended in 1975.

For ten years starting in 1963, when relentless US air strikes began showering northern Laos with cluster bombs, Pathet Lao leaders lived in an extensive network of limestone caves, effectively operating a shadow government from a hidden city.

Though farmers spent the war years in and out of the hundreds of caves speckling the town's environs, only five caves make up the official tour of Vieng Xai. Well-preserved, if a bit spartan, the quintet served as the headquarters for the masterminds of the Pathet Lao.

Arrival and after

Tuk tuks generally depart the Sam Neua bus station every half an hour from early morning until about 15:00 or 16:00. The journey costs 7,000 kip per person, and takes about an hour. No guide no hidden city. No money no guide.

Sleep

The modest Vieng Xai hotel: an almost crestfallen guesthouse once in the day built to billet foreign luminaries, though the exiled Lao royal family and their re-education camp-bound followers may have been the Vieng Xai's best customers.

Now looking more like a hospital than a four-star hotel, rooms go for $2-3 and can come with breath-taking views of the limestone mountains and the cluster of Hmong houses next door.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Muang Xing

The town of Muang Xing lies on the river plains of the Nam La to the north-west of Luang Namtha. The town is a historic centre that was formerly an outpost of the Sipsongpanna Empire based in southern Yunnan in China.

The town is home to a number of ethnic minorities as well as lowland Lao, Tai Lue, Thai Neua and Thai Dam you can also find dreadlocked immigrants from Pai (once thought to be extinct). The town of Muang Xing has a number of guesthouses where trekking and hiking trips can be arranged.

In many ways, the lives of people in Muang Xing remain simple and calm, since the 'modern' world does not intrude as much as it does elsewhere - at least, not yet.


People get married at a very young age, many are not highly educated and work in farms. Men work on rice fields and collect wood while the women boil liquor, pick wild plants in the forest with friends, and feed the pigs. Old men do basketry at open-air basements, as the old women feed the chickens and take care of their grandchildren.

Self-reliance seems to be the only way for these people to go, although they do not have much money and things in today's cash economy are far too expensive for them.


Moving On

Tickets to Luang Namtha are bought at a small wooden shack on the opposite side of the road from the market and bus station, just near the post office.

Songtheaw at 08:00 – 2 hours (15,000 kip) also at 09:30, 11:00, 13:00, 14:00; 15:00 and whenever

Sleeping

Guesthouses to try are Daen Neua Guesthouse and Phou Iu Guesthouse .

Things to do

Go to the market, hire a bike, trek and generally relax etc



Luang Namtha

Located in the northern part of Laos, Luang Namtha Province shares its north-western border with Myanmar and its north-eastern border with China.

It is an interesting place to visit from an environmental, social, cultural and historical point of view and has become something of a centre for sustainable cultural and eco-tourism over the last few years. The forests are dense, and cover near 99% of the protected area.

Luang Namtha has a large and diverse range of ethnic groups, many of whom still live traditional life styles. The main ethnic groups in the area are Tai Yuan, Black Red and White Tai, Tai Lue, Khmu, Rok, Ahka, Lanten, Mien and Hmong. Most of the ethnic handicraft traditions particularly weaving are alive and well.

Getting to Luang Namtha town and away

Airport: 5km south of town. Tuk-tuk’s cost 3-5,000kip/person.
Lao Airlines Office: South of the town, on the Main Road near the bank. Opening hours Monday to Friday 08:00 -12.00, 13.00-16:00, Saturday 08:00-12:00. no tickets issued at the airport. US$ cash only. To Vientiane: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 13:00 $80. To Houay Xai: Monday and Friday 12:00 $41. To Luang Prabang: Monday and Friday 10:00 $37


Bus station: South of the town, two blocks west. The buses leave here at 08:00 but after that time, it all depends on the number of passengers and the availability of buses. During the rainy season, only vehicles, which have enough power, can be used and the fare may be raised.

To Udonxai: 21,000k 08:00, 11:00 4hrs
To Luang Prabang: 08:30-09:30
To Muang Xinh: 15,000k 08.0-15:00 many trucks, 1.5 hrs.
To Boten: 15,000k 8:00, 11:00, 13:00, 2.0hrs
To Xiangkok: 15,000k 3.5hrs
To Houay Xai: 65,000k 8:00 8-10 hr, very bad road. There is a small village between Louang Namtha and Houay Xaii, called Vieng Phukha, which has two guesthouses (single 10,000k, double 15,000k) and electricity. Fare: Houexai to this village 40,000k and this village to Luang Namtha 25,000k

Boat: The boat landing is 6km from the town. It is possible to travel to Houay Xai via Pak Tho. The journey takes two days. The availability of the service is dependant on water level and a certain amount of manana.


Where to stay

Quite a bit of accommodation has sprung up in recent years. The poshest place in town in the well regarded Boat Landing Guest House or for a cheaper alternative maybe have a look at the Gold Source Guest House or the Luang Nam Tha Guest House


Monday, October 24, 2005

Phongsali

Phongsali Province tucked between China, Vietnam and Oudomsay Province in Northern Lao is a beautiful, relatively untouched area of South East Asia. Phou Fa Mountain, the province's landmark, overlooks Phongsali city.

The province is extremely mountainous with elevation 450 m to 1,800 m above sea level.
Twenty eight distinct hill tribes live in Phongsali.

There are no borders open to foreigners between Phongsali and either China or Vietnam at this point, making it a bit of a dead-end destination for travellers and, as such, is relatively unspoiled by farang.

Many of Lao's endangered species, both flora and fauna, find home in Phongsali Province, and the province's 222,000 hectares of protected lands. Hunting for food and medicinal purposes presents the greatest threat to the various animals in the region, whilst slash and burn agriculture threatens some species of trees

Getting there and away

It is possible to reach Phongsali by boat, bus or car, and air.

Various bus routes include:

Direct from Vientiane (via Luang Prabang and Oudomsay, overnight)
From Luang Prabang (via Oudomsay, overnight)
From Oudomsay (depart morning, arrive evening)

The Nam Ou provides boat services to Phongsali with beautiful. From Oudomsay catch a bus to Muang Khua. From there a boat will take you to Hatsa, a 20km truck ride from Phongsali.

Similarly, boat trips can be had from Hatsa to either Muang Khua or to Nong Khiaw. Slow boats and speed boats are available. Slow boats make the journey from Hatsa to Muang Khua in about 5 hours and speed boats make it to Luang Prabang in about 6 hours.

Air transportation from Vientiane and Luang Prabang is also available every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. The plane arrives in Bounneua, a 41km bus ride from Phongsali. Bounneua has two buses a day to Phongsali, which are the buses passing through from Oudomsay. They are at approximately 11:30 and 16:00. It is not possible to fly from Phongsali to Luang Prabang directly as the plane returns directly to Vientiane.

Places to stay

In Phongsali try Sensaly Guesthouse and try the noodle soup shop opposite the Agriculture Bank and the Museum.

In Muang Hua try the Nam Ou Guesthouse right on the riverbank

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Rats for lunch, rats for tea and rats in one's fishermans pants

A series of rat stories from people who don’t like rats

Boy

At night the rats sprinted the length of the building with Olympic enthusiasm. They skittered above the flimsy ceiling and beneath the rickety floorboards. They dodged beneath my bed and scrabbled up the walls. I'd foolishly left some peanut brittle in my pack and this attracted every rat in the place. I could hear rats above and below and to either side of me, all frantically scuttling after the scent of sugar and peanuts. In the end I chucked the candy out the window and it banged loudly on the roof of the toilets, provoking indignant protests in Laotian. At this point, however, the rats left me in peace.

American Boy

In the same village during the night I didn't sleep that much because of the noises. It was a kind of swish but I didn't figure out the source. In the morning one of the first words I heard waking up was the date cursing since in the night time some strange animal had gnawed her cap that she had left on the floor. Which animal remained a mystery, but the next morning it was the fat girl’s turn, in fact her handbag got holed by the same animal who reached and stole my goddam chewing gums. Ironic or what?

Girl, Girl, Girl

We almost forgot about this, till the day we were on the way back to Luang Prabang sitting on one of the trucks Lao people use as buses. A lady got on carrying a big stinky box that she put right in front of me. It was so stinky that I almost felt to throw up and one man was laughing looking at me. Still giggling he opened the box and picked up a big black flat stinky dried rat!!!!!!!!! Shit!! It is was so disgusting! Maybe not still happy he showed me the box full of such crap rats.

Organic Eco Girl

The rooms, with walls of woven bamboo, overlooked a ricefield and fishponds and were spartan but clean. While it was charming to look out of our window and see water buffalo grazing and hear the frogs at night, the rat that decided to visit us at night wasn't so welcome. But that is part of visiting the countryside as well. All the noise we made in searching for him convinced him not to return for a second look around so the rest of our stay was peaceful.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Savannakhet

Savannakhet (officially known as Muang Khanthabouli, but more commonly called Savan or Muang Savan) was established in 1642 by Lao prince "Thao Keosimphali"

He brought many families from Ban Phonsim (18 kms east of the present Savannakhet town) to settle down along the bank of the Mekong river and named his small town 'Ban Thahae'

Some crossed the Mekong river to settle down along its bank and named their town 'Ban HuayMuk' (it's known today as Mukdahan or Muang Muk).

The original name of the town was "Souvannaphoum". In 1883, the year of the French colonization, the province's name was changed by the French to Savannakhet. It's a second largest city and the most populated province in Laos - (2005 census: 824,662 people).

It is located just across the Mekong river from Mukdahan, Thailand.

Savan has twelve different ethnic groups, the city is mixed of Lao, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese communities. Savan is also a major trading route in the southern part of Laos. Lao, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese-made goods pass through this city daily.

Like many cities in Laos, Savannakhet has a number of French colonial and Franco-Chinese buildings. Savannakhet is home to the dinosaur remains discovered by the French geologist in 1936 at Ban Namo. There is an excellent museum containing many fossilised remains (5,000 kip)

Getting there


Bus

About 50m west of the bus station is the market and songthaew stand where songthaews leave regularly in the morning and very irregularly in the afternoon to destinations throughout the province. Best to get here at around 07:00 to be sure of a prompt departure, though better still to check estimated departure times the day before.

At the bus station, the station manager speaks English and timetable information is displayed in English as well, though again, best to check the day before as timetables may fluctuate. Try to get on the bus about 30 minutes before departure to be sure of a seat.

The bus to Vientiane picks up and drops of at Tha Khaek, Paksan, Pakading, Nam Thone and just about everywhere else. Other buses opereate to Pakse and Xephon

Accommodation


Places to consider are the
Nong Soda Guesthouse on the riverside and the very popular centrally located Saisouk Guesthouse.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Don Khon - The Irawaddy Dolphins

In the area around Don Khon in the Mekong River at the southernmost tip of Laos you can sometimes see the Irrawaddy dolphin. The freshwater dolphin is also called 'pla ka' and gets its name from the Irrawaddy river in Burma, and is classified as among the world's most endangered mammals.

The Irrawaddy dolphins—Orcaella brevirostris—can be found in other parts of the region, from the Bengal Bay to Papua New Guinea, from Northern Australia to the South China Sea.

Their habitat varies from estuary to the bank of fresh water rivers such as the Irrawaddy in Myanmar, Mahakham in Indonesia, Bhramabutra in India and the lower Mekong.

Traditionally, the dolphins are neither hunted nor their meat eaten. However, they come into regular contact with human beings because of their habitat—warm, shallow coastal waters.

Recent studies indicate that the majority of the dolphin population have migrated to Laos' southern neighbour, Cambodia

Current estimates estimate that there are 40 dolphins in the north-eastern part of Cambodia, from a total of about 100 dolphins altogether in the Mekong river.

During the flooding season, Mekong dolphins follow migratory groups of fishes from the eastern Cambodian province of Kratie to various tributaries upstream.

But during the dry season, usually December to mid-May, their sanctuary is limited. Usually they migrate to the river's "deep pools" to ensure their own safety and to use as feeding ground during this time, and this makes them easy to spot.

Surveys show that there are 36 "deep pools" in the Mekong, including the ones in lower Sekong and Se San Rivers, apart from the other five tributaries along the Lao-Cambodia border, for Irawaddy dolphins to take refuge in during the dry season.


When to go:

The southwest monsoon brings heavy rains around May that last into November. This is when the Mekong can rise ten or more meters. Immediately following the rainy season is a good time to visit. Waters have subsided, revealing the islands in the Si Phan Don area but the river level is still high enough to allow boats to make it all the way to Khong Island. The dolphins are best sighted during the first few months of the dry period.

How to get there

Bus

To/From Pakse


From Nakasang you can get a bus to Pakse for $3 which takes about 3 hours. Buses leave (Nakasang) at 06:00,07:00,08:00 and 09:00. There is a pickup that leave at 10:30 for $5 per person (5 people minimum).


To/From Don Khong

From Nakasang you can get a Pakse bound bus to Hat Xai Khun for the crossing to Don Khong (at Muang Khong) which costs $1. If you couldn't be bothered waiting for the bus, a motorbike will take you there in a fraction of the time for $3.

Boat

Don Khon can be reached two main ways -- by boat from Don Khong, or by boat from Nakasang. Don Khon is connected to Don Dhet by the silly French bridge.

To/From Don Khong

The trip from Don Khong takes around 1.5 hours depending on the time of the year and quality of the boat. From Don Khong to Don Dhet costs $15 for 1 to 4 people or $4 per person for 5+.

To/From Nakasang

The trip takes about 15 minutes and costs $1 per person or $3 for the boat.To/From PakseIf you are intent on doing the whole thing by boat, the boat from Pakse arrives too late in the day to continue by boat down to Don Khon unless you want to hire a whole boat. You will have considerable trouble convincing a boatman to do the trip at night.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Pakse

Although counting only about 30,000 inhabitants, Pakse is the most important town of South Laos. Situated at the confluence of the Xe Dong river and the Mekong, Pakse is an important traffic junction.

From Pakse routes lead to Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia and as a base for exploring the Bolaven Plateau and Four Thousand Islands.

To get to Pakse you have several options.

Lao Aviation flies to Pakse from Vientiane.

You can reach Pakse by boat from the north or the south, although these services change regularly.

Buses run from Vientiane daily and the journey can take as long as 15 hours. This bus service also serves the towns of Tha Kek and Savannakhet.

There is an international check point at Ban Muang Kao on the Thai border with Chong Mek. You can get a Visa on arrival at this checkpoint. After entry into Laos, a short taxi ride to the new Bridge into Pakse.

Coming from Thailand, the nearest airport, train station and bus terminus to Chong Mek is Ubon Ratchathani - about 1 hour by road from the border.

Accommodation options include
Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse at about $4 or the more upmarket Seng Aroun Hotel at around $12.

A couple of the more commonly recommended eateries are Lhan Kham Restaurant (for breakfast), Mai Fai Restaurant (basic Western and Lao fare) and Riverside at the confluernce of the Mekong and Se Kong rivers for a chilled Bia Lao.

Bolaven Plateau

Situated on the north east of Champassak province, the plateau covers parts of Salavan, Attapeu and Sekong provinces although there are more options for tourists visiting the plateau in Pakse.
The plateau is fertile farmland specialising in coffee, tea, cardamom and fruit. The plateau houses a dozen mainly animist ethnic minorities, including Laven, Alak, Katou, Ta-Oy, Houne, Ngai and Suk communities. Accomodation on the plateau is limited, but Tad Lo waterfalls has a number of bungalows.


Sii Pan Don - Four Thousand Islands

The southernmost part of Champassak province, forms the border with Cambodia. Here, the Mekong river spreads to a width of up to 14km during the rainy season forming hundreds of islands and islets. The larger islands are inhabited and the largest southern island, Don Khone has an old disused 5km railway, built by the French as part of the Mekong bypass route.
The river cannot be navigated south of Don Khone because of the Khone Falls - the smaller Samphamit Falls and the larger Khong Phabeng Falls - the biggest in Asia, and maybe the widest falls in the world. Near the falls can be found the endangered Irriwaddy dolphins.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Phonsavan - Plain of Jars

On a windy plateau some 1050 m above sea level in northern Laos, hundreds of one-to-three metre tall stone urns, some weighing as much as six tonnes, lie scattered across a grassy plain. The local inhabitants say that the jars were made to ferment wine to celebrate a great military victory 1,500 years ago.

The jars are at least as old as the legend claims, but if any were used for making wine, that was not their original function. In the 1930s, French archaeologist Madeline Colani documented the jars in a 600-page monograph, The Megaliths of Upper Laos, concluding that they were funerary urns carved by a vanished Bronze Age people.

Getting to Xieng Khouang Province, where the plain is located, unless you have an ox cart, is a choice between taking the nine to ten hour bus journey (60,000 kip) from either Luang Prabang or Vientiane or to fly. Internal flights from Vientiane with Laos Airways to the airport at Xieng Khouang take about 45 minutes (US$51 single US$97 return).

As you approach the airstrip you will see thousands of bomb craters pockmarking the barren plain, a grim memento of the American presence in Southeast Asia. Phonsavan has been built over the past thirty years to replace the former provincial capital (Xieng Khouang), which was destroyed during the war.

A little more than a mile southeast of Phonsavan lies the principal jar site, called Ban Ang by Colani: sixty acres of wind-swept prairie containing more than 250 urns.

A few stone lids are scattered among the jars, some incised with a design of concentric rings. All the jars may have been fitted with lids, most of which were later pilfered. Another theory, however, is that these stone lids served some other function, and that the urns originally had wooden covers. In any case, all the jars appear to have been open to the elements for centuries.

There are several places to stay in Phonsavan.

Three to have a look at are
Kong Keo Guesthouse, Kou Kham Guesthouse and Meuang Phuane Guesthouse

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Scams and warnings

Some recent scams and warnings from Lonely Planet

The first night I arrived in Vientiane I was walking down the street with two girl friends. We were across the street from the mekong, near a seated police officer, in a well-lit, well-traveled area. These conditions, along with the consensus suggesting how safe Laos is, lulled us into believing all was well. However, a man came running up behind us, grabbed my camera case, and struggled with me for it until the strap broke and he ran off with his prize. I screamed, but absolutely no one came to help, not even the seated police officer. My arm was hurt, scraped, bruised and swollen from the struggle, and so we went into a restaurant to recover. There we were informed that the number of attacks against women is growing tremendously along with the use of amphetamines. Every day since I have met one farang woman who has experienced a purse snatching on the same road near the river.

On the same note, one of my travelling companions, the same night I was mugged, had a man break into his hotel room at 3 am while he was sleeping. Fortunately it happened to a man big enough to shove the intruder out and barricade himself against further attack.
I'm afraid too many tourists go about here with a false sense of security. I think a more serious warning about the disintegrating situation in the capital would do some good.

Kathleen Ellen, USA (Sep 05)

I would like to let young people travelling know of the dangers of swimming in rivers and waterfalls. My daughter Mia-Lucy Rose died whilst swimming in the Li-Phi water fall on Don Det, 4000 islands, in Laos. A strong current took her legs from under her and swept over the water fall, it was three days before we found her body. There were several people swimming in the same pool as Mia There are no danger or warning signs about the water and this island is very popular with travellers from all around the world. Mia is the fourth person to die in this way at the same spot. Apparently there was a message written in German (a paper note covered in plastic pinned to a tree) giving warning as a young man had died there recently.
Pauline Rose, UK (Aug 05)

For the benefit of future travellers we want to bring to your attention our bad experience with crossing the Laos-Cambodia border. There are 2 options for crossing the border and heading to Stung-Treng: pick-up truck/ bus or speed boat (the option we chose). After talking to the driver we agreed to pay 15 $ for the trip. After stamping the passports at the Cambodia immigration post and 5 minuets crossing ... the boat engine conveniently broke down in front of the driver's village.(not the usual route we learned after). 10 minutes after we got stuck, a friend of the driver came and offered to take us for 60$. We asked him to take us back to the border (we were stuck in the village with no other transport) in the hope of finding another boat for a regular price. Eventually two of our company took a small motor-boat with one of the fisherman back to the boarder. When the boat drivers found out about our plan him immediately phoned someone. When the two arrived at the border the prices were all 50-100$. The drivers also told them that they know about our "situation". In the end we were forced to pay the money. Please warn future travellers in your next edition. Even if the all scam hadn't occurred, we would have preferred to take the bus over the dangerous boat.
Ariel, Yuval, Moshe and Mayan, Israel (May 05)

I have just recently done the 1 day kayak trip from Vang Vieng to Vientiane in Laos. Here's the heads up; this is potentially dangerous, I noticed you had a tubing warning but the same should be said for kayaking. There is one set of rapids on this trip that is rated as class 3 by the tour companies. I'll confirm it, it definitely is class 3. Inexperienced paddlers should not be on this kind of water in these conditions. The rescue gear carried by the guides is non-existent, life jackets are ill-fitting and sub-standard in quality. Most guides are not trained in river rescue and could not help you if they had to. We scouted this rapid and I saw the reaction of my fellow paddlers when they saw what this rapid looked like. I have paddled water bigger than this at home and I took a step back when I saw this water, and this is the dry season.

I have extensive experience guiding school trips for my school. I have a Swiftwater Rescue course, I'm a Canadian Recreational Canoe Association certified instructor and I have a couple of White-water Canoeing certificates. I would not take a school group on this river, it must be crazy when it is the wet and the river is in flood.

Of course no one backed out of running the rapid because they may not have known the danger, and of course there is the "macho factor" as well. It was a great day I thoroughly enjoyed myself and no one got hurt. Travellers need to think big picture with these trips. If something happens on this river there is no Emergency Response team that will airlift you out of there. At home when we do these trips we expect a certain standard of care, in fact we probably don't even think about it, we just assume it's there. We assume the guides are trained and qualified, and the gear is top notch. This same standard of care just doesn't exist for this trip so travellers need to be advised of what they are potentially getting into.
Trevor Hale, Canada (Mar 05)

Monday, October 10, 2005

Bombies

Between 1964 and 1973, the United States conducted a "secret" war, dropping over two million tons of bombs on the mountains and jungles of Laos. Many of these bombs - especially a newly developed weapon called a "cluster bomb" - failed to explode when they hit the ground, leaving the landscape littered with millions of unexploded bombs, as dangerous today as when they fell from the sky three decades ago.

Dubbed "bombies" by Laotian villagers, these eye-catching but deadly orbs, as brightly coloured as exotic fruit, are still found by children playing in shallow dirt, in the clefts of bamboo branches, or in the furrows of fields where farmers still till the soil by striking the earth with a hoe.

In 1964, as the Vietnam War was intensifying, the United States attempted to staunch the flow of North Vietnamese people and supplies moving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which detoured through Laos before heading into South Vietnam. Laotian Communists, backed by North Vietnam, were fighting in a civil war against the U.S.-supported Royal Lao government. Because the United States signed the 1962 Geneva Accords prohibiting American military involvement in Laos, the bombing, organized by President Kennedy, the CIA and the Air Force, was kept secret, both from Congress and from the American people, to pursue a covert strategy for ridding the countryside of Communists. Initial targets were Communists troops, supply depots and lines of communication. Later, to prevent the soldiers from having access to men and materials, the U.S. began to bomb farms, villages and towns.


The consequences for Lao civilians were devastating. American planes delivered the equivalent of a B-52 planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. More bombs were dropped on Laos at that time than on Germany and Japan combined during World War II.

In the last three decades more than 12,000 people, many of them children, have been killed or injured by bombies or other unexploded ordnance (weapons). With an estimated 90 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos, many experts consider Laos to be the most heavily ordnance-contaminated country in the world.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Cafe Lao

Around 100 or so years ago the French colonialists planted coffee in the southern highlands of Laos on the Bolaven Plateau, and since independence, the (mostly small) plantations have continued. Coffee from Laos is not widely known because most of the country's small export quantities have previously gone to France - the old colonial connection. However nowadays Laotian coffee is now exported all over the world.

In Laos, you need to learn to order "Cafe Lao Dam" (Black Laos Coffee), and if you don't take sugar, add "Baw Sai Nam Tan." The Lao people tend to drink their coffee very strong - beans are roasted to a coal black, and they mostly add condensed milk. They use lots of ground bean in a muslin bag to soak in hot water for their brew. Here we're talking serious black caffeine syrup, and if you don't want an involuntary hyperactivity attack, you also need to say "Nam Hawn" (sounds like "numb horn") to get a glass of hot water for diluting purposes.

“Kafae thung”, literally means 'bag coffee' and it is, quite simply, thick, strong and sweet. Why 'bag coffee'? Well, that refers to the traditional method of making Thai coffee, that is by filtering hot water through a bag-shaped cloth filter - there have even reportedly been times that the ubiquitous sock has been used as a subsitute....

It is customarily seen in Thai outdoor morning markets, though one can find it in Bangkok at almost any hour of the day, being one of the favourites of street vendors. Kafae thung, is typically mixed with sweetened condensed milk and, sometimes sugar...however, if you would like it less sweet, do be sure to tell the vendor beforehand - say mai sai naam-taan (condensed milk but no sugar). You like your coffee black? Well then say "kafae dam".

To have a really good cup of this brew, it is recommend going south, the best versions are made and enjoyed in the Hokkien-style caf├ęs in the southern provinces. It is without a doubt a-roy (delicious).

Adapted from an article by John McBeath

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Laos Airlines

International Flights

Laos Airlines offers international services from Vientiane to Bangkok (daily), Chiang Mai(Tue, Fri, Sun), Hanoi (Daily), Phnom Pehn (Daily), Siem Reap (Wed, Fri, Sun), Kunming (Wed, Sun). From Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai (Tue, Fri, Sun) and from Pakse to Siem Reap (Wed, Fri, Sun)

Domestic Flights

Laos Airlines offers multiple flights from Vientiane to the following provincial capitals: Luang Prabang (daily), Savannakhet (daily), Luang Namtha (Mon, Wed, Fri, Sun), Xieng Khouang (daily), Pakse (daily), Oudomxai (Tu, Th, Sat, Sun), Xayyabuli (Mon, Wed, Fri, Sun), Houixay (Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat), Thakhek (Fri), and Saravane (via Savannakhet, Sun. only).

Fares and booking

The Laos Airlines website contains details of fares. The site does not deal with reservations or online booking. If you wish to book in advance you should use a reputable agency such as Traveller 2000 who will deliver tickets internationally and within Thailand where they are based.

Aircraft

Lao Airlines operates a fleet of Airbus A320s, Aerospatiale ATR72s and Chinese built Y12’s on domestic and regional international routes from its main base at Vientiane (Wattay) Airport. International flights are usually serviced by the airline's new Airbus A320-200.

Safety


There are quite a few references to Lao Airlines not maintaining its planes but its safety record doesn't seem to be poor – its planes keep flying. (The last recorded fatalities were in October 2000 and all accidents recorded by Airlines Safety Network concerned the Chinese or Russian built aircraft.)

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Climate in Laos

The climate throughout Laos is monsoonal. There are three distinct seasons with some variations between north and south. In general, it is wet between May and October and dry between November and April.
  • The cool dry season occurs from November to January. In the Mekong valley, temperature can drop to around 15 degrees Celsius and the mountain temperature drop to zero degrees celsius or lower at night. Humidity is low at this time of the year and the most visitors consider it the best time to travel to Laos.
  • The hot dry season follows through May. And toward the end of this period, there is high humidity and thunderstorms. Temperature can reach 35 degrees celsius.
  • The wet season generally lasts from June until October. It is typified by a consistent pattern of low clouds and rain. Flooding occurs along the Mekong River and some tributaries. The average rainfall in the capital Vientiane is 1,700 mm, although in the north of Laos and the highlands it is wetter, with more than 3,000 mm each year.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Slowboat versus Speedboat

The slowboat currently costs 85.000 kip from Louang Prabang to Pakbeng, and the same amount from Pakbeng to Houay Xai

The slowboats leave from the boat pier behind the Royal Museum at about 08:30.

Commonly known as the “backpacker express” they take one day for each leg, depending on time of year (dry or wet season) and whether upstream or downstream each leg takes 7-11 hours. Occasionally the total journey can take more than two days upstream in the dry season.

If you get the slowboat from Pakbeng to Houay Xai you will have to stay in Laos overnight as slowboats hardly ever dock before the border crossing closes.

The boats are often crowded and uncomfortable, standards vary and they are all full of other ‘farang’.
You may be on a different boat on day two from the one you travelled on in day one even if you buy a combined ticket all the way from louang Prabang to Houay Xai.

“The boat was already over-full and struggling when we picked up an extra 7 westerners and backpacks. The journey had been slow because the boat was already overloaded before the additional passengers, we were running late and it was beginning to get dark. Just as we came out of a set of rapids, the engine failed, the water pump stopped working and the boat began to sink. We paddled to the bank and managed to get ourselves and our backpacks out before the boat sank. Within 15 minutess it was pitch black. We did managed to bail the boat out and salvage it but resigned ourselves to a night in the jungle on the river bank”

However the scenery is good, you get the chance to talk to other people and are not contributing to some of the ecological pollution of the speed boats.


The speedboat cost 150,000 kip from Louang Prabang to Pakbeng, and the same from Pakbeng to Houay Xai.

They leave Louang Prabang from the speedboat station 7kms north of the citynear the northern bus station. They start to leave at 08:30 and get in to Houyxai around 15:00 – 16:00 with ample time to cross the border.

You will be equipped with a motorcycle helmet, lifejacket and should take earplugs with you.

Many people say the speedboats should be avoided for some of the reasons below.

They are extremely cramped, very very noisy and it can be cold

“These boats are small, so that you have to sit on the floor of the boat; imagine trying to sit in (not on) a milkcrate, with your legs packed in and your chin resting on your knees - well, not so much resting as crushed up against it”

“Imagine the world's loudest chainsaw. Imagine putting it right next to your ear. Then imagine running the chainsaw for 6 straight hours”

"They are a menace to those living by the river and the wild life. Also with logs etc, brought down by the river in the rainy season, they can be dangerous."

“My fillings fell out, my ears became joined at the back of my head, the driver was high (on something) I needed my hips and knees replaced I also had bruises on my arse that had to be seen to be believed (not that I showed anybody), and I have been obliged to wear a hearing aid ever since. In one very short sentence you would have to be completely nuts to even think about taking the speedboat.”

However some people prefer them and like the sense of adventure they bring and sometimes if short of time or at the end of your visa you may have no other alternative.

(All quotes Lonely Planet Thorn Tree)

Houay Xai - food and accommodation

Looks like I will be staying the night here as the slow boats don't reach Houay Xai until after the border crossing shuts (deliberately or otherwise).

The settlement of Houay XaiI , sandwiched between the Mekong and a range of hills, is a popular border crossing with Thailand . Thirty-day Thai visas are available on arrival in Chiang Khong on the Thai side.

Once you're across the Mekong and past immigration (daily 8:00-17.30), you can get one of the regular buses to Chiang Rai (2-3hr) or Chiang Mai (5-6hr).

Houay Xai's only real sight is hilltop Wat Chom Khao Manilat , boasting a tall, Shan-style building of picturesquely weathered teakwood, now used as a classroom for novice monks.

Thaveesinh Guesthouse seems to have all the amenities and sells boat and bus tickets. Also worth a look might be Friendship Guesthouse with its rooftop balcony.

The no-frills Mouang Neua restaurant dishes out decent Lao and Chinese meals - the vegetable omelette is good. The lively Nutpop, a few blocks north, does stir-fry dishes to order, cold beer and delicious fruit smoothies, while nearby Ban Midtapab offers excellent fish and views across the Mekong.

The Riverside restaurant is located looking out over the river. The setting is pleasant and they serve traditional Lao dishes as well as the usual fried rice and noodle favourites. Their Sindad, a Lao favourite, a type of soup/grilled meat do it yourself barbecue at the table comes recommended.