Days 253-263: Pakse

S: Our initial plans were to spend only a few days in Pakse before heading further south to Si Phan Don. Si Phan Don is known to be a popular backpacker stop off, before traveling overland to Cambodia. The land border crossing between Laos and Cambodia has earned itself a reputation for being somewhat corrupt. Officials are known to demand artificially inflated rates for visas. To avoid this confrontation we were advised to obtain our visas beforehand.

Two bewildering tuk-tuk trips to the Cambodian embassy in Vientiane turned out to be fruitless. On our first trip the tuk-tuk driver spoke no English and had no idea of where the embassy was located. A determined or maybe crazy character that he was, he just kept on driving us around the town, in some maddening hope of finding it. Getting nowhere we tried a second tuk-tuk. With a wave of the arms, exasperated groans and a considerable amount of pointing from us, the tuk-tuk driver somehow managed to find the embassy. The trouble now was that we had arrived on a public holiday and the embassy was closed.

Three days later with passports in hand we arrived at the embassy. If only to complicate matters, as we have plans to spend more than 30 days in Cambodia we have been advised to apply for a business visa. This type of visa will allow us to extend our visa whilst still in Cambodia. Avoiding a visa run – exiting and re-entering the country.

With umms and ahhs and discussions with her colleagues the embassy representative was unsure about which visa to issue us. To our amazement there isn’t just one type of business visa, there are many. As potty as it may sound, we don’t think this lady had a clue about visas. With a corrupt border crossing and a clueless embassy representative we were worried. Fortunately we had a plan B – fly. Surely the officials at the airport will have a handle on things? Si Phan Don had to be ditched as our flight into Cambodia takes off from Pakse.

With little info on Pakse and nine nights ahead of us we thought we had better book into a place with some comfort. With a little gem up our sleeves we boarded our second overnight bus journey in Laos.

This bus took overnight bus journeys to a whole new level. With flat sprung mattresses in place of seats, this was as close to 180 degree as we were ever going to get.

Scam alert! Bleary eyed we had reached Pakse. Off we hopped from the bus and straight into a tuk-tuk that a local driver had convinced us we needed. With another couple in the tuk-tuk beside us, we asked if we could be dropped off at our pre booked hotel. The couple on the other hand didn’t know where they were going. With no accommodation booked and a marking in their guidebook for a town two hours away they were being dropped off at another bus station. We however were going around in circles. After five minutes of driving it appeared we had arrived at our hotel. Nope, the driver had decided to drop us off at one of his mates guesthouses, stating he didn’t know where our hotel was. 40,000 kip down (which luckily, is only about £3.20), we were lost. Fortunately a local cafe owner took pity on us and pointed us in the right direction.

Pound for pound this is probably one of the best hotels in which we have stayed on our trip so far. Our boutique hotel was housed in an old colonial building with French architecture and overlooking the Mekong River. The individually furnished rooms came with petite balconies to sit and share a drink and… As we looked around the corner we couldn’t believe what we saw – the very same bus station we had arrived at that morning. Oh, how foolish and frustrated we felt.

The next afternoon we ventured downtown to see how we would fill our remaining eight days. Unfortunately Pakse has been pitched as a place in which to base yourself for day trips to surrounding areas. A coffee plantation, waterfall and temples being the popular trips. Fortunately for us we have already had the pleasure in visiting these top attractions, in countries we have visited before.

Desperate for some exercise we visited a nearby gym recommended by our Lonely Planet guide. Housed in one of Pakses oldest hotels – Champasak Palace Hotel – the equipment may well have come from a museum. There were treadmills there that looked as if they had milled a million treads and weight machines tied together with pieces of string. Deflated we tried the hotel next door which advertised the only swimming pool in Pakse. We were outdone again ad unfortunately it turned out to be more of a plunge pool than somewhere to rack up the lengths.

That night we stumbled across a restaurant which boasted panoramic views from its roof top location. While it wasn’t quite like looking over Kuala Lumpur, the fresh breeze was a welcome relief. The food was rather average, though, my chicken was cold and chewy, but that was of no interest to the eccentric waiter. He was only concerned about receiving a tip for his service.

20 km south of Pakse lies Champasak and the religious complex of Wat Phu. It is of Khmer architecture and Hindu religion, situated at the foot of a hill. This temple is said to have links with Angkor Wat in Cambodia and so we thought it would be a great introduction.

Here are some photos of our visit…

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The runway for the world’s first stone aeroplane.

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Frodo couldn’t wait to be back in The Shire.

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Wat Phu’s beautiful sanctuary.

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Waiting for a bus in Laos has always required great patience.

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Even monks feel more chilled out here.

Today we fly to Cambodia and the city of Siem Reap, the gateway to the largest religious complex in the world – Angkor Wat.

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Days 247-253: Vientiane

S: Our next leg of the trip was to travel south from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, Laos capital. It was with some reluctance that we booked an overnight bus for the 11-hour journey. Our last overnight bus was in Indonesia, a little less than three months ago. Regular blog readers will remember that it was not one of the most enjoyable overnight bus journeys. However, with no other options and a price tag of only £15 each we knew we had to grin and bear it.

We had visions of boarding a beaten-up old bus, with a toilet covered in cockroaches and passengers plagued with bird flu. And we thought we were doomed when the bus conductor began to hand out plastic bags as we boarded – sick bags? We had heard the roads were bumpy and windy… but hang on… we suddenly realised the bags were actually to put your shoes in, making sure dirt was not carried onto the bus. To our delight, we had boarded one of Laos most cutting edge buses. The bus came equipped with a toilet that flushed, and seats which reclined to an almost 180 degree angle.

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While not being our worst overnight bus, our excitement turned out to be short lived. Unlike a passenger beside me who spent most of the journey snoring very loudly, we, didn’t sleep very well. Our hyperactive bus driver played traditional Laos music throughout the night and sang along loudly for good measure. And the lady pictured above, received calls on her mobile throughout the night. Even when safely in Vientiane we could still hear her high pitched ringtone resounding in our ears.

If architecture is what your after, you may want to allow the dust to settle in Vientiane. With construction contracts being signed off like autographs, the city is undergoing a makeover. There are great plans to build malls and hotels to rival the likes of Kuala Lumpur. We hope all the drilling, banging and sanding we witnessed turns out to be worth the wait.

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A temple under construction.

One area where efforts have been made is in the small but fantastic selections of restaurants in Vientiane. We ate our way through eye-watering Indian curries, innovative fresh salads (taco salad being one of our favourites), wood fired pizzas and scandinavian bakery delights, to name but a few. One spontaneous splurge which was worth every penny consisted of a fine bottle of red wine, a Malbec from Mendoza. We savoured every sip in a wine bar while a live jazz singer sang on in the background.

In our attempts to get up to speed with Laos history, we ventured to the unfortunately dilapidated National Museum which is housed in a well-worn French administrative building built in the 1920s. For us, however, it was the COPE Centre which proved to be an incredibly informative place.

COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. Founded in 1997, COPE is a local organisation that works with the National Rehabilitation Centre (NCR), Lao Ministry of Health and five provincial rehabilitation centres in a partnership developing rehabilitation services and providing prosthetics across Lao for victims of bombings and UXOs (unexploded ordnances). And it doesn’t have to look far for victims.

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Laos was dragged into the Vietnam War in 1964. Laos allowed North Vietnam to use its land as a supply route for its war against the South. In response, the United States initiated a bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese, supported regular and irregular anticommunist forces in Laos and supported a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos.

Massive aerial bombardment was carried out by the United States. Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. US bombers dropped more ordnance on Laos in this period than was dropped during the whole of the Second World War, and it was all done without the knowledge of the US Senate, its citizens or the rest of the world.

Of the 260 million bombs that rained down, particularly on Xiangkhouang Province on the Plain of Jars, some 80 million failed to explode, leaving a deadly legacy. Unsurprisingly, given these horrendous statistics, Laos is the most heavily-bombed country in the world.

At COPE we watched two documentary films, both centred around the secret war bombings and UXOs in Laos.

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One of the chilling exhibits at COPE

Like an onion, the more layers we unravelled the more it made us want to cry. It was awful to learn of such an horrific state of affairs and to realise that the people of Laos may never fully escape from these awful times. Even today UXOs are found near schools and homes, proving both a threat and an awful reminder of the bombings.

It was an eye opening afternoon to say the least. We can’t help but promote the COPE Centre for proving such insightful information and the services they provide to victims.

History lesson over and it is time again to hit the road. Another overnight bus journey looms as we head further south in Laos, a small town named Pakse await us…

Days 238-247: Luang Prabang

S: Luang Prabang (LP) has been a wonderful introduction to our journey through Laos. With a relaxed atmosphere and friendly locals, we couldn’t have hoped for much more.

LP is an ancient city in the far north of Laos, situation on the banks of the Mekong River. Once under the rule of the French, a certain joie de vivre can still be felt walking amid the colonial architecture of the historic heart. With a population of around 50,000 and under UNESCO protection, Starbucks and McDonalds have managed to remain in lands far, far away. In their stead lie charming French bakeries and patisseries, serving up fantastic fresh salads and fruit shakes. French fries do occasionally make an appearance on the menu, but they can be forgiven.

One of the highlights from our time in LP was our trip to the Living Land Farm and their ‘Rice Experience’. With our helpful guide Mr Laut Lee, we became rice farmers – for one afternoon at least.

We learnt how to pick the best rice seeds for plantation (the heavier the seed the better). Then we were introduced to Susan – the farm’s adorable buffalo.

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Susan helped us plough the soil to the correct consistency…

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…Before we bedded the rice plants.

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We were fortunate enough to only spend a short amount of time ploughing – usually done all day every day for two months – for it is exhausting work.

It was then on to harvesting, drying, threshing and pounding. Then came the meticulous task of selection; only the best grains of rice are plucked for eating. The pounding process can often crush many of the weak grains of rice, and since these grains are no good they are usually given to grateful chickens. Only whole large grains make the grade.

After a very tiring yet pleasant afternoon of hands-on work, came the best part – tasting! It felt like we were eating rice for the first time. With a new found appreciation for a food we never gave much thought to, we made sure no grain remained on our plates.

Rice is a grain with the second-highest worldwide production, after corn. It is also the most important staple food for lots of countries in Asia, including Laos. Locals here eat rice three times a day. Climate plays a large role in the amount of rice produced each year in Laos. Some countries are able to plant rice three times a year but due to the lack of rain in Laos, only once a year is possible. Unlike many other farms no pesticides are used at the Living Land Farm. It does means, however, a small percentage of the rice is lost due to grazing birds.

It was fascinating to witness the life-cycle of one grain of rice. Seeing the efforts, energy and know-how required to produce rice was a real eye opener.

The Living Land Farm not only produces rice, it also grows organic vegetables which is supplies to the top restaurants in LP. The farm also contributes at great deal to the locals in the surrounding area. It provides rice to some of the poorest families and educates the locals on rice farming and traditional trades.The village blacksmith showed us how he made tools for the farm using scrap metal. No machinery was involved, in their place he had innovative traditional techniques.

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I tried my hand at weaving. The lady here weaves hats from bamboo. Very tricky!

This was a worthwhile visit, one which was incredibly educational and most importantly not exploitive to the locals or tourists.

While in LP we dragged ourselves out of bed early one morning (5:30am!) We watched the local monks receiving alms at the daily ceremony.

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While we were in LP the school holidays had just begun the week we arrived. We saw a sign at the local library advertising for English-speaking volunteers. They required a couple of hours each afternoon to help the local children with their English. We popped in a few afternoons and did out best to tell them about Scotland. They were not surprised to hear that it’s always wet and cold.

Nine nights was just enough time in LP. Tonight we embark upon an 11-hour overnight bus to Laos capital, Vientiane…

Days 236-237: Slow Boat to Laos

S: This has definitely been one of the more testing yet more memorable border crossings on our trip so far.

As mentioned in our previous update, our time in Thailand had come to a close and it was on to a new country and a new adventure. Neighbouring Laos was next on our itinerary, a land which a few of the people we’ve met seem to be ‘missing out’ or ‘maybe visiting Laos another time’.

Conversations with fellow travellers, research online and our Lonely Planet guide (‘one of the poorest nations on earth’) were all indicating that we may be in for a testing time. With accommodation options significantly lower than in most countries we have visited, and no clear advice on the necessity of malaria tablets (we’ve avoided them and their side effects so far on this trip), we were unsure what to expect.

On day 236 we began our two day trip from Thailand to Laos. We had opted to travel down the Mekong River on a slow boat. Supposedly one of the best ways in which to travel between the two countries. The boat trip is not renowned for its safety, however; while not being a white knuckle ride, its more about the boat being overcrowded, and a relaxed attitude to health and safety which had resulted in boats upturning and deaths. We didn’t let that worry us though. Events unfolded as follows:

07:00 hrs – A two hour taxi ride from our hotel in Chiang Rai takes us to Chiang Khong. Here we receive our Thai exist stamp.

10:00 hrs – A five minute ferry ride on a small, wooden and very unstable boat to Huay Xai, Laos. After a sweaty 30-minute wait for our entry stamp, a 10-minute bus ride takes us and many other dazed travellers near the launch point for the slow boats to Luang Prabang – our desired destination.

11:00 hrs – Debrief from one of the slow boat representatives. ‘The boat will leave in half an hour, you will reach your overnight stop off point in seven hours. There is no food or water available to purchase on the boat, so make sure you have plenty with you. The boat will not be making any stops along the journey. There is one toilet on board.’

12:00 hrs – A crammed boat full of nervous passengers sets sail.

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Slow boat – not too dissimilar to the one we were on.

14:00 hrs – Although the sights surrounding us were spectacular (buffalos bathing in the cool Mekong River, local children fishing with great big nets, and views of mystical green mountains), with not much leg room in our designated seats and nowhere to stand, boredom begins to set in.

16:00 hrs – Our ability to take in the sights, listen to music or absorb podcasts begins to dwindle. Passengers on board start to get tired and slight paranoia develops. Is this boat traveling in the right direction? How long have we really been on this boat? Is that a ice cream I can see over there?

17:00 hrs – A turn of the wheel too much from the captain makes the boat creak and sway to one side. ‘Man overboard?!’ Nope, lucky escape though.

17:45 hrs – We arrive earlier than scheduled at our overnight stop, Pak Beng. With blessed relief we make our way off the boat and to our bed for the night.

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It’s a scramble off the boat and to the top, to dry land. Interesting architecture in the top left corner of this photo – believe it or not, this was our accommodation for the night.

Pak Beng is a tiny village just off the Mekong River. Although remote, underdeveloped and crawling with insects and bugs, the locals proved to be very welcoming. With this being our first interaction with Laos people, we were astonished and a little embarrassed at their advanced language skills. A little girl of five years old, displaying perfect English and maths, was able to assist us when buying a bottle of water. The waiter at the restaurant in which we ate also spoke perfect English, and could also speak French. If this was a sign of what was to come, things were looking up.

07:00 hrs – After a suspenseful night’s sleep, we awoke still in mid-air and were able to enjoy our breakfast on the balcony.

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08:00 hrs – It was a bit of a bum-fight to make sure we got a good seat, but with an hour and a half until the boat set off we had claimed the front row seats.

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Not that it made much difference, the space that should have been left clear in font of us was full of people less fortunate.

09:30 hrs – On schedule, we departed on our final seven-hour journey.

17:30 hrs – Dry land, we love you. We had arrived, dehydrated and cautious of what lay ahead of us.

18:00 hrs – It was only a short walk to our hotel in Luang Prabang, and we were pleased to see that this time our hotel had been finished, not suspended in mid air. An encouraging start to our time in LP…

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