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Tha Khaek to Champasak - Heading south

sunny 30 °C

Once again I've learnt not to judge a book by its cover. On arrival in Tha Khaek I was not impressed. Another dusty town, unfinished roads, big new houses and lots of Toyota Hi-Lux vehicles. Arriving from Vientiane was easy, as things go in Laos. Taking the VIP bus in this country is never less than interesting especially when the plastic chairs are put down the aisle. The town of Tha Khaek itself is pretty grim but there's some beautiful countryside all around. On our second day we attempted to visit five local caves, four of which were inaccessible due to the heavy rains in the last few days. The only cave we managed to access had to be done by boat. The road stopped 400 metres short of the entrance so we had to take two boats to enter. Inside were a number of Buddha statues and absolute tranquility. The statues were surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites and the setting was wonderful.

Due to poor planning and even poorer geographic knowledge we has missed the famous Kong Lor Cave on our way to Tha Khaek. We decided to stay another day and double-back on ourselves about 140km. We hired a minivan and driver to make the journey and we are so glad that we did. It was the highlight of the holiday for me. The cave entrance sits on one side of a mountain and the exit is about 7km on the other side. Once again we needed two boats but the journey was one of the most incredible couple of hours I've ever experienced. You enter the underground river into a limestone mountain and at one point you alight from the boat to wander through a section of the cave. It was half 'Mines of Moria' from Lord of the Rings and half lunar landscape. As a non-swimmer it was pretty terrifying at first but the boatmen were incredible, navigating by using memory and a torch strapped to their head. Once you get out the other side it only gets better as there's only one way back, through the cave again. There@s a village on the other side and the cave route is their only connection with the outside world.

We've landed in a place called Champasak this evening and it's pretty beautiful. We'll hang here for a few days until we make the final leg of our journey south to the 4000 Islands. All in all Laos is a incredible place. There'll be plenty of memories to cherish from our time here. If you ever have a month to kill and are filled with wanderlust I'd highly recommend it as a destination.

Posted by goldenmaverick 04:44 Archived in Laos Comments (2)

Vang Vieng to Vientiane

storm 28 °C

There's two sides to Vang Vieng - the first is the godawful bacchanalian backpacker tubing buzz that exists within a couple of blocks in the centre of the town, the second is the immense beauty of the area on a five minute cycle in any direction out of town. After hmming and hawing as to whether we'd even visit the place we ended up staying for three days. The first day was a bit of a write-off. We arrived on the dusty main street and were immediately greeted by the sight of cut and bruised 19 year olds fresh from a day of tubing on the river. The tubing experience involves being dropped off a couple of miles upriver and floating downriver on an inflated truck-tyre inner tube. As you float past the river bars you are offered shots of lao-lao whiskey and various other alcoholic beverages. The ensuing bedlam sees the tuber lose their footwear, money and dignity and in extreme instances, their life. Apparently around thirty tubers have died over the last twelve months. I didn't believe this could happen until the second night, when sitting on the outdoor area of a hotel, I saw a yong guy drift past in the darkness. He'd missed the finish line by about 1.5 km and was floating away downstream. I guess if he didn't find land he's somewhere in the Mekong delta at this stage.

The second day was infinitely more fun in Vang Vieng. We hired some bicycles and headed out of town to a small lagoon where the kids could have a swim. Our third day was by far the best and made our visit worthwhile. Once again we hired some bikes and cycled 7km out of town to the now famous Blue Lagoon and Phankoum Cave. The scenery on the way there was breathtaking. Massive limestone karsts jut from the newly planted paddy-fields. When we arrived at the Blue Lagoon it was as if Harry's dreams had all been answered. A crystal blue pool with rope swings surrounded by a green area in which to picnic. The kids were a bit slow to get in but once they were in they were loving it. Soonafter a bunch of what looked like Thai twenty-something daytrippers arrived and gave a daredevil display of diving. It was a great buzz for both them and us as they would climb about twelve metres up into an overhanging tree and proceed to do an array of back-flips and sometimes belly-flops into the water. We also checked out the cave. That involved a steep climb up a rock stairwell and once inside the entrance it opened up into a massive limestone cavern. We only went in about fifty metres but you could have kept going through a long dark tunnel for another few hundred metres. The kids decided against proceeding on through and I was happy enough to turn back too.

We arrived in Vientiane, capital of Laos, this afternoon. It's a bit of a soulless capital city to be honest and a bit grubby around the edges if the truth be told. As I write this I had considered staying up until 1.45am tonight to see the Euro 2012 fotball final but we're leaving here tomorrow afternoon in order to make our way further south to Tha Khaek. The draw of the far south is becoming stronger and I'm eager to get there with enough time left on our visas to enjoy it. Tha Khaek doesn't appear to be much of a town but it looks like there's plenty of nice stuff around it. I was trying to book accommodation in advance but it looks like we'll have to just wing it when we get there. Despite it being low-season the guesthouses there and in other places we've been aren't too keen on discounting. It's a little harder to bargain with them with four kids in tow as you really just want to get your head down for the night rather than traipse about looking for the best deal in town.

It's been a month on the road for us today and the experience has been both trying and rewarding thus far. The intimate living creates strains on the family dynamic. When you're at close quarters you see eachothers foibles and follies at a microscopic level. Throw in a bad nights sleep and someone is likely to snap. That said, days like the one at the Blue Lagoon will be remembered for the rest of our lives. Thirty days down. Forty or so to go. I'm already looking forward to the memories I haven't even experienced yet.

Posted by goldenmaverick 19:21 Archived in Laos Tagged tubing blue_lagoon Comments (3)

Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng

sunny 32 °C

After a very nice few days in Luang Prabang we've arrived here in Vang Vieng. We've opted for far less salubrious accommodation here. We're pretty much on the main drag in a hostel called Pan's Place. On checking in I was obliged to write down most of the usual details; name, passport number, nationality but more peculiarly, age. A casual glance down the list of other residents it became very evident that I'm at least twice the age of everyone else. Nevertheless if I use the mean average of our family it brings us more into line with the rest. The accomodation is very much An Oige style. Seventies style bed linen but at least its clean. We took a mini-bus from Luang Prabang but in future I reckon we'll stick with the buses. Because there were only six of us in the mini-bus, the driver would slow to a crawl in every village we passed through in the hope of making a few extra kip in fares. Though he was unsuccessful in his attempts he added at least another hour to the journey here.

Vang Vieng looks like most Laos towns on the surface but as you look around you can see it really is geared to the younger travellers that pass through. Over the past few weeks I've really gotten to like the local Laos grub but there's an absence of local eateries in this place. There is however an abundance of pizza and burger joints. That said it also looks like everything is about half the price of Luang Prabang. That's no bad thing.

Caroline and the three older kids are thinking of going tubing tomorrow morning. I'm thinking of going for a bicycle ride with Paddy. The scenery around here looks pretty incredible so we won't have to go too far by the looks of things. As I'll be doing the cycling I'll have to task Paddy with reading coordinates etc.

As we move south through the country we've definitely favoured some places over others. Luang Nam Tha appears to have been a highlight for the whole family and our stay in Luang Prabang was definitely both easy and comfortable. We're winging it from hereonin and are looking forward to the delights in the south of the country; Tha Kaek, the 4,000 islands and whatever else we see along the way. Journey times appear to be shorter as we move to the lowlands and that is to be welcomed greatly. In two days time we'll have been on the trail for four weeks. Tempus fugit.

Posted by goldenmaverick 03:56 Archived in Laos Tagged vang_vieng Comments (2)

Chitty-chitty Luang Prabang

overcast 30 °C

Bread, coffee and lots of tourists. This is the most touristy place we've hit since Chiang Mai. That said, it comes as quite a welcome relief. After about ten days of the northernmost part of Laos its nice to have a really comfy bed to put the head on. Every day is an early start in this country. They don't seem to do lie-ins. This morning we had the drums beating in the various Wats around us, that was at 4am. I was chatting to one of the guys here and he said I can expect the same tomorrow morning.

We headed for Kuangsi Falls today. Clear blue waterfalls that you can swim in. Harry decided to brave one of the rope swings following much careful consideration. Our tuk-tuk driver promised us exclusive passage for the 35km journey for his best price. We then made a detour to his house to pick up his wife, one year old daughter, sister-in-law and two baskets of laundry. To be honest, its those experiences that make travelling all the more enjoyable.

When we stayed in Nang Khiaw we regularly frequented a place called 'Alex's' which was run by Mama. She has 8 kids, one of whom runs a place called Delilahs here in Luang Prabang. We had a great dinner there tonight albeit the kids found their food 'too spicy'. I suppose that's what you'll say when you've been fed a diet of spuds all your short life.

Paddy, our youngest, is fast turning into Little Lord Fauntleroy. His blond hair and red, sweaty face mark him apart from most kids in these parts. He's becoming an all-singing, all-dancing space cadet who turns it on for the locals. His whirling dervish antics means he now has to be regularly held in check when we're out, otherwise he starts wandering into the kitchen when he should be eating his dinner.

The kids and ourselves are planning a trip to the library tomorrow afternoon. They organise english conversation classes for local kids and novice monks where travelling 'falang' lîke ourselves can chat with them for a couple of hours. It should provide us with the opportunity to improve our english.

Posted by goldenmaverick 06:43 Archived in Laos Tagged waterfalls luang_prabang Comments (3)

Week three

Have really enjoyed our time in Nong Khiaw. The trip to Phongsali perplexed me. I thought the hotel was hateful but was aware it was a higher standard that most local people enjoyed. I found the blank stares we were occasionally greeted with unnerving, but it's not disneyland, why would people smile? Mostly it made me question what we want from this trip? What works for us? We are referencing backpacker sites but really? I can safely say we are not here for the trekking and a homestay would knock us over the edge. I suppose my expectations of what intrepid travellers we would make and how domesticated we actually are, are at odds.
No such concerns sitting on our balcony overlooking the river for the past few days. This place works because we can head out on bikes, or walking and see what happens along the way. Yesterday we had a great day, went walking to the next village to see caves that people holed up in during the Indochina war. We then raised a posse of 5 eight/ nine year olds to show us where the waterfall was. They were quite the little men, breaking off palm leaves to make hats for the expedition. The waterfall was gorgeous, all in, leeches included.On the way back there was a commotion, the boy/men had spotted a snake beside the path. Catapults did the initial work, then they set on it with vigour using sticks and stones and flung it into the ravine. A snake is held in such low regard it is not even eaten, and these boys didn't look over fed. Ours were impressed by the lack of parental involvement these boys enjoyed, and by their murderous ways. I feel the day of the snake will be remembered. I hope it's the only such day.
Arrived in Luang Prabang yesterday, it looks beautiful. Lots of tourists and higher prices. Will stay here for four days and start to head south. River travel has been wonderful, entertainment as you go, and cheap. You get to see all the coming and goings, remote villages. It is inexpensive to travel here, could be done a lot cheaper than we are doing it. I'm sure that day will come.

Sent from my iPhone

Posted by caroline 18:11 Comments (5)

Nang Khiaw - Pt. 2

sunny 30 °C

Ok at the moment we are in some really nice place called Nong Khiaw and are staying in a place called Sunset that is so queit and calm but when we first came here we were a bit lost in translation because the person who owns this place was away that day and the lady who worked here couldn't speak English.In Luang Namtha we met these two really nice people called Leane and Paul and we have stuck around with eachother and usually stayed in the same place and yesterday we went out to a really nice restuarant for my Moms birthday with Leane and Paul and we had told the people at the restuarant it was my Moms bithday and near the end they turned off all the lights but at first I thought they were trying to get us to leave but they brought out a chocolate covered pancake with chopped banana shaped into the word love.It also tasted animal.Another thing earlier that day we were at these caves and outside were you come in there was a big and sort of deep stream and when we came out two boys were jumping in so I decided I would too.So I cannonballed in in my jocks and it was great craic.At this very moment as I am typing this my Mom and Dad are planning stuff and it is a bit boring just sitting around but what can you do.Nong Khiaw is another supercoolyepic place.
P.S Harry wrote this

Posted by goldenmaverick 23:27 Archived in Laos Tagged harry nang_khiaw Comments (0)

Nang Kiaw

sunny 32 °C

Yesterday we took a boat from Muang Khoua which took five hours or so. Taking the boat is a far nicer way to travel in Laos than the normal local bus service. The only drawback is that you get a very sore backside. You get to sit on a plank with not a huge amount of legroom to begin with but as the locals alight along the way you do get a bit of a stretch. We landed yesterday afternoon and a little while after sorting the accomodation we were sitting down having a Beer Lao overlooking the Nam Ou river. This is quite a place. Its surrounded by huge limestone mountains on all sides which are covered in their natural forests. The journey down the river over the last couple of days only served to highlight how much slash and burn farming has been going on. Teak and mahogany forests have been removed and replaced with rubber and tea plants.

Today we rented some bikes and went to visit some caves in the village of Pakse. The limestone caverns were used to hide out in during the Indochina wars. The entire village population lived there for periods of the war. Pretty amazing stuff. There was a small river beside the caves where some local kids were taking a dip. Harry decided to join them. It was quite delightful until I saw one of the kids picking leeches from his leg. When I mentioned it to Harry it seemed to cool his ardour for swimming. In any case, he appears to be leech-free.

Unlike a lot of places we've been recently this place seems to welcome tourists. There's a good selection of restaurants and guesthouses and even in low-season there's plenty of tourists around. We'll chill here for a few days and then move on to Luang Prabang, the former capital of Laos.

We'll go out for dinner in the fanciest place in town tonight as its Carolines birthday. I think we'll steer clear of the Laos Mojitoes we sampled last night. Made from rice wine its akin to drinking laundered diesel with mint, lime and crushed ice.

Posted by goldenmaverick 02:03 Archived in Laos Tagged caves birthday nang_kiaw Comments (7)

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