Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Laos (July 26 - August 5)

Laos is first of all the country of a wonderful countryside (that is as enjoyable during sunny days as when it is cloudy), friendly people (who don't chase you for money at every corner), incredibly slow transportation (average speed around 30 km/h - yes, that means 200 km in 7 hrs:)), interesting history (do you know it is the most bombed country in the world?), fairly inflated currency (we became millionares:)) and many other unexpected features... e.g. Lao dogs (suspected from transmitting the rabies) are the most playful pets we've come across so far:)

It took us one extra day to reach the Thai-Lao border (due to a scarce traffic) and we entered Laos by crossing the river Mekong on July 26th. Application for visa on-arrival went without any difficulties, as soon as the officer figured out that 30USD + 1USD (weekend overtime fee) is not equal to 36USD. Being already used to the Thai transportaion system, it wasn't good news to hear there were no buses to anywhere on that day... because all buses in Laos usually depart before 11am. That's why we spent the other half of the day in Huay Xay, during which we got interesting insights on Laos from American businessman, and tried delicious "street food", not missing out Beer Lao, brewed by the only internationally famous Lao company, BTW very tasty).

The next day, we set off to Luang Nam Tha, where we did a short treking through nearby villages and countryside. It was quite a hot day and we enjoyed brilliant sights. In the afternoon, we got on the bus to Luang Prabang (exceptionally not departing before 11am), the historical capital of the country. The city is believed to be (and for sure is) famous for a French architecture, however, we particularly enjoyed French influence in cuisine - baguettes & cheese rule:) Compromising on some temples (they really don't differ too much from the Thai ones:)), we spontaneously joined a group of local hotel staff to spend the afternoon at the amazing Kuang Si waterfalls. Unforgettable highlight of the day was yet to come... we were invited to join our new friends for lunch: 45-minute trek across the muddy road, observing preparation of a traditional chicken soup (even the chicken had a chance to observe it at the beginning:)), Thai karaoke, plenty of Beer Lao served with home-made ice, speedboat ride on Mekong at 8pm, and of course the virgin nature all around.

The bus to Vientiane took around 9 hours. Although it is the capital, you would never guess so - it is a calm and relaxed city with only 200.000 inhabitants. All the sights were within a walking distance from our guesthouse, which provided us with enough time not only to enjoy the city, but also to apply for (and successfully get) a Vietnamese visa extension.

Vang Vieng, possibly the most touristy place in Laos, was another kind of experience - more physical this time. We did some bycicle riding, caving and tubing (floating down the river in a huge tube). The "city" (20.000 people) itself basically comprises of 3 streets full of travel agencies, internet cafes and traditional "Friends' restaurants", where you can lie down on the bed and watch Friends series on DVD - enjoyable stuff... especially with delicious fruit shakes and excellent sandwiches:)

Remaining 5 days in Laos belong to the "off-the beaten track" chapter in Lonely Planet, meaning that the further from Vang Vieng (and closer to the Vietnamese border) we went, the more adventurous it all got (less buses, no English etc.) In Phonsavan, known for a mysterious Plain of Jars, there were still some other tourists, but we could easily filter them out by skipping all group tours, and renting our own motorbike instead. It was a perfect day!:)

We spent half day in Sam Neua, going on to Vieng Xai - "Birthplace of Lao PDR" (People's Democratic Republic). Despite spending 4 long hours by searching for any means of money exchange and any (at least rough) information on how to get to Vietnam, we managed to enjoy 4 hours of guided tour around 7 major caves that served as a military headquarters during the American-Vietnamese war. The whole complex counts hundreds of caves, most of which are not accessible due to unexploded ordnance threats.

Well, getting to Na Meo on the Vietnamese side had to be a piece of cake that time and so it was. Actually, it was for me and Zdenek. Unfortunately not for the locals... some of the Lao and Vietnamese people aboard our truck didn't handle the route with nobleness and were puking around during the frequent stops. Not kidding on this one:) Frankly speaking, the route is so bumpy and uncomfortable that even Lonely Planet guidebook straightforwardly discourages travellers from using this border crossing (labeled as "the most remote of remote ones, for hardy travellers only") However, the real tough part comes with getting from Na Meo to Hanoi... wait for the next post:)

On behalf of the fatal crew :)

That Luang (golden stupa), Vientiane

Kuang Si waterfalls, near Luang Prabang

Mekong river

Plain of jars, site #1, near Phonsavan

Caves complex, Vieng Xai


Anonymous said...

the cave shown is not in vieng xai but near luang prabang, things happen

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