Archive for July, 2012

Beautiful Water-pools

Beautiful Water-pools

Laos is the least visited country in the area (apart from Myanmar, of course), which does not mean, however, that there is no tourists. It is a sparsely populated place (6 million inhabitants in a country the size of the UK), and very rugged and mountainous in the north, while flat in the south along the Mekong and hilly again to the southeast. The Mekong river forms the border to Thailand for a long stretch of its journey south.

We entered Laos by taking a boat across the Mekong and headed north after a nights stopover in the border-town. The monsoon had become quite heavy by now, with irregular intense downpours, but it has still not marred our fun traveling this far.

Dining in the rice fields

Dining in the rice fields

Bus travel in Laos proved to be a good exercise in patience once more, with bussed not departing until 2 hours after the scheduled time, stopping all the time for no particular reason (or, so that the driver could sit down and have lunch, but he failed to inform any of his passengers about this 30 min break, so that we all missed the opportunity to get some food ourselves…). We traveled alongside bags of vegetables and fruit, fish in plastic-bags (still alive) and motorbikes parked in between the seats. We had leaky roofs dripping water on us, or got entirely drenched inside a soorngataau (a public transport vehicle, a converted pick up with benches and a roof, but open on the sides), when the monsoon hit-  but we safely made it to all our destinations, and after all, who does not want to travel alongside chicken and fish every now and then. What caused Simon the biggest headache is the fact that most buses play music all the time- or show music videos alongside the tunes, too. And it is not good music (it has to be agreed, of course, that tastes vary, but why force everyone to listen to the same songs?)

That's my baby!

That’s my baby!

To continue with the journey, we made our way to Luang Nam Tha, in a valley surrounded by mountains in the north of Laos, where we rented bicycles for a day to explore the area (one very unimpressive waterfall included, after we had first sweated our way up a wrong(!) steep path). We passed through a number of villages, all with houses on wooden stilts (this is the dominant style of houses both in the North of Loas as well as Thailand), had to get Simon’s bike fixed, sat down for a drink of water with an old man and exchanged lighters with him and at night explored the markets.

The next days brought adventure- we rented a scooter and a motorbike (Nico taught himself how to ride on youtube…) and we drove to Muang Sing, a village close to the Chinese border. It was a beautiful cruise through mountainous terrain. There are many ethnic minorities in Muang Sing, and the surrounding mountainside is dotted with villages of the Hmong and Akha tribes, to name just a few. We went on a trek the following day, passing through villages, rice fields (the rice planting was in full progress), and up a mountain through dense forest (very sweaty affair…). Finally, there was lunch on top of the mountain with our guide, extremely tasty pieces of pork, Lao sticky rice, chicken and bamboo shoots. After re-descending and making it back to the village, we took our bikes for another cruise and nearly accidentally drove into China- the border post was rather unassuming.

Monks collecting alms

Monks collecting alms

Our journey continued over bumpy mountain roads via small roadside villages, all complete with huge numbers of pigs and chicken roaming the streets and finally brought us to Luang Prabang, famous for its richly decorated temples. We went exploring around the city, followed by enjoying the view over the Mekong river from atop a hill.

Our next stop was Phonsavan, the location of the Plain of Jars- as the name suggests, there are jars. Many of them, all made from stone, some of them huge, scattered around he countryside just outside of the city. And nobody really knows where they came from, and what purpose they served. Phonsavan has another, darker heritage, too, though. During the Vietnam war, it was one of the most heavily bombed places in Laos (and Laos is one of the most heavily bombed places on earth- the U.S. dropped bombs to interrupt smuggle along the Ho Chi Minh tail, and to destroy communist groups gathering to fight the enemy, despite the fact that Laos had been declared neutral territory). It is estimated that after the war, 80 million pieces of unexploded ordnance remained hidden in or just above the soil in the country (of the 2 million tons of bombs dropped, 30 % failed to detonate), and these have caused many casualties. The plain of Jars, for instance, is only safe to visit in certain areas that have been cleared of bombs, and there are still visible bomb craters everywhere.

Items made of bombshells

Items made of bombshells

Clearance is in progress, but will take decades to complete. Meanwhile, some locals have adopted a more pragmatic attitude to this worrisome legacy and are using empty bombshells as building materials for houses, create BBQ’s or flowerpots out of bombs, or melt them to recast them as cutlery- we bought a set in a small village close to Phonsavan.

Our last destination in the North was Vientiane, the nation’s capital, complete with a mini arc de triomphe (the former French influence is still visible in many of Laos’ cities, especially in the architecture of brick and stone houses, but also through the presence of French cultural institutes, restaurants and schools).

Here ends the first account of our impressions around Laos, soon to be followed by our adventures in the South!

Another Waterfall

Another Waterfall

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After Nico had already been adventuring in Myanmar for nearly 3 weeks, Simon and I finally joined him in Asia to begin the journeying together again.

First port of call in the region was Bangkok, after a day spent in KL on a stopover. Before being joined by Mr. Nico, we used our time exploring the sprawling mass of streets that is Bangkok- and sampling excellent Thai food from the many street stalls that can be found literally everywhere. Boy, did we have to get used to spicy food again, after all the Western meals of the past months (but I can proudly state that by now, we are all happily adding copious amounts of chilli to all our dishes- training is everything..).

Chicken Feet Skewer

Chicken Feet Skewer

There were so many culinary discoveries since we arrived in Asia, I don’t even know where to start. Not all of them make for good photo material unfortunately, so I will just describe them as best as I can. Thailand is of course famous for its curries and tom yam soups (spicy and sour soup with lemongrass, ginger and seafood or meat) as well as for rice noodle soups with various kinds of meat that you season yourself with sauces (fish-sauce) and chilli, as well as adding greens to the bowl, such as cabbage or beans. Thai fish-ball soup is particularly excellent….Then there is what we referred to as ‘meat on sticks’, wooden skewers with all sorts of meat or fish that are grilled on a barbeque- they make for an excellent snack. Grilled dried squid is also a specialty. We tried boiled chicken feet for the first time in our lives, and I have to say, they are very tasty and tender!

Another temple

Another temple

We explored the Thai capital by visiting markets and temples (the latter are rather ‘sparkly’- lots of gold and reflecting mirror tiles), and even having a look at one of the temples of commerce- a huge shopping-mall. The rest was spent sapling food before we met Nico and headed north to Sukhothai,  a city that was the seat of one of the early Thai kingdoms. Many of the old temples still remain (albeit in a crumbling state), so we rented bicycles and cruised around the former capital.

Sweet Couple

Sweet Couple

From there, our path led us north to Chiang Rai, which we used as a base to head deeper into the mountains- to Mea Salong, a small village with a significant Chinese influence (and amazing grilled pork-legs…). We hiked to some villages in the surrounds (the North of Thailand, as well as Laos and Vietnam are famous for the diverse ethnic groups or  hill tribes that live in the region, mostly still in very traditional ways, each tribe with their own dress and customs. Many of them sell jewellery or embroidered fabric at local markets in the area).

Back in Chaing Rai we explored some more temples, got a massage, and ate some more delicious food before heading on to the border to cross into Laos- thus ending our brief visit to the country, but we will sure come back for more (hopefully in the not too far future!)

Local Petrol Station

Local Petrol Station

Templee!

Templee!

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Well, as it seems Anna doesn’t really feel like writing at the moment and I can’t remember every detail over such a long period of time. Therefore this is just going to be a very very short post with a very brief summary of the last few weeks. A more detailed post might follow soon.

So I flew to Bangkok to meet Anna and Simon there. As I had extended my stay in Myanmar I was a few days late and therefore couldn’t really explore Bangkok anymore. So we had a nice diner in Bangkok and too the train on the next day to Sukkutai, which was the capital of the former Thai-Empire. The old temples were certainly of historical significance, but other than that not very spectacular. After Sukkutai we went up north to Chiang Rai and explored the surrounding region. After that we already headed for the border of Laos and crossed the Mekong River into Laos where we were planning on staying a little bit longer than Thailand. In northern Laos we spent some days hiking and scootering around. We rented some scooters and I taught myself how to ride a motorbike on You Tube and rented a proper chopper. It was a lot of fun riding on the streets of Laos, as they are in a rather good condition and they are not as crowded as in other Asian countries.

After that we went further south, to Luang Prabang, a very atmospheric town with a lot of French influence, followed by Vientiane, the capital of Laos. We enjoyed some city life in those cities, including some good and quite decadent food.

I added a few photos below to give you some impressions of the last few weeks and I hope that the more detailed report will follow soon.

Stay tuned, Rock’n Roll, Nico

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