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Living Laos Vida Loca!

LAOS | Friday, 29 August 2008 | Views [701]

After about 10 days enjoying the classic backpacking experiences of northern Thailand, the next stop on our epic adventure soon came calling - the mysterious, and less well trodden Asian outpost of Laos.

Our main aim was to get to the fabled Luang Prabang (apparently the height of French colonial charm) and the journey we had chosen was certainly epic! It began with a five hour bus ride to the northern Thai town of Chiang Khong followed by a two day trip down the Mekong River by slow boat with an overnight stop at a riverside village called Pakbeng - all of which was done in torrential rain. We were warned by experienced backpackers that this journey would be mammoth. Rumours "floating" around our hostel spoke of Pak Beng as being hell on earth offering the most basic of accommodation where electricity stops at 10pm and rats can be heard scratching under the bed. With this in mind, we did our best to psyche ourselves up into true back-packer mode and like everyone else who treats the Lonely Planet guide as Gospel, bought cushions for the journey to avoid the numbness felt after 8 hours of sitting on wooden seats in an overcrowded boat. Luckily, being the low season, the boat was not full and we enjoyed the first day getting to know the other back packers on board, and befriended four Brits, Dan, Matt, Emily and Pete.

It didn't take long for us to develop a good sense of camaraderie on board but things soon took a gruesome turn for the worse midway through our journey. Whilst gazing on the chocolate brown water of the Mekong, we overheard one of the French guys onboard cry 'un cadavre!''. We looked to see a corpse floating in the water. To everyone's surprise, the boatman sailed right past. At this point, Bobby and another fellow back packer took it upon themselves to question the captain. He explained that floating dead bodies in the Mekong is a normal occurrence due to the river's strong currents and whirlpools. Apparently, the occasional fisherman gets lost over board. His other theory was that the Burmese often like to to bury their dead by setting them out to sail on a bamboo raft together with flowers - we found this theory unlikely in this case as the guy was fully clad in trainers, t-shirt and shorts! We later learned that many of these bodies are related to the drug trade across Asia - opium being a major player. Shocked at the complacency of the captain and suffering fatigue and hunger from our rationed diet of chocolate Oreo biscuits and crisps, the journey lingered on until the small fishing village of Pakbeng.

As if the boat trip hadn't been tiring enough, our final ounce of energy was sapped searching for a guest house in the rain whilst traipsing through Glastonbury style mud in flip flops with our ubiquitous backpacks. Luckily, we found a clean homestay with no rats and despite the plethora of mosquitoes that dined with us, we enjoyed a peaceful night in Pakbeng not caring too much about the 10pm electricity curfew. We later found out that this small fishing village is a den for opium, hash and illicit whisky all of which we managed to completely miss!

The second day on the boat was slightly rougher. Due to a full night's rain, the river was swollen. With just the tops of trees peeping out of the water, the river's current and whirlpools were stronger than ever. Just two hours into the journey we were suddenly faced with an almighty 'BANG' as the boat's engine trapped some enormous floating debris. The boat suddenly spun out of control and was swept quickly by the current downstream. Turning a full 360 degrees, the captain steered it towards the banks so that it collided with the trees, which initiated a massive insect invasion. Whilst the captain attempted to replece the propellor by swimming in the soup, we busied ourselves by fending off the impending branches and massed armies of caterpillers, moths and an illuminous green preying mantis.

After about 30 minutes, with the engine working again, the journey continued but with no life vests to be seen, a general ambience of fear ensued and the subject of conversation amongst us and our fellow travellers changed to the horrific reality of having to swim the breadth of the river should the boat go the same way as the Titanic! Trying her best to get back into the Buddhist mentality of complete calm, Kate consoled her anxiety by listening to the word's of PJ Harvey's song "We Float", with the revelant refrain to "take life as it comes!". Our new pal, Dan, having not enjoyed a single second of the experience reassured us that if he were lucky enough to make it back to the UK in one piece, he would never leave his town of Banbury again! Morale was lifted by a few mean rounds of the card game Cheat, two of which Kate won whilst Bobby tackled a game of Chinese Chess with a French backpacker and wa comprehensively trounced. Before we knew it our little slow boat had quietly crept to our final destination, the charming little town of Luang Prabang.

Rather like when you have your wisdom tooth pulled out, the pain of the boat trip was well worth it in the long run as sleepy Luang Prabang lived up to all our expectations. Remnants of faded French colonialism add to the town's charm - colourful, villa style houses, cafes and boulangeries come together with beautiful buddhist temples set next to the mighty Mekong river - it's easy to see why UNESCO have classed this as a world heritage site.

Laos has offered us plenty to do - visits to buddist temples, a 50km mountain bike trek and diving in waterfalls have all been part of the itinerary - and we were ably assisted in these adventures by our guide, a sweet young guy called Manh. The funky Hive bar became our local where we got to hang out with friends from the slow boat. We even took a jaunt one evening to Luang Prabang's bowling alley, the only place to have an open bar after 11pm. Much fun was had by all - with Bobby claiming the glory as the winner - and the evening finished with a crowd of us pushing a tuk tuk in the rain to get the motor started and then piling in.

They say that if Laos were a taxi driver, you would have to wake him up to get him to take you somewhere. This has been best reflected in the relaxed attitude of the Laos people. Thankfully, they don't haggle too much, smile all the time and above all are trustworthy, as proved when Bobby mistakenly left our bag at the Bowling alley complete with bank cards, passport photos and honeymoon snaps. Luckily for us, they had safeguarded it for us!

And so it was with a sad heart that we said goodbye to this sleepy corner of Laos but Hanoi beckoned. All we had to do was survive the Vietnamese Airlines flight and hope that we got there in one piece.....

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