Vieng Xai: Bombs, caves and a history lesson.

My visit to Vieng Xai was short and brief but gave me an extremely fascinating insight into the Secret War and lives of everyday Lao people during these hard times. The journey took 13 hours from Nong Khiaw. Hungover and hating the invention of laolao, I managed to befriend some new backpacker buddies. On arrival we decided to share rooms to save money. The boys room had a huge hairy spider in it. Nice.
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Vieng Xai has minimal interest apart from the caves. It’s a sleepy little place re-constructed after it was flattened in the Secret War from 1964 to 1973. The town is surrounded by beautiful karsts, which provided adequate protection from the mindless bombing of the Americans. As an international foursome of backpackers, we were out of bed and set out on a headset tour of the caves by 9am. A history lesson was on the agenda. We were the only tourists that day so had the tour guide to ourselves. The next three hours shocked and educated me. The Secret War was awful. More than 2 million tons of ordanance was dropped on Laos, some of that was on Vieng Xai. America were backing the Royal Lao Government against the communist Pathet Lao as well as trying to eradicate the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail used by the Vietnamese. I’d heard about the struggles in Vietnam but the reason and reality of the Secret War was new to me, one I knew little about. I felt uneasy..
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No body are allowed access to the caves without a guide. Our friendly guide was particularly happy and smiled every second of the tour. It was hard for me to be like that. The life of innocent Lao locals during the bombing campaign visually and orally replicated by the tour put me in a somber mood. I felt sad for them. Especially the rural Lao people, who lived simple lives without technology. They had no idea why they were being bombed or who was doing it.
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The Lao people were strong, brave and resilient. The cave networks providing an entire city for its people and it’s army. We walked to the three caves that were currently open to tourists. Vieng Xai was completely flattened by the bombs so the town we walked through had been completely rebuilt since 1973. It was modern-ish yet remained just like the rest of Lao, very quiet and peaceful.
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We were shown the immaculately preserved caves of the prime minister and his head politicians. After the war ended the prime minister had new buildings built beside his cave and a garden commemorating the lost Lao lives. Red flowers symbolising the blood spilt.
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During the war, locals would work at night and hide in the caves during the day when the bombing raids took place. There were lots caves in and around Vieng Xai, all covered by thick sub tropical jungle. Some were open to the public, others were being restored.
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Meeting rooms, panic rooms, sleeping areas and living quarters with the original furniture were still set up for visitors with adequate explanations in various different languages. This panic room had an oxygen machine built in, just in case chemical bombs were used.
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Huge craters filled the landscape. A variety of bomb blasts still evident today.
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One of the most memorable quotes from the audio tour: After capturing a pilot, the locals interrogated him for information. They found out that the US trained pilots were to look out for brightly coloured animals, eg, chickens and to deliberately bomb these areas where innocent civilians lived. The locals killed all colourful animals and grew only green plants. A sacrifice that would eventually save their lives.
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After nine years of US bombing Laos was labelled the most bombed country per person in world. There is still UXO (unexploded ordinance) everywhere. It will take 100 years to make all of Lao safe. The jungle provides excellent protection for the UXO thus making it very difficult to sort out. One person dies everyday in Laos due to UXO blasts. Some are accidental discoveries, others seek the metal from bombs to sell as scrap. Either way, America have left a legacy of destruction that is still a part of everyday life in the quiet and peaceful lands of Laos.
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Check out the toilet in the Prime Ministers quarters. They must have had excellent aim back in the 70’s.
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These facts are the ones that stuck with me. Facts I feel you should know. My knowledge of the Secret War was increasing daily. I was to head to Phonosaven next to get a deeper insight.
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We waited for a bus that never came. The market was the only other sign of life. Rat for dinner anyone? I ordered pork noodles but got blood noodles instead. It tasted OK. The locals said there is only one bus a day that leaves in the morning. We weren’t too sure what to believe. English speaking locals didn’t exist, neither did a timetable. The bus station office was closed and empty. We didn’t rate our chances so we decided to attempt to hitch a lift. We walked to the main road and somehow picked up a bus. Thank you backpacker gods.
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Vieng Xai was fascinating and so was the history lesson I wanted it to be, but it left me feeling sad. Sad for the Lao people who suffered and sad that any body could be so cruel to such a lovely race of people. Reality, sometimes, is not nice. Greed makes people do silly things.
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Lost in Laos: Somewhere near Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi.

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I’m dropped off at the bridge along with a few locals carrying large sacks of foodstuffs by a friendly and smiling tuk tuk man. Nong Khiaw is a quiet town, maybe a village, separated by the mighty Nam Ou River. This place is ideal for the budget backpacker to unwind. I wander the almost empty streets and check into a private room with a super huge bed for 30,000 kip. A lot cheaper than Luang Prabang. Bargain. If you are a couple, you can get a nice bungalow overlooking the Nam Ou River with absolutely stunning views of the karst formations for 50,000 kip. Bargain.

DSC04819I walked down to the river before the heavens opened up. The weather was poor on arrival but this didn’t dampen my mood. The river, thick jungle and stunning karst formations give this place a truly magical feel. My camera was used extensively. Panorama function getting a full on work out.
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I find a little Indian restaurant that served me an absolutely perfect and authentic tasting cup of masala chai. God damn, I miss Indian chai. It was possibly one of the best cups I’d ever had the pleasure of digesting. It rained hard. I was trapped in the restaurant all afternoon. I met some interesting people, ate some vegetable masala and chapatis and sunk three large chais while checking my emails on the WiFi. I buzzed hard on the extreme sugar intake. One small cup of chai is enough to give you a boost. I managed to consume the equivalent of ten. I enjoyed the cool air the rain brought with it. I met an Israeli couple and a chain smoking French journalist who kept me in good company and gave me valuable advice on the local trekking trails. The day passed effortlessly in my Indian bubble of laziness.
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Later, at Lintong Guest House I met a funny couple of Norwegian girls. We talked. We giggled. It was all so nice. Even the guest house ladies were happy and smiley. Laos has really got me now.
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The following morning I caught a boat to Muang Ngoi. This place is accessible by boat, or if you are really brave, by foot. No roads lead to it from Nong Khiaw or any other main route, town or city. Electricity is supplied daily from 6pm-9pm. It’s a beautiful boat ride up the Nam Ou with stunning rock formations, jagged karsts and mountains making my view pleasant, really pleasant. The boat leaves late, as expected and arrives at Muang Ngoi late.

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DSC04854At the pier a few locals meet and greet us with smiles. The small two road town has a small scattering of bungalows. The road is a dirt track and the only transport is via scooter or one of those homemade tractor contraptions the farmer people’s use. The road has the usual array of dogs, cats, cockerels and children playing around. The pace was slow here. Real slow. Although there were a fair few tourists for such a small and out of the way village, the place seemed untouched from its traditional roots and the people were proper nice. Wooden houses, bamboo huts and newer looking concrete houses made up the street which had a nice looking monastery at the end.
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My bungalow had a double bed, a bathroom with solar panel powered hot water, which as standard, didn’t work, with a balcony and two hammocks overlooking the Nam Ou. Perfect. Shame about the crappy grey clouds, but it was nice experience, a little bit of a cooler climate for once.
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I took a walk along to a small cave. I talked with a knowledgeable local dude who was collecting a toll. No one else was there.
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That night I ate food at the riverside restaurant French journo, an Irish lad and a German couple. I had been unsuccessful in gaining a place on a trek so I decided to go it alone. All the trekking guides were either not open or had no bookings. We drunk a few beers and a couple of shots of laolao and once darkness had fallen, we were the only ones still awake in this sleepy little town. There was one empty bar still open and we drunk until it closed. On the walk home at approximately 11pm, we realised there were no lights on, anywhere, not even moonlight was not on offer, leaving us in extreme darkness. Notre sauveur, the French dude had a torch. Legend. Drunk and walking down a dirt track with only one torch between us in a village with no electricity, only accessible by river. A step back in time. The weird, the wacky and the wonderful.
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I got into my bungalow and clambered around in the darkness until I’d penetrated the insect net and found a pillow.
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As usual, a chorus of cockerels woke me up nice and early. Maybe it was the valley we were in but these fellas were extremely loud, the loudest in Laos so far. I smashed home a coconut milk sticky rice with banana and I managed to get some valuable information that put my two day trek into a fully organised plan rather than a wonder in the jungle with the hope that I could sleep somewhere.
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I trekked past the cave, along a newly dug out dirt road with only the occasional scooter zooming past and ended up in a village called Ban Na. Locals lived off the land, it was similar to all the other villages I’d seen up north. Locals weaves baskets, worked on the fields and wore traditional clothes. This village had three shops and one guest house for the few tourists that ventured here.
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DSC04916During my brief visit, I noticed a couple of chickens getting feisty with each other. Spending most of my life in towns and cities, I was unaware of what they were doing and put their strange behaviour down to a bizarre form of mating. But as I got closer, I realised they were just trying to kill one another. I watched. They didn’t mind putting on a show for me. I learned.
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I continued walking through the village and came out the other side. I walked towards the next village called Ban Hoy Bo unaware I was going in the wrong direction. I walked through small rivers, up and over hills, past waterfalls, on and through dry rice paddies and through lush jungle. I passed various beautiful butterflies, spiders nests and men with hunting guns. I arrived back in Ban Na with wet feet and sweat drenched clothes. I loved it. Pacing through the jungle with my Hospital Records podcasts blaring, talking to the occasional local. You don’t get this at home.
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This time I crossed the same river as before but took the right turning. I saw a few kids picking fruit and then noticed one cheeky chap up a massive tree, balanced on a thick branch about 20 metres high, he was lobbing fruit at his mates down below. The scenery was stunning,
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I was surrounded by limestone mountains, thick jungle and rice paddies. Butterflies flew all around me, cows grazed, grass hoppers jumped across my path, flies of all types buzzed by as I walk past. Some unknown animals choosing to quickly crawl back into their holes as I approached. The sun comes out and gives the grey clouds a break. I really loved this little adventure, exploring into the unknown. Every step is a new learning experience.
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I arrive in Ban Hoy Bo. Its a traditional village with the usual array of bamboo huts on stilts. Tired and hungry. It’s 3pm. I’m called over to a house by a drunk dude. I take him up on the offer. He talks slurred English. I realise that the house has a variety of drunk fellas in it. I sit on a raised wooden bamboo platform in the house along with five drunk dudes who look wasted and extremely dodgy, and a few younger and sober looking girls. Lao guys like to drink. This scene was a little sketchy. I should have bailed when the hammered old guy next to me wanted to feed me biscuits like a baby. My mum would have advised against this whole ‘getting to know the local gangsters’ scenario but I was fascinated. I was cooked some egg, with what I suspect was lashings of MSG and sticky rice by one of the girls while one of the guys tried to sell me off to his pretty and very shy 16 year old cousin. In broken English he drunkenly mumbled, repeated and drifted between two main topics; one was about foreigners paying 100 dollars for young girls and the other was that he taught at the local primary school in Ban Na. I was in poor company but had somehow become the guest of honour. Super. The men started to sway and argue among themselves. The tension increased and I knew it was time to leave. The whole situation was bizarre, and as my Mum would have said, ‘avoidable’. The teacher slash pimp then decided to try and charge me 70,000 kip for my egg and rice. This is the point I thought it could get nasty. I refused, laughed at his audacity and paid him 15,000 kip, shook his hand and got out, pronto.
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Captain Hindsight would have declined the invite but sometimes saying yes can give you exciting stories to write about on blogs.
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Moving down through the village I spot a young man swinging on a hammock, his name was Geo. He smiled innocently and looked a nice genuine guy. My saviour in nowhere land.
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I drank a coke and we talked about life in the village. I then relaxed in a hammock and read some more of Marching Powder.
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Geo persuaded me to stay the night and to pass the time he offered me a chance to go hunting with him. Hunting is a box I didn’t think I’d tick but naturally my ‘yes man’ duties took over and I agreed. We walked into the jungle with a small gun that looked home made, one similar to the young lads guns I had seen earlier in the day. Safety was left back in the village. Birds were the target. Or anything that moved, minus cockerels and pigs. Taking my first aim at what i assumed was a poor and defenseless little sparrow, I suddenly felt extreme amounts of guilt, danger as well as a sense of power. I didn’t want to blow this birds brains apart. I can eat vegetables. Screw eating bird for dinner. Plus, how much meat would this poor bird provide? As I stared down the barrel I realised that I couldn’t do it, but I was in the moment, this is what local Lao men spent their working days doing, hunting and scavenging for animals to kill and eat. Living off the land. I’d seen at least six men that day walking into the jungle with their weird wooden guns.
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I shot. I missed. I kept shooting at a variety of birds. I always missed. I blamed the gun. Maybe it was my guilty subconscious deliberately screwing my shots up.
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Geo shot one but we couldn’t find it in the thick jungle. Waste of a life. Poor little fella. We ventured deeper into the wet jungle in search for bigger birds when I realised that my trainers were crawling with leeches. We both ran out of the thick bushes and back onto the path, brushing and flicking the wriggly little suckers off our feet. The hunt was over. I was secretly relieved. My conscience clear.
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Geo showed me to my mini bamboo hut and my bed before asking me to help him move some planks for his new guest house he was in the process of building. I agreed to get my sweat on. I spent the next hour lifting wet wooden planks that were infested with millions of ants and hundreds of cockroaches from one place to another.
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Trying not to look disgusted I did my job with brawn and gusto. Geo happy that I was a strong and handsome man. His words, not mine. Flattery works.
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After my bucket shower I noticed a small cut on my foot that produced rather a lot of bleeding. A naughty little leech had crawled into my sock and sucked me dry. I didn’t feel or see him. The bucket shower was pitch black. Geo’s lovely and very smiley wife patched me up and fed me a feast of rice and vegetables with a pancake for desert.
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Meanwhile I had a very strange conversation with Geo about how he used to drink lots and thieve from everyone in the village. Although his English was difficult to understand, I got that he spent 8 years in prison and that they chained him up. As the darkness of the night surrounded us in this small and remote village, I still felt quite safe as Geo, the ex-con’s, only costumer. He’s a straight laced businessman now, he loves tourists. He especially loves boom boom with the tourists but I shouldn’t mention this to his wife. According to Geo, she would have chopped his head off. We also discussed Government taxes and his water machine he bought from China that turns water into electricity. His daughter goes to school in Nong Khiaw, as the local school in Muang Ngoi is only open for three hours a day. His daughter therefore lives with his sister, in order to receive a good education. He wants her to become a doctor and work in Luang Prabang. He has high expectations and wants to provide for his family. A strange yet fascinating insight into life in the village was gained. An end to a very bizarre day.
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The village buzzes with life at 6am, a couple of hours after the first cockerel started their first verbal assaults.
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Building work, animals strolling and feeding and men talking by the fire greet me as I climb down from my hut. I’m served a beast of a breakfast as I and the village wake up. I make my way out of Hoy Bo and back towards Muang Ngoi to get the 9am boat back to Nong Khiaw. The hills are misty and fog swamps the walk back through the fields, rivers and valley paths.
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DSC04990The boat fills up and takes only half an hour to return. A quicker return journey due to going down stream. This isolated part of Lao is a real visual treasure. Everything looks amazing.
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I reunited myself with the lovely ladies at the Lintong Guest House in Nong Khiaw, downed a large mug of masala chai and hired a huge 22.5 inch frame Trek mountain bike. Although the frame was a little large, it proved to be a great decision. That day I managed to explore Nong Khiaw and three caves used in the Secret War to hide from the persistent bombing raids by the US.
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Caves are cool. I like them. I didn’t see any tourist there either. I was alone. There’s something unnerving about going deep into a cave with a small torch, crouching down and working your way through a network of caves once inhabited by hundreds of scared innocent Lao locals hiding from the bombing frenzy outside.
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Outside the first cave I bumped into a German girl who I’d met in Varanasi over 4 months previously. Small world.
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The caves had small Buddhas arranged at the front and one had a small Buddha located deep in a small enclave. In the largest car a young boy showed me around as my guide. He was a happy boy who’s English was minimal but his enthusiasm was huge. He showed me the old living quarters, hospital, bank and governor office. A whole community survived in these caves for almost nine years. He climbed up and down the rocks inside. I tried to keep up. A huge bamboo ladder leading us down to an out-of- bounds area almost broke under my weight. The experience was made much better because of the cheeky little boy who showed me about. He even took pictures of me posing in the cave. He’d been trained well. At the end of my tour I gave him 20,000 kip, almost £2. For a 15 year old boy living in a Lao village he should have been happy, but he demanded 50,000. We both laughed and I said my good byes and jumped back on my bike and left.
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On my way to the next cave I stopped at a roadside shop to buy a coke and some sweets for the school kids who flocked around me. I was in a good mood and they caught me at the right time.
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I spent the entire day trekking through fields, mountain biking and crawling through caves. I loved every minute of it. Two of the caves still had signs and original furniture left from when they used to be peoples homes. It was stark reminder of the terror innocent rural Laos people experienced during the Secret War.
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I never did find that cinema. That night I met up with the Finish dude who had hired me out
the bike, the three Lao guides who worked at the trekking place and an American random. Sitting on chairs in the street, we ate home made Lao food and drank Beerlao and laolao until we were beyond intoxication. The rest is a blur. I think my new found Israeli friends walked us home.
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Waking up still drunk is never great but Laolao has a habit of staying in your system for longer than you want it to. Before my long and winding bus ride to Sam Neau I polished off a sticky rice coconut milk with banana and mango and a large mug of masala chai. Not even these tasty beauties made my hangover disappear. It proved to be a long day, a very long day.
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At this point I was too tired and hungover to realise or appreciate how amazing the last four days and nights had been. A true adventure. A gem in my travels. Travelling alone makes me go and do strange things. This is where the memories and the stories come from. This is real backpacking. Bear Grylls would have been proud.
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Maung Sing: A mountain bike, ethnic minority villages, animal sex and Gangnam Style.

The local bus takes us two hours up, through and over the mountains towards Muang Sing. I put on my newly downloaded Hospital Records Podcasts. The sun shined. Traditional villages, bamboo huts, lush jungle, dirt roads and rural Laos life passes me by. The small signs made from cement on the side of the road counting down the kilometers left to go. I had no idea what to expect. Not one tourist to be seen, I am the only English speaking human on this bus. I love my life.
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Destination Muang Sing, middle of the golden triangle. According to the governments and media, the opium trade no longer exists. And Scotland has no issues with the consumption of heroin. Money talks. Corruption is rife.
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The bus station was dusty and empty. I walked out onto the road. This was also dusty and empty. A motorbike passed me by, kicking up even more clouds of dust. I had arrived at a ghost town. No tuk tuks. No sign of life. How bizarre. I liked my situation instantly. This type of situation is something I have learned to love, I now thrive on it. Thailand doesn’t offer this, neither had Laos so far. Easy travelling has its place but difficult travelling creates the stories down the pub, the real memories. Muang Sing didn’t disappoint. My love affair with Laos was about to start.
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Luckily for me, the Americans from Luang Nam Tha had given me a map. I located a cheap guest house and received a damp, scruffy and relatively cheap room, reminiscent of a budget Indian hostel. I checked for bed bugs. I wasn’t convinced the mosquito net would protect me from whatever was lurking in the room at night. I had no choice. The other guest house had all its three rooms booked out. I was in no mans land. Best I get a bed than not.
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This was the main road. Near on deserted. A few mechanics, ladies sitting on stools and children riding bikes greeted me along with the passing traffic. I sat at the only restaurant, ordered a local chilli dish called tauw and after ten minutes of attempting to ‘people watch’, I finally spotted a tourist. I was immediately harassed by some old ladies wearing traditional Hmong attire. They pulled out old coins and talked a soft sales pitch. I shook my head and declined politely. They flipped them over and whispered and whistled signalling that the substance in their hands was opium. Drug dealers in the UK choose a different attire, usually young dudes with a screw face, wearing flat caps who kiss their teeth and occasionally call you ‘blud’ or ‘fam’. When in a sleepy dusty town like Muang SIng the last thing you expect is grandma drug dealers in traditional Hmong dress selling you opium. I was taken back. Good cover. No one would ever expect her and her little friends to be knocking out some of the Golden Triangles finest. Although they were a little pushy, they were the nicest drug dealers I had the pleasure of meeting, ever. Alas, I felt bad for them. The market was not strong that day. There were more dealers than customers.
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So take note, for those that don’t know, whispering granny in traditional Hmong clothing = opium selling drug dealer.
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It was almost 5pm and the night was drawing in so I hunted down some of the guides and trekking agencies. They were shut. A couple of them had the guides sat outside downing Beerlao and playing cards. They were also shut. One was open but had no treks booked. He wanted to charge me a million kip a day. Some people clearly don’t want business. As the entire ghost town was clearly busy earning mega bundles from opium, trekking was not on the agenda. Maybe they were just cover up businesses to keep the Police at bay. I decided to go it alone. I booked a Trek mountain bike from an empty hotel. Bike, map, a variety of ethnic minority villages, the wilderness and me. What a very strange place. What a very strange situation to put myself in. No one spoke English in this town. No one was in my hostel. Not even a person at reception. I felt alone. I felt an adventure was on the cards. I liked it. Check out this turkey.
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Early rise, early breakfast, no bites to report, I was on form and ready for it. The Laos wilderness beckoned.
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Map in hand, I hit the road, the only one with tarmac and appreciated the gears and the light frame but was a little miffed by the non existent brakes. Either way, freedom flowed through my considerably shorter than usual hair and I was buzzing, high on life. No idea where I was going or what to expect.
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I passed through a number of remote villages, witnessing their normal everyday lives. Traditional methods of production, living off the land, animals playing, monasteries, a mountain stupa, bamboo houses on stilts, weird tractors, banana trees, rubber trees, herbs growing, jungle, rivers, temples…
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I rode my bike. I walked. I observed. I learned. I smiled. I sweated. People’s everyday, mundane life fascinating me. I didn’t meet anyone that spoke English for two days. Two days learning about a culture and way of life unknown to me.
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I visited Tai Neau, Akha and Tai Lui villages. They don’t speak Laos or English. They smile lots and the kids love to chase and wave at me. Nothing will beat my village experiences in Myanmar but this was close. Some villages had been visited by tourists many times, you can feel it and others had rarely seen a falang, let alone a sweating, sun burnt, six foot tall falang on a flash mountain bike with no breaks.
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I rode down dirt tracks and through fields, village hopping. In a small village I can’t remember the name of, I saw two blind cats creating a baby. I’ve never seen cat sex. I didn’t know whether to watch or leave them to it. I was a little shocked. So I took a picture and walked on, whispering my apologies.
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Both the men and the ladies in these villages worked hard on the fields, picking, watering and putting the crops out to dry. As I passed, some waved and smiled. They were almost as friendly as the Burmese. No wonder people fall in love with this country.
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Spring onions and chilli drying, ladies in traditional head scarves, women working on huge sewing contraptions made from bamboo, dirt tracks, rice paddies, cycling through rivers, getting lost, children playing games with stones, sticks and flip flops, shouting ‘sabadee’, the towering mist settling on the Npa hills in the distance, mums talking, cockerels screaming, novice monks on bikes, I took it all in. Mike ‘The Explorer’ they call me. Cooke ain’t got nothin’ on me.
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I stopped for lunch in an Akha village. Two ladies, a fat man and a couple of kids sat outside a house. A few brightly coloured packets of something Chinese hung down from the ceiling, a cold pot of noodles was on the floor by the woman’s feet and a variation of spices sat on the small table in front of her.
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I spoke the little Laos I had learned. I ate noodles and a spicy mix of whatever was on the table for 1000 kip (11p). That’s 14,000 kip cheaper than in town. They talked about me in their own language. They smiled and talked to me in Laos. I had no idea what they said. I smiled and repeated ‘sep lie’ which means delicious, like the ignorant tourist I was. I also had an ice cream, surprised that the village had electricity let alone a refrigerator. That was 1000 kip too. She then gave me a complimentary homemade Laolao. Then another. I had to escape before I got pissed.
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DSC04736 DSC04729 DSC04790 DSC04738I then caught a rooster and a cockerel doing the business. The animals are having a ball out here. They’re getting more action than me.
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I rode my mountain bike on dirt tracks from 9am until 5pm. I was dirty, hungry and tired. I stopped in Namdaet Mai, an Akha village, hoping to get a bed for the night, a home stay would have been cool.
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The first thing I noticed was the older women walking around with no tops on. As in boobs out. Full frontal exposure. The posters at the boarder said that tourists must dress appropriately. What about the locals? These ladies were obviously a little rebellious and flouted the Laos PDR rules. Not that I minded, it seemed sensible, it was a hot day. They wore a traditional head scarf and dress to cover their bottom halves.
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A bunch of kids greeted me. Smiling and shaking my hand they were what all the Laos kids appear to be, very cute, scruffy, covered in dirt and donning huge cheeky grins. These little ones soon turned into my personal tour and body guards for the night.
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I haven’t spoke English for a while and the lovely people in the village weren’t going to start any time soon. I signaled with my hands that I wanted to sleep. The kids lead me through the village to a bamboo hut on stilts. It was locked. I seriously doubted the kids knew what I was talking about until the shortest one, maybe four years old max, disappeared and came back producing a huge set of keys. He opened the padlock to my house for the night and the team of kiddies made me a bed to sleep in. This hut was obviously used by a trekking company when they had night stays in the village. The thin mattresses, blankets and netting hadn’t been used for a while but I was pleasantly surprised that a bunch of kids, no older than 10 years old, had found me a place to sleep and laid my bed for me. Nice. Easier than I thought.
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With digs sorted, I signaled to the my newly adopted little chav’s that I wanted to eat. They lead me to a very old ladies house who then tried to sell me some tatty bracelets. She smiled. So did I. We talked in different languages and I gave her some money for a weird coloured thingy that I attached to my bag. Another good luck charm. It holds a good story, worth every penny. I left the old ladies hut with a bright coloured bobbly thingy but without being fed. We bumped into a couple of large, hairy pigs having some sexy time. The kids were in hysterics.
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We wandered the streets. No concrete, no cars, no Internet. Electricity was supplied via solar panels. Animals ran riot. The topless ladies and the younger ones cleaned dishes in the well, kids washed in the stream, women cooked dinner, men returned home from work and people stared at me, mostly smiling. The sun was setting. This was home for the night.
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Still hungry the kids took me through the village to Nong’s Mums place. He was the cool kid who the others looked up to. I sat in the dark room and watched her prepare my food. She smiled lots. My companion, tour guide and number one fan, Nong, lit the wood for the pan. Next to this pan was a huge dead rat. I pointed and looked surprised. Nong picked up the rodent and posed proudly for a picture, probably his catch. His mum cooked me a feast which included lots a MSG, salt, egg, tangy green stuff and sticky rice. I was famished. I cleaned up quickly and thanked her. I drank the water unsure if I was to regret it later. I didn’t have any change so I gave her some money that was equivalent to a months wages and she gave me a huge bag of nuts. Lovely old bird. Her son and his gang were intense but a pleasure all the same.
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Excited, the boys took me down to the village center, where there were two rastenball courts. One for the boys and one for men of the village. A few more younger kids joined our gang. It was the evening, so everyone had stopped working and were socialising, laughing, joking and playing games before darkness fell. There was a nice feel to the village.
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I danced the ‘Gangnam Style’ with the kids. One even had jeans with a flashing picture of the ‘Gangnam Style’ dancing sensation Psy. I washed my hands and face in the well. I was filthy and tired. As we returned to my new home for the night, I wanted to sit down and relax. My crew of kids weren’t so relaxed as me. Hyper active and buzzing with energy they played and climbed all over the hut, swinging like monkeys from the roof. My presence had clearly excited the little fellas.
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I went to bed and slept for twelve hours. The only thing that woke me up occasionally was the pigs and chickens that walked around and under my hut on stilts. At 3.50 the cockerels started. There are loads of them too. Hundreds. By 6am the village is alive with activity, men hawk and spit as loudly as possible and the women prepare their families breakfast. I was awake and ready for more action.
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Nong greets me with a tired smile the minute I open my door. We had a good bond. He’s a good kid. I like him.
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As I left a lady was waving and shouting at me. After some confusion I was confronted by a man who said I must pay 20,000 kip for my nights sleep. He explained in broken English that the money goes to the village. I gave him the money. A crowd had gathered. I think they thought I was a cheat and wasn’t going to pay them. I thought my generous payment for my food last night included my lodgings, obviously not.
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I said my thank you’s, danced the Gangnam Style one last time and got on my bike and rode out of the misty town down a dirt track back out into the wilderness again.
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I passed through more villages on my way back to Luang Namtha. My body was aching from my excessive cardiovascular bashing I gave it the day before. The morning mist was hanging on the hills and the fields. Taking in morning life in the villages was a different experience from yesterday. The hunters, the workers on the fields, the mechanics, the farmers, the drivers, the builders and the school children all hung around in large groups, presumably waiting to go to work, or to school. As I rode through the villages, I gathered a lot of attention.
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My journey through the ethnic villages of the Luang Namtha Province was complete. I picked up my bag from the crazy woman at the hostel, had a much needed cold shower from the rusty pipe sticking out of a wall and walked to the local bus station. My bus took me back to Luang Namtha, where I got a tuk tuk bus from one bus station to the other before waiting two hours for my bus to Pak Mong. My final destination was meant to be Nong Khiaw. The man at the bus station promises me that there will be a connecting bus. I believed him. Maybe I am still a naive traveler.
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After six hours on a hot, sticky bus I get to Pak Mong. The air on the bus was filled with dust from the road. The experienced local traveler wore dust masks, I just suffered. Pak Mong is a tiny stop off town with little charm. After walking around a while, I found out that the man at the bus station was talking crap. I was stuck in Pat Mong.
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I had to stay in Pak Mong. Forced to stay due to lack of transport. The place was rough. Not many people lived there but many stopped on route. Pak Mong was just a road with minging restaurants, shops and a couple of guest houses. Only one lady spoke English in the town. She also owned a guest house, ironically named Alone Guest House. Travelling at its best. Unexpected stay overs in weird little towns no body ever wants to come to. Classic.
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The hostel was grim. I was the only guest. I presume only people who can’t physically escape Pak Mong have to stay here. I was the only guest. My bedroom was crawling, spider webs cover the ceiling and the dust made me sneeze. This place had crime scene all over it. This picture doesn’t do it justice.
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I head downstairs to eat a plate of rice and vegetables, washing it down with a cold Beerlao. I may need some help sleeping. This was when a man with a huge, furry, bloodied, dead cat-cross-badger type thing walks into the restaurant, has a chat with the owner next to where the buffet food is and calmly walks back out. I’m stunned. What was that animal? Was it road kill? Was he trying to sell it to the lady? Where am I? What’s going on?
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That night, my sleep was broken. I prefer sleeping on in bamboo huts on the floor than a dirt hole like this. I was paranoid of bed bugs eating me and the cockerel didn’t help things either, screaming to its maximum volume early doors. I bloody hate cockerels. I dreamed it was inside the room and I was chasing it. The weird dream ended, luckily for the cockerel, it survived and I woke with a clear conscience. Strange place, strange nights sleep, I needed to escape.
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I returned downstairs to the weird restaurant to see the same meat dishes on the table as yesterday. Nice. I swerved breakfast and waited for my tuk tuk. A short and chubby Laos man takes me to Nong Khiaw after we negotiated a price we are both happy with. I, again, am the only tourist, and am attracting curious stares from the locals. I was happy to get away from Pak Mong and delighted to see the beautiful Nong Khiaw,
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Bus journeys in Laos. One thing I won’t miss.

Luang Nam Tha: Jungle, birds with combs and Premier League Football.

Can I just remind you lovely people that take time to read my regular verbal diarrhea updates, I am Southern British and I write as I talk. Although I write the t’s, I rarely pronounce them. Therefore, if you want to understand my rants and dialogue, and get the most from my ramblings, read as I would talk. I have been told that I use language which is unfamiliar to Northern British folks and the rest of the English speaking countries around the world. if you fall into this category and are bewildered by my ramblings, please check out http://www.urbandictionary.com. Or, you could find a more informative and orderly structured blog to read. There are many out there, wrote by far more educated and interesting people.
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I’ll suppose ‘ll get on with it…
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The tuk tuk bus that took us into town was full, so I made a new Lao buddy and jumped on the back. Being dropped outside a hostel was handy. As soon as I booked into Manychun Guest House, I was asked by an American dude and his Mrs if I wanted to join their trek the following day. I signed up. This was also handy. Spontaneous Mike does it again. Thank you Mr and Mrs Backpacking Gods for placing my plans into my palm.
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It was a two day trek through the thick jungle of the Nam Ha National Protected Area and a home stay in a mountain village with stunning views, home to the Lahu ethnic minority who sought asylum here 50 years ago when fleeing from the fighting in neighbouring Myanmar.
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I was game. Luang Nam Tha was a small and sleepy town, which didn’t look like it had much to offer.
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That night I went to the market and ate some extremely satisfyingly fatty pork and a spicy green papaya salad. I even sank a beer with the bus gang when the Czech girl turned up. Yes, that Czech girl who I saw in Burma and in Thailand has now magically appeared again. She’s weird. I hope she stops following me. I giggled at the prospect of Guy and Nourdes seeing her. Sorry, private joke folks.
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I fell asleep in a clean and very massive double bed with English Premiership football on my TV. Being in a remote place I wasn’t expecting much but surprisingly, this hostel had it all. Heaven.
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Trek: Day 1
It was foggy, the mountains drenched in mist. The usual cockerel ‘call and response’ chorus awakes me at 6am. There’s a smell of frying pork. I’m fully rested and pumped. My enthusiasm levels are set to extreme.
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I meet my new trekking gang and we drive to the market to buy our food for the trek. There’s the usual array of meat, fish, hens in cages and vegetables. The fish were in small pools of water, barely alive. I saw a woman battering three live fish with a club until they died. Ready for purchase. It seemed a bit cruel. An undignified death but this is how they do business in Asia. The rats, pigs snouts and toads still amuse me too. I’d love for Tesco’s to start some new lines.
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We drove to our guides home village to start our trek into the jungle. The very friendly village was inhabited by Khmu people. We got a warm reception. I had a good feeling about this trek, the guides were funny, the team was varied and interesting.
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Our walk saw us move away from the village and straight into and through the jungle. This trek was along small pathways and tracks, nowhere near a road or car. The jungle was thick and lush. A chorus of animals could be heard but, to my disappointment, no leopards or tigers had been seen in this part of the jungle for a long time. We walked through rivers and a varied jungle terrain. I loved it.
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We stopped often, the walk only challenged me once we started to climb the mountain towards the Lahu village at the top.
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We stopped for lunch. The food was laid out on banana leaves on the jungle floor. Sticky rice, vegetables, cabbage and a hot chilli mix. The egg plant food tasted like an old mans smoking jacket. It was vomit inducing but I kept it down, politely.
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The Lahu village is 1800m above sea level. It was a steep climb. A long climb. I got to know our Khmu guides a little better as well as the trekking team. A cool American couple, a Swiss and Russian couple with their cute four year old, a Belgian dude and a French smoker who loved Thai girls. We had good conversation and great visual stimuli. The Laos jungle is pretty nice to look at.
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The Lahu village was strategically placed at the very top of the mountain. It has a great view of other uninhabited mountains and has a fair few trees. The Lahu people came from Myanmar fifty years ago. I was expecting a bunch of the usual happy and caring Myanmar faithful, the ones I’d grown to love during my visit there at the beginning of the year. I was wrong.
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The Lahu people were unhappy, rude and tried their hardest to not talk, wave or interact with us. I’ve been to Thailand and experienced the rude staff that work on the tourist trail but this was another type of rudeness. Maybe there had been too many tourists pulled through their village. Maybe they hated the falang or maybe, they were having an argument with the agency. Either way, it was enough to make everyone feel uncomfortable. It was like they had a pact not to be nice to us. Even if someone did smile or attempt any form of interaction, they quickly backed down. Bizarre.
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DSC04489We arrived at 3pm, leaving us a few hours to kill before dinner and darkness. I walked around the village, soaking up the views. It was visually perfect but it missed soul. The village looked traditional and animals roamed freely. Solar panels were outside each home to provide a small amount of electricity. There’s no water supply, no school and no connecting road. The village was remote. It took a three hour walk to get to the nearest water supply.
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Seventeen houses made up the village, that’s seventeen families. Some would work on the rice fields, growing pumpkin and cucumber dependent on the season. Pigs, cockerels, hens, dogs, cows and water buffalo provide the food and an additional source of income.
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DSC04500The local ladies, sour faced and definitely not practicing any form of smiling, had their hair tied up together in a bundle with a big comb through the middle. Very chav. Some of them even had tracky bottoms on.
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Just before dinner I joined the guides for a game of … resonball, tekra, the football volleyball game they play with what looks like a hard wicker ball. Every country calls it something different. It’s a physical sport that demands a certain amount of flexibility and a quick reaction. The ball is made from strong wicker or bamboo and can hurt the feet and head if you’re not used to the sport, like me.
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After half hour of playing, my head was red roar and a lump was forming. It hurt but I continued. Hard as, me. The local kids watched. I managed to scrape together a couple of smiles from some young boys when my skills on the pitch failed miserably. I like the game. It’s healthy and competitive. England should have these courts and promote the sport, whatever it’s called.
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Spirits. These fellas are big in SE Asia and Laos is no exception. Laos is a Buddhist country but people still believe in talking to spirits and keeping them a happy as possible. Like the village I went to in Myanmar, there’s a dude who talks to the spirits for the people of the village. I guess he sees ghosts and stuff. Or smokes a lot of opium. Either way, spirits are big business, people make sacrifices and offerings in order to bring them good luck. I asked our guide to take us to see the villages dude who talks to the spirit world. They call him a shaman. Not like the shamans in the amazon who dish out psychedelic drugs but they have the same name.
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He took us to his home, a small bamboo hut, which was full of adults and many children gathered around a mini portable DVD player. A dude offered us to share his pipe. The pipe was huge. In the UK, we call it a bong and sometimes, put other substances in them. I accepted. The tobacco was strong. It made my head spin. We talked a little more about the bizarre stories the spirit world produced to scare the village folks.
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The shaman dude told us a story from another village. He reckoned that certain people had not made offerings and been disrespectful. The next time they shook hands with the shaman the spirits arrived and they died instantly. The guides believed this. I concluded they are very superstitious people. More so in these remote villages.
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We stayed in a separate house and the guides cooked up a feast. Pork and vegetables. I squeezed onto my bed made from bamboo with the rest of the gang and slept until the cockerels decided it was time to wake us up. I hate cockerels.
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Trek: Day 2
The next morning the Lahu villagers were still not feeling very friendly. Maybe it was an off week for them. The local kids however, did get along with the four year old of our group. It’s funny how children can break down language barriers. We were served a breakfast of omelette, chilli’s and sticky rice while being strangely observed by the locals. They came and stared at us while we ate, got changed and sat on the benches outside our bamboo hut. We’d pulled quite a crowd. Only our four year old charmer managed to induce a couple of cheeky smiles. The others just stared. So we stared back. Very weird. In Myanmar, everyone is extremely friendly. It must just be this tribe. I wonder what has happened to make them like this.
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DSC04583We left the friendliest village in Laos (that’s British sarcasm in full effect) and put in some long and tough trekking hours, up and down the mountains through a rich and varied jungle terrain. It was tiring. I got my sweat on. I liked it. The down hill became especially tough due to the dry leaves on the floor. We continuously slipped and ended up on my arse regularly.
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DSC04610We stumbled over some twisted trees and a trap set by one of the Lahu tribe. It was a basic construction made from bamboo but was lethal enough to trap and kill a small animal.
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We ended up at a remote camp in the deep jungle and rested for some lunch while a swarm of wasps surrounded us. We moved on through and out of the jungle. We’d climbed up high and needed to descend a fair amount to return to the Khmu village where our van was parked. It was a lush and beautiful trek. The views were stunning. I sweated. It was hard work. But my hat goes off to the family who managed to carry their four year old daughter the entire way. Fair play. Carrying my legs was tough enough, let alone someone else’s.
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DSC04617To toast the end of our trek, we found a women selling some Beerlao. It spun me out. We were all exhausted and on a high, happy we completed the trek. We had a group picture, expertly taken with the usual Asian slant.
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A short drive back to Luang Nam Tha and we were dropped off home. We thanked our guides and gave them a little tip. I headed to the Chinese Night market for some Lao pork, sticky rice, BBQ bananas and coconut, doughnuts and cooked bamboo.

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I returned to my comfy Manychun Guest House and fell asleep to replays of last weeks Premier League football.
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I slept long and hard. In the late morning, I sank a large breakfast and walked the empty deserted streets of Luang Nam Tha. Laos is a relaxed place but sometimes, the empty streets can appear eerie. The size of the buildings and layout of the roads suggests there may be more inhabitants than there actually are. Where did everyone go? Either way, the sleepy feel to this place suited my mood. I was tired and aching from the trek. Resting up before my next adventure.
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The service is always friendly here. People are nice in Laos. I wrote my blog. I read. I then missed the 12.30 bus to Muang Sing. I waited at the dusty bus station for the next bus, for two hours. I read some more. ‘Marching Powder’ is a fairly interesting tale, I’d highly recommend.
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I’m going further up North. Further off the beaten track. Bus + mountains = fun journey.

Lao: A short but sweet lesson from your favourite teacher, Mr C.

Unaware and a little ignorant of the country I am just about to explore, Laos, I decided to use my time in Luang Prabang well by doing a little internet research about the land with no beaches. So today, I’ll deliver a short but sweet lesson in Laos from your favourite teacher, Mr Craig. You can call me sir.

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The main religion is Theravada Buddhism. Thailand is their main influence, via TV and through imports. There are over 135 ethnic groups so a Lao national identity and pride had to be enforced by the current Government. Laos was the name the French gave to the Lao people’s country, Lao is what the Lao people call their country. I’ll use Lao from now on.

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Lao is larger than UK. Fact.
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Lao is relatively untouched, 85% of its land is unmanaged vegetation. However there has been relentless logging of its beautiful forests and jungle for China’s benefit. Most of it illegal. There is also a brisk trade for animal parts, for China’s benefit again.
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America dropped a huge amount of bombs in Laos during the war in Vietnam. It’s the most bombed country in the world per person and most of the bombs have still not been found. Huge areas of Lao have still not been made safe. Harsh.
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75% of people live in rural parts and mountains, this means only 25% of people live in the small cities and towns. With his fact in mind, the real Lao should be found outside of the city. Home stays are easy. I’m going to do some.
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Lao people are proper nice and friendly.
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And that concludes Mr Craig’s short but sweet lesson on Lao. Next blog entry… my trip to ‘somewhere up north’ with trekking and stuff.

Luang Prabang: Milkshakes, monks and Mr Boom Boom.

I’m ill. I hate being ill as much as I hate looking for overpriced accommodation while I’m ill. It could be worse. I could have a meaningless job to go to, running in circles trying to keep up in the rat race. I’d rather be ill in Luang Prabang. I stepped off the boat and wandered for a little while, surprised at the cost of accommodation. I’m sure everyone told me Laos was cheaper than Thailand? Anyhows, the hostel touts were pleasant enough. No means no in this country. I like it. No hassles. Just polite conversation. I ended up finding Ping, the owner of Paddichith Hostel, standing on a street corner looking bored. He took me in for less kip than the rest, and he even gave me as many free bananas as I could eat while I stay. Bargain. Well, not really, it was setting me back just under £7 a night.

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Night was setting in so I visited the local night market, grabbed a buffet style plate of food and went in for a Laos style massage. Some much needed pampering made me feel better, momentarily. I headed back to sleep in my private room with free WiFi and bananas for what seemed like an eternity.
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The night market was amazing and I didn’t give it my full attention that night. By default, I managed to visit the market every night. By far the best souvenirs and clothes I’d seen so far in SE Asia. If only I wanted to buy souvenirs.
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I slept until midday. The weather similar to my health and mental state, grey and moody. I walked the streets. It was relatively cool. The cash situation is easy here. Find an ATM, insert card and withdraw cash for a charge of just over £1.50 per transaction.
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Luang Prabang was very continental. The French influence obvious. The town was relaxed and calm and full of tourists. Guest houses and restaurants everywhere. It had a nice feel. No hassles, no rush. I instantly liked it.
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I crossed over the bamboo bridge. It barely took my weight. 
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On other side, chickens, hens and cockerels were everywhere. This is where the locals lived. I realised that there was a clear divide in the city. One place was for foreigners and over the river was for the locals. A completely different living standard. Almost rural.
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I found a relaxed but expensive bar with great views of the river and an equally comfy chill out area and collapsed. I ordered a fruit shake and made full use of the WiFi and read some words of wisdom from the Dalai Lama.
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Luang Prabang has many novices and monks to fill the abundance of high quality and well looked after monasteries and temples. I met a charming little novice fella who gave me an insight into life as a novice. His English was good for his age.
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The temples were stunning and well maintained. The novices helped in their upkeep.
In one of the small temples, I lifted a Buddha and made a wish. It was a particularly heavy Buddha but I managed to lift it so my wish was planted firmly in destiny.
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Wandering LP, I saw a number of bakeries and coffee shops. This was SE Asia’s Paris. I wandered into an Internet shop and wanted to upload some pictures. The anti virus software found some worms and trojans and decided to wipe all my pictures from my USB again. I was calm. Ill but calm. It’s happened so many times now, plus I just read how the Dalai Lama himself deals with difficult situations. This issue can be resolved. Not in Laos, maybe in KL. The virus saga continues. Either way it’ll get sorted.
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Fucking viruses. I’m getting a laptop the minute I get to KL.
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I sweat the night away but wake up a little more lively than in the last few days. Like every morning, I miss the monks collecting their donations. But I meditated. I was productive. I sorted out my future travels and purchased tickets. As I surfaced out of my bedroom I was met by a friendly little man called Peng. Funny, that means expensive. Sure, I may have pronounced his name wrong, however, for the sake of this story I’ll call him Peng. I tried to learn some Laos lingo from him and before I know it he has invited me to his home. He told me someone he knows is learning English and he thought we could learn off each other. Sounded like a deal.
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I hired a bike and we cycled to his place at the other side of town, away from the tourist area. I had a clearer mind and was feeling much better, not 100% but better.
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I was introduced to Sim, Nat and Now. Spelled as said. The house was a large wooden beast which had been split into 16 small rooms. The rooms each house two people. The walls were thin plasterboard. The rooms small. Somehow, they slept, cooked and ate in their tiny little rooms. American posters and newspapers covered the wooden walls.
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I felt extremely lucky to be invited into his place. They all made me feel very welcome. His room cost 250,000 kip per month. That’s £20. Three nights at his hotel. Thirty five year old Peng, Ping’s brother, introduced me to his third wife, nineteen year old Sim. Exactly what I thought. She was seven months pregnant. He already had two children from previous wives. Bit of a player me thinks.
 

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I spent three hours in their room talking and eating. They cooked a feast of noodles and dried seaweed. I learned a lot of Laos as a language and Laos as a country. I’m not sure they learned any English. According to Nat, it costs 1,300,000 kip per year to go to school. That’s just over a hundred quid. Reasonable for a westerner, not so if you are from a poor family in Laos.
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Peng seemed adamant that he was going to match make between 17 year old Nat and myself. When I said the pretty young girl was too young for me, he explained this was OK in Laos. I wasn’t convinced. I made a hasty exit and went to see the rest of Luang Prabang on my rusty bucket bike. Weird experience.
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The weather was sweet and I just had a dose of real life with real Laos people. Finally, I was starting to like Laos. My little one gear bike had an extremely unmovable bike seat that was positioned far too short for my six foot legs. I’m six foot. this would have fitted a 10 year old kid perfect. It was a funny sight.
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I did all the temples, crossed another flimsy bamboo bridge and had a walk by the Mekong River. There’s a point where the Nam Khan and the Mekong rivers meet each other. It’s pretty stunning. This city, although it’s no larger than a small British town, has got it all.
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I noticed some novices in their orange robes on the other side. They all suddenly jumped in. Fully clothed. The current took them down stream quickly. They were all laughing and giggling. I was terrified for them. They got out the other side, soaked but smiling How weird. It seemed like they did it regularly. Who said Buddhist monks can’t have fun?
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I also went up the hill that all the tourists go up for sunset. Ironically named Clumsy Hill. It was heaving. I left before the sun actually set and viewed the sunset from the less populated viewing point at the bottom of the hill.
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That night at the hotel I met the owner, Mr Padichith himself. He was nuts. He spoke a little French and flirted outrageously with the ladies. At 73 years old, he’d had a good innings and didn’t look like he was going to stop any time soon. He was nicknamed Mr Boom Boom. He enjoyed talking about sex frequently. That night was my last night sweating out my fever.
 
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The next day saw me back to my usual 101%. I felt amazing. I had energy. I was pumped. After breakfast by the river, I got a Trek 3900 mountain bike and went to Kuang Si Falls. These picturesque and beautiful waterfalls were situated 30km out of town so the ride was challenging but the road was tarmaced so relatively flat.
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Laos is lush. The scenery was the best I’ve seen so far in Asia. I can’t describe how amazing it was to be riding a brand new high quality aluminium framed mountain bike with decent suspension. It’s been 6 months since I sold my Specialized Rockhopper. Add to that Laos and its unique lush greenery and you have a pretty special bike ride. The vegetation was spectacular, various palms, crops growing, old trees, straight trees, small and absolutely huge trees. I know my trees.
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There were signs of where China gets its wood from but these areas had grown over and didn’t spoil the views. The sun was shining and the kids waved as I went by, high five’s dealt out to the select cool. Everyone seemed friendly, calls of ‘sabadee’ were endless and I always received with a smile. I’d been spoilt by India and Burma. I wouldn’t receive a celebrity welcome anywhere else but Laos didn’t disappoint.
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I stopped occasionally to wipe the sweat and get a drink from a road side shop. In Laos, most houses have table and chairs outside. Friends stop by and talk. I love this sociable part of Laos. A lot of old ladies have made their house a shop. They get in goods which have a long shelf life and chill out at the front just in case any body wants a drink or a bag of crisps as they pass. It’s a social thing more than a money spinner. This social aspect of western culture is disappearing with the integration of technology.
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I enjoyed sitting down, outside a shop with an old Laos lady, probably her first customer that week, drinking my cold sugary drink while trying to communicate via a game of charades was fun. Smiles go a long way.
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I continued to the public park where the waterfall was. After paying to park my bike, yes, a charge for bicycles, I ventured into the beauty of Kuang Si.
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The waterfall by Pyin Oo Lyin was stunning and this was on a par. The water was a pale blue and extremely clean. A lot more tourists were here but they’d looked after it and made it safe to swim, the rope swing into the pool was a bonus.
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I met a couple of girls from my guest house who obliged by taking pictures as I threw myself into the pool from both the rope swing and the top of the waterfall. Thanks ladies. I’m extremely vain.
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When in the freezing cold water my feet were attacked by some sucky things. A fellow tourist warned me they were leeches. Unsure but worth the risk I decided to leave the pool pronto.
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I dried off and went further up the way to discover even more mini waterfalls and the daddy waterfall. I met Johnny, an American dude I’d seen in Pai. He’d got a bike too so we rode back to Luang Prabang together.
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When boarding our beasts we met a dude who’d seen a shocking sight on the way here. A couple on a bike had tied up a huge pig and were carrying it on their scooter. The pig fell off when they were riding it. The dude stopped to help. The pig squealed in agony. The couple pulled it along the road and back onto the bike. Further down the road, it happened again.
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Only in Asia.
 
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Before we left we discovered some bears. Didn’t see that coming. Waterfalls and bears.
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The journey back seemed to be mainly downhill, which was great, because my legs were jelly. We stopped at a kids market. The children were keen sales people and gave us a hard sell. I didn’t need anything but before I knew it, I had yet another bracelet on my wrist. My little ‘buy-a-bracelet-in-every-country’ tradition needs to stop. Damn kids.
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That night I met up with the girls and we went for some street food and a drink in Utopia. I pushed the boat out and had a beer.
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My time in Luang Prabang was done. I’d rested, recuperated and had fun, mainly as a lone traveler. I liked it. I went down to the market and bought some tasty sausages and sizzling pork for breakfast. A treat. I had a long and crazy journey to Luang Namtha ahead of me.
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I just want to add… that after five months of travelling on buses, in India, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, sometimes through dangerous and winding mountain roads, always on bumpy uneven surfaces, I have never ever had a lunatic driver like this. NEVER. In the mini van, with no air con, he managed to make an eight hour journey six. He drove over uneven bumpy surfaces like he cared not for the shock absorbers or if the wheels fell off. Sometimes he hit pot holes so hard that I was sure the wheels would buckle. I actually felt sick. I was on the back seat holding on for dear life. My arms ached from holding on too tight. On many occasions I cleared the seat and hit the roof of the van. No chance to read or even pick your nose for a minute. It was a white knuckle ride. One I’ll never forget. Ever.

Thailand to Laos: Boats, buses, tuk tuks and opium dealers.

The mini bus from Pai to Chaing Long was severe. The roads wind up, down and in between the gorgeous lush Thai mountains. I was shattered and could have done with a sleep. No chance. We arrived at Chaing Long at 2.30am and were crammed into a guest house for a short and brief 4 hour sleep. I felt like a caged animal.

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Waking up early, I cold showered and ate a cold scrambled egg on toast overlooking the river I was about to cross to get into Laos.
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I was with a large group of tourists. All shapes and sizes. Most of them were adamant on getting completely twated on the boat journey. A bottle of whiskey or rice wine cost just over a pound, and that’s a full size 70cl bottle. Getting drunk was not what my body needed but inevitable.
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We had a pick up truck take us to the pier, a quick check in and a short boat trip over to Huay Xai, Laos. Here was where the process took a bit of time. We waited while our visas were being sorted out and once we were all ready, we moved on into Laos. Not much had changed. There were still Red Bull and Chang’s on sale. Nothing seemed cheaper either. Most of the people I’d met who’d been to Laos said it was much cheaper than Thailand. Not yet its not. Fact.
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However, spirits were a lot cheaper. You could buy more expensive ones with snakes, scorpions, spiders and lizards squeezed inside the bottle. According to Laos legend, drinking spirits from one of these bottles helps your immune system fight bites from the animals inside. Debatable.
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I bought my first Laos baguette and a fresh little Beerlao. Everything seemed very expensive. We waited.
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The rules plastered up by the visa office proved to be excellent reading material. The laws of Laos clearly, or not so clearly, state that any funny business will be punishable with extreme fines or imprisonment. I read these beautiful written masterpieces while a duck was savaging his wife. Welcome to Laos.
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Finally a tuk tuk arrived and took us to where our slow boat was waiting. We waited more. The day seemed to include lots of waiting.
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Approximately 40 people squeezed onto each of the two slow boats. We set sail, alcohol and food heavy we all started to consume our goods as we floated down the Mekong River. The start of a two day journey. My research told me about the legendary Mekong catfish. They are huge, up to 3m long and are unique to the river. I didn’t see one. The Irrawaddy dolphin also lurks around in the Mekong, although there are no more than 76 of the little fellas left. I didn’t see one of them either.
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Our boat was the party boat. Drinking soon descended into binge drinking buckets. The young ones of the group got the drinking going and everybody it seemed, young and old, joined in. The beauty of Laos, the river, mountains, jungle, distinctive rock formations and village life passed us by as we drank the day away.
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The boat had comfy seats and cushions for the wooden chairs. No dramas. No sore arse. Don’t believe The Planet or the hostel signs. The engine however, was extremely noisy. But then again, so were we.
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The young ones on board started pouring their alcohol into a massive bucket. The consumption was starting to get out of hand. A particularly boisterous Canadian, despite warnings from the staff, whipped off his shirt and climbed on to the roof. The roof wasn’t strong enough. The boat came to a halt and staff had to get him down. Oh dear. Boozed up tourists getting out of hand at only 2pm. We were only half way there.
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After drinking our supplies and the boats supplies dry, we had a pit stop to get more Beerlao. It was the other boat who supplied us. A loud cheer from the party boat erupted as the crates were passed over from the sober boat.
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Then it rained.
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Real hard.
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The rain poured into our boat as we struggled to get the rain blinds down in time. The sky was black with it. A small fishing boat pulled up to us, our staff gave him a bucket and helped him scoop the water out of his vessel. The rain continued for at least half an hour.
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The dark skies remained for the rest of our journey. We pulled in to Pak Beng in the early evening. There was a dark and eerie feel to the town. This wasn’t what I’d expected Laos to be like. Our tuk tuk which we’d prepaid for, didn’t show. The other tuk tuk drivers wouldn’t tell us where our guest house was. We were then confronted by an array of drug dealers. Weed, ganja and opium was on offer.
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It was wet and cold. Our hotel was easy to find and we all put our bags down, tired from the days drinking activities. I wasn’t feeling good at all. The lady who grumpily greeted us then stated if we didn’t order breakfast now, we’d not be allowed to get the morning tuk tuk to take us back to the pier. What a charmer. She ignored us when we asked her about the non existent tuk tuk we prepaid for earlier. We all refused her breakfast and decided to walk, out of principle. Some people have no idea how to treat their customers.
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After we’d got rid of the in-house drug dealer we found our room, which was surprisingly quite nice and ventured out for some food. It was expensive but good. A cute Dutch girl commented on how beautiful my eyes were, and a dude said I had the whole Jude Law thing going on. Both were clearly pissed and disorientated but my ego was massaged all the same. Thanks guys. But my head was spinning, I didn’t know it yet but I had a virus kicking in. Maybe a daily dose of alcohol isn’t good for my 30 year old body. Maybe a mix of Bangkok, Pai and day time drinking sprinkled with a lack of sleep had lowered my usually strong immune system.
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That night, I was hot and cold. All night long I sweated. Hard sweating. I felt dog rough.
Boon, the nice dude at reception, taught me some basic Lao phrases before I forced down my overpriced breakfast of fruit and hot lime. I was dying. A little late, I dragged my feet down to the boat and clambered aboard. I’d managed to get on the wrong boat. The destination was the same, the boat looked the same but the people were different, the older type of tourist who consume less alcohol. It was a blessing in disguise. I felt rough. I got a comfy seat next to a Chinese man and an Indian English couple.
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I popped paracetamols on the hour. My head was pounding, my body temperature clock was running riot and every muscle I owned, ached. Siting down was painful.
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The river ride was a pleasant one, a lot quieter than the day before. Half way through our ride a huge wave, created by a larger boat, splashed over half of the boat, soaking me but luckily not my electronics. It woke me up. I wanted the boat to be in Luang Prabang right there and then. But I had a few more hours to go.
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I felt trapped but I had the beautiful Laos jungle, rock formations, villages and river life to visually consume. I put on some soulful drum and bass tunes, courteously provided by Hospital Records and attempted to relax.
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Luang Prabang finally arrived and I was ready for bed. Laos hadn’t blown me away yet. In fact it was nothing like people had told me. I was surprised. I’d only met one nice local person, the rest had been rude or tried to sell me drugs. It was beautiful but the grey skies had tainted my views. Let’s hope Loang Prabang can make my day. First of all, I got to sweat this fever out. I’m going to upgrade and get a private room. Wish me luck.
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