13.04.2014 - 26.05.2014 38 °C
For our first day in Luang Prabang we had a leisurely breakfast with Dee, Sinead and Kevin and the five of us just had a relaxed mooch about the old town for the day as we knew the festivities of Songkran (New Year in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia also known as the water festival as tradition is to throw water at each other, to cleanse away the problems of the previous year) would be upon us for the coming days. We checked out the riverside, wandered past the array of French colonial buildings interspersed with Buddhist temples and monasteries and went up the tiny Phousie Hill to see the view of the town from above. Luang Prabang is a very pretty place, its old town nestled on a narrow peninsular between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.
Next day a group of us took a tuk-tuk to the Kouang Si waterfalls, this was lovely and though quite busy, not as rammed with tourists as we’d expected, instead there were more local families enjoying a day out. We trekked up to the top of the falls and swam in the lush jungle pools up there to cool off before wandering back down for a final swim in the turquoise lower pools and checking out feeding time at the bear rescue centre attached. We then dried off and changed into our dry clothes before the tuk-tuk ride 20kms or so back to LP, on hindsight this was a mistake as by this afternoon the Songkran warm-up was in full swing, groups of (mostly) children and teens lined the roads and gave every passing vehicle anything from a gentle sprinkling to a good drenching, we were very soon as wet as when we’d exited the pools!
So on the next day, New Year, we found ourselves totally and utterly immersed in the festivities. Knowing that we were likely to get thoroughly soaked, we dressed appropriately (bikini as underwear – less chaffing!), bought a small waterproof bag for our phone and money and armed ourselves with water dispensing weapons. These ‘weapons’ were nothing more than empty soft-plastic water bottles with a hole cut in the top but they proved extremely effective. This was probably partly due to the fact that most people had huge water guns or buckets and were obviously going to wet you. We, on the other hand, had the element of surprise with our weapons as most people didn’t realise we were armed at all, thinking we were just carrying water, until we got them that is!
So the day was spent drenching and getting drenched, dancing with the locals on the streets and being constantly offered Beerlao with ice to drink (they are extremely proud of their national beer – they do drink it in a glass with ice though, which seemed strange at first, but when in Rome….) The whole day was such good fun, with all the water fights being really good natured and happy, there was lots of dancing and dressing up, including a good number of men in drag. Apart that is from a small number of pissed-up Western tourists, who instead of celebrating in a fun, friendly way, took things too far and thought it funny to shoot large water pistols directly into eyes and earholes at short range, stupid and dangerous. This was a shame, because the local people were so genuinely friendly and out for a great time and on the whole the atmosphere was amazing.
The music and water went on for a total of 5 days….on the 3rd & (again on the 4th!) a large procession took place in the centre of town, with loads of floats, traditional costumes, monks (who are not immune from a drenching we discovered) and local groups and societies all parading through the streets in front of huge crowds and a gathering of dignitaries. To be honest we were a little bored of getting soaked by the third day in, we were also tired of drinking and listening to loud music and bad karaoke singing, it was like Groundhog Day, the same thing over and over, so we retreated from the party by the end… One afternoon we took a boat across the Mekong to explore the small villages on the other side to give us some peace and quiet!
In general though, experiencing the Songkran Festival was truly brilliant – a wet, colourful, dancing musical – with plenty of beer and a few bbq kebabs thrown in to soak up the BeerLao... It was very much like a Mardis Gras/Pride festival, but with water… So if you ever wondered what the people of Laos do for their new year, they get very drunk, very wet and camp it up big style. All in all, our time in Luang Prabang was truly unforgettable and made even better by spending it with a great group of people – Dee, Sinead, Kevin, Zelia, Franziska, you know who you are and thanks for sharing!
For a change of pace and scenery we went on next to the small town of Phonsavan to visit the Plain of Jars sites. This is exactly what it says on the tin, a landscape (or rather a number of them in different areas around Phonsavan) of thousand-odd year old large stone ‘jars’. Our guidebook and all the literature we read in Phonsavan claimed that the purpose of these jars was unknown, the mystery made the whole thing that bit more interesting. (The mystery later unravelled though when we went to the National Museum in the capital Vientiane where their purpose as burial pyres/urns was clearly explained, well you’d think someone would tell the people of Phonsavan and the guidebook writers to make a visit to the national museum!). We found the jar sites interesting though as it was unlike anything we have seen elsewhere, it was also insightful to see the numerous bomb craters from the Second Indochina war (Vietnam war).
It is sobering to learn about the effects of relatively recent wars on this country. There remain a large number of Unexploded Ordnance devices (UXOs) ,throughout the country, including a high density in this region, dropped by US planes during the ‘Vietnam War’ (known here as the American War). These are mostly cluster ‘bomblets’ that failed to explode on impact and continue to kill and maim people on a weekly basis, 40 years later. Laos is the most bombed country in the world per capita and the most shocking thing about this is that no-one ever officially declared war on Laos, it was just the unfortunate neighbour of Vietnam. While a number of hits on the country were targeting a key supply route into South Vietnam, many bombs were simply released over the country when US planes had failed to locate their targets in Vietnam. This is a shocking and sad history which has ongoing effects in one of the poorest countries in the world. A painful legacy of a pointless war, and a stark reminder of the abomination that is indiscriminate weapons such as cluster bombs.
To cheer ourselves up after this moving insight into the ongoing effects of war in Laos, we moved on to the town of Vang Vieng, famous on the traveller circuit as home of ‘tubing’, that is sitting in inflated tractor inner tubes while floating down the Mekong River enjoying the spectacular scenery, oh and stopping at various bars along the way. Here we were also meeting up again with Dee and Sinead so we could do the tubing together and were looking forward to having friends again to enjoy the party atmosphere with.
Well, we have seen a lot over the past few months but the landscape awaiting us around Vang Vieng was something new and wonderful, we were amazed. The town of VV itself has no sights to speak of, it is merely a base for exploring the surrounding area; it is very much set up for travellers and its few streets are lined with guest houses, cafes, bars, tour agencies, bike rental shops and the like. But the river, backed by the karsts and surrounding countryside made this a good place to just enjoy some of SE Asia’s delightful landscapes. One day we rented cycles and made our way along a bumpy, dusty road to the Blue Lagoon and nearby Cave, the cycle was extremely sweaty, it was just 7km but it was so hot we couldn’t wait to jump into the waters of the Blue Lagoon at the other end. This is a natural deep pond close to the cave with a tree overhanging that is perfectly poised for setting up swings and steps up into the tree for jumping off, great fun.
That afternoon Dee and Sinead arrived and got a room in the same place we were staying. We also heard from Kevin that he was in town so we all met up for an evening of drinks and swapping stories of what we had all done since we parted ways in Luang Prabang. We ended up at the Irish pub, where else?! Kevin had already been tubing and assured us it was good craic, he did look slightly worse for wear by the end of the night though and when he told us the tubing journey started at a bar where they give free whiskey before you’ve even got into the river, well we thought we’d all be sure to have a good sleep and breakfast in preparation for the next day!
And so the next day, good sleep and breakfast had, we met up around noon with D, S and some other friends those two had met elsewhere on their travels and who happened to be in VV at the same time, Kaitlin and Patrick. We set off in a tuk-tuk, tubes tied to the roof, and were dropped at the tubing entry point around 4kms upriver. Indeed, we were given free shots as we got down from the tuk-tuk, though Dee & Sinead declined and got themselves a beer instead, much to the surprise of the girl holding the tray of shots (‘but.. you’re Irish…”). We didn’t linger too long here, as the drinking games that were going on seemed a little much for the time of day (it was around 1pm) and we were keen to get on the river, so off we went, jumped into our tubes and began our meander back towards VV.
A meander it was too as we are late into the dry season now so it was really very slow, not a bad thing really as there have been many accidents on the river in the past, mainly due to young travellers getting extremely inebriated then hurling themselves down rapids when the river is high or riding a zipwire and falling off over water that is not deep enough… Fortunately the whole thing has calmed down a lot these days, plus we are all much too sensible for that. We did have a super day of floating downriver and enjoying a few stop-offs at fun riverside bars where we could play basketball, do some hula and generally have fun times, getting slightly merrier as the day wore on. It was a most excellent day and again all the more brilliant because we had a good group of folks to share it with. The river was just a bit too slow and we failed to make it back to VV by the 6pm cut-off which meant we all forfeited 20,000 Kip of our 60k deposit money, but it was worth it!
One final day in VV and we went with Sinead and Dee for 3km walk through the local countryside till we reached the Lusi Cave. We didn’t know too much about this cave before setting off, just that there was a part of it inside in which we could swim, which sounded interesting. When we arrived at the entrance we learned it was not possible to enter the cave without a guide. Thinking that this was a bit unnecessary (as we’d been in a few caves already this trip without need for escorts) we trundled off after him. Quite soon into the cave we realised that indeed he was necessary this time, it was very complex to find the correct and safe way through, added to the fact that he was extremely funny, we were pleased to have him. After an amazing 30 minutes going deeper and deeper into this dark cavern, up steps, down steps, avoiding big cavernous drops, laughing as the guide pointed out amusingly shaped stalagmites and stalactites, (from a brontosaurus, to a toilet bowl, to funny faces and genitalia) we finally came upon a dark, cold natural ‘swimming pool’ that disappeared off into the eerie distance. The guide almost immediately stripped off and waded in and began swimming and splashing about, so taking his cue, we all did the same. It was a quite unique experience, if somewhat scary, to swim there in the pitch black with just our torches on the edge of the pool to give us a slither of light light. Another unforgettable experience.
Last stop in Laos was the capital Vientiane, we planned not to go any further south given the time of year as the temperature gets just too hot to be fun (over 40C)We got a taster of this in Vientiane and it was quite enough, we may have been in Asia for over 6 months and have acclimatised somewhat, but this was toooo HOT. We had to spend a few days there while we awaited out visas for Vietnam from the Embassy. Dee and Sinead were still with us and the four of us saw the key sights of the capital which included the national museum, victory arch and the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) visitor centre, created in response to the need to provide UXO survivors with the care and support they required, namely by way of orthotic and prosthetic devices, this was a lot more interesting that it might sound! Because of the heat (it was around 40C) we were quite lethargic and so not as active as usual while we were here. We twice took ourselves to the local outdoor swimming pool, just to keep cool, did we mention it was HOT?! After a few days we had our passports back complete with Vietnam visas and were booked onto an overnight bus to take us over the border. So we parted ways with Dee and Sinead, (who were off to south Laos and into Cambodia) and it was just the two of us again, off for the next chapter of our adventure.