Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Vientiane.

 

Selfie stick composition after a night out.

 

 

Well, the tubing didn't pan out. I talked to people who had done it and decided that it wasn't for me, or indeed any of the people I'm with.It's nothing more than a glorified pub-crawl. You get your tube and drift down to a nearby bar. Here you are served Lao whisk(e)y, not something that really appeals. After an hour, you get back in the tube and proceed to the next bar. The staff are the same people, who presumably can run faster than the current and the whole sordid thing starts again. There are five bars in total.

Must say, the place was quite pleasant and very relaxing. Spent three days doing nearly nothing, just recharging the batteries and recovering from a pizza-induced stupor.

View from the hostel.

 

Am now in Vientiane, the Little known Capital of Laos. Arrived yesterday afternoon, but haven't really seen much of it yet as the temperature is ridiculous. Just walked a few metres to get a fruit shake and decided that my sightseeing will have to wait until later in the day. I don't think that I've ever experienced heat like this. A guy who lives here was telling me that it really is freak weather for this time of the year, when it should be raining. It just hasn't happened yet.

The little I have seen is rather interesting; very French colonial, with wide boulevards, it reminds me of Paris. There even seem to be more Francophones here. The hostel is very comfortable and even has a swimming pool, so I'll have a go at a bit more lazing around for a day or two, as the weather forecast is for more of the same.

 

Local architecture.

SE Asian electricity.

 

Finally ventured out at about four and hadn't gone very far when I came upon a French restaurant. It was twice the average price, but was serving something that I've been dreaming about recently: Steak au poivre. The food all over Asia has been excellent, apart from the huge quantities of rice, a vegetable of which I'm not over fond. It came with a good salad and gratin dauphinois and a really good pepper sauce; a bit strange for this heat, but somehow comforting.

 

Yet another temple.

 

I also had my first glass of wine since leaving France. Was in a mini-market and noticed that they sold Vin de Pays D'Oc, my local tipple. It was relatively expensive and not the best, but again fulfilled a craving for things familiar.

As I was walking down the street, a woman approached and started talking to me. At first, I was a little suspicious, expecting yet another sales pitch. In fact she was someone who is genuinely interested in people. Just to interrupt to say that someone has put some 'music' on the sound system. It sounds like a washing machine full of bricks accompanied by someone tone deaf playing the kazoo.

The kids of today......

Anyway, I got chatting to this lady and went and had a drink. She told me of places to visit and offered to show me around. Her name is Kimot and she works as a junior school teacher. Am going out of town for a day or two, but will call her when I get back and hopefully, get to meet some more locals.

 

??????

 

Still deciding where to go next. Everyone tells me that Myanmar (Burma) is a must see, especially at the moment, as it's just starting to get its tourist industry going. In five years it will be very different. I also want to spend more time in Thailand, which is possibly a better choice as the next destination, as I discovered that the border is only 1km away.

For the moment I'm getting templed out. There are temples everywhere here. The sight of monks has lost any photographic appeal as, obviously, you can't have Buddhist temples without monks. Everywhere I've been, most homes have little shrines. There are some however, who are less respectful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Tubes etc.

 

Tube station.

 

Well, that was quite a thing. Was sitting outside the hostel the other night with a few of the other residents having a beer or two. Across the road is a sort of garage. There are bits of carburettor and other assorted defunct car parts lying around everywhere. The guys who work there had finished for the day and were sitting about relaxing. One of them was playing a guitar rather well; no mean feat, as it wasn't a great guitar. We listened for a while and finally, I couldn't resist. I got my guitar and asked if I could join them.

It felt a bit like discovering a blues man in the Mississippi Delta.

The studio by day.

Ze big boss.

 

A great evening ensued. Several people from the hostel came over and we started jamming. One of the other mechanics was playing an improvised drum kit, made up of a carburettor, water bottle and other odds and ends.

The singer had soul and was pretty slick at throwing in a few lead riffs. His friends would occasionally join in with harmonies. Some of the songs were from the region; melodic, but very definitely influenced by western music, others were standards known the world over, including the SE Asian anthem of the last 40 odd years: 'Hotel California,' which I have to confess, has never been my cup of tea, with its crass metaphors. I much prefer the comment of an American friend on her 80th birthday: 'Life in the last lane.' (Hi Ethel).

Not for the first time, they were all fascinated by my thumbpick. Always have loads of them with me, so I gave some to the guitarist along with a few finger picks, which I've stopped using. It was a duck to water situation.

We arranged for another session the next evening, but they weren't about. Instead, I had a beer or two with a couple of German guys I've been hanging out with. We then went to 'Utopia,' the hot spot in town. A lot of drinking was going on and I suspect that I had more beer than I thought. By the time we got to the bowling alley, things were getting a bit blurry. There really were a lot of people stumbling about, probably myself included.

 

 

 

The next day everyone was rather quiet. I felt OK, having gone to bed at three thirty. The others had stayed up later and looked pretty rough.

The situation reversed in the evening, when they started partying again, whilst I started feeling queasy. It's the first time and I'm nearly half way through my trip, but I was as sick as a dog.

Next morning didn't feel great, but got up and took the bus to Vang Vieng. When we got there, it was pouring with rain, but not as hard as it is as I write.

Had a sleep and avoided alcohol. Finally, felt a bit better, so went out with David and Jonas and had a pizza. A 'Happy Pizza,' to be precise. The menu was like something from a gastro coffee house. Opium pizza, mushroom pizza, plus teas and various drinks made up of hefty doses of whatever takes your fancy.

Decided to share a pizza, as they have a reputation for being quite strong. A smallish, pizzaesque looking thing arrived,with some sort of sauce on it. It tasted OK.

Walked over to the local night spot: 'Sukura: Drink triple, see double, act single.' This is where things started to get stranger in this rather odd town. Firstly, 90% of the people in the place were Korean. Vang Vieng used to be a hot spot for Europeans on the cheap drinks and thrills circuit until the accident rate got ridiculous. People were getting killed.

It was at this point that a Korean film crew turned up to make some sort of reality show, based on tubing.* The viewers couldn't get enough of it and Vang Vieng became the number one destination for young Koreans. When I left the bar, (early), there were several guys outside hanging onto cars to stay upright. As the night wore on, they started dancing on the tables. The token Brit drunk outside, a harmless, uninteresting person, as drunks tend to be, was a pillar of sobriety compared to the dancers inside.

There was also the most extraordinary old guy outside; a local, about 5 feet tall, very skinny and about seventy years old. He staggered around in a reversed baseball hat and spoke an incomprehensible language, whilst chain smoking cigarettes between thumb and forefinger. He looked like 'Dobbie' from 'Harry Potter.'

Or maybe that was just the pizza.

*Tubing, as the name suggests, is getting an old inner-tube and using it to drift several km with the current. There are now only 5 bars. There used to be a lot more. At each bar, you're given a free whisky (from Laos). It costs a dollar a bottle, so don't think I'll bother with that bit.

 

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

More Luang Prabang

 

 

 

Have been taking it easy, what with the heat and the dodgy ankle, which is nearly back to normal. Have spent a lot of time exploring this small, pretty town, stopping a lot to take in more liquid. There are stalls everywhere selling the most delicious fruit drinks, served with lots of ice. The watermelon is a particular favourite, although the coffee and banana is rather good too. The last few days have been so hot that I more or less lived on them.

Since I've been in the region, I've come across and eaten some strange foods, however, I didn't try 'bloaty fern,' which was on a menu in Vietnam. 'Blobby Marry,' a mocktail, is self explanatory, but I think I might have missed something in not ordering something called' mind banana.'

I really like these pieces of mutant English, some of which pop up back home. The people in all the countries I've visited all seem to have a good sense of humour. A sign in Kampot read: 'perfect broken English spoken here.'

 

 

This guy is seen around a lot. He is often seen 'smoking' a pipe with his navel.


 

Inside is a golden statue of Buddha of Kmer origin. It's 1900 years old. Unfortunately, no photos allowed.



Went and did a bit of teaching yesterday. There's a centre called 'Big Brother Mouse,' where anyone can go to learn English. There are two two hour sessions everyday. I started chatting to a guy of about 14. He'd been learning English for 18 months and like a lot of people wants to be a tour guide. His English is already impressive; he told me that his parents live in Vientiane, the capital and are quite poor and that he has has been a boarder in the town since the age of eight. He visits his family once a year and attends every session at the centre.

We looked at a few exercises from his book and he asked me some questions about vocabulary: 'What does 'acquiesce' mean?

Went to the Royal Palace this afternoon. It was fairly modest for a palace, but interesting. Built between 1904 and 1909, it was more like a large family house than a palace. There was a great photo of a visit by Uncle Ho. He was dancing with some other guests, who all appeared to be doing the Hokey Cokey.


The palace.


The artifacts, among the golden thrones and palanquins, were interesting for their homely qualities, particularly a fifties Grundig radiogram and some classic thirties furniture in the bedrooms. It was a pity that cameras were not allowed.

In the gardens is a temple or rather shrine, if that's the word; a magnificent affair. The statue inside, the Prabang Buddha, is very old and the reason why the town changed it's name centuries ago,when it was offered by the Kmer. Like Catholic festivals in Europe, it is paraded through the town every year and taken to one of the temples, where it remains for three days. The palanquin type thing used in the ceremony, requires 14 people to carry it.

Lastly was the Royal Car Collection, comprising of two Lincoln Continentals from the fifties, a Citröen DS, which had seen better days and The first Edsel I've seen in the flesh, which like the Lincolns, was a gift from the U.S. Government, thus proving that you could give Edsels away.

In fact, the palace was full of gifts from various nations. The porcelain from China and Japan was exquisite, the smaller American gifts self-aggrandising and the French, Polish, Indian etc all rather tasteful.

The British contribution? There wasn't one, at least on display.

Am tempted to go bowling this evening. It's a regular with a lot of the young tourists where I'm staying. With my ankle problem, I'm not up for playing, but a lot of people seem to reguard it as more of a spectator sport. Tourists go there in the evening, often full of alcohol, weed, opium and mushrooms, or any combination thereof to try to bowl. There's a lot of falling over and stumbling about, which sounds amusing, but it's also very comfortable here in the evening too, so I'll see.

Off to Vientiane tomorrow or the next day and then on to Vang Vieng after a few days in the capital. That's where they do the tubing; I thought it was here when I arrived. Just as I'm starting to recover from my albeit minor injuries, time to go and get bruised some more in the water.



 

Saturday, 20 June 2015

One for the ditch.

Marilyn Monkroe impersonator.

A funny thing happened to me last night, at least if you're a pie in the face aficionado. I'd been to a very pleasant restaurant, where I'd eaten something which was nothing like what I thought it would be, but very good all the same. Rather than have loads of beer, I decided to have a Margarita, which was refreshingly cool, but not over alcoholic. I was making my way back to where I'm staying and, with only 200 metres to go, crossed the road and took what I thought was the pavement on the side of the road which was lit only by the houses. I was still holding my camera in the hope of one last shot, when the World collapsed under me.


The storm drain.

For a brief second, was completely disorientated. I then realized that I'd fallen down a storm drain. Checking for injuries, I realized that I was relatively OK, just a few minor grazes. But where was my camera? I scrabbled about in the hole and found nothing. Looking up, was relieved to find it sitting on the wall. It seemed to be unscathed.

As I made my way back, I realised that I'd twisted my ankle a little. I was limping. Had a beer when I arrived, for medicinal reasons and went to bed. Didn't sleep very well as it was quite painful, but woke feeling much better this morning, but still limping.

In the circumstances, thought it would be a good idea to take it easy, so didn't venture out much. Luang Prabang is quite cheap, so if necessary, I'll stay a few more days than I'd 'planned,' until I recover.

After hanging about all morning, was getting a bit bored and restless, so decided to go for a limp to see the mighty Mekong. That's the river which runs halfway across SE Asia, not the bloke with the big green head in Dan Dare comics. How about that for showing one's age?

Mekong.

Came across yet another impressive temple with a group of monks doing a bit of housework? Temple work?

The snakes things are called 'Nagas.'

Nearby was a sign pointing to a Red Cross clinic. Laos isn't reputed for it's medical facilities, so if it hasn't improved by the morning will head off there. I asked at a pharmacy, but they couldn't really offer any assistance.

Right. It's cooled down here now, so will hobble down to the night market, some barbecued fish and a beer or three.

 

Friday, 19 June 2015

Laos: first impressions.

 

Just had a quick look round. Thought I was coming to another Cambodia, but not a bit of it, at least not in Luang Prabang, which is a very neat and tidy place. No people beeping their horns constantly or soliciting their wares on every street corner. Much calmer than anywhere so far.
Met a young Buddhist monk at a temple, who spoke very respectable English. He invited me to the temple for a meditation session. Found the temple, (by the bamboo bridge, how cool is that?), where there were other novices. It seems that the elite get into the temples to get a very good education. They reminded me of English Public School types; Eton or Winchester, that sort of place. Rogyal Rinpoche, a very influential figure in European Buddhism, who founded the temple where I spent 10 days last year, is a Cambridge graduate. Yoney Minghur Rinpoche, (the World's happiest man according to the popular press), went to Harvard.

Who remembers Kodachrome?

For the Anglophones.

Et pour les francaises.


Ever been to Anduze?

 

 

Entrance to the Temple.

 

There are also many more cats here than anywhere else in the region.

 

They seem to like it.

 

The place is stunning. An ataraxic calm reigns. Although I've done the temple thing, I'm not so good at the terminology, so the European version of calm equanimity will have to do. Maybe it's just lack of sleep, but I think I'm going to like this place.

 

 

When I got to the border...

 

It goes on forever.



Finally got down the mountain by getting up at 5.30 and taking the bus back to Lào Cai. No-one was ill this time and gravity speeded up the journey, as it only took six and a half hours. Had a five hour wait, so sat in a café, had lunch and played a few songs for the guy at the bus ticket office and some curious locals. Finally, it was time to go, so I asked the driver how long the trip was to Dien Bien Phu. He signaled with five fingers. A mere bagatelle. I decided to stay there in the evening and make my way to Laos the next day; a necessity, as I'd discovered on my way back that I'd made a mistake with my visa. It finished the next day.

It seemed a bit much for five hours when I got on a sleeper bus. Still blissfully unaware, I started chatting to a group of English gap year guys. In fact the guy meant that we arrived at five in the morning. Tried to get comfortable in the sleeper couch, but found that it was too small even for my 1m72 (5'7") frame. Added to that, the bus began to really fill up with both people and stuff for delivery along the route. By the time we'd made the last pickup, some of the local travelers, who had probably paid much less for their tickets, had been relegated from the bunks to steerage, ie the floor. Fair enough, except that there was now no longer any space to stow hand luggage. Some of the six foot English guys had no option but to assume a foetal position for eleven and a half hours.

Added to this the locals all played with their phones without headsets while hideous local pop music blared out out tinnily over the sound system. Sleeper bus is just the name.

I'd slept about twenty minutes when we arrived at Dien Bien at six in the morning. By this time I'd been awake for 24 hours.

Had some packet noodles at the bus station, not as good as we get at our local supermarket and bought another ticket to Luang Pabang. No one seemed to be able to say how long the journey took.

Dawn was breaking and I looked up to see thousands of storks flying past. The display took a good ten minutes and somehow restored my flagging spirits a little.

This time, it was a mini bus holding about 18 passengers. At six we set off, stopping from time to time, picking up more passengers, stuff for delivery, or just a chat. It was now like a mobile Black Hole of Calcutta in the heat. We stopped from time to time for snacks and toilet breaks and finally arrived at the Lào border. Here we paid 35$ for the visa and various 'extras,' which were quite clearly bribes. We had to pay in Lào Kip not Vietnamese Dong, at an exchange rate which was daylight robbery. When I came to change my money, I realised, like several other people, that I didn't have enough. I'd already left Vietnam,with an exit stamp and was in no man's land.

The bus driver came to the rescue, refunding the bus fare until we got to the nearest ATM. He probably does it every time.

Back on the bus chatted to a French couple. They'd heard me trying to speak French to the customs people when English didn't work. I explained that I lived in France.

'Where.'

'Sauve.'

Just as I was about to say where that was: 'C'est pas vrai. Nous, on est de Nîmes, Route de Sauve.'

Small World.



Delivered from the roof.



There were several unscheduled pauses,the longest being when there had been a landslide, due to the massive road building project through the mountains, funded and constructed by the Chinese. A traffic jam formed while we waited. The mountains are beautiful, seemingly going on for ever, or at least that's how it felt. Problem was, that after going up and down hour after hour, the effect wore off somewhat. I tried to amuse myself by taking photos out of the window, which is why most of them in this post are a bit wobbly, as, I dare say, is this text.


Landslide break.





Village after village, with kids, dogs, ducklings, chickens, pigs and buffalo everywhere.


Mountain dwelling.



At about five, we came to a bus station in a large town. There was a half-hearted cheer from the passengers. We'd made it. 'OK, change bus.'

I was starving, but the only thing available was a bag of local boiled fruit sweets. I munched my way through the strawberry and banana sweetmeats and discovered several Durian fruit. Compared to the real thing, which isn't too bad, these were really, really horrible. I finished the large bag, mainly to dispel the awful lingering taste.

I definitely would give these to my worst enemy.

The luggage, which had been stowed on the roof was handed down, then back up again onto an even older bus. We drove for another three hours again, packed in as before and came to another town. At last.

This time it was a meal break. I had some barbecued fish and strange sausages, which I chose from a stand in front of the restaurant. A Buddhist monk got off a bus and came over. He chose huge quantities of food, all of which consisted of meat, mainly sausages.

Back on the bus, we asked how much longer. 'Just another two, or maybe three hours!'

We got there at 11 in the evening. I'd now been awake 42 hours and on a bus for 36. Actually, didn't feel too bad. Got a Tuktuk, (they don't have then in Vietnam), checked in and had a beer, finally going to bed at midnight.

Got up at 11.30 and decided to take it easy today. Luang Pranang is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The only thing I've seen so far is a local restaurant, where I had a massive bowl of rice noodle soup, with a side salad, which was delicious.

Tomorrow, should be 'Tubing' day.