A White Temple, a Golden Toilet and Thai Green Curry

As is another theme for the trip, it was another early start, with more tired, cold and unhappy faces greeting me in the morning. We had smaller minibuses, and I found myself travelling down to Chiang Mai with only three others plus our CEO. Our first stop was just for coffee, but the second was the White Temple in Chiang Rai. This was an Art Project constructed in the mid 90’s and it first opened its weird Heaven vs. Hell plus a bit of purgatory and its famous Golden Toilet in 1997. If you’re finding this difficult to follow, don’t worry, so am I, and I have been there!

So the main structure was really very impressive, if a little strange. It was a bright white castle with beautiful detail and silvery grey arms and hands protruding from what I guess would be the moat surrounding the castle. Some of these hands were clutching alms bowls, some were empty and some had skulls grasped tightly in their bony fingers. In the rain and cold, it looked something of an ice fortress that wouldn’t have been out of place in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.image

This place was free to enter, but there were little things around that tempted you to part with your cash – there was a wishing fountain and a place where you could buy a “wish”, write whatever you like upon it and hang it from a tree, just like at Christmas. It would never be taken down, and looking around the “Heaven” part of the grounds, you could see that there were rows upon rows of these hanging metal wishes that made up the canopies. At the wishing well/fountain, I parted with a British penny that I had been carrying around in my purse for no other reason than I had nowhere to spend it. The story goes, that you should throw the penny backwards over your shoulder, and if it lands on the fountain, your wish will come true.

So – next on the list of weird things in this weird place – the Golden Toilet. We’d been told about this special Golden Toilet before, and that we should definitely use the bathroom here. I was expecting some kind of queue to a giant gilded golden throne hidden behind some wonderfully elaborately decorated doors, but it turns out there were just five or six cubicles of normal western standard toilets in a building that had golden sculptures on the outside. At the very least, there was soap and toilet roll and it smelled quite nice, so it was a pleasant experience, as far as going to the bathroom can be!

We continued down the road to Chiang Mai, whilst no one was naïve enough to hope the hotel would be any different to the one in Chiang Khong, the fact that our CEO had told us that he’d booked his wife and kids in to the same hotel, having not seen them for almost an entire month, I was quietly confident it would be an okay place to crash for a night. I was right. There were tell-tale signs as we approached the hotel through the rain. There were clear glass doors on entrance to the hotel, there was hot air blowing from an A/C unit behind reception and the lobby staff were not wearing scarves or gloves or full on bomber jackets. There was a lift, so we didn’t have to drag our luggage up four flights of stairs. It was all looking very promising. Nothing, however was as good as the look on my roommate’s face when I told her to stop what she was doing immediately and remove her shoes and socks. The tiled floor by the room’s entrance was heated! The feel of finally being able to get out of my wet shoes and socks and feel warm was overwhelming!

Whilst my roomie took a nap before our cooking class scheduled for that afternoon, I took the opportunity to have a shower and wash my hair after what felt like two weeks. The water was so hot that I had to jump out, get the temperature right and then try again. It was quite possibly the best shower experience of my trip to date. The only thing that disappointed me about this wonderful hour of relaxation was the thought of putting my jeans and hoodie back on again, but what’s a girl to do…?

I headed downstairs an hour earlier than necessary for the cooking class to grab a quick bite to eat and a medicinal shot of rum as I was now sneezing a lot. The steam of the shower had obviously cleared my sinuses out, but that had just resulted in my being a walking talking sneeze-fest. Anyway, there was a group of my lovely travel buddies sitting in the hotel restaurant, so I joined them just in time to order my first ever Thai green curry from Thailand. Although it took over an hour to arrive, and I had to inhale it quite quickly since we were already running late for the cooking class, it was mighty fine.

Our cookery teacher, Ouy (pronounced Oo-way)had turned up to take us to the market in her wonderful off-road truck kind of vehicle, and she stuffed as many of us as possible into the back of it, but checking us out before we were getting in. The reason for this became apparent because she had some space in the back of the actual car “section” and wanted to keep four smaller girls to sit in with her due to the incredibly limited leg-room. She was nothing short of delightful though, happy and smiley, her English was wonderful, she pointed out interesting things along the way, and she even taught us some phrases that may or may not come in handy for the remainder of our trip.

Ouy had given us cute little laminated menus to peruse along the way to the market and did a quick headcount as to who wanted what when we got there, buying the ingredients fresh, no longer than half an hour before we were due to cook them. Can you get any fresher than that? The menu was laid out with stereotypical Thai dishes on the left, with a more traditional option on the right, giving us a bit of variation if you fancied something a little bit different. I picked the following:image

Pad Thai – Pad Suew

Green Curry – Massaman Curry

Tom Yam Soup – Chicken Coconut Soup

Mango Sticky Rice – Deep Fried Banana

On the short walk from the car to the market, Ouy’s shoe literally fell apart. It was a trainer, and the sole just came clean away; she was happy to continue walking through the puddled streets with one and a half shoes, but as with all markets in IndoChina, you can find anything if you just know where to look. We made her go and buy herself another pair of shoes as we waited under the canopy of the food market, taking in the sights and smells. Before we knew it, she was back with a brand new pair of Crocs on her feet, and we headed into vegetable land, via a tiny little café area where you could buy BBQ’d meat on skewers. She pointed out what she would be happy eating and what she would avoid touching with a bargepole which was really handy, but she did tell us that market food was not her favourite. After tasting he recipes, it was easy to see why.

Ouy pointed out which eggplants she favoured, explained the difference between red and green birds eye chillies (green are spicier), she showed us fresh lemongrass and told us although it gives great depth and flavour to dishes you cannot eat it due to its heavy fibrous make-up. She showed us galangal which is a root vegetable that looks similar to ginger and turmeric, but has a sweeter nuttier and altogether tangier flavour. She showed us different types of noodle that you can buy in both dry and soft form and was more than happy to explain what else was available if we had any questions. For example, someone asked what was in some plastic bags floating in a bucket with ice water, and she said with the straightest face “Oh, that? That’s chicken blood. We use it for thickening sauces.” I have to say, for a bunch of people all from the Western world, none of us batted an eyelid. We just listened attentively and moved on. I’m quite proud of us actually!

imageWe went to a couple of different veg stalls, generally speaking, Ouy seemed to favour veggies from one guy and herbs and spices from another guy around the corner, and then our shopping was done and we headed to the Cooking School, which was attached to her house. It was a great little workspace with an area dedicated to preparing food, and on the other side of the room there were enough workstations for a stove each. We each prepped our own ingredients, cooked our own meal under careful guidance of course, and then ate our meals. And it was delicious. In between courses, she showed us her homemade cooking pastes and the method of grinding the spices together. I absolutely recommend Bhum’s Cooking School with her cute little aprons, complimentary drinks and door-to-door pick-up/drop-off service as one of the best in Chiang Mai!

Whilst I’d been seriously looking forward to the prospect of a ladyboy show, and even though I’d been fed a wonderful and healthy meal, I was feeling really groggy so I reluctantly headed back to the hotel, with the hope that after an early night, I’d feel magically better in the morning.

Cake & Candles on the way to Thailand

Back on to the slowboat before 6am to celebrate the last birthday of this G Adventures trip. No word of a lie, we lit the candles and ate cake first thing in the morning, and true to form, Asian cake is really very good. We’d also organised a birthday present, which was one of those awful traveller’s tank tops with the Beer Lao logo emblazoned on the front, except we’d all signed the shirt with a trusty Sharpie. It worked out really well, because the birthday boy got an extra layer to wear for the day! After cake, we were told that breakfast would be at 8am and I think everyone managed to get some more sleep. Personally, I slept through breakfast, but I did get myself one of those 3-in-1 instant coffees, despite the fact I stopped taking sugar in my coffee a couple years back. To be honest, in this environment, the extra sweetness gave me a welcome little energy boost.

Food was served at the back of the boat, well it was probably closer to the middle where the engine was humming loudly, because through another set of doors we were told the family’s living quarters were. Presumably there was a kitchen, bathroom and some kind of bedroom for the young couple and their son, who must have been about three years old. A group of us congregated around this area, huddling in the warmth, drinking beer and dancing to music played through The New Guy’s speakers, amplified via a little plastic pot that once held napkins. There was an awful lot of UK Top 40 coming out of The New Guy’s phone, and there was a lot of teasing when One Direction and Bieber started blaring, but it was going down really well! We had an awesome singalong, and to be fair, Bieber’s “Sorry” was quite possibly the song of the trip and we were all just trying to make the best of a bad situation, even more so for the birthday boy. image

I took a break from the party end of the boat to observe a card game of Canasta, which was fascinating. Having sat quietly and the rules explained to me, I was the fourth person to join in, so we started playing in pairs. I’m not going to profess that I’m a ninja when it comes to card games, but I do know my way around a deck, and I picked up the game quite quickly. A lot of Canasta is luck based, relying on drawing a card that you really want, in this way it is fairly similar to gin rummy, but you play with two decks. The time passed seriously quickly as my team obliterated the other, and as we were approaching the end of the trip, we all started swapping journals to write messages to each other. My Canasta Team-mate wrote that even by his experienced standards, that particular game was epic. It is going to be a while before I’m able to teach anyone the rules myself, but I look forward to the opportunity to play again.

The boat stopped early afternoon, and everyone started looking confusedly at their watches because we had at least another three or four hours to go. And we did, but since we’d managed to drink the boat dry, our guide had hopped off the boat to replenish our supplies. The middle of the Mekong Delta, we had a booze run, it was pretty unbelievable that I’m still having a hard time getting over it! Having spent more time in Asia since then, I guess the mentality of the people was “We have paying customers. We have run out of stock. We must procure more. We will make customers happy and make more profit.” Simple as. In hindsight, we probably should have warned our hosts that we had a birthday on board, but then again, we had to hide the cake somewhere…

When we finally arrived at the Thai border, we lugged our suitcases off the boat and through immigration, paying an over-time fee since it was past 4pm or something, hopped on a bus and headed to our hotel. In the rain. We were all looking forward to the prospect of a good shower, a chance to wash our hair and a nice warm room. No such luck. The hotel was probably beautiful, but in my bad mood, I didn’t appreciate it. The rooms were up some quaint little wooden stairs, slippery with the rain, the doors had padlocks on them and a weird wooden mechanism to lock the door from the inside. The room itself was concrete block, floor to ceiling, and the outside wall to the bathroom was wire mesh. For the third day, I was not going to be showering. The thought of washing in cold water, only to put on the same winter-worthy pair of jeans was not a welcome one, so I decided against it. I figured we’d all be in a similar boat, so it didn’t bother me too much.

We met for dinner and votes were taken, but it was unanimous that we stay at the hotel for food. A buffet was ordered, some went over the road to the 7Eleven to pick up some bits ,and the legit-looking ATM to get some Thai Bhat and after we finished eating, no one was up for socialising, so we returned to our cold rooms to retire for the night. I had also started sneezing a lot, and I knew that a full blown cold was just around the corner for me. With only three days left on the trip, I was willing myself to keep it together before letting myself be ill, but my immune system wasn’t having any of it… Just as I was contemplating whether to sleep in my jeans or not (I decided not, in the end FYI) I heard a yell of my name through the cinder blocks from next door. The next words I heard were “DO YOU WANT SOME RUM?”. Well, for those of you who know me, you know I would never ever, ever say no to rum. The next request was “BRING YOUR TEACUPS AND A SPOON, IF YOU HAVE ONE”. My roommate and I traipsed through to next door where there was already a small birthday celebration forming, with one efficient German lass adding honey to teacups with rum and hot water, mixing with a pen knife. Genius. With maybe six or seven of us in the twin beds, soon we were feeling a little bit warmer and really quite sophisticated, sharing stories from the trip, from our lives and just generally reminiscing.

We all left for our own cold beds, and I remember waking up in the middle of the night with my teeth chattering. My roommate was also up and offered for me to jump in with her, but the thought of leaving the tiny bit of warmth in my own bed was not a happy one, so I curled up a little tighter and tried to nod off before the next early start. Reading this post, it may seem like it was a terrible time but to be honest, the entire trip was a fabulous experience beginning to end and personally, I made friends for life and I wouldn’t want to change that for the world.

Rain, Cold, Slowboat, Cold, Homestay, Cold.

There was a short taxi ride to the port where our slowboat was docked, in the driving rain that literally appeared overnight. Taxis in Laos were nothing more than open backed vans, so they did next to nothing in terms of keeping us dry, and this wasn’t the usual Asian rain. This was cold rain. It was like winter had arrived overnight. I’d just escaped the British weather, but this felt like a November morning. Of course it was very early and the sun hadn’t quite come up yet, but a quick check of the temperature told us we were in the throes of a storm at about 8oC. My non-water-proof jacket was doing a fine job of getting me wet, and the strategically placed planks of wood on the wet and slippery riverbank were not helpful for me and my wheelie bag. I ended up having one of the guys helping me, and then as soon as we got on the boat, we had to take our shoes off. There were fleecy blankets on board, so we all got out of our wet outer layers, grabbed a blanket to curl up with to get a few hours more sleep. As I’m only little, and I managed to get a double seat all to myself, I was able to lie down and have a decent kip.

It took a really long time for my hoodie to dry, and my newly purchased scarf and hat came in very handy to keep me warm. The temperature did not increase as the day went on, and in the open water, there was an uncomfortable breeze. When I wasn’t sleeping, I watched one of the guys drawing landscapes from our trip to date – Ba Ho waterfalls, Halong Bay, Sihanoukville and Vang Vieng. We cracked out the playing cards and tried to keep our minds off of the cold, to be honest, it wasn’t a bad way to spend a few hours.

By the time we got to our village homestay in Pakbeng for the evening, the rain had gotten worse. I felt like I’d literally just dried out, but I’d also learned from the morning and stuffed my hoodie into my bag, layered up, tied my hair up and suitable packed my little bag so I didn’t have to manoeuvre my wheelie bag on and off the boat. The walk from the riverbank to the village was maybe 10 minutes, and we got drenched again. Half of the group just took sanctuary in the Chief’s house all wrapped up in their layers whilst the other half of us (including the injured one and the new Guy) embraced the thought of a rainy tour of the Pakbeng, which is likely the first village of its kind. By this, I mean that the three main ethnic groups – Khmu, Hmong and Laos, tend to live in villages with only their own kind, speaking their own dialects and maintaining their own traditions, but Pakbeng has all three living together happily. It was nice to see the different types of houses all next to each other, even if it was through rivulets of rain running down the umbrella I’d nicked from one of the girls who decided to skip the tour.

There were pigs and chickens everywhere, I spotted a couple of goats too. We saw the school and asked our local guide about schooling in such a remote village. They had a programme with a little bit of English tuition thrown in, and some of the kids manage to go to the city to study at university, so they’re doing pretty well. The fact that G Adventures supports the village by allowing us to visit, and donating school supplies has clearly helped them no end.

When we arrived back with the rest of the group, we could feel that tensions were running quite high. Though most of us were from Europe or Canada where temperatures often fall below 0oC, this was a very different kind of cold that neither we nor the villagers were prepared for. It was a freak storm, there was snow in Sa Pa, which is in North Vietnam, where cattle were dying, and there is no such thing as central heating in this part of the world. We knew it was going to be a really cold night, and another freezing day on the slowboat the following day, so everyone tried their best to mentally prepare and keep smiling. It was also another birthday the next day, the poor dude who took a severe tumble in Luang Prabang the night before, so we wanted to make it as special as the other birthdays on the trip.

The meal at the homestay didn’t disappoint, just as all of the traditional meals on the trip. With an abundance of steamed rice, curries, vegetables and soups, we were not left hungry, and the warmth we got from eating all together was very much welcome! After we finished eating, our local guide produced a massive bucket, not dissimilar to a 5 litre emulsion paint bucket with three bamboo sticks poking out of it. They were straws. The contents of the bucket were rather pungent – a sludgy mess of beer and fermented rice. We were told it was local whisky, and a little bit of research later I found this was the local moonshine called Lao-Lao. We were told this liquid was a little on the strong side, and the smell told us the same, but it was a really good drink. It was super sweet, a little fizzy, which I guess comes from the lager, but it was also a little woody – a bit more like sherry than whisky. It kind of warmed you up a little bit, or maybe that was just a placebo effect. Stories began coming out from groups in the past who had drank maybe a little more than was sensible, and so we were all good, and kept it to a minimum. I managed to get some of the guys to pose with Mr Minion too… I’m not going to lie, he’s had a brilliant trip, and he’s a lump of plastic.image

We divided ourselves up dutifully into same-sex groups, the irony there being that we had a gay guy on the trip with us, so there were many spooning, forking and knifing jokes being bandied around which were wholly entertaining. We were due to leave the homestay at 5:30am in order to get to the Thai border at Chiang Kong at a reasonable hour.

Monks at Sunrise, Museums at Sunset

imageCover Photo Credit: Christopher Ellis

Even after the late night antics trying to find our hotel in the early hours of the morning, I managed to wake up at 5:30am for a brisk but still slightly chilly walk to go see the monks receiving alms. Although I didn’t manage to snap the actual sunrise, I have pictures of the monks against a beautiful deep purple sky which contrasted brilliantly with the orange of their robes. We went to a couple of different locations, and because there was such a small imagegroup of us who made it up in the morning, our CEO took us to a Wat a little further away than usual and we got some awesome pictures of a river of orange robes all the way over a small hill and as far as the eye could see.

The majority of the group chose to go Elephant Trekking, whereas I decided to have a lazy day, possibly finding a little massage parlour to iron out the kinks from kayaking, catching up with emails from home and as it was a Saturday, maybe even calling home, before my parents were due to head off on their own holidays.

After returning to the hotel, I grabbed some breakfast and went back to sleep for a bit. I set an alarm, rolled over and silenced it when it went off and finally got up around 11.30am! We had a luxurious room with a fridge, I’d bought a massive bottle of water and I’d acquired some bananas from somewhere, so I mooched around for a few hours and headed out to explore in the afternoon. I found a nice little restaurant and stuffed myself so much that I couldn’t face having a massage now! I headed back to the hotel, walking along a stretch of the river, and met another of the group on his way out to the Ethnology museum, so like the tag-along I am, I joined him. I’m really glad I went, it was cheap and cheerful, only a short walk away, and not too heavy either. It gave a brief history of Laotian culture and history and gave us facts such as “Laos is the most culturally diverse country in the world with 49 legally recognised ethnicities within the three main groups, and almost 150 unofficially recognised sub-groups”.

There was a really cool little exhibit depicting the process of turning raw cotton plant into usable thread and an entire room dedicated to the advancement of women in modern fields like photography, graphic design and other professions that have never been open to the fairer sex in years gone by. There was a small piece on Batik, which is a technique used to dye patterns on to fabric similar to tie-dye, except the areas to be un-coloured are drawn on with wax and washed away with warm water after baking.

We went to an Aussie Sports Bar for dinner that evening where the food went down well with everyone, and we saw the first sign to Utopia right opposite where we were sitting in the bar. No prizes where we ended up later on! Due to my allergy situation, I made my excuses and left fairly early with some others, we didn’t get lost on the way back to the hotel and all in all it was an uneventful day. Until…

We found out the next morning that there had been some very late-night escapades involving the boys and their hard-wired desire to prove their sporting prowess. This resulted in one person taking a bit of a dive, scraping skin clean off of a knee, an elbow, and a really nasty gash in one foot. Apparently there was blood everywhere, emergency first aid carried out by one of the group and the poor dude then limped around for the remainder of the trip. Not fun, bless him, but at least he’d had a tetanus shot before the trip!

Mountains and Hills and Utopia

Following Activities Day, I woke up aching in places I don’t even want to think about! I knew I would, but jeez. And we were to spend the best part of the day on a minibus. The journey to Luang Prabang was long and bumpy, and though the views were stunning, it didn’t stop some of us feeling travel sick. By this time, we were into our third week together and we had been so lucky that we didn’t have anyone who suffered from severe travel sickness. Those that did always sat near the front, took anti-motion sickness pills and tried to sleep as much as possible, but this journey was something else. I haven’t been sick whilst travelling since I was maybe five years old, and I was finding it difficult to drop off over the bumps. Seriously, this minibus needed some new suspension!

Anyway, our route was something of the scenic sort, which was more “over” the mountain than “around” it, but that didn’t stop half-hearted renditions of “She’ll be coming round the mountain” every time we went round a bend. We stopped for lunch at what was something of a service station, and even though the food took ages to arrive, it was damn tasty. I ordered fried chicken noodles with extra ginger and it was good. And cheap, naturally.

Our next stop was almost at the top of the mountain, and though it was a little foggy, with some minor light/shadow editing on my trusty iPhone, I had some okay shots ready for a Facebook upload next time we got a wifi connection.

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“Minor editing,” she says…

 

We arrived in Luang Prabang in the mid-late afternoon ready to climb Phousi Hill for the sunset view. If I’d have known it was such a major tourist attraction, I might have not bothered at all. There were an extraordinary number of steps to the top, according to imagegoogle, it’s 100m tall with 328 steps to the top. It felt like more, for sure. I’m not going to lie, when we got to the top and saw the sea of tourists, I caught the eye of one of the girls I’d walked up with and we simultaneously turned around and decided to get a head-start on the way down. We stopped off to check out the tiny little Wat, and then began the descent to the night market at the foot of the stairs. I did manage to get a sunset shot from halfway down the mountain though, which was good.

There was a lot of confusion as to where we were to meet everyone and our CEO after the sunset. All of us who had climbed the hill managed to find each other, but we couldn’t find anyone else, and it was getting close to dinner time. I guess one good thing was that I managed to haggle the price of a scarf down from 100,000 to 50,000 LaoKip. We went to a tiny little street food market where you paid for a bowl and you could fill it with whatever veggies and rice/noodles. It had the opportunity to be an awesome meal, but I picked wrong and was just ready for a drink somewhere.

We’d found out about a place which boasted a super chilled vibe with floor cushions and easy listening music and cheap drinks, so off we went in search of this bar called Utopia. It was not the easiest place to find, navigating through very residential looking areas, and whenever one of us voiced the opinion that we must be going the wrong way, another sign appeared pointing us further along our journey. When we turned the final corner, Utopia literally materialised in front of us. It was as we had imagined, yet completely out of place all at the same time. It also brought out the feminine side of the guys who came with us… it was funny because I ordered a cider, the other girl who was with us ordered a beer, and the guys both had cocktails. The waitress was a little bit weirded out when she delivered our drinks! The place was great, lounging about on the floor, until a dog turned up, sat in the middle of our little group and I discovered that I not only disliked our canine friends, but I was quietly terrified of them. And I was allergic too. I hadn’t spent a lot of time with dogs to know for sure, but after that night, I added it to the list – cats, rabbits, dust and pollen. I will always keep OTC antihistamines on me from now on!

It was a drunken stumble back to the hotel that night. Unfortunately, all the roads kind of looked the same, and I think we might have lost a couple of people to another bar along the way… in any case, I was woken up maybe 45 minutes after I’d dropped off to sleep by the simultaneous whooping and shushing when they arrived back later.

Monkeying around followed by Margaritas

I was a little nervous about Activities Day in Vang Vieng, but I needn’t have been. I’m not the most active person, sure I like to walk, but anything that requires actual strength and sporting prowess is really not up my street. But as is the theme of my trip, YOLO and all that, I figured I would join in with the majority and agreed to the 10K kayaking, tubing through a cave and some zip-lining across the Mekong.

I have never kayaked, nor tubed, nor rock climbed (but we’ll get to that reference in a minute), I have zip-lined before in the UK, I went on a Hen Party to Go Ape, and incidentally, Activities Day turned out to be 21st January – which is the Hen’s Birthday. Spooky, right?

When we got to the place where we were due to start kayaking, we had a safety talk from our group leader, and we all paired up. We had been told to make sure there was a more experienced person in the back, so we did a quick bit of jiggling about and got on our way. After all my apologising that I would be a terrible kayak-mate (if that’s even a thing), we made excellent time. We started at the back of the group and arrived almost first. And nobody from our group capsized, which was a major plus! We did witness a cap-sizing, and it was not pretty; a group of Chinese tourists were clearly not listening to their group leader and went careering into each other and some rocks. Honestly, I didn’t think it was even possible to get it so wrong…

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Photo Credit: Sarou Hong

 

The tubing was definitely an interesting encounter, and now that I’ve done it once, I’m not sure I’d really care to repeat the experience. I got on board with the concept of “lazy river”-ing through the cave, but I think by giant rubber ring was maybe a little too big for me. I think I needed a child-sized tube! What with trying to stay on top of the tube and dragging yourself along in the dark (we had head torches on) I wasn’t really feeling too comfortable. In hindsight, there actually wasn’t that much tubing, and it wasn’t that taxing when you compare it with what came next. We had to navigate out of the cave that we were in; the floor was slippery with a clay-like consistency – not ideal if you were barefoot, possibly worse if you had flip flops on. The rocks ranged from being a smooth and muddy mess to having some serious texture and a few jagged points.

Half way through the cave, there was a bit of a hold up, and we heard panicked voices from the front of the group. We’d just managed to climb some steps, with a nice secure bamboo railing that didn’t wobble in the slightest (!), and it was still pretty dark. Turns out, there was a tiny little gap that you have to get through, kind of head-first, and we had a couple of people who were feeling a little claustrophobic and that they might get stuck. With some encouragement from both sides, and the promise that much larger humans have passed through without a scratch, we managed it, with 180.5cm worth of German lankiness bringing up the rear and we were treated to a burst of sunlight through the rocks above. Only a short climb to go, and that bit was at least an easy stretch of rocks. We decided that the tubing experience should be renamed to something like “5 minutes of tubing followed by 25 minutes of evading treacherous death in the dark”, but obviously we were just being melodramatic and it really was quite entertaining with the lovely bunch of people that we were, all willing to help each other along.

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Can you see me?

After lunch, which was BBQ’d chicken and vegetables with a hearty smothering of ketchup with a side of veggie fried rice served to us in a cute banana leaf parcel followed by fresh fruit, it was time for zip-lining. Oh jeez, we had the responsibility to brake on certain lines, except they didn’t let us know until a little too late. I went colliding into this tiny little Laotian man, and it’s a very good thing that I’m not a huge person myself or I could have done him some serious damage! But I still maintain that it was the fault of the guy who sent us off on that particular line. He didn’t warn us there would be some DIY along

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Photo Credit: Sarou Hong

the way! Naturally, Mr I-Will-Capture-All-Embarrassing-Moments-On-A-GoPro managed to catch almost everyone grappling for the brake whilst being yelled at from all who had already completed that line. We kayaked back, obviously not upstream, but we found ourselves at the back entrance of the hotel, which was handy, laughing about all the monkeying around and looking forward to a shower and the chance to wash our hair! Plus, a chance to download of all the GoPro footage…

 

Dinner was an incredible affair that night too, with half the group opting for Lao-Austrian and the other half going for Mexican. Even thought they were both rather tempting, I went for the latter because the cheese cravings won out in the end! And when we got there and saw there were special spiced margaritas on offer and rum balls for dessert on the menu, I knew I’d made the right decision. The food was really good, but it took a really long time for us to be served, and one of our group suffers from hypoglycaemia, so low blood sugar didn’t just make her mildly irritable and “hangry” like most of us, it was a serious medical problem. This was something that I hadn’t really thought about too much myself, but we did go extraordinary lengths of time without the opportunity to eat, and Asia is a bit rubbish for snacks that you can keep in your bag. You can’t find cereal bars and chocolate would melt within 15 minutes. You can’t keep an apple or a banana with you because it would just ripen and attract ants.

imageLater on, some people decided to head back to the Irish Bar we’d discovered the night before, and some decided to call it a night. My roommate had been feeling a little dodgy for a few days now, and she was managing to eat, but not managing to keep any of it down. We added it to the list of ailments we’d collectively experienced so far, chalked it up to a dodgy tummy and didn’t think too much of it, chatting about the day on the short walk back to our beds. We came to the conclusion that although it really was a great day, fantastic mix of action, food and drink and chill-out time, this was a day that you could experience on any holiday, anywhere in the world. It didn’t feel particularly Laotian, but I guess we were treated to the Asian prices, so we did win out there.

Another birthday, a creepy park and Laotian dancing with kids

We only had a few hours in the morning to explore Vientiane, and so a few of us managed to organise a trip to Buddha Park and Pha That Luong Temple setting off at around 7.30 and arriving back at the hotel ready for lunchtime.

Buddha Park was a very interesting place. I knew that it was a man-made collection of fairly recent sculptures but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so creepy. There were bastardised versions of Gods and effigies from both Buddhism and Hinduism and it made me feel a bit weird walking around and taking pictures. Almost like this was once a sacred ground, but now a tourist attraction. The reality is actually the complete opposite, because whilst the place was constructed to allure tourists, there is a little shrine in front of the reclining Buddha in the centre of the park which I imagine wasn’t part of the designer’s original plan.

imageAs soon as you entered the park, there was a giant “pumpkin”-like structure that you could climb, and naturally, the only way to the stairs was through its mouth. It turned out that there were actually two routes to the top. The rest of the group went in first, and decided to go clockwise, I waited until they got to the top and got them to take a picture of me down in the park by myself! They had a seriously precarious route through the middle of the structure, whereas I went anti-clockwise and was rewarded with steep steps which were far easier to navigate. I also didn’t get up close and personal with the skeletal statues with baby skulls and child-sized evil looking beings carrying weapons in the centre of the structure. Which worked for me, since I was climbing it alone. Apparently, the Pumpkin is supposed to represent Hell, Heaven and Earth, but the only vibe I was getting was creepy.

At the top, you could literally see everything. It was really quite high, and there were no railings to prevent you falling. It must have been about 20-25ft high. We sat for a while at the top, catching our breath and as people went back down to walk amongst the structures, I directed them to the other staircase, which was much appreciated by all! When I went down to have a closer look at the statues, I felt really strange. There were clear nods to both Hinduism and Buddhism, but I could tell that the deities had been altered slightly and there were skulls everywhere. There was a depiction of Lord Shiva, Parvati Ma, Lord Ganesh and his brother, who goes by numerous names, but is a God of War. In my personal opinion, it is rare to see all four of them pictured together. There were two tall statues of the Goddess, but neither looked quite right. There was also a statue of Lord Krishna in his usual pose, in front of a cow, playing the flute, one foot balanced in front of the other. But even this didn’t look strictly right to me either. He didn’t have a chandlo (red mark on his forehead), and he wasn’t smiling.image

imageAnd that’s not to mention the clearly more Buddhist effigies. There was a giant standing upright, holding the lifeless-looking body of a human-sized woman in his outstretched arms. That is not normal. There was a giant bug, some sort of cockroach/beetle type creature that was having its legs removed by a human-sized God in a clearly violent manner. There was a goddess-looking being smiling ear to ear as she was being consumed by a dragon. This does not sit right with me because neither religion advocates violence, so this theme of killing and being killed just doesn’t make much sense. What kind of symbolism is that supposed to be?

After an hour or so, everyone was weirded out enough to head to our next location. An actual real temple. Pha That Luong is the golden temple in the capital of Laos with a massive golden reclining Buddha in the centre of its grounds. The history of this temple is hazy, but it’s fair to say, as with all ancient temples, it had been passed from religion to religion as new peoples invaded and conquered, but it is now a Buddhist Temple. The most recent reconstruction effort was in the 1930’s after the Thai-Franco war.

Trying to organise cake and the signing of cards and buying of a few decorations without letting the birthday girl know, was especially difficult for this one, but we managed a lovely chorus of happy birthday and a couple of exploding firecrackers before getting back into a minibus to head to a little Laotian village called Na Duong. I actually skipped lunch and just had cake which really was incredible, plus it meant that I had plenty of space for our traditional Laotian meal in the evening.

Though it pains me to say it, traditional Lao food didn’t really do it for me. There were broth-y soups which didn’t really taste of much and minced pork which was a very dry dish. Then there was a dried fish and chilli chutney-style accompaniment what was supposed to be eaten with the ever present sticky rice. Then there were plates of crinkle-cut chips that reminded me of McCain’s microwave chips that used to come in cardboard boxes that went from the freezer to edible in two and a half minutes. The local whisky though? Yes, I could get on board with that bit of moonshine. It was quite a dark whisky and it was infused with some kind of bark reminiscent of cinnamon, so there was an aromatic woodiness to the flavour. Unfortunately, we didn’t know what it was going to be like, so we were necking our shot, but I could have quite happily savoured a short, on ice.

With a shot of whisky and maybe a beer in us, these ladies turned up to dress the boys in a long skirt each! The New Guy wasn’t keen, but then everyone suddenly had a lovely Laotian lady picking skirts up and assigning one to each of us, so we all got ready for some dancing. Out into the garden we went, to meet the village kids and the rest of the adults too. The kids were clearly trying to eye us up, trying to guess which of us had natural rhythm, and when they made their decision, they grabbed us by the hand and took us to one of the stools laid out specially for us in a line in the garden. Then they took their places for a dance performance.

imageThe dance they showed us first was incredibly repetitive, with a few steps, a few kicks and a 180o spin, but they counted in 7’s, so it felt like there was a little jump in the middle of the dance. The nature of the repetition soon became evident, when the song finished, we applauded like a good audience, then we were pounced upon, taught the moves, and made to dance it to the music together. And that was by no means the end of it, as they made us do it by ourselves afterwards, just to make sure we got it down! During this last version of the dance, the music was getting a bit tedious, but my little Laotian friend, Phun, caught my eye, mouthed the word “beautiful” with a thumbs up, which caused me to lose my footing. She had a massive grin on her face when I got it back though, which was super cute!

When the song finally ended (and it did seem to go on for an extraordinary length of time), we were allowed to sit back down for another two performances. One of the dances was led by a little boy who had so much style and flair that there was no doubt in my mind at all that he was gay. Even at 10 or 11 years old, he had so much sass and his talent of twirling his body into the dance moves was just stunning.

After these performances, we were treated to a demonstration of a dance involving bamboo sticks. It was really fascinating, watching these sticks being produced out of nowhere and being laid out on the floor in this kind of formation, a kid next to each pair of tubes:baboo dance.JPG

Then, with a rhythm not dissimilar to “We Will Rock You” by Queen, they began banging the tubes together, quite viciously! It was a little bit like Double Dutch that we used to play, except we only had skipping ropes, and these kids had rock solid weapons!

Pretty much every kid in the village wanted to show off their amazing nimble feet, they grabbed their partners and taught them how to jump across without getting hit or tripped. I think that Phun may have had a recent bad experience with the game, or maybe she was a little too young, in any case, I didn’t get a practice run, so when it was a free for all, I jumped straight in and proceeded to trip all over the place resulting in laughs all round! With one last dance left, with no guidance or planning, we kind of just made it up as we went along, dancing around in a circle. Sure, some of us had more natural rhythm than others, but it was a great night, we gave our time to some local people, they welcomed us with open arms and open kitchens and they seemed to be having fun too! It was an awesome day to have a birthday… not like the next birthday on the trip, but that’s a story for another day.