Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Without a Paddle

I've been running a long way behind with number 1 child's travel blogs which I love to share so there'll be a few popping up in the next few days - plus, yes!, a travel blog from me! Because I have actually been allowed out of the country for the first time in seven months. Obviously not somewhere hot...

 "Look, there's a wat!"                     

                                                                         "A wat?"

     "A wat!"

      "A what?"

     "A wat!"

This current running joke would suggest that our sense of humour is going down the plughole, the longer we spend away from home. (But please suspend your judgement to the end of this blog as I may have redeemed myself by then).

The gates to Luang Prabang should have a warning sign above them 'Beware Falang Falang!' as tourists swarm to this town armed with guidebooks and cameras. You can almost hear a battle cry in the air as the people clamber for the 'most authentic experience'.

                                                Alex's favourite picture - the 'baby monks'

At 6am when the sun rises, the monks descend onto the main streets for Tak Bat receiving alms from local laypeople whom receive blessings in return. This sacred ritual is a beautiful one - the persimmon flames of the robes worn by the monks who walk in file from old to young against the backdrop of golden wats alit by the rising sun. Then minibuses descend and out jump tourists - mostly Korean and silence is disrupted by flashing cameras, peace signs and loud chatter as tourists run amok the suffering monks. What was a rare privilege to see has become an embarrassing mockery of what observing local and real culture is about. It brings a new meaning to the word 'culture vulture'.

Luang Prabang has a touch of the charming traditional architecture that we observed in Hoi An, local and authentic - shops, galleries, cafes and guesthouses tidily adjacent to one another. A peninsula is formed by two rivers - the meandering Mekong and the smaller Nam Ha and it takes but two minutes to walk from one side to the other. Luang Prabang is also infamous for having the largest number of temples - wats, within a square mile radius and these all run through the middle of town. There is a risk of getting temple-fever though, because they all start to look exactly the same. A house of mirrors.

Seeing the sunset at the summit of Phu Si, after 100 metres and 192 step climb was lovely - particularly as it was a shared experience with a herd of people all jostling for the best seats and views. But a tickbox is checked as far as seeing the sights go. Next comes the night market which is a spectacular array of red canopies stretching as far as the eye can see down the main street of town. Here Alex purchased some slippers, his only consideration for fashion items decorated with elephants.

As far as Luang Prabang goes - the culinary experience scored top marks. The Tamarind, where Alex and I braved Lao cuisine for the first time - an array of jaew (dips) with sticky rice and a plate of stuffed lemongrass chicken. Khao Khad Sen Bad - a small local restaurant on the riverfront where we had 'BBQ Soup' - a kiln built into the middle of our wooden table, hot coals poured into it and a sieve on top where boiling water is added. Our food is given to us to cook ourselves - raw beef, pork and chicken along with an assortment of vegetables and vermicelli. We even poached our own eggs. Delicious.

Given that we are living on a budget of £30 a day (including accommodation), it is difficult to enjoy Luang Prabang for all of the treats that it has on offer. A quick luxurious weekend away here and you would probably have me weaving rhapsodies into this blog. Vang Vieng on the other side...

Unglamorous, unpretentious and smacking of the ridiculous was the experience we had in Vang Vieng. This party town, which all the guidebooks led me to believe I would hate, was probably the best part of our trip so far. In spite of staying in a hostel room of which the entire decor was laid out in Alex's favourite colour - pooey brown, and with a suspicious looking double padlock on the door, we had our first hot shower since Phuket and all at a cheap £8 a night.

'Friends' is an extremely popular programme here and all the bars screen it with subtitles which makes a perfect antidote to a hangover. Making our way to the Jungle Restaurant, we dined on Beer Lao and some Laap (minced meat made with coriander and mint) before I continued my losing streak at pool. Making our way down to the river front, more Beer Lao was enjoyed whilst watching the sunset and the last of the tubers and kayakers making their way in.

The next day, we too bravely faced the famed tubing experience where our arms were tattooed with a number so they could go out hunting for our dead bodies if we did not come back by dark. With other convicts, we were lined up in a rickshaw like caged hens and sent 4km upriver to a bar where music was played at full volume and we were greeted with free shots. Buying a beer at 11am was a necessary hardship so we did not appear to be complete nancies; as was the jumping off the jetty whilst people stood by watching you play chicken. My beer was then thrown to me, which I missed, and ended up sipping an entirely new concoction which I have named 'River Beer'.

(Knocked out by my new concoction)

As we floated down the river in our tubes, even my pitiful ears could hear the booming base of dance music as we passed bars and staff would stand on the riverfront throwing plastic bottles tied to ropes to try and capture us and lure us into their bars to buy more beer. Evading these pirates, we slowly passed a place called "The Last Bar" where a comment to Alex -

"Surely this can't be the last bar?"

He responded with typical logic and manly aplomb:

"If you were going to name a bar on this river, what would you call it?"

We did not see another bar on the river for two hours.

Particular highlights of this lazy float down the river, asides from feeling rocks scrape on my bottom and admiring the limestone karsts was observing the Korean paddling technique.*

Every ten minutes or so, a troop of kayakers would descend upon us and it was a privilege to be able to admire and learn from the extraordinary antics we saw. All of them appeared to be Korean, wearing oversized lifejackets, fishermen hats and surgical masks. Those that had locals paddling on their behalf quickly passed us, but others were going down the river backwards, sideways, crashing into banks, bridges or capsizing altogether. Here are some useful tips we learnt:

"Korean paddle" - place hands as far apart as possible on paddle whilst dipping the thinnest part in water. Wear confused expression whilst jerking body from side to side and observing no increase in pace.

"Capsizing" - maintain confused expression and then do one of two things:

a) Immediately check all belongings are intact and start to wring clothes. Observe that your kayak has continued to go downstream and attempt to wade to catch up, whilst waving at your kayak and ayone who happens to be watching.

b) Tip kayak back upside down to pour water out. Peer head in, see more water, get confused, tip two or three more times before climbing back in head first and drown in kayak.

During one particularly spectacular capsizing incident, we were sunbathing on a wooden platform on the riverbank listening to 'You Sexy Thing' by Hot Chocolate. You just had to be there.

On our last night, Alex and I decided that we were going to lash - be hard core party travellers and stay out really late. We managed three beers before going to bed at 10pm.

So - Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng are probably worlds apart when it comes to the experiences on offer and the sights you see. And Laos so far just hasn't managed to reach the expectations that Vietnam did or that Cambodia potentially has to offer, but with Vientiane and the 4000 islands ahead perhaps this will change. And we're starting to feel like proper backpackers now.

Wouldn't like to be stuck between these two...

*Any racism observed in this blog was not intended by the writer. 

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