Saturday, 13 August 2011

Laos: The SE Asia ‘Can’t Leave Your Self Behind’ Guide

From A to B – Getting Around

We were in a bus crash in Laos, which rather put us off travelling in buses.  But there’s not much choice in Laos.  There are no trains as far as I’m aware.  The simple truth of the matter is that sometimes you get unlucky, and often there’s very little or nothing you can do to reduce risks.

Please don’t let this put you off.  Laos is an incredible place.  Buses crash everywhere.

Virtually all guesthouses will help you book transport.

Scooters are more expensive to rent in Laos than in Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia, but still make for a good way to get around towns such as Luang Prabang.  As do bicycles, which are much cheaper.

We flew from Luang Prabang to Hanoi in Vietnam to avoid the 24 hour bus ride.  We bought our tickets from a travel agent a few days before travel and they cost us $150 USD each, including a tuk tuk transfer from our guesthouse to the airport.  Surprisingly, it was cheaper to book the ticket via a travel agent than online.   

Where the Magic Probably Won’t Happen - Sleeping

Big white new hotel next to waterfront restaurant, Huay Xai: there are plenty of guesthouses in Huay Xai and they are marginally more expensive than in the rest of Laos.  We stumbled over this place which was new and although slightly more expensive than the other guesthouses was well worth it.  Sadly, I can't remember the name, nor can I find it on the internet.  You can find it by turning right at the top of the hill from the border post, and walking 100 metres, it's on your right.  Comfortable beds, nicely decorated rooms with wooden floorboards, a big bathroom with hot shower, and powerful air conditioning.

Zuela Guesthouse, Luang Nam Tha: Nicely designed wooden building, very near the night market.  Cheap and comfortable rooms.  We had a fan room, rather than AC, and sweated our way through the night.

Nmm nmm nmm – Eating and Drinking

Generally the food in Laos was less impressive than the rest of SE Asia, with the notable exception of bread products.  The colonial French influence is remembered in baguettes that do not suffer from the over-sweet preparation method common to the rest of SE Asia, particularly Thailand.

Le Banneton Cafe, Luang Prabang: A charming colonial-style café serving good salads, great coffee, and even better lemon tarts.

Swedish Bakery, Luang Prabang: I particularly liked place for its excellent sandwiches and pizzas, and its friendly staff.  I also have a great fondness for Sweden and the Swedes generally, and it was a nostalgic surprise to see Snus in the refrigerator, nestled besides cans of Coke and bottled water.

Fruit shakes, Night Market, Luang Prabang: Small stalls selling good-value fruit shakes abound in SE Asia, so this recommendation could apply to the whole region.  Lemon and mint was our favourite.

Beer Lao is, for my money, the best beer in the region.  Cheap and cold it often works out better value to drink beer than soda which is surely the key indicator of a civilised society.    

Night market, Luang Nam Tha: a small night market focused predominantly on food.  Great for carnivores, and you can buy barbecued meat by the pound, or by the bird.  We also had some excellent banana bread.

Writing about the night market reminds me of the incredibly obnoxious traveller we experienced there, a cliché that would make baby boomers choke on their scotch (which they were drinking in the drawing room of their mortgage free houses – thanks very much you lot!).  So cartoon-ish was he in his pronouncements and lack of self-awareness that I was certain we were being filmed by some art students for their project ‘Wanker around the World’.  He was a Brit, decked out with the mandatory linen trousers, bandanna and wooden beads, and was travelling alone. Inviting himself to sit at a table with two other couples he proceeded to talk at them, nonstop, for half an hour.  Helen and I looked at each other from across our food-splattered table, fatty fingers raised halfway to our lips, and simultaneously raised our eyebrows.  Is it me, I said, or is that guy the most gigantic arsehole you’ve ever heardHe really is, she replied. And remember – she’s the nice one.  Here’s a sample of some of his pronouncements to the dumbstruck and overly polite group he’d just interrupted: Yeh, I’ve just been chillin’ with the hill tribes man, I just rock up and sometimes they want money but sometimes they share some smoke with me, and it’s just awesome (LOAD), You guys should get off the trail, start travelling for real (LOCK), so this guy says to me you’re in a drug farm, you better get out of here before they come for you, it was like The Beach dude (FIRE!).  So obnoxious was he that his presence came up, without prompting, in a conversation we were having with a great couple – Jos and Maria – 200 miles down the round in Luang Prabang.  These poor souls had the misfortune to have a room above his and they recounted how he would sit outside his room and just invite passers-by to sit with him, and then talk at them until they managed to escape.  The fire with which the normally gentle Jos told this story suggested that maybe there’s a shallow grave with a bandanna sticking out of the earth in Luang Nam Tha.

Other stuff

The Gibbon Experience is awesome.

I dedicated most of a previous posting to it, so shall only include the logistical information here.  It’s expensive at $270 USD per person for a 3 day, 2 night, trip.  Worth it though. 

A three hour ride up the road from Huay Xai takes you to the jungle entrance before a very short trek to waiting 4x4s ferry you further into the jungle, weather permitting.  Then you hike for about an hour, picking up harnesses along the way. 

There are several tree-houses scattered around the jungle, not that close to each other.  Most tree-houses sleep between 6 and 8.  We had one to ourselves and although this ‘honeymoon’ treatment was nice we also regretted not having the chance to socialise with the others in the group, for this is a sociable experience.  You get to see most of the other tree-houses as you trek and zip through the jungle.  The trekking requires a moderate level of fitness, but the guides are accommodating to this.  Needless to say, you need to have a stomach for heights, or at least the conviction to overcome any vertigo.  There are leeches in the jungle, but nothing that a pair of socks worn over your trousers won’t fix.

The tree-houses have mattresses on the floor for sleeping, blankets, and a black out mosquito net.  There is a rainwater shower.  The jungle chorus can be loud so a pair of earplugs may be helpful, as will bug dope. 

Food (breakfast, lunch and dinner) is zipped in by the guides to your tree-house.  It wouldn’t win any Michelin stars but considering the location it’s pretty good.  We had plenty of food but the tree-houses with more guests commented that they felt short-changed by the amount of food they received.   Take a water bottle in – the rainwater from the taps is fine to drink, and dehydration is a serious risk in the humidity.  There is also a cool-box in each tree-house that holds snacks and a bottle of Lao wine.  Never realised Laos produced wine? There’s a reason for this.

View from a zip line to one of the tree houses

Kouang Si Waterfalls, near Luang Prabang

These waterfalls were a very pleasant surprise.  Beautiful blue water to swim in and rope-swings to get the adrenaline pumping.

We hired a scooter to get there and back ($25 USD per day), but it is more common to share a tuk-tuk.  It is also possible to bicycle there if you’re feeling fit.  We regretted not doing this, and there’ll always be a tuk tuk driver willing to take you and your bike home should the return trip be too daunting.

There’s also a bear sanctuary there which is an interesting diversion. Go early in the day to avoid the crowds.

Kayaking, Luang Nam Tha

We had a great day paddling down the river, notwithstanding the near constant arguments about who was steering in our two person kayak.  It’s easy going, and there’s plenty of opportunity to enjoy the scenery. It cost us about $30 USD per person for a one day trip.

Included in the trip is stop offs in minority villages.  This is also common in the hiking options.  I find these stop-offs excruciatingly uncomfortable; and they make me feel like a transient and nosy voyeur, not least because I’m the umpteenth tourist to have stumbled into a community and poked my camera into someone’s home.  I know some people love this type of thing, and I’m not making a value judgement; it’s just not my cup of tea.

Activities organised out of Luang Nam Tha are priced based on the number of participants, normally to a maximum group size of 8.  The more people, the cheaper the per person price.  Noticeboards outside the tour offices tell you which activities have people already signed up. 

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