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A bakery tour of Laos

Pakse, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng & Vientiane: 9-14 Dec '13

sunny 28 °C
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Our time in the homestay over, we headed to Pakse, a town surrounded on three sides by two rivers. And here began the abiding theme of Laos: bakeries. Settling down for a cofee and a French patisserie in Pakse when there is afew hours before you head to an airport seems like a good idea at the time, but in Laos it was the beginning of the end. Bakeries followed bakeries; Luang Prabang clocking up three (plus additional cake) in under three days, Vang Vieng an extended stop and Vientiane an impressive three in half a day. Not so good for the waistline, but definitely worth it for the proper coffee. In fact, the visiting of bakeries/coffee shops had started long before in Cambodia, but it took on a whole new level in Laos, which seemingly continues to this day.

Luang Prabang is an UNESCO heritage site, which means the beautiful old French colonial buildings and quiet temples have to be preserved. The result is a laid back (typically Laotian) sleepy, beautiful town. That said, the night market is bustling and crowded with excellent street food, and a few decent bars enliven up proceedings. The same cannot be said of the Laotian nightclub we visited, where everyone does the same slightly bizarre dances, depending on how upbeat the music is.

Luang Prabang was also where two of us tried to give back a little by volunteering to read to children. It did not go well, as we weren't actually wanted! A real highlight was visiting Kuang Si waterfalls, which we climbed over the top of and then once back below, some of us jumped into the pools off a swing rope in a most refreshing manner. We also saw and heard about moon bears, an endangered species often poached for their use in Chinese medicine. The bear centre at the waterfalls houses a number of rescued bears with the intention of releasing them into the wild.

The temples and monks are one of Luang Prabang's lasting memories - Wat Xieng Thong is simply stunning - but the fabled monks alms in the morning did not quite live up to lunchtime in Bago's (Myanmar) Kha Khat Wain Kyaung monastery.

Next stop was Vang Vieng - legendary hedonistic party town known mostly for tubing. Tubing is essentially sitting in a big rubber inner tyre and floating down a river - basically something me and my brother did in the sea as kids. Actually, Vang Vieng is a sleepy town set in a beautiful landscape of karsts and ricefields, and although you can still party (we did) and tube (we didn't), in fact many of the bars have been closed down, and Vang Vieng is instead full of outdoor activities - caving, trekking, climbing, kayaking to name but a few; some of us hired bikes and after a brief and bumpy ride through the fields, pedalled leisurely around the outskirts of the whole town.

Vientiane may be the capital of Laos, but as typifies the whole country, it is hardly the most lively of cities. We visited Pha That Luang, a very important temple and national symbol. Its huge gold taht (stupa) is impressive but surprisingly tame after the mass of super-ornate stupas in Myanmar. It is, however, square, so a little different. We followed this by a visit to Patuxai, the vertical runway - a replica of the Arc de Triomphe in concrete - so called because it was built with cement donated by the US for building a new airport.

This was followed by visits to three bakeries. Oops.

Posted by GoonishPython 22:00 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Mekong Adventures Part 1

Confused dolphins and the Four Thousand Islands Cambodia & Laos 6-9 Dec '13

sunny 30 °C
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Having first encountered the Mekong in Phnom Penh, our adventure continued following the river North. Stopping at Kompong Cham, previously an important French trading post, we encountered our first taste of Christmas and our first proper coffee in Cambodia. Sipping an espresso and listening to Jingle Bells Rock while it's 32C outside is definitely an experience.

Our stop for the night, Kratie, is a small town famous for its proximity to one very special animal, the rare massively endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin (They got lost. The Irrawaddy is just 1200 or so miles away.). With a distinctive shape and colour, these dolphins are only found in a handful of places in South East Asia (they proved very elusive in the Ayeyarwady, despite their tradition in helping local fisherman by driving fish into their nets). So as we were in one of the best spots to see them, just a short motorbike ride from Kratie we settled into small boats to watch the sun set spectacularly across the Mekong. And the dolphins even made an appearance too. We even saw part of a Cambodian wedding on the return journey.

Crossing into Laos (a long and slightly tricksy business) we headed into the heart of the Mekong - Si Phan Don - the Four Thousand Islands, an archipelago spread across the river. We settled down in the guesthouse bar, essentially a roofed terrace on the riverside, and relaxed into the laid-back Laos way of life. Essentially my stay on Don Khong island was negotiating my way between hammock and bed, a feat made all the more impressive given the copious amounts of Beer Lao (a much recommended choice - we used up all the bars stock) and generous portions of Lao Lao (potent Lao rice whisky) consumed. Our regrettably short stay concluded with a very early morning to watch the sunrise and offer alms to the local monks. A daily scene throughout the country, monks process a set path with their offering bowls, and the faithful duly await them kneeling to offer rice and other food for the monks meals. Don Khong has three monks. I apparently can't divide a basket of rice between three.

After a brief nap, we set off to another of Laos' natural beauties, the Kho Pha Phoeng waterfalls, reputedly the largest waterfalls by volume in South East Asia, where the water plunges dramatically through a myriad of islets. Next stop: Champasak, back on the mainland, the site of Wat Phu Champasak, an impressive ruined Khmer temple, originally Hindu but now Buddhist, with beautiful views from the top of the hill and a crocodile shaped human sacrifice stone. Despite a beautiful sunset, we had to quickly board our raft-like little boats to Don Deng, a small island where we would stay with local families.

Don Deng is small but pretty. The village we stayed in had a small pretty temple and a school with children who were fascinated both by us and seeing themselves on camera. A real highlight was the adorable girl at my homestay - only 1 year old, my gift of biscuits won me some favour pretty quickly, and by the time I was showing her pictures of my hometown the next morning, she was firmly engaged and happy to laugh and play around us. I left her with a postcard of Cambridge in the snow (complete with bicycles), and her mother with how to say elephant and hippopotamus, the two she didn't know where to start with in her daughter's book. A real highlight of the trip.

Posted by GoonishPython 21:50 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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