Archive for Laos

28 Jun 2013

Legging it around Vientiane

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The mood was somber. The last of our fellow cyclists have left — only the three of us remain.

Naturally, since the cycling has finished, the rain has stopped. Vientiane is sleepy and pleasant. Everything, traffic included moves at a slow gentle pace. It is not beautiful like Luang Prubang, however it is an easy city to explore and while away a few days.

We caught a tuk-tuk to That Luang (temple), explored the grounds, admired the giant serene reclining Buddha, watched the monks hard at work while dogs and cats lay around lazily.






Afterwards in keeping with the somber occasion, we visited the COPE exhibition and museum. COPE is a charity organisation. They make prosthetic limbs to fit to all the victims of cluster bombs. During the Vietnam war, for nine years, the USA dropped more than 260 million cluster bombs across the entire country of Laos. Per capita, Laos remains the most heavily bombed country in the world. Over nine years, that works out at one plane load of bombs every eight minutes. Ironically Laos was not even a participant in the war. Approximately a third of the munitions (more than 80 million bombs) rained over Laos remain unexploded. Now some forty years later, farmers ploughing their fields, children searching for scrap metal to make a few kip, barely enough to survive, are being blown up and killed or maimed on a regular basis. The problem is compounded by the extreme poverty, the lack of education and the nature of the bombs. It is a tragic story. We watched an excellent film, Bomb Harvest, by an Australian production company narrated by an Australian bombs disposal expert working in Laos. It is both funny and tragic — watch it if you can find it. Afterwards, make a donation, buy a leg —


Homemade prosthetic limbs


In the afternoon Gill had a pummelling Laos massage and came back walking all funny, like she was wearing a prosthetic limb.

With our spirits down, we dragged ourselves over to The Spirit House, the excellent laid-back cocktail bar overlooking the Mekong. We watched the lights come on in Thailand over on the opposite bank and drowned our sorrows with a cocktail or two.


Butterflies with a 15cm wingspan - AlpacaAir


25 Jun 2013

Tour de Lao

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There I was worried about a little Dengue fever, when Gill prepped us all with full details of our cycling activities: the time we would leave, what to wear, and then right at the last minute she mentioned the machine-gun armed rebels in the mountains around Kasi, where we would be cycling the next day. She mentioned how they liked to put holes in tourists … and then just when she had achieved her goal, that priceless expression on each of our faces, she told us it had been at least 10 years since the last attacks.

It had been a long hard day on the bike; big hill climbs and thrilling descents that seemed to go on forever, culminating with a game of cards under a wet tin roof. In fact everything was wet. It rained all day and would continue throughout the night. Everyone was exhausted. Nine pm seemed an impossibly late hour. I was shattered … sleepy … eyelids heavier than lead … and then the shooting started. I didn't feel a thing. I suddenly looked down and there was a hole in me, brown thread flowed loosely. I'd become unthreaded. Suddenly there was a monk overhead looking down serenely, picking up my thread, rolling it into a ball and stuffing into the folds of his habit. Next thing I am in a temple, my thread is being snipped into bracelet length loops and tied around the wrists of unsuspecting worshippers. There is a barking sound. A dog, no, a tiny gecko in the corner of our room. It wakes me. I lie in the darkness, clammy; the outside light faintly illuminates the ceiling fan ticking rhythmically overhead. I lie staring at the fan until my heart-rate drops, cursing Gill and her silly stories.



We have reached Vientiane and it has rained almost constantly. Our shoes are sodden and smelly. We are soaked through, but at least the rain has kept the temperature down. The spectacular mountains — well we know they are spectacular because our guidebooks tell us they are — remained veiled in dense cloud. Along the way we cycled through village after village giving high-fives and calling saibaadee (hello) to the choruses of saibaadee we received from all the smiling village children we encountered. We had some respite from the bikes; hours in a slow boat, heads throbbing to a noisy diesel engine, crossing the desolate dammed up Nam Ngum.




Along with Beer Lao (which comes in large 640ml bottles and costs $1.50) we have grown fond of Coffee Lao, because there is often no other style. Thick sludge coffee, pitch black. At the bottom of the glass a glob of condensed milk is coaxed to life with a teaspoon, and after a couple of minutes the coffee still remains pitch black. The sweetly condensed milk serves to mask the barely drinkable sludge, but after a long day on the bikes the sugar overload hits the spot. We have also become fond of BYOE restaurants — not just Bring Your Own beer and wine, but snacks, food and cards, everything in fact.



21 Jun 2013

Hot steamy encounter — the day I almost died.

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The gang had almost all arrived: Doug, Jenni, Beiha and Ian. Shane was still en-route. Let the fun and games commence!



There we were at cooking school again, at Tamarind's magnificent outdoor kitchen, overlooking a tranquil lilly pond. Idyllic. We had spent the morning wandering through the grand markets, touching, smelling and looking, and now we were about to put it into practice.



Close call - Mok, Buffalo Larb, Stuffed Lemongrass


Stuffed lemongrass. How you may ask? With care and a very small knife. It is quite spectacular. Buffalo Larb, easy on the bile. And then the pièce de résistance, Mok — it's Lao for steamed marinated fish in banana leaf.

There I was walking along the prep bench watching everyone at work. Have you ever seen Jenni in the kitchen? It is quite something — she makes Jamie Oliver look dull by comparison. I was standing on a large green pad observing Jenni, mesmerised. The next thing you know, with one hand she is deftly plopping a mound of smelly marinated fish on me, while with the other she is helping Doug prepare his meal — as I said she is amazing to watch, but sometimes she gets distracted. Then, before I even have time to come up for air, my green platform is being whipped up from under me and I am being folded like origami. I am trapped in some sort of green boat, tied together with bamboo string, and I realise then rather stupidly I was standing on the banana leaf, and my boat, rather unfortunately for me, is a steamer. So this is how it ends, I think, steamed up and served for lunch?

Fortunately Jenni is no longer distracted and as we take the long slow last walk over to the hot coals which I can glimpse glowing in the distance, Jenni exclaims, “My silk, my brown silk scarf. What's it doing in there?” Which gives rise to the question, exactly how many scarves did Jenny purchase?

Doug pips in, “Yuk,” looking over Jenni's shoulder. Yuk — Lao for steamed marinated fish and alpaca in banana leaf. His knowledge of Lao is amazing.

Gill and Paul take a peek and both shout anxiously, just as I am about to be dropped over hot coals. “That's not a scarf, that's Al.”

And I am saved. Smelling fishy, but saved.

Beiha and Ian are still rewrapping their banana leaves for the third time, none the wiser.

The food was delicious. Paul got stuck into the Mok proclaiming it to be the best ever and then a few hours later, looking ashen-faced, became very active, sprinting off to the bathroom faster than Bolt. Nothing a few Imodium won't fix.

Shane arrived, out-shopped the girls (quite a feat) and helped us all explore Luang Prubang. We did so much; morning alms with the monks, traversed the bamboo bridge, ate a LOT and generally had a great time. It will be sad to leave Luang Prubang.

Morning alms with the monks


No eye contact if you are a woman


Friday, our last day in LP was a real up and down day — and by up and down I mean hills. Most of us cycled up to the waterfall; some of us went by tuk-tuk (Jenni and Paul). We waved at the rescued black bears before plunging into the cool pool below the falls, invigorated.




Onward to Kasi.

18 Jun 2013

Picture yourself …

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For those of you who couldn't be here:

Picture yourself flying high above the clouds in a noisy twin-prop. The airplane descends, jagged mountains on either side, dense green tropical forest. Incredibly beautiful.



Picture yourself in a sauna. You have overstayed your session, you are drained and sweating from every pore. You decide to stay a little longer. You are shedding weight by the minute. You exit the sauna and just for the fun of it decide to wrap yourself in cling wrap. Poke a couple of holes so you can breathe. Then go for a walk. There is an old iron bridge, and stuck to its sides, almost as an afterthought is the pedestrian gangway — three or four narrow planks. Through the gaps in the planks a murky river flows some fifty metres below. You test each plank to see if it is secure and step across with trepidation, your hands never leaving the rickety barrier.



When you get to the other side you breath a sigh of relief. You continue walking. There is a temple at every corner, or so it seems. More golden Buddhas. Monks of all ages in their traditional garb — a sea of orange and brown. The cling wrap is uncomfortable and underneath it you are liquid. You stumble upon a long narrow market street and gawp at the multitude of vegetables and foods the likes of which you have never seen before. You step past the roasted river rat on a skewer to admire the handiwork of local artisans. The cling wrap clings uncomfortably. It is a beautiful town. French colonial architecture — east meets west.



You walk along the road that looks down over the murky brown Mekong. It is flowing fast. Men cast nets. Boats rush by. You should feel cool with all this flowing water, but you don't. You are melting.

You stop in a small riverside bar and order a refreshing fruit juice. Pineapple and banana, chilled … so cold it hurts your head to drink it. For a few minutes you are relieved, replenished, taking in the view. Then you get up to pay the bill. The shrink wrap tightens. You want to tear off every piece of clothing. The creases of skin at your elbows and knees feel disgusting, grand repositories for sweat. It has started all over again.

Picture yourself in Luang Prubang in Laos. Welcome.