The Road to Pai

I bumped into Pete last night, a fella I’ve seen several times on the Laos circuit. Of course we went for a beer, a disaster waiting to happen. We ended up in some club called Bubbles, then at a night stall serving beer until who knows what time. I woke at 11am with my bus leaving at 12:30, but still made it, including returning the motorbike with only a few near-misses on the way. Halfway along the route to Pai I see Pete on the roadside who was also travelling to Pai on a dirtbike. Now I’ve just bumped into him again in town, he says it was a nightmare with the hangover he had. So of course, tonight we’re going for a beer…

Pai appears to be a very pleasant little town, I’ve got myself an A frame cottage on the riverside in a nice, leafy guesthouse complex. Time for a massage and to find some breakfast (not bad going, as it’s 19:40 at the moment)

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Wat Pra That

Fish and chips became steak and chips but at least the idea was sound. My Honda Dream sputtered to the top of Doi Suthep today, at 1676 metres the tallest place around here. Perched right on the top is Wat Pra That, giving an impressive overlook of the city. You’re supposed to pay 30 baht to go in (foreigners only) but “somehow” I sneaked in a side entrance without paying. It’s a bit of a con on the part of the monks if you ask me, and they insist that you cover you arms and legs whilst they’re allowed to parade around wearing only a sheet that they accidentally washed with granny’s red cardigan, so sod ’em.

The waterfall people wanted 200 baht so I snorted in disgust and sped off. You can buy 5.714285 large bottles of Chang for that money! Tomorrow I’ll leave for Pai, working my way around and back here in time for a train I’ve booked to Bangkok on 10th Oct.

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No Porn Here Please

There’s a fantastic sign on the monitor in here – “Don’t open naked web too much. It will make every computer slow”. Pure class…

I hit a few too many Chang beers last night which has wiped out today, having woken at 9:30 with the TV and lights on (again) so tomorrow I’ll probably go and check out the waterfalls near here, then leave town the next day, first to Pai I expect.

I’ve discovered that the cables on my TV are long enough to reach it out to my veranda, so that is my appointment for this evening after I’ve sated the craving I have today for fish and chips!

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Chiang Mai

After a nice smooth flight yesterday I am back in the land of the ladyboy, in Chiang Mai to be precise, and what a great city it appears to be! It’s nice to be back in civilisation after the last couple of weeks I have to say, with a nice comfy bed instead of sleeping on a board, nice quiet aircon instead of a 4:30am cockerel rude awakening, and TV with movie channels. I’m such a spoilt brat! I’ve found a great place to stay right in the centre of town, but it’s in a courtyard setting and so nice and quiet with a veranda to sit on whilst sipping your Chang beer and reading the paper. This internet place has a massage parlour upstairs, you pay 100 baht for a one-hour Thai massage and get one hour internet free, now that’s what I call a good deal!

I think I’ve set my final itinerary now, I’ll spend another day or two here, then make a fairly stress-free loop to the north west of here through some remote tribal areas for trekking and scenery and so on, return here for a few more days then head down to Pattaya for the final few days of sleaze before returning home. The night train from here connects nicely with the Pattaya train from Bangkok and the return train nicely with the flight, so by doing this I can avoid having to spend more time in Bangkok.

Now to go and find out what entertainment there is on offer here…

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Kuang Si Waterfall

I made my way to Kuang Si waterfall yesterday, a very beautiful spot indeed with an equally beautiful fall. Here you can hike up one side of the waterfall, with various diversions en route allowing you to stand on ledges within the fall itself. Signs warn you not to slip and fall in. Once at the top you can walk across the top of the fall itself, hanging on to the twigs nailed to trees forming handrails right on the crest. You can gingerly lean over these and look down the fall itself! Then you can scramble down the other side again, and at the bottom you can wade into the knee-deep pool at the base, attempting to get as close to the water as possible. You can only get within about 20 feet as then the spray and wind from the gushing water are so great you can’t physically get any nearer and it feels like you’re standing in a force 11 storm.

From my best estimation my guesthouse here was the 100th place of accommodation for me on the trip so far! Now I’m leaving in a few hours now for Chiang Mai, meanwhile to work out how to run down my pile of worthless Kip before I leave – no money changer in or out of the country will change them to anything else. A few beers by the river seems like the best option.

A Buddhist monk with all the gear on just stopped by to ask me how to spell “abroad”. There are a load of them in here at the moment, doing their English homework presumably!

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Muang Ngoi Neua

Amazingly the Nong Khiaw bus was only 30 minutes late and remarkably smooth, and I connected with a boat to Muang Ngoi Neua very quickly as well. The latter is a river village, isolated but for the river, with no roads, electricity, telephones or internet cafes! But it was beautiful and I stayed 3 nights in the end in a cabin literally on the riverbank, for about 45p a night. There were 4 cabins in the guesthouse but mine was numbered 6, one night we asked Mama why this was and she explained that the other two are probably in Cambodia or Vietnam by now, since the wet season has sent them on their way down the Mekong! You walk from one end of the village to the other in five minutes and quickly get to know the other 15 or so travellers in town at any one time. I mostly hung out with the Italian brother and sister and German guy that arrived on the same boat as me.

One day we hiked to a cave, an adventure in itself as you’re nearly up to your knees in mud at some points. Nice cave though, you wade in above your waist to a point where it gets too deep and you can only look back in to the gloomy distance with your torchlight. Beyond this was a second cave down an even worse path, myself and Pascal tried to find it in vein, Pascal losing a shoe in the mud for a while. He found it, only later to let it float off down the river. On the path you meet locals from other nearby villages carrying veg and produce – these paths are their ONLY way to get around! Next day we chartered a boat to a point on the river where you then trek for an hour through beautiful scenery to a cascaded waterfall, lovely to sit in for 5 minutes before you freeze your nads off.

Other than that it was very much a chilling place, enjoying Mama’s cooking (she has a menu but there’s not much need – the only meat they have depends on which animal they killed that day) and Beerlao aplenty. This was necessary to try and stay asleep beyond 4:30 am when the pigs, cockerels, cats on heat etc. start realising that day is going to break, but was not really successful. Yesterday I headed back to Luang Prabang, another fairly easy journey except this time it was in the back of a sometimes rammed pickup truck (with the obligatory chickens and ducks under your feet). Today’s been lazy, just checking out the palace here and a couple of the Wats up on a hill overlooking town.

I’ve booked a flight to Chiang Mai with Lao Aviation on Sunday, lucky it goes that day as my Laos visa expires then. In the travel agent whilst waiting I idly watch the film playing on the PC of the bloke serving me. He catches me looking and says he enjoys a good blockbuster. I mention Hollywood and he asks me what it means – he’s heard of it but no idea what it actually is. I explained to him that it was a region of LA where the film studios are and lots of stars live, etc. etc. He was fascinated by this and it brings home what a different planet people live on out here really.

Tomorrow I’m aiming to find some waterfalls a little way out of town and then hit the fabulous night markets here, it’s about time to start buying useless presents for people. Any special requests should be filed before tomorrow 🙂

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Plain of Jars

As I half expected things did work out the next day. With a little effort I found the other handful of Westerners that were in town that day, and the one guesthouse that was running a trip. The Plain of Jars is a fair spectacle, not least because of the lines of pegs that mark the path you have to stay to in order to keep away from the unexploded bombs! They are still clearing the area, 30 years or more after the mines and bombs were laid, and each day they go out they find an average of two pieces. The Jars are these huge sandstone vessels created up to 4,000 years ago and nobody knows why. The largest weighs 6 tons. We also got taken to a yard where all the collected artillery and plane parts etc. are piled up just like a car scrap yard, with a team of people sifting through everything trying to defuse anything that needs defusing before reclaiming the metals. Finally we went to a village which has a lot of buildings constructed partly from cluster bomb shells and so on, one place has a soup ladle made from the fuselage of an American bomber plane.

That night some of us were having dinner and watched a pick up truck glide gently into a ditch right outside the restaurant. Luckily for me my food just arrived then, but the others went out and spent a good 15 minutes trying to push him out. It was being driven by a 16 year old boy, who was pissed as a fart, as soon as they got him out he rolled backwards, very slowly for 20 yards before reversing into another ditch. Fortunately he got himself out of that one and moved on, but I doubt how far he got!

Today I’ve headed over to Luang Prabang, a colonial style town with a lot to see and do. The journey here was hell to say the least, first our bus stops at some kind of checkpoint for about an hour, we’ve no idea why. Then after hours of winding mountains and ascents and descents up to 2000 metres or so, we get to within 25 Km of the destination when a tyre blows. The driver jacks up the bus and removes the 6 nuts holding the wheel on (from the 8 that there should have been!) and gets down the spare. The spare had no tread whatsoever and an 8-inch gash in the sidewall, right through to the innertube, but somehow it stayed intact long enough to get us there.

Riding in a tuk tuk from the bus station into town though, things took a grim turn for the worse. I almost wasn’t going to blog this, but well it happened so… We stop behind some stationary vehicles, and looking ahead see a body in the road with the brain just beside it, only about 10 yards in front of us behind about 3 vehicles, so it must have happened within a minute of us getting there. About another minute later some people drag the body from the road out of the way, without waiting for the police or anything of course, and we carry on. Our tuk tuk wheel (as did all the vehicles I think) goes straight over the brain which they left in the road, for sure one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Many of the locals standing at the scene were laughing and joking which was quite remarkable, but I think they just don’t value life all that much out here. Our driver told us he’d been on a motorbike and we think hit a tuk tuk or car.

Tomorrow morning I’ll probably push straight on up north to Nong Khiaw and spend two or three days before heading back to Luang Prabang to see it properly before flying to Thailand.

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Arrived in Phonsavan, a journey not without incident as we were hit by an overtaking lorry. The damage seemed to be limited to the driver’s side window, panels and mirror etc, but it cost us half an hour at least in time whilst the drivers argued about it. Now I’m here it seems awfully dead at the moment, so am off now to see if I can actually find a cheap-ish way to get to the Plain of Jars, the main attraction of the area.

Otherwise I might be going back to Vang Vieng at this rate! Let’s see what daylight tomorrow brings…

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Caves and Candles

It’s been a fantastic couple of days here – yesterday I took a bike to a cave, first you have to cross the river on a canoe thing with a longtail engine, it’s only about a foot wide so you have to balance the bike precariously across it to make the passage. The other way came a canoe with a dead pig in it, which was so heavy that is was nearly sinking, the driver having to bail out continuously as the water poured in.. On the other side you cycle for a few miles on these dirt track excuses for roads, at some places your cycling through 18 inches or so of water for 50 yard stretches. When you finally get there it’s well worth it though, you scramble up a cliff to the cave where inside is a huge lying Buddha for some strange reason. After I fought my way back through the cave with my trusty torch you enter an enormous cavern, so large that the torch cannot illuminate the other side or barely even the roof, so very hard to say how big exactly.

Just outside the cave (called Tham Phu Kham) is a stream with a tree leaning out across it. You climb the tree and leap from about 20 feet into the water, which a few of us were doing. It’s hard to make the jump of course, but it’s helped by the biting ants all over the launching branch which tend not to make you hang around for too long. A few of us did this, including some of the 500,000 Israelis that seem to be in this country. Some of us then went back to town and hired some tractor inner tubes and a tuk-tuk to take us up river a few miles. The driver deserts you and you jump in with your tube (and beer of course) and float back down to town. After making a few refreshment and jumping stops, we got back in darkness and couldn’t even find how to get out of the water, we all lost each other and ended up landing in different places. After half an hour or so we all ended up back at the rental place in one piece.

Then we foolishly went out until 5:30 which was a shame as I had to be up at 7:30 for today’s kayaking tour. However after the first few capsizes I was vaguely with it. We stopped at another cave, they put you in innertubes and you float into the opening which is about 6 inches higher than the water and 2 feet wide, float inside for some time and then abandon the tubes and crawl, swim and slide further into the system. It’s completely dark of course, but that’s perfectly OK as they gave us each a candle. Have you ever tried swimming with a lighted candle and kept it alight??? We got out of there after what felt like hours, tried to work out if we’d still got today’s batch of Israelis, then made a couple more stops for yet more jumping from absurdly high platforms before dropping us conveniently beside my guest house.

Leaving tomorrow morning for Phonsavan – the guidebook says they should have 24-hour electricity there by now, and maybe even an internet cafe!

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Vang Vieng

Have arrived in Vang Vieng, a sleepy little town but getting quite a bit of tourism industry these days. I’ve taken a cabin down on the riverside which is alarmingly high and fast flowing, I hope it doesn’t rain too much and get too much higher or I’ll be needing a new set of clothes. The otherside of the river are some very striking mountains, in which are all sorts of limestone caves to explore and waterfalls and so on.

The other night I had a somewhat surreal experience whilst channel flicking – I suddenly recognised my old office, the Adelphi Building in a film. It turns out was a scene from Killing Me Softly starring Joseph Fiennes and Heather Graham, in fact I recall being there when it was filmed but didn’t take much notice at the time. A few months ago I met a guy in a canoe in the Amazon river who knows the software we produced, and now I see the office on the TV. Someone must be trying to tell me something!

Off to try and find a restaurant with the aid of my torch that I just fixed with a paperclip. They don’t really believe in street lighting in these parts.

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