Phnom Penh; Mightier than the Sword

My introduction to the city of Phnom Penh is much like every other introduction has been during my time in South East Asia, whizzing by in a clapped out old bus…followed by a clapped out old shoddily-negotiated tuk tuk. This time I am arriving from Sihanoukville on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand with (increasingly ill) travel buddy Buffie.

We check in at Eighty8 hostel which touts itself at the ‘flashpacker’ market, those willing to pay an extra dollar or two for increased luxury. After the rat infested beachfront pad on Koh Rong, we feel we owe it to ourselves. This is the glamour to which we have not become accustomed.

P1000788 P1000787 P1000786

Named after the street it is on, it’s in the north-east of the city around 5 minutes walk from Sisowath Quay where the boats arrive from Siem Reap. So exploration starts with a long walk through the city from north to southern tip.

Wat Phnom is the first item on the agenda. It’s the hilltop sanctuary from which the city takes its name. Cambodian legend has it that a wealthy widow called Daun Penh (try saying it without thinking of Sean Penn) found five bronze and stone Buddha statues in 1372 during a walk along the Tonle Sap river. As a mark of respect, she built a sanctuary on the top of a hill to house them. It became known as Phnom Penh, translating as the hill of Penh. Over time, it became the shorthand for the city that sprung up around it.

P1000522

With $1.50 ticket in hand, I ascend the stunning naga staircase passing bronze carvings of battle scenes and Apsaras dancing, replicated to look like those at Angkor Wat.

P1000525 P1000523P1000530

The sanctuary, or vihara, at the top was rebuilt in 1926 and little of the original building remains but it is very close to the heart of the population here, so it’s worth spending some time at the summit surveying the city or cross-legged in meditation inside the Wat itself.

P1000561

P1000563P1000566

The inside is beautiful, vibrant and colourful.

P1000532P1000535P1000538

Behind it, a stupa has been built to honour Daun Penh.

P1000542

Not unlike neighbouring Laos, the Cambodian people also release birds from cages at the top of the hill to invite fortune and good health.

P1000568

P1000527

Offerings are left inside the wat for the statue of Buddha; some of food and some of local currency the Riel.

P1000547

Continuing south, at the crossing of Sihanouk and Norodom Boulevards, I see the Independence monument which has the dual role of commemorating independence from the French in 1953 but also stands as a cenotaph to those who have died in war.

P1000574

On display around it are the riches of various parliamentary buildings, in stark contrast to the poverty I’ve seen elsewhere in the country.

P1000586 P1000578

I swing into Mali’s for lunch and a couple of Kingdom beers on nearby Norodom Boulevard. It’s a grand spot, if a little formal.

P1000585

After lunch, I set my internal compass for Psar Toul Tom Poung (the Russian Market) but I seem to be following a slightly fraudulent map. I’m still walking 90 minutes later…but many of the sites along the way have kept me in good humour.

P1000520P1000580

Despite this, I swiftly come to learn two key facts about Phnom Penh:

1) It is nigh on impossible to cross the road. You’ll find many of your restaurant/shop/sightseeing decisions are led by this.

2) As a visitor, you’ll be offered a moto taxi or tuk tuk approximately three times per minute. It’s not at all irritating.

Eventually, (273rd time’s a charm) I grab a moto taxi to the Russian Market, so-called as all the goods would have originated from there, Russia being the only country to provide aid during the Vietnamese occupation. Browsing through the ramshackle tarpaulin-covered market, I find it’s the usual miss mash of textiles, hand-carved artefacts…and knock off electronics. Dr Dre was kind enough to reduce his speakers to a mere $3 here. What a philanthropic gent.

P1000593 P1000591P1000592

But there’s no show without punch…

P1000590

Back into the tuk tuk

P1000600

and (via the petrol station) I’m headed north again.

P1000602

Street number 240, just behind the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, is where you’ll find the craft boutiques and book shops. After a browse at D’s Books on 240 and Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard, I bag a copy of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’ before scooting back to the hostel to scoop up a much less peaky Buffie.

We head out to Bopha Phnom Penh, a beautiful outdoor restaurant on Sisowath Quay.

P1000617

Despite this being the site of our initial hoodwinking when we first arrived in Phnom Penh ($5 to tuk tuk 25 steps) we still manage to enjoy the lights twinkling on the Tonle Sap river and the Apsara dancers defying the laws of joint capability.

P1000616

They accompany our Fish Amok curry washed down with a house speciality cocktail made with their local spirit. Game.

P1000610

We dart across to the Flicks 2 on 136 which is a comfy, cozy cinema that regularly screens movie The Killing Fields.

P1000619

It seems a fitting way to mark visiting Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) the day before (see previous post.)

The next day, we swing by Friends which is a not-for-profit cafe that supports the training of young chefs and servers in the hospitality industry.

P1000751 P1000748

There is so much to compute at the end of our trip to Cambodia. We do so with outstanding falafel burgers and raspberry rum cocktails.

P1000747 P1000745

Afterwards, we cross to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club to watch the world go by below.

P1000753P1000758

And I watch my final sunset over the Mekong (on this trip at least.) It’s how this trip started back in Ventiane so it seems right and proper to end it that way.

P1000765

The last supper is Pad Thai alongside numerous Pina Coladas and Angkor beers.

The next morning, we trip out to Psar Thmei (the central market) to pick up some gifts to take home. It is much more glamourous than the Russian market, housed in an actual hall with art deco arches stretched above.

P1000784

The art of the oversell is not lost here, and it is a fittingly frenetic final experience for my time in Cambodia.

To balance things out, we head out to the local Wat and are blessed by Buddhist monks. We are ceremoniously soaked by litres of water thrown over us as the monk chants his blessing.

P1000770

It’s a strange sensation, but there is certainly something very  peaceful about it. Blessed, and soaked, we tuk tuk back so I can pack for the flight home to London.

You might remember that when I embarked on this trip, it was after a fairly grim few months. South East Asia has helped me draw a line under that, with aplomb.

My tuk tuk ride to the airport is insanity personified, and with joy in my heart and tears in my eyes, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

And the soundtrack was:

Arcade Fire ‘Afterlife’

The Antlers ‘Familiars’

Him Sophy ‘A Memory From Darkness’

Sufjan Stevens ‘Seven Swans’

Midlake ‘Antiphon’

Edison Lighthouse ‘Love Grows’

 

Advertisements

Cash cow corruption and other stories

Now, I love a land border as much as the next backpacker and I’ve crossed a fair few in my time with my trusty Berghaus Jalan. But the circus that is the border from Laos to Cambodia really takes the biscuit. As I edge closer to it, I’m told ghastly stories from those who have survived the experience; their wallets lighter, their spirits damper, their human rights affronted.

Buying a bus ticket from my departure point on Lao island Don Det to Cambodia’s Siem Reap is certainly an early indicator to the veracity of the stories. There is the option on sale; the gruelling route via Phnom Penh, advertised at 14 hours…actually 30 hours of the roughest road Cambodia has to offer. Then, there is the route which goes direct from Stung Treng to Siem Reap cutting out the stop at the capital and 20 hours of travel. But this option is spoken about in hallowed tones and hushed voices…and it isn’t on sale anywhere.

At one of the main travel vendors on the island, I ask about it and I’m told in whispers that it can be arranged but I’ll need to closely follow a script and admit to nobody that I am going this route. Apparently the roads are new and ungoverned, and as such run by dubious money hungry locals. All I gotta do is hand over the cash…so far, so dodgy.

The vendor is edgy, shout and as far as I’m concerned untrustworthy. Unluckily for me, he owns every smaller travel provider on the island so my attempts to circumvent him are thwarted. But I do buy through a hostel-recommended vendor, the Souksan Hotel on the northern tip of the island, which is about the closest I’m going to get to peace of mind.

We boat to the mainland the next morning where our guide offers to “arrange the visas” for $30 all in. The visa costs $20, plus I want to see this corruption first hand so I politely decline.

At the Laos exit, a bejewelled immigration officer demands $2 in return for an exit stamp. No problem, but I’ll need a receipt please sir…you see I am a travel writer. It’s a weak effort, but an effort nonetheless. The result is him withholding the exit stamp until I pay up…which I do.

Wandering through no man’s land, I’m stopped for a ‘health check’ where I have to fill out a document essentially asking if I have a temperature. Another $2 is demanded at this stage. Given they’re unlikely to be qualified doctors and I filled out the form myself, I politely decline. I’ve broken a sweat by this point because I’m quite the rule follower at home.

The real fun begins at the Cambodian entry point. A large sign suggests that the visa costs $20 and the entry stamp costs an additional $5. Sure, because that’s legal. In front of me, a group of French and Spanish are attempting to pay the actual shelf price of $20 but the immigration officer, covered in gold rings and wearing Ray Bans, rips up their forms and throws their money aggressively back in their faces screaming that they’ll simply be denied entry. Call me chicken, but it’s actually a rather terrifying show, and one I don’t want a bit part in as a young woman travelling alone. The principle is despicable, but the cost is less than a half pint of lager…so I make a decision to err on the side of safety and pay the man.

Of course, the French and Spanish group are booked on the same bus…so we still have to wait the two hours while they argue the toss. The bus is oversold too, so I share one seat with a French film production student for the next 7 hours, a journey broken only by a two-hour puncture. The resource-strapped driver doesn’t have a spare, so he borrows a moped from a nearby house and scoots off to get the burst tire repaired while we sit on the roadside in 34 degree heat sipping warm water.

But at the end of the day, which is when we finally arrive in Siem Reap 13 hours later and are eventually refunded half of our bus ticket, I remind myself that I am in a new country for the very first time…and there isn’t a journey that could dampen that feeling. Hello Cambodia.

And the soundtrack was:

The Clash ‘I Fought The Law’
We Are Scientist ‘Cash Cow’
Neil Young ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’
Bob Marley ‘Get up, Stand up’
Public Enemy ‘Fight the Power’

Tha Khaek to Si Phan Don

After another hugely entertaining bus journey, this time from Phonsavan (via Paksan) to Tha Khaek a burgeoning town on the east bank of the Mekong river. Its literal translation is ‘guest landing’, thought to be a nod to its original role as a stopping point on the river for foreign traders passing through with their wares.

There are multiple selling points for this stunning beautiful central region of Laos, but it is also fair to say that there are two lead reasons that time-poor backpackers swing their rucksacks through this town. The first is to merrily motorcycle ‘The Loop’, a three day off road experience round a circuit of the more remote parts of Khammuan and Bolikhamsai provinces. The second is to spend a day’s merry motorboating through Tham Kong Lo, a 7km long cave through a limestone mountain in the nearby Phu Hin Bun national park.

Unfortunately, I am one of those time-poor backpackers so it is Tham Kong Lo that draws me here to Tha Khaek. As we exit the bus, there are quite a few of us headed towards the most popular budget choice in the area, a hostel called The Travel Lodge. Our game driver packs up the heavily laden tuk tuk, and deposits us (two Swiss, two Americans, one English and the standard solus Scot) at the hostel.

The Travel Lodge is to Laos hostels what, well, Travelodge is to UK hotels…basic, wildly overpriced for its standards and vaguely uncomfortable. Thankfully for me, nobody has a booking…and I watch politely as everyone else checks in to the available rooms. By the time myself and travel buddy Jackie get to the front…there is only one room in the Lodge rather than the hostel, which is finished to a significantly higher standard, ant free and positioned round a little courtyard about 100 metres along the pathway. It is still only 12 pounds like…but it feels like walking into Malmaison. Result. Having been poorly for a day or so back in Phonsavan, this is the (relative) luxury I have been craving.

The next day, after a momentous sleep, we wave our compadres off on their dollar-a-day rented motorbikes to do ‘The Loop’, equipped with minimal safety features and maximal smiles. I’ll admit to a sharp pang of jealousy and a subsequent internal vow to return one day with ‘The Loop’ in my sights.

For now, it’s time to explore the small, sleepily relaxed town. Franco-Chinese architecture and tall trees line the streets all the way to the riverside, its natural centre, which is a pleasant 1.5km walk from the hostel.

P1070008

P1070010

Again, the sun here disappears into the haze before it hits the horizon. Yet it is still a sight beautiful enough to stop the locals in their tracks.

P1070005

We bump into two travel pals from the bus, Spanish Berna and French Audrey who teach English in Beijing, and settle into Inthira for a beef and cashew stir fry with sticky rice. We tried for a sundowner by the river, but approximately 6,000 large river flies had the same idea so we escaped inland.

P1070011

It is here where our story saddens. Fans of Same Small World (both of you) will know that I’ve never had the greatest luck with cameras whilst travelling. My blog post from the stunning Galapagos Islands was cut short by the introduction of an impertinent wave to my unsuspecting camera. This time, here in Laos, the unfortunate meeting was between a large pothole in a Tha Khaek road and the wheel of the tuk tuk ferrying us home. It set off a chain of events including my open bag being airborne for less than a second, choosing to execute a mid-air spin and landing indelicately, contents first, on the floor of the tuk tuk.

The camera doesn’t make it through the night, and I contemplate the onerous thought of a dearth of beautiful images to reflect on after this trip.

The next day, Jackie and I head out to Tham Kong Lo with Brit brothers Sam and Harry and students Shoya and Maren from Japan and Germany respectively. Lucky for me, Maren is something of a photography whizz and kindly offers to share her shots with me. So you can thank her for the following contributions.

Having spent many an hour staring out the window at the Laos scenery, the sights which await us en route to the cave are the standard to which we’ve become accustomed. Gothic mountains darkly preside over verdant landscapes below. But when we reach the monolithic mountain that hides the cave itself, a beauty not yet seen starts to reveal itself.

P1020046

We’re kitted out with headlamps and wisely relieved of electronic devices, then we meander through the rock paths to the mouth of the cave.

P1020067

With boatmen at the top and tail of out motorised longboats, we set off into the cave which is 7km long and up to 100 metres at its widest point. Its a natural wonder which meanders nonchalantly through the karst limestone mountain, its vastness revealing glittering stalagmites and veiny walls.

P1020064

P1020052

There are several lighting projects within the cave, mostly funded by New Zealand according to the signage. But much of it naturally attacks the senses, low lighting adding to the majesty and curved stonework which sonically turns our engine into a chopper at fleeting points.

We alight at various points for further investigation or to outfox the water, especially at the effusive Muang Houng rapids. Slowly, we start to emerge into the sun.

P1020053

P1020055

P1020056

We’re greeted by bathing water buffalo.

P1020058

P1020061

There is time for a swift Beerlao on the riverbank before we volte-face and take the return leg of the 90 minute journey.

P1020066

We all cool down with a dip in the clear pool at the base of the cliff, before snoozing all the way home.

P1020068

P1020069

Starved after all of the excitement, we pile out to the riverside and spot a nameless but bustling Thai restaurant just around the corner from Inthira. It is utterly ace, take a left exiting Inthira then the first left and it is four doors up. Green curry, sticky rice and Beerlao cap off a very respectable day of misadventuring.

Here in Tha Khaek, it’s time to bid Jackie farewell as she travels onwards to Vietnam and I catch another bus to Pakse then (four hour) tuk tuk to Ban Nakasang on the banks of the Mekong. Here nestles Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) just a hop, skip and a jump from the Cambodian border.

It’s a long and laborious journey on a dusty road. When we arrive at the shanty port town under cover of darkness, it is closed and there are no scheduled boats. Of course, everything in Laos is available for a price. Before long the tuk tuk driver is hollering through the window of a house calling out a boatman to take us the twenty minute scoot across to Don Det. We glide noiselessly across the Mekong under the pale moon light – it was a pretty special way to arrive. Before long I’m checked into Little Eden on the Northern tip of the island and sound asleep having suffered my last bus journey on this side of the border.

Whilst there is much to explore in and around the islands, two of the favoured pastimes by backpackers here are floating down the Mekong in a rubber ring and enjoying pizzas and milkshakes with ‘happy’ added as a precursor. Contrary to popular belief, this is not because Pharrell Williams wrote his critically acclaimed chart-topping and mind-numbing hit here, but instead denotes the addition of cannabis. Many backpackers do these activities together, creating the kind of sunburn that only an utter imbecile would inflict on themselves.

The unfortunate by-product of this, is that there ain’t much authentic about this paradise. You’ll be lucky to find a word written in Laos or a two yard walk where you won’t be touted at. It becomes abundantly clear that one man runs almost every business on the island, from bike rental to stoner cinema and everything in between.

Cannabis has never been my drug (I’m much more of an Ayahuasca girl…) But thankfully, there is plenty to see if you hire a bike for the day from Mr Mo’s and head on over to neighbouring Don Khon. Cycle down Sunrise Street (one of two only roads, both pedestrian, the other predictably named Sunset Street) until you hit the bridge on the left, for which you’ll need to pay for crossing but the fee includes entry to the Khon Phapheng waterfalls to the south of Don Khon.

After a hot hour-long cycle down a road named Rocky Shadeless Road (I jest ye not) you loop round to the falls which are just about the most aggressive I have ever seen. I take shelter in the wooden mushroom huts set out over the water, called the Oasis, and read to the thunderous beat of the water before cycling back to base. The views have been really wondrous, but I can take or leave the ‘spring break’ vibe. I fall in with Lasse, a German backpacker, just about the only other voice of sanity on the island. Together we hit the culinary high notes of Don Det including the ridiculously tasty Pumpkin Burger at Mr B’s Sunset View (not to mention their stunning Lao Mojitos), and find ourselves to be ‘happy’ enough with the milkshakes.

Next stop Cambodia. Keep the faith readers, I will have photography by then…

And the soundtrack was:

Biffy Clyro ‘Opposites’
Editors ‘The Weight of your Love’
Woodkid ‘The Golden Age’
Teenage Fanclub ‘Songs from Northern Britain’
Roots Manuva ‘Run Come Save Me’
Rodriguez ‘Cold Fact’
Ohios ‘Faceless’

Northeast Laos; The caves of Vieng Xai

The next stage of my journey sees me steer a little further from the well worn backpacker track. Drawn by the lure of Vieng Xai’s caves in the far northeast of landlocked Laos, I’m headed to it’s nearest neighbour Xam Neua which is a mere fourteen hour bus trip from former royal capital Luang Prabang.

The journey is a variation on a theme which is emblematic of my time in Laos thus far. The decrepit old bus crawls along the mountain roads at a gruelling 40 mph. Hairpin bends punctuate our ascent sending me bouncing left and right sharply on my seat. It’s all too much for the locals in places, and the conductor hands out plastic bags for travel sickness which are promptly filled and thrown out of the window into the cavernous verdant woodland below us.

The landscape is utterly beautiful here, but at each turn a glance down into the ravine is rewarded with the deposited loads of garbage trucks below. There isn’t an infrastructure in place that can cope with the country’s waste due to pockets of extreme poverty in Laos. Clearly there are higher priorities for local funds. But it does make me so sad to think that education of responsible waste is so non-existent that it is ruining the country’s rugged natural beauty – the very rugged beauty that brings so many travellers and their much needed dollars here.

Another shock to the system are the toilet stops, my options are either a) don’t go to the toilet or b) use the roadside. I don’t fancy applying the ‘when in Rome’ mantra here and circumvent the issue by near dehydration. We do however stop for food; me and my travel buddy Jackie (who has joined me for this leg of the trip after our hang time in Luang Prabang) buy bags of sticky rice to keep us going on the last leg. The lowlights were plentiful but the highlight was the drive over the bridge at Nong Khiaw in the Muang Ngoi district where you have the chance to gasp at the languid Nam Ou river below.

We arrive in Xam Neua just before midnight exhausted by the trip, then negotiate the classic tuk tuk driver issues at the bus station. Y’know, they commit to take you to the guest house you’ve booked, you agree a sensible price…then you’re taken to their mate’s guest house instead. Fairly straight forward stuff. After the jiggery pokery, and two failed attempts, we finally check in to the Hotel Samneua in the town centre which is rather grand looking and ornate from the outside and rather comfortable on the inside. Needless to say that sleep comes easily…

We venture out into the town foraging for breakfast the next morning, and find a very pretty industrious town set against yet more of those eye-catching karst limestone mountains.

Image

Image

It feels like it is probably the laborious journey to get here that makes it Laos’s least-visited provincial capital. It’s a logical transit point for Vieng Xai, and the very reason that we have ventured here so we hop in a tuk tuk (this one complete with souped up stereo) for the 60 minute journey.

Image

The area here is truly fascinating, but as much for what we can’t see as what we can. The mountains hold the secrets of a vast network of caves to which nationalist movement the Lao Patriotic Front, eventually known as the Pathet Lao, fled in 1964 to shelter from the bombs that were falling on Laos.

Image

Global politics changed dramatically after the second world war, and were broadly defined by anti-colonialism and the Cold War. Both of these ideologies had their own profound effect on Laos.

It was formerly part of French Indochina, a colonial empire since 1893, along with nearby neighbours Vietnam and Cambodia. When that was formally disbanded in 1954, many political activists in the country began a movement toward independence.

The US feared that communist governments would add weight to the Soviet Union, their already formidable Cold War opponent. This was evidenced by the much publicised war they were waging in Vietnam. So, they started investing heavily in Laos and tried to write its role as that of a buffer between communist northern Vietnam and the rest of the region in South East Asia. To that end, they did everything from basing fighter planes there to undermining local elections.

At this time, Laos’s population was a meagre 1 million, predominantly farmers living in regions of the country that US money never reached. The corruption witnessed gave strength to the independence movement as they realised that they were no longer masters of their own destiny. Laos became an unfortunate victim of its own geography, and of the US’s paranoia, and a much more ‘secret war’ was fought for its control with the nationalist movement having to flee to these caves in the Vieng Xai province to protect themselves from the US bombings. For 9 years, this was the command centre for the resistance and thousands based themselves here, from where they ran their operation.

It was at this time that Laos picked up the dubious and since unmatched accolade of becoming the most bombed nation in history. I don’t think there could be a sadder or more surprising statistic.

From 1964 until 1973, over 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos. That’s two tons per person and at a cost to the US of $2 million dollars per day. A full head count of the dead could never be done due to the remoteness of the area and its weakened infrastructure, however 3,500 villages were destroyed and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes. Even now in 2014, this most unwelcome legacy continues to affect everyone in the country with unexploded ordnance (UXO) a real issue in the northern region.

Having been schooled in a western democracy, unsurprisingly I was never taught too much about the Second Indochina War, aka ‘Nam, the one that many would like to forget. So the scenes brought to life here by the wonderful Narrow Casters audio guide are news to me.

Our starting point of this network of 450 caves, which sheltered over 23,000 people, is the cave of President Kaysone Phomvihane. I have no idea what I expected, but I was stunned by the sophisticated set up. From the makeshift bathrooms and kitchens…

Image

…to the annex of bedrooms…

Image

 

…and the politburo meeting rooms where the country’s decisions were taken…

Image

 

…complete with original political paraphernalia.

Image

 

 

 

 

 

Image

 

 

Image

 

 

 

 

Image

 

All are linked by passages just like the one above, with stunning views out over the forest. Whilst you might feel exposed inside the caves, the outside reveals just how invisible you are once inside.

Image

President Phomvihane was born in 1920 to a civil servant father and a farmer mother. He studied at the University of Hanoi in Vietnam, which became a meeting place for like minded political activists. He was a very well educated man, speaking many languages including English, Vietnamese, French and Russian, and he brought his political ideals for an independent state back to Laos founding the Lao People’s Party in 1955, who would later come to be known as the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. They were to be at the core of the movement for over 20 years.

After a brief rest in the sun…

Image

…we tuk tuk onwards to the cave of Prince Souphanouvong, one of the founding fathers of the Pathet Lao. He was known as the ‘Red Prince’, born into royalty in Luang Prabang but turned visionary by the education he received at the University of Hanoi. Having spent a great deal of time in the company of Ho Chi Minh, he met Kaysone Phomhivane in 1950 and the building blocks of their movement were in place.

Here we are struck by the peacefulness and the beauty of the gardens that the Prince personally tended during their captivity. There is also a stupa dedicated to the life of his son which was taken by enemy agents. You can almost feel the swell of power that this anger must have given them.

Image

Image

<img id="i-10999" class="size-full wp-image"
Vivid descriptions from eye witnesses on the audio tour talk of US spotter planes flown by a group of pilots known as the Ravens, who were employed by a private company called Air America that ran a transport service throughout Southeast Asia. They delivered aid and ammunition to the US effort, carried spies and refugees and flew reconnaissance missions to identify air strike targets. If caught, they would not be publicly acknowledged by the forces that gave them their orders. It later turned out that those orders were given by the CIA who owned and operated Air America.

Throughout the region, the resourceful nature of the Laos people is on display with many bomb craters since being transformed into water troughs, swimming pools and cultural landmarks.

ImageImage

Finally, we end up at the cave of Khamtay Siphandone which also doubled as the headquarters of the movement, from which all communications were run. And by communications, I mean the daily newspaper and radio station they produced broadcasting to the network of 450 caves and throughout the country. I’m wonderfully mind-boggled by this…and by the impressive array of caves within here.

From the Xanglot cave, which was used for rallies, weddings, concerts and movie screenings…

Image

…complete with dressing room yo!

Image

It has, as does every cave in the network, an emergency room to make sure its occupants would be protected from chemical or nuclear attack…

Image

…with handpump installed to ensure that uncontaminated oxygen could be drawn into the room to keep them alive.

Image

 

The final stop on the tour is at the artillery cave, from which, after a climb, you can look out over the landscape from the spot the Pathet Lao used to scan the skies for enemy aircraft. It was one of the safest areas because it was situated at the top of the mountain (therefore no falling rocks or rubble could harm you) plus the area was loaded with anti-artillery guns that shot down US bombers.

Image

The rock formations are particularly beautiful up here…

Image

…and the still and rolling hills below set the unlikeliest of scenes for the pictures being described. 

Image

Image

 

A ceasefire came to pass in January 1973 at which point the Pathet Lao could leave the caves and move back into their desecrated villages to rebuild what was left of the country. It took nearly another three years for the complete independence of Laos and the abdication of the King. At this time, Phomvihane and Souphanouvong took lead roles in the government which continues to rule present day Laos.

This conflict, albeit secret at the time, has unmistakably shaped this nation. In 2008, a convention was signed in Oslo by 94 governments banning the use of cluster munitions and committing to help those nations contaminated by them. Notably, the US did not sign this convention.

There is plenty to think about on the way back to Xam Neua where we delve into our first Lao fondue experience! Having been recommended a restaurant called Mrs On’s BBQ, we settle down to the Lao speciality.

Image

A wrought iron bowl is placed in the hole in the middle of your table with coals burning. On it a spherical dome is placed with a ‘moat’ surrounding it.

Image

It is very much a DIY approach.You’re given a plate of raw meats, a selection of glass noodles and vegetables and huge kettle full of stock. You place the meat in the middle to cook whilst filling the ‘moat’ with stock and your selection of veg. It’s really rather brilliant.

Image

It’s also only 50,000 KIP (which in real money works out at about 3.60 GBP.)

Image

I really despise the phrase ‘not to be missed’ having seen it in too many press releases in my time…but that phrase was invented for this meal (along with a Beerlao of course.)

Image

And because we’re a game couple of travellers, we decide to take on yet another bus journey the next day…this time an easy peasy ten hours from Xam Neua to Phonsavan. The former doesn’t have enough to pique our interest for another day, so we’re on the move again.

Image

Back to the bus station we go, this time in daylight.

Image

Image

This was an incredibly unique journey, in that the battered bus had rusted holes in the floor so we can see the road moving at breakneck speed below us. We can also add spitting to the soundtrack of vomiting we have become accustomed to. Only the music and the view out the window makeup for what is absolutely the worst bus journey I have endured in any country.

Image

We arrive, remarkably, in one piece at Phonsavan, negotiate our way to the Chittavanh Guest house and promptly fall ill. All in a day’s work for the adventurer…

And the soundtrack was:

Editors ‘The Back Room’

The Delgadoes ‘Peloton”

Maximo Park ‘Our Earthly Pleasures’

Midlake ‘The Courage of Others’

Oxford Collapse ‘Remember the Night Parties’

Youth Lagoon ‘Wondrous Bughouse’

Two Gallants ‘What the Toll Tells’

PINS ‘Gils Like Us’

 

 

 

The Big Luang Prabang Theory

From Ventiane, it is simply a hop a skip and a jump north to Luang Prabang. Okay it is more like an eight hour bus ride, and an experience that will become synonymous with my time in Laos. Unfinished rocky roads mix with questionable suspension to provide a unique trampoline effect. Additionally, as we weave through the karst mountains, hair pin bends present themselves every thirty seconds creating a kind of roller coaster effect…but without the added security of a safety belt. Sure.

My partners in crime on this particular voyage are Jackie, an American lass who has been living in Bangkok for the best part of a year and recently engaged Brits Emily and James who have been on the road for TWO AND A HALF YEARS. Yes I am not quite sure how this is possible, if I did know it’s unlikely I’d have a flight home booked…

As soon as we arrive in Luang Prabang, life starts to get a lot more colourful.

20140412-153237.jpg

We celebrate our safe arrival with some dinner at backpacker hangout Utopia which hosts Yoga by day, and boozy falangs by night. The moodily lit gardens, low level cushioned seating and fringed palm trees offer a great atmosphere, but the food is fairly standard. It’s quiet when we arrive, but by the time we’re turfed out in time for the national 11pm curfew, it’s quite a chore finding our flip flops in the gigantic pile outside the door.

This beautiful town is certainly one of the jewels in South East Asia’s crown, and it’s intangible charm draws me in immediately. Nestled at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, it’s the kind of place where time stands still as you wander tree-lined streets perusing handicraft shops, wats and patisseries, the ever present scents of frangipani, sticky rice and baking, a sign of the town’s former French links, lilting around you.

20140412-154449.jpg

20140412-154600.jpg

Being a Unesco World Heritage site saves the centre from the usual logging lorries, trucks and tourist buses trundling through it and many choose to see the sights from the comfort of one of the favoured modes of town transport.

20140412-154912.jpg

20140412-154849.jpg

20140412-154829.jpg

20140412-154815.jpg

On day one, the first sight to enthral me is the stunning Wat Xieng Thong, one of Luang Prabang’s most visited monasteries. The wat itself is a classic of local design, roof sloping low on either side and housing gold stencil work capturing exploits from the life of the legendary King Chanthaphanit.

20140419-145507.jpg

20140419-145528.jpg

20140419-145548.jpg

20140419-145557.jpg

Classic gifts to Buddha in Laos include money, fruit and sticky rice. However, they also leave beautifully crafted offerings sculpted from banana leaves and flowers. It’s the equivalent of lighting a candle in a church, something of a Same Small World tradition when travelling.

20140419-150313.jpg

20140419-150324.jpg

20140419-150421.jpg

Dotted around the wat are stupas and chapel halls including the Haw Tai Pha Sai-nyaat featuring an especially rare reclining Buddha dating back to 1560.

20140419-150851.jpg

20140419-150908.jpg

20140419-153309.jpg

20140419-153326.jpg

As the sun drops, the monks in their monastic robes play gong and drum which can be heard across the town.

20140419-153442.jpg

I wander back through the grounds to scope the stunning view out over the Mekong.

20140419-153522.jpg

20140419-153554.jpg

20140419-153607.jpg

You can walk all the way down the steep stairs (perfect for practicing your Oscar acceptance walk) to dip your toes in the river. It is one of the most polluted rivers in the world mind, so I wouldn’t dip much else in it.

20140419-153750.jpg

20140419-153820.jpg

20140419-153840.jpg

Round the corner, just off Th Sakkarin, is Big Brother Mouse, one of the first of many goodwill projects that catches my eye in this little town. It is a bookshop and literacy programme that invites tourists to give something slightly more consequential back than sweets and coins (actually impossible given the Lao currency, the Kip, is note format only) Here, volunteers are invited to drop in at either 9am and 4pm to spend a couple of hours helping local Lao schoolchildren with their English. It is a lovely, warm and fuzzy sort of experience, and I am struck by the linguistic talent on show from the kids. The are varying levels of ability, but the standard is certainly higher than my French would have been at an equivalent age. Of course, Luang Prabang is the big smoke round here, and I will soon learn that this is certainly not the case in the more remote towns and villages.

20140419-154746.jpg

20140419-154755.jpg

Jackie and I have earned our dinner, which is a delicious water buffalo red curry at Lao Lao Garden on Kingkitsarat.

20140419-155122.jpg

Those of you very familiar with Same Small World (hi Mum, hi Dad) will know that I’m fairly fascinated by countries who hold their spirituality in high esteem. For me, it doesn’t matter what you believe…but if you believe it so utterly and completely, I will be slightly obsessed by you.

So, it’s not surprising that I’m up a good hour before the sunrise the next day to witness Tak Bat. Daily, at dawn, Buddhist monks, barefoot and saffron clad, perambulate along Th Sakkarin and Th Kamal in procession begging for alms by way of honouring their vows of humility. Townsfolk kneel on the roadside and place balls of sticky rice in their begging bowls, gaining spiritual merit in this act of donation. The stillness of the moment and the simplicity of the faith immediately springs a tear to my eye and gives rise to quiet contemplation. It is a very moving demonstration of faith, humility and respectful giving.

20140419-160853.jpg

20140419-160925.jpg

What is even more stark alongside these admirable human values, is the ugliness of the disrespect displayed by some of the touristic voyeurs. This is supposed to be a meditative ceremony and there are several ways that you can show your respect; observing from a good distance across the road, removing your shoes and kneeling with your feet pointed behind you, covering your bare arms with a scarf and not making eye contact with the monks.

However, the willingness to get that perfect Facebook or Instagram photo seems to overtake good manners, and visitors sporting hot pants and bare arms crowd around them letting flashes go off in their faces. It is utterly despicable, like a twisted red carpet at an awards ceremony…and I’ve marshalled enough of those in my day job to know how empty, vacuous and devoid of admirable qualities they can be. It really gets to me, and now hot tears sting my face as I quietly simmer, head bowed, putting every grain of my being into not running over to berate them.

20140419-162205.jpg

Afterwards, I need to get far from the haranguing crowd so I tackle Phu Si, the 100 metre hill which dominates the city centre and skyline.

20140419-163018.jpg I’m rewarded by quite spectacular views.

20140419-163332.jpg

20140419-163354.jpg

Townsfolk are rising and getting on with their mornings below.

20140419-163509.jpg

For me, it is time to get involved in another local tradition. Local Lao lad La (try saying that after a few sherries) tells me all about it as we look out over the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Locals take songbirds up to the summit in small, hand-woven wicker cages and release them into the wild whilst making a wish. La, dressed head to toe in Lycra, says he runs up here every Saturday morning after dawn as part of his morning jog and makes a wish that he can one day become an English teacher.

20140419-164051.jpg

It’s a beautiful sentiment…and I want in. Here are my little songbirds.

20140419-164205.jpg

20140419-164215.jpg

20140419-164229.jpg

20140419-164254.jpg

But I’ll be keeping my little wish to myself…

That Chomsi, a beautiful gilded stupa, sits atop Phu Si.

20140419-164641.jpg
The walk down the south easterly side of the hill is punctuated with a series of new gilded Buddhas (seemingly themed by the days of the week)…

20140419-164822.jpg

20140419-164841.jpg

20140419-164854.jpg

20140419-164912.jpg
Followed by a footprint believed to have been made by Buddha himself (Christ, he must have been massive…)

20140419-165036.jpg

20140419-165047.jpg

The rest of the world is waking…so Jackie, Ebba and I meet for breakfast to decide what to do with the rest of our day.

20140419-165232.jpg
After slinging on our bathers, we head out to grab a tuk tuk and meet up with a travelling twosome, French Lisa and Dutch Sander. Together, we drive out to Kuang Si waterfalls which is a little over 30 minutes from the town. As with every tourist attraction, a network of eateries and kiosks have sprung up at the entry to the waterfall’s park, but we’re on the hunt for something with a little more of a local feel. We’re following a recommendation from an expat Luang Prabang library staffer. It takes a good twenty minutes in the unforgiving midday sun…but it is well worth it. It is a waterside organic vegetarian cafe on stilts over the river, which has its own little falls that the local kids splash around in whilst we enjoy one of the best meals of the trip.

20140419-171526.jpg

20140419-171538.jpg

20140419-171600.jpg
The proprietor’s sun squawks up to her to come down and open up for the falangs. There isn’t even a menu…she just offers vegetables and rice…but it is so exquisitely cooked and seasoned that it becomes a true culinary highlight.

20140419-172336.jpg

20140419-172349.jpg

Heading into the waterfall park, it is a five minute forest walk past a bear enclosure (yes, bear enclosure) to the foot of the falls. The stunning opal blue pools start strong, and only get more and more beautiful as you continue upwards onto higher level cascades. Seriously, it’s somewhere between a Bounty advert and a Timotei advert…but with less hard sell.

20140419-173158.jpg

20140419-173215.jpg

20140419-173236.jpg

20140419-173256.jpg
We even happen upon The Thinker.

20140419-173337.jpg
The rest of the day is spent splashing around in the pools and behaving like eejits.

20140419-173635.jpg

20140419-173640.jpg

20140419-173645.jpg

20140419-173707.jpg

20140419-173733.jpg

20140419-173744.jpg

20140419-173800.jpg

20140419-173825.jpg

20140419-173948.jpg

Dinner comes courtesy of the town’s swishest restaurant Tamarind on Ban Wat Nong where we are reunited with Emily and James, and it is sampling platters and stuffed lemongrass ago go.

20140419-174339.jpg

So far, Luang Prabang has been utterly mesmerising. But on our last full day, it steals my heart in a way I never thought possible. After breakfast on our last day, Jackie, Ebba and I set off on a boat trip that I will never forget. The Luang Prabang library, in association with Community Learning International, an NGO promoting literacy here in Laos, invite donations from upwards of $2 (the cost of a book) all the way to $300 (the cost of taking a floating library aka the ‘Book Boat’ to remote villages along the Mekong.) I’m completely beguiled by this project, so here we are putting along the river in our long boat surrounded by books on a very special mission.

20140419-180146.jpg
Some of the books are in Lao, some are bilingual…and some very recognisable.

20140419-180228.jpg
We’re with charity staff Chantha and Sally plus animateurs SinXai and Madame Seangchan, who deftly prepare the props and puppets before we arrive at our destination.

20140419-181050.jpg

We arrive at Ban Hoi Koa just over two hours later, and the excitable squeals of the kids as they run down the hill to meet us at the waters edge can be heard clearly over the loud thrum of the boat’s engine.

20140419-181255.jpg

20140419-181310.jpg

We walk up the hill and find shade from the punishing sun under a thatched roof in the centre of the village.

20140419-181630.jpg Here, the kids line up, dressed in their school uniform of woven skirts and trousers and eagerly await instruction.

In association with another NGO Eau Laos Solidarite, who focus their efforts on providing running water systems and toilets in remote Laos villages and educating local children in sanitary matters, SinXai leads an all-singing class on the basics in promoting good sanitation. They are so eager to learn that even children too young for school line up in oversized uniforms to ensure they don’t miss out.

20140421-201711.jpg

20140421-201738.jpg

20140421-201904.jpg

Around us, the sheer poverty is writ large. It is hard to believe, being so close to Luang Prabang, a town that pulsates with industry, culture and tourism. But, here in the shadow of a dramatic karst rock formation, the population of 300 constituting 70 families live without running water or latrines.*

20140421-202519.jpg

20140421-202539.jpg

20140421-202551.jpg

20140421-202611.jpg

One of the many many things that is beautiful about this experience is the solidarity and friendship between the children. They have nothing…but they have each other.

20140421-203009.jpg

20140421-203033.jpg

After class, the kids troop down to the floating library and are allowed to choose a book. Within seconds they are all seated and reading to themselves absorbing every word like their lives depended on it.

20140421-203258.jpg

20140421-203316.jpg

20140421-203339.jpg

20140421-203359.jpg

As we hand out textbooks, storybooks, pens and soap to the kids, neatly lined up to wave us off, I’m told it is one year since the Book Boat last visited Ban Hoi Koa…and it could easily be the same again before they can return. It is this fact, and the look in the kids’ eyes as they stare hungrily at our supplies, which slowly and quietly breaks my heart as we slip away upstream back to Luang Prabang.

20140421-203934.jpg

20140421-203945.jpg

20140421-204005.jpg

I’m very heavy hearted by the time we return. If you are moved enough to read more about it, and how you can help this beautiful literacy project, please have a read of my feature on The Culture Trip here

Thankfully, Jackie, Ebba and I are cheered with a visit to Dyen Sabai just across the bamboo footbridge over the Nam Kham river. It is an open sided riverside restaurant, with wooden decking and seating sloping down the lush hillside to the water and twinkly fairy lights marking out the paths. The pork and aubergine with sticky rice, washed down with Beerlao, is easily the best meal I have had in Laos. Emily and James join us, and since all of us are headed for pastures new in the morning, we chat about the next chapters that await us.

In the more immediate future however, there is the serious matter of the League Cup Final. My beloved Manchester City take on Sunderland at Wembley tonight, and we all troop to the local Sports Bar which is full of cheering expats buoyed by Beerlao. It ends in a 3-1 victory, and after saying my goodbyes to our little Luang Prabang team, I proudly watch Kompany et al lift the trophy before I saunter home in a beery fug.

Luang Prabang has been utterly stunning, and I am immensely sad not to be staying longer.

And the soundtrack was:
Tom Baxter ‘Feather and Stone’
We Are Scientists ‘TV En Francais’
TV On The Radio ‘Return To Cookie Mountain’
Sharon Van Etten ‘Tramp’
Vampire Weekend ‘Modern Vampires of the City’
Arcade Fire ‘Afterlife’
Foals ‘Antidotes’
Luscious Jackson ‘Electric Honey’

*Special thanks to travel buddy extraordinaire Jackie Echegary for contributing this image to Same Small World.

(Fa)Lang May Your Lum Reek in Ventiane

Finally, Same Small World has been blissfully reunited with its backpack. Having lain impotent at the bottom of the wardrobe for the last nine months taunting me with the adventures that might never be, it’s now stuffed full of flip flops, mosquito spray and travel adapters once more.

Having spent half of last year sauntering through South and Central America, it seems as good a time as any for a return to South East Asia. The first stop on this particular reunion is Laos, population 7 million, which has fast established itself on the backpacker trail.

This trip is much needed and follows a fairly grim few months at the turn of the year which included frequent 20 hour days at work and an unexpected stint in hospital heralded by my maiden voyage in an ambulance. All the signs were there telling me that a change was in order. As a relatively wise person once said, ‘If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, then you’ll keep on being what you’ve always been. Nothing changes unless you make it change.’ So as I shake off the shackles of a very forgettable chapter of my life, I take my bruised and battered soul back to it’s spiritual home…the open road.

I have my first impressions of Laos in Ventiane, the languid capital which nestles on the Mekong whose banks play host to the majority of my first day here. Capitalising on part of its 1865km share of the river, they have developed Fa Ngum Quay, a stunning stone esplanade the length of the city’s river bank. It’s perfect for the runners zooming by, the impromptu keep-fit class taking place up ahead and the evening offerings made by the locals.

20140405-152334.jpg

20140405-152357.jpg

All human life is here.

20140405-152551.jpg

It’s the ideal spot to watch my first Mekong sunset, a hazy affair where a perfectly spherical sun doesn’t so much as drop into the horizon as it does into a thick band of smog burning orange reflections into the water below. It is stunning nonetheless.

20140405-152830.jpg

20140405-152843.jpg

Opposite the quay lies Buddhist temple Wat Chanthaburi, a great introduction to the kind of intricate carvings and stunning architecture that pure unadulterated worship provokes in these parts.

20140405-154617.jpg

20140405-154628.jpg

Ventiane also provides a promising introduction to Lao cuisine. Whilst quality varies throughout the city, value is a constant and there are one or two standout joints including Amphone on Th Wat Xieng Nyean and Yulala Cafe on Th Hengboun. Laos has abundant specialities including Laap, a kind of spicy salad prepared with meat or fish, mint, chilli, coriander and lime juice and Or Lam, a stew of vegetables, smoked or grilled meat and aubergine. Other dishes include the kind of curries, stir fries and flavours you would expect from a nation with such proximity to Thailand and Vietnam.

However, the key ingredient is the universally present sticky rice. Laos people eat more sticky rice than any other nation, in fact it is seen as the essence of being Lao. Traditionally, it is eaten by hand, rolling the rice up into balls and dipping it into your curry or stir fry relegating it to accompaniment status. There is a phrase in Lao ‘Luk Khao Niaow’ that they often use to describe themselves, which literally translates as ‘Descendants of sticky rice’ Thankfully, it is utterly delicious and slightly addictive…although don’t expect many variants other than white sticky rice, black sticky rice or wild sticky rice.

20140405-161020.jpg

Further out of the city due east lies Phu Khao Khuay meaning ‘Buffalo Horn Mountain’ which is a nationally protected mountainous area of over 2000 square kilometres home to gibbons, Asiatic black bears, clouded leopards and Siamese fireback pheasants. It’s not only the wildlife that entices me out here, but the promise of Tat Xai waterfall set deep amidst the jungle. We set off waterfall hunting from Ban Hat Kai, a 25 strong village on the banks of the Nam Mang river. The journey starts by long tail boat.

20140405-163515.jpg

We get acquainted with some of the locals along the way.

20140405-163546.jpg

20140405-163705.jpg

We trek through jungle, over rock and bridge until we have it in our sights.

20140405-164341.jpg

20140405-164406.jpg

20140405-164418.jpg

20140405-164436.jpg

20140405-164459.jpg

20140405-164524.jpg

It’s a cracker, made all the more enjoyable by the welcome physical exertion to arrive here. I’m impressed that it still cascades at all during hot season.

20140405-165059.jpg

We head to the nearby Pha Xai waterfall, but its 40 metre drop is dry as a bone, bullied into submission by the soaring temperatures.

20140405-165334.jpg

20140405-165350.jpg

It still offers stunning scenery set against a verdant backdrop.

20140405-165509.jpg

Now, before I make my merry way north to Luang Prabang, I must nod to this post’s title. ‘Falang’ is the entirely inoffensive colloquial noun for ‘foreigner’ and how the locals will be cordially referring to me during my trip. Think ‘gringo’ but in the Far East. Referring to yourself as a ‘falang’ when talking to Lao people immediately prompts a fit of giggles…So it’s a good one for the internal phrase book.

And the soundtrack was:
David Kitt ‘The Big Romance’
Mogwai ‘Master card’
Drenge ‘Drenge’
White Denim ‘Corsicana Lemonade’
Sigur Ros ‘Kviekur’
Rodriguez ‘Cold Fact’