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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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…to the annex of bedrooms…

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

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…complete with original political paraphernalia.

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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.

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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…

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…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.

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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.

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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…

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…complete with dressing room yo!

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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…

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

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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.

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The rock formations are particularly beautiful up here…

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.)

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Townsfolk are rising and getting on with their mornings below.

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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.

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

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

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

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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)…

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Followed by a footprint believed to have been made by Buddha himself (Christ, he must have been massive…)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We even happen upon The Thinker.

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

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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.

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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.

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Some of the books are in Lao, some are bilingual…and some very recognisable.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.*

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.