08.03.2010 - 11.03.2010 20 °C
Before catching our 12.30 mini-van to Chiang Kong, we needed to pay Jim for all the accommodation and the transport. The offer to pay him was met with cries of 'No, no! You have long time' (45 minutes), as he encouraged us to play with his gorgeous baby. We doubt Jim is actually Thai - he was completely uninterested in our money throughout our stay, asking us on our check out how many nights we had stayed. Jim left as we went to get our bags...and never returned. When our driver arrived, we attempted to pay his very young daughter who spoke hardly any English. She fetched her mother to give us the 200baht change we required - she preceded to throw 1000 baht notes at us until we were honest with her about what we were owed. This was unfortunate since we have been trying to get our money back from the Thai people since the ping pong show theft. We would have felt better about our honesty, did the following not happen...
The journey began well. We were further encouraged to believe we were British princesses when we were offered the front seat in the minivan. Laura kept insisting that she was Queen because of her Angel Gabriel locks and the fact that her seat was higher than all the others. This soon proved unfortunate when everyone else fell asleep and she realised she was the only one missing a head rest. Naturally Donna had been asleep for hours by this point. We were thrilled to see our driver repeatedly ignore signs for Chiang Kong...but finally he put on celebratory music...his fave Taylor Swift song to which he knew all the words announcing 40 hours remaining (Thais are big jokers).
We were concerned when we arrived and the minivan had seemingly pulled into a tiny village and what seemed to be someone's back garden. Laura was ecstatic to realise that we were finally being sold to a guesthouse, which she had been keen to learn more about since learning about it in the guide. She demanded a price for the night, expecting an extortionate price for the Queen of England and was vaguely disappointed when it was by far the cheapest guesthouse we had been to costing us 2 pounds each for the night. Luckily the guesthouse also provided Laos fast track visa services and a pretty speedy journey across the border and on to Louang Phabang. What we had forgotten from our time in Chiang Mai, is that you can trust no Thai. Although the visa situation was undoubtably made easier, the journey was far from what we had anticipated. Unfortunately for us, the apparent 'once in a lifetime experience' on the 2 day slow boat down the river Mekong to Louang Phabang was not to be due to record low water levels. What we hadn't realised was that we would certainly encounter a once in a lifetime bus journey to the same destination. In this case, once in a lifetime meaning you are probably pushing your luck to expect to survive more than one attempt. We feel both lucky and stunned to have escaped with our lives...so much happened on this one day that we can only summarise our main fears:
1. Tarmac does not seem to exist in Laos. We can only presume roads are not frequently used. This doesn't seem to affect the speed of any drivers. The smoothest you can hope for are mud tracks including huge potholes.
2. Drivers do not stick to either side of the road...we can only assume they drive on the right here. Our driver seemed both surprised and angry to encounter any oncoming vehicles when we were driving on the wrong side of the road.
3. Horns are used for fun.
4. The driver seemed more interested in watching us sleep, regularly turning on the light and taking his eyes off the road to laugh manically at us. We also feel he enjoyed our fear.
5.There is no flat or straight road in Laos. All of this occurs on a cliff edge with a u-turn in the road imminently ahead.
6. They love to overtake...on corners, on cliff-edges, when there's not enough room in the road. When you meet a vehicle, you overtake a vehicle.
7. Our driver must have had a bladder infection. He frequently halted on the middle of a cliff top, exited the van with no explanation to wee approximately 1 metre away from us. He then stopped to eat what can only be described as a raw onion in a manner suggesting he had never eaten before.
8. He decided we would have (one of our many) breaks in a bus station, declaring that we had in fact 5 hours remaining (we had been debating whether or not we had arrived at our destination), when he called a dinner break and drove off with the van full of our rucksacks and again, not a word of explanation. Oddly enough, we were pleased to see him return, even if this meant continuing the journey.
9. He also refused to let us listen to our own music...whenever an ipod was in sight he turned up his weird Lao music to the max...listening to anything else was impossible.
10. You know it's bad when the driver is swerving away from an oncoming lorry with one hand clutched to the ceiling for dear life and a grin on his face.
Needless to say, and to everyone's surprise, we arrived healthy and well, albeit 4 hours after the Thai guesthouse had told us. This wouldn't be a problem, had Louang Phabang not been an 'early to bed, early to rise' town. Never has such a phrase been so true. By half midnight, it was a ghost town, not a person in sight. We walked towards the very centre of town and even in the heart of Louang Phabang, we must have tried approximately 20 guesthouses before we found one with someone awake. We felt like we had been dropped in the middle of nowhere, when in reality, it was where the best guesthouses were (invisible at this time). We weren't happy to pay the extortionate price of 5 pounds each for this guesthouse, but enjoyed the luxury of having towels, a TV, and a lovely room. We moved to the cheaper area the next day and had to barter to get a room sold to us as being 'crap' in an effort to get us to pay for a better room. They're like the Thais, it's perfect.
Louang Phabang is like nowhere we've yet stayed, it's very pretty and quaint, although after 10pm, suddenly becomes quite depressing as everywhere closes. We loved our first day, having a delightful breakfast with two people from our mini-van, a Norwegian girl and Canadian guy. We then explored the town, finding our favourite temple so far as it was really different from the others we've seen. We also went for a walk along the river, and were shocked to find on our return, that the night-market was in full swing... at only 6pm. We then went to supposedly the 'best restaurant in Laos' which was fairly disappointing as we're starting to realise the food we like most is often the cheapest and from the more unlikely places. However, Laura has already gotten over her fear of rabies, as a cat (clearly not with rabies G) sat on her lap in the restaurant, with Laura declaring how she 'laughs in the face of rabies'. She almost cried with delight at the temple when she saw a 'kitten on a leaf' and a monk surrounded by sleeping kittens. Monks and kittens are now her idea of heaven.
Today was taken up by tours...a boat-trip on the Mekong to some caves, the worst Whiskey village in the world (we hope you enjoy the fruits of our boredom D-Dog and Ian) and in the afternoon a very angry English woman and a very fun waterfall. Things obviously didn't go without a hitch, highlights include:
1. Our boat breaking down and us drifting disconcertingly far back down the pretty fast flowing Mekong before having to jump ship to another boat.
2. Laura's highlight of waiting until we were in the darkest depths of the cave before shining the torch in Donna's eyes and shouting 'What do you think Donna?! Time to go!'. She enjoyed the power of being the torch bearer.
3. Donna, once again, who has been bitten approximately 3 times, being approached by a French tourist pointing at her legs exclaiming 'Mosquitoes!'.
4. Donna convincing Laura to do the rope swing into the freezing cold waterfall and then Laura (wuss) deciding it didn't count if she didn't do it 3 times as she was so excited. Donna did it 4 times...bitch. The final straw was Laura deciding, after Croatia, she couldn't be the Girl Who Didn't Jump once more (Mairi, you're still the Girl Who Didn't Jump Out Of The Boat).
5. Waiting for our mini-van back and being approached by a Lao man saying 'You come with me'. We put up a mild fight until he insisted we go into a bus with other English-speaking tourists...which turned out to be a bonus of sorts as the was a free stop-off at a village on the way back.
We eagerly anticipate our next mini-van journey to Vang Viang.