I’m doing it, right now

Next destination:
Vientiane, capital of Laos, population: ± 754.000

Day XXIV – April 11

I survived Vang Vieng, and am about to find my way back to the real world. water
No more free buckets, or whiskey shots forced down my throat, no more “What is the aim of the game?! TO GET FUCKED UP!” No more Friends or Family Guy, no more dry-season tubing, or supertasty but wet with grease sandwiches.
Those 2 UK’s we met the last day in Luang Prabang; they got jobs here, they’re going to get stuck for months…

And as we make our way down out of the wonderous limestone landscape, the busride once again zones me out to a place in mind where I plan my homecoming – or rather: my next trip, where I will see all those hits I’ve heard so many good things about, but can’t fit in this time.

Sabaidii!! You just cannot say without smiling. No way this will be my last 24 hours in Laos!

Some bumpy roads and I’m flipping cards on future destinations.
I am suddenly having doubts about where to go next. Do as I planned: Hanoi, Da Nang, Hoi An; or, no more Vietnam, but more Laos and stay out my visa: Kong Lo cave, Pakse, 4000 Islands? Hard to choose so last minute…
So I’ll just get on that plane tomorrow as booked, and see where it takes me.

Vientiane, laid out over flatlands around the Mekong, the capital with a much more western feel, where the western translation of the street names start with ‘rue’ and where the Mediterranean spiced barbecue smells finish it off, as the ice-cream man rides around with his little cart and creepy tunes.
Stray booked me in a horrible hotel and took me out for an expensive dinner – I had to pay for myself of course. That’s worse than your date going Dutch on you.
Strayed out
And tomorrow will take my adventure to a next level. Tomorrow will throw me out in the deep, as I deliver my visa approval letter at the Vietnam costums, and thereby my last planned piece of paper, until the voluntering in Cambodia starts 10 days later.
I’ve been told to do north: Sapa, Halong Bay. Halfway: Hoi An, Dalat. Downsouth: the Mekong river delta. To buy a motorbike: I’ve met several people who did so, and that does really sound like an amazing way to travel, getting much more in touch with local life.
Either way, I have no idea how to fit it all, especially since I’ll probably take longer now planning and booking as I go.

But for now I have to day goodbye to lovely Laos. It was an absolute pleasure, and I’ll be dreaming of the day I come back, until I do!

First hand horror stories in Laos:
It wasn’t all moonlight and roses. There have been a few unpleasant incounters.
Like the time when Leila nearly got robbed, on that crossroad in Luang Prabang. In the middle of the night while we’re all standing there, discussing on going to bowling alley or not. Some guys on a scooter drove by and tried to rip off her purse. She screamed and they drove of empty handed.
Or the time Kevin was picked up by the Vang Vieng police, pretty much at random. They claimed he’d broken a glass door. He surely had an alibi and everything, and had no idea what they were talking about. But they kept hitting him, saying he had to admit; otherwise, they gave him the option, it’d be 30 days in jail. So he countered he wanted to speak with the embassy. They ended up just taking his passport; he could pick it up the next day, for 4 million kip(!)
Dave however did break a glass to get into his room he’d lost the key from in Vang Vieng. He ended up climbing his neighbours’ balcony to get to his own and opened the door through that window he broke. He did not get into trouble after explaining and apoligising to the hotel owner.
Other common things seen: cuts and bruses, bad ones, most of them caused by motorbike crashes, often combined with alcohol. Especially in Vang Vieng. Hard knock life on the road, people, be carefull and sht.

On the road again

Next destination:
Vang Vieng, tubing capital

Day XX – April 7

Grandma was a sweetheart, making me breakfast ready to go at 6.30am.
On the way to the Stray meeting point I run into Patrick and the chick he scored last night walking him off. “Oh, she’s Dutch also,” he introduces us, like that’s supposed to create some sort of bond. We say an awkward sort of ‘Hi’.
At 7am we’re all back the bus again, and the road takes us through stunning limestone scenery. We stop in the middle, high up in the mountains and it gets pretty cold up here – though Luang Prabang cooled down quite a bit after last night’s heavy pouring; when the French and I walked back from Utopia, just after that first cloud had cleared, we had to take of our flipflops because otherwise we would have lost them in the violent river that the streets had turned into.

The view up here is breathtaking, comes right out of that famous romantic painting by Caspar David Friedrich – Wanderer above the sea of fog, with clouds creeping through the grim peaks of the Laos highlands.

Two hours later we enter the valley of Vang Vieng, the valley of falang, the valley of tubing and party-party, the fullmoon beach of Laos.
Two Australians have died already this year while tubing.
I believe I read it was in 1996 that a tourist first discovered tubing with his kids. They took the inner tire of a truck and floated down the river in it. More tourists came by and picked up on this fun passtime. Eventually swings were built and more and more people came. More and more backpackers came. And backpackers like a drink, thus bars were built alongside the river, each with a free, nay, manditory shot of laolao at entering. The buckets, I guess, came over from the southern Thai islands, like the partypackers must’ve.
James warns us to be very careful with ourselves because there isn’t a hospital in this town or the next, so when you do get injured you’re royally f’cked.

The local guide on the bus points me the way to the hostel I should find my friends at. He tells me he knows the place and is certain of the direction.
After walking that way until the end of town I start asking around again, and when two locals don’t know, so tell me “yes” and point further along the road, but three tell me to go back, I guess I’d better head the other way again, my 13k backpack starting to weigh a bit.

Sidenote: In Asia, it’s considered a disgrace if you don’t know the awnser to a question, of, say, directions. Rather lie and possibly send someone the wrong way. So when you are asking where to go and it looks like the person you asked isn’t confident, ask the next person, and a few more to make sure.

That’s where, in a little alley behind the Temple, I find it: Easy Go Hostel. An adorable little bamboo house, open front, pooltable right in the entance, a reception with someone asleep behind it and a board telling me the names of those checked in, with my friends amongst them.
I write my name, passportnumber, occupation and approximate departure date in their book and am shown to one of the downstairs rooms.

No one is there so I get ready to take a shower. But before I do Leila, Caitlin and Annie burst in, on their way to tubing. “Isn’t it too late for that now?” I ask, as I’ve heard you have to turn in your tube before 6pm to avoid the 60.000k fine. “No, but you don’t rent a tube anyway; that’s lame!”
So I jump on a tuktuk with them and we’re out. “Get ready for a party!”

We’re dropped off 15 minutes later, cross a wobbly bridge and are offered that first shot -which I sneakily pass- and get the bracelet that marks how many bars you’ve visited, worn as a sort of achievement.
The music is loud and obscene and wins it by far from all the places I’ve been before. Ah well, just roll with it.
We get a vodkabucket to share amongst us four to begin with.
Everywhere on the planking people are dancing and acting crazy and playing beerpong. We start a new hit: flip the cup, a sort of chucking-relay race. In no time we have more players than the table can fit and the buckets and beers come and go by the minute. But we’re having heaps of fun and I feel my head growing hazy…

Just another day in Luang Prabang

Day XVI – April 3

Spicy Laos Hostel is housed in a traditional Laos home. The rooms downstairs are paved with stone tiles, the floors upstairs of creaking wood, the main construction of concrete, with a bamboo roof. The dorms are filled with wooden bunkbeds and thin mattresses.
Downstairs there’s a movieroom with a TV, a DVD-player that seldom works and a cupboard filled with DVDs; the weirdest movies people probably left here. Upstairs there’s a computerroom with slow internet and a computer that crashes every 5 minutes or so, and the balcony, with a low table and many cushions around it.
In the courtyard there’s Grandma’s shakes- and sandwich stand, from where she can also fix you up with any delicious local plate in her big wok. There’s the laundryroom in which I might imagine one of the families live.
It’s great to be in this everyday life like this!

Yesterday, after a first night on town, in this hip and happening club named Utopia, where of course I did run in to Daniel and met his new buddy Cain –26, UK- we went back here because there was supposed to be a party.
It’s much too quiet to be considered party, but I’m having another beerlao large and another hiccaugh.

It ended in the movieroom, with Paranormal II. What a sucky movie. And they told me to watch it all the way till the end “cause that where the cool bit happens” but most of them had left for bed before then, except for Lara –19, UK- who’d fallen asleep on the couch.

Oh and I suppose this is another thing that’s just bound to happen in Asia – where you take of your shoes before entering.
I took off the very cheap but very comfortable flipflops I’d just bought in Chiang Mai and was very happy with, at Utopia. But they left without me.
I found a pair that looked alike to take – not very karma proof I suppose, or maybe very much so indeed… But instead of leather these have plastic bands and instead a jute sole these are synthetic, and they’re not comfortable at all.
Lucky I still have my old worn-off pair, and hopefully I’ll find the same jute ones again, as these nightmarkets are all so alike.

Today I take the time to get to know this town and stroll about with my cam. After an hour I sit down for a bite at a sweet little terras in front of a livingroom.
And here’s my breakfast: a nice thick fluffy pancake with chunks of mango and honey seaping over it, and a side of pineapple. Coffee here in Laos is, much like the stuff I got in Thailand, is not very satisfying to a selfrespecting coffeelover.
While I’m sitting there the kids come back from scool in their adorable uniforms, run into the back and come out again a few minutes later in simple clothing with a big glass of lemonade at their mouths.
When I ask if I can use their bathroom I’m directed into the back of their home, into their family bathroom, where they have a western toilet installed, and a big bucket of water to flush with.

Halfway Stray
Stray is a hop-on-hop-off bus organisation I travel Laos with.
I hopped on in Huay Xai and saw two cities I´d otherwise missed.
Nam Tha wouldn´t have mattered much.
But Nong Khiaw I´m so glad I got to see! Hidden deep in a forest of huge limestone hills with their viels of mist.
We stopped to visit a Hmong-tribe village but they had no idea what to do with these white giants and were very scared of cameras.
These things made me feel like a stupid tourist again. And I´m sure these people are all very nice – and I love the Kiwi-family for traveling this way – but it´s just not really for me.
Again, lesson learned.

Anyway, three and a half more days of lovely LPB before I Stray on to Vang Vieng, tubing capital.

Luang Prabang smells beautiful

next destination:
LUANG PRABANG, Unesco Wold Herritage
population: ± 50.000

Day XV – April 2

I put my alarm extra early, so I’d be in time to capture the unveiling of the hills. I end up being too early, waiting around for almost an hour before the mist starts to clear.
It’s the most amazing show to wake up to, swinging back and forth that hammock like an impatient child, camera at the ready.

Before getting back on the road we visit a cave, famous for being a hideout to a communist community of 170 people, during the Vietnam War. Amongst them were some important polical figures, still acting as such from that cave.
It makes me feel a little claustrophibic, to imagine such a large group living a space this small and resolute for 7 years.

After a few hours we get off the bus and pass through a little nomans town. There’s an owl chained to a shop. Shop meaning: a fridge for sodas and a little counter with some snacks, on a porch.
When we finally do meet people, they use their lines, trying to tempt us into buying some traditionally handmade Laotian shawls, almost robotical. Our guide James steers us to a slowboat that takes us to the other side. There we visit the Tham Ting cave, decorated with thousands of Buddha statues.
Something about this whole scene makes me feel as magical yet itchy as I did that first time I saw Spirited Away.

Then we drift down the Mekong for a good hour.

Luang Prabang smells beautiful! Of soft crème and sweet syrup. It has a smalltown-feel but looks rather crowded. I’m looking forward to spending a few days here!

Check in to Spicy Laos Hostel, finally an actual dorm.
I was supposed to be booked in a different place, that was full, so with many apologies James brought me here – the rest of them are staying in some hotel. And I’m so much happier for it!

I have some stuff to take care of. Handing in my laundry so I’ll finally have some clean clothes. Get some more digital space for my Nikon.* Take out some kip, but all the ATMs in walking distance are down so that one fails.
I wanted to see about maybe sending a box home, with stuff I know now unnecessary, like that musquitonet and those spare jeans. But that turns out to be really expensive, about 360.000k; I’ll just drag it along.

Then finally can I sit down, with some random strangers. Right away it feels very homely. Everyone is nice and friendly.
It’s funny how this friend making works out here. It reminds me of festival, but more intense even, and you don’t have your basecamp at walking distance to fall back on.
Everyone here at the Spicy balcony knows each other already, if only just for a day. And I join the conversation the way back home people would look at you, like “Who the fuck are you?” But it’s all good and the same night I feel as much part of ‘the group’ as I would with my own friends back home.

“Where are you going next?” and “Have you already been to … ?” or “Oh, if you’re going there you have to go see …” are the lines I’ve heard most so far. Talk of the road ahead and beyond. Talk of visas and busses, exchanging tips and tricks. “Are you taking malaria-tablets?” and “Do you still spray muzzy?”
Names may come up upon meeting, but usually it’s not until the second or third day; no use bothering if you’re spending less than that amount of time together anyway. “Where are you from?” comes first, and then easier than names is Welsh or Finnish.
I still feel a bit of a layman though, just two weeks out.

Here in the hostel I do hear quite a lot of Dutch. Then again, people have been saying to me for weeks they’ve been meeting a lot of Dutch on the road. Guess it’s time for me to meet them too now…

Anything-goes Asia: Where cattle like dogs, goose, chickens, piglets and cows etc run free over land and road.

* SDmemory and other digital attributes are no cheaper here than in Europe. So get it in Singapore or get stacking discount back home.

Bumpy roads through stunning scenery

Next destination:
Nong Khiaw, northern Laos

Day XIV – April 1

Last night we went for dinner all together to this place James, the Stray tourguide, had picked out. I wouldn’t have gone in there if I’d had anything to say about it. But I guess at this moment I don’t have that luxury.
Their pumpkin-crème soup was very nice though.

After that we had a bit of a stroll over the local market but – much like the hotel, the street, the restaurant, really the whole vibe I’m getting of Nam Tha; not very inspiring, but dusty…

So then there’s but one solution; to the bar!
James insisted on introducing us to laolao: the national liquor. It’s being compared to whiskey. I thought the white version tastes more like tequila. There’s also the green version that should be fresher, and the pink that should be more like actual whiskey.
I drowned it with lao island iced tea and in there it worked well.
The party-animals were awoken – though I think in most of my current travel companions they rarely ever get any sleep – and it was decided to continue the party at the Chinese disco.
So I safely retreated to my room. I think it was only just 10pm when I turned off the lights.

This morning it turns out smog does actually put a dusty layer on this town, and with that cleared up more or less, making it possible to see the golden stoopa and some of the outlining hills, it already looks a lot nicer.
It is said Nam Tha is a good place to do trekkings from.

James pulls a witty april fools on us, saying we’d catch a plane instead of the bumpy road to Nong Khiaw.

From that smooth, spiffy new road we left Huay Xai at, it’s turned into dusty, worn down asphalt with potholes varying from big, to really really big.
Parts of the Laos highway have been sponsored by China who uses it for transport to Thailand and Vietnam. The rest of it is in a very poor state.
Oh and vomiting will get you kicked off the bus. So good luck to you girls and your hangovers.

As we’re driving eastward, the scenery is getting more and more shapely with humps sticking out in unfamiliar forms.

The town where we have lunch isn’t super big, but feels huge.
The road crossing right through it is a 4 lane at least, no smaller than the highway just outside of Bangkok. I haven’t seen more than 2-lane since.
On the side we’re on I can’t find the fruitshake I’m craving, so I make a run for it. On the other side I find a sort of garage/livingroom/streetvendor with a blender on their cart; a sign that they do shakes.
When my presence is noticed a young girl walks up and understands that I ask for a mangoshake and makes me one – with condensed milk and syrup. A few types of shakes indeed contain these extremely sweet ingredients – but not mango! However, I don’t have the heart to complain to her, so I pay the 7,000k and walk back to the bus.

After half of it I do start feeling quite sick. I leave the rest of it and hope I won’t end up being the one to be thrown off the bus.

Now I’d like to say something about the road we continue on, the one that takes us to Nong Khiaw, through these daunting mountains. But I don’t want to get mum and dad unnecessarily worried before I get home so I’ll just leave it for now. Anything-goes-Asia couldn’t be truer.

The scenery is becoming more and more spectacular now with every new line of limestone hills. Before we get to our destination we’re surrounded by giants sticking straight up out of the earth.

Tonight we make camp in this adorable Sunrise Guesthouse, with it’s sweet cabanas.
The diner is a pretty little bamboo hut painted in bright colours and with many smilies on the menu. Then, walking further down the courtyard, brushing past some big leaves, scaring of a rooster who just put down a big load on the stairs, so I‘ve got to watch out, I make my way between the little timber and bamboo huts to the one I’m sharing with Patrick. A triple, with a bed for the parents and one for the kid, but the double is all pink so it’s the one for the girl. Yeah, he couldn’t argue that.
At the back there’s a balcony with the hammock hanging right by the riverside.

With my camera I try to capture the sun sliding into the hill, and for the first time since I’m on, I’m happy about Stray. This place, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on!
James told us this is his favorite place in all of Laos, and I can see why!

Anything-goes Asia: Where the yellow line is no more than a mere indication.

Boring busdays pt 1

Next destination:
Luang Nam Tha, northern Laos

Day XIII – March 31

I get on the Straybus and thus the Laos adventure continues.

Last night we were supposed to meet Dett for those promised beers. We did, at the agreed bar for a brief moment, but then he went ‘to pick up his sisters’ and never came back. Too bad, but we still had a good night.
When goodbye-time came, the general closing line was “see you in Luang Prabang!” To the ones who went to other direction it was “See you when we’re 50 and still on the road!” And of course the new classic “see you on facebook.”
This morning Dan and I grab a last quick breakfast together – pancakes! – and said our goodbyes. Nothing effusive, we’ll most likely meet again in Luang Prabang in a few days.

Now this whole getting on the Straybus wasn’t as easy as I made it seem there. I was supposed to meet them in front of the Gibbon Experience office, so we had breakfast right next to it. But I didn’t see that orange bus.
I knew there was another pickup point across from the pier. So I looked over there, and met Patrick, a fellow passenger, who’s to be picked up there, fifteen minutes before, had the bus shown up…
We tried contacting the office, and finally succeeded after several attempts. They had as much trouble reaching their driver. At least an hour after the original pickup they got back to us, explaining they’d already left, and were now coming back for us. They told us to wait at Sabaydee Guesthouse. Turned out that was where they’d been waiting for us before. Or well, so they said; Gibbon Experience is just a few doors down so I couldn’t have missed them…
Well, whatever, we’re on now, and making our way to Luang Nam Tha.

Yesterday a very dear friend who’d been talking of going to Asia for a while told me he’s finally actually going to do it. So I might even see him out here! I’m looking forward to seeing a familiar face. Though it’ll be weird as well, I suppose.

I find coming back to the real world a bit hard again. After this mornings goodbye to the travelbuddy I’ve had all this trip now, it feels pretty lonely on this bus with all these chatty girls.
I’m not sure what to think of Stray yet. We only just got seated, and already this form to book accommodation for the next 2 nights is under our noses. Patrick has been out for almost a year now and advises me to take it; a lot less hassle than trying to find your own place, probably cheaper if we’d share a twin, and easier to stick with the rest for dinnerdates etc. I guess he has a point.
On the other hand I’m starting to discover how easy it is to arrange stuff with the locals right there on the spot, also here in Laos; they never stop offering you rides, slowboat tickets, rooms and so on – and usually much cheaper than with western companies.

Oh, I didn’t tell you before, but there’s something you should know about Friendship Guesthouse; it has BEDBUGS. And not just one room; I slept in room 206 the first night and woke up the next morning with a lot of bites around my knee, but didn’t quite know what to make of them yet. Last night we were in room 103 and I got those same bites around my elbow and around my bum. Nasty little buggers! I always thought they were some sort of myth… Boy did they prove me wrong.

The crappy USB MP3player I bought for this trip –you get why I didn’t want to bring my 3rd iPhone, it being stolen off of me twice already- that started out with 8gig but now holds just 200 random songs because I needed the SDmemory for photos, plays me Radiohead – High and Dry and it suits my mood. I’m in a sort of state, where I don’t feel like joining the chicks chitchat in the back or like getting to know my next two nights roommate but just want to zone out. I’m hating my seat; the worst in the whole bus, designed as a last resort and without comfort. I’m just not feeling it today.
Then Goldfinger – I Really Miss You comes up. And a smile gradually fades in. “But for now I have to dream about your smile ‘cause you’re not here and all I want to say is that I really miss you” Just what I was thinking actually…
It’s moments like these that draw my thoughts back home, to my peeps, and that boy I know is there waiting for me.
So I’m extra happy to find out the place we’re staying at tonight has a computer free for use with an internet connection. Rather than go to the spa like most of the group, I use my time online, throw a few words out there to let everyone know I made it out of the jungle again, get a few of those many requested photo’s up and most importantly talk to the homefront. That felt good, and I think I can deal now with the planned group dinner tonight.
I didn’t see him online though, while I really looked forward to talking to him. Right now I do really miss him and can’t wait to get back home and start something true. If two weeks of hanging out with a fairly handsome Australian couldn’t cure me, what will?

Lesson learned
: It kills you skin; the sun and bugs constant attacks despite deet, which is pretty bad for your skin anyway, and sun-block. Just is.