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After a very successfull adventure in South America in 2001-2002, it is time for another big trip.

Once the travel bug enters the brain, it stays there forever.

Already a year ago I started dreaming about doing a trip to South East Asia.

And as I said last time "You know how these dreams come and are always there, but you never actually start working on realizing them.

Now is the time to do it."

Keep on tripping!

Wim, August 2004

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Laos September 2004

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29/09/2004 Up the Mekong, Laos

Around 8 am the boat leaves, bound for Nonh Khiaw. The first part is upriver the Mekong, then we turn right into the smaller Nam Ou. Great view but painful asses... read more

21/09/2004 Luang Prabang, Laos

The flight and landing went good, and we join 3 Israelis to share a taxi to the center of town. The taxi stops somewhere near some hostels, claiming to be in the center. We stay put and demand that he brings us to the guesthouse of our choice, not the one where he gets a commission... read more

Luang Prabang, first days in Laos

Su 12/09/2004 The flight and landing went good, and we join 3 Israelis to share a taxi to the center of town. The taxi stops somewhere near some hostels, claiming to be in the center. We stay put and demand that he brings us to the guesthouse of our choice, not the one where he gets a commission...

Mekong riverWe arrive at the main street, next to the mighty Mekong river and check out some of the hostels. Most ask about 5 dollar for a double room, But they only show us the rooms downstairs, with almost no light, no air and lots of noise. Tired of looking around we check in in the SokDee Guesthouse, very simple, but only for one night,

Now first of all, some nice food, on a beautiful terrace next to the Mekong river. The food is good and not too pricy. And everybody is really friendly. We both think Laos is definitely a nice country to visit.

In the early evening Sofie is exhausted and goes to bed early. This gives me some time to check my mails and the news...

Mo 13/09/2004 Everybody is telling us that the boat races will be tomorrow, although Lonely Planet says it is in October. It is the annual end of rainy season celebration called Bun Awk Phonsa. Not only boat races but also some rituals and partying will be going on in and around the city. It seems to be the right moment to be here. Only for finding a good room it is taking some more time. At 12 we check in in the NamSok guest house, perfectly located, with beautiful wooden floors and clean mattresses !

In the afternoon after some brunch we wander about what to do, when a tuktuk driver proposes to go to the Sai waterfalls, he already got one passenger. Sai waterfall during festivalWe give it a go and start the journey by stopping at his house, picking up his football t-shirt and shoes, and his wife and son. There is a match going on this evening and he wants us to come as well ? We will see about that later.

Actually all the young people of Luang Prabang seem to be going the same way as we are. I heard something vague about locals dancing at the water falls. It must be because of the festival. When we finally arrive at the village, it is full with tuktuks, and we walk through the mud and all the locals drinking beer. This is getting interesting. The day before the boat races the locals go to the falls of Sai, and on the way back have beers and party ! We get down to the boats and navigate ourselves into a small boat, everybody sitting behind each other. 10 minutes later we climb up the muddy bank and pay entrance to the falls. All the locals are bathing in the falls, with all there clothes on ! We join them, with clothes on as I don't want to be the black sheep here in swimming shorts. After an hour of fun and looking around we get back in a boat, and through the beer smelling like village to reach our tuktuk. The Australian guy who was with us is showing all symptoms of malaria so the driver ok's on dropping him of at the hospital. As for us, we asks to come see the match for 15 minutes. Farang against tuktuk driversWhy not, we say. On arrival the match seems to be the annual tuk tuk driver against farang. He wants me to play with them, but I don't feel like making them loose even more... The first half already started, and soon ends on 1 to 3, farang take the lead. But the second half seems more organized, end half an hour later penalties need to decide, Farang win 5 to 4 !!

A fun day it was and it ends good when we try the Lao rice wine. It is very sweet, tastes like sangria a bit... But we can not read the ticket so we don't really know what is in it. Lets go for another drink in one of the happy hour bars ! Mainly the 1 dollar cocktails are made with Lao Lao whiskey, and that doesn't taste as good as the Thai one. We even get a free shot in the Hive bar, but I am sure that will be my last one, it was way too strong...

Tu 14/09/2004 It is the day of the boat races, which only start in the afternoon. So we sleep until our hangover disappears and go out for the typical noodle soup brunch. There is lots of people in the main street, the entrance to the river side street where all the action is going to take place. Lot's of locals from supposedly remote village have come over for this special day. Hill tribe kids, elderly ladies in traditional clothing, all seem to be impressed by the town and its attributes. For once, we are not the main attraction ! Child playWe wander to the river front street and are surprised by the good atmosphere. It feels a bit like the yearly fair is in town. There are plays for the children, balloon with darts for the young generation, and lots of beer for the grown ups. Lots of people buying and selling fun, this must be the biggest spending of the year for some families here.

The boat race has started and soon we end up on a terrace overlooking the river. Every heat is done by two boats, in each boat two rows with about 40 people rowing the boat. Every boat has its colors and the same t-shirts, mostly sponsored, as it would be too expensive to print these themselves. The winner of the heat goes to the next round, the losers of the first round get another Boat raceschance against each other. Some weird American dude, accompanied by what we think is his Japanese wife or girl, starts chatting with us. Items like travel, obesity, president Bush and foreign policy come up very quickly. But every time we start about a place we are going to visit, he notes how cheap are nice the girls are in that place... This guy is a bit obsessed I guess. But we leave his 'interesting' story telling when getting hungry, good for him as he needs to find back his girl who ran of, how could that have happened...

We settle at another terrace where they have spring rolls and more beer. Sofie is really starting to enjoy the Lao beer. An English couple, Sarah and Mat,  invite us at there table and  we end up exchanging travel info and ice for the beer. The final is at the end won by the strongest team. The loosing team has to row them back upriver for there victory round, a bet they made before starting the final race. Everybody cheers and suddenly the people start going home, or maybe to the locals party we don't know off. In the main street, we bump in to some adolescent party goers, and we show them our dancing capabilities. The girls go wild and the boy start spilling beer...

We 15/09/2004 Already at 8 am we are in front of Viladesa guesthouse sipping Lao coffee. We meet the Spaniards here who are going to thBuddhas in Pak Ou cavee famous Pak Ou caves for the boat trip. Mr. Joy is our boat driver and after a nice stroll over the Mekong we reach the caves, filled with small Buddha statues. This ritual seems to be quite old, and the locals still come to worship here at certain Buddhist events. The second cave is a steep walk up, but it is so dark in the cave, that there is not that much to see.

Once back in town we rent a bike for a dollar a day and wander around the streets of Luang Prabang. The city is actually a Unesco World Heritage site, with many old colonial style buildings being renovated as we speak. There are lots of temple complexes as well. At the most northern point of the peninsula, there is like a small park and we walk down the small path to see the river from closer. Some monks are waiting here as well, what is a river crossing. A boat man starts his engine and puffs over to ship us and a few monks to the other side of the river. The monks have a peddle and hide it in the bush once on the other side. What is all that good for, the boat has got an engine ? River crossingWe wander around and find an old temple up a hill, playing children in the street before that. When returning the children suddenly became merchants, trying to sell us a hand-woven bracelet for 5 times the price in town. Smart kids to set up a business so quickly, but the market economy system of question and demand has not reached them yet I guess.

After passing some kids playing with a dead snake, the riddle of the hidden paddle gats solved. A young monk keen of practicing his English, greets us just after leaving the boat. The boy is so shy that even I become shy as well, talking with him. He is coming back from school, which is in a monastery in the town center. He lives in the temple complex we saw before. Early in the morning (6 am) he crosses the river in a wooden canoe, with its wooden peddle, as the boat man is not always awake. When one side of the river is out of canoes, the boat man becomes active. On the way back in the afternoon, the same ritual, once there are no more canoes on towns side of the river, you need to wait for the boatman. Off course we pay the man a little fee, but the monks always go free of charge, they are not supposed to have money !

After some more driving around we notice a little monkey on a chain... This is a bad habit still used here. When it gets dark and the mosquito spray is spread on bitable areas, we bike off to locate a typical Lao restaurant out of town. We didn't find it, as usual, but on the way there we saw locals at some kind of BBQ restaurant. Lets go there. We order the BBQ for two, and order an extra plate with squid. Hot charcoal is put in a stone bucket in the middle of the table. On that a tin plate, with a big curved top with small air holes  in the middle. The side needs to filled with water, and will get close to boiling point. Then you use the pig fat to rub in on the top, before spreading the peaces of meat and squid on it. The glass noodles, coal, eggs, veggies and mushrooms are put in the water. When something is ready you put it in a bowl, and eat it with some pepper or the spicy but delicious dip sauce. This is great ! And the biggest fun is that this is not a tourist attraction, most of the people here are locals enjoying an evening out with friends are family, off course accompanied by the right amount of beer Lao. The price is 35000 Kip for the 2 people set, plus 15000 Kip for the squid plate. With two beers, this totals to 6 dollars for the two of us. I wander how the locals can pay this, the tourist industry is very profitable here !

Thu 16/09/2004 We still need to find out where we can cross the border to Vietnam. There is a northern crossing open , not Dien Bien Phu, but Man Can or something, must be from Phonsovan or Sam Neua. So we decide not to go more north to Luang Nam Tha, but to the 'famous' plain of Jars ! So we still have some time to go to Nonh Khiaw first, 6 hours up river and supposedly small and perfect for a hill tribe trekking. Yesterday the price for the ticket was 10 dollar, now the same ticket is just 8, good for us.

We still have our bikes and park it in front of the Phousi mountain. On the way up we see this strange colored lizard, which makes a threatening open mouthFunky lizard gestures when I put my foot too close to him. From the top where there is a little temple, the views are quite nice. But a lot of trees should be removed if you really want to enjoy the view. On the other side of the mountain is the old palace of one of the rulers of the province. The temple in front is one of the oldest in Laos and has a impressive shiny interior.

We put our bikes back and go for an oil massage. After the super relaxing Thai massage in Thailand, this feels more like an annoying arm and leg rubbing. I think this type of massage is not really the best option here, the girl on my back was playing more with my birth marks, pointing them out to her colleague working on Sofie, laughing and chatting about it for almost the whole hour. Afterwards we here that the massage in Vietnam and Cambodia is equally bad, so there is already one good reason to look forward to Thailand again.

Fri 17/09/2004 We checked out early and got an American breakfast with a view on the Mekong. Around 8 am the boat leaves, bound for Nonh Khiaw. The first part is upriver the Mekong, then we turn right into the smaller Nam Ou. Great view but painful asses. The seats are small wooden chairs, nailed to the side and bottom of the boat. Soon, I sit on the ground and enjoy the tripBoat on river differently. We stop twice at some small village shore for a peeing break. At one of these the local old lady was just washing up at the river. She doesn't seem to mind the visitors and continues her daily washing ritual. Two naked kids are making there own natural mud slide, with buckets of water to improve the sliding process. Beautiful to see how kids can enjoy them selves without a play station.

The boat drops us off on the right side of the river, right under the sunset guesthouse, our first option from the lonely planet. This place is basic, with rattan rooms, cold water communal shower, lots of bugs, bats and invisible mice. But there is a great terrace to enjoy the sunset and great food and beers.

The owner, Mister Church, does 2 day tours to a Hmong village, and soon we team up with Two English lads, Simon and Charlie, or nicked Jeff and Packs. They have lots of fun stories to tell, from home, and from there 11 month world trip. It is there last two weeks before flying home to the lovely wet and cold UK.

Sa 18/09/2004 The next morning we leave at 9am, put our lunch and water in the small bags and go upriver to a market village. Here lots of remotely living farmers come to sell there sesame seeds or other crops, and buy whatever they can use back in there village. The kids go crazy when they see there own picture on the digital camera, an experience we will see again the same evening with the Hmon kids.

A bit more upriver our trek starts, after paying the village elderly for allowing us to use his rice paddies and roads on the way up. The first part is sweet and nice on a small path, crossing a small stream here and there. Rice paddiesRice paddies on our left and right and soon we leave the path to walk though the paddies. Leaving the shoes dry and switching to flip flops at every wet spot is soon useless ass the mud quickly ruins that plan. No worries, I got my Teva water shoes on, quite comfortable actually. The cousin of our second guide is not home, we should eat our lunch at his little bamboo hut on the paddies, but soon we find another hut with some shade. First Packs removes a leech, and we check our legs and feet as well. The rice with veggies, and lots of garlic tastes good. And even more the sausage and sticky rice we try with the home made chili sauce the guides are eating. As desert some rice cooked with coconut milk in a bamboo stick, delicious.

One more hour of walking brings us at a river stop just before the village, where we jump in and find a natural Jacuzzi to be quite refreshing. The guides wash up here, and when we are all ready to go some kids are already shadowing us. When we enter the village we see lots of kids, up to 10 year running around naked. 2 minutes later the same kids have clothes on. They are not ashamed within there culture to run around naked as kids, but seem to be when tourists arrive. We walk up the small path, to the left and right family size huts made off bamboo mats and wood. Chickens, little pigs and dogs running around as they please. We see a small pond, that used to be the drinking place for lots of animals, before the Hmong people deforested  a lot of land around here. The man are mainly working at the highest point of the village where there are the bigger animals and stables, or on the field, where they grow corn, vegetables and rice. The women gather would, and the girls go dowHmong kids awed by digicamn to the river to bring up fresh water. We sit down and the kids gather around, especially for the photo sessions.  One of the kids has a big green shiny beetle as a pet, with a tiny rope around it. This is funny.

We play cards, blob, a game we learned the night before from Jeff and Packs, and try to learn the kids this word. While sitting there all kids try to understand what we are doing, to the annoyance of some of the elderly it seems. In the meantime it is getting dark, so we have a quick wash at the river, and discover where the electricity they have in the evening comes from, a small water powered turbine system, and wires attached to wooden sticks and mini telephone poles. A Vietnamese system the guide says.

The family prepared chicken soup for us, instructed and helped by the guide. We are happy to see that they make a big portion, so that the whole family can eat as well. With rice and manioc, some veggies and the soup we had a full stomach. We put our begs and set up the bed in the house of the brother in law, just two houses down. His main income is from selling big white fat maggots, very popular in China ! They are collected in bamboo sticks, laying a meter from our bed. Before going to bed we sit outside and discover some music is playing somewhere. A bit later the party folks have left and go up to there bedrooms. We also tuck in for a good night sleep.

Su 19/09/2004 Before sunrise the people here get up already, as all the roosters go wild around 4 am. We luckily have our ear plugs an manage to sleep till about 7am. We thank our family for the bedroom, not more than a mosquito net over a wooden heightened floor with some blankets to sleep on, and head to the other families house. In this house the have one room in the front, for the grandparents, two or tree rooms iHmong housen the back, for the parents and the kids. Cooking is on a open wooden fire, a big wok serves as the water reservoir, for both cooking and washing dishes. they cook squatted, the same way you would sit on a French toilet. Also the little stools they have to sit when eating are not more then 15 cm of height. We have our Nescafe coffee and eggs with dry bread around the small round table, before leaving the nice Hmong village and its people and culture.

On the way down we take another route to pass a Khamu village. These people look different and have some other way of living. The houses are on stilts, they have a small black smith, most of the man are addicted to opium, while the woman do majority of the work. They live on the flank of the hills, while Hmong live on the higher parts, and there main crop is rice and opium.

After we walk on a very muddy path down, which mainly destroyed the last hope of keeping shoes dry on this tour. After some slips and slides Jeff continues bare feted.Back by boat with Jeff and Packs

In the early afternoon we are back in Sunset guesthouse and enjoy the best shower so far, although very cold. Tonight and tomorrow we will relax here and decide what the next plan is...

Mo 20/09/2004 Lets do 'nothing today', changed to lets visit the caves, just half an hour from here. Sofie stays in , but Jeff, Packs and English teacher Brianna joins up. The caves were used by Pathet Lao leadership to do admisitration and banking during the Vietnam war. Laos is the most bombed country in the world, because Viet Minh and Pathet Lao were working to getter to free Laos and become a socialist country. From 1965 to 1973, the US devastated eastern and north eastern Laos with non-stop carpet bombing to counter the presence of Vietcong in the country. The Pathet Lao got there support, in there war against US backed Royal Lao and Hmong armies, who had the power in Vientiane. After the war ended it took just 2 years for the communists to create the Lao's People's Democratic Republic, or Lao PDR in short.

The first cave is reachable by steps, the next two can only be reached by muddy paths through the bush. Every time we need to check and remove several tiny leeches, trying to reach soft spots are already sucking our blood. In the caves a lot of imagination is needed to know what happened in the bank or administration rooms for example. No furniture or explanations make anything clear.

We get back before the sun sets and can get another cold shower to sweep the sweat of. Brianna is going to Vietnam, but the road east from here to Sam Neua and possibly to Phonsovan is very slow, and the connection very bad. Taking the morning bus to Luang Prabang, and the bus to Phonsovan a morning later will be quicker and more comfortable, so that is what we and Brianna will do.

Tu 21/09/2004 Very early we catch the bus and arrive around midday. We check in in our NamSok Guesthouse again, for a dollar less then before. Some internet and relax, and a great BBQ with our English and American friend brings us through a lazy day.

We 22/09/2004 Early in the morning we all have breakfast. We take the bus from the bus terminal, Jeff and Packs take the 2 day slow boat for the last week in Thailand. The bus is quite old, but Sofie and me get an empty seat next to us, so we are able to get some sleep. The ride is quite rough to, over steep mountain passes, with beautiful views, but also with a bit of nausea as a consequence.

We arrive early afternoon again and want to go to the KongKeo Guesthouse, an near guesthouse minibus takes us up and after seeing a 3 dollar basic room, we head for the other one, where Sofie and me get a bungalow for just 4 bucks. The place is cozy and the guest sitting on the relax terrace tell us the tour to the jar sites was good as well, so we decide to book it here.

The plane of jars, is a big generally flat area with some small hills, surrounded by steeper mountains. Because of the location of big old stone jars found on different sites, the area was called plain of jars by the French when they first came here. It was a busy merchant route between China, Vietnam and Thailand in the past. The huge jars found here, dated about 2000 and more years old, are believed to be burial urns used by the people that lived here. The body of the deceased was put in the jar in a ceremony. After years of decomposing, the bones were taken out to be cremated and then hidden under the stone jar, in a very small leather jar. This theory is generally accepted after proof found for all this by a French archeologist who worked on the site in the 1930's.

Before making the decision of what we choose to see on the tour, we are shown a dvd about the bombings and consequences of it for Laos and the people. The Us used cluster bombs, a bomb that opens after being airborne, to release hundreds of small ball sized mini bombs. they spin in the air, and when hitting the ground explodes with metal balls shredding everything around the place of impact. A huge problem is that many of these mini bombs didn't explode and are still hiding in the muddy grounds of Laos. These bombs are called bombies here. Each time a farmer needs to plough his rice field, he is in danger of loosing his life. Kids find the balls and get killed when playing with it. Of the 2 million bombs dropped on Laos in the 9 years, about 30 % is believed not to have gone off on impact. Huge 100kilos heavy bombs are still found today, with a big risk to local population. A campaign started in the 90's making people aware of the dangers, how to handle them, trained mine clearing teams, and started clearing projects. The Unites States of America still hasn't taken responsibility for there actions. This war and bombing was completely secret, carried out by the CIA, without knowledge of the Senate...

And then these kinds of bombs, and newer versions are still being used today, even by the UN, USA and other countries. While an agreement was made on anti personnel mines, no efforts or done to prohibit the use of cluster bombs that have a similar impact on the targeted population, as mines do.

We tuck in early today, to be ready for the tour.

Thu 23/09/2004 Our guide is 'Long', a Hmong English student of 21 years old. He left his village to study in Phonsovan and tells us a lot of interesting stories on Hmong life and culture. When he returns to his old village to visit family, all girls queue up to see this, in there eyes, very rich and educated bachelor. They say he is like an old buffalo trying to find some young leaves. Most girls get married when they are 13 to 15, boys about a year or 2 older. Once a boy has picked a girl during the yearly festivals in December, he goes and 'kidnaps' the girls from her village, to go live with his family, in his village. Mostly this is within common agreement, and the kidnapping happens, as the mother wouldn't let the girl, and a big help in the household, go.  In return the family of the boy pays about 3 silver bars to the girls parents. Badly enough sometimes girls don't agree but end up in a new unwanted family. Long is not married yet so that is very change and makes him very popular. He does have a Hmong girl friend though, who is in his English class !

The first site we visit has some 100 jars, in a beautiful location on a hill. Lots of craters from around can be seen from the overlooking hill. We walk over it for about an hour to see site 2, where some bigger jars can be found. It is very hot now, and we eat our fruits in the shade. These mythological jars have led to a lot of imagination with the locals, who have several explanations for there origin. Some say a giant army brewed drinks in them to celebrate there victory party, other say they were cups, so the giants were huge. The biggest jar is about 6 tons.

A ride drives us to site one, Wim sitting on biggest jarthe biggest site with 300 plus jars, a cave, and old trenches from the war on top of the hill. We wait on this hill for sunset, surrounded by UXO, or unexploded ordnance. It seems that these jar sites have not been cleared yet from bombies and other explosions. The MAG team. The Mine Advisory Group, is active here now, so no worries. I found a bullet just next to my foot, 'not dangerous, take it home if you want' the guide says.

Sunset

The sunset goes quick, but overall, it was a nice day. The jars are quite mythical and the stories very amusing. It was definitely worth its 5 dollars.

Fr 24/09/2004 Our visa for Vietnam becomes valid tomorrow, so no need to move today. Mister Keo, the mostly drunk, but funny, owner of the guesthouse says we can take a 7 am bus to Nong Haet. From there it is just a shared taxi to the border. Then we should be able to get to Vinh, that is what he thinks though...

Sa 25/09/2004 So here we are, watching an old Russian bus, which must be more than 30 years old. This will bring us over the hills to Nong Haet. And miraculously it does for a meager 18000Kip, almost nothing for a 5 hour trip. Here we can immediately jump on a shared taxi. The English speaking guy in the red jacket gets the price down to 15000Kip each, still much for a 20 minute ride. I guess he got part of the profit though. And then wait for 10 minutes, before we get our exit stamps. Brianna's visa is 1 day overdue, which costs here 10 US dollars, no point of arguing here, the next border is some 30 hours away.

We walk into Vietnam and find some laughing (at us or with us ?) half drunk custom guards and police. Wait, we have lunch break now. The other guy with the red jacket does the same so we sit down in half shade. One after the other annoying border guards looks at our passport, asks us were we are from, married maybe, tourist.

I wander to a shop, change the left over Kip into Dong, which has a rate of about 15600 Dong for 1 US Dollar. Up here some more guards, even more drunk and more annoying, I really wander if they are playing some psycho game with us. With a bottle of water I walk back to the girls who got quite annoyed by the border guys.

Finally after waiting for more than 2 hours, we first go uphill for a paper, than back down for a stamp, than down the stairs to get our bag checked, open air, just on a chair... They check all of Brianna's stuff, event the perfume bottles, I guess because she is American. Finally we get through and some motorcycles are already waiting to bring us down hill to the nearest village, 25 kilometers through the dust. This is fun, they strap the bag up end then you sit in front, holding in to the guy and/or the bag. The road is under construction so it is very dusty and bumpy, but definitely fun !

Let's hope the ride from the village to the first city Vinh is going to be good as well.

Laos has been great, the people are very friendly, prices are quite good, although negotiating is worth the try and not hard. The Mekong, the hill tribes and the plain of Jars were definitely worth the visit.

Keep on tripping,

27/09/2004

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