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Wed 27 Dec. Vientiane, Laos.
Leaving the incessant hassle and attitude of the Khao San area, and spend the night on a rude and uncomfortable Thai bus. On arrival in Nong Khai, fight to get a half-reasonable fare to the border from the gang of pushy tuk-tuk drivers, and fight to get the correct change at the other end. Pass over the Thai-Lao friendship bridge.
And emerge into the calm of Laos like walking into a fridge full of cold beer in the middle of a sweating jungle.
A gentle mist is rising off the Mekong, a line of orange robed monks on their alms round emerging from the grey. A taxi driver ambles over and good nauredly agrees to a price to Vientiane. The difference in atmosphere from crossing a simple river couldn't be more striking.
Vientiane, although a capital of half a million, feels like a sleepy provincial town. Sitting in a bamboo riverside bar leaning out over the bank on stilts with Fiona and Sylvia, a couple of fellow sufferers from the bus last night. We try to order the fried grasshopper to go with our BeerLao, but the grasshopper is off. Below, silhouetted against the setting sun, children splash droplets of light from the water.
Thur 28 Dec. Vientiane to Vang Vieng, Laos.
Up late for a baguette breakfast (a legacy of Indochina's French colonial past) and a Lao coffee (strong, gritty and made with condenced milk), then straight to the bus station. The bus is clanky and held together with tape, packed with Lao, hot and uncomfortable. But - but, joy of joys, not only is there a basket of chicks cheeping plaintively, there are a couple of real live chickens! My happiness is truly complete.
The green landscape crescendos slowly during the four hour journey, from flat fertile plains around Vientiane to a climax of Stegosaur-backed karst mountains of red sandstone on arrival at Vang Vieng. The tiny town is on the verge of being drowned under even the limited number of tourists that make it to Laos, but still manages to retain it's sleepy demeanour.
We check into the tallest building in town, just the first floor completed, with a great view the red cliffs and fields around town from the building site on the top storey. The owners share their meal with us, and it is by a mile the nicest food I've eaten in Asia so far.
Fri 29 Dec. Vang Vieng, Laos.
The spry and wiry Mr Keo leads us - by the light of nothing more than a few guttering candles - on a tour deep into the bowels of some of the many caves of Vang Vieng - Snail Cave, Buddha Cave, Elephant Cave - and presents a barbecued snake on a stick for lunch.
Some of the group get together for dinner and drinks in the evening. I must have drunk too much, because I go round the entire restaurant doing a survey on the different international versions of "Cockadoodledoo!". For the benefit of posterity, here are the results: French: "Cocoricco!"; German: "Kikiriki!"; Finnish: "Kukkokiekuu!"; Israeli: "Kukuriku!"; Lao (phonetic) Oukeleanauoo!".
Sat 30 Dec. Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, Laos.
"Road not recommended for nervous persons," warned a Lao tourist magazine about the road from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, adding vaguely, "there may be issues." Meaning, breakdowns, punctures, overcrowding, ambush by Hmong bandits, driving off the barrier-free road down a vast ravine. Well, for better or worse, I have opted to face these issues suffering from a severe hangover and chronic lack of sleep. Not only that, I seem to have offended Fiona during a drunken argument and she's not speaking to me.
Although we get to the vastly overpriced tourist bus in reasonable time, all the seats are long taken. This is no obstacle to Lao entrepreneurism, and we, along with many other people are packed into the aisle on hard plastic stools. There isn't a single local (let alone a chicken) on the bus as we leave on a trip even the official timetable describes as taking '6-8 hours'.
It would be nice to report the journey passed in a miserable blur. It didn't. It passed in an endless torment of absolutely clear misery. Bum bruised from my perch on the stool, arms bruised from being thrown side to side against the end of seats as the bus grinds and lurches up the mountain passes - dizzy with exhaustion and hangover, with absolutely no chance of sleep. It's entirely self-inflicted, folks, have no sympathy!
After an eternity, I become convinced my watch is broken, as it has barely moved in the last 20 times I've looked at it. Unfortunately, the clock at the front of the bus is exhibiting the same symptoms. The mountain landscape outside is probably very impressive, not that I'm looking.
After another eternity, the traveller dude in a seat next to me starts singing sincere soft rock to himself. This truly is too much: Lord, take me now!
Several miserable eternities later (actually a bit over eight hours) we get to Luang Prabang, and straight into another misery trudging round hostel after hostel only to be told they are all full. I loose the girls (or they lose me - who knows), get angry about losing my share of the kitty, then find them again. The last remaining option in town is to sleep on a mat on the floor of their room. I'm way past caring, gobble some noodles in a Chinese foodstall and pass out.
Sun 31 Dec. Luang Prabang, Laos.
Wake up after 11 hours feeling human again, and escape the by-now stinking atmosphere with Fiona sharpish by taking a newly vacated room. That is the way with meeting people on the road, sometimes it's a win, sometimes it's a loss. Chalk that one up as a loss.
Watch the sun set on Y2K over the Mekong from Mount Phousi, the miraculous mountain that plunges up from the centre of town, then back to toast in the new year with my guesthouse owner, Mr Oudilon, and a bottle of Mekong Whiskey.
Mon 1 Jan 2001. Luang Prabang, Laos.
First light on 2001 is grey and misty, and rent by the sound of many cockerels. Luang Prabang, the world heritage city (as signs constantly remind you) recieves as many visitors as the entire rest of Laos, and heartbreakingly seems to be going down the 'tourist alienation' route of Thailand, as the town is buried under a wave of visitors who have no idea (and less inclination to care) that it is offensive to Lao culture to wander around in skimpy shorts and vests.
The standard 'things to do' around town are caves and waterfalls. But, do you know, I just can't be bothered. I'm perfectly happy, after nearly eleven months on the road, to just wander round town and enjoy the red and gold roof of a wat twinkling through a screen of palm trees, softly hypnotic drumming throbbing from each Wat at prayer times, the Mekong sliding timelessly past the city, a child running along a riverbank trailing a kite. A group of children wade across one of the rivers, one at the back wearing a large orange lifejacket. I can't tell whether it is a prized posession, or deeply uncool and forced on him by overprotective parents.
Luang Prabang isn't completely lost yet.
On to Laos - The Plain of Jars.
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