Reflections on Laos

Lucy We crossed a river as we entered Laos and went to an island. One of the first things we saw was some beautiful kittens, the island was full of lovely cats and puppies. As we walked around the islands we saw pigs, cows, chickens, goats and water buffaloes. We walked through miles of rice paddies, where the rice was about to be harvested. Before we met my Auntie Clare, we met a motorbiker who was travelling around the world, his name was Bob. When we saw my Auntie, we were so overjoyed. We went to the Night Market together in Luang Prabang, where we bought early Christmas presents. Once when we got up super early in the morning, it turned out there was a festival happening right next door, it was related to the full moon. We watched as all the monks put their bowls in a line on a table, while all the rest of the people put food in the bowls, an equal amount for each monk. There were other things that the monks might need, one lady brought some tissues, monks gets colds too. When we left Luang Prabang, we went to a museum that told us about bombs. Many people had died when the bombs dropped. These bombs were designed to blow up as soon as they hit the ground but many didn't go off straight away and still haven't gone YET. The bombs were dropped a long time ago, before mummy was born. They are still scattered all over the country, usually under the ground. They still go off when when a farmer touches it with his hoe, when children find them and play with them or when a cooking fire is lit above it. The bombs have lots of scrap metal in them, so people go out to collect them to get money because they are very poor. This is very dangerous. Thankfully the Lao people are working hard to get them and make them safe. Alisha I liked Laos, it was a good country. I think my farvourite bit was seeing Auntie Clare in Luang Prabang {I think that's how you spell it I might be wrong the computer certainly thinks so} We started Laos off on an island in the middle off the Mekong. I enjoyed the many chicks, puppies and kittens running around the island. We spent one night on the Bolaven Plateau, which I loved as it dropped to about 12 degrees. We also had Halloween there, which I also enjoyed as it meant we could dress up and get lots of sweets. Daddy was very silly on the third time we went round the truck he kept offering us vegetables instead of sweets, it was very funny. I liked going to the Buddha park in just outside Vientiane {which I called the ATM for a bit {don't ask me why} it was because I heard mummy and daddy talking about it through my head phone. It had a giant pumpkin in it for some weird reason {maybe it was a giant Halloween decoration that they had forgotten to take down or maybe Buddha's farvourite food was pumpkins or maybe) it had three levels to represent heaven, earth and hell there was a bit in the middle that I think was supposed to be nirvana but the only way to access it was by climbing through a devils head at the top but Lucy didn't want to so I stayed with her. The door was also a devil's head you had to climb in through its mouth. In Luang Probing we went shopping in the night market where we bought Christmas presents Auntie Clare gave us some early presents, which was great.   Then we went over some perilous roads. Once we where behind an overloaded truck that seemed to be holding long-dead animals {or so it smelled like}.   We did a 16 km hike!!!!!!!! But daddy bought lots of sweets so that wasn't too bad.   Next we cross into Thailand the spicy food country.   I liked Laos it was a good country Gilly My enduring image of Laos will be a crowd of girls streaming out of school in their smart black Sinhs (straight skirts with a white stripe at the bottom) and white shirts under pink tartan umbrellas. It's a scene we have seen repeated all over the country as we have travelled from the south to the north. There are usually two school sessions:morning and afternoon and the children travel by bike, motorbike or foot. It's a treacherous time to be driving as they stream out on-mass laughing, joshing and chattering - not paying attention to the road! In such an economically challenged country it's wonderful to see so many children, including high schoolers, in education. There seemed to me more girls than boys, which may just be my perception, but it is a promising observation about the education of girls in Laos. Laos is still a communist country and the hammer and sickle is seen proudly flying everywhere alongside the national flag. It seemed very strange for us, I thought the flag had been done away with. In all those years we lived in Russia we only saw glimpses of it in older unrenovated buildings but in Laos it is everywhere. Like its neighbours Vietnam and China, Laos is economically definitely capitalist but to a far less aggressive degree. The Laos seem far less consumerist driven than their neighbours. Our guidebook has a quote from the French colonial times "The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians tend the rice and the Lao listen to it grow". I think there is a lot of balance in Lao between work, family and religion. It would drive me crazy to do business there but it makes it a lovely place to visit. My favourite slogan and tastiest beer from Asia: Beerlaos - Beer of the Whole Hearted People. I think Laos might be my favourite country in South-East Asia. It might not have the top sites like Cambodia's Angkor Wat or Thailand's beaches, but it does have bags of character; the huge snaking Mekong River; beautiful mountainous scenery; and friendly, relaxed people. Definitely a winning combination for me. Steve Laos was a great country to wind down in. It's peaceful and relaxed. Everything is unhurried and even the driving is more mellow. Sometimes things seem so laid back that it's almost horizontal. Saying that I really enjoyed Laos. It is definitely one of the poorest countries in South East Asia but also one with a wealth of natural beauty. The people were generally very friendly although occasionally they seemed a little suspicious of us. As we are now in the dry season we could enjoy the lush beauty of the forests and jungles as well as the waterfalls and hills. We travelled the length of the country and one of the most common sights was of the rice paddies along the way still been tilled by water bullocks and rice been harvested by hand. Whilst there are plenty of sights to see I think my overriding memory will be just how peaceful it was. We noticed the difference both in terms of development and speed of things as soon as we crossed the border into Thailand.

Sticky Rice in the Hills

Our guide Tam dug into the plastic bag and brought out a huge fistful of sticky rice. In true "dinner lady" style he dolloped a lump in front of each of us. Our feast was spread out before us on two banana leaves cut freshly from the jungle. Smoked aubergine; spicy river fish; greens with herbs; and most delicious of all roasted bamboo. It was all very tasty when you took a small lump of sticky rice with your fingers and dipped it in the small flavoursome portions. Dogs and chickens crowded under the table of the little hut, launching themselves at the discarded fishbones. Our two guides, slurped their way appreciatively through the meal, as did we. Halfway though our hike through Nam Ha National Park, we had all been hungry. After eating our fill, Tam produced desert. Which was, guess what? Yes, more sticky rice, steamed in a banana leaf with coconut. Also delicious and we were very well fuelled for the next stage of the walk. It turns out that sticky rice, is not what happens when you overcook boiled rice, but a whole different, far more appetising variety.  We had stopped for lunch beside the river in a Khamu, a hill tribe, village in the middle of the jungle. As it was rice harvesting time, most of the villagers were working out in the fields but there were a few shy but friendly children about as it was the weekend. As part of an ecotourism community project, the village welcomes hikers with a guide to look around. The houses were raised on stilts with livestock underneath; chickens scratched around; and rice stores that looked like small houses were away from the houses in the vegetable gardens. The Khamu are animists and we were shown the bamboo sign they put up on the paths in, to show then the village is closed for ceremonies. With our bellies full of sticky rice we continued our 16km trek through the primary rainforest. The girls did a great job walking on the muddy path and enjoyed chatting with the friendly young Australian couple that were with us. In the last kilometre back to the road, we heard giggling and chatting from the undergrowth, the universal sound of a group of teenagers hanging out. Eventually our paths merged and they slid out in front of us - literally, due to the muddy slope. They were bringing sacks of recently harvested rice from the village we had had lunch in. They were delighted to see a little blonde girl, after a bit of giggling and egging on as we all headed down the slope, they asked if they could take a picture with Lucy on a phone they had.  Earlier in the week, after a sad goodbye to my sister and Noel in Luang Prabang, we had headed to the hills. The road soon narrowed, twisted and climbed. However, unlike Cambodia the traffic was pretty light, so the driving wasn't too stressful. We turned off the main highway north to the village of Nong Khiaw. Surrounded by limestone khasts, jungle, rice paddies and caves with a scenic river running through it, it made for a lovely stop.  Outside the village, we climbed up to a cave where the local population and the communist provincial government had sheltered during 9 years of bombing they endured during the "Vietnam" war. Between 1964-1973 the Americans dropped 2,093,100 tons of bombs on Laos, even though it was technically a neutral country. The caves were pretty empty and I couldn't imagine people having to survive in it for so long for safety.  Early the next morning we rose in the mist and hiked up through the forest to a peak overlooking the valley. Sweating due to the steepness even in the cool air, we got to the top above the clouds just as they started to shift from the valley below. The drive north towards Luang Nam Tha was even more steep and winding but the road was good and pretty empty. As we reached the top of a ridge we noticed that the villages we passed through belonged to different hill tribes, with different style houses. Up here there are few rice paddies but people were out collecting vegetables from their fields; drying maize and foraging in the forest with baskets on their backs. There was a collection of interesting looking fungi available from the forest in the roadside market. The scenery was stunning below us. We broke our drive just outside the town of Udomxai, looking for a quiet spot for the night can be difficult in Asia. We saw a sign for a basic guesthouse with a big garden just as the sun was setting. Steve pulled up outside, the friendly older couple welcomed me in and with no common language we managed to communicate so we could camp in the garden for a small fee. It was a lovely quiet spot and as Lucy and I took a stroll along the road people said "Sabaidee" and smiled. A few came to look at the truck at a distance, said hello, then disappeared. We are finding Laoian people curious, friendly but quite shy. We had a similar experience in Nong Khiaw the night before, we ended up camping in a restaurant with Petang (Laoian bowls) courts. The local Petang league came for a few after work games, then disappeared into the quiet night. The next morning the owner showed the girls the tiny baby orphaned goats she had. Leaving Luang Nam Tha after our trek we drove through more scenic hill tribe villages to Friendship Bridge Number 4 on the Thai border. We spent a night in the grounds of another basic guesthouse, more pantomiming to communicate on my part, to prepare for crossing the Mekong the next morning to Thailand.

Rising With The Monks

Luang Prabang is famous for its wats which are still in active use. Each morning the monks arise before dawn and head out into the surrounding streets to receive alms from the local population. The locals line the street with rice and other offerings which they place in the monk's bowls and which constitute the monk's food for the day. As Luang Prabang is a tourist town, the monk's procession has also become a major tourist sight. Whilst we did not want to intrude we were keen to see this, so on our second morning in Luang Prabang we were up really early as we needed to walk a couple of kilometres into the old town. Little did we know we were about to stumble on something a little different. As we left the guesthouse where we were parked, we could hear the chanting from the nearby Wat. We had been able to hear this gently in the distance all night and were intrigued as to what was going on. Our route to town took us past the Wat and when we got to the entrance we could see hundreds of people streaming in carrying offerings. These ranged from simple offerings of sticky rice to more elaborate ones in baskets with rolls of money attached to them. Monks were also arriving both on foot and by tuk tuk. Rather than proceeding into town we decided to follow everyone in to see what was happening. We had stumbled upon the That Luang festival, which is held during the full moon in November. We found a spot towards the side so that we were well out of the way, where we were befriended by a young monk who helped explain the festival to us. He was keen to practice his English and we were keen to understand what was going on. He explained that instead of the monks filing out of the temples as normal, on this day the monks came to this temple to receive offerings of food and money from local people. It was a spectacular sight and at its peak there were well over a thousand people jammed into the grounds of the Wat. They sat down on mats on the floor until the chief monk made a blessing and then they all lined up to hand over their offerings to place them in the bowls and big bin bags lining a row of tables in the centre. A lot of the local people were dressed in their finest and as it got light the place was a mass of people and monks. It was lovely to witness such an ancient festival. We could not help but smile though at some of the modern touches. We were not the only ones taking photos, some of the monks were taking them on their smart phones and a lot of the locals had their selfie sticks with them. Clearly it was a big event and it felt a real privilege to be a part of it. A few days before, we had left Vientiane and started heading North. We stopped to camp by a large lake that had been created by a dam. Here we met Christoph who ran a small guesthouse and a small animal rescue centre. He kindly showed us the monkeys and bear that had been rescued from animal traders. The bear had arrived as a tiny cub and had needed lots of work to look after at first. Whilst it's never nice to see animals behind bars, it was better than what they could have been subjected to.   The next morning, we were taken to see some of the monkeys that had been relocated onto an island in the lake. We didn't go onto the island itself as the monkeys are wild but were able to see them from the boat. Christoph still feeds the monkeys on the island even though there is probably enough natural food for them there. He does this for two reasons. Firstly by going to the island each day it signals to the locals that someone is interested in the monkeys and they shouldn't be poached. Secondly the monkeys can swim and as they are used to humans, they could swim back to the mainland in search of food. We continued to drive North to the village of Vang Vieng, which up until a couple of years ago was a real drug and drunken hangout on the backpacker trail. Fortunately it's cleaned itself up as it is in a beautiful setting on the river with karst cliffs behind. We tried to do a hike but the paths kept becoming over grown so we gave up and instead found a beautiful camping spot right on the river just outside of town. On our short walk we were given a stark reminder of what we had learned in Vientiane about all the unexploded bombs around the country. As we walked there were lots of examples of bomb casings (now safe) been used for things like metal posts. These are becoming increasingly common as we head North. There are two roads from Van Vieng to Luang Prabang. Route 13 is the original road which twists up and over the mountains. Route 4 is the new route. It is shorter and less twisty but it goes over a mountain range with a pass at 1850m. Although it's less twisty the road up and down is a long 12 per cent gradient. Having driven far higher in the Andes with few problems, we thought we would take the shorter route. Whilst the road was good it was steep and as we approached the top of the mountain we became enveloped in cloud. Towards the top, the road had deteriorated due to landslides and the tar became sticky mud in places. Just before the very top two small, very overloaded trucks were stuck. Thoughtfully, they had ensured no one else could get through. After persuading one of the drivers to back down a little we engaged 4wd and managed to pass quite easily. They must have unloaded some of their stuff to get up the last bit of the hill, as they whizzed past us a few hours later. Apart from the obvious tourist delights in Luang Prabang there was another reason we were looking forward to getting there. Gilly's sister Clare and her boyfriend Noel are travelling around Asia and had arranged to meet us there. It was lovely to see them and catch up on their travels. We spent our time with them visiting the various Wats and the Royal Palace but Alisha and Lucy weren't interested in any of this they just wanted to hear Aunty Clare tell them stories. Fortunately they are staying in Luang Prabang longer than us, so if they missed some of the sights on our look around they can always go back to them. Overall Luang Prabang is a peaceful, pretty town with plenty of places to eat. Whilst there are a lot of tourists it doesn't seem overrun by them except at the top of the hill for sunset. We headed up there with what seemed like everyone else one evening to enjoy the view. Whilst in Luang Prabang we also caught up with Robert Dolven who was riding his motorbike around the world. He had passed us just outside Vang Vieng and stopped to say hi. As we were heading the same way he joined us for dinner and a few beers one night and it made for a great evening. There was no way though I was going to be rising with the monks the next morning. One morning we took a boat across the Mekong and went for a short hike along the river bank. On pulling out the iPad to check the map, I had a quick check of the BBC front page. To my surprise along with the usual stories about Trump and Putin was a picture of Lucy walking up a sand dune in Namibia. BBC Travel had done an interview with us back in Australia about schooling your children while travelling and had just released it on their international website. If you are interested in the article non UK readers can see it at If you are in the UK try the following link: After a lovely few days with Clare and Noel it was time for us to move on. We never did see the monks filing out from their Wats to collect alms but the one time we rose early enough we had a memorable early morning with them at their festival.