For the last three days we have been doing a multi activity tour into the countryside. You book these things not knowing what to expect or who you are going to be with. So the day started well when we met Fiona, a charming, intelligent Irish girl and got better when we met Graham, who is teaching English for the British Council school in Hanoi. We duly chatted and then we got into the mini bus with 2 more men to go and pick up our mountain bikes.
Our nice young guide then said we could leave anything we wanted in the bus rather than bike with it. One of the two men said that if anything happened to his multitude of technical gadgetry he would shoot him. Thus we were introduced to George, a very large, rather smelly Greek South African who declared he certainly wasn't joking.
As you can imagine this didn't exactly endear him to the rest of the group (the other guy was a Kiwi called Ruben by the way) and we wondered what on earth the 3 days would be like in his company.
We picked up our Trek mountain bikes and cycled via scenic dusty roads, small single tracks and a wobbly ferry to the Elephant village. (George managed to break a chain and then commandeered the trainees bike, i think the poor lad was relieved though as he couldn't change the gears and had to walk up all the hills) it was a lovely ride and felt really good to be back on good bikes again. Maps seem to be non existent here though so it would be very difficult to do it without a guide.
The elephants were beautiful. You could walk along their feeding station and they would like their trunks scratched. One in particular seemed really friendly so when it came to our turn to ride them I was pleased to get on her. We went down a steep path and into the river for a paddle at which point our lovely girl decided she wanted to go to the rest area and took off across the river in the opposite direction from all the others! The mahout got very agitated, but nothing seemed to change her mind and we thought we would end up in the river as she was trumpeting and rumbling with ears flapping wildly! Fortunately he shouted like mad to an older mahout and he came over and his elephant seemed to have a calming affect. Phew we were quite relived to make it back without a dunk, it wouldn't have mattered for us but not for the camera!
We then got on a very unstable speed boat up to a pretty waterfall for a swim and then walked on to our homestay village. It was a lovely spot with neat bamboo huts, swept mud floors and of course being a tourist spot it had a bar to get 'Beer Lao'. It was pretty basic though and the bedding didn't look too clean, good job we had our silk liners. There was no mains electricity and where we stayed was one of the only generators so everyone gathered there to watch the telly. We had a good evening and Dave actually had a decent conversation with George. Turns out he is a debt collector and heavy weight boxer and is doing some travelling as a number of his friends have been shot so he is making the most of life.
We had a walk round the village and helped a local woman to strip pampas grass. We know they make brushes with it but there looked far more than for just that one use. The village gets paid for hosting the home stay and so didn't mind us being there. The government are trying to use tourism as a way of them making money rather than cutting down trees, however there was little in the way of true native forest.
Our walk the next day took us through old rice paddies and plantations of Teak and Rubber trees-Chinese investment. They use slash and burn agriculture here and don't terrace the fields like they do in Sappa so it isn't very efficient. We would of course prefer to be walking through pristine forest but, as I said, at least this allowed us to see the view of the amazing limestone mountains that towered over us.
We did walk through some jungle though and rested in a Hmong village where there were only 7 families left. They were cut off with neither road nor river and an hours walk for the kids to go to school, so most people had moved away. When they saw us coming they hurried over to set out their stalls and we all bought something from a different family. There was none of the hard sell though like their tribe in in Sapa. mornings start quite cool and misty here, but the afternoons are really hot so we were really pleased to get to our next homestay and bathe in the cool river.
They collect the river weed here and go through a mammoth process of sorting, combing, beating and then laying it carefully on bamboo platters to dry. They then use it in a variety of dishes. We had it fried and it was very tasty.
At this second homestay we really were part of the home and all slept together on mattresses upstairs whilst most of the family and our guides slept downstairs. George declared he didn't want to sleep with Graham and said he would sleep outside with the dogs. He did have a splash in the river but still had the same football shirt on from the first day, he carried a huge bag of stuff but it obviously didn't contain clothes.
We had a good evening as by then we had got past pleasantries and people revealed more about themselves. We ended up playing cards and George suggested cheat. It was really funny as our trainee guide had been a monk for 10 years and really couldn't do lying!
He was observing our trip as part of his 6 year tourism course, which was costing him 10 million kip per year. He was the oldest son and his family were poor farmers on the Chinese border so it was really difficult for him and to be honest he wasn't really cut out for adventure tourism.
Slept really well ( clean and comfy) until 4 when the cockerels, dogs, ladies beating weed, drumming monks, kids etc all joined in gradually to bring us to life.
For our last day we kayaked back downstream, it was quite exciting as we had to go through some minor rapids but they were enough to get you wet and get the adrenaline going. Graham had been a kayak instructor so was breaking in and out of the current teaching George about the finer points. Put watched him do this a few times and then told Graham that if he didn't do that he wouldn't go round in circles all the time!
We got back and had a whip round for our 2 guides, but George insisted that he would take Put for a beer and buy him presents at the bus station. Poor lad. George was then getting on the night bus in the same football shirt so pity his neighbours. At least characters like that make it interesting.
Yesterday was spent on the bus and we are now in Phonsavan. The route was spectacular
and wound up and over a green landscape with a few villages scattered along the road occasionally. It got to the point where you longed for a bit of straight and lots of local people spent most of the journey being sick, poor things.
We shared the journey with Jackie and Brian who were Brits currently living on their boat in Turkey. They had spent the last 10 years sailing round the world so had lots of stories to tell. They were also very vocal and decidedly unpc about the different travellers on the bus which got a bit embarrassing.
Have been on a tour around 3 sites of the Plain of Jars today, which is generally why people come to this area. There are about 90 sites in all but only a few can be visited safely as there is a huge amount of ordinance left in this area.
The Jars are a bit of a mystery, but are about 3 to 4 thousand years old, made from stone not from this area and are of different shapes and sizes. The most common theory is that they are burial urns which made sense to me. We had a good day as once again we were with good company, although it has to be said that 1 site would have been enough. Andrew and Tania were particularly nice and they were doing a year round the world for their honey moon. Tania was a Philosophy teacher in UK and we ended up in the bar on religion, which I know is dangerous but was interesting and we were both united with people needing a sense of belonging in whatever form that may take.
We then visited mag (mines advisory group) which is a British organisation that is helping with the terrible task of UXO clearance in Laos. We watched a. Film that told us that the US dropped a bomb every 8 minutes from 1965 until 1973 in the secret war on Laos. 40 years later and many people are still being killed and injured, especially children who go and collect scrap metal for money for their families. It's really heartbreaking and they are such simple kind people you have to wonder what their thoughts were when suddenly a great beast appeared from the skies and dropped tons of bombs on them.
They are making some use out of it now with trips to bomb village, cafes with war artifacts playing American music and selling bracelets and souvenirs made from the casings.
Guess who we met for dinner, yes Brian and Jackie and it turns out that their surname is Palmer, the same as dear Brian next door in Cookham! Had a good evening with them as they told more stories about starter motors giving out off the coast of Giana, and trays of cat litter being thrown around in storms - yes they did take 2 Burmese cats with them!
We are currently having a what to do next day. We have heard that an area to the north is really wonderful and would like to go but travel here isn't that easy as many of the roads are unpaved and that's where there are roads at all! I don't know it's such hard work all this travelling!!
Still haven't found Internet to load this so it's a long entry!
We booked our ticket back to Luang Probang this morning, apparently it is possible to go direct to Muang Ngoi but it will take 3 days on various buses over very bumpy roads. He did say it would be an adventure though!
We then hired a motorbike which has been good fun. It didn't start that well as we assumed the weather would be hot like yesterday but infact it was decidedly chilly so Dave ended up buying a pair of combat trousers which were the largest they had. Good job he's not big eh?
We left on the main road towards Vietnam and it narrows from the plain to a gorge road that suffered intensive bombing as they reckoned on blowing up the supply route. We stopped to have a Laos coffee to warm up at a roadside cafe and she had a display of various bombs and seemed quite proud to show it off. We then turned off the main road and did a circuit through some charming countryside where the bomb craters had been turned into ponds and it looked incredibly peaceful. The tourist map talks about villagers using bomb casings for flower pots and fence posts but in reality most of the stuff has been sold for scrap metal. We stopped for lunch at the same cafe and she seemed really pleased that we had returned. We were given fried cassava followed by beef noodle soup, bananas and tea all for the sum of 20000 kip, about £1.50!
On our way back we stopped at caves which were used as shelters in the bombing. We have been in more splendid caves but this was impressive as there was no lighting so we were guided in by torch light. There were amazing bee hives hanging on to the rock at the entrance, good job we didn't upset them.
Most people only stay in this area for one day but we've enjoyed today. I'm kicking myself for not taking the phrase book though as we have had some really nice interactions and it would have been nice to have tried to say more.