12 September 2010

Laos and Ko Chang Island

Laos was a haven after the last few weeks in China.  There is simply something about Laos that gives is a completely laidback feeling, and any stress you may have had starts to dissipate.  As I mentioned previously, the bus got us in at 4am, and the place was completely dead (we found later that Laos has a curfew at night), apart from a tuk-tuk driver, who would take us to the hotel district.

Once there, we couldn’t find anything open, so after wandering the streets for a while, we sat down at a table and chairs where I could nab an open wi-fi connection.  Our location was particularly fortuitous, as it was exactly at this place that the Buddhist monks walked past each morning while collecting their daily alms from the faithful.  Hundreds of monks filed past in their bright orange robes to collect rice from the locals, which is meant to be their only food of the day.

The alms giving each morning has become quite a sensitive and controversial topic in recent years.  Spotting a business opportunity, some unscrupulous locals started selling alms rice to tourist so that they could give it to the monks.  The problem is that the rice was quite often the dodgy leftovers that they couldn’t sell in a restaurant, so the tourists were inadvertently making the monks sick.  Also, giving of alms was something you’re meant to do as a believer, not a tourist who simply wants to take part.

Soon after this started happening, the monks said they would stop collecting alms each morning, but were threatened by the government, as they knew it brought in the tourists (and much needed foreign money).  The other problem is tourists getting in the faces of monks in their procession to get “the perfect shot”, not respecting the sanctity of it.  We noticed a bit of it that morning, but it wasn’t to obtrusive.  There’s been a big campaign to make tourists more aware, and it seems to be working somewhat.

Scott arrived from London via (and after one night in) Bangkok at the Luang Prabang airport.  Security was tight, as we watched the passengers disembark from the plane.

Scott appeared about 2 minutes after the penultimate passenger got out, and for those two minutes, in my mind, I was confirming my suspicions about him missing the flight after an enjoyable time in Bangkok.  In the airport, Scott was able to wander out through border control to get some money, and back in again to pay for his visa; laidback Laotians.

Scott and I went kayaking and elephant riding one day (Audrey got a dose of the runs, so spent the day on the toilet).

On the river we spotted an elephant on the left bank head-butting a tree until it was felled into the river.  That was pretty cool.  We also managed to capsize our boat on the potentially the tamest river I've ever been on, and in the process, I lost my sensible soccer T-shirt.  I would have cried, but I've got another one back at home.

We made our way through Laos in about 6 days, tubing in Vang Vieng, and then going to the capital, Vientiane, which looks anything but a capital.  On the tubing, Audrey picked up a rope burn while being pulled into a bar on the side of the river (the main reason for the tubing).  It is probably the most serious injury she has ever had.  She is worried about getting a scare, Scott and I tried to convince her that scares are cool.  Another point were males and females don't see eye-to-eyr.

Leaving Laos, you get to travel on all 2.5km of railways in the country, which takes us to the Thai border, from where we took a night train to Bangkok.  It was the bumpiest train I’ve ever had to pleasure to be on.  We left Bangkok immediately, to head to a island, Ko Chang, near the Cambodian border for a few relaxing days.  Sharing a beach hut, we spent the time swimming, biking around the island and eating and drinking well.  The weather was rain intensive, but the water (and waves) were great.

We left Ko Chang after 4 days

02 September 2010

The End of China (abridged version)

Since I'm so far behind, and I've been writing about China for what feels like months now, I’m going to skim over the last couple of weeks of our time in China, I’m feeling quite lazy.


The overriding memory of our last couple of weeks in China was of bus journeys.  Long ones.  We’d made it to Kunming on a sleeper train.  Nice city, it’s high altitude also meant it was not too humid.  And they had a massive statue of Optimus Prime, and I bought a rubik’s cude, which I’m still trying to solve (we had some around out house when I was very young, and I can only remember peeling and re-sticking the squares to solve it; am determined not to do that this time and avoid using the internet to solve it as well).  I found a can of beer that said around the top of it, "Special edition in support of the US army", and the slogan "Yes We Can" near the bottom.  Which I thought was strange for China.  And I had a can of pineapple beer, nice, but not really like beer.  Even weaker than your average Chinese beer.

We headed off to Dali (above) after Kunming, and arrived just in time for the Torch Festival.  Was quite a long bus journey, as large sections of the main highway (which had been open for less than 5 years) were closed for repairs.  At one point, to facilitate us getting to the slip-road quicker, the bus’s co-pilot was running in front of the bus moving cones and signs off to the side of the road.

Was a nice place, bit too plastic, in the way China likes to "renew" all it's main tourists sites.  We got to hire an electricbike for a day, which made getting around (and jousting) really easy.

After Dali, we seemed to spend the majority of our time on buses until we got into Luang Prabang in Laos.  A bus from Dali took us to Lincang (a place that the proprietor of the Dali hostel said no vistor to his hostel had gone there before).  We could see why when we got there, not much going on, plus most of the roads out of it were phantom roads, they appeared on maps as normal ones, but to traverse them was impossible as they had suffered from landslides etc, or hadn't really been built yet.

From Lincang we headed to a town on the border with Myanmar, but didn’t cross.  The village we visited used to be a head-hunter village, but they stopped dong that in 1957.  We were shown the place where the last head was hung.  It was around this time we realised that the rules had recently changed for HK passport holders, and they couldn't get a visa-on-arrival at the Laos border any more.  Shit.

Queue a mad dash back across the country to Kunming.  It was a horrible sleeper bus, we’d done one before, and I swore never again, but we had little or no option this time, and had to accept it.  We wanted to get to Luang Prabang by the 14th, as we were to meet Scott (former housemate from London) off the plane at the airport there.  The bed above our heads wasn't secured properly (otherwise known as broken), so it bounced up and down about a foot when we hit a serious bump in the road.  The occupants must have thought they were on a trampoline.

Luckily the Laos consulate in Kunming could process visas in just over an hour.  After another full day bus journey, we were in JingHong, only a couple of hundred km from the border (there was a sleeper bus that would have taken us from Kunming all the way to our destination, but I couldn't stomach it).  After splurging on a more-upmarket-than-we’ve-been-used-to hotel (£26, breakfast included) for the night, we got on a bus that would take us to the border.

The Chinese side of the border was the usual big official-looking building with queuing areas, passport checks, places to fill out forms, bag searches etc.  The Laos side was a hut with a tin roof, and a few lads scanning the passport quickly, and stamping them, no bag checks etc.  About 20km inside the border, the bus was turning off to head to Luang Namtha, so we jumped off at that point, as we wanted to go to Luang Prabang.  We could have continued on, and taken a bus from Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang, but that would have simply meant back-tracking, and we’d spent long enough on buses by that point.

After standing on the side of the road for nealy two hours, and watch tens of buses go past (all going to Namtha or the Chinese border for some reason), one finally stopped that was going our way.  The bus was jammed packed, and we got a plastic seat in the aisle.  After a couple of hundred metres, it became quite clear why so few vehicles went this way.  The condition of the roads immediately deteriorated, and we spent the next 10 hours bumping along at an average rate of maybe 20km/h.

Most buses prefer to go to Namtha, as the road there is much better, due to Chinese and Thais funding; they want a good road to connect south-west China with northern Thailand, and that’s the quickest route.  Whereas our route simply goes deeper into Laos, where neither of them find much economic interest.

We finally arrived, knackered, in Luang Prabang at 4am.

01 September 2010


It's been an age since my last post, nearly four weeks and my longest sojourn so far.  Since then, we've completed south China, gone into Laos, and then to Thailand.  Reasons for not posting?  Slothfulness, travelling with Scott (a guy who we lived with in London for 3 years), which gave me an extra drinking buddy, and a bout of Dengue fever, which has seen me laid low for the past few days, but which I'm on the road to recovery from now.  Anyway, let me run through some of our last three weeks of China in this edition.

Leaving Guilin, we got a sleeper bus (left) on the way to our next destination, Kaili.  It was an awful experience.  Beds so small that I imagine the Chinese struggled to fit in them, and a bumpy bus ride.  I barely got a wink’s sleep all night.  Somehow the Chinese seem able to sleep in any position, anywhere.  The amount of toll roads was also crazy; throughout the 11 hour journey, we must have gone through about 20 of them.

We had a three hour train trip to after it to reach Kaili, and, a rarity in China, it was less than half full.  I grabbed myself a bench and slept for most of it, being woken only intermittently by a guy in the next set of seats trying to hawk out the window every couple of minutes.  Chinese men (and some women) spit a lot.  You see it much less so in the cities, but it’s still there.  I remember huge ad campaigns in 2004 when I was in Shanghai against it.  Audrey says it definitely happens less than it did back then.

We hadn’t bothered to book accommodation in advance for Kaili, as it’s quite a touristy area so there would be a few options.  The problem was that most of those options did not accept foreigners.  We hadn’t experienced this before, but knew that in the past it had been a common problem.  After the 4th hotel, we finally got one, but it was manky as hell, and had no air-con.  Luckily the receptionist pointed us in the direction of another that had air-con, and took my sort.

The hotel advertised prices of about 290 yuan (less than £30, an extortionate amount in China) a night, but for some reason they quote a price of only 150 when you enquire.  No idea why.  Again, we spent a few days pottering around, visiting some ethnic villages outside the main town.

In the villages, we got to see more of rural life.  These ethnic minorities had lots of their own culture, music, dress and food (although there are 6 million of the Miao group, which is a lot by some measures, but not against Chinas population).  Again the rice paddies amazed me, and the general layout of the land; how so many people survived in such mountainous regions.


Preparation of food was pretty raw,.  By this stage, I was getting tired of Chinese food, and some of the stuff served to us was pretty ropey, and looked even worse.  I’d have killed for a spud or two.  In restaurants, you would see the owner bring out the chicken to the larger groups of people so that they could inspect it before it was killed.  We were offered the chance to watch a pig being slaughtered (we declined).

I’m quite looking forward to getting out of China for a while now.  Including our time in HK, it’s been nearly 8 weeks.  It’s interesting, but quite sedate.  We’ll be in Laos in less than two weeks, where we will meet up with our former housemate Scott for a couple of weeks.

After four days in Kaili, we got a night train to Kunming.