Sunday, 19 August 2012

Luang Prabang, Laos and bus trip to Vietnam

July 21 - July 24, 2012

Knowing Laos to be the least developed of the SE Asian peninsula did nothing to prepare us for Luang Prabang.  Our accommodation was by far the most luxurious of budget accommodation we have had yet, food prices were the highest and the colonial architecture felt like you were walking though a part of France in need of a paint job.  Old town at night offered a particularly lovely vibe.  The lack of streetlights in exchange for beautifully lit buildings created a unique atmosphere that made one feel like enjoying a glass of wine at one of the numerous appealing spots (or maybe thats just me?).   It is the first place we have come across where visa cards are widely accepted, even our budget accommodation was the first that was happy to collate charges together in a final bill, western style, to make debit and credit cards a viable option rather than the Asian habit of paying as you go, day by day. For the first time we found many places actively advertising travellers cheque exchange and there is a money changer every few hundred metres in the old town. The entire place is geared up for tourism in every sense, providing all the convenience and luxury a traveller of any budget may be seeking. 

As lovely as this little place was I felt like I was missing the real Laos.  Surely this is not a typical town in this country and it both exceeded yet disappointed expectations, especially as this is the only place in Laos that we will be visiting this time around (with intentions of traveling from south to north in a couple of months).  

Every morning the devout line a street in Luang Prabang to give alms to the monks of the town in return for a blessing.  Of course this happens all over Asia, but in Luang Prabang it has become something of a theatrical ritual and Asian buddhists will make the pilgrimage specifically to take part.  I have seen the monks waiting to receive alms in other towns throughout Thailand and Malaysia, but never as here.  By the time I arrived on the scene at 0545, the sidewalk was already lined with people, their purchases of food already made from a small army of women with the traditional supplies of rice, fruits and biscuits in their suspended bamboo baskets. Across the road, western tourists look on with a mixture of bafflement and interest and the two sides of the road spent an amusing 10 minutes taking photos.  

At 6am the chief abbot of one of the local temples (I assume this regularly changes by ballot or rotation) enters the street at the head of a column of some 200 - 300 monks and they proceed in turn down the line at a sedate pace as the devout fill their alms bowls to capacity and beyond.  In the gutter of the road stands a young street urchin, with a large blue plastic basket and periodically one of the monks will turn and pass some of the food to him until that basket too is full and the child disappears, presumably to share the days bounty with his brethren. The women of the town meanwhile stand behind the devout, ready at a moments notice to resupply a waning stock (at a price of course) and the westerners run from one position to another like a pack of wolfish paparazzi, hungry only for the best angle.
After 20 minutes, its all over, the last line of monks heads off at the intersection to divide the meal between them at their respective wats; the women pack the last of the food into their baskets and make for the market place and another days work; the devout, no doubt reeling in heady thoughts disappear to their own breakfast and the rest of us dissipate to cups of coffee and examinations of three inch screens under the rapidly warming sun. 

At the other end of the day, the night market offered some of the most beautiful, quality handicraft we have come across yet and our usual tight fist was pried open to a number of items on display.  A gorgeous painting, a t-shirt and a stunning silk sarong easily took us three times over our daily budget and that's without the postage costs to send it all back to Canada.  We need to get out of this place! 

Unfortunately for me, the only way overland to Vietnam, to be on time for the hill tribe weekend market in Sapa, is via a 24 hour bus journey.  "Singapore to the UK by Land' isn't always as romantic as it sounds. Sometimes I wish we might fly instead.

Before our bus journey we visited Wat Xieng Thong (or Temple of the Golden City) which is a gorgeous example of typical Laos art and temple architecture;  the roof sloping towards the ground with gold inlays in the carved door depicting scenes from Buddhas life and elephants built into the outer walls. The interior was sumptuously decorated, carpeted from wall to wall and contained, along with the usual Buddha images, incense and candles, the most glorious gong. With the hammer placed conveniently on the stand it was beyond my self control not to hear the rich booming tone just the once. As rain poured from the heavens we dutifully inspected the rest of the compound including the building which houses the funeral chariot and urns for the royal family, the Wat having been under royal patronage until as recently as 1975.

The journey to Hanoi was both my best and worst overnight bus journey. The upper seats were full to capacity with other western travellers in high spirits looking forward to another new country.  On the plus side we had fully reclinable seats which made the journey so much more comfortable.  The seats however were so close to the ceiling that you almost hit your heat, I had a pillar for a window and decorative tassels dangling in my face obstructing any kind of view I might have had.  Within 20 minutes that familiar feeling of motion sickness hit me with a kick in the head and all I could do was recline in my seat for almost the entire duration.  With no bathroom on the bus, when one had to go the bus pulled over and we went on the side of the road.  The women squatted at the back of the bus huddled together in the dark and pouring rain.  At night this was fine and barely bothered me.  It was during daylight hours when we had to pull over and pee in view of oncoming traffic that was far less dignified.

Sleep did not find me that night though as we twisted and turned around corners as it traversed mountain passed often making me feel as though I was suspended from an inversion table and being swung around like a game of game of tether-ball.  The horn sounded to warn every motorbike en route we were overtaking.  Of course, Julian slept easily and it wasn't until our driver pulled over at 0230 and another 30 Asian people piled on the bus that he stirred at all. The Vietnamese settled below us on what I thought were luggage racks but in fact were sleeping platforms with no windows, no ventilation and basically no comfort what so ever.  These people piled on the bus so loudly it was atrocious.  Babies crying, some people fighting for space, others talking on cell phones, one woman demanding an English girl move seats to accommodate her (which was not happening) whilst the driver whipped a blanket from beneath a western girls' head to offer to the newcomers. The hectic expedition lasted about 20 minutes before the bus finally pulled out, moved about 100 meters and pulled over again.  The mood on the bus changed dramatically.

The driver proceeded to yell at us in Vietnamese to alight.  Confused and tired we were all reluctant to pile out of the bus; the driver pointing at us individually to hurry out of our seats.  Pointing a finger and speaking harshly at Julian who was in no mood to deal with his attitude after being woken up in the middle of the night.  Refusing to get out of his seat he blatantly insisted he did not have to use the toilet and wanted to remain sleeping in his place.  More forceful now the driver continued his harsh rambling until we all moved out and dutifully lined up at the toilets.  Inside the women's restrooms five palm leaf baskets sat on the floor which caged 3 chickens each.  All I could do is laugh in my exhaustion at this bizarre sight as we all tried to get our head about it.

Apparently it was breakfast time.  We were served a bowl of chicken and rice soup which was decent but I was turned off from the scene in the bathroom and couldn't help but consider the cleanliness of the kitchen that used public toilets as a larder.  

When the driver was ready to go he let everyone know.  That familiar barking tone ushering us onto the bus, pushing us forward when the person in front had yet to move.  It wasn't long before we decided that not only was he the worst driver but he was also the rudest person we have ever met.  His treatment towards us was appalling and I began to envision being transported somewhere against our will.  The only solace being the comfort of our reclining seat and the air conditioning mercifully keeping the bus cool.

We made two stops the following afternoon.  We pulled over for 'pee break' on the side of the road which four ladies took advantage of.  As we searched for some kind of cover I was appalled to see the three drivers (who were exchanging duties in shifts) peering at us from around the bus.  We later stopped for lunch some 12 hours after our previous 0230 breakfast and was once again blown away when I saw a woman chopping vegetables on the concrete floor in front of the hose tap outside the bathroom used for hand washing.   

The 24 hours turned into 27 hours as we paused at three or four locations to allow our Vietnamese contingency off at part-way destinations before we pulled into an unsurfaced yard under a major freeway intersection.  A young Vietnamese man boarded the bus and offered us a solution:  A US$2 ride into Hanoi city to any location with a stop at an ATM for those in need. At 2130 on a soggy evening in Hanoi and after 27 hours on a bus, his information and command of English was invaluable and we all breathed a sight of relief for his helpful and inexpensive service.  Having no pre-booked accommodation for that evening as usual for us, he suggested his own hotel which after speaking with fellow travellers we have found to be one of the cheapest, most comfortable options in Hanoi. Should you ever be in the city we can definitely recommend    We deposited our luggage and went for our usual foray for food (coming across dog on the menu for the first time) then both passed out before the clock stuck 12 and slept for a solid 11 hours. 

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