Thursday, 19 May 2011

Lao Time

Hello internet my old friend, it's been a while.

And hello to all you you people who keep coming back to punish yourself with my blog. You masochists, you. This little blog, which will probably turn into a not so little blog during the course of the 2 hours I plan on spending writing it is coming to you from a new country. Vietnam is done... for now.

A week and a day ago I left the city of Hanoi on a train bound for Vinh (still in Vietnam by the way). I was literally the only tourist on this train and I was treated as somewhat of a celebrity by the locals who plied me with rice whiskey and wanted to know everything about me. All of the time trying to communicate with hand signals as not one of them spoke a word of English. In Vinh the experience was continued as I was, once again, the only tourist there. On a routine wander around after arrival I was invited to sit with some locals who bought me beer and gave me tofu and peanuts. I couldn't stay long however as I had to get up early to catch the bus to Phonsavan (in Laos).

The bus for Phonsavan departed really early and was scheduled to take 10 hours, including the border crossing. As is the norm, it took roughly 12 hours excluding the border crossing. And I managed to sit next to the World Champ at Personal Space Invasion for the whole journey. Just my luck.
The border crossing was nothing short of epic. To get to the border one has to drive 25km up a spectacular mountain pass. The bus drove up the pass in bright sunshine and about a minute before reached the crest the heavens opened in a downpour second to none. At the border post it was raining so hard that the road had turned into a temporary river. Regulations stop the bus from driving right up to the Vietnamese side's entrance, so I had to run about 150m in the heaviest rain I have ever seen. By the time I reached the border post, 20 seconds later, I was soaked. I had wanted to take pictures of the crossing, but as you can imagine getting a camera out in a downpour in not the easiest or the best advised thing to do. I put my passport on the top of the pile of passports in from of the Vietnamese official and it got handled first and given back to me. Somehow the rain had stopped and I meandered over to the Laos side and got my visa without hassle.

Laos is a beautiful country. If not the most beautiful country I have ever seen. The drive through the mountains to Phonsavan proved it. Laos is lush and around every turn there is a stunning view down a valley or of a mountain. But more on that later.
The most beautiful country?

One of the better-preserved Jars
Phonsavan is one of the more populous cities in Laos, with a population of around 60 000. That said, it is a one-street town and the only reason it's worth visiting is the nearby Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars is divided into about 300 sites, 7 of which have been cleared of UXO (unexploded ordnance) - from when America bombed the shit out of this country - and have been declared safe for tourists. I went to Plain of Jars site 1 the morning after crossing into Laos, before other tourists made an appearance and was blown away (there's a pun in there, it was completely unintended I assure you. I only noticed it when I read back on this post). The Plain of Jars site 1 has roughly 350 jars all dating back about 2000 years. There exact purpose is still a mystery but they are believed to be funerary urns. The people who built them are unknown and are believed to have disappeared. To every question you ask you'll likely get the response "It's a mystery."

An idea of scale
Walking amongst these ancient artifacts and knowing that you know about as much about them as archaeologists do and that at any given point you're probably not that far from an unexploded bomb is a somewhat surreal experience. Beating the tourists to the site was a brilliant idea as I was able to take it all in before anybody else arrived. Naturally it made it easier to take photos and I was pretty trigger happy with the snapshots.

Sadly once you've seen the Plain of Jars you've pretty much done everything in Phonsavan worth doing. After a morning in amongst the the Jars I headed back to Phonsavan and booked my ticket to Luang Prabang for the next day. About 5 minutes after I arrived back the rain started up and didn't stop until the evening. It was such luck that I was able to see the Jars in a dry part of a day that was 90% rain.

Lao time is unlike any other time (African-, me-, etc). If you think African time is slow, add 20% to that and you'll get Laos time. "How long will the bus take to get to Luang Prabang?" I asked.
"About 6 hours. You leave at 7 AM and get there around 3 o'clock." came the reply.
"Sounds good to me."
After nine hours on the bus you're thinking, "Where the fuck is this place?"
And then, mercifully, 10 and a half hours after departure, you see it. Way off in the distance, but it's there. You can almost touch it...
Another hour, thank you very much.

Every road in Luang Prabang looks like this.
And we're here. Luang Prabang. The most impossibly photogenic city in the world. Every street and alley you walk is picturesque. And everything you do, you do at 50% pace. It's Laos PDR at it's best (Please Don't Rush). It's a really small town that takes about half an hour to walk around, but there is so much to see you'd be hard pressed to see it all in just a couple of days.

But rushing around and trying to see everything is just not on. This is Laos after all. You must meander, with a book in hand, through the streets and alleys. Stopping as often as possible to read that book or sit in silence and watch the Mekong river do it's thing. There are Wat all over the place in Luang Prabang and you'll almost certainly be 'watted out' by the end of your stay. (Wat are buddhist temples, by the way).

Wat wat?
Sadly for me, the rain played a major role in what I could see and do. It bucketed on the first day I wanted to explore and I was confined to a balcony overlooking the market. Which was an experience in itself. There was a break in the clouds for about and hour so I headed around the city (literally. When I say I headed around the city, I mean I actually walked around it). I was trigger happy with the camera once again and got some really cool shots of the beautiful alleys and some of the Wat. At the end of my meander around I stopped and watched some local men playing Boules. It was drawing a crowd of spectators and the men were laughing and joking while playing a cracking game. If there is a metaphor for Lao life it would be this. It was the middle of the day, yet these men weren't interested in working, they just wanted to have some fun.

The night market
The greatest attraction in Luang Prabang, in my opinion, is the food. At night buffets open up in the market and you can get a hug plate of great food for only 10 000kip (Roughly R10). You can expect your tastebuds to be awakened by a trip to Luang Prabang. After you've gorged yourself on a brilliant vegetarian buffet head down to the night market and grab yourself a fruit shake for 5 000kip. Take a moment to watch as that fresh pineapple you just chose gets turned into a fruit shake right before your eyes.

On another of the days which didn't rain I headed out of town to see what I could find, away from other tourists. I found a place with looms set up and women weaving away. It was incredible to see how much effort goes into making those beautiful cloths that we barter so furiously over. It makes you wonder how they can sell those cloths so cheaply, hundreds of hours go into making a single cloth. It was a humbling experience and it put a lot of what I've seen into perspective. The sheer amount of effort that goes into it and yet we barter so hard over what, in our currencies, amounts to mere cents.

After visiting the weaving centre I headed back into the city's heart and found a shady spot to read away the afternoon. It seems that the most I did in Luang Prabang was eat, read, and walk. That night I went back to the night market, this time armed with a camera for some more trigger-finger stretching. The next morning I would jump on a bus to Vientiane - the capital of Laos and where I am writing this blog post from.

Luang Prabang will definitely go down as one of my favourite cities in Southeast Asia. It is a beauty-filled city with friendly people and the most relaxed pace of life you will ever experience. It makes doing nothing a reward for doing very little and it laughs at you for taking life too seriously.

Kip jokes aren't as funny as dong...

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