Wednesday, 24 August 2005

Luang Prabang

Wow, it feels like weeks since I last posted an entry. I've not even updated my personal diary/timetable/thingy in the last four days!

My time in Luang Prabang (SE-Asia's most (adjective) town, according to the Lonely Planet) has been an absolute blast. The time has shot by and I really wish I could stay longer. But the people I know here are all beginning to (or have already) left now -- James left yesterday, I think Chris (the Australian "fuck it" guy) left today (as today was the first time I didn't bump into him at least three or four times), as well as Quentin and Conrad and Vicky catch a bus early tomorrow morning... as do I. My next destination is Udomxai, which is about six or seven hours by "public" bus. Quite what a "public" bus is, exactly, I don't know. I am having rather worrying thoughts about being sat next to a chicken coup for four hours, only for it to be replaced by a small duck and a cow with calf for the last three hours. Time will tell.

There is definitely something about Luang Prabang that sets it apart from everywhere else in Asia that I've visited. It is a small, lazy town populated with a couple of Lao but (seemingly) mostly travellers. But even the travellers are close-knit and friendly... it's hard not to be when half of the foreign population spent two full days on a boat together, if coming from Northern Thailand, or four days, if coming from Northern Lao/China's Yunnan province.

This is where I met almost all of the people that made the time here so interesting -- James was the first person I really met, when we had our Indian meal after a day of sailing down the Mekong, followed very shortly by Conrad and Vicky, Quentin and Chris, when I bumped into them sharing a couple of beers outside their guesthouse. As it turned out I spent the last five nights in the same guesthouse as Conrad and Vicky and most of the past four days were meandering around Luang Prabang's two streets with James (who stayed at a guesthouse nearby). Chris, who I think everybody on our boat knew, was everywhere all at the same time. Not an hour went by without bumping into him at one of the numerous bars, guesthouses (which have beer after 10/11pm) or 5000kip all-you-can-eat buffets. Quentin wasn't quite so omnipresent but I saw him quite a few times and thre group of us (bar Chris) spent a nice day at the nearby waterfalls.

The waterfall trip was cheap -- $2.5 per person for a four-hour round trip. Unfortunately there had been some heavy rain for quite a few days so the path to the top of the falls was nothing less than treacherous... Conrad and Vicky made it the farthest, while Quentin and I attempted to trek up a different path but got little further than a stagnant pool of water before turning back. I can't quite remember what happened after that but Vicky told me I had a shower when we got back, spent some time on the Internet before the four of us (James, Vicky, Conrad and myself) had dinner at the rather expensive TamTam Bamboo restaurant (famous because Jamie Oliver did a cookery course there, or something). The rest of the evening was passed playing a great card game, that I won every time!

The following day, a Tuesday, I had arranged an expensive ($32) kayaking trip after telling myself to do one for the last two months. It was a great day, despite the early morning to meet Wem (a Dutch guy) and two other Polish girls whose names I cannot remember. They were white-water rafting while I was in a white-water kayak. After two, almost three, hours sat in the back of a tuk-tuk the three guides inflated the raft and we set off down some river (not the Mekong but I wasn't paying enough attention to remember the name). While the guides explained the basics and safety to the rafters I tried to remember how to balance in a kayak... it's quite a lot harder on open and flowing water than in a swimming pool. We paddled over to a waterfall flowing straight into the river, which was great, but I promptly capsised when I hit a tree on the way out -- no need to worry as I promptly rolled with infinite skill and was safe... much to my surprise. The first rapids were grade one (and rightly so) -- I didn't really realise that water swells so much, but it does. You can almost feel it when you get close but the waves that follow are great fun. One of the guides suggested I go left through the rapids but I forgot and just followed (and shot past) the raft, which was a considerably harder section. Great fun and absolutely disorientating when you smash through a wave to find another just ready to hit you full-on in the face. I don't think I've been quite so confused before... flailing around near a great big hole (whirlpool) unable to see because of the wave that just smashed into me. But, amazingly, I didn't capsise... I guess all the practice on the flat water really did me some good!

As we were getting close to the biggest rapids of the day (grade three, but more like grade four due to the high rainfall the previous day) it decided to rain. I thought it was great up until the water started bouncing up off the river and hitting me in the face... then straight into the rapids where water assaulted me from in front, above, below and behind. When I came out of these rapids my heart was literally racing... I've never had so much fun before in my life. But unfortunately the water was flat for the next hour and a half. This gave us enough time for lunch (I brought three croissant with me), a quick drink and a chat before a rest (a bit too much rest) and the next set of rapids.

All-in-all there were four or five major rapids but the time spent on the water was close to four hours. It was an absolutely brilliant experience but next time I'll enquire about the number of rapids, the frequency and the grades. The flat water was just boring by comparison. I'm proud I didn't capsise when it counted, too, once when hit by a tree, another time when I spotted a big bamboo stalk at one side of the river -- I tried to get over to grab it but was travelling way too fast, hit it at speed, capsised and rolled to find myself totally covered in horrible flies from the bamboo -- and once more on purpose (the flat water was *really* boring ;).

Shortly after getting back to my guesthouse and having a shower I headed out to the night market to take a few photos. My plan had been to arrange a bus or boat to my next destination. This was quickly interrupted when I met a girl I took a photo of yesterday. She had been buying a small bag from a stall and I was doing my best (but failing miserably) to get a shot of a foreigner buying something from one of the Lao stalls. After I took the photos the day before I said a very polite thank you (arigatou gozaimashta! with a bow) so when she spotted me today I think she was fairly curious to look at the photos and so on. After the introductions (her name is Sayaka (さやか), 21 and has just quit her job at a casino to travel around the world and buy things to sell) we wandered to a nearby table to sit down and have a chat. James quickly found us and the three of us wandered off to get some food, where we were met (quite at random) by Chris, who decided to join us. What ensued was fairly bizarre but involved talking about lots of different brands of Japanese motorbikes, hi-fi, cars, cameras, etc.... just for fun. I'm not quite sure what happened next but somehow we ended up at Chris' guesthouse (after a stop-off for Sayaka and I at a photo exhibition on the way) where two seriously drunk Lao guys were force-feeding anybody about copious quantities of pig fat and laowlao (70% alcohol). Worryingly the guy that had the most to drink was trying his very hardest to get Sayaka onto his boat leaving the following morning at 8:30am. I just said "yes, okay" so he'd leave me alone!

Today I met Sayaka at 12pm at the crossroad at the beginning of the night market, which is also very close to my guesthouse. We got a boat across the Mekong to visit the village at the other side. Somehow we spent an hour and a half there and wanted to stay longer (it was even more chilled out than Luang Prabang) but were convinced by the "captain" to take a trip up the next river to watch the boat racing practice. This wasn't such a bad idea as I got a few photos of boys jumping out of trees to fall stupid distances into the river.

Shortly afterward we took a trip up the hill to visit Phou Si (pronounced "pussy") temple before spending three or four hours buying things at the night market. It wasn't me buying. We had a quick curry at the local Indian (Nazim, very good) before bumping into Conrad and Vicky and arranging to meet up for a drink an hour later. Unfortunatley Sayaka had to get back to pack so I met up with Conrad and Vicky back at the guesthouse for a quick chat and goodbye.

Tomorrow morning (today, now) I've got a tuk-tuk with Sayaka to the northern bus station to catch the "public" bus to Udomxai. She's planning to spent three or four days there but I can't really afford more than one or two... having said that, if it's anything like as good as Luang Prabang, I might be forced to extend my stay. It would be nice if we could stay together as we have the same final destination in Yunnan province, China.

But now... bed. It's already 1:22am and I have to be up at about 7:20am to change some money, properly sort myself out and meet my tuk-tuk driver. Byee ;)

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