The festive season in Laos left me feeling a little flat. We started well on Christmas Eve, leaving Luang Prabang to visit the magnificent waterfall Kuang Si. We spent a few hours there, indulging in some very un-Christmasy outdoor bathing, before heading along a dirt track beside the Mekong.
Christmas day, however had us back on the tarmac sweating up a gruelling 1800m climb. We sustained ourselves on the last of the Christmas cake that Sue had brought us from home.
That evening we managed to find a cheap room, made the obligatory calls home, and then went out to forage for our own Christmas dinner. Unfortunately there were no restaurants in town and the local shops had very little in the way of produce. We managed to scrape together a passable Thai curry, but had I known I’d be cooking our Christmas tea I’d have been more prepared.
Another couple of days landed us in Vientiane, the approach painfully dusty. My sore throat turned in to a disgusting phlemy cold and I felt pretty darn miserable. We spent a day refueling and exploring the capital – it’s a strange place. Ex-colonial, very run down, I sort of liked it. But with New Years Eve impending we decided not to linger.
2018, a year full of wonderful adventure, marvelous sights and the most epic adventure of my life, drew to a close very anticlimacticly.
I woke in a dingy motel room to the sound of fireworks outside, and I had a little cry as I imagined my friends and family having a wonderful time, all together, far, far away.
Jamie slept through it all.
Luckily, as these things do, my melancholy subsided the further away from the ‘festive season’ we got, and by the time all my friends were bemoaning going back to work I was out of my slump.
We headed south along the Mekong and the heat and humidity began to rocket.
The land is flat and mostly dry brown rice paddies, waiting to be planted. Occasionally we’d pass a sea of new growth – astonishing green – and in the distance see the farmers stooping to tend the field, iconic triangular grass hats perched on their heads.
We crossed over the Mekong to visit the ancient site of Vat Phou, with its phallic columns standing or slumping to attention, and stairs brutally steep and splattered with fallen temple flowers.
Continuing down the west side of the river we followed the track through a string of hamlets hugging the river. The locals, taken by surprise to see us, would shriek and laugh and shout as we rattled by on the dusty tracks.
Eventually we popped out at the end of a spit of land and were hollered at from the other side of the river. An elderly woman climbed on her tiny ferry and pulled the boat over the tributary using a rope strung from one side to the other. She ferried us back across, then stood cross armed looking thunderous at us, as if she thought we weren’t going to pay.
We paid up and disembarked on to one of the Four Thousand Islands of the Mekong.
We spent the rest of the day weaving down the islands, catching ferries between them – motored this time – until we landed on the shores of the sleepy tourist hotspot Don Det. There’s no cars on the island, not many roads either – one down each side lined with bungalows facing the water. Early risers take the sunrise side, while the party crowd prefer the bars and eateries of the sunset side.
We stayed for a day, exploring the neighbouring island and waterfalls of Don Khon. On the way home we got lost following a track through the forest, discovering some of the bridges had collapsed and the detours unmarked. We fought our way through the forest for a bit before giving up and heading back the way we came.
The following morning we took the ferry back to the mainland and headed for the notorious Laos – Cambodia border.
For some reason I assumed I would love Laos, and while I did enjoy it it wasn’t as extraordinary as I expected. In retrospect I think there were a few factors.
Not least, I was in a lot of pain.
The hot humid climate, combined with deadline to meet, brought on horrendous saddle sores. This came as an unpleasant surprise having got away without them more or less for the preceding 8 months. Each day would start with an optimistic hour where I would think “ah maybe they are not too bad today”, then would continue with another four or five hours desperate to stop.
This, and the festive season, contributed to some pretty erratic emotions. I felt painfully far from home.
On the other hand, the people were lovely – particularly outside of the touristy areas. The Laos way of life is pretty chilled – epitomised (or stereotyped) by a tuk-tuk driver half-heartedly offering us a ride as he lay in his hammock strung up in the back of the tuk-tuk. He seemed appreciative of our refusal.
The food was great – and cheap – I was a big fan of the noodle soup available at every roadside stall. I managed it four meals in a row while I had the flu. The stunning sections were really stunning- I’ve never seen a waterfall as spectacular as the one at Kuang Si.