Phonsavan, plain of jars, Vientiane and Cambodia Visa's oh my!

Phonsavan

A mere 8 hour bus journey from Luang Prabang on some of the windiest roads I've encountered so far on my travels, and I arrived at the rather... umm.. Arid town of Phonsavan... Why had I come here?

Well... to see the plain of Jars of course!

At any rate, after the 8 hour bus ride and chilling to various sounds (I was feeling a little mute, so I cranked up some Neutral Milk Hotel and followed it up with some Jean Grae - I really seem to be growing fond of her hip hop while on holiday... mmmm) we
arrived at the Phonsavan bus station, I quickly got friendly with 2 people.. A Lady Charlotte, Social worker from London (who I'm stilling hanging out with) and Pierce, a fun almost-uni-student from the UK as well.

We all ended up heading to the Khong Kheo guesthouse (I Think that was it's name, near the old runway) - and then after securing some rooms we went out to explore the town... of which there wasn't much, eventually having some beers and shooting the breeze - after that we went in search of a Meal, originally we had decided to find the Lao Youth Centre Restaurant, or something along those lines.. which took a while, but we eventually discovered it, though it's now called the New Wave (opposite the Maly hotel) ... sat down, got menus, went to order and was told they only had sticky rice... hmm... so we went across the road to the Maly (best food in town it says on the door, which I think was actually accurate - which also has a nice display of weaponry on the wall, actually everywhere has a nice display of weaponry on the wall in Phonsavan..heh).

At any rate, the following day we were up at 9am to do a day of touring the plain of Jars (sites 1, 2 and 3) - our guide/trip wasn't cheap ($8 US each) - but I think in the end it was
probably worth it because his interest in the sites and the Laos war was wonderful, and I learnt a great deal - the day started off with a visit to the quite large market in Phonsavan (well worth a look all on it's own) - followed by a visit to a derelict russian tank, then site 3, site 2 (with lunch) and site 1 - site 1 being the biggest.  In all there are 60 jar sites known to locals, and 50 documented so far by UNESCO.

The jars themselves are a bit of a mystery, but dating puts them at around 2,500 years old - far longer then the Laos people have been occupying Laos - and each one is cut from solid stone, some with lids, and weighing up to 2 tonnes - and dates back to the
early stone age of the original south east asian people in this region.  I dont think you could describe it as an exciting place, but it's definitely quite surreal to think of just how old
they are and to see them rising out of the ground like monaliths - a Laos stone henge.

The really interesting thing is that this is also a hot spot of the secret war in Laos (Laos being the most bombed country in the world, aproximately 3 million bombs dropped over a 10 year period AFAIK) - and in site 3 was the situation for a large revolutionary camp, where various Vietkong troops and supplies were smuggled from Vietnam.  Bomb craters are everywhere and UxO is a major problem, the MAG (Munitions/Mine Action Group) has
done a lot of work (supported by nzaid no less..) to make safe paths to the various jars - and it's depressing to think of the damage done to this truely unique site during that conflict.

Vientiane

The following day I left Phonsavan, originally I had planned to go to Vang Vieng - but after to talking to some people I didn't really feel like it - for some odd reason I was in the mood for a city - so I skipped and got a bus straight to Vientiane.  The bus ride was quite comfy, I took VIP - which has more leg room and you get a free drink of water and biscuits, at the cost of another $1 US.  The ride was uneventful, accept for a flat tire and that one of the support crew for the bus driver carried a Kalashnikov with him everywhere he went, at one point the barrel was resting on the back of my seat (Though I didn't know).. which would've been OK till an Israeli guy pointed out that they've got a notoriously ineffective safety.. erk - while changing a tire he just left it lying on the ground outside where I could've just picked it up... Laos does have a bit of a banana republic feel at times - you just have to keep on smiling ;o)

Vientiane is pretty cool - the decaying french colonial architecture is eerily beautiful, combined with the dusty roads and really good french food.. I'm splurging while here on a very nice room, with Aircon and T.V! Which is costing a whopping $12 US a night, sometimes it's nice to remind myself that I'm not a

"scratching to stay alive" backpacker ;o) but a lazy overpaid software developer after all.

The food here is great - and expensive for Laos - but still bloody cheap for home and of equivalent if not better quality - dinner with Charlotte last night was a big ice cream sundae (3 big scoops of Rum & Raisin).. a really nice Carbonara pasta and a couple of big bottles of beer.. for approximately $9 NZ... not too shabby.  I discovered that she's met Tom Waits in person, and seen him in concert - I'm rather jealous!

Probably the funiest thing today was heading to Patuxai, a large concrete monument that is very reminiscent of the Arc De Triomphe n Paris.. It was built in the 1960's with United states purchased cement that was supposed to have been used to construct a new
airport..  I wonder what the states thought of that ;o) Also interesting (and Just by the arch) are 2 rather large fountains, which are sychronised to funky Thai and Laos music

that plays in the background - they're pretty cool, and donated by the Chinese government - In fact everything in this country that looks new appears to have been donated by some foreign government, even on the outskirts of town Japan is funding the
construction of a weather radar station. Yet just like China most people don't have clean water. On the down side today I went to apply for my Cambodian visa,

however it's bloody labour day here - and everything was closed... so I'll have to do it tomorrow, hopefully it can be processed quickly as it would be a shame to burn up too many days here, apparently it can take 3 days (ugh!) - though you may be able to convince them to do it on the spot.. so I might need to do some sweet talking or attempt my first bribe (I was silly not to get it done while in Chiang Mai, when I got my Laos Visa... only takes 1 day to do it in Thailand.. meh)

At any rate, I'll probably post some pictures next time I update with what I've been snapping lately and talk about my adventures with the Cambodian embassy.

Cheers...

Alex

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My trip to Muang Noi

Well I'm back in Luang Prabang today, arrived yesterday afternoon, planning to head to Phonsavan tomorrow to go see the plain of Jars.

Originally I had planned to head south earlier, but after talking to some people coming from the north (and seeing their pictures) I decided to head to Muang Ngoi Neua with Hayley and Pauline (A dutch lady I met on the slow boat).

To get to Muang Ngoi we took a 4 hour bus ride to Nong Khiaw, then jumped on a boat for a 1 hour ride up to the village - there are no roads leading to this village you see - the boat ride was spectacular as we plied our way upstream through little sets of rapids between the mightly limestone peaks.

Once arriving at Muang Ngoi we headed to the quiet end of town and rented some Bungalows, mine cost $1 US per night, for a double bed and a couple of hammocks outside on my deck - all very pleasant.  For the first day I pretty much just drank some Laos tea and slept in the hammock while the sun went down, finishing off a book (Titan, which has a daft ending IMO..).

That night we had quite a violent storm (loads of fork and sheet lightening) which was amazing to watch - thankfully my bungalow stayed upright ;o)

Second day we got up and went on a bit of a Trek, first to some nearby caves, and then off to the Huay Bo, about an hours walk away which is of mixed Laos and Khamu village people.  It was here that we got befriended by a man who runs the local guesthouse and I ended up sampling 5 or 6 shots of his home brewed Laos Laos... which was surprisingly clean compared to the crap we drank on the slow boat.. though it was still painful.

After this we headed back to the village, chilled out and had some dinner.

Third day was lazy... a little more reading, I'm onto "American Psycho" - not something I'd normally read, but It was recommended to me by Charlotte, so I thought I'd give it a go - so far it's been pretty funny. This day I got a really dodgy stomach, cramps, the whole shebang... not sure what I've eat that's caused it - but it's no fun - didn't sleep at all.

Fourth day I got the 9:30 boat back to Nong Khiaw, then took a jumbo truck (basically a small truck with 2 bench seats running down either side of the back tray) - which was not the most fun I've ever had - back to Luang Prabang, and got myself a $8US (extravagance!) guesthouse room with own bathroom, where I'll stay till I feel better.

Fifth day (today) - feeling a bit better, will travel to Phonsavan tomorrow morning unless I feel really sick again - though I can probably counter that with the magical "Imodium". anyway, here are some pictures:

Laos Laos Brewer

The guesthouse owner who fed me up on his Laos Laos (rice wine).

Muang Ngoi - dock

The local dock at Muang Ngoi, the roofed boats are what they stuff 20 people into when negotiating the rapids up/down stream.

View from my Hammock

The view from my Hammock - not too shabby.

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Some more pictures for Joo

Some more pictures for you all, this time we have Laos - only a few as I haven't been taking many:

Laos Kids

Kids... Laos is all about the people, all the kids are friendly, most of the sales people aren't  pushy.. it's pretty good - though poverty is ever present.

Hayley on the slow boat

Hayley, the NZ girl from Christchurch I met on the slow boat who I've been hanging out with for the past week.

Laos tractor

Same Same, But Different - the Laos tractors are like overgrown rotary hoes - nothing  here is built as heavily as the Chinese counterpart, though I still smell a soviet influence which was not present in Thailand.

Monks at the waterfall, near Luang Prabang

The waterfall near Luang Prabang, truely a little piece of paradise.. all the young monks flock here from the local wats at lunchtime to swim for an hour or two - this is only the base of the last waterfall and there are multiple plateaus rising up for 200 odd feet above this point.

Bomb Bomb Bomb

There a bombs in the strangest places here... Laos is all forrest and farmers, it's hard to imagine it's one of the most bombed countries on earth, though it does make you follow the well trod tracks - UXO, unexploded ordinance, is a very real problem here (like Mines in Cambodia).

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Some pictures for joo - China Styles

Hi All,

Well I'm back from Muang Noi Neua (read a later post for info about that) - and I've had my first case of dodgy stomach... so at the moment I'm taking it easy in Luang Prabang (again) till I feel better... so today I thought I'd take the time to stick a few pictures up on my blog for you all to have a looksie at... so here goes:

China!

3 gorges with snow

Above, the 3 gorges as seen from the back of the domestic "cruise" ship I was on - it was freezing as it had snowed that morning.

3 Gorges dam project

The 3 gorges dam project - a huge piece of work, it still wasn't complete when I was there.

3 gorges, russian

The ultimate crusing experience in the 3 gorges, the soviet built (or so I was told) Meteor - you see a few of these round the Chinese waterways - noisey feckers.

Mist covered Karsts in Yanshou

The mist covered Karts of Yanshou, though not a good picture (it was raining all the time)  the scenery is very dramatic.

Night time in Shanghai

Night time in Shanghai, very vegas.

A group shot in China

A group shot in China (Putuoshan Island I think) - from left to right we have: Colin from NZ ('tron), Myself, Charlotte (UK), Jarrad (NZ, Wellington), Ed, Scarlet, Desmond (all UK), Christy & Anthony (Australia) and also Tony Chen our amazing Chinese guide

Monk on a cellphone

It's funny - I had some weird proconceptions about monks in China, like they wouldn't use technology, wouldn't secretely have girlfriends and aren't prone to mood swings, grumpiness or fits of being irrational... silly me.

Xi'an Centre

The centre of Xi'an - a very cool (and well preserved) city west of Beijing.

Courtyard

The "courtyard" near Xian, a cool but desolate spot.

Hanging Monestary # 1

Hanging Monestary # 2

The above two shots are of the hanging monestary and just to the left of the monestary the frozen stream - which gives you an idea of what the temperature was like then -  did end up climbing over the whole of the monestary - I'm not sure it was particularly safe... heh

Great Wall

A shot from the great wall, it's um... great

One of the people we were travelling with (Sally) looked quite ill when I hung over the edge like this ;o) the water down below is where you have to walk from to get up to the wall, it's a bit of a haul.. get your fatty developer sweat on.

Summer Palace, Beijing

I actually was in a T-Shirt by the time I got to Beijing, this was a really nice 20 degree day at the Summer Palace.

No tossing!

And last of all, I could've spent gigabytes collecting chinglish signs - but you very quickly reach saturation, however I did like this one that was on the Xi'an wall..  I wasn't sure if it was forbidding the carnal pleasures of madamme palm and her five lovely daughters, or merely suggesting that jumping off the wall was a bad idea? *shrug*

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Beautiful Laos

Well, new country.. my third since going on holiday, Beautiful Laos, and so far it's been great - it's such a beauiful laid back place... and any rate I'll try to keep this brief as the internet here is absoloutely bollix - the less content I post the better for it ;o)

So, since my last post I have moved on from Chiang Mai.. basically it went like this:

19th - Jumped the bus to Chiang Khong (Thailand border town to Laos) from Chiang Mai.. that took six hours, and I was stuck in the back of a minivan with 4 grumpy smoking Israeli cyborgs - the bus did have air con, but it only work when you were going down hill... I'm guessing the van was too underpowered with it turned on to run at all unless coasting... mighty ;o)

At chiang khong I stayed the night, ready to cross into Laos (Huay Xai, the sister border town) - this proved a most interesting evening as I ended up meeting a guy from the DPNS (democratic party for a new system I believe?) - who was from Burma/Myanmar, and hasn't been home since he was 10 years old (because they will arrest him at the border) - he's now 24 I do believe.

The border crossing was easy, got the stamps and jumped the slow boat to Luang Prabang - a two day affair, with the first day leaving you in a little place called Pak Beng... there's not much there but guest houses, but it was alright - the second day we
jumped onto the slow boat again (well a different boat, but I digress) and headed for Luang Prabang.

These trips are a lot of fun, the boat ride lasts about 8 to 10 hours depending on how you count it - and is full of locals, you generally just end up drinking beer laos, laos laos (rice wine) or laos caos (said "l-ow cow") ? which I think is thai/laos whiskey (tastes like Sangsom), singing songs and talking rubbish with fellow travellers.  However, I did make a minor miscalculation on the second day as I was talking to an old Laos lady who handed me some "tea leaves" which they stick salt in and roll up and chew/eat - well when in rome.. or Laos..

So I chewed away on these leaves... tasted like salty spinach, and then swallowed it.. and at that point twigged to the fact that they were coca leaves... arse!.. about half an hour later I felt like I'd had 3 beers in quick succession, very woolly headed, but the feeling ebbed away after half an hour thankfully - silly boy ;o) should of spat it out after chewing, like all the other falang did ;o)

At any rate, during the trip on the slow boat I actually met New Zealander's! First time so far in my travels... 3 girls, 1 from Auckland and 2 from Christchurch - it's nice to be able to talk and have people understand my bad NZ english!  The slow boat was a great place to meet travelling friends, and our little group of 10'ish people that as semi-constructed over those 2 days is a lot of fun .. And I've still been hanging out with some of them since arriving in Luang Prabang.

The first night I arrived in Luang Prabang (21st) I went out to dinner and then drinks at a bar called "hi-ve" - not a bad little spot, and the following day we get our "temple on" and visited the Wat on the hill (I forget it's name) and Wat Xieng Thong, which has a great tree of life mural on it's side. However I did get attacked by wasps (nasty buggers) and then stubbed my toe while trying to escape.. thankfully the bites hurt but didn't swell up.

Today we got a group of 10 together to hire a minivan, which we took to Pak Ou caves (basically a cave on the waters edge, where thousands of unwanted buddah images are discarded... something I'd never thought about till today... I mean you can't just "dump" a buddah image, if your a buddhist at least) and after that we headed to the Tad Kouang Si, a beautiful waterfall... where we spent the rest of the day escaping the heat - it truely is a beautiful spot, and hopefully I can post a few of the pictures I took soon - as it's close to a monastery, and all the young monks head up there to play at lunch time... very cool, if a little surreal...

Probably the coolest thing though is that my guesthouse (Chaliny I think it's called) is about 10 foot away from the mighty Mekong river, so I can scratch that one of the list of things to see (along with the Yangtze of course from last month) - though I'll no doubt see more of the Mekong as I approach vietnam.

Tomorrow I'm going to try and get a local bus in the morning to Nong Khiaw, where I'll spend a night/day/night then head back to Luang Prabang, and off to Phonsavan the following day (to see the plain of jars) after that I do believe it's going to be Vang Vieng, Vientiane and eventually Si Phan Don (way down the bottom of Laos, where I can cross over to Cambodia).

I may not be updating as frequently over the next 2 weeks though as some of these places have no internet, and often the power is run off generators which they turn on and off at funny hours (they get up early and go to bed early) - when they say this is one of the most underdeveloped countries in the whole of Asia, they do mean it... in a funny way, bits of it remind me of the bush up north in NZ.

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