Dramatic mountain-scapes and fairytale waterfalls supply a feast for the eyes, whilst the barbecued fish feasts the rest of us…298 days in.
The posters of the Mines Advisory Group tell me that Laos is a poor country, with 44 % of the population living on $1.25 a day. The other 56 % make up for it though, all driving around in their Toyota Hilux 4×4’s. I don’t quite understand poor countries. Governments are almost always corrupt of course and cream off most of the country’s resources for the few at the top, but for me it’s the greed of the people we meet everyday in the tourist business. We are currently sat on a thin wooden boat making our way up the Nam Ou river. The four seats that it has have been ripped out of an LDV minivan, the roof constructed from rough pallets and the engine can probably be heard in China. We are not alone, to my right a family of four lie on the reed matting with all their worldly goods as their pillow, the seats are occupied by some French tourists and up front another local sits on her knees wrapped in a cloak of many colours. The five hour journey is costing each westerner £14. In total the boatman (or his boss) is making £98 for the five hour journey, or put another way, ninety eight days earnings for the bottom 44 % of the country! How things can change quickly. No sooner had I written the last sentence we arrived in Muang Ngoy, one hour upstream, where our boatman was to pick up a further six passengers. However, having paid for a private boat, they were certainly not getting onboard with us as shipmates. A few stern words later and we were off loaded onto a boat all to ourselves, bar the driver (a Michael Schumacher wannabe) and his scivvi. Once again, money talks! …Argh, I’ve just realised my socks are still on board the first boat (I hung them in the rafters to dry)…two hours of waiting by the slipway and the original boat arrives with my stowaway socks nicely dried, phew! It wasn’t two hours wasted either, as just after we arrived another boat deposited two Bulgarians on the dock, fresh from a week in their tent in the jungle living off sticky rice and 15 pomalos; truly! They had some great stories and we lapped them up over a coffee, and when they said how they only just had their tent invaded and Kindle stolen, Helen went straight off and returned with some EM Forster, they couldn’t be happier!
Our second week in Laos had began in Luang Prabang, the country’s second city and UNESCO world heritage area. Our arrival was when our frustrations begun to emerge. With the tuktuk driver refusing to accept £9 for a two kilometre journey, mugging the six of us for £12, we walked around for an hour as guesthouse after guesthouse was full. Chinese New Year was in full swing and they had booked the entire city it seemed. We reluctantly accepted a box room for a pricy £10 (at least the mattress wasn’t foam) and headed out to walk among the new arrivals doing just as we had, I’m sure some will have ended up on a floor somewhere!
We were rewarded with a sea of selfie sticks having reached the top of the city’s main attraction (a hilltop Wat) in time for sunset, though this was kind of funny in a way and made for good training for China should we make it! Knowing that the crowds were everywhere, we heeded TripAdvisor and made an early start to get to Kuang Si waterfalls before the hoards, well, we tried. At 8am, we found a tuktuk driver who agreed that he would take five passengers for £4 each. We shortly met Jean-Francois, our new French friend who said moi aussi and after a further 30 minutes a Spanish couple said y nosotros, they just had to collect some towels. By 9am we were ready to go, or so we thought, but now the minimum number had grown to 7, how unusual, a devious tuktuk driver! Well, we gained a further two passengers, boarded the sawngthaew (think a low loader with a canopy), and we were off! As far as the end of the street, where we parked up until a further two full paying tourists had lighted. By 10am we set off with all hopes of a crowd free day scuppered. That said, the waterfalls were spectacular, and we had a great time chatting away with our fellow fraud victims (Helen says I overdo it with my descriptions but it felt like fraud to me)!
Our stay in LP was short, it’s charms a little overrun (in much the same way as fellow UNESCO city Hoi An with matching street signs to boot). So we arrived at Nong Khiaw with fresh optimism; along with the three other bus loads of westerners! The race was on to find accommodation and the one tuktuk already had people tumbling out of the back. We set off on foot and were turned away at our first three attempts. But fortune favoured us as the tuktuk had spilled its overcrowded load on the other side of the bridge, and we found the last bed on the northern banks, still pricy, but at least this one came with a view!
The town of Nong Khiaw is nothing special; worn out homes, a dusty football pitch and small Wat occupy a twist in the Nam Ou river, but the setting is dramatic. I spent my evenings running along the undulating banks of the waterside and in the mornings we set off for hilltop hikes above the sea of clouds before the sun became too hot.
Back to the present in Muang Khua where there is little in the way of tourist attractions to blow off my recently reunited socks, so our day starts by hunting for the local waterfall and suspension bridge (tarnished by litter, obvs!) after which we were at a loss, until we passed by a fine Lao specimen examining his newly cut barnet in the barbers mirror, time for my second trim of the campaign. I thought I’d made a reasonable suggestion for what I wanted making razor noises and pointing to the back of my head, and then finger scissors and halving the hair on the top. Either keen to get going or struck by panic he began cutting before I was gowned up. Once covered, service resumed and it appeared the entire job was going to be completed by clippers alone. It was gone twenty minutes before the thinning sheers came out, and in that time he had not left my right ear. Not since my days back at university when I went to a Vidal Sassoon training school to let a nervous apprentice spend two hours trimming small snippets of my blonde plumage have I spent so long in the seat. By the time the cut throat razor was being dragged across the back of my neck I was too fatigued to object. In the end, he had earned his £2 (half of which was a tip) and I was left to run between patches of shade in fear of burning my freshly exposed surfaces in the afternoon sun, haircuts don’t come tougher than this!