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Clare’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Location: Vientiane, Laos

MapTomorrow we leave Laos to fly to Vietnam so another country is nearly over... it feels very strange to be passing through so quickly having spent months in the last few places.

Laos though, has been a tonic for the soul. The country is only 30 years out of a devasting bombing and war situation but it must be the most relaxed, laid-back and calm place I'll visit on my travels. Of course the reason why it seems so relaxed is quiet is because it hasn't had time to develop or get very rich off the tourist dollar so the roads are quiet, the country is empty and covered in virgin forest (where it hasn't been bombed into oblivion) and the people seem genuinely welcoming and happy to see the tourists rather than having been jaded by the experience of having us all pass through. Its also a Communist republic born out of a pretty lengthy guerilla struggle so I think that has given a sense of civic pride and investment in the community which leads to public places being well maintained, litter being non-existent and things like regional bus stations being places which are actually quite nice to be in - a very novel experience after my months in India and Nepal!

Since I wrote in Luang Prabang I had a strange run in with the police, who accused me of wokring illegally because I was weaving my own scarf on the loom.... yes I was very confused too. Obviously the man had too little to do that day - all sorted out now though! We then travelled south through a strange Iron age site called the Plain of Jars - A plateau in the centre of the country covered in these enormous granite carved jars - some over 6 ft high. Its a bit henge-like in that no-one really knows what they're there for or who made them. There hasn't been much research done into what they're doing there as the area they are in was really heavily bombed by the US during the end of the Vietnam war to stop people using the Ho Chi Minh trail where it crossed into Laos. There are still thousands and thousands of UXO (unexploded Ordnance) lying around on or just below the surface and locals are still regularly injured or killed going about their business by setting the devices off unwittingly. There is now a clean-up operation in place but it is funded by NGO's, hopelessly under staffed and resourced and can only practically focus on towns and villages. The footpaths around the sites have been cleared but you cannot wander off them into the countryside, beautiful though it is, as the danger is very real.

After seeing the Jars we headed south again to Vang Vieng... the tubing capital of South-East Asia. Laos is criss-crossed by rivers, the Mekong forms the boundary with Cambodia all down the southern half of the country and in Vang Vieng the Nam Song river is the main attraction. Someone, somewhere came up with the idea of getting tractor inner tubes and floating down the river on them. Someone else thought of lining the river with bars and selling Beerlao to the tourists, using bamboo poles and ropes to pull you into the shore, and yet someone else had the master-stroke, to build vertiginous rope swings and zip wires to attract the the tourists to YOUR bar over everyone elses! Hence the Vang Vieng tubing experience was born...something which would be more at home on a Costa Blanca beach resort rather than genteel Laos, but there you go - and there's no denying, it is a big barrel of fun floating slowly down the river, beer in hand before getting out at a busy bar to swing trapeze-like a couple metres up and drop screaming into the river!

After Tubing, the next thing to do is go caving... the limestone karst formations rise hundreds of feet straight up from the surrounding countryside and are honeycombed with caves, some of which are flooded or have underground rivers so you pull yourself into them in a tube on ropes and others which go back into the hill nearly a kilometre. Amy and I went out for the day on motorbikes with an Aussie couple we met at the Jar sites and we explored together, tramping into the darkness, sliding around on the slippery clay-like mud and paddling through underground streamsbefore emerging again blinking into the sunlight - very exciting! In the evenings all the bars show episodes of Friends strangely, so we caught on some episodes we might have missed and got in some partying - yes Vang Vieng is a party town, before we hopped on our bus down to Vientiane, the capital of Laos and here we are. We actually intended to Kayak down here from Vang Vieng but some inconsiderate Germans got too drunk to show up for the trip so it was cancelled and we ended up on the bus instead.

Vientiane was unfortunately flattened by successive invaders so there isn't much history here but there is a slightly amusing museum which has captions on pictures from the war like "the US Imperialists equip their puppets for the war against the republic". Propaganda is obviously not a dirty word in Laos! There are also a few Temples and a massive gold covered Stupa on the edge of town. We've also been eating pretty well - the french influence is still felt here and there are some pretty good restaurants in town, I even had a Goat's cheese Crepe today! But tomorrow we fly to Hanoi in Vietnam to start a new country so this is the end of the Laos experience. Sabaidee as they say over here - Goodbye Laos, Hello Vietnam.