Full details of the intended trip can be found on the Intrepid Website.

Link to Travel Diary Part XII.

Backpacking Across Laos - 2007

24th April - Leaving Hanoi

Today I started a new trip with Intrepid which will take me overland through Laos back to Bangkok. Two weeks today I fly back from Bangkok to the UK. 6 months gone, just 2 weeks to go.

I met up with the group at lunchtime. 14 of us in total plus our Thai tour leader Nam. This is a BASIX trip and it's reflected in the age range. I'd guess that everyone is younger than me and a lot of them in their very early 20s. The majority have already travelled together with Intrepid from Bangkok through Cambodia and Vietnam and are continuing on back to Bangkok. So I guess it will be quite cliquey but that suits me I'm happy to take it easy on this trip and keep myself to myself. A final bit of peace and quiet before returning home.

Today involved a 7 hour train journey from Hanoi down to Vinh where we overnight before the bus journey into Laos. All very uneventful with the emphasis on very. The group seem fine, friendly enough. I'm glad they've already been travelling with Intrepid for 4 weeks, a lot of the whoa, Oh my God rubish has gone and they are now travellers. Nothing worse than first time travellers who get over excited by the smallest things!

25th April - To Vientiane

Up early for a long day on the mini-bus. From Vinh it's a couple of hours to the border. From there another six hours through the mountains to Vientiane the Laos capital. The fist hour and half is uneventful. Passing through the familiar Vietnam countryside, most of the group are sleeping. We then get into the hills. After twenty minutes or so a group of armed men jump out into the road and stop the bus waving guns! A guy with a machine gun bangs on the bus door to be let in. The driver and the gang exchange words and he opens the door. Three of the men jump in the bus and we pull away. The men are dressed in jeans and shirts and looking like they've been in the hills they're dirty and sweating. One guy has a machine gun, one a hand guy and one a wooden baton. We have no idea what's going on. Half the bus are petrified, I'm actually pretty relaxed, I mean what's the worse that can happen? They take our money. They're not going to hurt us, it's not in their interests to upset things too much. Nam our tour leader tries to act as though she's OK but she's obviously scared.

The guys seem quite anxious, looking out the windows and have an on edge look. We then gather from then something about the army and they are tracking the Mafia. Anyway we carry on up the road and Hailey who's sitting next to one of them talks to them a bit. She makes it clear she's a bit scared by the gun. The man asks where she's from. Australia, we don't have guns. The man mentions USA and the recent school shootings and says 'very bad'. After about fifteen minutes of winding up through the hills. We come to a corner where there's a makeshift army camp, guys in uniform and everything. The men on the bus get us to stop, they jump out and we go along our merry way. A nice little story to add to my travel collection. The picture on the right is the only photo that I have. Despite not being greatly worried by the men I didn't think it was worth taking the risk of setting up a photo session.

The photo was taken out of the bus door as we pulled away. The man in the blue shirt with the machine gun walking up the slope was the leader of the guys who jumped on the bus. It would've been nice to get them to pose for a photo shoot but discretion plays the better part of valour, I didn't want to push our luck!

Ten minutes later we're at the border. It's a very relaxed affair. The army guys are all playing boulle. We do the formalities and soon we're on our way again.

On the six hour journey to Vientiane we stop off a few times. First at a hydro-electric dam. Laos is a poor country and has very little natural resources and a small population. I think the country depends heavily on foreign aid. Anyway it's 3 biggest money earners in order are tourism, garment manufacturing and exporting electricity. There are 7 power plants in the country. The next stop is shortly before we leave the mountains in an area called the Phou Hin Boun LimestoneForest. A whole area of raggy, craggy rock hills and columns. It looks fantastic and none of my photos does it justice.

We then start to drop down from the hills. The hills around the border area were quite cool and misty but as we drop down the skies clear and the temperature rises. We're told it was 40 degrees in Vientiane yesterday, but there's been a storm (which caused a black-out last night) and now it's a little cooler. One more stop before Vientiane at Wat Phabat Phonesane (Buddha Footprint Temple). It's a very important site for the Lao Buddhists with the footprint itself and a big reclining Buddha.

26th April - Vientiane

So now they tell us, we're in the UN Global Road Safety Week. Maybe that's what the 'armed guard' was all about yesterday, they were just making sure we were safe ;-) Whatever the UN Global Road Safety Week is it definitely hadn't reached Vietnam. I guess the UN has given up the Vietnam roads as a lost cause!

Vientiane is a beautiful city which completely belies Laos troubled recent past and how poor the country is. If Christchurch in New Zealand is an idealised version of an English City, Vientiane could be seen as an idealised French city. It is built on a very grand scale. Big wide boulevards and grand buildings. There is only one building that I've seen above six or seven stories an that's a hotel which is away from the centre. Laos has received a lot of foreign aid and it looks like a lot of it has been spent on grand projects rather than on helping the people in the country areas. The road all the way from the border was great, far better than any road in Vietnam and the city seems to have been set up as a show piece. One thing which symbolises this is the Victory Gate of Vientiane which is Vientiane's own Arc d'Triomphe. It was built from concrete donated by the US to build a new airport. Typical Communist party thinking, image of more important than reality. The description board for the Arc is great containing the great statement 'from a closer distance it looks even less impressive, like a monster of concrete'!

From the Patuxay (to give the Arch its real name) I headed down to the Morning Market which despite its name is an all day market. It is huge and is a massive Laos style department store. It's is a huge single level market building with outlying stalls and lean-tos. It is THE market for the whole of the city. Everything from fruit and veg and meat, through to fridges and freezers. A huge food hall and copied CDs and DVDs. Check out the gallery for a picture of Monks going through the CD racks, its just not right. I succumbed and did the backpacker thing, I bought a BeerLao tee-shirt, it's compulsory, every traveller through Lao has to get one ;-)

Next I headed to the Lao National Museum via That Dam which is known as The Black Stupa. Supposedly this typical Thai style rocket-ship type pyramid thing (stupa) was once covered in gold, now it's pretty uninspiring. The museum is good. It's housed in the French Governor's Palace and covers the whole of Laos history dating back to early man, but focuses mainly on the 1900s with the resistance to the French, Japanese and US and the rise of the 'Patriotic People against the Imperial aggressors'. Lots of photos and lots of explanation in English. It also had a special exhibition on Gerrit van Wuyshoff who came to Laos in 1640 and kept a diary which is pretty much the only written record of Laos pre-1800.

Multi-ethnic people volunteer for the military to fight against the French colonialists.

Comrade Souphanouvong is leading and promoting the production among the people.

Vientiane sits on the Northern Bank of the Mekong. I had lunch looking out over the rather unimpressive river to Thailand on the other side. This is the end of the dry season so the river is low, I'm sure it's far more impressive in late Summer and Autumn. In the afternoon I wandered around and looked at a few of the hundreds of temples in the city. All of them are stunning in their size and detail and colour. They're very much in the Thai style and over-the-top is an understatement. But to me the most striking thing was the amount of new temples that are under construction, as if they didn't already have enough. What a waste all the money and foreign aid coming into the country and instead of helping their people they building more monuments which in theory are to their Gods are really to the rulers themselves.

27th April - To Vang Vieng

.Back on the road again heading north up to Vang Vieng. A pretty uneventful journey today, just a hit and run on the bus from a pick-up and that was it, boring. The pick-up overtook the bus and cut back in a bit too quickly so his back wing caught the front wing of the bus. The pick-up sped onwards. The bus driver stopped and reported it to the police at the next village, he must've got the pick-ups number plate so I guess it'll get sorted in time. Main thing was it didn't hold us up.

Vang Vieng is one of the strange sorts of places you find all over the world, a small back-packer town. Until 10 years ago I guess this was a small village of subsistence farmers. Someone decided to open a hotel or a tour company or something and tourism hit the place. It brings in money and changes the place for ever. The town itself is a mess of concrete and every house is either a hotel, bar or restaurant. Every bar or restaurant is seems is showing an episode of Friends, loudly. Most have got sort of seats come sofas and backpackers laze around drinking (and smoking). Lonely Planet says it's the sort of place you love or hate. All the others on the trip love it, 'Whoa this is amazing, you can laze around and watch Friends!' Yeah but why come to Laos to do that? Anyway I can't complain we'll be here tomorrow night as well and there are bars that show the footy live from the UK so my night is sorted, watching the next instalment of West Ham's slim chance of survival. On the right, crossing the rive Vang Vieng style. The little tractor type things are everywhere in Laos. I guess their walking pace speed suits the way of life here.

I spent a lazy late afternoon and evening, emailing and talking to agents (What do you reckon, Swindon or York?). The highlight was tonight's meal, a Fiery Fruit Pizza. Banana, mango and Pineapple Pizza with peppers. Lovely ;-)

28th April - Vang Vieng

So why is Vang Vieng a backpacker centre? It's set on the Nam Song River amongst limestone hills that are riddled with caves. The landscape and the activities here are the main reason for the place's growth. But the this has led to a lot more and Vang Vieng is now for many an oasis in a very poor area. Today we all booked up for a day tour of the area. We all jumped in the back of a songtheaw and our guide drove us down to the first set of caves. The cave itself was nothing special but as with everything else in Laos it contained a couple of pretty impressive Buddhas.

Whilst we were down by the river we did a group photo make what you will of the group but as you can see they're pretty young.

The next set of caves were much more impressive. After climbing up to the caves we did a circular route through the caves wearing our miners lamps. There was huge cavern after huge cavern. In the past people have lived in these caves and during the many wars sheltered and hidden here. We then headed down to the Water Cave. This was great. Miners lamps on again, jump into a tractor tire and paddle our way down through the caves. The caves and the river through them were bigger than the glow worm caves in New Zealand and paddling along was easy giving us chance to lie back and relax. Whoa 3-0! I'm writing this up whilst lying in a bar watching the West Ham v Wigan game. Maybe there is hope, but why did we leave it so late in the season to start playing?

We then had lunch on the river bank, lazing by the river in the sun having a barbeque, marvellous. It's a bit cooler today, probably only in the mid-30s and with the cold water flowing out of the caves it was great.

In the afternoon we did what most backpackers really come to Vang Vieng to do. It's also the reason that many stay here as lot longer than they intend. We went tubing. Basically we jump into the tractor tyre 4km up-river from the town and we float home. This in itself would be nice enough but the locals have caught on to how much of a good thing they have going on here and are exploiting it to the full. Dotted along the riverside are bar after bar. Some are small, just a woman with some BeerLao for sale. But many have grown into mega-bars. The one we stopped at had a big open shed selling alcohol and food, proper toilets and loads of areas to sit around and drink. It had two beach volley ball courts, with sand and a very loud sound system. But it's main selling point was the swing into the water. Climb up to a 40ft high platform, hold onto a trapeze and swing out over the river, let go and fall into the river. Needless to say I didn't do it, but here is a video of someone who did. Trapeze swing video.

So we have a lot of backpackers drinking and smoking, lying around in the sun and throwing themselves into the river. The beer is cheap, the sun is shining now you can see why some backpackers stay here for some time.

I decided to leave at about 4:30pm to head back. It was all getting a little messy (I was the old fart not drinking) and I wanted to get back in time to watch the footy. The journey from the bar back to town took forever. It is the end pf the dry season so the river is low and water slow running. Quite a few times I had to pull my bum out of the water and haul myself over the rocks. After about 1 1/2 hours with the insides of my forearm rubbed red from rubbing against the tube whilst paddling I saw a tuk-tuk on the river bank, I jumped out and got a ride the remaining 2km into town. I've no idea how the others got back. Floating down the river in a tube, drunk and in the dark. I look forward to the stories tomorrow ;-)

29th April - To Luang Prabang

Cue smug mode. All the things I thought might happen to the rest of the group did happen and more! The group did stay on in the bar for too long and quite a few of them got quite pissed, some very pissed. They left together but got split up as they floated down. Some of them stopped at more bars. In reverse order of embarrassment and worse we have. A number of the group whilst floating back were throwing up in the river. Next we have two dry bags that weren't sealed properly resulting in clothes getting wet and 4 cameras and a mobile phone being ruined. But number one by a distance we have Aibek and Leo. They left the bar together but they lost each other in the dark. Leo made it back to town but Aibek had their bag, so she had to walk right back through town in her bikini and no shoes. Aibek did not make it back. A search party was sent out but he was not found. They went searching for him again this morning. At one bar they were told that he had slept there and set off for town again this morning. He turned up at about 7:30am. Poor old Nam our tour leader obviously didn't get much sleep worrying, nor did many others in the group who knew he was missing.

Anyway, today we leave Vang Vieng and head north to Luang Prabang Laos' tourist showpiece. It's built on the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers and is encircled by mountains. It has 66 temples, 32 of which houses practicing monks and loads of grand French architecture. The journey to Luang Prabang is only 168km but it took 6 hours. The road is the main road through Laos and so is of good quality, but it winds its way up through and over the mountains. It's amazing that there's a road here at all clinging to the hillsides. More amazing still is that there are people living up in these mountains. Any piece of land sloping less than 45 degrees is farmed. The slit houses hanging in mid-air. The hills go on and on and on. It looks a bit like Lord of the Rings country.

After arriving I headed out for a look around and went to Wat Xieng Thong described as Luang Prabang's most magnificent temple. I got there and there was a ceremony going on, hundreds of people, the whole complex decorated. Then they had a procession through the grounds carrying a Buddha statue. They took it to a small building and had a few prayers. Not sure exactly what it was all about, but for sure a number of short term monks were 'graduating'.

30th April - Luang Prabang

A lazy day in Luang Prabang. The weather is fantastic in the high 30s, the sun is shining and LP itself is gorgeous. LP is so gorgeous that the whole town is UNESCO protected. It is a sleepy place in the peninsular between the two rivers. There's no through traffic so the streets are quiet. Most of the town has been taken over by tourism but it has been done in a sympathetic way. Hotels, restaurants, tour agencies, internet cafes and loads of art and craft shops. And of course there are the temples wherever you look and monks walking around in their bright orange robes. At one temple I got talking to a monk. He had come to the temple because it was the only way that he could further his education. His family could not afford the pay for further education but by coming here to become part of the temple he would get feed and sheltered and be able to continue to study. He said they have no possessions and every morning they parade through the town to receive 'alms' from the towns people. This was usually rice and was how the monks survived. His form of Buddhism allows then to eat meat and mix with outsiders. But they can't marry (or even touch women unless they are sick), can't drink alcohol and can't take exercise. I talked to him for about half an hour, it was great to get an insight into his life.

The highlight of the day was a walk up Phu Si a 100m hill above the town which gives great views of the area. There are many temples and Buddhas on the slopes of the hill. The guide books say that the current temples date from the 19th-century but that there have been temples here since at least the 14th-century. At the summit is the 24m high That Chomsi which can be seen from most of Luang Praban. It is an important symbol of LP and is the starting point of many processions in the town. All this temple stuff is good but for me the highlight is the view from the top. There is a 360 degree view of the area. From up there you can see that LP is surrounded by mountains, the only way in or out without crossing them is along the Mekong. The town itself is very green, covered with palm trees and the Mekong very wide considering how far we are from where it meets the sea, although currently at the end of the dry season it's very low. On the way down I passed many more stupas and small temples. Standing Buddhas, Reclining Buddhas and a Buddha footprint. It got me thinking that Buddhism is the complete opposite of Islam. Muslims don't allow any depictions of Mohamed, yet for the Buddhists when it comes the Buddhas, the more the merrier.

In the afternoon I visited the Royal Palace Museum. The building was built in 1904 by the French as a residence for King Sisavang Vong. The building and grounds are grand as you would expect and the private rooms have been preserved in the state they were in in 1975 when the royal family were forced into exile. The large halls contains treasures and religious artefacts of Lao. So much gold, silver and bronze. I wouldn't want to be the guy who has to polish all this stuff.

1st May - Luang Prabang

Quite a lazy day. I did nothing before lunch. Internet, eat and laze. It's hotter today, it must by up near 40 degrees and it makes Luang Prabang and even sleepier place. I spent the afternoon sat on a park bench ;-) The park bench was sat on top of an elephant. Just outside of Luang Prabang is the Lao Elephant Centre which does small treks through the forest and up the river on elephant back. The elephants are retired lumber elephants which have been brought down from the north of the country.

Elephants are amazing creatures. I'd forgotten just how big they are and how gentle. We have a mahout sat on the elephants head which gives the elephant an idea of where to go but if it doesn't want to then there's not a lot we can do about it. If it wants to stop to take a dump or eat or drink, it does. When we are moving they are so deliberate and sure footed. We go up and down some real steep slopes but they are always in control, one step at a time. It is easy to see why some consider them pests. When they eat, they grab whole branches at a time, 3 or 4 mouthfuls and a whole tree would be decimated.

After the trek came the most fun bit of the afternoon. Elephant bathing. The park bench is taken off the back of the elephant and we head down to the river bank. I jump on the back and in we go. It's not easy to hang on as we climb down into the river. With every step the shoulder blades go up and down and I'm thrown from side to side. Just have to cling on tight with the thighs and ride it like a bucking bronco. Once in the water the elephant kneels down and we slash water over its head. They look so cute in the water up to their eyes with their trunks up out of the water. All to quickly we climb back out of the river and head back. After feeding them a few bananas, 3 at a time skins and all, its all over and its back into town. In the evening We had some Lao speciality food. Laap is the national dish It is a salad of minced meat, mint and fenugreek. Quite spicy and very tasty. We also had some Lao sausage which is quite like chorizo. That was followed by some Thai style red, yellow and green curries. In fact like most thing in Lao there is a big Thai influence.

My trip is now nearly over. Tomorrow we jump on a slow boat up the Mekong. And if it's described as slow in Loa then I guess it's going to hardly be moving at all. Two whole days with an overnight stop half way. That will take us all the way up to the Thai border. From there we go across the border to Chang Mai where we jump on the overnight train to Bangkok.

2nd and 3rd May - Slow boat up the Mekong

Two days on a slow boat up the Mekong, and two long days at that. Eleven hours a day sitting around watching the world slowing going by. Each day boarding and leaving the boat was a tense affair. Climbing up the gang-plank with our backpacks, we all stayed dry but I was sure someone was going to go in. The Mekong valley is spectacular. We are currently at the end of the dry season so the river is low but still very wide. Not sure exactly how wide but it must be over 100yards wide at most points. The banks either side are either rocky, like beaches covered in sand or being farmed. Water buffalo are in the river with just their heads poking out and villagers are fishing, washing, playing on the river's edge.

Every now and again we stop to pick up or drop off people or cargo. In the picture below the locals are unloading beer in the rain, carrying it up over the rocks most of them in bare feet. The woman in the centre of the picture worked the hardest running up and down the slope with boxes of beer on her shoulder.

The picture above was taken from the village where we stopped overnight. It was one of the narrowest points on the trip. You can see the high water line of the river where the trees start. The Mekong must be one hell of a sight in the wet season. The village we stayed in was basic just servicing the ferries. At 10:30pm the power was cut for the night.

The first day was quite cool in Laos terms, probably in the low 30s which made the journey a little easier but it was still a long time sat around not doing much. A lot of time to read, listen to my MP3 player and play cards. The second day was overcast and at one point pissed down which happened to coincide with them having to unload the beer. About an hour into the second day the boat broke down again. It had broken down twice on the first day but they'd managed to fix it quite quickly. This time they couldn't get it going at more than snail's pace so we pulled over to the side and waited for another boat. We clambered on and off we went again. At about 6pm we finally arrived at the border town.

4th May - Cross the border and back to Bangkok

The Mekong is the border between Laos and Thailand. We had to overnight on the Laos side because the border had closed by the time we arrived. So up early to be at the Laos exit point bang on 8am. We did the formalities then jumped onto a long-tail boat to cross to Thailand.

We're back in the Western World. They drive on the left, they drive cars! The roads are tarmaced and flat, they also have dual carriageways. The garages we stop at for toilet breaks have proper shops. I can buy Pepsi Max. Our drive today took us to Chang Mai, a real city. Department stores, I saw an Irish Bar, there's McDonald's, Subway and Hagan Das. Not saying all these things are good but it's sort of comforting to see some familiar things.

We only have two hours in Chang Mai before boarding the overnight train to Bangkok.

5th May - Bangkok

I'm nearly home. Back in Bangkok, just 3 days to go. I had a lazy day, a bit of wandering and some time by the pool.

Do I want Tiger, Smirnoff Ice or San Miguel?

8th May - Back in the UK

Well that's it, I'm home. I've been reading the weather forecasts on BBC.COM and I thought that the had been basking in sunshine. Well I seem to have broken the drought. Devon is cold and wet. But I'm glad to be home, for now anyway ...