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Cruising the Mekong


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The Thai-Laos border was the most relaxed so far; after stamping out of Thailand you pay 20p to get a wooden boat across the Mekong river where you part with $36 for a Laos visa. After stocking up on provisions we took a tuk-tuk to the traditional longboat that would slowly make its way to our first stop, Pak Beng. By now a big fan of leisurely transport, 6 hours on the boat was ideal, with the scenery becoming ever more lush and wild.

Pak Beng is a village where everyone spends their first night on the Mekong. Our local guide used to be a barman and created a pink dragon fruit and lao lao (the local ubiquitous rice whiskey) cocktail to celebrate his last trip with the company. There are a couple of 'clubs' (buildings with dance floors and blaring sound systems) a short truck ride in to the countryside where most foreigners, us included, find themselves when the bars close.

The next day we got back on the boat to continue our journey, this time stopping at a village for a home stay. After a tour, including the new health centre that's being built, and a swim in a freezing stream we were formally welcomed to the village with a Baci ceremony. The village people are mainly Buddhist but maintain many of their traditional animist practices. This ceremony involved prayers, offerings and music followed by the elders of the village tying white strings around our wrists. It was quite moving and was followed by a performance of traditional dance by the village children and copious lao lao. Getting to see how the locals live was a real highlight of my time in Laos.

Our next destination was Luang Prabang, formally Laos capital and a UNESCO world heritage site. We visited the waterfalls outside the city for more freezing swimming but unfortunately I must have eaten something dodgy as the next 24 hours passed by without me knowing much about it. I was feeling better by the time we got to Vang Vieng, once a backpackers hub where people floated down the river in giant inner tubes stopping off at the 30 bars along the way. However, due to several (hardly surprising) deaths most of them have been shut down and the town has a much more relaxed feel to it. We went for yet more wild swimming, this time in the cave underneath a karst hill.

Vientiane is the quietest capital I've ever visited, but after rural Laos it felt like a metropolis. On our way in to the city we visited the COPE centre, which provides free prosthetics and aftercare to the victims of Laos' 78 million unexplored ordinances left from the Secret War. They also have the country's only occupational therapist and are starting to provide disabled children with much needed support and equipment. Vientiane has obvious French colonial influence and even its own Arc de Triomphe, constructed with money and cement donated by the Americans that was intended for building a new airport. The stupa opposite the Arc is Laos' national symbol and featured on the currency.

Laos only has one railway station so of course I had to use it. The train from Thanaleng takes you 10 minutes along the track and over the Friendship Bridge in to Thailand, from where you stamp in and board the night train to Bangkok.

Posted by arianemeena 02:04 Archived in Laos

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I feel like I'm about to walk into my favourite novel, and stay up all night talking to the protagonist. Wonderful stuff, as ever.

by Josh

Laos sounds fascinating-am also enjoying Josh's comments on your blog! He is obviously so looking forward to joining you on the Malaysian leg of your tour.

by jane waran

Jane- how did you guess?!

by Josh

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