Claudia, Peter, Lasse & Sil discovering the world www.amsterdamonroute.reismee.nl

Vietnam

In a rather full mini-bus we were picked-up from our hotel in Banlung and driven to the Vietnamese border. Crossing the border into Vietnam went by almost anonymously. On the other side of the border, in Pleiku, we had some trouble finding a bus to Kon Tum, but we found one, albeit with a very unfriendly driver (later we found out this is rather typical for Vietnamese bus drivers). We were charged 2,5 times the normal fare and we did not leave until his bus was more than full (luckily our bigger space requirements were respected to some extend). We headed for Kon Tum, a relatively large city in the central mountains of Vietnam. Rather off the beaten track, so little English was spoken anywhere. We soon found out that the people in the street were very friendly, as opposed to the people active in the business of transporting people. We did not do much but walk through the city, visit the market and every day a bit of school with Lasse and Sil. Guess we had to get used to the new country, its habits and its people first.

Next stop: Hoi An, a former French colonial town at the coast precisely mid-way between Hanoi in the north and Saigon in the south (Ho Chi Minh City). On this trip we definitely passed for our mini-bus exam: there were 30 people in the bus that had seats for 19. On the driver's seat were 2 passengers, one on each side of the driver! Hoi An was a lovely and picturesque little town, famous for its tailors and shoe makers. Claudia and Peter both had a nice business suit tailor-made and Lasse and Sil both had shoes made for them with their own names embroidered in them. They left the shop very, very proud, as you can imagine. Because of the Vietnamese New Year, or TET as it is called, which would be from February 2 - 4, we planned our trip ahead for the next 2 weeks, making hotel reservations and buying the necessary bus tickets. Less fun than the manner we travelled until now, but it beats ending up without a place to stay the night.

From Hoi An we took a night bus, a new experience. Two stories of narrow beds, with a foothold that didn't allow Peter to put his feet upright, but it did the trick. We switched buses in Nha Trang and headed to Dalat, a city in the mountains at 1,500 m altitude. Dalat was nice, it being a popular holiday destination for the Vietnamese. From Dalat we took a tour with a very friendly taxi driver to a silk spinning factory, a cricket farm, a mushroom farm, a tea plantation and a rice wine distillery. All very interesting; did you know that a typical cricket farm yields about 200 kg of crickets per year at 10 US$ per kg. Apparently these are considered a delicacy, as you pay about the same amount for a small plate as a starter in a restaurant. We politely declined the plate that was offered to us as part of our sight-seeing trip...... From Dalat we made a scenic trip by train and we hiked up Lang Biang Mountain (top 1 @ 1,950 m high), whose name was given by the Vietnamese Romeo (Lang) and Julia (Biang). The legend goes that these two lovers committed suicide when they were not allowed to marry, being from different tribes. The mountain grew from their graves.

From Dalat we went to Mui Ne, a very touristic place on the southern coast. Or rather, Mui Ne is a small fishers village completely off the beaten track, but the coastline south of it is completely covered with mini hotels and resorts, one can hardly imagine a greater contrast. We stayed in a small resort with swimming pool, and a stair case down to the sea. There was a big concrete wall along the backside of all the resorts to protect them from being washed away by the sea that made for a spectacular dip in the sea (timing was of the essence!). We spent much time swimming and relaxing, but also rented bicycles one day and explored the famous white and red dunes of Mui Ne on mopeds. It made us feel like being back in Sossusvlei, Namibia again! Lasse and Sil really had a great time surfing the dunes on a rented piece of plastic sheet.

We went on travelling south, as we wanted to visit the Mekong Delta still. On our way there we spent one night in Saigon and the next day directly through to Vinh Long. Lasse in the mean time had developed a serious ear infection, so we had to visit the hospital and get him some medicines. We spent two days in Vinh Long, watching the people get ready for TET; yellow flowers (pink for North Vietnam), water melons and little bonsai trees (to be dressed up like Christmas trees) everywhere on sale along the streets. On New Year 's Eve the streets were REALLY crowded with tens of thousands of people and as many mopeds. New Year 's Eve brought a festive atmosphere, and of course lots of fireworks, but we were not really able to enjoy it as Lasse was really sick.

From Vinh Long we booked two nights at a so-called ‘home-stay' right in the Mekong Delta. Here, you sleep and eat within someone's own house. A very old and very heavily vibrating boat took us first on a three-hour tour through the Mekong Delta. Once we arrived at the home-stay we immediately liked its friendly and relaxed atmosphere. The people living there were playing a game of 'bingo' for (small) money, and when we joined them spontaneously, the ice was broken and we had much fun together. Lasse and Sil walked away with a hefty profit from the first round of bingo, enough to last them for the rest of our stay. Originally we booked for 2 nights, but we decided to spend the rest of our Vietnam-days here and booked 4 more nights, rather than visiting another very crowded and busy city. We played lots of bingo and went to the vegetable garden of our host family to help them water the plants. Every morning we did school with the boys, then we went out on bicycles to explore the islands of the Mekong Delta. One day we visited the local zoo, where the strangest animals were put in the smallest of cages. Not a nice sight at all, and most of the animals were merely little heaps of misery and/or stressed out. The one thing that was perhaps still decent was feeding the alligators little pieces of raw meat with the aid of a fishing rod, which Lasse and Sil very much enjoyed. But we skipped the emu-riding.

After our very enjoyable stay in the Mekong Delta our last stop in Vietnam will be Saigon, were we catch a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. From our first stop-over in Saigon we knew what to expect: lots of people, noice, mopeds, tourists and very crowded streets. Very exciting but not with children.

So, how to summarise our experiences in Vietnam? That can be done in one word: moped. Or rather, millions of them. If you think that it is not possible to transport a full size refrigerator on the back of a moped, you clearly haven't been to Vietnam yet! Or a two-by-one (meter!) pane of glass. Or a couple of pick-nick tables? Or two bicycles? Or 50 living chickens? Or a whole family consisting of 6 people, sometimes an extra neighbour, thrown in for free? And the Vietnamese appear to be in a hurry always. They never slow down or brake. Instead they use their horns (rather annoyingly continuous) and it's up to you to step aside quickly enough. But, in all honesty, this does not fully summarise it. The Vietnamese are very friendly people, who offer a genuine smile, without feeling the need to constantly touch you. And they appear to be a hard-working people; the economy is booming. What really amazed us is how easy-going they are when it comes to their behavior in traffic. Governed by un-written rules, the tens of thousands of mopeds get around without much incidents or accidents. I hope they don't rent a moped on their holidays in Europe........

See you in Malaysia, our last country in southeast Asia, before we fly from Singapore to New Zealand.

Cambodia - 2

After Christmas in Battambang we went to Sihanoukville to celebrate the New Year on the beach.  We stayed at Otres beach, the more quiet beach of Sihanoukville. There were still many beach-sellers here: necklaces, bracelets, sunglasses, kroma's, BBQ squid, lobster, fruit and massages, but usually they leave you alone if you say no firmly. Do not show the slightest hint of hesitation, however, or they will cling to you like flies to dead meat. The best selling-line we heard was a woman asking: 'You fruit me today, Sir?' We met with Sally and Damian from Dunedin, New Zealand with their kids Gray, Reid and Iris. Lasse and Sil were happy to have new friends to play with and we learned a little bit more about New Zealand.

We wanted to stay a bit more at the coast so we took a taxi to Kampot, which, upon arrival there did not feel right, so we drove on to Kep.  Kep was not our cup of tea and, running out of cash with no bank in town, we decided to travel straight on to Phnom Penh and stay there for a couple of days.

The first time we were in Phnom Penh (when travelling from Laos to Siem Reap), the city did not appeal to us very much. But the second time around it appeared quit a nice city! We stayed 1 ½ day , happy with some city live around us. While Lasse and Sil were watching a DVD in the guesthouse, we went to the Tuol Sleng museum. This is a former primary school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a torture prison known as S.21 (Security Office 21). The museum was made in a very respectful manner, but it did not conceal the atrocities committed by the KR regime. In this prison alone, some 20.000 people died, either from torture or starvation. On any day as much as 125 people were tortured to death. Pictures taken by the Vietnamese soldiers show heavily mutilated dead people in a pool of their own blood, still chained to the steel bed frames. Truly horrific. The museum also showed interviews with ex KR soldiers and even former S.21 guards; from their stories it becomes clear that the KR regime almost only left victims.

Next stop: Sen Monorom, in the sparsely populated North-Eastern area. An entirely different landscape: hills, rainforest, rubber and pepper plantations. No rice fields any more, due to the hills and mountains. Along the (excellent) road, the devastating effects of deforestation became clear: outstretched hills robbed of trees, with only some trees left in the deeper valleys. Less than 20 years ago (1992) the Mondulkiri province still counted 4.000 wild tigers; today there are none left anymore. The road ends at Sen Monorom; further North is only possible by off-the-road motorbike. We were picked up by Bill from 'Middle of Somewhere' for a cup of tea and some information and tips. We would see more of Bill and his little monkey, as he arranged trips to the nearby Elephant Valley Project and Phnong villages for us. The Elephant Valley Project is a sanctuary for retired domesticated (work) elephants. Here we learned that the elephant riding offered by many local operators is actually very harmful to the elephants, which end up with damaged backs and running sours on their skin. This project aims to provide a good old day for all 57 domestic elephants in the area (at this moment there are only 6 elephants in the project).  Tourist pay here to visit for one or more days to watch the elephants during their normal day routine and taking a bath in the river, from close distance.  There were also a lot of volunteers active to enhance the project and build additional bungalows. While the volunteers were carrying rocks, as were Lasse and Sil (building a dam in the river), we were watching the elephants eating and rummaging around.

Our next trip was a visit to Dak Dam village, the home of the Phnong people, the local hill tribe. This proved to be a very nice visit, during which we were escorted by two young guides from the boarding school in Sen Monorom. The people in the village were very open and friendly, we bought a number of hand-woven traditional scarves, witnessed how they were made and visited a local blacksmith. Peter was really disappointed to find he sold all his knives to tourist the day before. But we agreed he would try to make some knives the next day, provided the wind would allow it. And the next day, one of our guides indeed brought back a knife. When Peter took it out the first time it was still warm from the fire!

Then, our last stop in Cambodia: Banlung, in the far North, 70 kms from the Vietnamese border. We spent 12 hours in a bus getting there, the last 3 hours over an un-paved road, making the trip very dusty. The first 30 meter on either side of the road: everything covered with red sand/dust. Luckily we were picked up by 4 moto´s sent by our hotel. One of the moto-drivers also ran his own tour operator business. Without invitation he joined us for dinner trying to sell us a 2-day tour for US$ 350 (we told him to take a hike). Banlung is a small town where everything is covered in red sand/dust. It gets everywhere. We went swimming in a nearby crater lake, very much enjoyed by us all. Fresh, crystal clear water, and also the many local people either taking a religious bath in the lake (oldies) or showing off their summersaults (youngsters) was an enjoyable sight. We booked a day-trip at Dutch Couple, a tour operator run by a Dutch couple. By boat we visited two villages and a animist cemetery. New tribes, new traditions, new beliefs, all very interesting.

Yes, Cambodia, how to summarize our experiences? We thoroughly enjoyed its country-side, mountains, rainforests, widespread rice fields, the amazing temples of Angkor, the floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake and the swamps surrounding it, the beaches of Sihanoukville and, not in the last place, the very friendly people who possess what must be the warmest smile on earth (although, quit often this is all they possess.....). What puzzled us is the history of the Khmer Rouge regime, and the role they still play in today's Cambodia. Only in 2007 (30 years after the Vietnamese soldiers liberated Cambodia) the KR leaders have been arrested and are being put to trial at this moment.

Typical is the loud music everywhere; when there is something to celebrate, they do not hesitate to turn up the volume and they usually start as early as 5 am. In this way everybody can enjoy, no matter whether you are asleep or not. And when you take a (long distance) bus, you can indulge in an endless play of either karaoke or comedy video. Alas, Cambodian music is even sweeter than the milk they put in the coffee here and seems to run on like an endless waterfall. And comedy most certainly is not invented in Cambodia. We wonder what we will be treated to in Vietnam......

Cambodia - 1

After Sil and Peter had sufficiently returned to the living again (they were knocked out with a flue), it was time to move on to Cambodia. We travelled the whole day by bus to Cambodia. The border crossing was like a ‘milky way', every 10 meter there was another government official requiring a new form to be filled in and, of course, some dollars to cover for the expenses made. So we felt milked like cows once more. Only when we entered Cambodia, we realized how poor Laos really is (one of the ten poorest countries in the world!). In Cambodia the streets were busy again with traffic and all means of motorized transport. Along the roads lots of shops, workshops for cars, gas stations, etc. What a difference with Laos! One could feel the (economic) activity buzzing in the air. We stopped over in Kampong Cham to break the long bus trip. Good decision: the next day we had another 5 hours of bus to Siem Reap in the north of Cambodia.

Siem Riep is famous for the Angkor temples from the Khmer rule from the 11th to the 14th century AC. What an amazing wonder, these temples. Unbe-fuckin'-lievable, would be the word to best describe them. There are over 1,000 temples in the area (of which only 40 are de-jungled and can be visited), with Angkor Tom, the old city with numerous temples and Angkor Wat, the absolute most sacred temple in Cambodia, being the most important. We started small, working our way from the more remote and smaller temples to Angkor Wat and finally Angkor Tom. We spent three full days on the bicycle, exploring the many temples. Lasse and Sil brought a compass and headlight, so they could investigate the many dark alleys without getting bored. The stone-cutting, bas-reliefs and uncountable ornaments were really stunning. Too bad that many temples have suffered from the rain, bad foundations and had been left to become overgrown by the jungle. But then again, this also provided for some very picturesque scenery, which is why many adventure films have been filmed there, like Tomb Raider starring Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones.

Seam Riep itself is a nice and not-too-big city. Touristic but relaxed. Apart from visiting the temples of Angkor, Lasse, Sil and Peter went swimming at Aqua, a bar annex swimming pool owned by and frequented by expats. Claudia enjoyed some time on her own, visiting the museum and doing some shopping. We all bought a kroma, the traditional Cambodian scarf, worn on or around the head, or around the neck, or as swimming pants, or over the mouth in case of dust, or between the handlebars of a bicycle for your one year old child, and you can also use it as a towel to dry yourself (after swimming or showering) or the dishes. Now, if that's not a multi-functional piece of clothing, we don't know what in the world would be!

From Seam Riep we travelled by boat to Battambang. We crossed Tonle Sap Lake and went through real swampy rivers, a unique experience. The boat left an hour late and was so heavily overloaded with all luggage and lots of extra passengers on the roof that it tilted dangerously to one side. Two hours before arrival our boat broke down. The steering did not work anymore. After some useful hints from a Dutch engineer who happened to be on board, the skipper managed to repair it and we were on our way again. Later it was ‘definitely' fixed when we passed a floating repair shop (impressive!). This meant, however, that all the passengers had to wait another 30 minutes, but that's the way things go in Asia.

In Battambang we stayed at a luxury resort with swimming pool to enjoy Christmas. We had to do something to get into the mood for Christmas. But with 30 degrees Centigrade, no snow and only a small Christmas tree it was pretty damned hard to do that. We watched the Muppet's Christmas Carol, which did the trick. The high-light was our Christmas banquet dinner at a neighbouring resort, where Santa Claus dropped by and handed out presents to all the kids around. A very nice surprise and the fact that Santa's pants started dropping did nothing to reduce everybody's happiness....

At the resort we met Terry, part-owner and from Tasmania, who was part-time advisor to the Cambodian government. We had some interesting discussions with him about Cambodia today and the Khmer Rouge rule. From him we learned that a large portion of government spending and salaries are funded from outside Cambodia! We could very well imagine that, as we met lots of agencies and organizations in Cambodia offering to help if you wanted to donate or do some voluntary work in Cambodia. We also learned that the eastern province of Cambodia has suffered the longest from the KR rule; from 1968 to 1998, no less than 30 years! And to this very day, much of the KR cadre and its leaders still live free and unpunished in rural Cambodia. Apparently the KR was so ingrained in the Cambodian society that the country cannot run without the people that were once running the KR. Makes you think, doesn't it? Such a controversy; this nice country with its friendly people (you will never see a more friendly smile than on the face of a Cambodian) versus the terrible history of the KR. It's hard to believe it really happened. One day we took a tuk-tuk to the ‘killing cave' just outside town. This is a cave where the KR slaughtered and dumped 10,000 people. There was a gruesome memorial: a glass room filled with skulls, bones and ragged clothes of some of the people that were murdered in the cave. In another corner there was a rusted cage filled with skulls, bones and clothes of children that were murdered there. The way it was all done was quit macabre and neither very respectful nor considerate. It just did not feel right and left us with mixed emotions; it seems like this country has far from fully digested its recent history.

After three nights of luxury, we switched to our normal style guesthouse. This time we were lucky and found a huge family room with double bed and two singles, so everybody happy and nobody had to sleep on the floor. On our last day we took a trip on the bamboo train. This is a small wooden lorry with a small generator on it, carrying up to about 6 - 8 people. The trains run over an old stretch of railway and when a train comes from the opposite direction, the least heavy loaded one is dismantled to let the other one pass. This is quickly done and within 2 minutes the trip continues. An experience very much appreciated by Lasse and Sil, who were riding the bamboo train like captains of the Titanic.

Next stop after Battambang would be Sihanoukville at the southern coast of Cambodia. There we are planning to be with New Year's Eve, thanking the old year and welcoming the new one.

For now, we wish all of you all the best for 2011. Keep on dreaming and keep on fulfilling your dreams! Good luck and good health to all of you! See you in 2011.

Back in Laos

During our last weekend in That Phanom the Loy Kratong festival took place, where the spirits of water are honoured. We were invited for dinner by Puna, from whom we rented a car, and afterwards we went to the festival together. Chaos. Every 5 meter there a new podium with its own huge set op speakers, and on the podium would be a drunk Thai singing karaoke. Total madness. In between there was a beauty contest electing the most beautiful Thai lady from within the area. And of course a lot of little candles were drifting on the water, with sticks of essence burning and small offerings enclosed. On our last evening we had dinner with Clive and Barry. The next day Puna drove us to Mukdahan, where we crossed the border via the Friendship Bridge no. 2 (a Chinese donation to improve transport to and from China) and arrived in Savannakhet.

Savannakhet was a medium large town along the Mekong River, so close to the border with Thailand. We switched guesthouse after the first night, hoping for a place where the personnel did not sleep in the lobby and restaurant..... From Savannakhet we made a tour by tuk-tuk to see some villages around it, the rice fields and to visit a salt factory. The salt factory was something special, huge concrete basins where the saline solution (70% salt, natural source) was left to dry, and also some 20 wood fired furnaces that were in production when we were there. Each furnace being operated by one family. Very picturesque. The high-light of Savannakhet was our visit to its two museums: the provincial museum and the dinosaur museum. The provincial museum told the story about the liberation from France and the USA-Vietnam war, which also impacted on Laos, followed by the liberation of the people of Laos, of course. In the dinosaur museum we were given the VIP treatment by the director, who took us to the working rooms and showed us the original bones that were dug up. He even allowed us to take photos with the very real bones, 120 million years old, can you imagine? On our last day we went by David from i-Lounge, a restaurant where they had a DVD-menu also. We watched some movies while eating there and David burnt a couple of DVD's for us, so we stocked up on Star Wars, James Bond and some other classics.

From Savannakhet we took a bus to Pakse, further south in Laos. We were wondering why those front seats in the bus were not taken yet, as we got in, but during the trip we found out: it was bloody hot behind that big window! But the view was great. Pakse was ok, but we did not feel like staying too long in yet another town. We stayed two nights, went swimming one afternoon in a real swimming pool of a large hotel (the first hotel since Lop Buri, Thailand) and decided it was time to head on, in search of some space and nature.

So we took a bus to Tad Lo, a small village inland of Laos. The one attraction of Tad Lo was a series of small waterfalls, but the village was a nice mix of tourism and local everyday life. While walking through the village one day, we ended up on a wedding party, and it didn't take long before a local climbed on stage and invited us to join the party, which we did of course. We stayed a week in very simple reed bungalows. There was no shower, but we could take a bath in the river every day, just like the locals did and Claudia was happy to try out her new sarong, bought especially for this purpose. We met Gabriella from Czech Republic, who was travelling with her two sons Ferdy and Micky. She had decided it was a better idea to buy a ticket and spend 6 months in warm Thailand, instead of having to buy all new winter clothes for her and her children. Good decision. We teamed up, the children playing with each other and with the local children, which was nice to see. Lasse and Sil were having fun, swimming in the river to their secret island, and one day they even got a ride on the back of a water buffalo, and crossed the river on the back of one!

From Tad Lo we rented mopeds one day, to visit a coffee plantation and go to the market in Salanvanh. Now, this was an experience once more! This market seemed to specialize in exotic animals: we saw owls and all kinds of birds of prey, living snakes, dog meat, badgers, squirrels, beautiful hornbills, small antelopes, you name it! We tried very hard not to look too disgusted, but we did not succeed every time. These people eat everything! One day in the village a dog was hit by a car, and sure enough, in the evening the dog bas being roosted on a fire. So now we knew why there were so many dogs around; they fulfill the same function as pigs and chickens. To eat every scrap that falls through the cracks of the table, only to be eaten yourself in the end.

After 7 nights we decided we had enough of the low hygienic standards. More so, as we had been having an unwanted guest in Claudia and Peter's bungalow: a huge spider. Peter tried to kill it, but was not successful; the damned spider was just too quick! Boy, were we happy with our mosquito nets and after the first encounter with our roommate, we really made sure the net was securely tied in between the bed and the mattress, you bet!

We moved on the the very most southern point of Laos: the 4000 Islands area. In the south of Laos the Mekong River broadens and many islands have formed, some larger that are inhabited. We stayed on Don Khon island, which was lined with guest houses along the waterfront. Very picturesque, very main stream tourism. It took us a whole day to travel from Tad Lo to Don Khong, via tuk-tuk, local bus, tuk-tuk truck and boat. But we were rewarded by a very nice shower, even with warm water! The first night we say a whole bunch of garbage, mostly plastic water bottles, floating by in the Mekong. Apparently this is how they got rid of the garbage around here. Made us think again about eco-tourism, about travelling to these regions altogether, as these were really ‘our' bottles off course, which were floating in the Mekong. There must be some way, some local solution that can be put to work, to give all this plastic a second use, or in any case stop it from littering the rivers and the oceans!

We switched guest houses after the first night on Don Khon, moving a bit more up-class, bit more luxury and a bit more to where the action was. That appeared a good decision, as Sil and Peter fell ill for some days with a stomach virus, and the extra luxury was greatly appreciated while Sil and Peter were sharing toilet time. It was very nice to be back in nature again, just like in Tad Lo. Lasse and Sil went swimming every day, taking care not to be swept away by the strong current. We hired bikes almost every day, had several nice restaurants to choose from (all with the same menu, however) and reasonably fast Internet available. There was a festival to celebrate the good harvest, with dragon boat races on the Mekong, which was a beautiful sight. In the village there was a fair, with balloon dart, gambling, eating, and, of course, loud music, all night long. But the high-light was the merry-go-round, which was not driven by electricity, but by man-power. I bet our parents even haven't seen one of those!

So our days in Laos are counted, heading for a new country: Cambodia. We enjoyed Laos, with its laid-back atmosphere, its many temples, monks and novices, where the locals are still in charge of their own economy (how different from Africa!), although Sil and Lasse sometimes endured hard times, with everybody touching and hugging them. In Laos things are generally well organized for tourists, without the pushy attitude of Thailand. Surely a country to come back in, say, 10 years time.

Moving plastic bags (That Phanom, Thailand)

We like to share some market experiences with you! A market here in Asia is like Hema in the Netherlands - a big store where you can get everything. The last great market place was the Indochina market in That Phanom: at 6 o'clock in the morning people start to build up the stands, tuk-tuks full of mattresses and boxes arrive, lorries with bicycles and cupboards are unloaded, on the Mekong lots of boats moor up with more stuff. Busy place! Next to these more professional market salesmen lots of rural people from Laos and Thailand prepare to offer their goods. This is the most peculiar place on the market for us! Claudia could spend ages there and there will be a moment where she will be limited in time for markets and temples.

The greatest thing is to watch out for moving plastic bags. We saw toads (nice big ones) and small frogs, grasshoppers, snails and eel - alive, trying to escape from their plastic prison. But also outside the plastic bag you'll find interesting things: try dried skin from the water buffalo with the hair still on it, or boiled eggs, or better, boiled baby chicken. If you feel the urge to ask some spirits for help, just buy some ritual utensils like dried monkey feet or some roots, stones of again quite unknown stuff to us. It is great to see some of the old women just selling a few bunches of coriander or men selling a few self-made farming tools.

In between all the stands you'll find the typical little car with its charcoal BBQ, baskets full of rice and all kind of vegetables providing food for all people: noodle soup, grilled meet (who dares?!), fish, pancake, curries, etc. With it goes a plastic bag of cola - you can't get the ice cubes in a bottle (it is not moving!!) .... Sometimes the smell is incredible; it takes all our concentration to breathe without looking disgusted, best thing is not to breathe at all. The worst are dried and flattened squid or a brownish sauce with whatever floating in there - unbelievable! A few meters further the most delicious smell meets our nose and we always find something nice to eat, definitely avoiding the frogs and buffalo skin.

When we walk on the market we are quit an attraction, too. Poor Sil, literary every fifth person tries to touch him, preferably his hair and if he is really unlucky, they succeed in giving him a big hug. 'He is so handsome!' He is doing a brilliant job in just letting it happen. People take lots of photos, too. So there is a sort of balance in looking at each other and being surprised and fascinated by the things one sees. It is win-win, with a big smile .

From Vientiane back to Thailand

Of course our plane landed safely (as you might have guessed already).

Vientiane is a busy and developing city. One feels the French influence. Lots of NGO's about the place, and also lots of 'falang' people (foreigners). We arrived a couple days prior to the first international convention on the abolition of cluster ammunition, hosted by Laos. We saw children exercise for the opening ceremony and visited an exhibition showing art from local artists, whose art was heavily inspired by the harsh effects of cluster ammunition. We stayed in a run-down and a bit eerie guesthouse, but at least it was quiet. We weren't in the mood to do any sightseeing at all, instead we went bowling - fun!  Lasse and Sil experienced an evening of their live with two older Dutch ladies who were really interested in them and in their stories about our travel adventures so far. They were talking the whole evening and we all had a very enjoyable evening, sharing whine and lots of laughs.

From Vientiane, we took a VIB-bus to Thakek, a Laos border town along the Mekong (the river keeps coming back to us, or is it the other way around?). We arrived in the dark, the first guesthouse was full (our pick from the Lonely Planet), so we were carted by our tuk-tuk driver to another guesthouse - an awfully dirty and smelly place. The kind of place where one tries to be as small as possible, so that your body doesn't have to touch anything.  We left again the next morning and found a nice guesthouse for one more night.  Thakek was not much of an interesting place, we did, however, thoroughly enjoy two evenings of Asian-style BBQ. This is where you have the BBQ on the table and you cook meat in the centre, while all around there is a place to boil mushrooms, noodles and vegetables in bouillon. Very tasty and very nice to do, especially Lasse and Sil enjoyed being chefs.

Now, it was time to go back to Thailand as our one month visa for Laos had nearly expired. The past months we have gained so much new images, experiences, met so many new people and so many new cultures and traditions. It is time for a short break, just staying at one place and let our minds come to rest a little. We crossed the Mekong in a long tail boat, and we arrived in Nakom Phanom at the Thai side. We stood there, a little bit lost, trying to make up our mind: stay here, or move on? We decided to move straight on to That Phanom. This turned out to be a good choice. We found a nice, apartment-style room; it's good to have some extra space. On our first afternoon, we bumped into Clive from Australia and his friend Barry from the UK, both pensioners enjoying the good life in Thailand. Barry put us in contact with a local car dealer, from who we could rent a car for a week. Just our luck, as renting a car is virtually impossible in this part of Thailand, as there are no official car rentals. Having a car allowed us to do some sight-seeing around That Phanom. We visited rapids in the Mekong, searched in vain for waterfalls, went to a site with dinosaur footprints and passed through many small villages along the way.

In That Phanom we also had the time and piece-of-mind to plan the remainder of our time in Asia. We have been wondering whether we should go to Vietnam or not, having heard some very bad stories and little good ones. Finally we decided to form an opinion for ourselves. So the scheme from here on will be: back to Laos for 3 to 4 weeks, then to Cambodia for a month, on to Vietnam for 3 to 4 weeks, 2 weeks Malaysia and 1 week in Singapore, before we head to New Zealand on March 1, 2011.

See you again in Laos!

Northern Laos

It took us 5 minutes to cross the Mekong River and enter Laos on the other side. Passport formalities were quickly put behind us. We did not want to be hassled into a quick boat trip by the cunning trip-sellers at the border, so we decided to stay at least one day at the Laos border in Huay Xai. We chose BAP Guesthouse, run by a wise and friendly old lady. She offered us a family room for a good price (she had a flexible pricing strategy; rich people paid more....). Huay Xai was nothing special, except that this little village managed to ‘churn away' hundreds of tourist every day, without losing its sleepy appearance. We ended up staying another day, getting used to a new country, before embarking on a 2-day boot trip along the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, said to be the cultural and religious capital of Laos.

The boot trip on the Mekong was nice and relaxing. Luckily it was not too busy;  everybody had a decent place on the boat. There was a mandatory stop halfway in Pak Beng, were we were all offered a good opium pipe if we wanted. We were still very close to the Golden (opium) Triangle and old habits never die.....

We liked Luang Prabang very much, with its French influences, quiet and clean streets, its sleepy and laid-back atmosphere. Tuk-tuks everywhere, patiently waiting for clients, sometimes a bit annoying as they not easily take no for an answer. From foreigners who live in Laos we understood that Laos is now what Thailand used to be 15 years ago. Less spoilt by tourism and progress (there is of course two ways of looking at that.....). We witnessed the daily procession of monks during which they collect their food. This so-called ‘alm-giving' takes place every day at 6 am. Monks leave their monastery with a pot in a sling around their shoulder, and local villagers put in sticky rice, candy and other food and some also put in money. Part of the food is passed on to poor children walking along the monks; it's a very social system. Besides the local villagers, also a lot of (Thai) tourists take place in the ceremony, guided by locals who earn their money this way. Local people are, however, afraid their culture is slowly fading and frown upon the many tourists participating in the ceremony......

We planned to be in Luang Prabang to witness the celebration of the end of the rainy season. Everywhere, villagers and monks were preparing boats to be put into the river with many of lights on them. Very nice to see that monks and monasteries (and actually religion itself) here, really form part of every-day life. The evenings before the festival everywhere in the city candles and lanterns were lighted, firecrackers were ignited, and one could feel it ‘hanging in the atmosphere', like on New Year's Eve..... Monks were cheerful and excited, as this festival for them marked the end of the time during which they were restricted to the grounds of their monasteries. On the evening of the festival, the owners of our guesthouse invited us to join for dinner. They were worried about Peter, whose eye was black and blue after receiving part of a fire cracker in it. It turned into a spontaneous happening, during which we learned quit a lot about Laos, its people and its culture. We watched the procession of candle-lit boats through the streets of Luang Prabang together with them. After that we went to the Mekong River to watch the candle-lit boats on the water. We also put two little floating candles in the river ourselves, sending on them all our bad feelings and experiences, allowing them to flow out of our lives and leave us in peace...... Lasse and Sil busied themselves with saving stranded boats and floating candles by putting them back in the main stream of the river. We stayed one day longer in Luang Prabang, to give Peter's eye a chance to recover, before taking the minibus to Luang Namtha, a drive of almost 9 hours.

On our minibus trip from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha we passed through countless small villages and by many small farms. It's hard to describe the way in which the people in those villages and those farmers live as something else than poverty. Living in reed huts, some with roofs from corrugated sheets, but mostly made from banana leaves. Little children wearing dirty clothes (if any at all). The ground around the huts was wet, muddy and slippery from the rain. Life lived along the road, with continuous traffic passing by. Hardly circumstances we would find enjoyable in Europe.......

After two nights in Luang Namtha we travelled further north to Muang Sing, another two hours by minibus, very close to the Chinese border. ‘Chinese shit' on sale everywhere: mopeds, toys, clothes, shoes, etc. We stayed at a nice guesthouse overlooking the rice fields and mountains around Muang Sing. Beautiful scenery, the village itself enjoyable and peaceful, except for hill tribe women who were relentlessly trying to sell hand-made bracelets, hats, bags, etc. Nevertheless, we stayed a week, enjoying being away from the main tourist route. Unfortunately, Sil got sick with an ear infection again. We visited the local hospital, managed to make ourselves clear using our hands and feet and got antibiotics vitamins for Sil to take.

From Muang Sing we did a two-day trek into the hills of Northern Laos. We visited many hill tribe villages. We were guided by Mr. Mai, who was rice farmer and part-time guide. A friendly man, very knowledgeable about the area and the many tribes living in the hills. He explained the horrible pictures one could usually see at temples, showed us how to make bamboo flutes and for which purpose various plants where used. His favourite phrase being 'same, same, but different', a phrase that stands for much in this country. The first day we climbed steep hills, something us lazy travelers were not used to anymore. We slept in a little village called Sop Ee Mai. Most houses did have electricity, at least sufficient for a single light bulb. In the evening small fires were lit everywhere, with groups of people gathering around them. Lasse and Sil where showing off with one of our mobile phones. Technology as a way of making contact, when language doesn't work. 9 pm life in the village shut down, it being dark and cold. We slept in the communal room in a central hut in the village. Next day we were woken up early by the sounds of women pounding the rice to remove the husks. Our guide was already up cooking lunch and breakfast. The second day we went through rice fields, so little shade, and we visited many villages again. It appeared that every village specialized in one product or trade, like weaving mats from bamboo, or cotton, etc.  We learned a lot on this trip, certainly one of the high-lights in Laos so far.

After Muang Sing we went back to Luang Namtha, where we stayed 2 more nights before we took a flight to Vientiane, capitol of Laos. We treated ourselves on an in-land flight, in staid of having to travel two full days in a minibus. Our airplane was an old Fokker. We were all seated, engines were started, but one of the engines stalled. After two tries some smoke appeared in the cabin and we had to leave the plane. The pilot went through the start-up routine again, in order to test the engine that failed the first time. Apparently the test was successful, as we were allowed to reboard the plane. No explanations were given, so we were a bit more anxious than usual when the engines were started up and we were taxiing to the runway.........

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