Peter's Diary

Wednesday 16th April

Today was all about John, our new friend, the Thai monk. We discovered him after entering the grounds of one of the temples. He was friendly, very smiley and liked to talk. He told us about his music tastes, which seemed to be dominated by all-girl pop bands. We heard about his daily routine, his family, and duties around the temple. Having exchanged emails and taken his picture, we promised to send him some music lyrics in English.

We also visited the market by the river and Katya enjoyed looking at all the various foods. We bought some jackfruit and rambutan which we had some difficulty in opening.

When spotting for something to eat in a local café, we got talking to a man with very limited English. Not much information was exchanged but we learned that he couldn't yet get married as a wife required "big money".

The rest of the day was spent wandering around the temples and taking photos. In the evening we went with our tour group to the night bazaar area to eat and take a walk around.

A rather restless night's sleep due to the heat.

Thursday 17th April

Our last day in Chiang Mai. We got our stack of belongings together for ten and then went to the centre to see Prah Singh Wat, which is one of the oldest wats. Carved elephant heads protrude from its stone sides, while the steps up have mostly crumbled away.

We said good bye to Chiang Mai Thai House just after one o'clock and started our road trip north. On the way to Chiang Rai we stopped at the cashew nut factory. All kinds of flavoured nuts were on offer, from chilli and chocolate to sesame and lemon grass. Katya came away with a box of cashew nut cookies. We watched how they opened the nut and also bake the cookies.

The beautiful white temple was our next stop. This stunning building was designed by a local architect. Toward the end of our tour of the site we managed to squeeze in some noodles with pork balls for 25 baht.

The group was driven to the hotel, while our local guide Tut-tu boasted about the town's "international" airport. It was a wooden lodge hotel. Katya and I were on the first floor. A pleasant room with a large fan, and we were treated to our first tropical downpour during the night. The evening meal was a pleasant selection of curry, soup, and omelette.

Friday 18th April

This was our last full day in Thailand, journeying to Chiang Khong, the border town with Houayxay in Laos.

We travelled into the Golden Triangle. This is where Thailand meets Laos and Burma. The border with Burma presented a busy trading town with young monks walking around. We refreshed ourselves with some pineapple pieces bought from a local stall.

The group then climbed back into the air-conditioned vans and settled down for the drive to the opium museum, stopping on the way to view the rice fields. The museum was filled with the science of growing and enjoying opium, from seeds and purple flowers to pipes and ceramic headrests.

The ice-cold coconut shake that accompanied lunch was delicious. As was the banana pancake.

We also spent half an hour looking at the old temple grounds in the historic, ruined city of Chiang Saen. The odd person was still throwing water about in celebration of New Year.

We said goodbye to our guides at Riverside Hotel. Really nice hotel overlooking the Mekong river with Laos on the far bank. We wandered along the walkway and saw locals taking a swim.

The band "Siren Duo" accompanied our evening meal of morning glory, coconut and chicken soup, green mango with a martini. Sadly the disco Madame had not kicked into gear when we arrived at nine. The night was interrupted by a very heavy storm in the early hours.

Saturday 19th April

After an early morning visit to the local hospital, we boarded the boats to cross the Mekong into the PDR of Laos. Obtaining a visa was done in a 3 by 3 metre hallway packed with about fifty foreigners, none quite sure what they should be doing. However we filled in the forms and were on our way with the hour, newly acquired Laos kip in hand.

Being Russian Katya was in no need of a visa and her $31 fee was waived.

We had a quick walk around the border town and picked up some baguettes for lunch.

Our first stop on the road to Luang Namtha was a lantern Village. We saw the school and made friends with the headmaster/shaman/village chief. He insisted that we join him for some Lao-Lao, which left us sleepy and light-headed for the rest of the afternoon.

A long drive followed.

At about four thirty the vans arrived at the Eco-Lodge in Luang Namtha. The lodge enjoys great views over the Namtha river. There we tried traditional Lao food, including jeaw (raw chilli paste), laup and papaya salad. This was washed down with dark Lao beer.

It was quite a warm night due to lack of fan / AC.

Katya particularly enjoyed being so close to nature.

Sunday 20th April

Si, a very smiley 25 year old, was our guide for the day's jungle adventure. As well as taking tours on weekends, Si is a full-time teacher.

From the Boatlanding Guest House we took an open van up the mountain along a clay, steep track. Higher we climbed, until we came to the Akha Village. Our first sight was of the traditional village swing, which sits well above the huts. Passing through the upper gate we left the village for our five-hour walk in the jungle. We saw and tasted several plants like galangal (Similar to ginger), cardamom (spice) and rattan(vegetable). Lunch was served on banana leave in a shelter. Chopsticks were cut from bamboo.

Shortly before arriving back at the village, we came across a rowdy bunch of men and boys, who were observing an annual custom of appeasing the rice harvest spirits through heavy drinking and smoking.

The chief welcomed us into his home, and showed us an ingenious bird catching instrument. After sharing some Lao-Lao we were sent on our way with handmade souvenir bags.

Dinner was served by moonlight due to the regional electricity blackout.

Monday 21st April

Another early start for the long drive across the mountains of Oudoni Xai Province to the picturesque village of Nong Kiau (Also spelt Nong Khiaw).

Evidently short on time, our driver sped along the road, pot-holed and cliff edged for large sections of the route. We stopped along the way at a Kamu village, where the local kids were tucking into watermelon. Our next break was at a hill tribe market selling mostly vegetables, but also smoked honeycomb complete with bee larvae. A few pence bought us a bag of chilies.

Nong Khaiw is a scenic town on the banks of the Ou River. An impressive 300+ foot high bridge spans the river. Limestone rocks encircle the town.

We settled into our traditional Lao style chalet, set high on the bank overlooking the river. The views are heart-stopping. A four poster bed lay beneath a huge fan, while geckos roamed the bedroom walls.

As the evening heat wore on we headed for one of the cafés for mango daiquiris, which we sipped as the sun fell behind the distant mountain. A picture of romance, had it not been for the mass of insects buzzing noisily overhead and the tinny strains of Lao pop music from the local teenagers’ mobile phones. Nevertheless, we soaked up the surroundings and picked our way through the dark, leafy passage home for a good night’s sleep.

Tuesday 22nd April

The team’s bags were packed on the boat that would serve as our transport for the next eight hours – our destination Luang Prabang.

As the sun beat down we enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the river, which included water buffalo soaking by the banks and groups of local bathers.

Before lunch we visited another Kamu village - this one exceptionally neat and tidy. High cliffs with thick forest acted as a dramatic backdrop. Having walked to the top end of the village for photos, we looked in on the school, consisting of one open air classroom. The kids didn’t quite know what to make of their visitors, nor did the teacher who was swaying her baby in a hammock at the back of the class.

As it’s the height of the dry season the river is very shallow in places, and our driver did an excellent job navigating through shallow rapids downstream. There was one final stop-off at the caves of Pak Ou before pulling ashore at Luang Prabang.

Initial impressions: well kept, atmospheric, and relatively affluent. These descriptions remained true with time, although it soon became evident that many places were busy with backpackers, not locals.

The town has been transformed into a replica of itself and the main street in particular is packaged for tourists. Locals have been making the most of the foreigner influx. Craft shops and air-conditioned bars/cafes line the road. Away from the tourist centre, this city is genuinely beautiful and full of charm. Colonial architecture shapes the town and scores of wats provide a spiritual component. It is also relatively light on traffic.

That evening we caught up with friends from Chiang Mai and sipped on cocktails. We were asked to leave relatively early so that curfew could be observed.

Wednesday 23rd April

The Royal Palace, with its coronation room and private apartments, was the first of our sights to visit. Next we climbed the steps to Mount Phousi, which afforded a panoramic view of Luang Prabang.

The group was treated to some fortune-telling in a little temple. Confusingly, I was told I would enjoy a long and happy marriage, while Katya, my wife, heard that her marriage would be under threat from a mysterious admirer, who would sweep her away.

Lunch was hard to come by, but eventually we found a spot by the river and were soon slurping on noodle soup. The rest of the day was ours to spend as we wanted, which meant a relaxing foot and full body massage. Fish laap, pork laap and red wild sticky rice and green curry were on the dinner menu.

On the way back to the hotel a heavy rain set in, and we were stranded for an hour at one of the wats, sheltering alongside two young monks and a dying dog, which had evidently chosen its deathbed with one eye on nirvana. We made a break for it through the lashing rain for a passing tuk-tuk that drove us home and helped keep us relatively dry.

Thursday 24th April

Katya and I woke at five thirty to ensure we’d be in time to see the monks amble out of their monasteries for the alms ceremony. Probably more than one hundred orange-robed monks eventually formed a queue along the path, bearing gold topped boxes in which to collect food and other offerings from the town’s residents and other religious observers. It was quite a dramatic sight.

We then jumped on a tuk-tuk to take us to the morning market at the other end of town. Highlights included: live lizard, barbequed rat, frogs, algae, and fresh moths. We passed on these for a banana cake slice and a cappuccino in the nearby café.

The children’s cultural centre this evening put on a puppet show and traditional dance. It offered one last chance to hear a group of Laos kids chorus the happy greeting “Sa-Bai-Dee”.

Friday 25th April

Our final day.

We drove about 30 miles to Kung Si falls. Some of us walked the final stretch through the local countryside, and came out at the top of the falls. Many layered waterfalls cascaded into a series of cold, turquoise pools just begging you to dive in. We enjoyed a spicy packed lunch and were soon splashing about.

Grilled buffalo was the main course for our dinner back in Luang Prabang.

We said our farewells to the group as we contemplated our journey home via Bangkok.

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