Tuesday, 31 January 2017

HOME, UPDATE AND INDEX

31st Jan 2017

I am now joyfully back home amidst the fog, rain, ice, wind and general gloom which so characterises our delightful country at this time of year. Whoopee!

I am interested to know who actually reads this blog. The number of 'hits' doesn't actually mean much  as many of these 'visits' might only be from people scanning through to find something more entertaining. I know I have a few staunch followers because they communicate in some form or other either to say they find it amusing, or educational, or not, or (in one particular case) take great  satisfaction in painstakingly pointing out all my (many) grammatical, spelling and typo errors, for which I am most grateful. Thanks Bernie!
Those that I know read this are Bernie G (with a microscope), Pam K, Julia B, Belinda M, Nick R and really I don't know of any others.
The reason I write this stuff is primarily for my own amusement and record. When eventually I sit, immobile, dribbling, and incontinent in the Sunnylands Home for the Elderly and Confused I will hopefully be able to re-read these posts and remember where I have been and what I did. Of course my memory will have gone by then so every time nurse opens up the computer for me each page will always spring out as a complete surprise.

It would satisfy my curiosity, though, to find out who does read it. Perhaps you could be so kind as to let me know by e-mail (if you have my e-mail address which I daren't publish here) or by using the comment box at the bottom of each post. I know it is somewhat tricky to use, but must be possible because a few managed at the beginning. I think you need to establish a temporary Google account, on site, to do so. I would be most grateful for any feedback, however rude.

I have been asked by some friends, when they are about to travel to one of the places I have visited, how to find the relevant entry. This blogsite does not make it easy because when you go back to 'previous page'  or a particular year, the first entry you see is the latest on that page ie. you have to scroll down to the bottom to get the earliest (if that makes any sense). So, I thought I would print out a list of chapters to assist readers, and myself, in locating a specific post. In fact I have just discovered that it is not so difficult; just look at the blog archive posts at top right and click on the 'year' arrow to expand. Then click on the 'month' arrow to expand further. All are revealed and can be entered directly.   Here goes:

List of Posts

2011

1.      The Beginning
2.      At Sea - Now Antwerp
3.      Stranded in Le Havre
4.      Crossing The Pond
5.      Noo Yawk, Noo Yawk
6.      Virginia
7.      Washington DC
8.      Columbia - South Carolina
9.      Charleston - South Carolina
10.    Miami - Florida
11.    Fort Lauderdale - Florida
12.    Savannah - Georgia
13.    Boston - Massachusetts
14.    Boston - Post Script
15.    Niagara Falls - Ontario
16.    Toronto - Ontario
17.    Winnipeg - Manitoba
18.    The Canadian - Toronto to Vancouver
19.    Vancouver Island - British Columbia
20.    Seattle - Washington
21.    Amtrak. Seattle to San Francisco
22.    San Francisco - California (Part 1)
23.    San Francisco - California (Part 2)
24.    San Diego - California
25.    Tijuana to La Paz - Mexico
26.    La Paz - Mexico
27.    Mazatlan - Mexico
28.    Guadalajara - Mexico
29.    Mexico City
30.    San Christobal de Las Casas - Mexico
31.    Antigua - Guatemala
32.    San Salvador - El Salvador
33.    Managua and Granada - Nicaragua
34.    San José - Costa Rica
35.    Panama City
36.    Flight to Lima - Peru
37.    Lima - Peru
38.    Nazca - Peru
39.    Cusco - Peru
40.    Machu Picchu - Peru
41.    Andean Explorer - Peru
42.    Puno (Lake Titicaca) - Peru
43.    Arequipa - Peru
44.    Panama to Auckland - New Zealand
45.    Bay of Islands - New Zealand
46.    Lake Taupo - New Zealand
47.    Cape Reinga - New Zealand
48.    Russel Birdman Festival - New Zealand
49.    Rotorua - New Zealand
50.    Napier - New Zealand
51.    Wellington - New Zealand
52.    Blenheim - New Zealand
53.    Nelson - New Zealand
54.    West Coast, South Island - New Zealand
55.    Queenstown - New Zealand
56.    Lake Tekapo - New Zealand
57.    Christchurch - New Zealand
58.    Kaikoura - New Zealand
59.    Auckland - New Zealand
60.    Across the Tasman Sea
61.    Sydney (Part 1) - Australia 
62.    Sydney (Part 2) - Australia 
63.    Melbourne (Part 1) - Australia 
64.    Melbourne (Part 2) - Australia 
65.    Tasmania - Australia
66.    Adelaide - Australia
67.    The Ghan - Adelaide to Darwin
68.    Darwin - Australia
69.    The Red Centre - Australia
70.    Back to Adelaide - Australia
71.    Onwards to Brisbane - Australia
72.    Brisbane to Singapore (Part 1)
73.    Taxis
74.    Brisbane to Singapore (Part 2)
75.    Brisbane to Singapore (Part 3)
76.    Singapore (Part 1)
77.    Kuala Lumpur - Malaysia
78.    Up Country - Malaysia
79.    Singapore (Part 2)
80.    Mozart. Malaysia to Sri Lanka
81.    Colombo - Sri Lanka
82.    Coffee
83.    Kandy - Sri Lanka
84.    Nuwara Eliya - Sri Lanka
85.    Back to Colombo - Sri Lanka
86.    Galle - Sri Lanka
87.    The Ancient Cities - Sri Lanka
88.    Trincomalee - Sri Lanka
89.    Negombo - Sri Lanka
90.    Tiruchirappalli - India
91.    Kerala - India
92.    Goa - India
93.    Bombay - India

2012

94.    Delhi - India
95.    Palace On Wheels. Rajasthan (Part 1) - India
96.    Palace On Wheels. Rajasthan (Part 2) - India
97.    Palace On Wheels. Rajasthan (Part 3) - India
98.    Palace On Wheels. Rajasthan (Part 4) - India
99.    Palace On Wheels. Rajasthan (Part 5) - India
100.  Calcutta - India
101.  Rangoon - Burma
102.  The Train To Bagan - Burma
103.  Bagan - Burma
104.  Mandalay (Part 1) - Burma
105.  Mandalay (Part 2) - Burma
106.  Inle Lake - Burma
107.  Ngapali Beach - Burma
108.  Bangkok - Thailand
109.  Siem Reap - Cambodia
110.  Phnom Penh - Cambodia
111.  Saigon - Vietnam
112.  Hanoi - Vietnam
113.  SaPa - Vietnam
114.  Ha Long Bay - Vietnam
115.  Beijing (Part 1) - China
116.  Hong Kong
117.  Beijing (Part 2) - China
118.  Mongolia
119.  Siberia - Russia
120.  Trans-Siberian to Moscow
121.  Moscow (Part 1) - Russia
122.  Moscow (Part 2) - Russia
123.  St Petersburg - Russia
124.  Helsinki - Finland
125.  Rovaniemi - Finland
126.  Up To Kirkenes - Norway
127.  Hurtigruten (Part 1) - Norway
128.  Hurtigruten (Part 2) - Norway
129.  Hurtigruten (Part 3) - Norway
130.  Hurtigruten (Part 4) - Norway
131.  Bergen to Oslo - Norway
132.  Oslo - Norway
133.  Copenhagen - Denmark
134.  Hamburg - Germany
135.  Hook of Holland - and Home
136.  The End
137.  Post Script - London

2013

138.  Stand-by For More...
139.  To The Democratic Peoples Republic Of Korea (North Korea)
140.  Pyongyang 1 - North Korea
141.  Pyongyang 2 - North Korea
142.  Kaesong and Panmunjom - North Korea
143.  Back to Pyongyang - North Korea
144.  Pyongyang 3 - North Korea
145.  Samjiyon and Mount Paekdu - North Korea
146.  Daehongdan County - North Korea
147.  Chongjin - North Korea
148.  Hamhung - North Korea
149.  Wonsan and Mount Kumgang - North Korea
150.  Mount Kumgang 2 - North Korea
151.  Mount Kumgang 3 - North Korea
152.  Wonsan Again - North Korea
153.  Back To Pyongyang and On To Nampo - North Korea
154.  Nampo and Back To Pyongyang - North Korea
155.  Train To Beijing - North Korea
156.  The Finale
157.  Impressions of North Korea
158.  Vids From North Korea
159.  Zambia
160.  Battledore Farm - Zambia
161.  Cool Bananas - Zambia
162.  Banana Hazards - Zambia
163.  Back On The Farm - Zambia
164.  Continued Jollities - Zambia
165.  Christmas In Darkest Africa - Zambia

2014

166.  Lusaka 1  - Zambia
167.  Lusaka 2  - Zambia
168.  Livingston (I Presume) - Zambia
169.  On Safari - Botswana
170.  Ndola N'Home - Zambia
171.  Onwards To Sarf America
172.  Buenos Aires and The Wedding - Argentina
173.  Around Buenos Aires - Argentina
174.  Jujuy Province - Argentina
175.  Salta - Argentina
176.  Cordoba - Argentina
177.  Mendoza - Argentina
178.  Santiago (Part 1) - Chile
179.  Olmue and Valparaiso - Chile
180.  Santiago (Part 2) - Chile
181.  To Osorno and Bariloche - Argentina
182.  Bariloche - Argentina
183.  Ruta National 40 - Argentina
184.  El Calafate - Argentina
185.  Tierra Del Fuego (Part 1) - Argentina
186.  Tierra Del Fuego (Part 2) - Argentina
187.  Iguazu - Argentina
188.  Buenos Aires - Finale - Argentina

2015


189.  The Saga Of My Nearly Lost Hat
190.  We Wish To Apologise...
191.  Those Blasted Announcements...
192.  Tuscany By Train
193.  Mulhouse to Montecatini - Italy
194.  Florence - Italy
195.  Around Montecatini - Italy
196.  Lucca and Pisa - Italy
197.  Venice 1 - Italy
198.  Venice 2 - Italy
199.  Venice 3 - Italy
200.  Turin - Italy
201.  'Nam Revisited - Vietnam
202.  Saigon Again - Vietnam
203.  Merry Keesmah - Vietnam

2016


204.  Up The Mekong - Vietnam
205.  Happy Noo Yeer - Vietnam
206.  Snowdrops
207.  Turkey - An Inspiration
208.  Istanbul Or Bust
209.  Budapest - Briefly - Hungary
210.  Brasov - Transylvania - Romania
211.  Bucharest - Romania
212.  Onwards To Istanbul - Bulgaria
213.  This Was Constantinople - Turkey
214.  Up The Bosphorous - Turkey
215.  The Turkish Bath - Turkey
216.  Up The Kennet
217.  Down The Baltics
218.  Tallinn 1 - Estonia
219.  Tallinn 2 - Estonia
220.  Tallinn 3 - Estonia
221.  On To Riga - Latvia
222.  Around Riga - Latvia
223.  Riga Finale - Stuck Up A Steeple - Latvia
224.  Vilnius...And The Dark Side - Lithuania
225.  Vilnius...The Bright Side - Lithuania
226.  A Damp Day In Warsaw - Poland
227.  Berlin And Bed Bugs In Brussels
228.  Cultural Day In Lille - France
229.  Bah Humbug And Chrexit
230.  Laid-Back Laos - Vientiane - Laos
231.  Va Va Vang Vieng - Laos
232.  Vang Vieng Voom Voom - Laos
233.  Luang Prabang - Laos
234.  Luang Prabang And Elephants.

.....and who knows what is in store for the rest of this year. Suggestions welcome.
  


Sunday, 8 January 2017

LUANG PRABANG AND ELEPHANTS

19th - 20th Dec 2016


Elephant bums. 
I must say, one of the aspects of life in this country that I enjoy (Laos I mean) and to a similar degree in Vietnam, is the relative absence of 'nanny' laws to which we in the 'west' have tamely subjected ourselves. As examples; the wearing of crash helmets, seat belts and life jackets. I would be the first to admit that these safety devices are advisable in certain circumstances. For instance I would always wear a crash hat when riding a motor-bike at speed. These items are always available here on the rivers or when hiring a scooter etc. but nobody bothers you if you choose to do without. Its your decision. I refer to a previous observation on (possibly) one of Charles Darwin's Theories of Evolution, the gist of which says; 'The moronically stupid are likely to perish'. Indeed I am a great  advocate of the view of the 'radical' British 19th century philosopher and politician John Stuart Mill. Below is an extract from his treatise 'On Law'.


Anyway, back to elephants. There are several agencies in town which offer trips to see and ride elephants. I was advised that the best, and one which is most genuinely caring of its charges (if you'll forgive the pun), is The Elephant Village, about 12 km east out of town on the bank of the Nam Khan river. It cost $45 for a half day excursion.
There were six of us in our little group and off we set in a mini-bus at 8.00am with a most charming guide who spoke excellent English. 

On arrival at a rather smart 'camp' complex (they have comfortable chalets and a swimming pool to cater for overnight guests) we were treated to coffee and biscuits before being taken to a 'start point' near the river. The staff took great pains to explain that the elephants here are most sympathetically treated and well looked after. They are always ridden bareback i.e. without the cumbersome and heavy 'howdah' seating and without using the normal sharp bull-hook to steer and control it. Voice commands sufficed, we were told.
We mounted our elephants from a wooden platform and, initially, the 'mahout' sat, or stood, behind. Only female elephants were ridden by us 'guests' as they are more biddable. The male, bull, elephants are prone to bursts of bad temper and are somewhat unpredictable. Bernie.
The journey we undertook was perhaps only about a kilometre or so, but it felt much longer. We had to cross the river twice, and the water came up to the elephants' ears at times.




Left: First solo on an elephant. At some point the mahout jumped off, presumably when he felt confident that you were not going to fall off. It felt distinctly uncomfortable with hands resting on the top of the animal's hairy head and my legs dangling behind its ears. I couldn't work out how 'short' to ride. In fact, as you got used the swaying motion, it felt better to pull your (metaphorical) stirrups up a bit but disconcerting to have no form of steering or brakes. I think you are meant to shout something at it to stop/go/turn etc. but I had forgotten what so kept schtum in case I yelled something wrong and it sat down or did a handstand. Perhaps if I had pulled its ears it might have had some effect, but I wasn't going to risk it.
The most worrying part was when wading the river, twice. I was seriously concerned that the brute might decide to get down and have a roll, or suck up some water in its trunk and spray it over its back. They like doing that don't they? Thinking back on my comments about 'safety equipment laws' this must be one of those  occasions when I would have felt much happier wearing a seat belt, crash helmet and a life jacket. Right: Incoming elephants.
In fact, the elephants were very well behaved and never so much as stumbled. They seemed to know where they were going. Nobody fell off as far as I can recall.

Left: Frank, an amusing German from Cologne, feeding a bun to an elephant. Back at the ranch we were encouraged to feed the animals. They especially like banana leaves apparently. Frank had his small camera in one hand and food offering in the other. I told him of a video clip I had seen of a couple of Chinese girls feeding an elephant at a zoo and simultaneously taking a photo with their smart-phone. The elephant grabbed the phone with its trunk and ate it. The girls were jumping up and down screaming over the loss of their valuable phone. However, they were encouraged to hang around for several hours until the elephant had a shit. When eventually it did, the keeper rang the girls' number and, sure enough, they heard the ring-tone from inside the mountainous pile of dung. It was duly retrieved, wiped down and handed back undamaged to the delighted girls. I was most disappointed that this beast didn't do the same to Frank's camera. How we would have laughed!

Right: Bits of elephant skeleton.
I think there must have been about 30 or 40 elephants on the site, plus some calves which we saw later on the other side of the river. Each adult elephant has its own dedicated mahout and I think they develop a great affection for one another. These are Indian elephants which are smaller than the African variety and only the males have tusks. I must say they all looked well fed, and by crikey do they eat a lot, and in good condition. Difficult to know if they were happy because they never seem to change their rather doleful expression. They must think a lot; after all they have the largest brain of any mammal and, of course, they never forget!

We were shown around a sort of elephant themed museum and then the resident vet's department where said vet gave a little talk. On being asked what was the most common illness that he had to deal with he told us that elephants had difficulty in digesting some food and often suffered from blocked guts. The initial treatment for this is to don a long rubber glove, up as far as his armpit,  and shove his arm and possibly his head up the elephant's arse to release the blockage. He put on this long green-coloured rubber glove to demonstrate and we definitely heard some anxious trumpeting from the nearest elephants (they never forget). I mentioned earlier that an elephant's facial expression never seems to change but I suspect its eyes open rather wide when they get this treatment.
We were joined at this stage by a 'lady' who had switched from another group. I think she had been refused (or didn't want) a ride, or the elephant panicked, and had thus joined us for part 2 of the day's entertainment. We were told that an elephant can carry 1000kgs on its back. I suspect she couldn't 'do' the weight. In aviation terms I am certain that if she was put on an elephant's neck it would be well out of 'Weight and CofG limitations'.

Left: Our hefty lady friend. I think she has just relieved herself. From directly behind she did resemble an elephant with a mahout on top.




The next part of the tour involved a motorised canoe trip a couple of miles up-river. We were slightly concerned by Weight and Balance limitations here as well, but we didn't sink, fortunately.
Right: Frank making use of my handy Waitrose bag to travel anonymously.


He appeared to profess an interest in elephant dung. They make paper out of this stuff out here. Maybe he was thinking of taking some back to Cologne to set up an eco-friendly 'Dung de Cologne' shop. It may catch on.
















The reason for the trip upstream was to visit a series of waterfalls. They were indeed very picturesque and there was a decent bar/café on the bank.

Right: Frank's very pretty 'other half' Sara posing by a section of the falls. She had a good sense of humour too and, by her own admission, she needed it!











Left: More elephants up here which were bathing in one of the pools. A group of youngsters were riding on them, or trying to, because the elephants enjoyed sinking underwater from time to time........









.......leaving them swimming for it. I was told the water was very cold.












I noticed that there was a zip-line overhead the falls. Being an old hand at this now (from Vang Vieng) I asked if I could have a go. It didn't look a very long one and so, with just enough time to spare, I paid up and set off with a couple of guides. I was the only person to show an interest.
After about 30 minutes of climbing some vertiginous forest tracks, including a couple of rope ladders (left) and a bit of rock climbing I was somewhat knackered. I began to think I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew. Eventually we reached the start platform and I was fair dripping with sweat.

Again, on the zip-wires, the guides were most efficient.






It was actually a long zip, involving about 6 stages and several abseiling connections down to platforms. It was fun zipping over the falls at the end and I even managed a whoop, a la Tarzan, and wave coming in to land at the end (right).











After this, a return canoe ride back to the base camp where we were treated to a very good barbeque lunch and some much appreciated cold beer. I hadn't been expecting a good lunch.

Left: 'Top Ten Elephant Facts' displayed at base. Not sure if you are able to enlarge this but one interesting fact listed is 'elephants only sweat around their toenails'. Useful to know that if you ever need to wipe away an elephant's sweat.

Altogether a most amusing day out. Rather more than half a day as advertised as we got back to town at about 3.00pm, and well worth $45.





Spent the rest of the day wandering about town, and the Night Market again. Bought another nice little picture, for peanuts. Trouble is to get it framed in UK will cost a small fortune.
Right: The French influence obviously remains as I watched a game of Boules, or is it Pétanque, being enthusiastically played nearby.







I decided to treat myself to a 'gourmet' dinner at a smart restaurant called 'The Three Nagas' (left) that evening. Very good 'haute cuisine' nosh and wine, if rather expensive, and the manager is/was a most charming and enthusiastic Frenchman called Aurellon. Strongly recommended if you are passing.








So that was about it in Luang Prabang. A great little town. I got the tuk-tuk to the airport the following mid-day for the flight to Bangkok. I was surprised. I remember flying into Luang Prabang 'International' a few times from Hanoi about 6 years ago and the terminal buildings were not much more than a few ramshackle sheds. Gosh, look at the place now! (right). Very swish and modern inside too.

I did have a bit of a, no I'll correct that, a serious misfortune on departure. I had forgotten that I had a very nice Butler's corkscrew in my small backpack; you know, the thing with corkscrew, bottle opener and small folding penknife thingy on the end to take the metal bit off the top of a wine bottle. I had had it for many years and a most valuable implement it was. I'm sure I had inadvertently had it in the backpack since leaving London, but nobody in various airports had picked it up. They bloody well did here and it was (politely) confiscated at the security checkpoint. I was remarkably pissed off. OK, I know the rules only too well and if I had remembered it I would have put it in my suitcase. Still, it irks and I can't remember the last time a terrorist terrorised anyone with a corkscrew, bottle opener and 1" knife. I think we all know that some of these airport security measures are way 'over the top' nowadays but I'll leave that rant for another day.

A night spent in Bangkok (luxury 5 star Narai Hotel for £25; what a deal!) and then back to Saigon for to not celebrate Christmas. As mentioned at the beginning of this series, no blogs from there as I've done them all before.

....and to anyone reading this, my very best wishes for a Happy New Year.



Thursday, 5 January 2017

LUANG PRABANG

17th - 18th Dec 2016


Parasols on display at the Night Market
Luang Prabang, the ancient capital and seat of the Loatian monarchy while it existed, is the foremost tourist centre in Laos. It is situated in the north-west of the country on the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It is indeed a very pretty little town (pop 30,000) and caters for the slightly more 'mature' tourist. Like Vang Vieng it is full of restaurants and bars with more hotels and guest houses than you can shake a stick at....but of a somewhat more sophisticated nature.
On first arriving, later than expected after our rather exhilarating drive over the mountains, I made an elementary mistake. I chose a hotel recommended by my 'Lonely Planet' guide and went off by tuk-tuk to find it. Lonely Planet is normally fairly reliable when it comes to accommodation, but the one I had borrowed was 10 years old. The Hotel Ammata was recommended as good value for money, which it might have been 10 years ago, and indeed seemed very pleasant. Stupidly I booked in without checking around for other options and it charged $50 per night. I paid up front (unusual to be asked to do this) for 2 nights. I must have been tired. Having unpacked I went for a wander and found two equally pleasant hotels around the corner on the riverside with balconies giving river views which charged $30 per night. On further wandering I found, on the main street and most conveniently situated, a guest house, The Sakkharine, which had all that I needed. A large and surprisingly comfortable bed, wifi, desk, air-con and decent bathroom plus pleasant outside café and free laundry service for $15 per night. None of these places was fully booked. I felt committed to spending the first night at the Ammata, but moved out the next morning and got my second night's money returned with good grace (they really are charming the Laotians) and went over to the Sakkharine. Sorted.
There are a few very expensive and luxurious hotels in town, one, the Villa Santi, a few doors down from the Sakkarine, charged $245 per night. It amazes me that tourists are willing to pay this. After all, you go to places like Luang Prabang to do lots of 'touristing' and not to spend your day in a hotel. As far as I am concerned as long as the accommodation is comfortable, clean and with basic facilities it really doesn't matter a jot if it lacks elegant furnishings and gold taps in the bathroom (or smartly liveried waiters serving drinks at 4 x times the going rate). But then again some people with more money than sense presumably buy a Berluti Venezia Leather Trimmed Beach Bat and Ball for £330 (see  previous Chrexit blog).
The famed Night Market, one of the town's main attractions, is held every evening from about 6.00pm on the main Sisavangvong Street which is closed off to traffic for the duration. It consists of 4 lines of stalls laid out on the ground and runs for about half a mile. It is quite magnificent and sells all sorts of local handicrafts, clothing, paintings, jewellery, silks, ceramics and much Hmong made materials.
The nice thing about it, unlike so many Asian markets, is that there is no 'hard sell'. The stall holders just sit there and wait.




You can pick up some real bargains if you are interested in this sort of stuff. I was particularly impressed by the local paintings on offer, and even bought one. What also impressed me is the fact that these intricately laid-out stalls are impeccably put together, and dismantled, every evening. What a shag that must be.








Right: This stall holder was just laying out her jewellery; hundreds of pieces all yet to be individually laid out on display, and dismantled every evening. Such patience and attention to detail.


Left: There are some good restaurants and bars such as this one; definitely a bit more upmarket that in Vang Vieng. I had a good steak and chips with some decent wine. No 'pie 'n mash' stalls though, that I noticed (sorry Bernie, not the place for you).








The next morning I went to have a look around the Royal Palace Museum complex. This again is just off the main street and runs down towards the Mekong. It consists of a Royal Temple (right), which I didn't go into....a library building, a garage containing past Kings' cars and the main residential Palace, amongst other outbuildings.






Left: The main Palace. As well as having to remove shoes we were told to leave bags and cameras in lockers outside. Photography inside is strictly forbidden.
Now, please forgive me, but whenever I am told that photography is strictly forbidden I can't help  but regard this as a challenge. So I secreted my little camera about my person and went in.

There were security guards in every room and as  I first got out my camera, most discreetly, I was immediately confronted by a lady in normal clothes (not looking like a guard). She very politely reminded me that I could not take photos and she even checked my camera to make sure I hadn't taken any already. I grovellingly protested ignorance and promised to put it away. I realised now that there were covert 'watchers' about the place.

The penultimate Ruler was King Sisavang Vong who died in 1959. His son, Crown Prince Sisavang Vatthana, according to some sources, never had an official coronation but in any event he was deposed by the Pathet Lao during the 1975 revolution and he and his 'Queen' were exiled to a northern part of the country where they died in unconfirmed circumstances sometime between 1977 and 1981.  Their son is still living in Laos and runs a successful hotel business.
Right: The Queen's bedroom with a portrait of King Sisavang Vong on the left and his son 'King' Sisavang Vatthana on the right. The King's bedroom was some distance away. Perhaps he snored loudly.

There are lots of other rather sparsely furnished rooms with many Royal, ceremonial and religious artefacts in them. The kitchens were outside.
It was explained most courteously by a good English speaking official that photography was banned because flash photography can damage the colours in fabrics and also, if everyone took photos and published them on web-sites (and blogs), then  fewer tourists would bother to visit. Hey ho. This contains an element of truth because I had intended to go on a long trip to visit the Plain of Jars in the far north-east. I looked it up on the internet and found hundreds of photos and descriptions of the mystical Jars on the Plain. The thought of an eight hour  (two day) journey through mountainous terrain just to take similar photos was quite a disincentive.
Left: The garage which houses a collection of the Royal Cars. Large rather rusty and dilapidated American limousines and a couple of cronky looking Citroens, and a Jeep. There were portraits with career details of several of the Royal Chauffeurs. I noticed that one of them had only one eye. I always found closing one eye whilst driving when totally pissed helped to avoid seeing a double white line down the middle of the road. I can see the advantage he had.



Left: The main landmark in the centre of the town is Phu Si Hill, on top of which is the That Chomsi Stupa. Not sure of the spelling and, as I discovered, the street names in Luang Prabang keep changing on a regular basis. Most confusing. You have to describe landmarks not streets when giving directions to tuk-tuk drivers.








Left: A view east from the top of the Phu Si hill up the Nam Khan river, a tributary of the Mekong.












Right: That Chomsi Stupa on top of the hill.



















Just outside the Stupa are the remains of what was a Russian, or Chinese, double barrelled 30mm anti-aircraft gun. It was not explained anywhere why it was still there. Strange thing to leave hanging about the place.









Right: Inside the Stupa. Mother and child doing the honours in front of a Buddha. You will notice the little girl is holding a small wicker basket.










I had noticed in the Night Market and other places on the streets these little wicker cages each holding two or three very small birds. These ones (left) were outside the Stupa. Initially I couldn't work out what their purpose was. I thought, perhaps, you took them home and ate them, or kept them as pets. 







Right: I discovered that people buy them as a religious offering. The Laotians are fairly devout Buddhists. They say a prayer over the birds and then release them to fly away, presumably carrying the prayer off to the heavens or wherever.  I wonder if they get money back for returning the cage.
I haven't a clue what kind of bird they are. I was brought up in the North-East of England where the only available ornithological work was 'The Geordie Beuk of Bords'. It lists only three types of 'bord'; 'Spuggies' (sparrows or small birds), 'Craas' (crows or other similar black birds) and 'Shitehawks' (anything else). I can only presume that these winged creatures are 'Spuggies'.

Left: I was encouraged to visit the 'Fresh Produce Market' advertised as 'a colourful and photogenic market filling the street  with leafy greens, eggs, dried shrimp and live frogs'. I think I might have left it a bit late. The frogs and everything else had hopped it by the time I got there.













A walk down the bank of the Mekong was pleasant enough. Lots of cafés and boats for hire for trips on the river (right). As with many of the facilities, there seemed to be lots more boats available than necessary to carry the existing number of tourists. Several 'boatsmen' were desperately trying to drum up trade...to little avail it appeared.







I passed this sign which left me a trifle confused. I hadn't seen any elephants to be conserved. And if I had I doubt if I would have been tempted to climb on board one to turn right, or even to go straight on.
















As mentioned, the Laotians are a fairly devout Buddhist people. The town contains dozens of elaborate Wats (Buddhist temples) similar to this one (right). Some big, some small and they are often schools for traditional music and arts or even gardening. My out of date Lonely Planet guide listed loads of them but, once you've seen one............etc. I expect there is an application you can put in your smart-phone called 'WatsApp'.


Left: Monks with shaven heads in their saffron robes, often young boys, are a common sight. I'm not sure how the system works but I gather that it is a rite of passage for a young lad to spend some time as a monk in a Wat. I suppose it gets them away from their smart-phones and computer games for a bit and teaches them a bit of discipline. Not a bad idea now I come to think about it, but I doubt it will catch on in UK. Maybe that is why the typical Laotian is considerably better behaved and more polite than the average Brit.


Further intriguing insights to follow after a convivial night out on the town.

....and a quick 'toot toot' from our old friend here.
(where do they come from?)


Thursday, 29 December 2016

VANG VIENG VOOM VOOM

15th - 17th Dec 2016


Café girls being Festive in VV
Continuing on from the tubing, we (Bs) were taken on to the Blue Lagoon about a couple of miles out  of town. Actually, to be pedantic, this is a murky green coloured pool in a small tributary off the main river; but then 'Murky Green Pool' doesn't have quite such a romantic ring to it. I noticed that most of the streams coming out of the sandstone Karsts were a greenish colour. This is due to whatever chemical there is in sandstone, I was told.
Anyway, the 'Blue Lagoon' attracts a lot of youngsters (and the occasional oldster in observer capacity) who swing on ropes, hang on trapezes, swim around in it and, most popular of all, jump from an overhanging branch into it. I suppose it is about a 30ft drop. Lots of showing off and some even doing somersaults to impress their mates below.
Left: If you cannot swim it would indeed seem an obvious precaution to wear a life jacket, or not jump in at all. However you might if you are  pissed and if so would probably be incapable of taking any notice of this warning!



It was nothing too exciting to watch and I and couple of others went off for a beer and sandwich in one of the several cafés around the place. We came back and there was continuing leaping and cheering. One rather well built Thai girl was causing some amusement. She climbed the ladder up to the branch and, after stepping up to jump, hesitated. Lots of 'go go go!' from below, but she didn't and retreated. She stepped up to the plate again and the crowd were right behind her now with cries of "one, two, THREE...GO!", she was on the point of leaping, but pulled back again. She repeated the process several times. Each time she took up position there was an increasingly expectant hush from a gathering number of supporters, including me, followed by more "one, two, three...Go Go Gos!" She nearly did with one foot dangling into space on several occasions...but didn't and with an increasingly panicky look about her. She was developing a bigger fan club with every failed attempt and was obviously doing her best not to let them down. By the time I left she still hadn't taken the plunge and they were still cheering her on. It was very funny. Maybe she will tomorrow, after a night on the pop.
Right above: The 'Blue Lagoon' with the Thai girl in black swimsuit preparing for yet another abortive descent.

That was the outside entertainment for day one. Day two, and I decided to visit a much advertised waterfall and a cave. The sandstone cliffs are riddled with caves; some several kilometres long with lots of side passages. It is a speleologist's dream. Some have guides which, if unlit, you are wise to employ even if you take the elementary precaution of taking a good torch. It is not unknown for the unprepared to get lost in a labyrinth below ground. I expect some gap-year students are still in there well after their gap-year ended. Some you float into on tubes from the river. But first of all the waterfall.

I made a bit of a mistake when organising this trip through the same little little travel agency as yesterday. I found I had hired a personal tuk-tuk at some cost to take me there ($30). Tip for future: I realised afterwards that I could have hired a motorbike/scooter very cheaply ($8 per day) with tour map included and done the whole thing at my leisure and much else besides.
Anyway my driver was very decent and off we went to the celebrated Kenlon, or Kaeng Nyui, waterfall about 12 kms out of town. Down some bumpy gravel tracks and I was dropped off at a small hamlet at the foot of a hill and told vaguely in which direction to climb. There was a well worn path, nobody else around, and after about half a mile I found a sign directing me to the waterfall. After another few hundred yards uphill passing some attractive little pools and river banks   I came to it.

Well whoopee! OK, its the dry season and the watercourses are not exactly brimming but this waterfall did not exactly fill me with awe. Hardly on a par with the Victoria or Niagra versions. In fact a water-pipe sprang a leak in my house last summer and the resulting deluge was not unsimilar in volume to this one.

I returned back down to the hamlet and waiting tuk-tuk, coincidently passing the Cambodian engineer and his lovely Lao girlfriend (from the zip-wiring yesterday) who were on their way up. They had sensibly hired a motor-bike.
My helpful and chatty driver asked me if I would be interested in visiting a Hmong village nearby. Well, I have visited several Hmong villages in the north of Vietnam so not that keen to see another. The Hmong are a people spread around southern China, northern Vietnam and Laos. They are divided into several tribes such as Black Hmong, Red, Striped, White, Variegated, Green, and Flower Hmong who sport very colourful costumes, speak strange dialects, lead a subsistance life in the mountainous regions, are very jolly industrious people and have become something of a tourist phenomenon. They may have become unexpectedly prosperous on the proceeds, but have to hide it of course to preserve their touristic credibility. If they now own BMWs and Mercs and have holiday homes in Monte Carlo they keep the fact well hidden.

Right: Hmong ladies. The Hmong were persecuted following the Laotian civil war (courtesy of the Pathet Lao) in 1975 and many emigrated to Thailand and even to the USA and Europe. It is rumoured that there is now a Hmong tribe living in Cowdenbeath, the Tartan McHmong, who are noted for their drab dress, surly attitude,  indolence, heavy drinking and foul unintelligible language directed at foreigners, especially Englishmen.









We went back to Vang Vieng and to the Jang Cave on the southern edge of the town. This is a big cave complex, but a thoroughly touristy one in so far as it has electric lights down the main passages and even a paved floor in parts, and lots of tourists. At least not much chance of getting lost forever in here.

Left: Steps up to the Jang cave.













Right: Views inside the cave......


.....where you come across the odd Buddha or two parked in small niches.

I had planned to investigate the hot-air balloning and micro-lighting that afternoon, but it had started to rain and the cloud base descended. So far the weather has been sunny and warm, but today it turned overcast and I suspect the weather system I fortuitously avoided in Vietnam had moved west and caught up with me. As the day progressed the rain increased to torrential proportions so I spent most of the afternoon in various cafés and bars. No chance of balloons etc. The gravel roads had turned to mud. 

For some reason many of the larger restaurants and bars feature these platforms with low tables on them (right). I haven't noticed them anywhere else apart from a Hari Krishna restaurant in Belfast. I believe they are popular in Korea and, as mentioned earlier, there are many Korean visitors and workers in Laos, especially Vang Vieng, which might explain their presence. I find them remarkably uncomfortable.





The next morning I set off north in a mini-bus up to Luang Prabang. This journey normally takes about 4 hours and routes over a high mountain pass. The mini-bus was full and, again, contained a small contingent of chatty giggling studenty types, this time from Canada. More of the 'like like' conversation ensued; or perhaps 'comme comme' when they spoke in French.
All went well to begin with. We stopped for a breather at the aptly named village of Kasi for a loo break and coffee before climbing on up to the pass.

Then the problem. The overnight storm had caused several landslides along the precipitous hillsides. Just before reaching the summit the road had become a slick of mud and a large truck had bogged down in it. We tried to go around it but ground to a halt. To our left was a sheer drop. 
We were in cloud and visibility was down to about a hundred yards. It was cold and wet.
We were there for about two hours while traffic queues built up behind and people were wandering around rather aimlessly wondering what to do. Some 4X4s managed to plough their way through, but not cars or our mini-bus.


Eventually they started to reverse the bogged down truck which was top heavy and slid dangerously close to toppling over the edge of the precipice. It was nail biting stuff.
Having cleared a bit of room our intrepid mini-bus driver took a fast run at it (without us in it I hasten to add) and after smacking the nose of the vehicle into a deep rut or two made it out onto some clear road. We were on our way again.
The slalom ride down the other side was again hindered by landslides but we managed to negotiate them slowly and therefore on to Luang Prabang. It took us over seven hours and was quite a hairy journey.

Left: A gathering of the Cowdenbeath Tartan McHmong tribe performing their traditional song and dance  routine, the 'Yoolookinatmejimmy'.








News from Luang Prabang to follow in due course.