Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Landslide

"Make an obstacle an opportunity, make a negative a positive.” 

From Nong Khiaw we travelled by slow boat back to Luang Prabang, spending the night eating authentic food in the night market and relaxing before our journey to the party capital Vang Vieng. The food here is good, the rustic cuisine consists of fresh herbs and spices, sticky rice, grilled meats and fresh Mekong river fish. Noodle soup is the favorite breakfast dish and its best to have it with plenty of chili. However, whist this is the staple diet for Lao people, most eat absoulty anything that moves, including; crickets severed on a stick, beetles, cattle intestine, brains and even rat and dog. I was offered some rat by one of the locals who was BBQ a couple, I thought about it and after looking it in the eye thought, better not. 

The journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng should take about three hours, but during the monsoon season it can take a lot longer due to landslides. The roads are not the best here in the north but the views are breathtaking high up on the mountains. Surely enough we got caught in a land slide, a very big land slide that was to take all day to clear. The traffic on the road was horrendous with traffic jams over a mile long on each side. You had two options, one you stay in the bus all day or go have a walk with our guide Munnour and visit some local villages. I opted for the latter and a bad day was to turn into one of the most inspirational days I have had so far. We scrambled up to the top of the hill and walked for a while until we arrived at a small remote village. The people were happy to see us, inquisitive and curious at our arrival. In the village all type of animals roam around, such as chickens, pigs, dogs and cats as life goes on around. There are no materialist goods, they are poor but the people are happy and it is showed by the smiles on their faces. 

View of the traffic form the mountain
After finding out our bus would be stuck there for about eight hours, we decided to go for a little adventure and with our guide. We went for a trek over the mountains with the plan off meeting the bus on the other side of the landslide. After about one hour we came to a small primary school which had three small classrooms and a small play area at the front. I was with another guy called josh who was about 6ft 3in and I am about 6ft and remember we are considerably bigger than the average village man. Furthermore these children rarely see white westerners. So, it was funny to see there faces when two big white guys walked into their school, it was a mixture of fear and curiosity. Me and Josh sat down, and after about a minute I looked up to see about fifty pupils all between age 3-11 standing about five meters away all staring tentatively and emotionless at us both as if we were both aliens from Mars. I got up and walked slowly towards them as they all took a step back still looking at us. I walked another step, and they all took another step back still looking us, curious. Then I slowly lifted my arms up, looked them all in the eye and  playfully and chased all of them into the playground. From that moment on their confidence grew and they became more comfortable with us and all they wanted to do was play.

School Playground
I noticed that the youngest class never had a teacher, so I thought I would have a little go. However by now all the children wanted to do was play. Some of the games I was playing with them on the playground invovled them repeating what I would say. In the classroom It took me 15 minutes to explain to them how to sit down, In which they would respond by simply standing up and repeating the words; 'sit down' then laugh. I taught them how to count to 10 and they taught me how to count to 10 in Laos. I wrote on the baored 'My name is.....?' I gave them an example; 'My name is John', they all repeated in broken English. Once they had got it I then tried to explain that you replace your name with John. I gave them many examples for over twenty minutes and I thought I had cracked it. Untill at the end of the lesson, when I had over twenty children all coming up to me tugging on my shirt and saying: 'My name is John', 'My name is John' 'My name is John' making me feel as though I was the lead in a Spartacus film. So in a remote part of the world, high up on a mountain, in a small school I have a class full of John's who all say it in a twang of broken Scouse.

A very basic classroom

My name is John!!! No my name is John!!!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Northern Laos (2nd - 6th September)

We are traveling by bus, boat and tuck tuck using an open ticket with a company called 'Stray Asia'. The ticket is for one month meaning we will see the whole country from North to South. The bus also has a reputation for attracting the more adventurous travelers and local guides who take you further off the beaten track.
After spending a few days in Luang Prebang we travelled to the Thailand / Laos border to Huay Xai. Here we spent one night before we travelled to Luang Namther. This is quiet place, surrounded by endless paddy fields and rolling green hills. We explored the area by mountain bike, riding through paddy fields and remote villages. A former communist strong point during the Vietnam war that got bombed to bits by the US., It was also a key player in the infamous 'Golden Triangle', the trade of opium and weapons during the Indochinese wars. Its a beautiful place very peaceful and tranquil.

Our next destination was Nong Khiaw. On our way we stopped at a remote  mountain village and visited a local tribe. There are variety of ethic groups in Laos; the Lao Loum who live near the flood plains of the Mekong river; Lao Thoeng, Lao Tai and Lao Soung who live in the upland valleys and highest elevations predominately in the North and central Laos. The tribes we visited still cling on to animistic believes that proceed Buddhism, they have their own way of life which is mystical and very spiritual. They don't often see westerns but they were welcoming, shy and very curious. This was especially true of the children. They follow you around at arms length, walking behind you, the number of children growing ,until they become more confident and get a little more engaging. They love to play just like all children and their innocence, happy nature in the presence of such poverty is really touching.
The Village
Their confidence and curiosity grows
I was standing up when this young child pulled a tiny seat out for me to sit on.   

We traveled to Nong Khiaw a quiet, scenic place on the west bank of the Nam Ou river. For sheer breathtaking beauty this was one of the best place in Laos. We stayed on the river next to the bridge, surrounded by giant limestone cliffs, with low clouds that hung over the peaks. Its a mesmerizing view. We went into the village, as we wanted to engage with the locals, and thats exactly what happened. A group of young lads sitting down offered me and Laura a seat. Intrigued we sat down. There was a small BBQ on the go and few bottles of Beerlao on the table. Well its Laos culture to offer the guest a drink, as they believe it gets rid of bad spirits. However here the favorite tipple is a full bottle of Lao Lao white whiskey, which must all be consumed before you leave. You drink the whiskey neat and in one go, its very strong and its got a kick like a mule. But it hits the spot. We ate snails wrapped up in herbs dipped in hot chili and washed it down with plenty of  Lao Lao just as the sun was going down behind the cliffs. After one hour and after a full bottle of whiskey we walked, I mean wobbled home on unsteady legs. Great night.

More Lao Lao whiskey anyone

On top of the Bridge Nong Khiaw

Nong Khiaw

The next day we got on the slow boat Luang Prabang visiting the Thamting cave which has over two thousand Budda images inside dating back over six hundred years. 

Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

Laos: The Land of a Thousand Elephants

The new Raven flew over terrain unlike anything he had ever seen before. Mountains erupted out of a sea of green jungle, some shaped like cones with sharp jagged edges, others thin as knife blades. Towers of limestone stood sentinel on the banks of rivers which twisted between them. From the air the countryside took on the shapes of fantastical animals. In monsoon season the craggy limestone rocks know as karst was covered with moss and green slime. Trees somehow grew from the cracks in the limestone, clinging to the mountains like gnarled old hands. The landscape was primeval, a million years out of its time, the setting for a pterodactyl to come flapping out of the dripping rocks. After the monsoon the whole area blossomed. A thousand different kinds of wild flowers carped the valley. There were giant yellow daises as tall as a man, and acre upon acre of white and red poppies . No one could fail to recognize that this was a place of very great beauty.   

-Christopher Robbins 'Pilots of the Secret War of Laos'

Looking over the Plain of Jars
I write this part of the journal at the end of almost four weeks of traveling the length and breadth of this remarkable country. I feel it near impossible for me to explain how beautiful and breathtaking this country is in words and pictures, they just can never truly justify what one has seen or experienced. But I will try to convey its beauty as best I can. The words above come from Christopher Robbins who illustrates brilliantly the landscape of Laos which is often referred to as; The land of a Thousand Elephants. I have been reading his book with interest on the secret war carried out by the American CIA on the North Vietnamese Army to prevent what Eisenhower called the first 'domino' in South East Asia falling to communist forces. Under the Geneva convention no armed force could occupy Laos. However this was ignored by both forces, due to the geographical strategic position Laos had the misfortune to be in. Peaceful Laos, landlocked, lies between powerful, perpetually (at the time) warring neighbours. To the north lies Burma and China, to the south is Cambodia, to the west largely drawn by the Mekong is Thailand, and to the east the country shares a 1,324 mile long boarder with Vietnam. During the the 1960s and early 1970s Laos people suffered appallingly  from both USA and Vietnam and is today the most bombed country in history. The CIA put together a secret program called 'The Steve Canyon Program' which trained pilots code named 'Ravens' who in effect never existed, to guide US fighter jets to bomb North Vietnamese positions in North East Laos, the Plain of Jars and the Ho chi min trail. During this terrible period, much of the population hid for years in caves to escape the massive bombing campaign and the effects of bombing are still evident today, with over a dozen people each year killed by unexploded devices, most notably the notorious cluster bombs. 

We arrived in North Laos on Tuesday 30th August to a place called Luang Prabang. This was the capital till 1960s until it moved south to Vientiane on the Thai boarder. Its a charming place full of Buddhist temples and monks who, daily at dawn, walk through the streets barefoot taking part in the Alms procession. This is quiet, spiritual and meditative ceremony in which the monks demonstrate their vows of poverty and humility thus gaining spiritual merit. The People here are the most relaxed people in the world and  their motto; "Never Rush" really reflects their attitude to life. Its philosophy that really suites me, and a way of live that is interwoven into all of Laos culture. It can be a little annoying, however, when your stuck in landslide (which is often the case during monsoon season) and its take the workers 8 hours to clear it because they just take there time, 'never rush'.

On our second day we kayaked down the Nam Khan river to a beautiful waterfall called Tat Kuang. Here we spent the afternoon bathing elephants in the in crystal pristine water, and enjoying the swing. Its was great getting in the water with the elephants (they love the water to play) but it was clear to me that my elephant wanted to show me who was boss. As we approached the water with myself on its back, it swaggered, dropped and flipped me into the water. I went head over heels past its drunk into the water. He then rolled over on to his side, so I was looking inot its eyes and proceed to let three massive balls of poo into my face as the current took me right into the direction of the oncoming cargo. 

Who's the daddy

Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls
With our guide we kayaked down the Nam Khan River; it was so peaceful just floating down the river, surrounded by rolling cliffs and the occasional loan fisherman in his boat silhouetted against the sun. It would take us over two hours to get back. On the way we passed children playing in the water, some even jumping off 40ft overhanging trees into the water. It looked good, and our guide offered, I mean dared me to have go. I couldn't refuse, if children as young as 7 are doing it, I have got to do it. We pulled up to the overhanging tree, I climbed up to the top, and almost froze. It was high, very high and when your looking down at the fast flowing river it gets a little scary. But I had no choice and I went for it. It was quality, straight back to the top for another go. Its was very calm kayaking down the river, until we hit the rapids. I wasn't expecting big rapids but we got a load of them.The Kayaks are for two people, me at the back, Laura at the front. We were doing well until we hit a big rapid, my last words were; "let me stare!!!" at which point the kayak went side on and flipped capsizing us both into the water leaving us flying down the river. Well Its no fun unless you go in.
The Nam Khan River

One of the many Buddhist Temples in Luang Prabang

The Night Market

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Varkala and Kovalam Beaches to Trivandrum and Mumbai. Good Bye India

The south of India has some of the most beautiful beaches in India and with that in mind we decided to spend our last two weeks sitting on them, before heading to Trivandrum to pick up our internal flight back to Mumbai before heading to Asia for 6 months.

Varkala Beach
We stayed in Varkala form Tuesday 16th-Monday 22nd August. This is a little more of a tourist destination than what we had been used to, but, it is simply a little piece of Paradise we couldn't resist. The beach cliffs are simply stunning and its great to just sit back and watch the monsoon waves crash into the cliffs. We spent most of our time on a small secluded beach, lazily dreaming the days away in the sun, then finishing the week with a traditional massage the Ayurvedic way.

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
Oscar Wilde

Me and the Hammer Head shark-It was so heavy I needed a little help

We stayed in Kovalam 22nd to 26th August. We chilled on beaches and opened our minds to Yoga & meditation for the first time, almost breaking my neck doing a head stand and viewed the beach from the lighthouse
My first head stand
The view is stunning even if I am a little scared og heights
We travelled to Trivandrum, the main city in the south and a common place for travellers to muse around whilst in transit. Its a big, big city, similar to Mumbai, but not as intense. We spent one night there watching, you would'nt believe it,  Rocky 4 (what a film, pure cheese and bad acting but a quality mix, best line; 'if he beats me he is going to have to kill me') and my first Liverpool game of the season, beating Bolton. Great unexpected night.

We arrived in Mumbai on 28th August not particularly looking foreword to another nights stay in this city. However, it turned out to be an amazing experience. Our flight out to Bangkok was 9am the next day so we decided to 'Couch Surf' to save money. Its basically a network of people who you contact using a website similar to Facebook and stay at their place free of charge. Its great because you get a true experience of their culture. We stayed with a guy called Mikhil in the Bandra district, were many Bollywood actors hang out. The only problem was he's a Man U fan. He took us out into the town and we tried all the local street food, which was spicy and very tasty and he showed us around the area. What a great way to end our trip of India.

You dont normally see me eating with a Man u fan-Me and Laura with Mikhil

Next chapter......Laos.

Alleppey (15th Aug 2011)

The Beautiful Backwaters are the main attraction in Southern Kerala, a myriad of  waterways traveling through the 900Km long and winding network that fringe the coast and trickle inland.

The Beautiful Backwaters
From Hampi we travelled by sleeper train to Bangalore, staying there for one night before traveling further south to Mysore visiting the famous colonial Royal Palace. We then travelled to Fort Cochin, were we watched the Chinese fisher men and went to the theatre to watch the famous Kathakali-a form of extravagant and eccentric dance.

Mysor Palace
When we arrived in Alleppey we decided to go on a day cruise with our guide Anthony, who invited us into his home and into his family. His has lived in his  house all his life, a small place that was flooded by monsoon water the night before. It is a simple home, with no materialistic goods; it is easy to step back in time here. What is striking is the warm, welcoming and loving atmosphere the family radiate. We had banana and coconut wrapped in a banana leaf for breakfast and rice, samba, curry and river fish for lunch, all traditional Kerala food-I was in my element.

Traditional Kerala Food
Nobody told us that the cruise involved us rowing; yet with our head umbrellas on, canoe at the ready off we went to explore the backwaters, the main source of life for everything in this massive maisey water world. As we rowed peacefully through the winding canals, its clear to see that this world is teaming with life. Villages hug its banks, women wash clothes, pots and pans and even their children; men fish from small boats silhouetted against the sun; coconut and mango trees lazily hang over the river as birds sing and meander in it's branches using its cover to fish as the odd passing river snake slithers past. As we row through the river, music and prayer breaks this peaceful silence and creates a surreal atmosphere  as people in the villages celebrate independence day.

No body said we had to row

The children always have a smile on their face

Me with Anthony and Maria