Natalie returns with her second travel installment.
Almost a month ago, the 18th March to be exact, I introduced Natalie Derham-Weston:
Those who take a close interest in this place (you poor, lost souls!) will have noticed from time to time me posting items that have been sent to me by Bob Derham. He and I first met when we were both based in Larnaca, Cyprus in the late 80’s/early 90’s and we have remained good and close friends ever since.
Natalie is Bob’s beautiful daughter and recently contacted me to ask if she might offer a guest post on her traveling experiences. Natalie has ambitions to be a travel writer and, as you are about to see, would make an excellent one.
On that day Natalie presented the first installment of her travel blog. It was very well received by you good people. Many of you left great comments.
Thus it is with great pleasure that I present Natalie’s next travel installment.
Travel Blog: Installment 2: Laos
After having set the standard so high in Thailand, there was a lot riding on our following section of the journey. However before moving on to Laos, the logical next step and easiest route to take, we had a few metaphorical “bridges” to cross. Looking back, the process seems an enormous chore but at the time we didn’t question the operation. Although tiredness did sometimes set in heavily, Hannah and I had to mentally overcome this and remind ourselves how this beat office day jobs hands down.
Our last evening in Thailand was spent in Chang Mai. After some deliberation and consulting of maps and Google facilities, we booked a slow boat trip down to Mekong to take us into Laos. The evening was then free to be spent at our leisure. Pre-travelling I was naïve, and perhaps still am. Though even I had heard tell of the Thai “lady boys” and we had the greatest pleasure of spending an afternoon in their company after having looked lost and forlorn at a cross roads and took up their offer of a pool side beer. They spoke openly about their choice to change gender and what they had to undergo. This meeting was purely circumstantial but very memorable all the same. After this curious incident we caught up in town with a friend I had been to school with in South Africa. Carmen was in Thailand teaching English and had an evening to spare, which was such a lovely chance to assemble and to chew the fat as some may say.
On our wander back to our hostel we happened to bump into Nadine, a girl we had met previously on an overnight train. This is one of my most favourite parts of travelling, crossing paths with friends, having had no plans and no inkling of the others location.
The following morning consisted of some organising, dollars had to be sourced for the Laos border and check out was an early evacuation, drying our towels on the outside of our bags and heaving them downstairs to be left for the later pickup. In the meantime, we bought up some supplies to support us through the epic bus journey that we had to embark upon that afternoon. Fortunately, these snacks barely amounted to anything, and certainly made a welcome change to our expensive sandwiches and bottles of water back in the UK!
Our bus was a 7 hour journey, taking us through minute villages and stopping at temples along the way. One in particular stood out, which was pure white. The only colour was a singular red nail on a hand protruding from a statue of swarming limbs surrounding the building.
That night was our first sighting of the vast Mekong, a fast flowing murky, brown mass of water with grassy banks and elephants grazing alongside. Children were running down to the shore to bathe and play and generally splash around as much as was possible.
Our accommodation had been part of the ticket and so was basic to say the least. Dinner went untouched due to the extensive family of flies feasting on it. In the morning, the pre stated time of 8:30 got blown out the window and there was a quick panic to depart at 8. After yet more busses, there was a process in place at the border for visa stamps and signing of papers. The long queues were hot and felt much longer than they probably were.
At another stop we convened with a load of other tourists. At this point it dawned on us that neither Hannah nor I had any local currency, which was apparently an issue. So the solution to this was for me to jump on the back of a bike belonging to a tour guide within the group and find the nearest ATM and hope for the best. I sauntered back with 500,000 kip, the equivalent of about £50, and felt very wealthy! 12 of us were stuffed into an open tuktuk, with our bags precariously perched on top and sent down a steep slope to a load of boats tied up, surrounded by pigs in baskets, goats running lose and a huge swarm of blue butterflies milling around the general vicinity.
Nobody seemed able to direct us to the correct boat so after half an hour of debating and questioning, we finally got some sense out of someone and all started to engross ourselves into a comfortable fashion on a long boat. The seats had previously been in a minibus by the looks of them but made for a relatively pleasant crossing. We exhausted every possible game we could think of, including eye spy and cards and took to gazing out the open windows at the scenery, with our legs dangled over the side, dozing in the sun.
Late afternoon time saw us arriving at our overnight spot, a very small village, running solely on the likes of us, temporary tourists. Our newly made friends were mainly from Europe and we stuck together choosing a hostel on the hillside and later all enjoyed a joint dinner out. I remember this being 79,000 kip = £6.50 and what I thought was fantastic value! The shower back at the hostel was nonexistent so I made do with crouching underneath an outside tap arrangement. As it was Easter Sunday, I took some time to have a phone call back home and caught up on the news of England.
The next day entailed an 8 hour boat journey further down the Mekong into the town of Luang Prabang. Still in our group, we found a local bus into the main high street and found our hostel. We ended up in a mixed dorm with a Japanese man we had shared a bus with a few days prior, who made us endless origami frogs, two Dutch girls we had met in Pai and some others from the boat.
We had a quick nap and were out again that evening to try out the local foods and to witness the night market. I added to my collection of foreign art work with a bright Buddha head painting and some more elephant trousers. These really are the way forward, they are light, don’t crease, are breezy and make long journeys far more pleasurable. The food stalls were a sight to behold, full of black eggs, chicken intestines, heads and feet so I opted for some fresh looking fruit. Later we sat as a huge group at a popular bar called Utopia and as happens when travelling, skipped the polite introductions and befriended each other quickly. This is another part of the whole “travel” life that I appreciate. Nobody judges on mundane things that don’t matter, people just seem to mould more easily and quicker.
In the next couple of days we visited waterfalls and woke up at 5 am to witness the “Giving of Alms”. This is a procession of monks who come to receive gifts of food. We found bookshops and read on recliners overlooking the Mekong. It felt like a world away from parents and friends back home.
Collectively, our group made the decision to bus to Vang Vieng shortly after. The main attraction of this town is “tubing”, an activity for the brave and resilient. An all day drinking marathon down the river in rubber rings. I can’t deny, it was fun. The weather was glorious, and everybody was in good spirits. At each stop down the river, we were pulled in by event staff and were given bracelets (this became an obsession with some of us over our travelling time. Some sort of victorious achievement was to have as many travel bracelets as possible.)
The quick interlude in this popular backpacker location included much watching of ‘Friends’, a tradition even cited in the Lonely Planet books. Although after a couple of days, we craved some more brain stirring activities and more cultural action. So again, we took a bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, holding up the piles of bags in the back of the bus and awaited our next mode of transport into our next country…
Please, all of you, wherever you are, have a wonderful weekend.