A blog about writing, reading, travelling and great characters I meet in life. I love these things more than cheese-on-toast times trampolines times monkeys.

Friday, 29 April 2011

4000 islands, Laos – a marathon journey, a chillout destination

My journey to 4000 islands in the South of Laos isn't quite a journey to the centre of the Earth. But it is 20 hours, most of which is on a ‘sleeping bus’. I share a single bed with a Dutch girl I've just met. We laugh at being squeezed together like battery hens.

I stop off for a Lao massage and a good night’s sleep in Pakse. Meeting Bougan is the highlight of Pakse - he's in his PJs in his Dad’s grocery shop. He points at a juice carton and says ‘orange’.

I point at fruit and animals and people on packaging. And Bougan calls out: papaya, pineapple, panda, giraffe, bear, boy, girl, baby - wow Bougan, you know your stuff.

Another 3 hours south to Don Det in the morning...

A minivan then a longtail boat to Don Det, one of 4000 islands (Si Phan Don) in the south of Laos, on the Cambodian border.

When the world is covered by water, it will look like 4000 islands. Some islands are just trees popping their heads out of the water.

Others like Don Det and Don Khone, you can cycle around in a few hours along river paths and through sun-baked fields.

I decide to treat myself in Don Det (after 3 months backpacking, I surely deserve a few days flashpacking). I check into Little Eden guest house on Don Det. The Belgian owner, Mathieu, brings me chicken and lemongrass soup for lunch, steak in creamy pepper sauce for dinner, eggs for breakfast.

Viewed from Little Eden’s terrace, the Mekong river looks like a lake. Longtail boats cross the water, paddled by men in pointed hats. The breeze, when it comes, is as welcome as mint ice cream.

My bed at Little Eden has whiter than white sheets and Mr Soft pillows. My inner princess detects no peas beneath the mattress. Hallelujah!

Next day, I cycle a few miles to the neighbouring island of Don Khone and go dolphin-spotting.

In our wooden boat, we pass trees that look like they are losing a fight with a gale - but there's no wind here. I wonder why they've grown this way.

I can hear Cambodians cockerels from the boat and we see a group of Irawaddy freshwater dolphins. They play hide and seek with us for half an hour.

I eat lunch with a Thai guy and two Japanese guys. One of the Japanese guys, Yoshida, is a Manga writer and illustrator. He offers to do a Manga drawing of me – how could I refuse? I feel extraordinarily shy as he sketches me.

The other Japanese guy, Mr K. Etsushi, gives me a signed Polaroid picture and insists I sign his copy – we are holding up his Lao-Japanese phrasebook complete with cartoon pictures.

But it’s the kids of Don Det village who entertain me the most...

Kids play in wheelbarrows and joke around with each other.

Kids weave reeds by the river and eat palm fruit.

And yes, kids peer up a buffalo’s bum – the buffalo holds his tail up most obligingly.

Later, a herd of water buffaloes take their afternoon bath in The Mekong. They exhale noisily and slap their chins against the water.

A great place for writers

I meet Megan and Ally in Don Det – two writers from Canada and Scotland, both working on novels and blogging about their travels.

One of the reasons Ally is travelling is to add more colour to the locations in her fantasy novel. Ally’s latest blogpost is about stumbling across some skinned rock rats on Don Det. And she tells me a terrifying, late night story about her encounter with a huntsman spider on her travels.

Megan convinces me to visit The Philippines on my travels – Megan’s tales of bright blue waters and white sand grab my attention.

We all agree that Don Det is a great place for cracking on with our writing projects. There are no distractions here. Just the ripples of the river, the occasional boat motor. And the call of a very fat gecko called George – he sounds like a wind-up toy and looks like a small dinosaur.

Just as well my 30 day Laos visa is running out – otherwise I’d probably stay a month.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Child's play in Vang Vieng - the ‘happy menu’ is hype

I hear stories about Vang Vieng before I arrive...

Tales of:

-‘happy menus’ with mushroom pizzas and grams of opium for sale

- weed by the joint, bag or happy shake in restaurants

- death by drowning in the Nam Song River

- tourists face-planting into rocks from motorbikes

- a guy suffering brain damage (he failed to pole vault a 40 foot crack inside a cave with a bamboo stick).

So I thought, okay, I’ll just stay in Vang Vieng for one night to break up the journey to the south of Laos.

Then move on.


I soon admit my mistake

Vang Vieng is much more adventure playground than cainers’ paradise. I end up staying a week.

Here’s why...

In Vang Vieng, I live in a tree house

I remember The Enchanted Wood, my favourite story as a child.

In Enid Blyton’s classic tale, Moonface and Silky live in the Faraway Tree. Joe, Bessie and Fanny climb the Faraway Tree each day to explore different lands at the top.

In Vang Vieng, locals and travellers climb trees too.

Some perch in the tree for hours.

Others plunge from branches into deep blue lagoons.

A spider lives in the corner of my tree house

I’ve named her Charlotte after the spider in Charlotte’s Web.

I am not scared about sharing my room with a spider. She’s quite beautiful with long fine legs and a small body.

I've been looking out for messages in her web.

Hot air balloons take off at sunrise and sunset in Vang Vieng

It’s the way The Wizard of Oz likes to travel.

The balloons are like coloured lightbulbs in the sky – green, yellow and red.

From the comfort of my hammock, I hear the flames whoosh. And I wonder about the eccentric genius who invented the hot air balloon.

I search online and learn about Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier in 18th century France.

I love this fact...

“On September 19th 1783, in Versailles, a Montgolfiere hot air balloon carrying a sheep, a rooster, and a duck flew for eight minutes in front of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the French court.”

In Vang Vieng, kids and travellers swing on ropes in trees...

... like Mowgli in The Jungle Book.

There are giant trapezes over the Nam Song river

The launch pads are at the top of trees. I climb the stairs in the tree.

I feel the fear at the top of the tree.

It takes me 10 minutes to jump.

Flying through the air feels aaaaaaaaagh-mazing.

Watch my Vang Vieng trapeze debut here.

Vang Vieng has mountains to climb and caves to explore

The Hobbit landscape. The mountain tops are jagged – it looks like a giant has torn pieces of dark green paper and glued them to the horizon.

Friends and I cycle miles along dirt tracks to reach the mountains. We climb hundreds of large steps. Half way up the mountainside is the entrance to Poukham cave. Inside, the air cools at least ten degrees. Cold water drips on my skin. We climb over slippery rocks and walk down cave passages.

We’ve landed at night time on a cold, quiet planet.

Two local kids lead us through the cave, skilfully and silently. They shine their head lamps into grey clearings. Rocks sparkle with minerals. The kids light up dark crevices and deep holes for us – Gollum from The Lord of the Rings could live here.

Our child guides lead us back to the cave entrance then switch off their lights. They remind me of The Lamplighter in The Little Prince – the Lamplighter’s job is to light a lamp on his asteroid in the morning and put it out at night.

People mess about in boats on Nam Song river...

...like in The Wind in the Willows.

Kayaks and longtails and rowboats.

And there are Vang Vieng's famous tractor inner tubes. We float for hours downstream and marvel at the mountains.

There’s a midnight curfew...

The law in Laos states that everyone must be back at the place where they live or sleep by midnight – Cinderella style.

Most bars close at 11.30pm. Before we all turn into pumpkin curry, I guess.

And yes, I’m reminded in Vang Vieng of Lewis Carroll’s classic...

...Alice in Wonderland – the part where Alice eats mushrooms and her body changes shape. It’s the scene with the blue caterpillar – he sits on a giant mushroom, smoking a hookah.

Here’s one report from a traveller who ate a mushroom pizza in Vang Vieng:

‘I grinned for two hours in my hammock then was sick all night.’

As sick as a Cheshire cat?

But this is really only a minor part of what's on offer in Vang Vieng.

I’m only offered the ‘happy menu’ once – and it’s easy to tell the restaurant owner I’m happy enough already :-)

To quote a well-worn proverb...

...I’ve learnt from my Vang Vieng experience not to judge a book by its cover.

Vang Vieng has:

- outdoor activities (cycling, ballooning, tubing, kayaking, trekking, rock climbing, scootering, caving, swimming)

- mountains that stand guard around the town

- cafes with areas to lie down on enormous cushions

- mulberry pancakes, homemade goat’s cheese and mulberry leaf tempura at Mr T’s organic farm

- the tubing, waterslides and trapezes on the Nam Song river

- oh, and Vang Vieng has very photogenic cows...

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Meet the Philapongs...

My hosts for 2 days in Phoukhoua village, Laos.

There’s Dad – his name is Home and he is 42. He stays at home now because he has bad lungs from smoking and chewing tobacco on the sticky rice farm.

There’s Mum, Khamphanh – she’s 36. She works on the sticky rice farm and keeps the house.

And Sak, their oldest son, aged 20 – the creative writer, student teacher and guest house worker I met in Luang Prabang.

There are also Sak’s three younger brothers: Joy (17), Tatia (11) and Luen (7). They’re out hunting when we arrive.

The Philapongs live high up in the mountains of Xieng Nguen district, Laos.
It takes 3 hours by motorbike to get there from Luang Prabang.

Sak and I stop off for water and bananas on the way. We take a rest from the midday sun in a bamboo shelter overlooking the mountains and valley.

We share our bananas with these cheeky boys.

The last 15 kilometres of the journey takes as long as the first 45 kilometres – the road becomes a lane, then soon we are snaking up a mountain dirt track.

Between 8 and 11, Sak walked to school everyday along this track.

‘For go to school, I start walking at 4 in the morning. I walk 26 kilometres each day – but it’s okay, it’s very fun time with the other children. Water, we get it from the stream. And we play hide and seek on the way. The best place to hide is inside the tree.’

Arriving at Phoukhoua village...

Sak and I arrive early afternoon in Phoukhoua village (population 234). Sak’s family are happy to see him after 6 months. They had no idea he was coming home.

It’s lovely to see Sak with his Dad – Home talks and smiles at his oldest son. Sak listens and nods his head.

Sak’s Mum is always busy – mostly steaming, rolling out and storing sticky rice in baskets.

‘Sticky rice is the highlight food for us,’ Sak explains. ‘It is duty of the oldest to feed the family. When the weather is not good, we don’t have sticky rice. The oldest have to go up to the city to get the money to eat.’

That’s why Sak’s in Luang Prabang – to help take care of his family.

And I make a number of personal discoveries in Phoukhoua village:

1) Crickets don’t taste like chicken

Roasted crickets are a three-way taste combination: pork scratchings + soil + that burnt stuff you get in oven dishes.

And they crunch like charred toast.

The day we arrive in the village, Sak’s brothers have caught hundreds of crickets at the stream. The hunting method is to spread sticky rice on bamboo at the river, then wait for the crickets to get stuck to the rice.

In the kitchen, children pull the legs and wings off the live crickets. They buzz and crackle in the kids’ fingers.

Then Sak’s Mum roasts the crickets on skewers in the fire.

We eat crickets and sticky rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner – dipped in dried chilli and salt.

The villagers are more surprised I like the chilli than the crickets.

2) Oh, the relief of a fluffy tail

Each meal of crickets and sticky rice is accompanied by a small bowl of a meat or fish.

Breakfast, we have deer stew.

Lunch is very crispy fish.

Dinner is rat stew, Sak tells me.

‘Brilliant,’ I say and manage a smile.

But later Sak corrects himself – it’s actually squirrel stew.

I’m sure I say ‘phew’ out loud.

3) Bad drawing is a winner with kids

I’m the only ‘falang’ in the village.

Falang is the Lao term for foreigner. It actually means French (Laos was a former French colony).

As soon as I arrive, from the corner of my eye, I see little faces peek through gaps in the door and heads pop up at the open window.

I look round and the faces disappear.

I hear whispers of ‘falang, falang, falang’ and giggles.

It takes an hour or so to make a breakthrough.

I take out my notebook and pen and draw a lousy picture of a pig. The boy (pictured) recognises it and laughs. I give him my pen. He draws a picture of a chicken. Everyone laughs. I draw a spider. He draws a smoking man. I draw a butterfly. He draws a crab.

Thirty villagers gather round to watch and laugh at each drawing.

4) Can I kill for my dinner?

It’s never been put to the test before.

The chicken is brought into the house by its feet. The kids gather round and pluck the feathers from its neck. I’m surprised the chicken is so calm as they do this. Does he think he’s getting a Lao massage?

Sak hands me the knife. As the guest of honour, I’m supposed to cut the chicken’s throat.

I take the knife.

I’m suddenly very aware of the dry gulp in my throat.

The children look at me, as if to say: ‘what are you waiting for falang?’

I crouch down and look the chicken in the eye.

And then I have a flash of what it would feel like to have a knife cutting my throat. Then all the blood drains from my head. My body is empathising with the chicken - I guess vegetarians will understand this.

I hand the knife to Sak’s mother and she cuts the chicken’s throat. The blood pours out into a white bowl on the kitchen floor.

So no, I can’t kill for my dinner. No surprises there really – I can’t even kill spiders.

4) Chickens' feet have meaning

The Basi ceremony takes place in my honour – it’s about celebrating the joy of life together.

Sak’s family are animists – they believe in spirits. It’s believed here that the body has 32 parts – each part has its own wandering soul. During the Basi ceremony, those souls are called to return to the physical body.

Sak’s Mum brings through the tray with the chicken, rice, champa flowers, candle and pieces of thread.

She lights the candle and the ceremony starts.

We all place our fingertips around the Basi tray. Everyone chants.

Sak translates throughout. His family and very pleased to welcome me to their village. They wish me good health and long life.

The villagers crowd round and chant louder. They tie white thread around my wrists.

A couple of days later, when I first see this photograph (below), I wonder is that a spirit shadow on the wall behind me.

Next, we eat chicken and sticky rice.

Mr Khong studies the chicken’s feet for meaning. He says they are curled inwards. This means there may be danger ahead.

5) Who needs language when you’ve got laughter?

This is Jhar. He’s 80 years old and he has lived in Phoukhoua village all his life. He lives in a hut by himself.

He is deaf mute. His name, Jhar, translates as ‘Dumb’.

‘What, you actually call him ‘Dumb’?’ I ask Sak.

‘Yes, that’s his name,’ Sak says, totally matter of fact.

Sak and I laugh at each other.

Jhar enjoys the Basi ceremony.

He also enjoys the Lao Lao whiskey.

In fact, Jhar seems to enjoy everything.

Sak tells me Jhar is always smiling. He does have the best laughter lines I’ve ever seen.

Jhar points at me. He points at my camera and then himself. He wants me to take his picture. With pleasure.

The best part is showing Jhar the picture. He touches the screen with his finger. He laughs with all his face and body – but no noise comes out.

I think he agrees I got his best side.

6)There’s a game you can play with a New York Yankees cap and a village full of children

My friends and I invent it.

The rules are:
- I take the New York Yankees baseball cap from my bag.
- The kids watch me for any sudden movements.
- I run for a kid
- I try to put the cap on her head.
- She laughs and runs away.
- I chase another kid and plant the cap on her head.
- Everyone laughs
- The kid with the cap then chases everyone around until she passes the cap on.

7) There’s something very comforting about sleeping in a room with 6 other people

I haven’t done that since having slumber parties as a child with school friends – staying up late, eating chocolate, watching Chuckie and Omen and Nightmare on Elm Street films behind a pillow.

In Phoukhoua, I sleep in a room with Sak’s family.

We all sleep on thin mattresses on the floor – Sak’s Mum and Dad are separated from us by a hanging sheet.

Night Mum. Night Dad. Night Sak. Night Joy. Night Tatia. Night Luen.

Night falang.

8) I can understand animal language

Ok, no I can’t.

But dawn on a farmyard reminds me that animals across the world make the same noises.

Pigs snort.

Chickens cluck.

Chicks tweet.

Hunt dogs bark.

Cats mieow.

Cocks doodle do.

Goats – what do goats do? Bleat?

The air is full of these familiar and comforting sounds at 5am.

I get up from my mattress and go outside to see the animals.

I’m most entertained by the pigs and a runaway chicken.

Good morning Phoukhoua.

9) People in power make some odd decisions

Sak’s family tell me that the District Leader has informed the head of Phoukhoua village that all huts must have a corrugated iron roof within the next 6 months, otherwise the huts will be taken down. The families who live in them will have to leave the village.

‘And live where?’ I ask Sak. ‘In the forest?’

Sak says that people aren’t allowed to question the system.

And there isn’t any district money to help pay for these roofs.

Houses like this bamboo hut with a straw roof will have to go.

Mr Jhar’s house is one of them.

10) When language and cultural reference points are taken away from me, I become a child again

And this is the greatest gift of my visit to Phoukhoua village.

Play and laughter become the best way to communicate.

I did have some lessons in Lao language from Sak over the two days.

The most useful phrase was ‘Coy mak jak jan lai kyon nyo’ – I love crickets and sticky rice. I say this at every meal and it makes everyone laugh, including Mr Jhar who can’t hear me.

Back to Luang Prabang...

Sak and I return to Laos New Year celebrations.

A week-long waterfight. Soaked through everyday when I step out the front door. The most playful New Year’s celebrations I have ever seen.

There’s music and breakdancing on the streets.

We join the Lao people on Mekong Island.

We watch people of all ages build sand stupas along the riverbank.

Water, flour and coloured paint are smeared over heads and faces, arms and legs. It’s a way of saying Happy New Year.

And I thank Sak for the experience in Phoukhoua.

And this is where words fail me completely...

I tell Sak on the morning I leave Luang Prabang that something has changed for me after our visit to Phoukhoua.

I am aware of a new feeling inside my body that I cannot name yet – a seed of something to come maybe.

So it’s a thousand thanks to you Sak – I hope you like this article.

With best wishes from your falang friend