(A little aside before starting....I was in the garden when a noise of some intensity broke out. It sounded like the most dreadful stuff-up in the household waterworks; it was all surrounding. Ultimately we found it to be cicadas! It is an unbelievable din, something I've not experienced, even in Oz. There's another cicarda which makes this screatching noise like your brakes are shot - not good on a steep descent on motorbike!).
What a trip; WHAT A TRIP! Headed from Chiang Mai to Phitsanulok then out along the 'Green Route'; how good is this route out through the rice paddies, along the rapids, past the waterfalls, through the mountain views. Looked enviously out towards Tab Berk, the absolutely mind-blowingly positioned Hmong tribe village atop the massive/sheer mountain (Commo military headquarters up to the 1980's) but this time we were headiing for Khao Kho for the evening. Khao Kho is another top spot; canother 'little Switzerland'. High up, great views & surrounded by quality homes, resorts & health farms. We had a magic red, red, red sunset & also some red to wash it all down!
We were away next morning through UNFORGETTABLE scenery on the descent through the ranges. We were heading back to the mighty Mekong River via Dan Sai. Lonely Planet says of Dan Sai :'for 362 days a year, DS is an innoculous little town......for the remaining 3 days, its the site of one of Thailand's liveliest & loudest festivals.' They hold a 'Spirits Festival' (its all, 'they say', to summon some supernatural spirit) in June (depending on the full moon) - a boisterous, dance-filled procession, (LOTS of) spirits (the other kind) to get everyone in the mood for what's to come....lots of colour & costumes including 2 central (almost 4m high) figures, one male & one female as is clear from their 'huge, exagerated sexual organs' as LP puts it. Apparently the procession reaches the wat/temple, tins & cow-bells increasing the racket....whilst circling the wat there's abundant sexual inuendo with, to again quote LP 'older village woman, laughing all the time, taking turns grabbing the lengthy male penis'...... You know where to find us in June!!!
Arriving at the Mekong we found accommodation between the river towns of Chiang Khan & Nong Khai - rustic bambooo bungalows out over the Mekong (owner told us the river can rise 50 feet!!!! Did you know that in parts the Mekong is 15klms wide!) This was a MAGIC spot; you can not imagine how it was to look out from bed the next morning over the Mekong to a brilliant red sunrise reflecting on one of the world's great rivers. All for $8/bungalow/night. How can people travel otherwise?
Down along the Mekong to Nong Khai the next morning to cross over (bridge) to Laos. The Thais profit from the dry season/lower river levels to plant/harvest a quick crop along any available river-bed. The locals complain that China has built a massive dam upstream greatly affecting water flow, & 'life' in & of the river itself. This very dam is blamed for the floods in China that caused so many (million) deaths & in turn flooded Laos, Burma, Thailand & Cambodia when the Chinese 'released the gates'.
It was Saturday when we arrived in NK to learn that we could only get 'passports' for cars Mon-Fri! Stuff it; we grabbed the minimum gear & headed over by bus with the intention of hiring transport in Laos. Crossing the bridge we had to stop & watch a train cross, deviated from a track alongside the road (where it would logically continue) to smack bang in the middle thereof! Apparently its that way as Thailand/Laos couldn't agree where the track should run!
Not having a car proved no problem, we hired a huge 10 seater 'wog waggon' including driver (proved a very good move); the guy chauffered us through Laos, day & night, for the next 6 days at what it costs to hire a mini in Sydney! We drove up to Vientiane, immediately sensing the French influence with massive Arc de Triomphe & Champs Elysee equivalents, French administrative buildings strategically placed, street names in french, (excellent) french food, many speaking french. Its annoying, however, in places to witness the effects of looting over the centuries; its sad to see the culture of a people stolen in this manner.
It is thought provoking being in a country such as Laos. Its so different being under a communist regime; so different to what we know/think 'outside', & remember, Laos was only opened to tourists in 1989. The road from Vientiane to Vang Vieng & on to Luang Prabang which we were about to take is perhaps not surprisingly named Hwy 13 & is virtually the only sealed road (sometimes pot-holed) of any significance in the country. This is a truly wonderful journey - cattle wonder freely all over the roads, in & out of houses & even into shops, as do piglets, chickens, goats/kids, water buffalo.... The road climbs up through the mountains past hill-tribe settlement after hill-tribe settlement with the villages constructed literally at the edge of the road. From the car its a window into tribal life, almost 'live'. Houses all of teak with bamboo walls & thatched roofs, communal showers 'road-side', residents go happily about their lives. Kids & babies everywhere - a real worry that one could run over a child if not extremely vigilant.
If this was not good enough the sudden descent into Vang Vieng is a drop-dead, gob-smacking! The setting here is staggering, a mountain range to dream about, a beautiful river, unforgetable sunsets. Transport, pleasing to the eye, is still very much the bicycle. We bunked in up-river from town; a quick river swim under the moon-light, then off to bed over-excited about what the next day would surely hold.
Grabbed canoes the next morning for around a 10klm paddle downstream to the main town; a paddle of rare & exceptional beauty. Bamboo foot-bridges hang across the river into the fields, tribal woman gather algae whilst men spear fish & collect shells, over the odd rapid or two, on past a meditating buddhist devotee perched in the lotus position on simply the railing of his hotel verandah, & all this whilst framed by the most magnificent mountain scenery imaginable. We continued down to the 'tubing' area for which Vang Vieng is famous or infamous depending on your age - the bars along the river-side, blasting out the rock music, where the booze is cheap & (very) plentiful, bodies in riverside hammocks, people in 'tubes' along the river, massive trapeses set up along the river - you'd want a belly full to muster up the courage to try these monsters! We had dinner in town that night, long into the night watching the covered utes arrive loaded with the massive tubes on their roofs & the pick-up full of totally pissed, bikini or boardshort clad, singing tubers. Takes one back, n'est ce pas!
On to Luang Prabang - WHAT A DRIVE; this one is beyond supurlatives. This is truly mountain scenery at its BEST, scenery at its most spectacular best. Tribal villages alone continue; their inhabitants moving by foot about the steep hills they've cleared to cultivate. Woman head off to work the hill-sides, babies strapped to their backs; older woman remaining in the villages preparing plant materials to be used for roofing. The kids, & there are many of hem (shows the 'advantage' of no TV) seem very close, often moving about the place arms around each other, laughing away. Upon reflection one is left with the impression that their lives, their inner beings, are touched positively, despite their poverty & the relative harshness of their existence, in a way long disappeared from a commercial, materialistic world.
Luang Prabang - INCREDIBLE place; the former capital of Laos that has been & continues to be restored by UNESCO as part of World Heritage. Set magnificently on the Mekong, full of history, tremendous temples, wonderful restaurants, chic shops & resorts 'a la France'. To witness the massive sea of orange at 6.30 in the morning as lines of monks undertake taak baat is special.
We decided to return to Vientiane by the way we had come - a descending drive is often more rewarding visually - intending to stop at 1 of only 2 potential accommodation choices we had seen on the road between Vang Vieng & Luang Prabang. We'd spotted a cluster of 5 rustic bungalows, set amidst a magestic mountain backdrop alongside what appeared to be a nice pond, with a small (associated) restaurant alongside. We arrived after a spectacular mountain-top sunset.
This proved to be one of the finds of the trip; one of those inexplicable situations that just 'work'. The tucker was great, those helping us so warm, the surroundings unbeatable & the pond proved to be a natural hot spa! We had a birthday falling on the next day. After dinner, we uncorked the several bottles of (birthday present) red we'd bought in LP, headed into the hot spa & drank the red down until after midnight, singing 'happy birthday' as loud as can be without a worry. Magic moment & the most memorable of birthdays. (I'm no 'natural medicine geek', but I (indeed we all) felt good after this lengthy spa (or was it the red) - relaxed muscles, even bones, a softness of the skin.....
Up the next morning, sore heads but made instantly better on seeing just where this place was set - fantastic. Hate to tell you but the bungalows cost $AUD5.50/night, whilst the meals (for 7 people!) - dinner, including beers & a few shots of local whiskey, & a full breakfast of fruit, eggs, toast, tea or coffee totalled $AUD30!
In Vientiane we knew of a comfortable resort owned & operated by a french couple - the wife used to run the Crazy Horse in Paris, whilst her husband lived from royalties made from writing songs for Eric clapton, Johnny Halliday, etc. An interesting team! They bought (?) it would seem around 5 hectares back in the early 1990s, when there were only half a dozen (?) cars in Vientiane & had built a great set-up with pools, jaccusis, exercise 'beach', huge comfortable bungalows, fantastic garden......The wife was a lovely, soft, charming woman who looked after a dozen abandoned ponies & had brought the squirrels (previously hunted by the locals), birds & butterflies back to the resort. She had the same caring approach to her staff - one of the staff (27 years old) told us just how excited he'd been last year when she'd paid for him to fly, for the first & only time in his life, home to see his family. A girl, also 27, also worked there - she had never flown; a trip home for her took 72 hours by bus. She couldn't go home this year as she needed to save for her studies. She is quite stunning & the lady running the place has guided her (despite all the foreigners chasing her) to understand that the way 'out' for her is education. The lady is paying for her law studies & she'll graduate next year after 5 years study.