The ubiquitous Beerlao:
We had to look for another contender, and we found Namkhong:
Mr Beet declares that Beerlao is the winner.
The main staple of Laotian food is sticky rice. This comes in a little basket and you pick up little balls of it to dip in your food. Here I am eating it with laap, a sort of spicy meat salad, which is another Laotian speciality.
In both Laos and Cambodia, you get a lot of fruit shakes. My favourites are coconut (below) or pineapple. Avoid the “happy” shakes.
After having any number of crappy sausages as part of some poor attempt at a Western breakfast all over Asia, I have to give a shout out to the Luang Prabang sausage. It’s not the same as a British banger, but it’s pretty tasty in its own right.
One of the things we were most looking forward to in Laos was the Gibbon Experience. It’s a project that has been set up in the Bokeo province, to help to protect the local habitat of an endangered species of gibbon. The project has been set up on the “poacher turned gamekeeper” principle. The villagers in the area used to make money by hunting gibbons, bears etc. Now many of them have been trained as guides and rangers, so that they make their money by protecting the forest and the wildlife. The whole thing is funded by tourists, who stay in treehouses and zip-line around the forest in the hope of spotting the gibbons. We’d heard and read a lot of good things about the experience, but everyone told us that we might hear the gibbons “singing” but that it was rare to actually see them. However, everyone was still really enthusiastic about the experience and it came highly recommended.
We took a slow boat up the Mekong from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, which took two days. It’s much nicer, and not that much longer, than getting a bus and we even saw an elephant (a working one not a wild one) on the river bank. When you get to Huay Xai, you know you are in the right place for zip-lining because every single shop sells protective gloves. It’s like the whole town is waving at you. In fact, I felt a bit guilty that we already had our own gloves and therefore would not be contributing to the important local glove economy.
We checked in at the Gibbon Experience office in Huay Xai and watched a safety video. As it turned out, we ended up ignoring most of the rules over the next three days. But under the supervision of the guides so we were still safe Mum and Dad! After that we were packed into a pick-up truck and driven about two hours to the tiny village that is the closest accessible point to the forest. We then had to hike for about an hour to get to the base camp that serves the treehouses. On the way, we had our first creepy-crawly encounter as someone in the group found that they had acquired a leech.
We were allocated Treehouse No 1, and our guides were Dett and Tun. We were really lucky on both counts. Treehouse No 1 is the newest, biggest and most luxurious of the treehouses (yes a treehouse can be luxurious!). It was split over four levels, so we had some privacy as each bedroom is on a different level. We had a shower, a sink with drinking water and even a dining table. Dett and Tun had built this treehouse and are rightfully very proud of it.
Our treehousemates for the next couple of nights were a lovely Swedish family; Eric, Annetta, Ellen, Alice and Unni (I have to apologise for anglicising their names, I’m sure those aren’t the correct spellings).
So we hiked our way towards the treehouse until we reached our first zip-line. They were different to other zip-lines we had been on in the past. Not only were they much higher, longer and faster, but we also had to control our speed using a brake and if we stopped short of the other end, we had to pull ourselves in hand-over-hand. I launched myself off and it was incredible – the view of the forest stretches on and on for miles with no sign of human civilisation whatsoever. It was really breathtaking. After we’d done a few zip-lines, any nerves had completely gone and we could just enjoy the rush through the trees and the gorgeous views.
After a day’s hiking and zip-lining. we were all exhausted so we returned to our treehouse for a dinner of rice and vegetables, which is zipped in from a kitchen station hidden somewhere in the forest. Dett even zipped in a kettle full of hot water for tea and coffee. We were joined for dinner by a couple of rats who have also decided that Treehouse No 1 is a nice place to live. Then we turned in at about 7pm because we were so tired. I put in some earplugs, as I didn’t mind the rats sharing our treehouse but I didn’t want to listen to them scurrying about all night, and slept soundly.
We got up at 6am the next day because early mornings are the best time to see and hear gibbons. The treehouse was surrounded by a cloud of mist and we could see very little.
We hiked for an hour or so before breakfast, but we didn’t hear any gibbons. After breakfast, we did more hiking and zip-lining around the forest. It was pretty taxing; all the zip-lines have to be downhill, ergo all the hikes between them are uphill. It was like being trapped in a M.C. Escher picture. But the scenery was so beautiful and the zip-lines so thrilling that it was worth the effort.
We visited some of the other treehouses, and although Treehouse No 1 was of course the best, some of the others were very cool as well. Treehouse No 3 has the best views over the forest, and Treehouse No 5 has the scariest zip-lines, you literally just open a gate and fling yourself out.
We hiked all day, returning to Treehouse No 3 to watch the sunset. This meant that we had to break one of the Gibbon Experience rules and zip-line back to our treehouse in the dark, which was quite a thrill. Alice had been a bit nervous doing the zip-lines at first, but after a day she was zip-lining in the pitch black with no problems at all.
The next morning was our last in the forest and it was another early start with Tun to try our luck gibbon-spotting. After about half an hour, we heard gibbons singing nearby. It’s an odd sound, more like a bird call than a monkey. We set off in hot (but careful and quiet) pursuit, but lost the trail when the singing stopped. We stayed around the area, and then on a zip-line back to the treehouse Tun’s expert eye spotted some movement in the trees. He took us out one by one to dangle with him on the middle of the zip-line (another rule broken). At first I could just see rustling in the trees, but then this moved up to the topmost branches and I could see two gibbons silhouetted against the sky. It was fantastic, and after all that I had read I really did not expect to see them. Even Tun was excited about seeing them, which shows how rare it is. We were extremely lucky.
After three days of hiking and a dusty ride back to Huay Xai in the back of a pick-up truck, we were neither looking nor smelling our best. The travel books always advise that you try to look presentable for border crossings, but thankfully they let us cross the river into Thailand anyway. Country no 6 here we come!
All our photos from the Gibbon Experience are on Mr Beet’s flickr page.
A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
I’ve been scouring every English language book shop from Tokyo to Saigon for the two books that I still need to finish my top 100. I struck gold in Phnom Penh.
As you can see, this book is so fat that it actually makes me look thin in this photo. It took me the rest of Cambodia and most of Laos to finish it. For a book approaching 1,500 pages, it did hold my interest (the similarly long War and Peace took me about four months to finish and that was an effort) and the huge cast of characters was well-drawn and I could remember who everyone was without constantly needing to flip back to earlier chapters (a major difficulty with W&P).
I like the fact that the author does not feel the need to explain every time he uses a word or a reference that will not be familiar to an Indian reader. I hate it when there is too much explanation – give your readers some credit in thinking they’ll figure most things out. Because of the 1,500 pages and the last cast of characters, reading this did feel a bit like watching Eastenders instead of reading a novel – there’s no strong narrative that’s heading towards a conclusion, it’s just a bunch of stuff that keeps happening to people with no overall direction. The author does try to bookend the whole thing with two weddings, but that feels a bit flimsy.
Overall though, I enjoyed this and it made me excited about visiting India next month.
The road from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang is extremely scenic, but also extremely twisty-turny and I spent most of the time with my head in my hands going “wurrrrrrr…..” before the travel sickness pill kicked in and knocked me out for the rest of the journey.
While in Luang Prabang, it will be Mr Beet’s and my ten-year anniversary, so we tried to check into a smart hotel as a treat. We tried a few places, but they had no rooms. Call me paranoid, but I can’t help thinking that the fact that we were just off the bus with dirty backpacks and our tubing numbers still written on our arms in felt-tip pen may have had something to do with their lack of availability. We ended up at a fine-but-nothing-special guesthouse, which is good for the budget at least.
Luang Prabang is home to Asia’s most civilised market. The market sets up on the main street every evening, and it’s a completely different experience to any other market we visited in Asia. In Chinese, Vietnamese or Cambodian markets you are constantly hailed with exhortations to buy; “Hey lady…you buy…cheap cheap…one dollar…ok two for one dollar…ok three for one dollar“. In Laos, they are so relaxed that you can actually browse and even openly admire things with nothing more than a cheerful “Sabaidee!” and no hard sell whatsoever. Even the tuk-tuk drivers in Laos will take no for an answer.
So our first day in Laos is taken up with chores, unsuccessfuly trying to find a travel book on India and successfully trying to get the photos from our corrupted memory card recovered. Even though it’s been only a couple of days since we were in luxurious Vientiane, we still take advantage of the nice cafes and restaurants.
On our anniversary itself, we spend the day sightseeing, strolling along the riverside and having a nice dinner in one of the riverfront restaurants.
As you can see from the photos, Luang Prabang is very beautiful, full of very nice shops and restaurants and a lovely place to go on holiday. The whole town is a World Heritage site. It’s a nice place to spend a few days, but in a way it feels a bit too much like a tourist attraction and not enough like a real city.
More photos of Luang Prabang are on Mr Beet’s flickr page.
We got an email from the airline we were meant to be flying to India with, telling us that our flight from Bangkok to Goa had been cancelled. After some investigation, it turns out that the airline has scrapped a number of its routes and that journey is no longer available. So instead of going to Goa, we have booked a flight to Coimbatore. No, we’d never heard of it either – apparently it is the Manchester of India.
You will remember that we had no photos from Cambodia due to a corrupted memory card. We took the card to a photo shop in Luang Prabang, and the guy there recovered the photos for us in about 30 seconds flat and burned them onto a cd. Hurrah! I am currently uploading the photos, but as I am now in the rather small border town of Huay Xai, they are uploading at the rate of one every ten minutes. So at that rate it will take approximately 5 days. I will put on an update when I have added the Cambodia photos so that you can check them out, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.