Laos, Thailand · 6 Days · 22 Moments · December 2016

Christmas 2016 trip stop 2: Northern Laos!

23 December 2016

Last day on the boat, watching the pilot steer our boat through the low levels of a December Mekong, passing the swirls and eddys created by the sharp rocks literally just under the surface. All without sonar!

22 December 2016

Wednesday 22nd December: We stopped off on the way firstly at a Mon village, and then at the Pak Ou Buddhist caves. The village was full of children who followed us around with scarves and bracelets to sell us. This little girl walked around with me for ages even though I didn't have any money to buy from her (Phil had our cash in his wallet and had left me behind as I was taking my time over photos, as usual!) I showed her the photos I was taking and then, after tracking Phil down on the banks of the river, purchased a Lao bracelet from her. Later in the afternoon we stopped at the Pak Ou caves, at the junction where the Ou river joins the Mekong. These caves have been used by centuries firstly by Animist then Buddhist devotees as a place of worship. They were quite interesting, with a lot of Buddha icons crammed in. Worth a visit if you are passing by, however if you have been to the Buddhist caves at Pindaya (stunning!) then you will be completely underwhelmed by Pak Ou caves.

21 December 2016

After a day on the Mekong, our boat stopped at Pak Beng for the night. Aside from being the halfway stopping point between the Thai border and Luang Prabang, there's not much else to say about this one-street town. Our accommodation was overpriced but clean and fairly comfortable with a view from the terrace across the Mekong. We had a fairly decent curry and Beerlao at the Indian restaurant opposite our guesthouse, then got an early night in before our departure for Luang Prabang the next morning.
Not much to say other than we relaxed on the boat as we slowly wound our way down the Mekong! Read our books, drank tea, had a snooze. Perfect follow up from 3 days on the Gibbon Experience trail!
After about 2 and a half hours on board, relaxing and chatting to our fabulous and interesting guide, Choy, about life in Lao, we stopped off at a local village. Choy gave us an informative tour around the village and we made some friends with the local kids before heading back to the boat for a delicious home cooked lunch.
Wednesday 21st December: After breakfast over looking the Mekong and the shores of Thailand, we were collected for our 2-day slowboat trip down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. Entertaining moments: when the guesthouse breakfast took so long to arrive I asked to have it as a take-away to go. When she looked at me blankly, my default was to revert to Chinese and say "da bao" (takeaway in Chinese) and her face lit up with understanding and she ran off to pack it into a bag. A bit of Chinese comes in useful in random situations! Also stopped at a crossroads next to a woman sticking bits of fish on the electric cables to dry them out... We got to the quayside and boarded our gorgeous Mekong Smile boat bound for Luang Prabang, where it turned out that there were only 10 of us on the boat for the entirety of the journey 😊

20 December 2016

Finally back in Houayxay and puppies, long hot showers, amazing basil seed drinks and gorgeous Mekong sunsets awaited us. Along with inspections of the black eye to see how badass/beaten wife I looked!
After another 40 minutes trekking, we finally reached the village and enjoyed a chilled Beerlao and puppytime before being rushed into the truck for the journey back. The off-road part of the journey was taken at incredibly high speed by our insane driver, and consequently we lost a wheel nut about 10 minutes into our drive on tarmac. So we hung round for 10 minutes or so on the side of the road until we decided that a few of us could lift our truck to help the driver get us on the move again. Cue another Beerlao in celebration of being on the move!
We finished our time in the jungle off with one final trek to the 'treehub', where there are 5 zip lines headed out from one tree, which is surrounded by a little platform about 30m up. These lines were faster than I anticipated, culminating in me, with 2 more lines left to go, reaching the end of the line at a higher speed than I anticipated. Cue black eye...
We zipped our way to treehouse no.3, perched on the edge of the valley with a breathtaking panorama over the jungle as the morning mist cleared. For those who have been to Kelburne Planters bungalows in Sri Lanka: this view was up there as most beautiful views I've seen. Utterly stunning! Photos just somehow don't do it justice.
Tuesday 20th December: Our 3rd morning dawned misty and atmospheric and we woke up surrounded by gibbons calling to each other across the valley and around our treehouse. Unfortunately Journi doesn't allow video uploads otherwise I would be bombarding you with recordings of Gibbon calls!! We set off from treehouse no.5 after an early breakfast for our final zip route through the mists and our trek back to the village for our lift back to Houayxay.

19 December 2016

An evening in a treehouse with relative strangers: Laos sweets and card games for 9.
The stunning treehouse no.5!! The views from here were utterly spectacular. This treehouse was also kitted out with a cold water shower and what is most likely the loo with the best view I've ever seen ☺️ At 120 feet high the treehouse is the highest in the world and the view certainly did the world record justice. There were 2 lines in and 1 out and a loop that went round the valley meaning that hours could be spent wandering around the jungle trails and across the valleys on the zip lines. We became pretty familiar with the lines which meant that confidence was high enough to risk videoing some of the zips. One of the lines in to the treehouse also crossed over the valley, which meant that if you went out from the treehouse you could go half way across and just hang from the midway point for ages, soaking in the stunning panorama and hunting out gibbons in the surrounding jungle. An unbelievable, enthralling and exhilarating experience!!!
Monday 19th December: Day 2 started off misty and atmospheric from our treehouse perch. Despite the jungle noises and being woken up pretty regularly by the sounds of mice and rats nibbling through various things in the treehouse, we had a pretty good night's sleep under our make-shift tent for 2 and felt much refreshed, ready for day 2. Another 2.5 hour trek took us through bamboo forest, village farmland and more rainforest. The highlight of the trek for me was the insane bamboo bridge crossing one of the streams. The Chinese use bamboo as scaffolding in Shanghai so knowing its strength we had faith in its ability to hold, but it was an interesting construction! The morning light on the stream we crossed was stunning and I could have spent hours just sitting there, soaking in the view and the vivid colours.

18 December 2016

Next came our time to zip line! We harnessed up ready and walked for about 10 minutes to the line that took us across to our treehouse for the 1st night. The treehouse even had a cold water shower! It was pretty chilly water but nonetheless a shower was really welcome after our day of trekking through the jungle. Treehouse number 6 was surrounded by a great little loop of zip lines. After a welcome snack of toffee nut crunchy stuff and some apples we spent our free time in the late afternoon before the light went getting familiar with zipping around and honing our technique (or at least trying!) ready for tomorrow's marathon of zip lines. Dinner was zipped in by our guides and was some fab Laos food and sticky rice, with a stash of coffee, tea and chocolate powder left behind with flasks of hot water. The light had gone by just after 6 so our group of 9 ate dinner then settled down to card games / reading books. By about 8 we were nodding off! So an early night was in order.
We set off from the village on our 2.5 hour trek to the Waterfall section of the Gibbon Experience for our first night. We firstly crossed farmland and waded through 3 streams (I moaned I wasn't wearing my Keens sandals across each one when I had to take off my walking trainers and socks every time!) and then we hit the dense, uphill treks through bamboo forest. We also stopped at a waterfall and natural pool where we all had a dip. No photographic evidence at this stage as we were both in the water, but boy was it chilly!! Also, lots of little fish tried to eat my feet. I didn't stay in for too long...
Sunday 18th December: We started off on our Gibbon Experience trip into the Laos jungle. After a weather and health&safety induction in their office in Houayxay and storing our big rucksacks in their office, we were packed into covered pickups and set off on the journey out to the Bokeo Reserve. The first two hours we travelled on food quality main roads with a couple of stops: one in a local village where we found cute kids and puppies, and the second to pick up a random guy from the side of the road, complete with gun, who sat opposite me at the back of the pick up. As you do. We then hit the off-roading section of the journey, which was a bit bumpy but compared to our experiences in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan it was nothing πŸ˜‰ before reaching a little village where we disembarked and mosquito-repellented up ready for our trek.

17 December 2016

More wat stuff in Houayxay.
The town temple of Houayxay.
The view across the Mekong to Thailand from our guesthouse in Houayxay.
Smoothly... until we tried to get cash. Apparently both my Chinese and British bank accounts were 'actually busy': busy with what?!? Busy storing my money so I can't access it?? Fingers crossed we find a functioning ATM in Houayxay, our overnight stay before setting off on the Gibbon Experience tomorrow morning. We scrambled together about Β£10-worth of leftover Thai baht and exchanged these at a very favourable rate, then headed out to look for transport to town. After failing to negotiate a non-exorbitant rate with the tuk tuk men at the border entry, we decided to take our chances on finding someone down the road, so we set off on the 10km walk to Houayxay... After walking for about 10 minutes and feeling the dread of a bad decision setting in, a guy drove past in a covered pickup so I hastily stuck my hand out and he stopped! We overcame the language barrier by using notes to negotiate our price, jumped in the back of his filthy vehicle and we were off!
So we have arrived in Laos πŸ‡±πŸ‡¦ !! Sabaidee Laos and Houayxay! We left Chiang Mai this morning at the crack of dawn on a bus bound for Chiang Khong and the Mekong River border with Laos. After 5.5 hours and lots of pastries and dried mango down we arrived on the outskirts of Chiang Khong. From the bus stop, we had a 3km tuk tuk ride to the Thai border control. After being stamped out of Thailand, we got on another bus which took us the 2km over 'No Man's River' to Laos border control where we applied for our visas on arrival. We had no problems at all as we were prepared with awful passport photos so everything went pretty smoothly and swiftly. As the scruffy A4 paper sign says: "Who got visa on arrival CAN PASS"