Most ubiquitous Laotian menu item: baguette Longest time we have spent waiting for our first dish (restaurants are painfully slow - only one dish is cooked at a time): 1hr 30 mins Favourite Laotian moment: being ushered through to the front of the customs queue (because we have "babies") and being waived through with a smile despite not having the required documents or passport photos with us Least favourite Laotian moment: noticing that the head a woman was chopping up for her restaurant belonged to a small dog Waterfalls visited since start of trip: 4 Run-ins with dangerous creepy crawlies: 4 (2 scorpions, 2 snakes) Foreign words learnt: 22 Transport tally since start of adventure: bus, ferry, minivan, truck, longboat, motorbike, car, aeroplane, taxi, motorbike/car-powered tuktuk Items of packing still unused: hairdryer, carbon monoxide alarm, mosquito nets, emergency medical kits (thank god)
3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD
POST 10: 23rd November 2016, Muang Ngoi, Laos.
I most definitely underestimated how hard it would be to get back into 'travelling' mode. We are struggling: with the 'basic' nature of backpacker accommodation, with the lack of family-friendly activities on offer and with generally being on top of one another.
Whilst I was looking forward to being on the road again after three weeks in one place, the comparatively ‘harsh’ reality of living out of our rucksacks with no room to unpack, no decent water pressure, low wattage light bulbs and fellow travellers sharing our communal living space (and as a result, our family dynamic) has thrown us all a bit. (It didn’t help that our last accommodation was not only the most spacious, most luxurious and also cheapest we have sampled so far).
Photo caption: travelling upstream from Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi by longboat (top), getting the kids and our luggage (all 9 pieces) from the boat pier to our guesthouse by tractor-cart (bottom)
Whilst the kids are certainly not being more annoying than before, here everything seems just that little bit harder. Unlike Greece and Myanmar which offered a great deal more to do that was family-friendly, in Laos, such activities are very thin on the ground. We seem to fall between the two groups of tourists who are catered for: that of the adventure backpacker looking for jungle zip-wire thrills and that of the slow-paced but well-off retiree who frequents and encourages the proliferation of high-end restaurants and hotels which price everyone else out. We belong in neither camp: the kids are too young for the former's activities and the latter doesn't want us anywhere near them. We did well this morning by playing football and cards on the village field outside the school - the local kids all swarmed to share our ball and look inside our bags at our toys and sunglasses. They were super keen to learn the English words for the animals on our playing cards and repeated them eagerly. It was lovely. Other days we have attempted watered down versions of the adventure activities on offer. But most walks are either too hot or too long for our kids and result in crying on their part and frustration on ours. So whilst most travellers on the island are either hiking in the jungle, kayaking on the river or chilling out in their hammocks enjoying the view, we are grappling to find some sort of family-friendly entertainment for the kids. Which means zero down time unless we give them an iphone to watch cartoons. This is what has been happening on an increasingly regular basis - so much so that I am feeling very guilty about it.
Photo caption: paddling in a cool stream that emerges from a large grotto used by the locals to shelter from daytime aerial bombardment during the Vietnam war (top left); one of a series of multiple, turquoise-hued waterfalls in the middle of the jungle (top right); the mighty Mekong (bottom left); some of the moon bears that had been rescued from captivity on a bile farm - extracted for use in traditional medicine (bottom right)
So we are not really loving it here. It doesn't help that most of the locals we have met so far are neither warm nor welcoming. Most are very wary of us and even the children either stare at us blankly if we wave or smile, or else laugh or leer at us. Laos is also the first country in which the kids have been told off: our guest house complained no less than four times on the account of the children acting like children. This was after said guesthouse failed to show up at the airport to collect us but before they gave us one hour’s notice to check-out (they had double booked the room). They then 'helped us' obtain last minute bus tickets to a new destination by charging nearly double the normal price. Add to this our recent 'crotch grabbing' incident (see last post) and all in all, we're not feeling the Laotian vibe.
Perhaps we are judging them unfairly by comparing them to the ridiculously affectionate and honest Burmese who set the Asian best-host-nation-bar very high. It could be that Laotians are just naturally more reserved. Or perhaps they resent foreign tourists as many of the Thais also seem to? (It wouldn't be surprising given how many of them spent years of their lives in caves avoiding aerial bombardment from the Americans: this country has the hideous distinction of being the world's most heavily bombed nation - 30% of the 2 million tonnes of 'ordnance' dropped on them during the Vietnamese war never detonated.) Who knows. In short, we seem to have lost our travelling mojo.
Drying chillies (top left); every sort of roll you can imagine for sale at the night market (top right); barbecued meat and fish skewers (bottom left); exotic fruit stall (bottom right)
What Laos certainly does offer on the other hand, is an intriguing mix of colonial and local architecture, international cuisine and magnificent natural scenery. Luang Prabang offers all three and reminded me of a cross between Ubud in Bali (with its hip bar and restaurant scene back-dropped by jungle) and Kyoto in Japan (with its narrow streets lined with neat, wooden houses interspersed with temples). That said, we didn’t love it there either. There was something almost too twee about it. Too many gorgeous little shops and beautifully-converted boutique hotels for my liking; a few too many cute, colonial-style cafes and smart restaurants for it not to feel like it wasn’t a bit over-designed and unnatural. Almost like a Laotian-themed, long-weekend resort for moneyed Asian expatriates. And since we are not travelling in this capacity right now, I found it a bit annoying. (Ok, I admit it, I was jealous. I wanted to be staying at Amantaka – my old employer – with unlimited financial resources to splash out on fine food, wine, shopping and cultural trips).
Photo caption: traditional and colonial architecture in Luang Prabang
As for natural beauty and local colour, Muang Ngoi, the sleepy, car-less village where we are currently staying, provides this in bucket fulls: a stunning view of the murky, fast-flowing Mekong and an opportunity to witness what a bustling thoroughfare this is as long boats shuttle from one settlement to another laden with people and goods; water buffalo bathing in its waters and grazing on its grassy mounds; villagers with conical, bamboo hats tending their small-holdings in the foothills of the surrounding craggy mountains; small children, pigs, dogs, cats, geese, hens, cows and goats all wandering round the narrow village streets; caged squirrels and birds competing for attention and freedom. It made the long journey here from Luang Prabang worth it (5 hours of bum-numbing, pot-hole hopping mini bus to Nong Khiaw for one night followed by an hour of longboat - there is no road - the following morning).
Photo caption: temples, Buddhas, shrines and monks
But despite all this, there is still something missing in Laos, for me. It may be that we were spoilt in Thailand where we actually got to live like a local rather than a tourist, or maybe we are just tired of being on the road. Maybe we are fighting our natural, northern hemisphere-trained body clocks which are desperate to wind down and 'hibernate' and so we are feeling our usual wintery weariness despite the local climate. Personally, I think it is because I have realised that it is the people that count over and above what a country has to offer in terms of scenery, cuisine or sights. For me, the way the people either welcome you in or don’t is what makes or breaks a destination. To be treated like a local even though you are a tourist is what stays in your heart and memory for far longer than the image of the waterfall or mountain view. And in this respect, Ikaria and Myanmar are still in joint pole position.
Photo caption: a land of juxtapositions - fresh tobacco for sale at the weekly Muang Ngoi village market (top left); temple and tuk-tuk (top right); a posh bakery in Luang Prabang (bottom left); a village house with its loom out front and finished goods for sale (bottom right)
So rather than continue on south and travel overland to Cambodia for a month and then pass overland once again to Vietnam where the children are enrolled in school, we have decided to ditch our (most recent) plan and head for Bali, one of my two most favourite places on earth. Despite having been at least 15 times during my 8 year stay in Hong Kong, I haven't been back since 2008, and like all travellers, am fully aware that the places we seek out as authentic and special quickly become 'ruined' by our very presence. I am hoping that this won't be the case here and that the Island of the Gods will not only reclaim its unique hold on my heart but that I will finally get to share this with the children. And if that doesn't resolve our current malaise, we're heading home!
To see where we are on a map, click here!
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