Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Christmas & New Year - Laos

Before leaving Luang Prabang we got up at 5:30am in order to watch the giving of alms to the monks on their way to the temple.  We had the option to buy offerings of rice and other basic foods but had been forewarned not to as it promotes commercialising a spiritual experience and encouraging touts to exploit tourists.  Instead we took a step back to watch the procession at dawn and take some photographs of the seemingly endless line of monks before heading back to bed for a bit more shut-eye!   

Buddhist monks receiving their offerings before sunrise

An old lady in Laos offers rice to a monk

The monks make their way to the temple having received their offerings

Our other major achievement for this day was finding some Santa hats.  We went back to Utopia bar, rapidly becoming a favourite of ours and watched the moon make its way across the sky with a beer Laos (or two).

We wanted to head north to Luang Nam Tha to do some trekking a little further away from the tourist trail in order to seek a more 'authentic' experience.  We had the option of doing a straight 8 hour journey but instead decided to opt for an overnight stop in Udomxai to break it up a bit.  We cut out the middle man and decided to take fairly small public bus.  The journey seemed to take a long time, the roads are extremely bendy and bumpy with lots of senseless overtaking on blind corners which make it difficult to relax!  There is lots of nice scenery to see along the way including plenty of roadside villages.  Udomxai itself was not our favourite place and seemed to be more of a stopover town without much love invested and a heavy Chinese influence.  The first guesthouse we looked at was like something out of a horror movie, the communal bathroom was dirty and drippy and the rooms had their numbers painted in a red smear across the door.  We did find a nice one eventually to spend the night!

We had a look around the town whilst there was still daylight, but there wasn't too much to see so we decided to move on (not before having noodle soup which was delicious but the only thing on the menu).  Having bought our tickets for a three o'clock bus, we were lucky to get on at half past two as the bus was already full.   Even so our bags were lugged onto the top of an inexplicably small bus considering the popularity of the route and a couple of tiny plastic chairs were thrust into the aisle for us.  There wasn't much room so I offered to stand and helped Kate stay steady in the chair which wanted to slide every time the bus took a corner.  There were bodies lying over each other in the front seat and two more people even managed to get on after us in the doorway area.  Good things tend to come from bad, and about a third of the way into the journey a South Korean gentleman offered to 'swap' with me for which I was very grateful as hanging on had taken its toll.  We ended up chatting to the Korean family who were on holiday and took it in turns to stand until a cramped seat became available as people got off.  The roads were so dusty that people would close the windows whenever another vehicle passed to stop the dirt from coming in.  

Snap taken from the window on the journey from Luang Prabang

Another roadside village on the route to Luang Nam Tha

When we arrived in Luang Nam Tha we shared a tuk tuk with the Koreans and found a cosy guest house that one of their friends had recommended.  We grabbed some food which took longer than it should have done and although it was Christmas Eve we decided to head back to the room and open the wine we had been carrying as an early treat.  We played some Christmas tunes from the ipod and had a dance.

Christmas begun earlier than intended and not in the way one would have hoped.  In fact I spent the next 3 days making friends with the guest house toilet (which was unfortunately only had a manual dip and pour flush).  Kate, not wanting to be left out, followed suit and was also very ill two days later.  A Wikipedia diagnosis came up with Gastroenteritis, a virus which we pretty much had to 'ride out' over the best part of a week.  As a consolation we upgraded ourselves to a hotel with a bath, TV and working flush, in fact it was the VIP room and it even had a football channel!   This was the most expensive hotel in town and was still only ten pound per night!  Not wanting to dwell on this period, you will be glad to know that there aren't any photos from this time and Christmas was postponed until the new year.  We don't feel as though we missed out too much as Christmas isn't celebrated here.  Luan Nam Tha is a very beautiful place and although our memories at this time were not fond, it was in spite of being in a very pleasant and pretty small Laos town.

The sweet milk of Laos

View from the Panda restuarant in Luang Nam Tha

Feeling better and opting for a change of scenery, we were brave enough to move further North to do our trekking and had a two hour journey to a small town called Muang Sing.  This is a much more rural and authentic town and definitely felt more like the middle of nowhere but there was still enough civilisation and the odd place catering for travelers.  The first bungalow we stayed in was extremely chilly at night even though the grounds were beautiful, so we moved to a more solid structure in the form of a hotel just across the street.  This proved to be a good decision as we were able to celebrate the new year with the family who ran the business.  We watched them sing songs and dance and we wore our Santa hats that night and everybody was extremely welcoming and friendly.  We even managed to find the only 'nightclub' in Muang Sing which looked more like a wealthy teenager's  project but was packed full of people, many of them looked far too young to be there (although girls in Laos can be expected to marry from 15).  Everyone wanted to talk to us and touch us and generally be merry as the only Farang in there.  We sat and drank with the club's owner and his friends before hitting the dance floor where there were some talented young break dancers.  The santa hats did the rounds and when the club closed at around 11:30 they all left on scooters and we came back to the hotel to see the new year in with the family, fireworks and more beer Laos.  

You've got some chicken on you

A pat on the belly signified that dinner was in the back

Some friends working on a house in Muang Sing

Our adopted puppy

Sick of eating the same old thing? Get them while they're hot

The nightclub

Celebrating New Year with the hotel staff and family

Seeing in the new year with hand held fireworks

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