Tip – ATMs in Laos

This has been touched on a couple of times, but another one I’ve discovered is that the machines in Laos (well, the one in Vientiane that takes foreign ATM cards) charge 20,000 Kip ($2) per withdrawal. This is in addition to any charges your own bank levies.

The single ATM in Vang Vieng will only work with MasterCard and I have been told that the one in Luang Prabang will only accept one of the more obscure card “brands” (i.e. not Visa or MasterCard).

Bun Bang Fai…. POW!

The rather aptly-named Bun Bang Fai is an annual festival marking the move from dry to wet season. It’s an apt name as a large part of the festival, in Vang Vieng anyway, involves firing rockets into the air to wake the gods up and ask them for plenty of rain for the forthcoming rice-growing season.

This request is somewhat redundant right now as it’s not stopped raining in around 20 hours, but that doesn’t stop the fun. You know how your parents always told you now to play with fireworks? Well, these guys build their own. And I swear some of them are the size of ICBMs. One by one over two days, the rockets are carried up to a launching area outside of the town with great accompanying ceremony. A crowd of around ten people will surround the rocket, drums are banged, songs are sung and they will march up the main street to the Laos version of Kennedy Space Center.

There a competition is held and it’s one day you don’t go walking near the mountains. The challenge is to get your home-made high-explosive device to fly further than your neighbour’s. Scores of these things are let loose simultaneously and the skies darken like that arrow scene from 300 only with slightly fewer deaths resulting. Usually.

As I type up this section, a crowd from a nearby shop have just trudged past as has a bunch of teenagers with what looks like the world’s biggest rocket-on-a-stick. Where on earth they’re going to get a 25-foot tall milk bottle to launch it from, I don’t know.

*later that day*

OK, all festivals should require alcohol and high explosives in equal measure. Also, the entire world should take on the hospitality and generosity of the Laos, Vietnamese, Thai etc people. Yet again I found myself caught up with a bunch of locals heading off to celebrate something special to them. This has happened so many times in Asia (and Oz, and NZ, and …) that I have lost count.

We got a “lift” in one of the floats carrying a highly-decorated rocket. As payment we had to drink beer. Bugger, what a shame. We ended up doing a huge circuit around the town before being driven over to the river where the rocket launchings were taking place.

Guy Fawkes would have been embarrassed at this display of gunpowder-related weaponry. Hell, I think this is where Saddam Hussein “hid” the WMDs that the US couldn’t find. There was certainly enough firepower floating around the waterline here.

The rocket firings were more than impressive, even the ones that didn’t make it off the launch towers. Huge explosions of white smoke as ten people sat around the exhaust with their big signs saying who had made them. Mad. All of them. Like most SE Asians. And in such a great way!

Anyone who can spend a day getting drunk and launching plastic tubes into orbit (or into China depending on what angle the platform is at) is OK by me. Best of all, no month-long run-up where kids throw them at each other, no clampdowns, no need for “organised” displays… and no injuries. High explosives can be fun – if you’re country isn’t full of morons who don’t know how to handle them.

I like to ride my bicycle

A group of us had arranged to go tubing this afternoon, but late in the evening Nick (who runs the hostel) told us that the best time to start is morning as you can spend the whole day doing it. Instead, some of the girls went while Jo, Heather and I loafed around watching telly and catching up on emails. I’ll let you guess which one of us was online all day.

Eventually, we got off our collective backsides and hired mountain bikes for a little exploration of the surrounding area. For a whacking $2 apiece, we headed off in a random directions until we saw a small sign saving “cave”. Cool. Off we cycled.

After crossing fields, seeing splendid views, being stared at by buffalo/bison/big cow-ish things with scary horns, trusting our lives to rickety bamboo bridges and waving “sabadii” to small children we finally made it to the “cave”.

Someone had stolen it.

At least that’s how it appeared. There was a sign warning “STOP one people 10,000k”, a little seat where someone collecting money might sit, and a total lack of cave. We did explore a bit, but we just couldn’t find anything cavelike. A well, a shallow grave for a midget (empty) and some empty beer bottles but no cave. Maybe the guy packs it up and takes it home when he goes for the night.

We gave it our best, then mounted up and pushed back towards the main road and a guest house we’d spotted for a drink. While we sat and chewed the fat, the threatening rain clouds stopped threatening and instead opened. Heavily. We waited an hour and the rain only lessened slightly so we gave up and continued our ride in it.

To the edges of the town to a Shell station that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Iraq. Through the old air strip which is now used like a semi-road. Past a temple which looked half-completed and had market stalls and a small child’s train ride inside. And then we dropped the bikes off. We got about three hours for a whole pound and it’s only a shame that the weather stopped us having more fun.

The rain didn’t stop all night. We stayed in and watched bad films, ate full English’s for dinner (Jo’s second in a day – tut tut) and battered balls around on the pool table. Nice and relaxing, pretty much what Vang Vieng is famous for.

Vang Vieng, here I come

Yet another day on a bus. There’s a local service you can catch for as little as $1.50, but for a change I wanted to be sure I could stretch out and not play “battery hen” for three hours. As such I paid $6 and wasn’t disappointed with the experience.

The pickup was on time, the bus was pretty full and the Lao woman next to me spoke good English (acting as translator for many passengers) and had the most gorgeous 6-month-at-a-guess old son with her who giggled and smiled at me for the entire trip. Great kid. In between waving at him and poking his nose I managed to start, plough through and finish a James Patterson novel I picked up in Hanoi, and watch two more episodes of Heroes.

In Vang Vieng I hit a quandary. Everyone wanted me to stay at their place but I’d already booked a room at the Babylon Guest House courtesy of Abby’s recommendation. Thankfully, once again, Laos politeness took hold and even the jumbo/tuk-tuk drivers told me it was nearby and didn’t offer to drive me there for $10. I got chatting to two Dutch girls on the walk there, and met up with them later in the evening. In addition, as I arrived a gaggle of others turned up and we all sat around and had drinks into the late evening.

I’d make an effort to name everyone, but I’ve forgotten one or two names already. Give me a day or so to get them all down…

The food at the hostel/hotel/whatever is superb even if they order the pizzas out from somewhere else! Bia Lao is average price and the facilities top notch. I’ve not been beaten at pool yet. I’ve not playedpool yet, but let’s not get into details.

I type this, slightly sozzled and about to crash in bed after this first half-day here. There’s a fair whack to get involved in so I’ll just have to see how it goes here. We’re supposed to be tubing down the lake tomorrow but I guess that depends what time everyone surfaces! There’s caving, rock climbing, dirt biking and hiking to be done around here. And I have three to four days to do it all. I’m just glad it’s cheap.

Vientiane in a day

That’s a false statement. I did it in less than a day.

Laos is like Thailand in that all the people are friendly, helpful and – on the whole – honest. The language is also rather similar, with some of the bordering regiions understanding Thai mainly as a result of TV stations filtering over.

However, this is a much poorer country. It’s still developing in a way Thailand was maybe 10 years ago, but it’s catching up very quickly. Many of the main roads are “sealed” allowing quicker and safer transport along major routes. Telecommunications are to the state where low-speed but reliable broadband is available to most major cities. Water and electricity supplies are reliable to the same.

It sounds daft to point these things out, but Hans travelled here seven years ago and he quite frankly stated that the country was like a building site at the time. I’m glad to say that is has come along a bit since then.

Regardless, Vientiane isn’t particularly spectacular as a capital city. It has beautiful temples – but there are similar and larger in Thailand and Sri Lanka. There are cafes and restaurants and bars aplenty – but there are cheaper and more varied in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. For once I’ll definitely go with the advice of people I’ve met on the road – visit the place by all means, but only spend a day or so and then be on your way.

I had a nice plodge from the Vertical Runway (the local’s name for their grey version of the Arc de Triomphe, manufactured from concrete earmarked for an aiport) through the Morning Market (open all day), and past a variety of temples along the riverside back to the hotel. The river isn’t high right now – wrong season – and can, in fact, barely be seen. Actually, the entire place is quiet – the result of arriving off-season tourist wise.

Lunch was some delicious pork fried rice and veg at a place in the Market, and dinner was an utterly astounding chicken rogan josh from an Indian restaurant on Th Fa Ngum. The only cheeky thing was charging us for the bottle of water supplied before we started out meal and which we hadn’t asked for. Still, cracking food.

After that Jacob, Joseph and I wandered to the Music Bar (which has replaced the On The Rock pub listed in Lonely Planet) and found the karaoke to be dreadful, the band to be non-existant and the beer to be stupidly expensive. 18000Kip for a small Beer Lao when most places charge no more than 10000 for a large one spells “AVOID” in my book.

Instead, we walked to the other side of the street to the Tex Mex with its free pool table and 15000 jugs of bia Sót (draught beer) where we guzzled OH groups and played pool till… erm.. 10:30 when they shut.

Jacob had moved out, leaving Joseph and myself in the room for the night. In good spirit, he’d paid over the fair share for the beer to make up for our marginal ($1 each for crying out loud) increase in rent for the night. Got to love the Dutch – honest to a fault.