Monday, 30 June 2008

Go wild in the country!

Everything happens at a slower pace in Laos. There is no rush to do anything or be anywhere. It is far too hot to zip about like a mad Brit for one thing but it is also not the Laos way. The people really are quite gentle in their manner. Even in the tourist spots like Luang Prabang and Ventiane there was nothing like the hard sell of Chinese business. Tuk tuk drivers would make a plea for your custom in an almost apologetic whisper. The word on everyone's lips is 'sabaidee' - Laos for 'hello' and the ubiquitous mantra welcoming tourists everywhere. We loved Laos but we never felt we dug our nails very deep under its surface. After 'Zee Akha Experience' in the north it was difficult to get a true picture of everyday life outside of the tourist areas. It is a very rural and poor country but at the same time has a wealth of resources we might think of as exotic. Take your pick from pineapples, mango trees, banana trees, dragon fruit and daily fruitshakes made with condensed milk - sometimes with lao lao (Laos rice wine) for more of a cocktail kick to you healthy tonic.
I can't actually remember what we did half of the time. In Luang Prabang we had fun on the cookery course at Tum Tum Cheng restaurant. So called because that is the sound of the drum and cymbal from the Buddhist monastries. We visited the market to find produce and then learned how to make things like sticky rice and fish wrapped and steamed in banana leaves.

At night you would sit and listen to the array of noises in the trees and the gawping "gecko" of the gecko lizard. Kathy loves lizards. She has spent a lot of time admiring, chasing and attempting to catch them. There is a fantastic old photo of Kathy aged about 2 or 3 on her mum's bedroom wall. She is sitting next to a bucket and her eyes are wide open and bright with mischief and fun. When Kathy spots a lizard she has exactly the same look. She pauses, eyes lock on to their target and then she is off, darting after the speedy reptile with both hands scooped infront of her. The fact that she is in the middle of the market surrounded by people and turned 30 years of age does not deter her from her mission.
Laos was also where started having funky dreams from our anti-malarial tablets 'larium'. We take them once a week on a Wednesday and every Wednesday evening we strap our minds in, not sure what awaits us on the other side when we close our eyes. They are vivid, technicolour, full screen hollywood productions that range from action/adventure to sweat drenched horror flicks. Once a week is enough.
When we got to the town of Pakse we decided it was time to break free from the relaxation mould. We hired a moped and headed for the Bolaven plateau, home to coffee plantations and stunning waterfalls. Of course, neither of us had ever ridden a motorbike before. We both like to brag about our dads having had motorbikes as young men (when cool biking references are needed to make up for our own lack of experience). When my mum and dad were 'courting', they used to go around on the motorbike together. But our 100cc Honda scooter wasn't anything like the Norton or Royal Enfield of my dad's days. Downhill at over 50km/hr and you began to feel like you were really motoring, just as boys and girls (aged 8) flew past you screaming 'HELLO!'. The real art to riding a motorbike in Laos is in how many people or goods you can fit onto it. It is not unusual to see as many as 5 people (3 adults, 2 children) perched on the saddle. We managed to fall off only once - skiting across a muddy path at 5km/hr it was nothing serious. But it did get us out into the country and away from the fruitshakes of the tourist trail. We saw some amazing waterfalls, tasted some fresh Arabica Laos coffee and spent the night 80km away from Pakse in one of the cheapest but nicest guesthouses of our time in Laos. After 2 days on the bike, we came back refreshed, invigorated, ordering beerlao instead of fruitshakes (the national beer in Laos is very, very good and has a greater monopoly on the national psyche than our own Tenants lager) and seriously thinking about investing in leathers and Iron Maiden t-shirts when we return to Glasgow. Although, Kathy says she would prefer a pink scooter...

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