My finger is an idiot in Luang Prabang, an American crashes, we go down the Mekong and Nel doesn’t eat a buffalo

The last post wasn’t much good. The one I posted yesterday – or the day before depending on when I send this one. That was the one that I had to rewrite quickly after I accidentally deleted it with my big fat stupid idiot of a finger.
Honestly, that finger is a right effing knob sometimes and it’s not the first time it’s done something stupid neither, a couple of days ago it made my nose bleed.
There’s always one eh.

It’s in the high thirties again today. There was a storm late last night again, or it might have been Tom Jones shouting just outside our window. If it was he would have been very wet.

I was up at the crack this morning, having gone a bit easy on the Beerlao last night.
They sell it in big bottles, bigger than a pint and it’s around 80p in English. It’s made by Laos Shamen originally as a potion for making people look stupid. There’s some ingredients in it that block the nerve signals to your ankles and make your mouth babble.
Just a couple of bottles and you’re well on the way to being a young American.

There is a bakery at the end of this street and they sell good coffee and pastries, a legacy from the French times I expect.
Very often there are many young Americans sitting outside at the pavement tables, not smoking, and talking very loudly about how toadalee arsome everything is.
This very morning a young airhead turned up on a motorbike that she’d rented and sat wondering how to turn off the engine. Her friend explained about how ignition keys work to her and she joined them at a table loudly dribbling mouth manure in the croaky voice style that young American girls have adopted to make themselves look very silly.
Later, leaving a pool of idiocy on the floor by where she’d been sitting, she left on her rented bike looking not only silly but dangerous too. I commented to Nel that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she had an accident.
About five or six hours later, when we were walking back from a riverside cafe, we saw it happen, a couple of Laos kids hit the kerb hard. Happily they themselves didn’t hit the road, although their bike did they were able to step off it. The airhead though was getting up off the floor with her bike lying on the road.
She wasn’t badly hurt, and I don’t want to give the impression that I take any delight in her gravel rash but she really shouldn’t have got on that bike in the first place, not with her being so stupid.
I think the problem stems from the fact that she doesn’t realise what an idiot she is.
I imagine that accident will have cost her a lot of money. Toadalee arsome.

Not wanting to sound rabidly anti American, I will say that we’ve met some good ones. I liked American Erica, she’s a very kind hearted and thoughtful person, aand her fellow accidentee McKenzie was good fun too, and there were two lots of Americans in a place where we ate tonight who were able to speak at a level at which we couldn’t hear most of their conversation, but the young kids are just soo boorish.
That’s the word, boorish, a good old fashioned English word, loud and, like, stupid?
Mind, many young English are pretty similar. They all have copies of the Lonely Planet, but apparently have not read the bit about dressing appropriately in these conservative Buddhist countries. You get the feeling that they’re just here to party and update facebook with pictures of themselves going Aaaaaaaaaaargh that they’ve taken with their own iPhone and added the caption ‘arsome’ to.
And they’re a bit camp too, young English blokes are. I don’t want to sound too rabidly anti British, we’ve met some good British kids too.

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Yes, it was quite high

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You can see these at ground level too

We climbed a hill today. Not a massive one, the one in the middle of town opposite the palace with a little temple on top.
No, actually, come to think of it, it is pretty big, when I think of the views we had from the top it was bloody high.
You go into these temples – and this one was only little, and you sit down and look at the Buddha’s and wonder what’s the right things to do, and then some Asian people come in, and whether they’re young or old they kneel and touch the floor with their palms and their head and they light some incense.
Down at the bottomer bit there’s another temple that has a mural on the walls which is unlike anything we’ve seen so far. I didn’t know there is such a thing as Buddhist Hell but in amongst the scenes of tigers and elephants and people doing their daily stuff, and monks and rivers and fish there were also tortured figures grimacing and burning, with things that looked as though they’re designed for torturing people round their necks, and they were grimacing too. Well you would wouldn’t you? We’d not seen this sort of Heironymus   Bosch stuff before, but we got loads of pictures.

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A Buddhist mural. Baffling.

We ate pizza last night, we have the prospect of a long journey tomorrow and have concluded that it’s prudent to eat food that has a lesser likelihood of any unwanted consequences. We also depend on Imodium tablets. Just as a precaution.
We breezed into the night market where we didn’t get particularly hassled or harangued to buy anything. The ladies selling stuff are as often as not asleep or feeding children and don’t seem that interested in you, although they always seem very pleased and grateful when you *do* buy something.
Nel has been buying dresses and embroidered things, and you do have to bargain, the first price will be way too high and they will come down more than a third usually.
Laos people are much less materialistic than the Vietnamee but they will still get the best price that they can. They won’t try so hard as the Vietnamee though, and they won’t stand in front of you staring into your face for an hour until you feel like you will buy it to get rid of them.
Having said that, in Luang Prabang there are a handful of little girls who come around the restaurants with a tray of rubbishy things and tell you to please buy something so they can go to school. Sadly somebody has wised up and learned some tricks from the Vietnamee. This is a business and the kids are operated by bad men with remote controls from warehouses by the docks in New York probably. We don’t believe for an instant that they need the money for school books. They may get some money but I suspect that they don’t see much of it.
It’s quite obvious that in LP people are comparatively wealthy, many of them as well off as westerners. There are lots of new cars and expensive clothes around.

The night market almost exclusively sells tourist stuff. Massive baggy trousers, handmade shirts, slippers and embroidered things. Silver jewellery that may have some silver in it, bags and purses, silk scarves and coffee and I’ll bet much of it comes from China.
There’s a buffet where you can eat all you can stuff in your big puffy white face for a dollar and a bit too, but for the reasons stated above we went for a pizza.

There’s a cafe bar place by the market where we’ve sat most nights and watched the people going by or parking motorcycles in the middle of the road.
The market is closed, like the rest of Laos at ten, so it’s fun to watch how people pack up their entire stall, little gazebo an all into a tiny trailer that they pull behind their little motos.
Last night we got into conversation with a couple of Aussies, one of whom lives in Glastonbury and knows the Barge. They reckon they’re coming to visit this summer.

We left the bar at ten, when it shut and headed back to our room. Surprisingly there wasn’t a storm going on, and so, completely without good reason to, I left my packing til the morning.
I’d set my alarm good and earlyish, in time to pick up a tuk tuk at about seven because we’d had information that the journey to where the slow boat leaves from is forty minutes and that the boat leaves at eight.
Well maybe there are two departure points for the boat, that wouldn’t surprise me.
We’d been to see a couple or three travel agents and been quoted a great deal of money for the journey to Houay Xie, from where you can cross the Thai border. In many instances you can get yourself to where you need to be and buy your tickets there, in this instance, for instance saving ourselves the twenty dollars or more that the agents take as a fee.
So this morning, I heaved myself up at the crack again, and after a cigarette and ten minutes of trying to wake Nel I hurriedly packed my bag, paid our bill for the five nights and and we set out to find a tuk tuk to take us to the pier.
That’s not so difficult because in LP, like in Thailand or Cambodia, the drivers hang around where the tourists are, ready to yell ‘tuk tuk sir!’ at you. For once, yes, thanks and we arrived down at the pier before the bloody ticket office was even open. We could have had breakfast and still got here on time.
Being early did mean that we got to choose a seat well away from the engine, which is annoyingly loud even from here. It also meant that we could see the early morning movements of the crew of a big cargo boat floating by us as we sat waiting.
Many other clever, clever people had not bothered with the travel agents and we left about nine. The first overnight stop is at a place called Pakbeng, or something, and it’s about eight or nine hours away. At this moment we’re about half way I think.

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Raining on the Mekong

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Hiding from it

About an hour into the journey we rounded a bend and saw the sky ahead of us was like the wrath of god. The temperature dropped quickly, the wind got up and rain began to fall.
Quite suddenly there was a gale blowing and the pilot headed for the bank. All us passengers began hurriedly pulling down the plastic sheeting to keep the rain out, which was now banging down pretty hard. The wind was rattling the metal sheets of the roof and we sat tight til the worst of the rain was done and the wind was howling slightly less fearsome.
We were tied up there for about 30 minutes or so before the pilot carried on and it was another 30 minutes or so before the rain had eased off enough to pull the sheets back and have a look at the world.
The world is made from rocks and mountains and water. It is here at any rate and we’re powering forward at about fifteen to twenty knots I reckon, definitely fast enough to pull a skier. This boat is about a hundred feet long and about ten feet wide and we’re on the Mekong going against the stream. It has a big engine or we’d be making on progress at all. We hit shallows where the water races and froths over submerged rocks and occasionally the river narrows so that the speed of the flow is against us and we make less progress, but it is relentless.
We’ve stopped twice to let off a young monk and some other people at villages on the way but the landscape doesn’t ever open up.
It’s not like the Thames, this Mekong, you don’t get views over lush farmland. In fact you can’t see England at all from here, no. Even at the villages the huts are built in the forest and the only places where the forest dies back are the places that have been cleared for planting.
I’d always thought slash and burn describes going for a pee pee when you’ve got a bladder infection but I’ve found out recently that it’s the name given to describe the agricultural methods employed here. Areas of forest are cleared of trees and burned, or maybe it’s the other way round and it’s burned and then cleared.
I say this because you see people in villages carrying charred timber and getting their clothes really dirty doing it.
Anyway, these are areas of steep hillside that you often see blackened and with a hut built in the middle. These huts are there because the burned areas are so steep and inaccessible it’s probably easier to stay there while you’re planting rice than to climb up again the next day. They’re so steep in fact that were they in Britain there would be a hundred Gloucester men chasing a cheese down them and they’d never get around to planting.
They do this slash and burn thing on a six year cycle and god only knows how they harvest the rice but you can often see patches that have been left alone to grow, turning back into forest.
Somebody told us that they plant mountain rice, which needs less water and I suppose the reason why the Lao never stepped the landscape and formed rice paddies as the Vietnamee did is lost way back in the depths of the very beginning of time, or even longer.
About eighty percent of Lao employment is subsistence farming, although I think mostly people live along the rivers and lots of them spend much of their time fishing. They gather what they call Mekong seaweed, which tastes like watercress, in fact they know a lot more about harvesting what’s around than we do and you often see people gathering plants at the roadside.

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Mekongy views

We’re just getting into the rainy season now and so the water is low. By the looks of the banks it gets a lot higher, to the treeline but now there are rocks and light brown sand beaches exposed where water buffalo wade.
There is concern for the way the river will be affected when more dams are built but I doubt if many of the population know much about it.
Lao’s main economic strategy is building more hydroelectric dams so they can sell power to surrounding countries. We can assume it won’t be a good thing for the river.
It’s ten to five now and we must be getting close to Pakbeng, we’ve been going for eight hours and I should be excited about boating down the Mekong but it’s really just been eight hours of more mountains. I think we’re probably a bit bored now.

We got to Pakbeng after six, just before the sun menu down.
Nel had found a place online called Vatsanna, or something, and in a happy little ping of fate, a woman stood at the top of the steps touting for Vatsanna. Happier still, she had a Songthaew and drove us straight there, up the hill past the sweating and panting people who’d just got off the same boat as we had.
Nel had buffalo for dinner. Well she would have, had she been able to chew it, which she wasn’t.
We struck up conversation with a Welsh lawyer and a German banker and a Laos boy who had got off a boat going in the opposite direction and I actually had a fun time despite there being a Welsh lawyer and a German banker there.
The Laos kid, called Neow, or something spoke very good English but told very bad jokes. I asked him about the dams project and he said that people will be poorer, except for a few rich people who will be richer. Same same.
He said that the surrounding countries are angry because it will directly affect the water supply of Thailand and Cambodia.
The dams are being built by the Chinese, who have massive investment and interests in this whole region. I think we can see who’ll who any argument.

The boat today is a little slower than yesterday’s and we’re scheduled to arrive at Houay Xie at six, in four and a half hours.
I might be wrong about this but I think we’re going slowly so that we miss the last bus to Chiang Mai and have to overnight. I also think that I’m wrong about being on the Mekong, I’ve just looked on the map so forget I mentioned it.
Oh no, we are on the Mekong but that’s not Thailand on the left. That’s my stupid finger pointing wrong at the map.

There are nets rigged everywhere down the river, hung from bamboo poles that are wedged into the rocks and kept in place by strings tied between rocks and the bamboo. Water buffalo and goats and pigs and skinny looking cattle, the kind of cattle you see on tv (television) programmes about Africa range on the banks. They must belong to somebody, but often there are no houses in sight. 
Smooth round rocks lie in manyness along the banks, and the sand beaches and dunes are temporary. When the rains come again, the sand will wash downstream and the rocks will be submerged, the river will be 6 or 7 meters higher and quite a lot wider.
Nature seems so much bigger than I’d realised. Apart from the village we stayed in last night I don’t think we’ve seen a permanent structure for two days, no vehicles apart from boats and barely a dustspeak size part of the landscape has even been scratched by man.
Somebody living here would be entirely sane to believe that there’s no way that man can hurt nature, so small is he against the hills it would be like an ant trying to knock down an elephant by flicking bogeys at it.

The river has widened now and, three hours after my earlier schoolboy error, we are indeed closer to Thailand on the left bank than Laos on the right and we’re now not so far from the Golden Triangle, which I doubt will be gold, or triangular. It’s viewpoint where Burma joins the Laos/Thai border and it’s where opium comes from.
Even from here, Thailand looks more affluent. The houses look as though they’d survive the big bad wolfs’ shenanigans and we can see cars. On the Laos side there’s trees.

The landscape has opened up and for the first time since Hanoi we can look about and not see a mountain. In one direction anyway.
‘Go on, sod off you big green bullies!’

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