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Monday 3rd December

It was our last day. We were to leave at 3.00 pm. Having packed our bags we went down to our last breakfast with Bruce, he was not going to leave until the next day.

Breakfast over and having vacated our room, we set off for our last visit to town.

it was obviously wash day at the temple…… it was Monday after all!

The road of the night market looks very different in the day. It is quite a wide road. Tuk tuk’s sit patiently and colourfully waiting for customers.

We decided to investigate the far end of the road where the old colonial buildings are. It is also the location of the specialist and more up market shops and restaurants.

Some side streets….

We had a lovely morning looking at textiles and paintings.

I have also to report one or two more costly investments……. Laos is generally very light on the purse to visit. Food is very cheap and eating out amazingly good value.

For our final meal we went to the Bamboo Tree, a restaurant recommended by Yael, one of the Western Australia trip members. It was excellent and we had a wonderful final repast.

Suitably fed and watered, we took a tuk tuk back to the hotel.

There was just a bit of time to take a few photographs of the hotel gardens and the view across the river of the gardens on the other side of the river, in the sunshine……..

It was time to go. A great and colourful holiday was over……

Sunday, 2nd December

One of the highlights of Luang Prebang is the morning Sai Baat, the ritual arms giving that takes place before dawn each morning. In Luang Prebang itself, 400 monks process from the Wat or temple to collect food from the waiting people. To attend this we were going to have to leave the hotel at 4.30. On hearing there was a mini session of this alms giving taking place around the corner from us, Denise and I decided to go for the smaller, more intimate experience!

We left our room at 5.45 am and headed along the lane to the main road where we had been told the monks would come at round 6.00. What we, of course, had not taken into account was that at 6 o’clock it was pitch dark! ๐Ÿ˜ณ Nevertheless, not to be found wanting, we took up our position at what we thought must be the temple. Sure enough there in the gloom we could just make out the outline of two women, seated on stools waiting for the monks arrival. Well we rather assumed that was what they were doing, given there was not much else going on. Apart from the occasional dog going past and the even more occasional early morning tuk tuk. We stood there in the quiet for several minutes before we heard the rustle of more people joining those already seated. Further along the road another cluster of would be alms givers were gathering. The monks were not going to go hungry this morning!

Just after 6.00 about five monks approached from the right. We were standing, trying to look inconspicuous (why had I taken it into my head to wear white trousers!?!) on the opposite side of the road. The monks silently bent to take the offerings and then, standing to the left of the assembled almsgivers chanted for a short time. It was a lovely moment in the light of the building behind them.

During the lull in proceedings we decided to cross the road to stand in a side street near where the other group of almsgivers were seated. Within a few minutes more monks processed past, each silently bending to take the food and then moving off, taking the turning opposite us and heading off down the road. There was no chanting this time. Just, perhaps, 20 saffron robed figures walking off into the dark.

Amazing. It was not the major event of the town promenade, but we felt we had a private viewing of an age old event. It felt quite special.

Arriving back at the hotel, Denise returned to bed for an hour and I took up my ipad to write, as a dedicated scribbler. It is the best time of the day to do my blog as the Wi-fi, somewhat up and down at best, is more likely to work.

We met our remaining travellers at breakfast. Young Sarah was off to spend a morning with elephants and we were taking Bruce, keen photographer, off to town for a bit of sightseeing.

Luang Prebang used to be the royal capital of Laos. Once again it sits at the confluence of two rivers – the much mentioned Mekong and the Nam Khan which runs passed our hotel. The city was pronounced a World Heritage location in 1995 because of its beautifully preserved colonial buildings. It had a monarchy until this was dissolved in 1975, the last King and Queen being held prisoner in a cave in the north east of the country until they died in the early 1980’s. Like Cambodia it has had to pay homage to both Vietnam and Siam and was later under the authority of the French whose legacy, in addition to the old buildings, would seem to be wonderful French bread!!

It is a very clean and bustling place, without the tension that seemed to be associated with – say – Pnom Penh in Cambodia. It has some wonderful architecture and Buddhist temples.

Our first stop was the local market. Very different from the night market, this is where the locals shop. There were pink eggs…..

There were raw innards……

….and innards cooked

There was local algae……..

Herbs

Spices

Unknown things…..?

……and religious offerings.

There were little old ladies……

And cheeky boys

It was great fun!!

Leaving the market behind we first found the palace, now a museum. The lilies in the pond were beautiful

(Arty shot!)

It had a temple in the grounds of some magnitude.

We then headed up the steps to the Stuppa which can be seen for miles around as it towers over the town. There were a lot of steps up to the top and an equal amount of camaraderie amongst the clamberers as we made slow progress up to the top.

When we got there, there was a stall selling little finches in tiny cages. It is thought to be lucky to set these little birds free. We wanted to free them all! In the end we set four free. They were so pleased to escape their minuscule baskets, not above nipping those trying to set the free!!

Having looked down on views of the city from every angle,

we walked back down the steps and rewarded ourselves with a snack and a beer. After this, the afternoon turned out to be a many templed affair, I can hear Keith groan!

At the day of this road we came to the confluence of the two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Kamh and decided to have a beer and watch the river traffic.

Our thorough investigation of the religious houses of Luang Prebang, culminated in visiting the oldest temple in the city dated 1650.

It was exceptional in its decoration. Unfortunately by this time I was running out of charge, which has saved the world and my blog from a lot of photographs, but I managed one or two of what I thought to be the really special bits. This temple used to be used by the royal family until 1975 and they had endowed some special pieces. I particularly liked the Tree of Life and a collage showing rural life. Of course it had its usual gold trappings too…….

Eventually templed out, we took a tuk tuk back to the hotel, where we had agreed to meet Sarah to go to eat after a bit of retail therapy in the night market. ๐Ÿ˜ณ The previous night had been a sort of reconnaissance mission!

We set out again on the hotel’s courtesy bus around 6.00 and were into the fray by 6.15. It was great fun. It is a big market and it took time. Nevertheless, as agreed, we met up again at 7.30 to decide who was going to be blest with providing our repast. We did not make a good choice. Of all the lovely places to eat, we chose badly. It had all the disaster combinations – poor service, delayed meal, over cooked, further requests for additional food not met. Slightly disappointed, we returned to the hotel. Not an ideal ‘Last Supper’.

Agreeing to meet for a final breakfast the next day, we adjourned to bed.

Saturday, 1st December

I woke up before it was light to a cacophony of cocks crowing. There are chickens everywhere in Laos and we have seen some very fine cockerels strutting about or under large cloches made of open basket work. Cock fighting is still s legal sport in Laos.

We had our breakfast on the hotel’s terrace looking over the Nam Khan River.. unfortunately it was quite a dull morning (our first), but you could see people working in the fields opposite.

Our first outing of the day was to the Museum of Anthropology, which was really interesting. We were given a short talk by the manager, a dapper young man who spoke very good English. He explained that the Hmong and Kmhmu people we have come across in our travels are just two of the ethnic groups making up the population of Laos, there are another two groups and many more splinter groups.

All have their own distinct culture and the museum is keen to encourage young people to take an interest in their heritage and continue the traditions. A key part of this is the ceremonial clothing. There were some splendid and beautifully worked garments on display.

Kmhmu

Hmong

We had seen young girls working on their embroidery in the villages, in preparation for their marriage. Apparently as part of this they and the female members the family will all work on the bedding which the bride should have prepared. Obviously no John Lewis wedding list here!

Unfortunately we did not have as much time as we would have liked here. There were some wonderful exhibits on display, including the basketry of the Kmhmu people (very dear to my heart!)

And musical instruments.

The inevitable museum shop had some wonderful pieces for sale. The museum supports the women to continue to make things in their traditional way not only to maintain their cultural skills but to provide them with an independent income. Obviously this is not so evidently needed in the cities, but in the rural areas you can see that it would be a real contribution to a family income.

Reluctantly leaving the Museum behind, we took quite a long tuk tuk ride into the country to see the famous Kuang Si waterfalls. These are about 50 minutes outside of town and are approached by the usual avenue of food stalls when you near the site.

I have to say that cooking seems at least one tradition of the Laos people that shows little sign of abating!!

En route to the waterfalls you pass through a bear rescue sanctuary. Apparently there are bears in Laos, poached for their saliva. This often leaves cubs without their mother and the rescue centre had a number of bears who seemed reasonably happy in their semi native setting. Most there had been rescued very young and had no experience of life in the wild so hopes of re integrating them into their natural habitat are quite slim which is a shame.

I felt I could really relate to this last one – it is probably how I would react with a lot of people peering at me!

We wandered up the muddy path ( it had rained over night) and soon reached the lowest pool. The colour of the water is due to a chemical reaction apparently (the scientifically inclined amongst us will know more…… I just thought it was visually pleasing and slightly unusual).

It got more and more impressive as we worked our way up to the top …..

It was a roaring force not to be stopped. I can’t begin to imagine what it is like in the Monsoon. You could swim in the lower pools and our swimmers took advantage of the opportunity.

We wondered back down and had lunch from the stalls of the ever patient ladies at the bottom of the falls and then went off to the butterfly farm a little way away. This was a quiet and gentle oasis compared to the torrent not a kilometre away. The contrast was somehow typical of what we have found in Laos generally. The forceful and the gentle.

The butterflies were fascinating and very beautiful, but quite beyond my photographic capabilities. I did my best….

Not only were the butterflies beautiful, I learnt a lot about butterfly life that I did not know. A really interesting visit.

However, it was time to return to the City and just time to freshen up before we took to the centre of town and the famous (well famous here!) night market. Every afternoon between 4.00 and 10.30 the whole centre of town becomes a night market selling everything from food (inevitably!) to paintings, to clothes, to lanterns, wood and weaving. It is a colourful joy.

After a rummage here we met the group for what was effectively the last time we would all be together. The group was going separate ways – to Thailand, Sri a Lanka, Vietnam and for us eventually home. Flights rather dictated a delay for us, so we will leave on Monday.

A picture will follow here when available!

After goodbyes were said it was off to bed early. It is an early rise for monks tomorrow.

Friday, 30th November

We set off at 8.00 on the journey which was to take us to Luang Prebang, until the 16th century, the capital of Laos.

For the first hour our route was reasonably flat as we worked our way across the valley to the mountains beyond. Our mini bus was much more comfortable and was for our private use, so we had a bit more space and the road was surfaced.

We stopped when we came to a bridge in a small town. The scenery was spectacular.

And there were a lot of large carp below us. These are considered sacred here and it is thought particularly lucky for you if you feed them first thing in the morning. Outcome – some very large fish swimming handily under the bridge!

I am afraid my limited lens does not do them justice….. take it from me there were a lot and they were big!

We had a funny incident here. The Korean ladies – I think they might have been the same ones who were at the waterfall the day before – appeared on the bridge just as we were leaving and one of them was taking a photograph of the group. Being my usual helpful self, I offered to take over the photography๐Ÿ˜. It was not until I had taken the first shot that I realised they were taking it the wrong way! I had my back to the beautiful scenery and the backdrop to their photograph was a very fresh building site! Maybe it is a Korean thing ๐Ÿ˜ณ. In any event, I was not having that and soon ushered them over to the correct side of the bridge and they had the beautiful view in the background. Little Miss Helpful as always!!

We set off again. We began to climb and the road began to deteriorate although the effect was far less in our healthily sprung vehicle. The road also started to zig zag dramatically to accommodate the steepness of the incline. It went on and on and the views became better and better. A feature of the day were the houses along the roadside, often almost suspended over the edge of the cliff it seemed – but they had amazing views!! Not much help though if there was a subsidence I thought!

We again came across major earth works. The Chinese and their railway again. It is to be an express route between the major cities. I could not help but feel that the village communities that we were passing would have no real benefit from it, even when it was built. It would not be stopping at the sleepy hollows but would loudly rush past taking people to and from a world that these rural folk can only imagine.

There are two main groups of people living up here. The Hmong and the Kmhmu. The Hmong tend to live on the top of the mountain and descend a bit to do their farming. They are lighter of face and more Chinese looking. The Kmhmu live lower down the mountainside and go up to do their farming. They tend to be slightly darker skinned. Both communities seem to co exist happily and both have their own cultures. There are no temples here. The people believe in spirits and turn for support in times of crisis and ill health on their shaman.

The morning wore on as we dozed and watched the scenery unfold in turns. Often we were caught in a line behind lorries and tankers as they made the laborious climb, gears crunching. There is only one road and everything travelling between Vientiane and Luang Prebang has to use it. Overtaking is a dangerous business. A sheer limestone wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other.

We eventually stopped for an early lunch at a restaurant near a community at the top of a particularly arduous ascent. We had seen the red roof of the restaurant in the distance for some time. We were so lucky that it was a glorious day. We were surrounded by mountains and green hills. Even the loo had a view!

The scene from the top was quite breathtaking!

It got better of course with us in it!

We set off again. Although there were still some ‘up’s’, we were in reality beginning our long descent into Luang Prebang. And it was to be a long one. A very long one. After travelling for about half an hour, we came to a road closed sign and lots of big diggers in our path. They were repairing a land slip that had occurred during the big rains. Best estimate of the time before we could pass was an hour and a half. In the event it was nearer two.

There was nothing for it but to wait. There was a small village a few hundred yards back, so we wandered back up the road to see what we could see. The village was a small ribbon community, rehoused from the top of the mountain to bring the people nearer to the facilities available in the area – there was a school, a tap and access to medical help. I always wonder at the element of choice in these moves. I fear there was none. There were very few people about. Despite the steepness of the terrain, the people Farm these remote locations and everyone was out working. Unbelievably hard work it must be too. Apparently peanuts are a major crop and there were some drying….

That is a very small pig walking through them!

We also saw tobacco drying on the top of a healthy looking wood store

The housing was a mix of breeze block buildings and bamboo and straw. The outlook was amazing.

It was all very photogenic, but I fear it is a hard life.

A banana flower

Aubergine drying for seed……

……. the herb garden

This was clinging to the side of the road!

After our sightseeing interlude, we wandered back to the bus, which had been joined by a long line of frustrated travellers, all approaching the hold up in their own way.

Eventually we set off again, this time in a caravan of vehicles. One or two death defying overtaking later and we were bowling along again.

Our final stop of the day was at a Hmong village, obviously used to foreign visitors. The children soon gathered, but no one begs and all are willing to be photographed. Some older girls were working on their needlework. This is a key issue in their marriage process. Apparently you start the needlework very young and it seems girls are chosen to be wives not only on their looks but also for their prowess with the needle. I would have been single for an even longer time had this been a prerequisite in England methinks!!!

Then there were the children……..

Most were very happy to have their photo taken, particularly if you showed them their picture afterwards!

Others were a bit shy……

One was having a haircut…..

The street where they lived……

The school…….

The view from the village.

We got back on the bus to continue our journey.

We just managed a post sunset shot en route –

And then it was all steam ahead for Luang Prubang which we reached around 7.00. pm. Our hotel is a little way outside of the city centre, so it was a bowl of soup in the hotel and then bed after a bit of recovery time. We start a city tour at 9.00 am. tomorrow. This tour is not for the faint hearts!!

Thursday, 29th November

Having thought about it overnight, I have to report that your blogger ‘wimped out’ of the bicycle ride. I know. I felt a real light weight. But take a stony road, hills and a mountain bike with gears (my sit up and beg bike only has 3!) I saw a disaster in the making, so I opted out and joined Denise in the support vehicle. All things considered, a good move.

It was a bit overcast when we left centre ville, but the day brightened and warmed up quite quickly. We sat in the back of the truck that followed the cyclists to provide water and comfort, should the need arise. This was definitely ‘tour de Laos’ rather than ‘Tour de France’!! The whole enterprise seemed a source of complete mystery to the locals!

I think it is well worth dwelling on the villagers for a moment. Rice seems to be the main crop. As the rice harvest has taken place the fields are full of dry straw. Although town dwellers tend to have perhaps three children, in rural communities large families of perhaps 5 and 6, may be more, are still common we were told. Children being a good source of labour. In addition, there being no pension provision, children are relied upon to look after their aged parents. A good number of children spread the load of responsibility. Old people are respected and cared for. The children we saw all looked happy enough, tumbling with the dogs, cats and chickens in the dust around most houses.

We travelled up through a couple of villages out into the farmland beyond for about 7 kms. It was a very bumpy ride for us in the truck and it proved impossible to take many photographs because you could not keep your hands still, as we lurched along – swerving to avoid the biggest potholes and clattering across the narrow wooden bridges that spanned the streams and water ways.

At one stage we came across some major earthworks. These were part of the the new press railway line the Chinese are financing and building. The trouble of these ventures is that rather than giving work or trade to the local people, the Chinese provide all their own resources – manpower, machinery and equipment so it contributes nothing to the local economy.

The view from our perch in the back of the truck – on a less bumpy bit!

We eventually arrived at the nearest you can get to the Kuang Nyui Waterfall we were visiting. Our cyclists dismounted and we clambered out. Passing the usual gastronomic opportunity, plus puppy, we set out to clamber up the hill.

We started up the track, crossing a very wobbly bridge, even in Laos terms – planks shot up as you put your foot on them and the whole thing swayed from side to side!

The route took us up and through some pretty dense vegetation and then down again to an even more precarious looking bridge, but by now we could hear the roar of the water and see it tumbling over the rock above us.

I think it is difficult to capture a waterfall on a photograph as it is a roaring, living thing, too active to be represented in a still photograph. The Korean ladies who had passed me on the track were all very happily being soaked by the force of the downpour and gave some size perspective……..

Eventually the Asian representatives and their shrieking left and our little party took their turn,

Bruce and I performed paparazzi duty! There is nothing like a bit of water to give people pleasure. Somehow I have never been a Water Baby!

There was another, much more gentle pool on the way back where more bathing took place, before we left it to its quiet babbling. Laos generates a lot of hydro electric power in its towering limestone mountains and now sells it to its neighbours less blest.

We wandered back down to the vehicles, buying drinks on the way to support the small local community.

There were not quite so many cyclists on the way back. Bruce and Sarah had joined the support party and their bicycles were expertly tied on the roof.

Denise taking her duties seriously!

It was such a lovely meander back stopping for photos of water buffaloes

Pigs

And just views!

Back in the city we had our first free time of the holiday. Denise and I just lunched on a few cashews and nibbles and had a rest before setting out for an afternoon stroll.

We crossed the river on a very long and wobbly bridge amazingly shared by pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. In the usual way, the bridge swayed and the planks flexed as weight fell on them. I am sure they have been safe for years, but still felt happier when we had reached the other side!

The south side of the river it was much less developed, with hotel buildings much more in the local style.

Looking across back to the north side, buildings were multi floored and you could see the Vang Viang of the future. In fact it is a town with something of a darker recent past. Some years ago it became something of a backpackers paradise, situated as it is on the Nam Song river, in a beautiful valley about halfway between Vientiane and Luang Prebang. To some extent it became a victim of its own success. In addition to the backpackers who had found an inexpensive, beautiful location that provided kayaking, swimming caving and rock climbing it also attracted bars and restaurants including such niceties as magic mushrooms and marijuana infused pizzas. Unfortunately, it deteriorated into a place of drunkenness, drugs and debauchery by all accounts and when this was mixed with the outdoor pursuits and a number of people died, embassies started to register it as a dangerous place to go. Eventually the Government cracked down and closed some of the more hard core rave bars, started to enforce the drug laws and closed down the more dangerous activities. Vang Vieng had cleaned up its act and become a more respectable tourist location again. Since then it has grown rapidly with, it would appear, little deference to its cultural roots to n terms of buildings.

For us it was an enjoyable walk along the river. We passed cows and strollers and the inevitable cooking…

A lady was building a new fence to keep in her herd….

Someone was painting boats ready for the new season…….

At the end of road we turned inland and walked through a local community. We could see inside some houses.

Food stalls abounded and chicken feet were readily available for the discerning eater!

Back over another bridge, we watched the days balloon flights going over,,,,,, this bridge did offer at least a bit of protection from falling into the water!

Back on the night market street, young women were setting up their market stalls, babies attached. All happy, albeit shyly, for us to show an interest in their offspring.

We had agreed to meet the rest of the crowd at The Elephant Crossing again and spent a jolly evening together before adjourning to bed. It is the 8 hour journey to Luang Prebang tomorrow – advertised as being another bumpy ride but with bends (๐Ÿ˜ณ) as we cross the mountain range that lies between us and it.

Wednesday, 28th November

Foregoing the opportunity of travelling by local bus because it was described as ‘too bumpy’ – I, of course, would have preferred this as providing ‘local colour’! – we took the ‘smoother’ option of a shared mini bus. As the other occupants were already on board when it arrived to collect us, we took up the four seats in the back. Our luggage was hoisted on the roof and we were off.

All went well until we got out of Vientiane. Our route took us down to the Mekong River where we took our last look at Thailand before turning away and heading out of the town. There was a short stop at the bus station when we feared that more passengers would be boarding (the mini bus was full in our terms!) but thankfully this was not the case and we were soon on the road to Vang Vieng. It was not long before before we realised that the suspension in our ‘smoother’ vehicle was more or less non existent. In these circumstances the back seat was probably the worst place to be. The road, although mostly tarmaced, had obviously been very badly affected by the rains, to the extent that there were vast tracts of just compacted stones and major pot holes. Before long we were being tossed around, leaving our seats and then descending back on to them with something of a bump (for which read thud!). We were hanging on to the handle on the seat in front for dear life as a way of containing our levitation. The journey was to take three and a half hours. The driver was obviously keen to get on (๐Ÿ˜ณ) and seemed to gleefully look upon every opportunity to pass the vehicle in front as a challenge to his standing in the racing world. We hurtled up behind things and just before the oncoming vehicle was perhaps a few yards away from it, he would overtake. This added lurching to the bouncing. People were beginning to look rather uncomfortable and I was just thanking my lucky stars for the gene pool that gave me a cast iron stomach.

After an hour we stopped at the local ‘services’. I denied myself the opportunity to use the facilities and instead took a few pictures, it not being possible to take any on the bus as the windows were dirty and I am lacking a sports programme on my ‘phone, which would have been the only thing to accommodate the movement!

On consulting our guide we were reassured that we had done the easier part of the journey. The road was going to get really bad now. And so it did. For the next 2 hours. However, what it was getting was higher and eventually we were in the mountains and despite the discomfort of the ride, we had to acknowledge that the scenery was quite beautiful.

We arrived at the hotel about 1.30. We were stiff from the journey and collapsed on the seats provided outside the hotel, thankful to have arrived in one piece. Shoes had to removed before entering, but we were eventually safely in a beautifully sunny room, where we munched a few nuts and rested until 2.45 when were off out again, this time to a cave.

Vang Vieng seems more of a village than a town and nestles in a valley more or less surrounded by mountains. We wandered down the main street where there was a lot of building going on. I thing Vang Vieng has been discovered and is building to accommodate the inrush of guests. I am glad to be here now. I think putting your rice out to dry in front of your house could soon become a thing of the past.

Turning off down a side road towards the river, smoke spiralled up from a bonfire in a lush green landscape whiile jagged topped, grey mountains loomed overhead.

The rice harvest is now over and the rice straw remains….

We continued down the track until we reached the river, here a wooden bridge with bright orange paint took us wobbling across the river, it’s wooden slats showing varying degrees degrees of spring, making walking a little uncertain, but the views were amazing.

The air is clear and crisp and everything feels so much fresher. The humidity is gone and though it is still very warm, it is much more comfortable. As we neared the cave there were the inevitable food stalls. You could graze here all day! Some of the things we tasted. All seemed very sweet versions of rice.

This one involved bee larvae……..

….. and these were medicinal mushrooms. It is alleged.

I have to admit, with apologies to any cave dwellers or potholers reading, that caves do not do a lot for me. I am sorry but there it is. I particularly don’t like those with fluorescent lighting of various hues rendering them more like Santa’s grotto than a wonder of nature. This one had the added disadvantage of being reached by a large number of steep steps. Nevertheless, in the interests of the party, I duly clambered up – with, I have to say, more zeal than some of my compatriots which is pleasing in my old age – and joined in the outing.

Nature at its best!

Grrrrrr!

The reveal at the end of the tunnel was a wonderful panorama…..

We returned through the tunnel and out to the river where there was a lady fishing.

We wandered back up the road towards the town….. please note the elephant clothing. Local brew!

On the way back, Bruce purchased his favourite variety of pancake – banana, cheese and egg. Not a combination I would recommend!!

The sun began to go town as we wandered up the town and a few balloons appeared overhead. We went to sit on the balcony of the Elephant Crossing Hotel to watch the sun go down over the river.

It seemed rude not to take advantage of their ‘happy hour’ offer – two cocktails for the price of one. I had two ‘Frogs’

Which was a combination of cucumber, mint, gin and tonic, all taken through a very eco friendly bamboo straw. All very satisfactory……

Tomorrow it is the cycle trip to the waterfall. Perhaps I will and perhaps I won’t!

Tuesday, 28th November

Well, here we are in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Breakfast was served on the top floor of our hotel, which gave us a birds eye view of the city. We have to have a local guide here and at 9.30 we set off with him to see some sites.

Our first impression was of a much less frenetic city than Pnom Penh. Many roads had the French boulevard feel and there was a lot less traffic. Having said this, the overhead wiring was more reminiscent of Delhi!

How does anything work!?!

We saw the presidential palace, which looked almost untouched by human hand

And then crossed the road to a Buddhist Monastery now used as a museum. The city of Vientiane was razed to the ground in the 1800’s and this was the only building left standing.

The complex is quite large and passing through a tall outer wall, we found ourselves in a well tended garden interspersed with gold coloured shrines.

An inner gate took us into the main ‘business’ area. The large temple was surrounded by covered niched cloisters.

We were lucky to arrive when we did and could take some photographs without too many people. Within about ten minutes of our arrival, the place was swarming with other tourists. ๐Ÿ˜ก

We escaped by another gate and set off to get some local currency. Unlike Cambodia, Laos does not use US dollars as its main currency, so we had to go to a money changer to get some kips. Money changing is a too lowly occupation for banks it seems. Kips come with lots of ‘0’s so we were millionaires in minutes! We carried our loot off in the black plastic bag provided. Monied up, we wandered past the fast food stalls…..

Fast food starts early here. It was about 10.30!

We found ourselves walking up a broad avenue with an Arc de Triomphe like archway at the end. It transpires (we think, because our guide’s English is not very clear) that this was used as a runway during the Vietnam war. Laos was another country not involved but badly affected by it. More of this later.

On reaching the arch which had a lovely interior ceiling

We were able to scramble to the top, which gave us views over the city below.

Clever, eh!

Moving on, our Laos guide left us and we took a tuk tuk to a local rehabilitation centre run by an organisation called COPE. Here they make and fit artificial limbs, tragically much needed by the victims (many very young) of the cluster bombs dropped in that awful red ‘corridor’ of the US bombing raids…….

The red areas are where clusters bombs were dropped.

It is thought that 30% of the bombs did not explode on impact and remain in the ground to explode when touched by unwary farmers tilling their land or young children playing. People are still being wounded by these things although much clearing still continues. Once again a sobering reminder of the horrors of war, but it was good to see the success the centre was having. It not only fits the limbs, but some of the people helped stay on to work in making the prosthetics.

They are doing amazing work. It is a tragedy that it is still needed. They also supply limbs for those born with deformities which their pioneer work can also benefit.

Back into our tuk tuk……

an up market model of the Cambodian version, we set of for lunch. After a brief pause we were out again to wander the markets and eventually walk to the Mekong River.

The green in this last picture is algae ….๐Ÿ˜ณ. I can feel Keith’s heart sinking at the thought of me in a basket selling area๐Ÿ˜–๐Ÿ˜„

The Mekong River jaunt was to take pictures of the sunset. As it happened, it was overcast, so although we could see Thailand on the far side of the river, it was through fairly heavy gloom, and the sunset was to say the least a bit eerie…….

However, we saw some interesting things on the way…….

A king with dangly bits……

Some monks…….

Some flags…….

Strawberries!

And more street food served on a motorbike sidecart!

Monday 26th November

It was raining and very dull when we woke up, which seemed appropriate for the day ahead as we were going to view a very dark period of Cambodian history. We were going to what has become known as the Killing Fields and on to the building known as S21.

The start to the day was interesting in that, due to major works taking place on the building, we had to take a tuk tuk ride to breakfast to another hotel. Here the meal we had ordered the previous day was delivered on a sort of airline tray, together with a whole baguette for each person! The first bread we have seen this journey and it certainly arrived in abundance. For the tea drinkers though it was not such a good experience!A first excellent cup of tea could not be followed with a second due to a major communication issue. As an old colleague of mine would have said, the young lady concerned was something of an ’empty vessel’. No amount of pointing, enunciating or acting out could get her to understand that a second cup was required! Eventually after management intervention a teapot was produced – but not before the cups themselves had been removed and the requirement for a replacement had been identified. Somehow breakfast seemed really hard work!

Back to the serious business of the day. Having done a little homework in preparation, we had already established these horrendous atrocities that we were to hear more about, happened in our lifetime and were so horrific that I found them difficult to assimilate. It took mans inhumanity to man to a new level.

Modern Cambodian history can only be described as tragic. By the mid 19th century the once mighty Khmer Empire was much weakened and dominated by Vietnam to the east and what was then Siam in the West. It was at this stage that the then king accepted the support of France. Cambodia became a French Protectrate and the French influence can still be seen in lay out of some parts of the city of Pnom Penh. All was reasonably quiet in the country until 1941. Then the war in Europe and the Indo Chinese wars impacted on the political situation and finally the Vietnam War, when the American Air Force started bombing the Cambodian border, ostensibly trying to eliminate the Viet Cong rebels hiding there. Or so Mr Nixon said. It was against this background that Pol Pot and his cronies came to power providing retaliation for the people living in fear of the US bombing which was killing thousands of the rural population. They operated under the banner of Cambodian Communism. They were to become known as the Khmer Rouge. It was 1975.

This date was to see the start of a period of unmitigated cruelty and terror. It is beyond belief that a man who himself had been born to a good family with a close association with the royal family, had been well educated, spent some time as a monk, had benefited from a scholarship to Paris and became a teacher could head an organisation that was responsible for the death of an estimated third of the population either killed outright, tortured, starved or worked to death.

The so called Killing Fields are an area just outside of Pnom Penh, previously a Chinese Cemetery. It was the place where prisoners of the Khmer Rouge regime prison known as S21 were taken to be killed. It is now a memorial to those who died there. There were another 196 prisons and 388 killing fields in other parts of Cambodia. This was the largest and has become the most famous. It serves as a chilling memorial to those who were caught up in the Pol Pot regime.

As you enter the area, a tall monument rises up in front of you.

At first you do not notice that it is full of the 8,985 skulls of the people murdered on the site. And then you realise what you are looking at.

The prisoners were taken to the area at night. They were then killed by having their throats cut with the serrated edge of a branch of the Super Palm tree, or being bludgeoned to death with axe handles or hoes to ‘avoid wasting bullets’.

The bones and clothes of those who were killed continue to rise to the surface of the ground when it rains. I found this one of the most poignant features of the site. Men, women, children and babies were all killed there, by boy soldiers as young as 12.

I have given much thought about what I should record of my visit to this and building S21. I think a few photographs will serve to capture the nature of the place.

First the drawings that tell the tale

Music was played over loudspeakers during the killings to drown out the noise.

One of the mass graves – only a few have been excavated.

Others can be seen …….

The killing tree where babies were battered to death, now covered with the acknowledgements of those who come to see and mourn.

The contents of the monuments…….

The cat nestled on an alter in the grounds seemed strangely comforting ………

We then travelled on to the Museum, the site of the prison called S21.

Although it is difficult to imagine, to many, death in the killing fields must have come as a relief after the horrific brutality of the interrogation in the building known as S21.

This was in fact an old school converted that the Khmer Rouge converted into an interrogation and torture machine to house those accused of conspiracy against the regime. ‘Confessions’ were gained by the most vicious and brutal means. Amazingly 7 people survived (one an artist) to give witness to what occurred in the prison. Corroboration, if it was needed, was provided by the regime itself in its careful record of all those detained there to demonstrate to Pol Pot that his will was being done. Ultimately the guards themselves were subject to the same fate as the prisoners they had guarded as distrust within the regime grew and they were considered to know too much. There is evidence that the young soldiers killed were beheaded and their severed heads were used to terrify those who were to replace them. Even those in the upper echelons of the organisation were later tortured into confessing to being members of the CIA or KGB.

I will leave the museum to talk for itself…….

The rules of the establishment……

The school building, just like any other……

The photographs……..

A particularly haunting face…….

The cells, for men……..

……and women

The shackles……..

A poster relating to the number of deaths, published after the activity of the Khmer Rouge was revealed, and then withdrawn as too horrific……

Journalists entered the prison three days after the Vietnamese arrived to liberate the City in 1979. By this time the Khmer Rouge had killed the last VIP prisoners being held there. The stench of these bodies led to the building being investigated. The soldiers, like Pol Pot had disappeared either into the jungle or to the Thai Border.

Only a few of the senior figures of the regime were ever arrested and tried. Many of them and the people who worked for them have reinvented themselves. The current Prime Minister was a member of the Khmer Rouge elite. Pol Pot himself remained at large for nearly 20 years, eventually dying in 1998.

Three of the survivors of the prison were at the Museum. All had been boys when they were released from the prison. One was even photographed when pictures were taken of the prison being liberated in 1979.

All were tortured and only survived due to various spurious circumstances. All are allowed to tell their stories and sell the books of their ordeal for charity. The artist among them painted some of the pictures in the Museum.

The whole morning was extremely disturbing and I will never forget the experience. I have limited my commentary on the sites because some of the information seemed too awful to repeat, but the memory of it will remain with me always, as will some of the faces……..

It seemed appropriate that the rain continued when we emerged from the museum. We arrived back at the hotel in somber mood.

After a brief visit to the market and a snack lunch we were launched into heavy traffic as we made our way to the airport. We were leaving for Laos.

Sunday, 25th November

Despite the rather unusual surroundings, I slept well until about 4.00 am, when the cockerels started their day! There were also sounds of life beneath us. The lady of the house had also started her day.

Having decided to abandon further sleep, it was time to get up and leave my comfy bed.

Although the house was well appointed for rural Cambodia, it was pretty primitive when compared to our standards. Nevertheless our hostess looked a woman who was definitely in charge of her domain and it was a privilege to spend time with her and her family.

Breakfast over (rice, cold fried eggs and pork) there was just time to identify the culprit of our early alarm call, pose for a family photo, say our ‘thank yous’ and depart. It had been quite an experience, not to be forgotten.

We then retraced our steps to the main road and were off again through the countryside, catching up on some sleep on the way……..

Gradually things became less rural and more commercial. Bigger lorries appeared. En route, we stopped at another busy market. People and their luggage were spilling out of their transport and fried spiders were very much the order of the day……..

I decided against this particular gourmet opportunity and some of the other offerings – both recognisable….

…… and not so much……. I think they were some sort of small bird.

There was some amazing fruit on offer even though it is the low season for fruit variety apparently.

This is apparently pickled fish. Once again, despite the temptation (๐Ÿ˜ณ) I chose not to try it!!

It was time to move on to the City. To say Pnom Penh has a checkered history is something of an understatement. It’s status as a capital has come and gone, its Kings have shared the same fate, it still shows signs of its French occupation and it was home to the headquarters of one of the most evil regimes the world has ever known. Pol Pot. More of which tomorrow. For us just arriving, it was a very large metropolis, teeming with people, with occasional wide boulevards and gardens and the first roundabouts we have come across since arriving in Cambodia.

We arrived at about mid day and met again at 3.30 to take a rather scary ride by a bicycle powered chair. It felt very precarious and exposed, hedged in as we were by the speeding cars, tuk tuks and motor bikes around us, but it enable us to see the sites!

Happily we lived to tell the tale!

But only just! En masse we looked like a bit ‘special’ and let out for the day…..

We were dropped off at the riverside where you could buy lotus blossoms to lay at the feet of the gods to bring good fortune……..

Or if you wanted more clarification you could have the cards read……

It was then off for a cruise. Pnom Penh is the place where two rivers converge – one that comes down from Siem Reap and the other the well known Mekong River.

The sun went down,…..

And the lights came up!

What a difference a day makes!