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  • Arrived at cooking school and were greeted with a cold fruit tea! Spent the morning visiting a market and saw lots of fruit and veggies I had never heard of before. We also visited the butcher's where meat just sits on the tables, had to hold my nose! We then went to their cooking school out of town via their mini bus. Amazing cooking experience! Cooked river fish in banana leaf, dipping sauce of both roasted tomato and eggplant, lemon grass stuffed with chicken mince, buffalo larb, sticky rice, rice dessert and fruit. We ate mangosteen, a fruit that is new to me but is very tasty! We met an Aussie Stacey Roddick who had been teaching English in Vientiane.
    After the cooking course we had a message for $12! My feet feel very happy!
    We then walked to Big Brother Mouse and we met plenty of eager boys wanting to improve their English. I immediately recognised two boys who I had seen the day before, who I offered help to as he was drawing. Amazing to see him again! We chatted for a long time and I showed them pictures of Loxton and Port Lincoln. Was great to swap stories. Jeck and Jo are studying to be teachers, their English is very good. I showed Jeck how to dimension a face, he likes drawing manga but I encouraged him to find his own style! We have organised to meet again tomorrow and climb the big hill over looking Luang.
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  • Visited Ock Pop Tok and saw beautiful weaving. Purchased a small one as very expensive. Collected a book about the craft also, which is very insightful. Spent the morning session at Big Brother Mouse. It is great, however, very challenging to talk in simple phrases! Learning a lot about Laos and its history. There are three main groups Hmong, Laos and Khmu. Beautiful, friendly people. Ate lunch at Couleur Cafe and up market French influences restaurant! Met the waiter who's name is Dao - he used to walk four hundred kilometres to and from school ever day. Laos have three schools - primary, secondary and high school. Dao is at university to become an English teacher. He is the first in his family to finish school. Spent some time walking along the streets, but it's very hot! Need to find an umbrella and ditch the hats and suncream. Had another foot massage! Indulgent but so good and soooo cheap!Read more

  • Met Jeck, Joe and Mell and gave them 2 books that we had. One was a comic novel that was Martin's. They were so excited to receive them, as books are very expensive! I showed Jeck some more toning and drawing techniques. He showed me some pictures he has been working on since I saw him last. We then walked up 300 steps to the top of Mount Phousi. We watched the sunset, however, there was a lot of tourists. It felt very special to have our own Laos guides! The boys rode their scooters to the night market where we met them for a drink and crepes. We bought the boys a fruit smoothie drink, it was something they had never tried! We showed them Australian money, drivers license and visa. They were so interested in all of it and asked lots of questions. We worked on pronunciation and explained words on the menu's in the food court. We hope to see them again this weekend!Read more

  • My dash for the border began with a tuck-tuck ride from my hostel in Chiang Khong at 7am; of course I paid way over the odds for this. Once at the Thai border I was processed quickly but had to wait for the 8am bus across the bridge to the Laos border; this didn't leave until 8:15 due to a troupe of Chinese tourists. At the Laos side paperwork slowed me down before I was once again ripped off by a tuck-tuck driver but I had no time to argue on price. I was off to the Gibbon experience office on the slowest tuck-tuck in the world. After running the last 800m I arrived at the office at 8:55am & the Jeep departed at 9am.

    It took about two hours to reach the village we would trek from in the Nam Ha national park. It was a mountain village made up of simple huts but not lacking modern influences; orange satellite dishes were mounted outside most. It was another one hour trek into the jungle in the sweltering heat. When we finally reached our treehouse we just wanted to rest. There were eight of us in treehouse number one; an Austrian couple, an Australian couple, a Dutch couple, one German girl, and myself. All the beds were doubles with a mosquito net over them so it became clear that I'd have to share with the German girl. Unfortunately for her, I'd a good night's sleep & was snoring quite loudly. After dinner our guides returned to the village and left us to fend for ourselves for the night.

    Day two began at 7:30am with our guides arrival and breakfast. We then went hiking and zip lining around to the other treehouses and in search of wildlife. After an exhausting trek we returned for lunch & a shower. Our guide then showed us some games he likes to play, told some stories about himself and the park before showing us how to make toy fish from bamboo. Before dark some of us went back out for more zip lining and then returned for dinner. We began to notice more and more the various bugs, spiders, and rats that we shared our house with and, most of us, became comfortable with having them around.

    On our last morning we trekked out of the jungle with a heavy heart but enjoyed a well earned beer at the mountain village. When we returned to Huay Xai I stayed at a guesthouse with the Austrian couple before we all met at a local bar for drinks and food. Many of us had the same plan to travel on to Luang Prabang by slow boat the following morning.
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  • After spending the day with the elephants we visited the Tad Sae waterfalls (see previous post).

    We climbed up to the highest tier, where we stood half submerged in the warm water that flowed past to began its tumbling descent. The sun flickered through the green canopy and the other tourists drifted away to leave just the two of us with the sound of the water.

    It was at this moment that Alex proposed to Kim and she said yes!

    Alex did not have a ring to give Kim as the logistics of buying and keeping one safely stowed during months of backpacking was precarious, so we will chose a ring together once we are home. However in the interim we decided to look for an alternative to bind the occasion.

    After dinner we wandered through the night market, stopping at the various jewellery shops and stands in search of a ring. As it turns out, it was fortunate that Alex did not try to buy a ring on his own before proposing, as Kim has very slim fingers and almost all of the rings she tried on were too big! Eventually it was a simple ring of emerald green that fit and now sits upon her finger.

    It really was one of the best days.
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  • Historically the Laos was called 'the land of a million elephants' and still has the elephant as its national animal today. However war, poaching and land encroachment by humans has led to the population reducing to 1600, 500-600 of which are made to work in the logging industry, their great power used to fell trees and carry lumber.

    We hoped being in South East Asia would give us an opportunity to see these beautiful creatures up close and perhaps even ride one. There are many places in Laos and Thailand you can do this but with varying degrees of how the elephants are treated by their owners. We are very keen to not engage in any tourism that does not properly care for animals so after talking to Keo, he recommended 'Elephant Village', just outside of Luang Prabang.

    The village rescues elephants from mistreatment and provides employment for locals previously poaching or working in the logging industry. The village has 14 females and 2 babies (they do not keep a bull in the camp as it would be too aggressive to safely manage). Each elephant has a 'mahout' who has worked with her for years; riding, training and caring for her.

    Rescuing an elephant can cost as much $20,000, as even old elephants have value (their meat) and their care is high maintenance, each requiring at least 250kg of food and 80 gallons of water a day. It may not be the wild, where ultimately elephants should be, but the village appears to give them as much freedom as realistically possible (they still have to be chained by a foot when taken out of the village to feed as otherwise they wander off and eat a local farmer's livelihood).

    We began by learning how to climb up and sit upon an elephant and give basic commands in Lao to manoeuvre it. Accomplishing this, we headed out on a 3km trek with a mahout, Hueng, to help guide us with our elephant, 43 year old Hamkoon. Hueng first took Hamkoon up through a steep narrow trail into the rainforest, Hamkoon's huge feet squelching into the reddish brown mud to leave deep prints. We swayed above on her back, titling backwards and forwards at 45 degrees or more to face the forest floor or canopy. Upon clearing the ridge line of trees, we gazed out across the Nam Khan River to the lush green mountains of Laos. Once through this difficult terrain Hueng allowed us to take turns riding Hamkoon for ourselves. Our hands on top of her broad grey head, feeling her powerful muscles move under our legs as we plodded onwards.

    Back at the village we fed Hamkoon bananas by way of thanks and then took all the elephants (Kim -Hamkoon, Alex - 40 year old Sinook) down to the river to bathe them. The elephants dipped their heads under the water to leave us nearly waist deep and spray water back at us with their trunks. We used pails and scrubbing brushes to clean their wrinkled course skin, dotted with thick black hairs.

    We visited the 2 baby elephants, kept in a separate enclosure on the other side of the river, who appeared playful and interested in us, if only at the prospect of being fed more bananas. We travelled further along the river to the Tad Sae waterfalls, which unlike the Kuang Si falls yesterday were much clearer and safer to swim in. The water a never-ending cascade of white water over multiple tiers of sandy rock. We wandered waist deep between the top and middle levels of the falls, the shade and the water cooling us after a day under the hot sun with the elephants.

    It was a brilliant day, one of the best in fact and one we will never forget...
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  • We slowly perspired watching butterflies dance between flower buds in the early morning heat. Those who had gone tubing on the river yesterday, joined us nursing hangovers and injuries resulting from slipping in the wet conditions whilst drunk. Most quickly fell into a stupor as the bus bounced its way out of the town to the nearby Tham Jang caves.

    We climbed up the 147 steps up to the caves in the thick air, which quickly cooled as we moved into the dark mouth of the entrance. Wandering between stalagmites and stalactites along a small pathway, lit in places by electric light, we came across a large stalactite that when hit echoed like a drum through the cavern. At the other end, the cave opened out onto a shelf in the cliff, giving views back across the rice paddy fields to Vang Vieng and beyond.

    It was a long hot journey to the Lao capital, Vientiane, broken up by short breaks and a comedy moment when one the group, Vicky (a 31 year old British woman living in New Zealand), disclosed that she had been using a bidet hose to shower with. These hoses are attached to the wall next to the toilet cistern and are something we have come to use for the toileting and affectionately call ‘bum guns’. Vicky tried to explain through our laughter that she had done so because the actual shower had very little pressure and bum guns are by their nature fire powerful jets of water…

    Once in Vientiane we visited the COPE Centre, a charity supporting victims of the legacy of the country’s ‘Secret War’. Prior to coming to Laos neither of us had ever heard of this war but were hugely saddened by what we learnt at the centre. Between 1965 and 1975, with the Vietnam War raging and the Viet Cong using the Ho Chi Minh trail that passed through Laos, the US military responded by dropping millions of bombs on Laos. This became known as the ‘Secret War’ as war against Laos was never formally declared by the U.S. Furthermore if the U.S. bombers could not locate their targets in Vietnam, they would drop their payloads on Laos because it was deemed too danger to land back at base with munitions still aboard.

    This resulted in Laos now being the most bombed country in the world per capita, despite having never been at war with the U.S. More bombs were dropped on Laos during this time than all the bombs dropped by all sides during the Second World War. One third of the country was hit and an area of 87,000 km sq. remains contaminated by unexplored ordinances. Whilst work is being done to clear these areas, it is only currently possible at a rate of 40km sq. per year, leaving much land uninhabitable or unusable for agriculture. Unexploded ordinances continue to blind, maim and kill men, women, children and whole families. It was sobering experience and one we will not forget.

    Afterwards we briefly toured the rest of the city, stopping at the Pha That Lang, Laos’ most sacred Buddist site, and the Patuxai, Vientiane’s version of the Arc de Triomphe. The Patuxai was built to celebrate the departure of French colonial rulers, using money the U.S. had given Laos to build airfields for its bombers against Vietnam (probably another reason the U.S. felt they could carpet bomb the country).
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  • Since Monday we are in Laos. We got on a bus in Kratie and made our way across the border where we only got ripped off for like 2 USD for the visa which is fine.

    Our first stop is Don Det, a small island within the 4000 islands in the Mekong. We stay at lovely mama piangs guesthouse. The food is great, the rooms are nice, the internet is unstable and mama is the best. We spend the days doing nothing and then usually head to the other side of the island to see the sunset with a couple of beers.

    It seems to be customary to meet people on the bus getting here and spend the days here together. We have done the same. Adding other acquaintances it makes for interesting combinations of nationalities at dinner. Yesterday there were Germans, a Norwegian with guitar, an Austrian girl, an Israeli, and a Swiss one, a brit, a French, a Polish, us 2 of course and Mama. Good fun!

    Been there, Don Det!
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  • As said before, we didn't have too much time visiting the capital of Lao PDR since we had a couple of appointments. But, quite frankly, there are more interesting cities in SE Asia. We saw a couple of Wats, the presidential palace and their version of the arc de triumph which they describe themselves on a plate inside as - and I quote - "from distance even less impressive". Besides that, there are tons of embassies, the biggest one being of Brunei, and pompous governmental buildings, as it befits a socialist state.

    However, there are a gazillion nice restaurants with great lunch offers - we had an AYCE buffet for 2,50 EUR each - and bakeries with decent croissants but no cinemas to see the Hobbit. Also, the traffic is nothing compared to other big cities. It is far less and far more orderly than in Phnom Penh or Saigon for example. Nice for a change!

    The second night here we went for street food - including a trip to the night market trying different bits here and there. Excellent sausage (on a stick ;)! - with an Irish/French couple and we couldn't help but notice how differenttly you approach people while travelling. They had been at the tourist information the same time than us. Then we saw them again on the bus to Vientiane and that was clearly enough for both couples to strike up a conservation. Imagine that in Germany/Belgium. They would be more like "yeah, I'm gonna sit over there". But while on the road this is necessary of course or you wouldn't meet anybody. And it is quite nice that way!

    In other news, it is almost winter here. Being only at 28℃ during the day, temperature drops to like 17 during the night. So COLD!
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  • Dragonflies whipped overhead and as cockerels sang out their morning chorus as the sun made its way over the Karst Mountains, which stood as a stone curtain, shielding the peaceful farming valley from the rest of the world.

    The purpose of our visit to Kong Lor was to explore its nearby cave. Legend has it that the cave was first discovered in the 7th century when a villager lost some ducks and located them on the other side of the mountain. The villager then took a boat into the cave entrance and discovered that it stretched 7km right through the mountain's base.

    To explore it ourselves we took a motorised canoe from the side closer to Kong Lor village. From a distance the cave's mouth appeared small in comparison to the sheer black mountain towering above it. However once inside we were quickly dwarfed as the ceiling lifted away into caverns twice the height of cathedrals.

    We and our driver entered the black abyss, our way through lit only by our headlamps. The only sounds were the rasp of the canoe's engine and the lick of water against the shallow wooden hull. The air was cool and moist, tasting stale upon our lips.

    We starred in amazement as we rounded rocks as large as 4 story buildings, the light of our headlamps tracing the shadowy shapes. At times the lights would fall short, sitting faintly in the dark, the walls and ceilings of the cave's hallways too gigantic for the light to meet its edges. In other places the way would narrow so the rock with its stalactites hung closer to trickling our backs with water as we past by.

    As it was wet season the water level was high meaning that we rode over most of the rapids but at one point we clambered out of the boat to walk up a sandy beach and along a man-made path through an eerie landscape of stalagmites and stalactites lit by coloured electric light.

    It was almost with surprise when we eventually found daylight shining back at us from the mouth of the cave's exit. It had taken approximately an hour to get through the cave. After a short break on the riverbank we completed the return journey to then swim in the river by the original entrance.

    For dinner Keo arranged for us to eat duck Lao-style, both barbecued and as a curry. He and a friend also prepared a Lao duck-blood salad, which Alex tried. It was a tasty meal involving a lot of sticky fingers, which even a brief power cut that left us in the dark could not distract from.
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