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Day Seventy Four - Vientiane, Laos

Woke up on the train on the Thai-Lao border, and after the usual border
-guard questioning look ('hair on passport photo, no hair on head,
hmmmmm!') got into Laos. All I had heard about Laos is that it is a
very poor country and a lot like Cambodia. I can't begin to tell you
how much I hoped it wasn't like Cambodia! So as we went across the
'Friendship Bridge' (spend centuries blowing each other up, then stop
and open a 'Friendship Bridge' - I reckon England shoud do the same
with Wales, but without the bridge, ho ho ho!), and I was so relieved
to see pylons stretching across the countryside - one-nil to Laos over
Cambodia! Further inspection revealed roads, telephones, and a hotel
room with air conditioning, a TV, and a minibar fridge. Result!
First stop - get a flight and a visa to Vietnam so we can leave in a
couple of weeks. Said another tearful farewell to the passport and a
wad of cash and set out exploring.

Laos is officially a 'Peoples Democratic Republic', which means that it
is a communist state, is not at all 'democratic' and is run by the
'people' who mave most guns at the time. I suppose it does count as a
'republic' though, so one out of three isn't bad! Things have been
fairly quiet here for the past 30 years or so, and the country seems to
be all the better for it. There is also a considerable French influence
here (it being a former French colony), so I don't think anyone can be
bothered to get out of their roadside cafe chair to cause any trouble!
So you get gorgeous weather and great colonial French architecture (
huge white pillared mansions surrounded by coconut trees - cool!),
without any French people - perfect! During the 1960s, the Americans
dropped the equivalent of half a ton of bombs for every person living
in Laos - why they didn't do that while the French were still here I
don't know! And I know the U.S. was at war with Vietnam at the time,
but the 2 countries are next to each other, and try explaining the
difference to Henry Kissinger! Fortunately, Sergeant Sharon has been
conditioned to say "England" whenever anybody asks us where we're from,
so we've done okay so far!

Lao currency is interesting, so say the least. At the moment there are
around 10,500 kip to the dollar, which is fine as dividing everything
by 10,000 isn't a huge problem if you want to know how much something
costs in'real' money. The problem is that the largest denomination note
here is only 5,000 kip - 50 cents. Earlier today we changed a single 1
,000 Thai baht note (worth about $25) and received in exchange a wad of
kip at least an inch thick. A quarter of a million kip - change $100
and this time tomorrow, Rodney, we'll be millionnaires! I daren't use
an ATM over here for fear of not been able to carry the cash around. Is
that $10 worth of kip in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me

Memo to self: when asking for a curry over here, remember to order it
as 'non-spicy', or suffer the consequences!

Spent the afternoon doing a walking tour of Vientiane for a few hours.
Saw another bunch of temples, all very ornate and impressive, filled
with golden buddha statues, etc, etc, etc, but after a while they all
started to look the same, and the lure of food and the local brew,
'Beer Lao', became too much to resist. I'm not sure what the national
pastime of Laos is (football, cricket, etc.), but by the way that
everyone has signs advertising it, the national pastime may well be
Beer Lao. It certainly passes the three major criteria (tastes good,
very cheap, and comes in large bottles) and appears to be the only
local beverage available. Nice little state-run monopoly you've got set
up there, comrades! Next time I taste a few I won't make the mistake of
sitting upstairs in a bar where the only way down is via a steep,
narrow, winding metal staircase!

In one of the temples, we met one of the Buddhist monks (a teenager)
who asked us to help him with his English homework as he had a test in
a few days. Quite why anybody would want somebody from Birmingham and
an American to help him speak English is beyond me, but it was nice
sitting there for a while helping him out. Also very interesting was
that the text books he is learning from are American, so he had to
complete phrases such as "Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker battles*/
battled*/battling* (delete where applicable) with lightsabres in the
Return of the Jedi". Quite far removed from prayers and meditation!

People say that you should try to learn something new every day. Well,
today I succeded! A staple of Lao cuisine is 'sticky rice'. Up until
now I thought that all rice was 'sticky rice', but it turns out that on
the few occasions I had tried, I just have't cooked it properly. So now
I know!

Day Seventy Five - Vang Vieng, Laos

Got up and headed out to get another 'inch' of kip (already spent the
pocket-busting quarter of a million that we got yesterday!) - it seems
like a quarter of a million hardly buys anything these days! Overnight
the Lao government (obviously hearing that I whined about it in last
night's Voice of Reason) had decided to bring a 10,000 kip note into
circulation. Much easier to deal with, but also only half as impressive
in the trouser pocket. After today's cash has been frittered away on
the compulsory Beer Lao, might have to change twice as much Thai baht
tomorrow ($50 - woo hoo party boy, push the boat out!) to get the wad
back up to optimum thickness!

Got a minibus (on-time and air-conditioned as promised - this place
impresses me more all the time!) from Vientiane to Vang Vieng, 3 hours
away. A warm and pleasant drive through the Lao countryside, with the
tranquility broken only by the dozen or so American college kids
playing red wine drinking games at 10am. At one point a cry of "Can we
stop for the toilet?" came from the back. When the driver said we were
due to stop in five minutes, she shouted "No, stop now!". So we pulled
over and she ran off into the trees. THe driver, showing considerably
more patience and restraint than I would have, actually waited for her!

Arrived in Vang Vieng, which is a really nice riverside town where you
can look at the limestone caves, go hiking (although after Nepal I
won't be doing any of that!), and go kayaking and tubing down the
river. Tubing (apparently - I will find out for sure tomorrow!)
involves taking a huge tractor inner-tube, driving upriver, chucking it
into the water and sitting on it, then floating down the river at a
sedate pace. Until you reach the rapids, at which point you float down
the river at a slightly less sedate pace! More news tomorrow (not
drowning permitting!).

Although out in the countryside, Vang Vieng has roads, electricity,
running water, etc., which is pretty impressive for a third-world
country. There is internet access across the street, a bar next door
that will be showing the footy via satellite over the weekend, and at
the moment I am sitting eating pizza and drinking through the country's
seemingly inexhaustable supply of Ber Lao while watching the remake of
'The Italian Job'. Pretty disappointing movie so far, and if it doesn't
happen on-screen soon, I will feel compelled to stand on the table and
shout "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off" myself!

This evening brings a further kip tragedy. It turn out that there is
also a 20,000 kip note - that's 2 whole dollars worth! Admittedly that
is more than a meal costs over here, but in a place where prestige is
measured by the thickness of your wad, I am starting to feel
inadequate! I feel I am fighting a losing battle against the Lao
Treasury printing larger denomination banknotes every day, and if
tomorrow's 100,000 kip note doesn't at least have my picture on it, I
will be most upset!

Day Seventy Six - Vang Vieng

The scenery around Vang Vieng is stunning - rivers, huge forested
limestone cliffs, etc., giving the place the feel of Jurassic Park. And
in the morning as the sun rises, the mist over the cliffs gives you the
feeling that raptors are sneaking towards you in the long grass and t-
rex is putting another intrepid explorer onto the barbie! I only know
about the early morning mist because I saw it today while I was leaning
out of the hotel room window throwing things at the rooster that was
crying "cock-a-doodle-doo" from 5am! Despite the threat of avian flu, I
will be ordering chicken for every meal while I'm here just to increase
the chances of this one's neck making an appearance on the chopping

Forewent the cheapo tubing down the river and went for the kayaking
down the river option instead. A pickup takes you 20km upriver, then
drops you and your unsinkable plastic kayak into the river where you
have all day to paddle back down at your leisure, stopping to see a few
different things along the way. The river was only a few feet deep in
most places (it's the dry season here at the moment), so drowning was
an impossibilty. And any 'rapids' that were encountered meant bobbing
along at 2mph instead of 1mph for 10 seconds. A massive application of
sunscreen (except on the tops of my feet, which at the moment are
throbbing nicely!) and you're all set for a day floating along and
enjoying the scenery.

Every few kilometres there would be a deep part of the river, and on
the riverbank the locals have set up an assortment of bamboo
contraptions that you can jump off into the deep pools. Some are simple
platforms to jump off, but the more advanced include large bamboo
swings, along with ladders and catapults that wouldn't look out of
place if you decided to use them to attack a medieval castle. At each
of these places, along with the obligatory Beer Lao stand, the protocol
is to let one of the locals go first. This isn't done so much out of
respect, rather to let them make sure that the water is deep enough!
And then the tourists start piling in like lemmings. Unless you're
Sergeant Sharon, in which case you dive off the highest part of the
platform, performing several somersaults on the way down. That's the
great thing about American schools - you may not be able to read or
write when you leave, but you will be able to impress Lao fishermen
with a 3-and-a-half twist double pike triple salko reverse somersault!

After more serene paddling, we had a barbie for lunch and then headed
into one of the caves that the area is noted for (nothing in Laos is
yet 'famous'). The cave in question is 7km long, but we were only going
inside a mere 2km. So, piece of cake then! Started off hiking up some
steep steps through the jungle (getting out of the hammock after lunch
was difficult enough!), then at the entrance to the cave the guide
asked us if we had brought our torches. So these would be the same
torches that the bloke we booked the tour through told us not to bring
because they would be provided then? Hmmmm! At least they gave us a
candle (which didn't give out any decent light, but the hot wax
repeatedly dripping onto your hand keeps you on your toes!), and we
ventured into the cave. I expected something like Cheddar Gorge, where
you have spotlights, walkways, etc., but this really was descending
into a cave as though you were the first person to try it.After going
down some slipery steps, we went through a slippery floor, water,
ankle-high mud, knee-high water, knee-high mud, potholes, and that was
before we got to the stalagmite and stalactite obstacle course. After
at least an hour we made it to the cool part of the cave, where there
were caverns full of interesting rock formations. Well, after an hour
of slipping and sliding your way through mud, you would have found them
'interesting' as well! There was just time for our guide, in broken
English, to attempt the worst joke-telling in history. I still have no
idea what he was talking about, other than it involved a Filipino
doctor! We then headed downriver for more paddling and medieval

As we approached Vang Vieng, a lot of the local kids, despite the fact
that they have obviously done this every day of their lives, seemed
enthralled by the tourists in kayaks. A few of them swam up just to say
"hello", but others attacked in hordes, and weren't satisfied until
'whitey' (or 'pinky', as I was after 8 hours under the sun) and his
kayak were sunk at the bottom of the Cape of Good Hope, errrrr, the 2-
foot deep river! It usually took half a dozen of them to get me to the
bottom, and wherever necessary they would pressgang unwilling
participants (like the 3-4 year old girl who was dragged into the water
by her brother to be used as ballast and cried continually!). They all
swam off safely, either back to the shore, or to the easier plundering
of Beer Lao-swilling tourists cruising down the river on inner-tubes.

Just when it loked like the danger had passed (i.e. the small children
had swam away!), a further hurdle presented itself in the form of a
bridge. Not a proper bridge, more a collection of bamboo poles roped
together and stretching across the river. With the river only a couple
of feet deep it's not much use at this time of year, but you need to go
between the bamboo struts rather than crashing into them all the same.
And I'm not saying that I waasn't always in complete control of the
kayak, let's just say that at times it was fortunate that the river was
300 feet wide! Anyway, approaching the bridge I felt confident -
confident enough to stop and take a picture of it, along with a herd of
cows grazing in the water by one of the banks of the river. So I'm
cruising along, aiming for a gap in the 'bridge' between a couple of
bamboo struts, when all of a sudden one of the herd (around 20 of them
in all) starts to walk across the river in front of the bridge. An
important thing to know here is that while you're going down the river,
you can either go at the same pace as the water (by just sitting there
), or go faster than the river (by paddling forwards). Staying in the
same place is difficult, as it involves paddling backwards against the
current, and going upstream involves paddling furiously against the
current - obviously a completely unrealistic expectation for a lazy
Brit on holiday! So I'm cruising towards the bridge and there is a cow
in the way. Not a big deal - what's one cow in front of an entire
bridge? Fine until the cow behind it decides to follow. And then the
one behind that. And the one behind that. And so on until the entire
herd is strung out across the river. Along with one Lao cow-herder
chuckling to himself on the riverbank! Initially I thought I could stay
where I was, until furious back-paddling seemed to have little effect.
Then I thought I could get ahead of the first troublesome cow, until
furious forward-paddling just brought me closer to the middle of the
herd. As I got close up to them, of course they ceased to be regular
cows and their big, sharp, pointy teeth became very apparent! Only one
thing for it then - aim for the least fierce-looking big sharp pointy-
toothed cow and hope for the best. Driven on by the laughter of
Sergeant Sharon (some considerable distance) behind me, the bovine
invaders were repelled and I made it through (to another band of pre-
pubescent pirates - great!) the cows and the bridge!

Resisted the urge to strut my funky stuff at the Sunset Bar 'open until
sunrise' party and went to bed with the sounds of a local outdoor
wedding reception (complete with cheesy synthesiser music) ringing in
my ears. Only another 5 hours until "cock-a-doodle-doo"!

Day Seventy Seven - Vang Vieng

Only had one Beer Lao (so far!) today, so this entry into the 'Voice of Reason' will be
considerably shorter and much more coherent than last night's beer- and football-fuelled
tirade! With no 5am cock-a-doodle-doo, the outdoor wedding reception down the road stopping
around midnight, and the guest house's pet minah bird losing it's voice, had a nice lie-in
until 11am. An overnight thunderstorm meant that the temperature was nice and cool, and we
headed off to see another cave. This time for our dollar entrance fee we got proper steps up
to the cave entrance, and once inside there were lights, concrete walkways, and hand rails.
Totally the opposite of yesterday's experience - much easier to do but it did have the
atmosphere that if Disneyland opened a 'Caves of Laos' ride, it would look pretty much like
this. Still interesting though, and I'm definitely glad we got to see both types of cave
over the 2 days. Today's was the kind of place you would bring your wife and kids to, while
yesterday's was the kind of place you would bring your wife and kids to if you wanted to get
rid of them!

Strolled out of the cave after an hour or so to find that the effects of the thunderstorm
had worn off and the temperature was back into the hundreds again. And along with the
increase in heat came some flying-ant type bugs. These things are only small but they are
particularly nasty and when they bite it stings. We even saw some locals scratching and
slapping themselves, and a woman we were talking to about a minibus had to run inside from
being bitten, so at least they weren't trained to just attack the tourists! Did a bit of
shopping and bought the standard 'Beer Lao' t-shirt (if they knew how much of it I was
getting through,they would probably bring a free boxful round!), then at the next market
stall 5 feet away saw the same t-shirt for 1,000 kip less. Robbed of 10 cents in just a few
seconds - nightmare! Consoled myself by wandering around the local market and not buying any
live catfish or dead squirrels!

As the dry season ends, all the locals take part in a festival in which they send off a load
of fireworks as a message for the gods to start sending down some much-needed rain. And who
am I to explain to them the irony of having this festival immediately following a
thunderstorm? Anyway, there were a dozen or so groups of around 50 people, carrying dragon-
decorated rocket-shaped floats and singing,dancing and banging drums. They paraded through
the streets and ended up at some kind of knees-up at the local temple. Seemed to keep the
natives happy,and the drum-banging and singing stopped well before the footy started on TV!

Day Seventy Eight - Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, Laos

Got a minibus (which of course turned up on time - nice!) a couple of hundred miles further
into Laos to Luang Prabang, another lovely quaint French colonial town. Found a nice guest
house and splashed out on the $5 per night room,then strolled around the town looking into
day trips along the Mekong River for the next few days. Everything here is reliable,
efficient and well-organised (the equivalent journey in Cambodia took us 2 days, frayed
tempers, and bruised buttocks along dirt roads), but the road here was tarmacced all the way
a few years ago and the entire trip only took 6 hours through winding mountain roads. The
scenery was spectacular (as was the constant feeling of travel sickness!), with the main
cause for concern for the driver being the chickens/cows/dogs/pigs that would regularly
attempt to cross the road suicidally in front of us.

Luang Prabang has the feel of Carmel or Monterey in California (Carmel is the town where
Clint Eastwood was mayor) - all quiet streets, poncey cafes,and arty-farty shops selling
cool stuff. Rush hour here happens when the schools close and hundreds of cycling
schoolchildren hit the streets! The differnce between here and Carmel is that the stuff to
buy here costs around a hundredth of the amount. Hand-made wooden and paper lampshades - a
dollar. Ornate hand-made chinese-style wood carvings - 5 dollars. My backpack has only just
caught it's breath after unloading all the Nepali stuff in Bangkok. When I go back to the
guest house and tell it about all the stuff I am thinking of getting here (it's important to
have conversations with your luggage - after a while it becomes a part of you!), I fully
expect it to shuffle off into the corner and sulk for the rest of the night!

Late night entry: had some food and went for a stroll looking for more food (the fish and
chips portion size wasn't quite what we hoped for, but on the plus side they do sell Beer
Lao for a new record low 60 cents for a pint-and-a-half bottle! Found that a large part of
the main road going through town was sealed off and the place had been taken over by a night
market. Bought as much tourist tat as I could carry, then staggered back to the guest house
with it and made a long list of other stuff to buy tomorrow night. Nailed the sulking
backpack to the floor and crammed souvenirs into it until it refused even a 'wafer-thin

Day Seventy Nine - Luang Prabang

Woke up sometime in the afternoon, and strolled to 2 of the planned 20 temples for the day
before the heat got the better of us and the air-conditioned internet cafe won the day. Once
the sun went down and the temperature dropped to a more reasonable (but still sweaty!)
number, looked at a few more temples and enjoyed strolling around the town without the sun
burning any uncovered parts of the anatomy.

Found the local nightlife during our travels today - one night club and a couple of shack-
type bars offering 'shooters' for 20 cents. Again, very impressive that things like that
exist in this part of the world. For food, I compromised between decadent westerner pig-dog
and traditional Lao by consuming a combination of Pizza Lao and Beer Lao. Pizza Lao
contained some kind of Lao sausage and Mekong River seaweed,but after a few Beer Lao,
everything tastes great!

Day Eighty - Luang Prabang

Met up with our Cheerful Chappie boat driver for a day out on theMekong
River under overcast skies. Not normally what you would look forward to
if you're on holiday, but after the heat of yesterday it was nice to be
able to go outside without melting. As we cruised along in our (
somewhat unstable) longboat we felt a few drops of rain, and by the
time we got to our first stop it was lashing it down. Discovering that
some tourists on the 'budget' boat trip had just spent the past 2 hours
in the rain in an uncovered boat (at least ours had a roof!) did
improve everyone's spirits though as we all pointed and laughed as they
squelched around.

First stop was at a couple of caves that were accidentally discovered
by some French explorer a couple of hundred years ago. Who then died of
malaria! Apparently the locals have been worshipping in the caves for
centuries, and they are full of hundreds of Buddha statues. Quite
interesting but all over in 20 minutes so we went to a nearby village
for lunch to watch the rain.

Next stop was a place where the locals brewed/fermented whisky, and the
place was imaginatively titled 'Whisky Village' by our boat chap but
called 'Drin Klot Fal Don' by the residents. The village contained one
shack where they made the stuff and sold it, then another 50 shacks
selling exactly the same tourist tat as in the market in Luang Prabang.
So of course we bought a load of stuff! The whisky tasting place was
dishing out free samples so I tried the first one (which tasted like
pop), then the second one (which also tasted like pop). Emboldened by
my new-found ability to swig Lao whisky I took a large mouthful of the
third one and my eyes nearly popped out of my head. My throat was
burning any my tongue had shrivelled up until it resembled a slug with
salt on it! Turns out that the first 2 are 10% and 15% alcohol, and the
third one is 55% alcohol - quite a difference! To make this stuff they
boil up rice and then leave it to ferment for 2 weeks. 2 weeks! None of
your 'aged 16 years' that they do in Scotland in order to make the
stuff palatteable - they are producing gallons of this stuff every day
and as soon as the alcohol content is high enough it's all ready for
consumption. As an optional extra they also put scorpions and snakes in
the bottles. No idea if they are there for flavour or if you're
supposed to pull them out and nibble on them as a light snack while
you're chugging back the brew. I get the feeling that Whisky Lao won't
catch on as well with the tourists as Beer Lao.

Final stop on the way back was the 'Paper Village', for which I don't
have the imagination to make up an even remotely amusing local name! It
looks like making paper is easy - take bits of a tree, put it in water
and hit it with a hammer until it's a mushy pulp, then spread it thinly
onto a long tray for it to dry in the sun. Hey presto - one sheet of
paper! Of course they are selling this stuff so I felt compelled to buy
a couple of lampshades worth. After haggling over the price for a
while, it is amusing when the free bag they give you to carry your
purchases home in is made of twice the amount of paper as the stuff you
have just bought. At least it will be good for repairs when the
lampshades are left to the mercy of the airline baggage handlers.

Got back to Luang Prabang and did some more shopping, which came to a
sudden end when we found that we only had the equivalent of 40 cents
left to spend. Trudged back to the hotel to wait for the banks to open
in the morning.

Day Eighty One - Luang Prabang

There's nothing like a small shower to clear the air and keep
temperatures down to a bearable level. So after an early-morning
sprinkling, I don't see why the weather feels it necessary to keep
raining hard for the entire day. Doesn't it know we have got touristy
things to do that require us not being soaked to the skin? Maybe the
locals have been firing more of those rockets off - they seem to have
worked pretty well so far!

Went to look around the Royal Palace, mainly to get out ofthe rain!
Strange that a 'Peoples Democratic Republic' would have a royal palace,
but there used to be a monarchy here until 1975. Then, during the
revolution the monarchy were taken off to a 're-education camp' where
they 'expired' (these are the official phrases used). It means that
they were taken to some remote cave and without proper food or medical
care died within a few years. Rather than destroying the Royal Palace
as a symbolic gesture for the fall of the monarchy, the revolutionaries
wisely kept the building and all it's contents intact and now it's a
nice museum.

The most famous traditional Lao folk tale rivals the Vang Vieng cave
joke-teller for being one of the worst stories ever. It starts off with
a prince who is entrusted with the kingdom's special elephant, so what
does he do with it? He gives it away to a bloke in the street. As a
result he and his family are banished to the mountains and set off on
their trip. Along the way he gives away their horse and carriage to a
bloke in the street (sensing a pattern here?) so they have to walk the
rest of the way. Once they get there, a baddie turns up and persuades
the prince to give up his two children. This prince, while being large
of crown, is clearly small of brain! As soon as he has done that he is
recalled to the kingdom and made into the king and they all live
happily ever after - just like that. No explanation, nothing! All very
strange! This story has been popular for centuries,but I reckon it
still needs a bit of work!

So, the two of us are sitting outside a restaurant having food (and
Beer Lao, of course),when from a group of people walking past we hear
"Sharon?" Just what you expect when sitting in a village in Laos is to
bump into a couple from San Francisco that we played softball with last
year. Janet and Jim have done what millions (or so itseems) of others
are doing and quit their jobs and are wandering around different parts
of the world, and although neither of us knew about the others plans
and we're on completely different schedules, we happened to be at the
same restasurant at the same time on the same day - weird! Also gave me
a Beer Lao drinking partner and somebody to talk baseball with.

After guzzling a few brews, went to an internet cafe to find out what
has been going on in the world. The rain today has clearly had some
effect here, because the big ants had grown wings and were attacking
anything with a light on it - not too good when you're surrounded by
computer screens. This time the bugs were victorious and we gave up
with the internet after a few minutes.

Crossing the road outside the internet cafe, I came across a
particularly fat toad sitting in the street. I didn't want it to get
squashed, so I picked up a stick and started ushering it towards the
kerb. The moment will go down in history as the time that 'toad
herding' was invented! Each time I prodded it towards the kerb, the
stupid animal turned around and headed back towards the middle of the
road. The reason it was doing this was because the bugs that had
attacked the internet place seem to have a very short lifespan, and
they were dropping like, errrr, well like flies into the middle of the
road. Now Mr.Toad wasn't going to miss out an this free all-you-can-eat
bug buffet,so each time I successfully herded him to safety he would
hop back out into the middle of the road. Short of throwing a lassoo
around his neck and tying him up there wasn't much I could do,so I left
him to die full, fat and happy at the hands of a teenage moped rider!

Day Eighty Two - Luang Prabang

Once again the 'Voice of Reason' comes through. After reading last
night's complaint about raining all day, the weather tipped it down
until mid-morning, then was dry and bright for the rest of the day -

Took a minibus into the hills to a local waterfall to take in the view.
All very pretty, and had a good look around it for 20 minutes or so.
Also avoided the temptation to go swimming due to all the leeches in
the area and stayed on dry land trying to escape the ants instead. Of
far more interest than the waterfall was the local wildlife (ants and
leeches excepted). There were 3 adult and 2 black bear cubs and a tiger
in a refuge next to the waterfall. The bears were completely tame and
would come up to the edge of their compound to have their picture
taken. The cubs would grab any part of your anatomy they could reach,
and if you could stand the smell (I never knew bears could smell that
badly) you could tickle their stomachs to keep them happy. The tiger
was rescued from a poacher 5 years ago, and although it was in a cage
(together with warning signs saying 'tiger bites - keep hands outside'
), it seemed very happy to let you stroke it through the bars while it
lay there taking it easy.

On the way back we stopped at as 'traditional Hmong village', which was
pretty much the same as 'Whisky Village' and 'Paper Village' but more
muddy. Altogether pretty disappointing and not really people living a
rural existence.

Day Eighty Three Luang Prabang to Vientiane, Laos

Got up, sat on a bus for 9 hours, and ended up back in Vientiane. So, nothing interesting to write
about ("Nothing new there then", I hear you cry, especially after the traditional Lao folk tale
nonsense of a couple of days ago!), but the bus journey did give me a chance to ponder the eternal

"Buddha - bloke or bird?".

Before I came out here to this neck of the woods, I always assumed that Buddha was a bloke.
Although I didn't really know much about him (including how to spell his name properly), I had
seen a few statues of a laughing fat bloke sitting around like Jabba the Hut. Turns out that this
is only one of the representations of Buddha, and is called the 'Happy Buddha'. And let's face it,
who wouldn't be happy after consuming the 200 pints of lager and 50 curries that it looked like he
got through for his last meal! Anyway, there are Happy Buddha staues over here, as well as a much,
MUCH thinner Buddha in a series of different poses - 'reclining' (watching football on TV,
probably), 'meditating' (looks like he is petting an animal or a small child), and 'enlightenment'
(where he has his arms crossed and has a stern look on his face - I reckon that he wanted to do
some more 'reclining' but has just discovered his room mate has drunk the last can of beer in the
fridge!). But in all these popular poses, at least you can tell that it's the same bloke. And this
is where things start to get strange, because there are other Buddha statues around where it is
definitely NOT the same bloke. In fact the Buddha's masculinity is brought into serious doubt.
Sometimes he/she is wearing makeup (okay, maybe he was a fan of Duran Duran in the 1980s).
Sometimes he is wearing a dress (okay, he might have seen David Beckham wandering around town a
couple of times). But real doubt starts to creep in when you see topless Buddha statues. He/she
has a fair-sized pair of breasty-dumplings on him/her, complete with extremely perky nipples that
could certainly cause a minor injury if you got too close to them! And it's not just one recent
artist's impression either - some of the 500-year-old statues we have seen also depict this
mascara-wearing, cross-dressing, perky-nippled ladyboy prancing around as if he was an
advertisement for the sequinned handbag home shopping channel! So if you're thinking of inventing
a new deity to be worshipped by millions, even if you and your mates down the pub can't agree
exactly on what it should look like, at least try to decide whether it's male or female!

Day Eighty Four - Vientiane

Purely for research purposes, spent the morning at a place called 'Buddha Park'. It was created in
the 1950s by the Lao equivalent of Salvador Dali, at a time when mind-altering drugs were clearly
more widely available than they are today! Although the park is fairly small, it is packed with
cement statues created by this mad bloke and his students. And it doesn't really help much in
answering the question "Buddha: bloke or bird?". In some statues he/she is represented as a fierce
warrior (I thought he/she was supposed to be peace-loving?) in full battle-costume and wielding a
sword, but also wearing makeup. And in the biggest statue in the park that you can climb inside
he/she is represented as a giant melon with a tree coming out of the top. I had as much luck
working out the gender of the melon as I did with Cambodian elephants! Luckily a couple of
Buddhist monks were walking past looking for foreigners to practice their English on, so we asked
them the question: "Buddha: bloke or bird?". After we had explained what the question meant, they
told us that Buddha is always a bloke, and they seemed surprised that anybody should ask them such
a question. But hey - why only insult an entire religion on the internet when you can do it in

After getting an answer to the eternal question, took a trip to the most important temple in Laos.
You can see it from quite a distance because it looks like an enormous golden rocket silo. It was
re-gilded a decade ago and they certainly did a thorough job as nothing seems to have escaped the
golden paintbrush. I reckon they also did the grass, and only the fact that it has grown and been
cut since then saves visitors from being blinded by it. We had originally planned to spend an
entire day there due to it's importance, but there's not much to do except be dazzled by the
paintwork so 20 minutes was enough!

Wandered back from the temple and had a look at the Lao equivalent of the Arc du Triomphe. In the
1960s the Americans donated Laos a load of concrete to build a new runway at the airport after it
was 'accidentally' bombed a couple of hundred times. So instead Laos used it to build this huge
concrete structure - very impressive, but not that good for landing planes on!

Day Eighty Five - Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam

Here are the final scores for Laos, the 'Land of a Million Elephants':
Elephants: 2/10. Only saw one of the alleged million elephants, but an extra point for the cool
Beer: 9/10. The best so far.
Cool stuff to do: 7/10. Mountains, rafting, waterfalls, wildlife, etc.
Weather: 7/10. A bit too hot on days without thunderstorms, but only got sunburned once.
Peasants: 9/10. Despite being a third world country, hardly any begging and tuk-tuk drivers only
need telling "no" once.
Sport: 7/10. Nothing local, but loads on TV.
Short skirts and boots: 1/10. Only Buddha seems to wear them!
Food: 6/10. Not bad, but need to remember to order meat 'cooked'.
Getting around: 7/10. Cheap and reliable, and on proper roads with working vehicles.
Beer Lao: 10/10. Extra points for the 'Breakfast of Champions'

Total: 65/100.

Excellent score for a place that got everything right while we were here. And thanks to the
Americans for not bombing us as well!


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Warwick at Vientiane
Sharon at Vientiane
Laos Photographs
Anyone know a Dentist
More Kids 'Off the Block'
Warwicks 'Blue Period' in Vientiane
Even more Kids
Sharon at Vang Vieng
Warwick at Vang Vieng caves
Sharon at Vang Vieng caves
Sharon at Vang Vieng caves
Warwick at Vang Vieng caves
Sharon at Vang Vieng caves
Warwick at Vang Vieng caves
Warwick at Vang Vieng
Luang Prabang Temple
Luang Prabang Temple
Luang Prabang Temple
Luang Prabang Temple with Sharon
Luang Prabang Temple with Warwick
Luang Prabang Caves with Sharon
Luang Prabang Caves with Sharon
Luang Prabang Caves
Luang Prabang Caves with Warwick
Luang Prabang Caves
Luang Prabang boat trip
Luang Prabang Temple with Warwick
Luang Prabang Temple with Sharon
Luang Prabang Temple with Warwick
Luang Prabang Temple with Warwick
Baby Bears and Warwick
Luang Prabang Temple with Sharon
Bear up a Tree
Baby Bears and Warwick
Baby Bears and Warwick
Mamma & Pappa Bears
Tiger and Warwick
Warwick and Tiger
Luang Prabang Waterfall with Janet & Jim
Luang Prabang Waterfall
Buddha Park with Sharon
Buddha Park with Warwick
Buddha Park with Warwick
Buddha Park with Warwick
Buddha Park
Buddha Park
Buddha Park with Warwick & Sharon
Buddha Park with Warwick
Buddha Park with Sharon
Buddha Park with Warwick & Sharon
Buddha Park with Sharon
Buddha Park with Sharon
Golden Missile Silo and Sharon
Golden Missile Silo and Warwick
Laos Photographs