Sunday, 27 January 2008

Destination Laos: Part 11 Phonsavanh

Phonsavanh was a classic small town, with few independent travellers headed this way, given the long journey from Vang Vieng/Luang Prabang. The shops were mostly scrap metal dealers and auto repair shops, lending the town a very industrial, 1950s feel to it, along with the sandy streets and the cold. There really wasn't, as i had expected, a lot of war scrap lying around - just the few scrap metal dealers, the bomb casings on display outside areas where backpackers frequent, and the uber light spoons that felt like, and supposedly were, fashioned from aluminium from downed American aircraft. Most of the main shops/services in Phonsavanh are located along a T-junction of streets, wander any further and the street goes completely dark.

So having arrived at a decent hour, i think it was near 6 in the evening, and having found a roof for the night, I set about exploring the town. Very authentic, the town, going about its business, unromantically and unapolagetically so, it being what i felt was a town booming of scrap metal wealth, the silver lining, i guess, in America's bombing campaign that made Xieng Khouang Province the most densely bombed place in the world. More bombs were dropped here than the total tonnage for the second World War in Europe, it is said.

The MAG (Mines Advisory Group) headquarters, right beside Crater's Bar where you'll find the entire backpacker population of Phonsavanh after 7, screens videos and provides pamphlets and brochures about the bombing campaign in Laos that has claimed many casualties. They also have shelves and shelves of the deadly cargo American bombers used to unload over the area. Donations to help with the finding and destroying of UXO (unexploded ordnance), and to aid local communities affected by them are very welcome and volunteers can contact the headquarters in Vientiane.

Had dinner at Simmaly's. Great, authentic and cheap Lao food, and in my humble opinion, the best place to graze in Phonsavanh, and one of the best food, matched with great friendly service (bananas and hot Chinese tea on the house) I've sampled in my travels. The atmosphere was great. Not al fresco dining under the stars, but a boisterous, honest, working class atmosphere where the locals relax over hot tea, beer Lao, cigarettes and a good meal after a hard days work.

Bumped into a few people i met on the road here, really surprising how often our paths cross really. What i love about solo backpacking partly is the many interesting characters you meet on the road, like the 60 something year old Malaysian guy in the Luang Prabang marketplace who sailed from Penang to Madras before making it overland to Italy, working on the way (he acted in Italy!), over a period of 4-5 years, in the 1960s. First batch of hippie backpackers. And from Malaysia no less. I think he probably saw in me himself 50 years back, and i was thinking, maybe that's where I'll be in 2048. Maybe.

Destination Lao: Part 10 Off to the front

Parted company with the great people i met in Vang Vieng today, after what has become our routine dinner at one of the roadside stalls in front of the temple. They were off to Luang Prabang while I would be off to the front to Phonsavanh, a key battlefield during the Indochinese Wars being on the road to Sai Gon.

What did i expect of Phonsavanh, known to locals as Xieng Khouang, being the new capital of the district where it takes its name from, the old one being devastated during the war. War relics and remnants of America's secret war in Laos, i guess, and the unexplained mystery of the Plain of Jars. Moving off at 0930 for an 8 hour (in theory) bus trip to Phonsavanh, and hoping the roads wont be too bad...

The bus failed to turn up. Which left a motley crew of backpackers constantly harassing the ticketing clerks, who supposedly "called" the bus and assured us that it was on its way. "5 minutes" soon stretched into 50.

In the end we managed to charter a minibus for the 7 of us for 75,000 kip each, around 8 US dollars. 5 and a half hours of travel later we arrived at Phonsavanh. The scenery on the road was stunning, winding across a huge mountain range - Just read on the bus that Phonsavanh is 2,000 metres above sea level or so, and one of the coldest places in Lao. Talk about being ill prepared. I wasnt quite expecting a beach, but thought it would at least be tropical.

I was wrong. Quote of the day: I know it was going to be cold, but not this cold. Heard from many a backpacker who had just turned up in town from Vang Vieng clad in the uniform of board shorts and flip flops. They must be doing a roaring trade in jackets and windbreakers here.

Left: A cold and dusty road in Phonsavanh. The photo above was spent shells being given new life as a brazier of sorts outside the place i was staying in Phonsavanh, the Phoukham Guesthouse. Party because i was lazy and it was right across the road from the old bus station where our mini-van stopped.

The place was all right - cheap at 4USD for a big room with a double bed, attached bathroom and hot water that lasts for a total of 10 seconds. Exciting lobby to check out with all the spent shells in a glass cabinet, TV, posters highlighting the dangers of UXO (unexploded ordnance, a major killer in rural areas as farmers attempt to extract scrap metal from them), and a cyber cafe. They also do organise tours to the 3 Plain of Jar sites, for 19 dollars.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Tuk tuk?

This is a continuation of my previous post...

2. Motos, tuk tuks and the like

While incessant offers of motos, tuk tuks, Skylabs and more from the same family can be irritating (especially in Phnom Penh Cambodia, I've found), i've come to really like these quientessentially Southeast Asian forms of transport. They're cheap, fun (zipping in and out of traffic) and exciting - part of the thrill comes from the crazy traffic, and skipping over gravel and skirting potholes huge enough to pass as craters once out of town.

3. The airplane taxiing down the runway, just before picking up speed for takeoff.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

On a random note

Quirky things i've come to love backpacking in SEA:

1. Diesel fumes - Brings with it always the promise of adventures ahead, of a road trip to somewhere i have never been before. Reminds me of those cold mornings at the bus station, having to wake up early in the dawn to catch a tuk tuk/pick up to the bus station, and then huddling around in the dusty old bus depot, trying to spot the bus (not an easy task if you don't read the local language, and buses labelled Luang Prabang, for instance, may end up in Udomxai) and breathing in liberal amounts of diesel fumes as bus drivers warm their engines up. Especially love the Lao buses which look like a blast from the past, very retro and hippie looking with flowers hung over the license plates too.

Above: Cold morning at the Luang Nam Tha bus depot

Mornings as such are almost always spent trying to warm myself as much as possible (standing near the engines), with noodle soup and hot coffee being the preferred breakfast (which you can slurp down in a hurry), followed by a hunt for the toilet (toilet mafias, having a monopoly situation at bus stops few kilometres from town, charge exorbitant prices for these necessary visits before long bus rides). Then its off we go when they finish loading the cargo onto the bus - which from what i've seen thus far, could include motorcycles, live chickens, rice, bed frames, amongst other less interesting (and definitely more companiable) items.

A typical day at the bus depot thus involves an early morning crawl outof bed to get there early enough to get a ticket, finding the bus, getting on and putting some personal items on the seat to "reserve" it, which normally, for us backpackers, involve socks, mittens and old shirts (which we wouldn't mind losing), getting off to wolf down a quick breakfast at one of the stalls around the bus depot, looking for the toilet, and then getting on again, this time strapping our packs to the overhead racks as best we can to keep it from falling off and hitting some poor soul sitting under it.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Destination Laos: Part 9 Kayaking the Nam Song

Having tried tubing down the Nam Song, the number 2 activity on our to do list was kayaking down it, this time (being older, wiser and just thawed out) at an earlier hour - 9 o clock in the morning after a superb breakfast outside the Saysong Guesthouse of chicken sandwich and hot Lao coffee, perfect to kickstart the day and warms you up on those rather chilly mornings in Vang Vieng.

We dropped by Tham Xang (Elephant Cave), located beside a Lao Loum village reached after a short weave through the paddy fields, now yellow in the dry season with water buffaloes grazing idly nearby, and Tham Nam (the waterlogged cave - Im guessing it means River Cave literally?) later before making it by pickup to the start of our journey down the Nam Song. Tham Xang was so-so, a vaguely elephant looking stalactite, a reclining Buddha, a Buddha footprint made in stone and some nagas (mythical serpents guarding over the Buddha). The name is supposedly because an elephant once lived in the cave.

The nearby village was far more interesting, with chickens, dogs, the odd turkey (an USAID legacy, ive read) and pig wandering around looking for food scraps. Life goes on as normal, it seems, in the village, and there really weren't too many tourists around the area. Lazy, idyllic, as if time never passes, and even if it did were of no consequence, something i really love about small towns and villages.

After that it was by pick up, with our kayaks riding on top, to Tham Nam. Throuh the way, I was thinking, hell, we could have been filming an advertisement for kayaks/pickups, the scenery was just great, the wind on our faces, and especially the part when the pickup rolled out of the treeline onto the bank of the Nam Song, bumping over the pebbled shores and fording a tributary on the way. Hearing the rush of the water, the tinkling over the stones, worn smooth on the shallow river bed, smelling the scent of trees and traces of woodfire where the villagers were preparing lunch. What an ad that would make.

Tham Nam, where we visited and spent most of our time waiting (for the tubes to go in), was a once in a lifetime experience for me. By that, I mean, just that once would be enough - I doubt ill ever try it again. It had all the elements of a B grade horror movie - as mentioned in a previous post it was wet - not just damp, but filled with water that you have to take a tube in, following a rope which went missing in parts, into a narrow crevice. Claustrophobes also need not bother with this - The tunnel was at times so narrow that you had to bend backwards to avoid incapitation.

So what do we have now? Wet and claustrophobic. That leaves the darkness and the cold for me to moan about. It was pitch black. End of story - so really, how were we supposed to be enjoying something we couldn't see while at the same time feeling hopelessly lost (a perpetual feeling when it comes to caves), claustrophobic (imagine having a rock ceiling inches from your head 24/7 and water, water and more water under you, icy cold to the touch and making weird noises when it sloshes around the sides of the cave) and cold.

A reading off a Magellan by a half frozen Irishman revealed the water outside the cave (in bright sunshine) to be arond 15 Celsius. And to add to that our guide's joke (at least i hope it was) of crocodiles and snakes in the cave weren't exactly helping matters. But we survived, after losing orientation completely in one of the numerous chambers with mind boggling permutations of exits. Made it out into bright sunshine and I cant be more thankful. My insurance doesn't quite cover exploring caves Indiana Jones-style, i think...

Lunch stop of kebabs and fried rice, then the kayaks were unloaded once we hit the start off our 10 km river trip. Paddling down the Nam Song, all the while looking at that gorgeous scenery of tiny villages, trees, and mountains passing by, and fighting the odd rapids was fun. Yea. Really love the karst mountains that Vang Vieng is famous for. China may have nicer mountains, as some may say, but where else in the world do you get to kayak/tube down a flowing river, with crystal clear water no less, right beside those magnificent karst landforms? The evening scene was even more colourful and lively as the locals depend on the river for a variety of activities like fishing, bathing, washing and cooking.

We made a few stops along the way, mainly toilet stops, got a few fruit shakes (a tad more expensive, but excellent service and location - again, where else in the world do you find cocktails/shakes/ice cold beer right by the river for weary tubers/kayakers who are hauled up on bamboo poles. Throw in music and rope swings too.) before getting on our way. This time round, determined to get back to Vang Vieng town before it got too dark and we end up in Vientiane.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Life's a beach

Check out the most popular beaches of 2007, according to Yahoo users.

New update (its an oxymoron isnt it?) to my Philippines plan:

Flying out from Cebu to HCMC or BKK.

Right now i think the tix for both is roughly the same price at around 2,000+ pesos (40 USD). Can't decide on which one yet. From BKK to Singapore is definitely cheaper airfare wise, but HCMC is a more interesting destination methinks - thinking of checking out Chu Chi, the delta region, Phu Quoc... But on the other hand BKK is a more relaxing (HCMC is often decribed as a phantasmagoria of motorcycles), and i might want to go up to Ayutthaya, Sukothai before flying home...

Friday, 18 January 2008

Come Back Alive

Well it seems that some people aren't too keen on me going to the Philippines (hi Mom) seeing that she (the Ppines that is) has been making the news recently for all the wrong reasons - eg. making it on US Civil Aviation Authority's flights to check list joining the ranks of some other dodgy Soviet era airlines, the recent Manila bomb blasts, rebel troops taking a hotel etc... And check out this rather disturbing dossier on the Philippines.

Funny, really, after my near death experiences (i exaggerate) in supposedly "safer" places ie got lost caving (wet, dark, cold, claustrophobic - all the ingredients for a nightmare) in Vang Vieng, getting dead drunk (and lost too for the record) at 4am in Siem Reap, getting severe food poisoning in Pulau Pangkor to the point of dehydration, the Luang Nam Tha experience as i have come to call it (see below post)... Which i hope would be enough to last me for a lifetime. More than enough tales to tell the grandchildren. (assuming i survive till then of course)

Wednesday, 16 January 2008


My plan for the Philippines at the moment is still very sketchy as im still trawling through travel forums online in search of the elusive paradise island/best beach etc...

Flying one-way into Manila, which should cost around 200 Singapore dollars, then staying around in the Manila region for a few days, planning to drop by Corregidor to soak up some Pacific War history (Doug McArthur said I shall return here) and also the nearby Taal volcano.

Then its northwards bound up Luzon (long bus journeys again - kind of ambivalent to these. On the one hand i love riding the local bus, just people watching and thinking, hey whats his/her story, etc, but on the other hand, when these rides manifest into mega 18 hour rides, its never too friendly on the backside/bladder. What i dislike most (im still hoping to, one day, see the joy of it) is being dropped off at an out of sorts bus stop, some 20 km from town in the dead of the night, leaving you to somehow procure a means of transportation into town, and then having to find a room, after the influx of backpackers have all checked in in the afternoon. Stressful. And that's if you manage to find a guesthouse first in the dark, more often than not local transport into town drop you at some suburban residential area with no street lights.)

Im having flashbacks of Luang Nam Tha here, arrived near last light at around 5, after a long ride from Luang Prabang, and guess where the bus station is most conveniently located? some 10 plus km out of town, with no tuk tuk vultures and not a single foreign face in sight to share worries/sawngthaew/complains with. It was a crowded pick up to "town", picking up rice sacks, bags of lard, and people on the way, making it absolutely certain i would be in "town" after last light. And in Luang Nam Tha, a frontier town close to the Chinese, Thai, and Burmese borders, and the Golden Triangle, there were not so surprisingly, no street lights.

Some 5 passengers and numerous rice sacks later i was dropped unceremoniously on some side street where all the shops have shut for the day and only a few dodgy looking Chinese guesthouses remained open, one even with "solar powered" hot water system, no doubt a literal , but correct nonetheless translation for the afternoon sun's warming effects on their otherwise icy cold water. Too tired/pissed to see the humour back then, but on hindsight it was rather amusing.

Asking around for the main drag served no purpose, although the locals were really helpful and willing to oblige, as all the streets in Luang Nam Tha are unnamed and it was kind of pointless asking for this big thanon (street in Lao) that i kept pointing to on the map. Finally (thank God) there was this Lao man, donning an England jersey and warming himself by his fire who mimed sleeping and eating, and sent me on my way. His shortcut cut through a very ominous feeling neighbourhood, where the children stared silently at me from the roadside, their faces half hidden in the darkness, and cats in the reeds (that seem to have a vendetta against me) mewed eerily, strangely and hair raisingly reminiscent of babies cries. It then wound through a construction site, where men off shift stood clustered in groups, whispering among themselves, all the while looking at this stupid boy with his backpack out alone in the night.

I ran. Once of their sights, I broke into a brisk jog, determined to get out of this area ASAP, it just didnt feel right - my hairs were standing on its ends and my mind screaming danger, adrenaline coursing through my blood. At the risk of being over dramatic, i soon saw a light in the distance, a building, that soon i made out to be a restaurant. You can imagine the relief. Once closer i caught a glimpse of the signboard - the Panda restaurant. Popped in and got some directions from a fellow backpacker - i must have looked really dishevelled and in shit state then. Checking my bearings i soon found myself in front of the Luang Nam Tha provincial police station - major, major sigh of relief, and seeing the only lit street in possibly a 50km radius. A crazy night out it had been.

Musing over my (well deserved) dinner of laap, sticky rice and Beerlao at the Manychan Guesthouse, i thought i was really lucky today, but also it was because of the Lao people's kindness and helpfulness that i found my way unmolested.

Back to the Philippines. Long term travel has that effect on you i guess - I often suffer from spells of nostalgia, dreaminess and wanderlust, especially recurrant during a boring class/lecture. In Northern Luzon i plan to trek the Cordillera Mountains, and am thinking of finding a forward operating base in maybe Baguio or somewhere nearby. Then im thinking of fitting in also the coffin caves and exploring some other nearby places. Then its all the way back to Manila, where i hope to catch a flight to Puerto Princesa, which should, from what i've heard, cost around 30 USD one way. Thats the first part of the plan - im trying at the moment to put together a feasible and not-too-silly island hopping plan that i hope, will take me to some of the best beaches in the region and laidback Pacific islands where i can find my own paradise.

Monday, 14 January 2008

2008 travels - Destination: the Philippines

It seems i have made up my mind - island hopping plus trekking in the northern Luzon region in the Philippines it is. What clinched it for me was that the Philippines still is a largely off the beaten track affair, with few tourists from mainland Southeast Asia's banana pancake trail that winds through Thailand, Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam. With the added bonus of the May-June period being "off-peak" in the Philippines, which equates to fewer tourists and lower prices.

Anyway i was thinking after those few months on mainland Southeast Asia, it was time for a bit of a change, and the Philippines, more Pacific island than SEA, offered that in abundance with its mountain treks overlooking breathtaking amphitheatres of rice terraces, unique colonial history and role in the Pacific War, seriously scenic white sand beaches, marine life and numerous tropical islands - Alex Garland's 1997 novel "the Beach" is based on a Filippino island, and the author is said to be a fan of the country.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Freedom is

Having 3 month off this summer, some cash in the bank, and a host of places I have in my mind that i wish to go to - essentially an idiosyncratic and self indulgent list with places like Burma (encore), Ghosh's the Glass Palace having captivated my imagination, Viet Nam (thinking of Damien Rice's melancholic I fought in a War, and wanting to see Viet Nam for myself, my own Viet Nam in a sense), the Palace of Winds and Kashmir, Goa in India, or maybe the Philippines, although she is running a losing race in my mind's shortlist...

Gets me through those long days of work and more work... Anyone with any suggestions? =)

Don't Tell Mum

"Don't tell mum" by Simon Hoggart was an interesting and funny read of "hair raising messages home from gap year travellers" as the cover so rightly puts it. Come to think of it, im sure some of my emails home must have read like that, under the influence of one too many beerLao or Mekong whiskey-coke, a cheap and popular drink on the Indochina backpacker circuit...

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Destination Laos: Part 8 Muang Vang Vieng

A brilliant sunset. The towering karst mountains that wouldn't look out of place in a traditional Chinese painting, the seas of paddy fields, and the flow of the Nam Song making for an extremely picturesque sunset.

Almost everyone was gathered in town after the sunset, from the day's activities, swapping tales of tubing, caving, rock climbing, trekking etc, the whole host of activities that Vang Vieng provides a perfect setting for.

Lively atmosphere, the town, with the ubiquitous pancake stalls less than 10 meters apart on the main streets, music blaring out of the bars, and endless reruns of Friends playing at the TV bars, the huddle of backpackers typing away silently in internet cafes updating family and friends and uploading their photos, which to me really is part of the travel experience, keeping in touch with the people at home, checking travel forums and maps, and burning CDs of all the photos I have taken on the road, freeing up the limited space i have on my memory card. Using a foreign keyboard can also be a fun (or frustrating) experience - some dont have roman alphabets labelled on them, resulting in much guesswork and gibberish like posts, some with faulty space bars so emails end up looking like telegrams, some with some seriously stubborn keys that have to be pressed upon with a force of a few megatonnes, and some that have a broken leg which hampers typing speed until an innovative solution can be thought of. (hint lonely planet hint).

But yet, while lively and in its own right a backpackers haven in itself, Muang Vang Vieng certainly wasn't Khao San Road - quiet spots for a contemplative drink remain to be found (some bars/fruit shake houses further away from the centre), cheap Lao food available (outside the temples), and some amazing scenery that surrounds the small town. In short, I found Muang Vang Vieng charming. Despite the influx of foreigners and silly people (like us) gliding down on tubes down the Nam Song, the locals are as welcoming and friendly as ever, and local life still remains largely unchanged in Muang Vang Vieng, once outside the few main drags. Outside of town, i watched a few cock fights with the locals, walked down the local markets, cycled through residential areas, all without seeing too many foreigners.

The Nam Song at the evening also comes alive as locals cook, wash and bathe on the pebbled banks of the river. Local boys spearfishing with a harpoon and snorkelling masks, fishermen setting out nets from boats rowed to quieter spots on the river can also be seen in evenings, as the day cools and the sun sets into those magnificent karst moutains that inspire awe and wanderlust, especially when glimpsed across the sea of rice paddy fields, swaving gently in the evening breeze at sunset.

Destination Laos: Part 7 Tubing!

"Off we go", drawled an American voice behind me, as the bus reversed out of its lot after the last passenger has got on board.

Reached Muang Vang Vieng a quarter to two, as expected, with a stop at Kasi. Found a nice cheap guesthouse next to the river, the Saysong Guesthouse (try to get the rooms on the bottom floor, much nicer. We got a 3 bedder with hot water for 6 dollars in total. The rooms on the upper floor are still, ahem, under construction, but still available for a paltry 3 dollars for a spacious 3 bedder, shared bathrooms down the corridor). I've never really cared that much about the places i stay in though. "Seriously, how much time do you think you are going to spend in the room?", as one Israeli puts it in perspective when we were stranded at night in Luang Prabang looking at fleapit after fleapit, having arrived after the army of backpackers got off the boat from Pak Mong - rush hour traffic for Luang Prabang, with every backpacker scrambling for rooms. That was about as rushed as it got in tranquil, somnambulant Luang Prabang, and i might add, Lao in general.

But back to Vang Vieng. At 4 the pick up, with our tractor tyre inner tubes (henceforth tubes =) tied down on the roof dropped us off at the Organic Mulberry Farm, where it was a short hop with our tubes over our shoulders before we were at the Nam Song. Beautiful, clear waters, and flanked by some really amazing karst mountains. Now if i had been here 2 years ago i might have excelled in A level geography, it left that indelible an impression on me.

Southeast Asian veterans looking at this (im pretending i have an audience here, humour me) are probably sniggering at the time we set off. 4 in the afternoon. In Lao last light is around 6 30. And guess how long a tubing tour takes - 4 hours or so. Do the maths and you would realise that we would still be and were, floating on the Nam Song past 7 o clock at night. And unluckily for us, it turned out to be one of the colder days in Vang Vieng, with it already being cold season.

By 5 we were feeling a bit chilly. By 6 we were shivering a bit, thanks to the fading sunlight and the splashing match that occurred earlier. By 7 our bottoms and hands were numb, and we were looking for the nearest river bar to evacuate to, and as Murphy's law would have it, we just left the last river bar behind. We finally got up at some muddy embankment that had this wooden sign nailed to a tree - tuk tuk to town. Saved, from a certain fate of drifting down the Nam Song and into Vientiane through the night, as one guy candidly put it.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Destination Laos: Part 6 Moon over the Mekong

Had a great dinner at the riverside stalls that convene in the evening to serve up some mouth watering grilled meats washed down with cold beer Lao. I have to say it was a great dining experience, seated right by the Mekong, on a moon lit night, the table illuminated by flickering candlelight, and serenaded by Lao pop and old Backstreet boys and NSync records. The grilled chicken was excellent too, eaten with sticky rice. I remember thinking, looking out at the Mekong, that i've found my new favourite hideaway on earth, the Lao PDR, jewel of the Mekong.

Bought my tickets to Vang Vieng tomorrow - I had heard that it would be near impossible to find transport on the Lao National Day, but luckily managed to get a seat on a bus headed up to Vang Vieng. Or the legendary Vang Vieng, shall i say, the alliteration I have heard many times before, oft described as backpackers haven, and muttered much in the watering holes and guest houses of Southeast Asia's other backpackers ghettos. It turned out i would be headed north with some friends i've met at the Patuxai, by sheer coincidence we stayed at the same guesthouse too.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Destination Laos: Part 5 Patuxai

Did a huge pointless detour and found my way back onto Thanon Lane Xang again after attempting an, ahem, shortcut.

Nevertheless having guided myself back onto the broad street, it was a short stroll before i saw the unmisteakable form of the Patuxai in front of me.

Looks like its Parisian cousin, no? Also known as the vertical runway as it was built with American cement donated for the construction of a new airstrip. Speaking of which, Laos is littered with old Air America bases and previously top secret airstrips with code names like Lima site number 5, remnants of the Second Indochina war. Along with more malicious souvenirs like a load of warscrap and UXO (unexploded ordnance) from tennis ball sized bomblets to huge missiles that maim or kill when local villagers attempt to defuse them to extract the scrap metal which they sell to make ends meet. Laos is, tragically, the most bombed country on earth.

Sitting outside on the benches in the garden surrounding the Patuxai one gets a feel of Lao, the easy going, laid back and "please don't rush" mentality. The endearing honesty of this land, true jewel of the Mekong as proclaims so many travel brochures and souvenir T-shirts, best encapsulated in the official looking plaque that proclaims the Patuxai a "monster of concrete". It was a great feeling, just lounging on the park benches on a lazy afternoon, scribbling random thoughts into my diary, watching the world go by.

Ceiling Detail at the Patuxai

Dropped by the Talat Sao and the nearby Ethnic Minorities Handicraft Market on the way back to the riverside, basically just following Lan Xang avenue down south. Caught a glimpse of the Talat Sao Mall, an incongruity right next to the venerable Talat Sao, with its spotless concrete facade and shining glass windows. Plus the only elevators and escalators i've seen in Lao. Inside, you find rows of shops selling the latest fashions, accessories, handphones, gold jewellery, furniture, gourmet coffee and a whole load more. In short, you really can't tell it apart form any shopping mall in Malaysia or Singapore. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the Talat Sao Shopping Mall is Malaysian financed and built by a Singaporean developer.

Destination Laos: Part 4 Pha That Luang

Went walking down Thanon Francoise Ngim after a late breakfast at Sticky Fingers Bar and Cafe (over-rated in my opinion), turned past the Nam Phu (fountain), a pleasant spot itself and soon found myself on Thanon Lane Xang, the broad street where the majority of Vientiane's tourist attractions are located, like the Morning Market, Talat Sao, the Pha That Luang (the English translation is really a mouthful), the tourism office that is rather helpful, and of course, the unmisteakable Patuxai, a replica of France's Arc de Triomphe.

The street also passes through some old French colonial mansions, monuments to past colonial splendour and grandeur. Apparently the Vientiane/Luang Phabang post was one particularly cherished and desired by French civil servants back in those days, and really it wasn't hard to see why.

Took a tuk tuk to the Pha Tat Luang, which is some way off the city centre, although still manageable distance best covered on a bicycle. It was impressive from a distance, shimmering golden in the midday sun, and its scale and architecture undoubtedly accentuated by the large area of dead ground before it, a vast carpark where Vientiane youths practice their driving under the watchful eyes of their parents then a smaller square with the statue of a former Lao king (My (limited) knowledge of Lao history only stretches as far back as King Sisavangvong)once you've passed the arch. Entry was 5,000 kip, roughly over half a dollar. Closer to it the Pha That Luang was slightly less impressive with some black stains on the lower walls, but one admires the symbolism and functionality of the architecture, less so its pulchritude. All in all an enjoyable trip, plus i think i somehow got on Lao TV, some presenter was conducting an interview and i obliviously wandered behind him for a better shot of the golden spire.

The Unknown Soldier's Monument and National Assembly near (right next to, in fact)the Pha That Luang are also of mild interest.

Destination Laos: Part 3 Sandalwood City

On the friendship bridge and looking at the Lao and ubiquitous red hammer and sickle flags fluttering lazily in the breeze, with some wooden huts lining the river bank provided a good teaser to what was to come in Lao, or more romantically, Lane Xang Hom Khao, the Kingdom of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol, a symbol of royalty.

Stepping off the bus was a liberating experience - i suspect i let off a long whoop of joy as i stepped off the bus, leaving the dusty, concrete Air America base of Udon Thani behind to be accosted by dozens of touts right at the bus door, a scene as romantic, to me, as any in Southeast Asia, as representative and typical of the vibrant, and oftentimes chaotic beauty of Southeast Asia, that is, really, an acquired taste.

Not very different form the Hawaiian girls that, in my mind, greet you when you step off the aircraft, just that instead of flower garlands we get pamphlets extolling the virtues of a particular guesthouse or tuk tuk service. Welcome to Vientiane, Lao PDR. As good a welcome as any.

The energy and vibrance I felt once i stepped onto the dusty, yellow earth which was the Talat Sao (Morning Market) Bus Station (kew lot mei, in Lao). I think i really amused locals with my Laos during the first few days of my visit, but it was just a matter of a few days and some rather blush/grimace inducing attempts before i spoke at least correct Laos, and some odd witty phrases.

Really good bazaar like atmosphere at the bus station, with people peddling stuff off baskets slung across their shoulders, and more conventional vendors sitting on the earth, their wares, from rattan baskets, tapioca rolls, to the latest in Lao pop and drama displayed in front of them. And really friendly people too, who often asked where i was going and guided me, with a smile there.

Checked into Joe Guesthouse, right in front of the riverside where they have some fabulous stalls that spring out at night selling grilled fish, chicken (ping kai) amongst many other meats, served with papaya salad and cold beer Lao, the best brew in the region, and in my opinion, only San Miguel of the Philippines come even remotely close to matching it. And for around 1 US dollar a large bottle too. So it really is hard to find anything wrong about Beer Lao.

Joe Guesthouse - feels like old times living in hostels again. No visitors, no shoes, no weapons, no drugs, no gambling, no laundry, no cooking (really, all posted and pasted in the reception and each and every room available, stamped with an official looking tourism ministry insignia. To which someone has scrawled also in black marker no farting and no thank you.) And a 12 o clock curfew. In my mind i can hear Chairman Mao screaming radish communist, red on the outside but white on the inside. The facade was of a strict, no-nonsense socialist nation where the state was supreme, but beneath it and barely hidden is the friendliness and welcoming arms of a people and nation that is increasingly open and receptive to tourism and with it inevitably new ideas and supposedly "Western" influences.

It was sort of cheap at 5 dollars a night, clean single bed, wardrobe, some nicely furnished rooms with nice touches like a shawl hung from the wall and a nice lamp, though a tad dim. Shared bathrooms down the corridor were spotlessly clean and spacious too. And i was fine with the curfew too - it wasnt as if i plan to hang out at the neary Bor Pen Nyang bar (the all-glass facade was cool though) or go bowling every night.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008