02.03.2016 - 06.03.2016
Our onward journey to the capital of Laos Vientiane started off somewhat higgledy piggledy. We dutifully arose at 5am to be ready for our 6am pick up to Luang Prabang bus station. On arrival we learned that the VIP bus we'd paid for and booked onto through our hostel that departed at 7am didn't actually exist. There was a 7am bus but it was the 'public' one; i.e. more of a people-carrier containing 20 locals and their animals - not what we'd paid for. After some wrangling with the ticket office we managed to secure a place on the actual VIP bus which was leaving at 8am; so we had to wait around for 90 minutes. This wouldn't have been so bad had we have not run out of kip. We tried another 2 cash machines but they still weren't coughing up so we bought some Oreos and a baguette with some American dollars we had and got ourselves comfy on the outdoor benches of the bus station. As we waited, we saw what we think was either a shooting star or some sort of comet/meteor. Unfortunately, neither of us had the speed or energy to photograph it but it certainly wasn't something either of us had ever seen before. We've since tried in vain to find something on Google to back up our sighting.
Anyway, after cooing at some babies and consuming far too many biscuits far too early in the morning we embarked the VIP monster of a double decker coach. The side of the coach was emblazoned with the words "King of Buses" and was brightly decorated with illustrations of crowns and the like. Without too much inspection you could find clever engineering hacks on and around the coach; the front bumper had been taped back on and the wheel rims were attached with cable-ties. In addition, the driver (who looked about 17) had to kick the door a number of times for it to close properly. We found our seats on the top deck and quickly discovered that mine was broken; in a permanent recline position. We had plenty of time so I went to tell one of the bus station workers. The gentleman's response to my predicament was to say yes, turn his head, then walk away from me, trying his best to ignore me completely. I tried again but evidently he'd gone deaf and blind. I then tried the driver and another guy who was putting everyone's baggage in the hold. I got the same reaction. You're not really supposed to show strong emotion in Laos, especially not anger, but I refused to be ignored and so raised my volume slightly, harnessing my German genealogy and said "I paid for VIP and my seat is broken!". Finally, the man from the ticket booth said he would come onto the bus before it left and try to sort something out for me. As the bus filled up another kerfuffle manifested; a number of passengers had been given a seat number that didn't exist (the seats ended at 48 but people had tickets up to 52). By this point I was just happy to be in a seat, permanent recline or not, so I decided not to speak up again and hoped the guy checking wouldn't mention my query - which he didn't.
The 10 hour bus ride was, as expected, rather bumpy. We were only travelling 210 miles in total; achievable in probably 4 hours on a clear-ish, straight-ish road, but this was not that. The condition of the bus coupled with the appalling state of the roads meant every lump vibrated through our bodies. This meant that any attempted snooze was brief and somewhat dangerous. It didn't matter too much though as we were travelling in the day. The bus snaked wildly around and through the Laos mountain range, steadily climbing in altitude making our ears pop. Looking out of the window was jaw-dropping; the views of the awe-inspiring Laotian landscape were truly indescribable, but they were also terrifying as we were often clutching to the edge of a sheer drop. The highway connecting Luang Prabang to Vientiane is the biggest and most important in Laos. It has no road markings and no lights (hence our daytime journey) and is very narrow. It's quite aptly called Route 13 and it connects all the way through to Cambodia. Lauren described the journey as a white knuckle ride.
During the ride we befriended a young Lao girl (approx. 4 years old) who was sat behind us. She incessantly popped her head through the gap between our seats (mine on recline and Lauren's upright) in an effort to interact with us. As much as it was mildly annoying we had little else to entertain us and so we were quite happy to act as clowns for a while. She was a great mimic; copying everything we said and did. We taught her 1-5 in English and a few funny gurns (I'm sure her parents will thank us for that on the next school photo). She was a real darling and I hope she was old enough to remember the two weird white girls on the bus. Here she is;
We had one stop for lunch at an entirely Lao truck-stop. Even though we didn't have a food-voucher Lauren managed to swindle herself a bowl of unknown soup (we think it was meat-free). I was still feeling under the weather so I stuck to a yoghurt pot. The co-driver who I'd previously moaned to about my broken seat was now kitted out with a bullet-proof vest and a large, semi-automatic gun. We had read something in one of the travel guides that there was a very small risk of American war legacy guerillas who have, a handful of times over the last decade, come out of the mountains and held up tourist-heavy coaches. Bearing this in mind we were fairly comfortable with our weapon-brandishing ally.
Bums numb and eyes heavy, we arrived at the bus station at around 7pm. After putting a taxi driver on the phone to our home-stay host to give directions, we eventually arrived (1 hour later) at Jungle House. We rolled up to our home for the next 4 days and did our best to take in the amazing palatial bamboo building set amongst a jungle garden. We entered into the massive open plan reception / dining room with mezzanine second floor and were very warmly welcomed by Mike Boddington (great-grandson of THE Mr. Henry Boddington who started the infamous Mancunian beer and brewery) and his Lao wife Xoukiet, their Chinese intern Angela along with the other guests; a French and American couple. Everyone was sat round the dining table and had just finished eating and we were immediately seated and fed with home-cooked Lao delights (with plenty of veggie options for Loz).
At first we were a little overwhelmed; tired, scruffy, dirty and ill-equipped to engage in deep and meaningfuls with the older, well-cultured dinner guests and hosts. We did however take the opportunity to lubricate ourselves with the wine on the table - which helped a little. After a few hours of first impressions we were happy to be escorted to our room; which was across from the main house, past the swimming pool, through a wooded garden and in a cottage. The cottage had bedrooms and en-suite bathrooms on each side and a large communal kitchen / dining room in the middle. The French couple Nicole and Alain were in the twin room and we were in the double (take THAT heteros). Soon enough the resident geckos appeared to introduce themselves but quickly disappeared again when they realised we hadn't brought a load of insects with us.
Our first morning in Vientiane was a sobering one. After a great sleep and a picturesque breakfast sat on the veranda overlooking the lake, Mike gave us a guided tour of the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic Prosthetic Enterprise) visitor centre. The centre was actually set up by Mike in 1997 and does amazing work for disabled people in Lao. The visitor centre brilliantly outlines the 9 year 'Secret War' that the US waged on Laos. I can't begin to express the inhumanity of America's actions - we were truly shocked and appalled when we understood the gravity of it all. But let's not dwell on the negative, here's a 15 minute video that goes some way to illustrating the good work COPE does;
Sufficiently crushed, we then went for an independent stroll around Vientiane town. After a couple of hours we were hot, bothered and lost, so we called Mike on the mobile phone he'd given us and got collected. As Mike had just picked up a new couple (Australian) from the airport, we had to climb into the back of the pick up for an open-top ride back to Jungle House. The wind in our hair and sun on our shoulders, we got plenty of looks from fellow road-users; presumably less shocked by the riding arrangement than our nationality.
For the rest of the day we flopped about the house and grounds; taking a dip in the pool, reading our books and generally enjoying a chill out. This time we felt more prepared for our dinnertime socialising - again making the most of the complementary wine... We had some great conversations; learning about each other and Laos and we really started to feel like one of the family.
On our second day we did nothing but lay around like lazy bums, and we fucking loved it. I tell a lie, we spent a few hours sorting our onward plans
The third day we went to visit one of Mike's friends; Mac and his wife La. Mac and La head up an NGO organisation called Soap4Life which teaches poor Lao women how to make soap (sustainably) to sell. La gave us a live demonstration and it's amazing how easy the process is. We have since learned that Soap4Life has won a contract with Crowne Plaza hotels in Laos for 50,000 pieces of soap which is a great start to the project.
At the house we also met Mac and La's menagerie of pets; 2 squirrels, a bamboo rat, 4 budgies, 2 pugs, 1 shitzu and one other dog. The bamboo rat was particularly cute (and pregnant).
That evening was our final communal dinner and we made the most of it; staying up until midnight waxing lyrical about all the forbidden subjects: politics, culture and religion.
We really didn't want to leave Jungle House; the stars aligned and gave us an amazingly relaxing yet stimulating stay. We both feel incredibly inspired to firstly, read more about modern history (specifically the atrocities of war), secondly, encourage others to do the same and thirdly, commit to some sort of genuinely helpful volunteering.
Ask me again in 6 months to see whether we've followed this through!
BAN THE CLUSTER BOMB!