Friday, April 8, 2011

Week 9 - Northern Laos

Written by Dan

The internet is almost non-existent in Laos so we've been forced to reduce the blogs to weekly rather than daily updates. And this one will be more pictures than writing.

In Short, coming over from Vietnam into Laos vis the North is physically brutal but spiritually the most refreshing feeling we've ever had. The horns and the cars disappear, the frowns turn into smiles, the air becomes clean and the skies become sunny and blue!

The day we left DBP, Vietnam was the first day we started at 7am so far on this trip. We new we had to clear a big mountain pass to get to the border to se wanted a head start on the heat. since the road on the Laos side is completely unpaved, most people do the ride between DBP in Vietnam and Muang Khua, the first town with accommodation in that area of Laos, in 2 days. For some reason we decided to do it in one. It was a painful 13-hour day of 3 giant mountain climbs and terrible dusty roads.

From Muang khua, we joined other backpackers for a boat trip down the river to the isloated village of Muang Ngoi where we based ourselves for some chilling and getting accustomed to Laos for two days. Here we met an older French guy named Olivier, some Young people for Quebec, Canada, a couple from Israel, a Dutch guy and a few other travelers. With only very few places to visit in the region, we ended up beoing an impromptu tour group following almost the same schedule and itinerary - except for the fact that we were going by bike.

After boating out of Muang Ngoi to the next town south called Nong Khiaw, we re-mounted our bikes and headed for Luang Prabang. Along the way we met two professional bike tourists who had cycled over from Switzerland! a day later we met two couple whoi had cycled over from London, England and were using the trip to move to their new homes in Australia and New Zealand! We shared the road with the latter two couples from a small dirty town called Pak Mong where the locals seemed to enjoy eating squirrel and skunk meat, all the way to Luang Prabang.

The ride to Luang Prabang was another long one - 110km! But once we arrived we were in heaven. It is the first time we have ever seen the Mekong (Luang Prabang is located on it's banks). We have just spent the last 3 days exploring the temples, markets, food stalls, and waterfalls and have loved every minute. We also met a few groups of Americans, two from tennessee and two from New York City - it has been really nice to finally talk to some people from home and it makes us even more home sick.

Tomorrow we start our 3-day trip to the tubing and party capital of Vang Vieng. This section will consist of another few big mountain passes, but we will take our time and try to enjoy the scenery along the way.

So far, the peace and quiet has been nice - hope you all have chance to get some in the near future.

Week 8 - Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam

Written by Dan

Having cycled over treacherous mountains to get to and from Sapa in both cold rain and blistering dry heat, we were sick, tired, and worn out of brake pads - a rookie mistake.

On Tuesday, March 22nd, we pulled in to Dien Bien Phu (DBP) and immediately sent in an order to our supplier in China for more brake pads. Luckily, Shark at the Dongguan Specialized store got them on their way the very next day. Unfortunately, we had no way of knowing when the package would arrive and so we could do nothing but wait.

As the closest Vietnamese city to a newly opened overland border crossing to Laos, DBP's tourism is mostly made of backpackers going between Vietnam and Laos. The guide books let us know that DBP is also the site of the decisive 57-day battle in which the Viet Minh defeated the French for the last time, thereby winning independence. Within our first day we visited a hill filled with bunkers and a patriotic museum with some photos and relics. That only took up the first half of the first day. We thought to ourselves, what the hell are we going to do here - we could be stuck here for days if not weeks!

Luckily, we were able to keep ourselves busy mostly with books, TV, and cream cheese sandwiches. When we were bored we would go downstairs to the cafe in the lobby and holler to foreigners leaving the bus station across the street to come join us at our guesthouse. People thought we were living there.

3 of the days were taken up by visits to the local laptop repair shop because our beloved travel computer ("Com-piu-piu") decided not to load windows anymore. We couldn't tell whether this was because I had slammed it on the ground after a night of too many whiskys back in Hong Kong two months before or because the computer itself was a fake copy of a Sony Viao and was designed to self-deconstruct 3 months into it's lifetime. Anyway, Com-piu-piu is working again, albeit without webcam, Skype, or USB capabilities - I had to go back 3 times just to get them to make the sound work again...

Finally on the second to last day, the hotel owner frantically called us downstairs from our room and told us the post office called to say that our package had arrived in DBP. We instantly grabbed our bikes and cycled to the P.O., discussing our plans for Laos along the way. When we got there, the P.O. attendants could not understand us and called a translator who helped tell us that they did not have our package. They sent us arround to different places around the city who all called the same translator, who in turn told us each time the they did not have our package. We were so confused and started to get angry; why would the post office call us to tell us our package was there and then tell us that it's not. We even got the hotel owner to come down with us but even she couldn't  find out where our package was. Finally, thinkin that the translator was an employee of the post office, we called him down to help us settle this face to face.

The man, a Vietnamese named Thin, came over in 15 minutes and told us that there was a miscommunication and that our hotel owner had mis-understood the phone call, which actually had been to say that the package had left Hanoi and would arrive soon in DBP - how kind of the Post Office in Hanoi and how terribly cruel of the hotel owner for getting our hopes up.

As it turned out, Thin was not an employee of the Post Office and instead the secretary of the SOS Children's Village in DBP - and newly-opened room and board operation for orphans. When we asked how we ould repay him for his good samaritanship and ncredible help, he simply asked us to come by the village the next day.

After getting the real call and picking up our package on Thursday, March 31st, we spent our last day at SOS DBP. It was such a treat and we wish we had known about it sooner - we would've gone every day. During our visit, we met the kids and the staff and learned that the children, who are all given beds, women to look after them, schooling, and more from this great international Non-Profit Organization. But most shockingly, we learned that with limited funding, they only have a budget for 50 cents a day for food for each child. We thought that the best thing we could do was buy some veggies to supplement their dinner of rice. Neville, a retired coal-miner and rugby player from Australia who lives on and off in DBP, helped introduce every one to us as we delivered our veggies house-to-house by wheelbarrow.

I hope more and more travellers hear about SOS and make it a part of their stop-over in DBP.

Kids of SOS, the one in pink has been in and out of the hospital since she arrived in the village a year ago

Us with the kids and one of the "mothers" after delivering some food

The kids helping Dan push the cart of tomatos and carrots

Unfortunately, though we would've liked to spend more time volunteering at the village, after waiting for 10 days, we decided to leave April 1st for Laos.