Saturday, May 30, 2009

30 May – Towards Hanoi

We are now heading east towards Vietnam and Hanoi where we will visit friends.
After Hanoi, we hope to see a bit more of Vietnam before returning to Laos to explore the southern parts. From Laos we will cross into Cambodia, and then it is time to return to Thailand.
We plan to ship the car back to Sweden from Bangkok some time in July.
We will all fly home to Sweden in August in time for Ola’s sister’s wedding and the start of the next school year.

27-29 May – Hmong people, Laos

We drove through wonderfully green scenery with never ending mountains and small villages clinging to the steep slopes.
We stopped in many Hmong villages to interact with the friendly people. The Hmong form the largest hill tribe group in Laos. They are quite recent immigrants, having come from Burma, Tibet and China during the last century or so.
Returning to Luang Prabang, we stopped by a waterfall to let the children cool off in the clear pools below the falls. A true water wonder land.

26 May – Vang Vieng, Laos

We were lured to Vang Vieng by promises of a stunning karst landscape (limestone hill formations). For us, the drive to and from Vang Vieng was a lot more exciting than the village itself. Vang Vieng is more for the young crowd who want to party all night (alcohol is cheap and most illegal substances readily available), wake at noon, have an extra large English breakfast, and then float down the Song River on an inner tube, stopping frequently to cure the hangover with more alcohol. So, Vang Vieng certainly has its audience. But families with small children should perhaps go somewhere else...
Our children did take a quick dip in the river however. The chocolate brown color did not stop them from playing in the stream.

22-25 May – Luang Prabang, Laos

We spent some days in the old royal capital of Luang Prabang, now a World Heritage, on the banks of the Mekong River.
The town is full of French colonial style buildings, now turned into guest houses, boutique hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and trendy cafés where WiFi access comes with your cappuccino.
There is a nice food market and an exhaustingly large night market where tourists can satisfy all their souvenir needs.
Luang Prabang is famous for its many wats (Buddhist temples). Orange clad monks can be seen all over town, walking under their umbrellas or pedaling their bicycles.
In the villages around Luang Prabang, people are making a lot of handicrafts, using all the resources nature can offer. The Mulberry tree, for example, is used for many things. The leaves are food for the silk worms. The berries are eaten raw, dried or in yummy mulberry jam. The bark is used for making paper. The kids tried their hand at this, thrilled that they could create their own paper.

20-21 May – Muang Sing, Laos

We have become fascinated by all the hill tribes. To learn more, and to visit more villages, we drove to Muang Sing in the very northwestern corner of Laos. Unfortunately, the deforestation in Laos is quite bad. The tropical forests are cleared, the timber sold to the Chinese. Slash and burn agriculture is widely practiced. Most of the original forests will be gone very soon.
We camped in a beautiful spot, very close to the Chinese border. We even checked if we were allowed a quick tour into China, but only locals were allowed to use this border. We looked across the border into China. Another time...
We visited an Akha village by foot from where we camped. The Akha always seem to be poorer than the rest. There were children everywhere, keen to get a glimpse of the unusual visitors.
Some women were showing embroidered bracelets, while making sure we got a glimpse of the much more potent merchandise they were hiding in their bags – the big O.
In a Yao village a bit further away, the older women were dressed traditionally in their colorful vests and hats. While they were trying to make some money, selling hand made souvenirs to us, their incapacitated men were smoking opium in a corner.
A visit to another village was effectively blocked. We enjoyed a traditional Lao dinner instead. The sun was setting behind the mountains. People were returning home from the rice paddies. The fire flies were starting their entertaining show in the dark. We are really enjoying Laos.

18-20 May – Luang Namtha, Laos

We crossed the Mekong River on a primitive ferry. The last few meters we had to drive through the murky water ourselves. It felt like a rough and appropriate way to enter into the remote areas of northern Laos.
Welcome to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Just by reading the name of the country you know for sure that democracy is not allowed here. But large and colorful murals with soldiers are very much encouraged.
From the border at Houei Xai we drove through the mountains to Luang Namtha. We watched tribal life as we were passing through one poor village after the other.
We camped by the river next to the Boat Landing Guest House south of Luang Namtha. In their excellent restaurant we got an introduction to the lovely cuisine of Laos. Sticky rice, different dipping curry mixes (jaew), noodle soups (fôe), spicy green papaya salad, fresh spring rolls, etc.
We explored village life around Luang Namtha. Many people are busy in the rice paddies now, planting before the rains start.
The oxen have been replaced by the iron ox from China. This leads to more efficient ploughing, but suddenly the villagers have to get money to buy fuel for the machine and fertilizer for the field (the oxen took care of that before).
In a Black Thai village, the women were producing silk. We were invited to see the silk worms, the cocoons, the spinning and weaving of raw silk fabric. Nina did not mind having to add yet another scarf to her growing collection.

16-17 May – Golden Triangle, Thailand

We spent a night in an Akha village on a steep hill. A nice experience, if not exactly action-packed. Village life is slow. Most people seem to be waiting for something that might never happen. We walked around in the village, meeting friendly smiles everywhere. But communication is of course a challenge. Very few people in these villages even speak Thai.
The Golden Triangle is famous for opium. Nowadays, there is not much opium growing on the Thai side of the Triangle thanks to an effective ban and a replacement-crop program. However, the opium business is still booming across the Mekong River in Burma and Laos. We visited the excellent new museum Hall of Opium to learn more about the history of opium. It was fascinating. And what a great museum!

We drove along the mighty Mekong River towards the river crossing into Laos. It was raining slightly, and a giant rainbow formed along the river. What a great end to our wonderful weeks in Thailand. New adventures are waiting for us on the other side of the rainbow – in Laos.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

12-15 May – Chiang Rai, Thailand

We are resting for a couple of days in Chiang Rai. We have been going at a very intense pace lately. There are many things to see in Thailand, and the driving takes time in the mountainous north. Our next destination is Laos.
We found a Swedish bakery where we have enjoyed Swedish cookies and cinnamon buns. When Tinna tasted the cinnamon bun she exclaimed: ‘These taste exactly like grandmother’s cinnamon buns!’.
The foundation which operates the bakery also runs several orphanages. We visited their orphanage in Hua Doi where 57 children, aged 7-18, have found a new home and a future. Well done!

10-11 May – Tham Lot and Cave Lodge, Thailand

The caves at Tham Lot are very beautiful. There are at least 200 caves in the area, and several of them have been discovered and mapped by John Spies who is running the Cave Lodge since many years. Nina bought his book and really liked it. Check out for more info.

We visited the Tham Lot caves and floated down the underground river while the bats and swifts tried to drop their loads on our heads. The kids were superbly brave, climbing into very challenging caves and enduring the darkness with bats all around us.
In the last cave we saw the remains of some teak coffins which are at least 1500 years old. Amazing that wood can last so long in this humidity.
We drove even deeper into the mountains, equipped with special maps from Cave Lodge. These tracks and roads were among the steepest we have ever seen. We often had to engage low gear. Sometimes the diff lock was needed.
We visited villages with people from the Lahu and Shan tribes. In the Lahu village Ban Eko we gave pencils to all the school children. They seemed to appreciate that very much. The poverty in these mountain villages is extreme.

9 May – Tea and coffee, Thailand

We drove up to the very northwest, to the village of Mae Aw. Kuomintang soldiers settled here when they were defeated by Mao in the 1940s. Thanks to its remote location, the village is still very Chinese. They grow a special Chinese tea which they export to Taiwan.
We found the most wonderful coffee in Ban Ruam Thai. A Thai man called Hilary has learnt how to grow, process and roast Arabica coffee. Everything is done manually, without electricity. And Hilary does it so well that any European passing by will cry out of joy and try to hug this coffee entrepreneur. Wonderful!