Laos

Sunsets, Night Markets and Waterfalls in Luang Prabang, Laos

491532864233605.jpg

Just off the main road in Laos where the famous night market takes place every evening is Phou Si hill which has beautiful views at sunset. I take a stroll up -at about 100m its a breeze compared to the trekking i've done so far. The temple at the top is set amongst the trees and costs around 30,000 to enter. Gold Buddhas sit amongst the leaves with their blank eyes staring out, their Buddha hands stretched out front -fingers delicately curled. The sun is just setting like caramel into a peachy haze of a sky – the Mekong river is a milk chocolate ribbon spinning out below. Its a view good enough to eat – unfortunatley every other tourist in Luang Prabang thinks so too and is up here with me. Pah! Never mind. As I head down the hill the other popular tourist attraction – the colourful night market stalls are just setting up and the view down on the road is laced with bright pink and red canopies of the traders tents. 

 



I have a chicken and avocado baguette sandwich and look at the wares. They have beautiful Lao silk sarongs, scarves, purses and bags. I buy a bright red shoulder bag with woven white and green pattern for 23000kip (One pound fifty  after bartering of course.) I then snack on my favourite street food – little fried patties of coconut milk stuck together and served in a banana leaf basket – it costs about 30p. 

coconut patties - yum

 



There are a variety of excursions you can do in Luang Prabang including visits to the local villages, elephant trekking and bathing and caves to visit. I'm planning to visit the elephants in Cambodia and have had enough of jungle trekking for a while – so I just take a local tuk tuk to the big waterfall in the area which costs 30,000. 

The waterfalls are lovely, a series of milky green pools leading up to a froth of cascading water – but its filled with those damn tourists again. I realise as much as I like Luang Prabang I am now a traveller proper – and the presence of people on holiday for a few days with money to burn and accents to grate is wearisome. Oh dear - I was sure that travelling would make me more open, warm and accepting of people - but every now and again it does just help enforce national stereotypes. I join a German couple to trek to the top of the waterfall – which as its a very steep and muddy slope is somewhat of a mistake in flipflops but the view is pretty and we have told the tuk tuk driver 3 hours so what else will I do! 

 


Then when I get down I go for a swim in the bathing area. The water is cool but refreshing. There is a rope that you can swing off and jump in but i'm not feeling brave enough for that today and am quite happy just to submerge myself like a little hippo in the shallow end. I spend the rest of my time there sipping a green tea in the cafe near huge peach coloured trumpets of the tropical blooms and the enormous armchair sized palm leaves. When I get back I buy a latte and slice of pumpkin pie as a snack and then later go for dinner and another speciality – fried bamboo and pork with sticky rice which is delicous. 

The next day and the patient is out! And Maaike and Dominik the other half of our Gibbon experience team are back so we reunite and hobble slowly to a bar and restaurant for dinner. Ben is in good spirits and like any 19 year old boy quite excited I think by all the attention. We go to Lao Lao garden – a touristy but cool western bar that has outdoor tables and is strung with fairy lights. Its playing good music and has cheap cocktails. Dominik orders another Luang Prabang speciality – a BBQ – and the waiters pull back a slat on the table to create the space for the fire and then brings a ceramic urn with a trough around the side for the broth and noodles and vegetables to cook that is placed over the heat. A separate platter contains the slivers of diferent meat along with a large chunk of white greasy fat that is placed on the top of the BBQ to provide the grease to cook the meal. After a while I say: 

Your broth is running out you need to top it up” 
“I know!” exclaims Dominik – “ This is very stressful!” 

I have decided to take the Australian couple's advice who I met in Luang Namtha and go on a little road (or river trip) up North a bit to a village called Nong Kiaw. Its out of my way but I just have a good feeling about it.

Mr Mung, Slow Boats and School children in Nong Khiaw - Laos.

Boats on the Mekong

I get a cramped and hot minivan up to Nong Khiaw which takes 3 hours. I wanted to get the boat – as the boat ride on the Nam Ou river is supposed to be much more beautiful than the ones on the Mekong – but unfortunately the boats will only go with a minimum of 8 or 9 people and so far i'm the only one that is interested. The minivans are cheaper and cost around 70,000 kip which is a fiver. I arrive into Nong Kiau which is a tiny little village set around the Nam Ou River. 

The minibus arrives in and everyone staggers off it and into a tuk tuk. But its says its only a 2k walk so I heave “The Bastard” onto my back and set off. The heat feels somehow even hotter and more intesne than in China. I stop at the first guesthouse I see and a short Lao man with stout calves and cheeky smile comes over. 

“You want to see guesthouse – very quiet very tranquil. You walk 5 mins into town and see the guest houses 100,000 kip this you get views overlooking the river, you can drink take it easy in our hammock swim in the river with the locals– only 60,000!” 

“For 50,000 and a room upstairs overlooking the river – i'm sold!” I say. 

“Ok I do special discount for you!” 

I have met the irrepresible Mr Mung. 

I go upstairs – its a double bed with ensuite bathroom and hot water for 50,000 (about 3 pounds fifty.) 

There is a little writing table and chair outside my room and gorgeous views over a the Nam Ou river and tall pale green hilly Karst mountains. Once the heat of the day has burned off I take a little walk into Nong Kiau central. Its a 10 minute walk down the same street lined with little shops selling car parts and barbequeing chicken feet. There is a bridge that crosses the river and most of the restaurants and guesthouses are on the other side. 

I stroll over and have a coconut shake overlooking the river as the sun begins to set. Its truly beautiful here – the mountains rise on both sides of the river – and its so peaceful. Down below on the river bank a villager is burning his crops to clear his fields and the smoke rises in lazy curls to mix with the dark clouds coming in for sunset. 

I decide to have a massage – this time I have Khamu massage – a technique from the Khmu tribe in Laos that involves lots of pushing and pressing with the palm of the hand. I lie down on the mattress and a 17 year old boy comes in (my masseur!) he lights a mosquito coil and puts on a fan to keep the little biters at bay and a chicken comes to roost in one of the beams over head – and to watch over proceedings. Its nice and relaxing and I feel more comfortable with him than I have done with other male masseurs where you can sense their tension at having to massage a woman. This guy doesn't seem to mind. 

I have dinner in the adjoining restaurant afterwards – for 25,000 kip (about one pound fifty) I get the special of the day – grilled Tilapia river fish with sticky rice and peanut sauce. Delicious. 

 



The next day I come down to the little verandah overlooking the river and find a book to read and get comfortable. Its “Awakening the Buddhist heart.” Coincidentally (there are NO coincidences said Buddha...) well he didn't but you know...I've been thinking a lot recently about how to get out of the negative spirals of my mind. Although I couldn't call myself a Buddhist I do meditate every day and my spiritual views are most closely alinged with Buddhism. I believe (and have done since university) that at our core we are essentially good. That we are here in life to learn and that often it is our pain and suffering that provides us with the most material for self reflection and improvement to become better people if we are awake to the lessons.

The Dalai Lama says that he is in the religion of Loving Kindness. The first step towards being compassionate and loving with others is to love yourself and forgive and love those closest to you. We need to move away from Ego where our feelings of confidence and self approval are decided by external things – money, success, career, fame etc and have an inner strength and self love that doesn't waver in the face of flattery or criticism. It allows us to see “what really is” rather than colouring everything with our own unique self perception and so that we can control our thoughts rather than allow them to control us. 

Or as Maggie Thatcher says in the film The Iron Lady: 

Thoughts become words become actions become habits become characer become destiny. What you think you become. 

Mr Mung and Family




Karma isn't just about the life we create in the next incarnation but also the life we create for ourselves in this lifetime due to our thoughts that become actions. 

The recent mostly American driven awareness into Metaphysics around the Law of Attraction in books such as The Secret all mostly hark back to and repeat principles found in Buddhism. 

Its one of the goals for the inner journey. The book has been dropped into my lap at an almost perfect time. 

Jan – Mr Mung's wife – a pretty Lao woman in her early twenties ask If I want to check out. I had thought to get a guesthouse closer to town but now I can't really see the benefit of being somewhere more crammed. Here I have an unspoiled view, its cheap and I take the book as a sign I must stay! 



I'm joined by an Australian in his late forties – Matt and a French Woman from Cannes - Christine. I want to buy the book but Mr Mung says its been given to him in a book exchange. Christine gives me a book of hers to replace so that I can keep it. That's good karma right there 😊 

We decide to do a trek with Mr Mung the next day. The day starts by taking a slow boat up the Nam Ou River. Its a very comfortable long wooden boat with engine and car seats shoved in it for extra comfort. I stand up with my head through the slats to admire the view and then join Christine on the back seat. After about 10mins I start to feel queasy. Oh here we go again. Me and boats! 

Nevertheless it is beautiful. We have bought exercise books, pencils and rulers for the local children and stop off at two villages to meet them. At the first one school isn't happening today because the teacher hasn't turned up. We watch the villagers stripping bamboo to make baskets and drying out chillis. Its nice being with Mr Mung – who used to be a Tiger Trail guide – as he knows the villagers and talks amicably to them. There are the traditional Khmau and Lao huts raised on stilts with the kitchen on the ground floor and the second floor used as the sleeping area. 



We walk to the waterfall. It can't really be called a hike – as its fairly relaxing and only takes 45 mins but it is beautiful although again the midday weather is scorching. Hot hot sun and a cloudless blue sky. We walk through the lime green paddy fields of sticky rice grain. Huge bright butterflies skip across our path. As we enter the jungle it gets more shady. 

“We are about to enter Leech Village” says Mr Mung. 

“WHAT DID HE SAY???” I scream. Christine – a tanned lady in her early forties with frizzy hair and sensible travel skirt on – looks bemused. 

Matt – an Australian with large blue eyes and gentle manner smiles. 

“Its ok they are only little you can pick them off.” 

I whimper. I HATE leeches why must they be everywhere in this goddamn country

“Oh they are very clean creatures - leeches” says Matt trying to console me.

“My sister puts one her top lip every time she gets a cold sore to suck the infection out.” 

“...” 

“well she is quite alternative...” he concedes.... 

I manage to hike up the muddy slopes of the waterfall without being attacked. Suddenly Christine screams and falls over landing on her bum. 

“Did you see that creature?? - it was like a leech but long and black and white” 

I scream and help her up. I'm glad its not just me that is being a total girl about things. 

When we get to the top of the waterfall we strip off for a swim. I have managed to leave my bikini on the boat so Matt has lent me his board shorts – its not a particularly sexy look but hey its only us and the leeches for company. No other tour party are here at the “hundred waterfalls” each guide has their own section. 

We are able to bathe in the bright foaming turquoise water of the waterfall and look back down at the view of it cascading over the rocks overhung with huge tropical leaves, vines and flowers. Its very pretty. 

Mung lays out banana leaves for dinner and serves up rice and buffalo with a vegetable dish. Its great although not quite up to the standard of my previous jungle trek with the Khamu guides. 



We make our way back to the village and word is out that the Falangs have been here with gifts. The children are on a break and soon rush over to gather round. We hand out our gifts and they put their hands together bow and say Kop Jai (thank you.) 

They are very sweet. One little boy with blackened teeth and medallion sees us taking a photo and thrusts his hands out in a V sign – I don't think he knows it means Fuck Off in english but its very funny. They run behind us down to the water's edge to wave us goodbye as we get into the boat and head off back to the guesthouse just in time to see the sun setting over the river. 

 



Back at the guesthouse we strip off again for a sunset swim in the river. Its empty at this end of the village apart from some more inquisitive little locals who come and join us to play in the water. 



That evening we drink beer with Mung and he tells us about his life. Matt is trying to get out of Mung whether or not he's faithful to his wife. I can tell them he is not – he has been giving me looks all day and asks if he can share a room with me when we get into Luang Prabang. I don't think its appropriate in my cutlure to share a room with a married man so I can hardly believe its acceptable in his! I refuse. 

The after dinner entertainment



Then he tells us how Lao women are treated in society. Women are basically second class citizens. Every family must have at least one boy to be considered successfull in their village. The boy can then look after the family – if a family has all girls then they are vulnerable and unprotected from other men taking them, having sex with them dishonoruing them. He has one son – a very cute chubby 2 year old called 'Tino after Valetino Rossi. He talks about the day he was delivered. The doctor had got it wrong and told him he was going to have a girl. He says he was crushed...devastated. When he found out it “had a dick” he shouted out “three boxes of Beer Lao!!!” Now he would like a girl – because his family are ok – they have the boy. He is also looking after his mother who has difficutly breathing – Matt who has trained as a nurse leaves some chest medicine and inhalers for her and teaches Mung how to use them. I hope they help although I cant help worry about what she will do if it does work and then it runs out in a few months time. Mung tells us how he was in love with another girl before he married Jan. He proposed but she said that she didn't want to get married straight away and they should wait awhile – he says that she said this because she wanted to look around and see if she could find a better prospect. He was sooo upset but when he talked to his mother about what she should do she said “go with someone that makes you happy."

 His cousin introduced him to Jan a few months later who is from a different village – which makes it difficult because his parents don't like her they like the ex who came from he same village as them. It is the unknown and they mistrust her as a result. Just before he married Jan his ex came back to him and asked if he could go back out with her. Jan knew about it and was in tears. Mung didnt know what to do but he knew that the ex had disrespected him and not loved him enough in the first place to stay with him and accept him. She was back because she hadn't found anything better. So he stayed with Jan and married her. I can't help feel he's still a little heart brokenthough. It doesn't matter where you live or what your life is like some things are always the same – affairs of the broken heart.

Jungle Trekking, Leech Lingering, River Wading in Luang Namtha Laos

I arrive into Luang Namtha from Jinhong – and despite numerous stories and misinformation central from the useless hostels in Xichuanbana – its easy and painless. I share another (my last for now) Chinese bus with only a couple of other Lau Weis – and some women eating sticky rice in pandan leaves. The feathering bamboo forests and bright lime green of the rice paddies gives way to huge dark green undulating mountains, broad leafed banana plants and tropical palm trees. There is a Japanese guy on the bus and I ask him how it is bearing in mind the troubles (all over China angry mobs have been attacking Japanese tourists over the dispute with their islands) 

“Uncomfortable” he says. He has been refused accommodation in China because of his nationality. 

Dai- the Japanese student from Shangrila has emailed me. He is scared he will be attacked. He ends dramatically with "I must be care for my safety" Marco has told me about a shop sign he hs seen in Shangri la – saying “We don't serve Japanese, pigs or dogs” which he has had to translate for Dai. Akward. Later Dai gets back in touch to say he's decided to change from studying the sciences to journalism. I can see why when you have to experience first hand the hatred of a mob whipped up by the power of mass media. 


I get into Luang Namtha and stop at Zoula Guesthouse – with its dark wooden walls. The sun is bright and hot, the little town is very flat with hills rising in the background. I get out my silver umbrella to shade me and think i'm a true traveller now – I don't even care about a tan I just want to stay out of the sun! On the roadside are little old ladies selling grapefruits. There is a night market where the locals eat – you can get a traditional Laos dish - papaya salad (thin spicy slivers in a fishy sauce), bbqd pork, duck or chicken and here its sticky rice all the way. A different grain to other rice – it also contains more sugar. The traditional way to eat a Laos meal is with your hands - you roll up the sticky rice into little balls the size of walnuts and then use it to mop up the rest of the food. 

For 5000 kip about 30p you can also get a Lao dessert. A bowl filled with coconut milk, tapioca balls and slivers of mango and sweet potato. Its delicious. 

Luang Namtha is making a name for itself with its Eco treks – hikes into the NPA – National Protected with companies promising sustainable green tourism. I've met an Australian couple who run a litte cafe called Forest Retreat. They were obviously travellers themselves and know exactly what kind of foods “falangs” (foreigners) are craving after a couple of months on the road in Asia. On the menu they have Bircher Muesli served with fresh milk (very hard to find in Asia), Cheese on toast (imported all the way from New Zealand) baked beans and a bonafide coffee machine serving an authentic Flat White. I know where i'm going for breakfast. They run tours from here and I can imagine going on one of their treks would be a sensible choice as they are well reputed and know what westerners are looking for in service. However the only one they have going is leaving the next day and involves a day kayaking. It doesn't really appeal – i've never kayaked before and although my philosophy is usually “give everything a go once” I would just like to do some proper trekking and to learn about the plants and fruits of the forest. I don't think i'll get that by joinging a rowdy bunch of Australians. 

I find another company which is doing a jungle trek led by a Khmu guide (one of the native tribes of Laos) and one other person who has signed up – a gentle gangling giraffe of an American (Zac) with quietly contemplative air. We agree to go the day after tomorrow so I can recover from the all day bus journey. The more people you can get to accomany you on tour the cheaper it becomes – as there is only two of use it costs around 45 pounds each for a two day hike with an overnight stay in the jungle. 

I finish the day at a local cafe eating Laos noodle soup. I have another of the specialities on my first night – noodle broth with sweet minced beef – mint, coriander and spring onion. Its fragrant, light and a welcome relief to all the deep fried oily goodies of China. 

It comes with a serving dish of d basil leaves, bean sprouts and green beans that you tear up and chuck in along with an assortment of bottles from the table to help you adjust the taste to your liking– a savoury sauce, hot chilli paste and sugar. 

The next day we meet our guides – a young shy 21 year old called Aer who has opted to do his first guided trek in flip flops (common amongst the locals) and a cheeky outgoing 26 year old called Gong – both are from the Black Tai Dum ethnic tribes. Our Guide is from the Khmu tribe and is called San (which means 100,000) and has skin the colour of dried leather and he speaks no English. There are 29 ethnic tribes in Luang Namtha who have gradually migrated from surrounding border lands of Myanmar, Vietnam and Yunnan in China. We stop at the daily market in Luang Namtha first so that they can pick up our lunch. 

The women sit on the floor shaded by large red and blue parasols their goods laid out in front of them...lots of fresh fruit and green leaves, bright bunches of coriander, 

 

the yellow stars of banana flowers, different coloured chilli peppers, dragon fruit and mangoes. In the indoor section is food to take away – large bowls of scrabbling big black water beetles, thick chunks of hexagonal bee's hive with the bee larvae still wriggling inside each cell (apparently they eat them raw and alive or smoked -the latter tasting a little like oysters according to Zac) silk worms and bamboo boring lavae as well as bunches of live frogs tied up in string or deep fried if you don't feel like plunging them into hot oil yourself. All of this wildlife is foraged from the water of the rice paddy fields and the surrounding jungle. There are also slighty more palatable looking grilled fish and split chicken on bamboo skewers and mountains of sticky rice. 
 

 Our Guide Sasn

Our Guide Sasn


We pick up our guide San from his village (he is normally a paddy field farmer) and set off for the jungle. The trek (which has been described as easy to moderate...) starts at a shallow river crossing where I discover...we have to take off our shoes and socks and wade on through. There are two little nut brown naked children waist deep in the water banging thick globs of dark green algae against stones. Villagers deep fry the algae and eat it but these kids are just playing with it. I'm worried about leeches – they are everywhere apparently and I am NOT good with slimy wriggling things. But apparently leeches don't live in fast moving water they live on the river bank and on the ground (something I didn't know.) Poor Zac is more at risk as he already has a nasty bloody puncture on his lower leg from a dog that bit him at a temple he was visiting – our guide wriggles his finger to mime a leech and laughes with a toothless grin – yes the leeches will have a field day. 



I'm a little taken aback we have to just wade through water – no one prepared us but we get to the other side and start again – walking through the bright lime green of the rice paddies and through the fragrant cardamom bushes and galangal trees. We learn how the villagers use the cotton from the Kapok trees and harvest and scrape green bark from some treets to use as diarrhoea medicine (may come in handy later). We are trekking in the jungle of the NPA – (National Protected area.) The jungles of Luang Namtha are still very undeveloped but are now being reduced in size through logging and to a lesser extent the “slash and burn” farming techniques fo the locals. Unlike Thailand or surrounding Asian countries –30% of the jungles are virgin primary forest – and the local villagers live off the land from both this and the secondary growth.

There are no pristine hiking trails here, both Gong and San have machetes strapped to their waists to cut through the foliage of the paths. But this will change in the not too distant future. The Chinese come and encourage the locals to cut down the trees and grow rubber trees for money. Now all the trees are cut down and the weather is hotter – complains Gong – and the rubber trees have lessened in value because everyone does it. The government has made villages like San to be near roads – although this provides them with better easier access to healthcare and education it has also reduced the amount of land they can farm and given them less access to the forest for their resources. I feel lucky in some ways I've got to experience this now. 

We stop for lunch in a shelter in a rice paddy. I am trekking in leggings tucked into socks to try and evade leeches but in 40 degree heat its hard going. Lunch is laid out on big flat banana leaves along the route and consists of grilled Tilapia fish, Laap a paste made with minced pork meat, salad made with garlic, chilli and a dark green local stringy weed and grilled duck chopped up with the bone still in it. Its delicious. As we are eating the heavens open. Its still rainy season and we can see enormous drops splatter the earth. After sheltering ourselves and our backpacks as best we can with waterproofs we set off again through fields thick with lemon grass, wild mint, coriander and chilli peppers. As we go the guides cut bunches of the fresh herbs to use in our dinner. The trek is strenuous and at least an hour and half is steep and up hill. I'm in pretty good shape but if I wasn't i'd feel missold from the information given! 



Here the guides tend to just head off – hacking through the large spiny rattan plants and thick fronds of the bamboo without stopping to help and aren't proactive with the information – Zac and I have to extract it from them which is disappointing. Going steeply downhill is just as precarious on the muddy slopes and the guide hacks off bamboo canes to make walking sticks for us. However once it levels out I can start to enjoy the walk. The intense heat of midday and the thick rain have subsided leaving a more pleasant sunshine shaded by the jungle canopy and a chance to appreciate the environment – the thick grey green trunks of the strangler and Kapok trees, the huge tarzan esque vines that wrap their way around branches and hang from the trees, the broad flat leaves of banana trees. 

Gong cuts up some of the large concertined leaves of the Palm and fashions them into fans for us - and they work at keeping the sticky humid heat at bay. 

We arrive at the bamboo camp where we will stay the night. Apparently they haven't done this trek for 3 months because of the rainy season and when we arrive there is rubbish in one of the rooms, someone has kicked through the dried leaves of the window and (apparently) stolen the mattresses and mosquito nets. Brilliant – this means I will be “sleeping” in a sleeping bag on banana leaves laid out onto a hard wooden floor. I am exceptionally bony – I know I will not be getting any sleep at all. 

Otherwise the bamboo camp is a sweet little baba yaga esque (but not hopping around on one chicken foot) thatched hut on stilts right by the rushing cocoa brown river. The guides set about making a fire whilst Zac and I regard the wildlife. There is a little spider inside what looks like a white horned mask with two black antlers weaving a great web. Its not clear whether he just has two legs or little legs under this “mask” I google him later and realise he's a similar type to Professor X I saw in Fujian at the martial arts school. They are called St Andrew spiders and weave zig zag Xs into their webs before drawing their legs into pairs and sitting in the middle. He is spinning his web furiously. 

Once the fire has been built San strips down to his underpants and disappears off into the jungle to hack down some thick bamboo branches as thick as my ankle. He then sets about fashioning some steamers out of them which the sticky rice and water are poured into and then positioned into the fire. They have brought a chicken with them that spit and then roast – then another bamboo branch is cut open and cared into a soup serving bowl. The fresh herbs and chillie that were picked earlier en route are added to some stock to make Or Lam - a traditional Laos Chicken stew. Rattan branches (the same Rattan used to make furniture) have been cut and shaved of their thorns and are now being roasted in the fire. Once cooked the hard outer layers of the stem are peeled away and the thick white flesh inside becomes our vegetable accompaniment. 



Conversation after dinner turns to Gong's religious beliefs. Like a lot of the ethnic tribes in Laos he is not Buddhist but believes in Animism – a complicated worship centred around making rituals and offerings to spirits of natural elements such as mountains and lakes as well as to the ghosts of ancestors past. They have ghost stories that scare – one ghost who walks around with its entrails out and eats only the intestines of pigs...another where if you eat after midnight and don't make an offering the ghosts of the ancestors come to the dinner and stand around you. They build a fire in one room that Zac and I sleep in but I can't help feel that Gong would be happier near the fire as well. 



For breakfast San has made some spoons out banana leaves again and we have chicken and noodles with a Jeow (traditional Laos chilli sauce) made out of chilli, garlic and fruit. We set off again and they are joking about the river crossing that we will have to do where the water comes to chest level. Oh no – I should have known – they aren't joking. I strip off to exercise shorts and vest top and take off shoes and socks again. The water is muddy and deep and the current is strong. The guides take my bag and I start to stumble slowly across the coffee coloured water rushing around me. Aer comes to help me with a stick but its slow work – by the time I get to the centre of the river San the guide comes out and puts forward his bamboo cane. I grab the end of it and just swim my way across to the other side which is easier – then try and get clothed and shoed before the leeches get me. 



I have had four so far found wriggling on the rubber laces part of my sneakers. Everytime I see one I can't help it – I squeal and one of the guides has to come and pick it off. I feel like such a girl. However Zac has been trekking in shorter trousers and sure enough the dog bite has attracted them – he has been bitten three times by the leeches – the blood from the wounds smearing his skin. The only good news about leeches is that unlike mosquitos – their bite is harmless as they do not carry malaria or any other diseases. But they are gross! 



We continue on our way and Gong kneels down to cut into a round shaped root revealing a fleshy pink interior – this is used by locals grated instead of rice and for lunch we have another soup made with fresh mushrooms picked along the way. The final descent comes out of the jungle and down a very steep hill through wild mint – the rolling hills of Laos stretching out below. There is just one final water crossing into a rice paddy and we are done – waiting hot, tired and very dirty for our lift back to town. Once there Zac and I sit down and have a beer with our guides – I really can't decide whether the whole trek has been brilliantly awful or awfully brilliant. The food and learning about the medicines and wildlife was fantastic, the leeches and sleeping on hard floors less so. But it has certainly been memorable...and i've eaten some of the best and authentic food on my travels.


Ziplining, Tree Houses and Gibbon Song in Houay Xai - Laos.

I arrive into Houay Xai – a dusty, una attractive little town on the border of Thailand – pretty much famous for one thing only that puts it on the map – The Gibbon Experience -which is what i'm here to do. Guesthouses rather than dorms are more common in South East Asia so I end up paying 80,000 kip a night for a private room with ensuite bathroom (around six pounds) but hey I get an mtv channel which even though its showing some crappy rock god countdown is bliss compared to the all Asian music and media i've been experiencing to date. The next day I find a nice bakery and buy some pumpkin and raisin bread along with a proper coffee for breakfast. 

I get talking to a sixty something German artist called Yuri. He is tanned with clouds of white hair, a brisk little moustache and eyes that twinkle. Nowadays he lives in the Blue Mountains in Sydney – but he likes to spend some months travelling Asia where its cheaper and hotter. He waxes lyrical about Indonesia which I inform him i've decided to tag onto the end of my trip – and recommends that I go to Sumatra and visit Lake Tobu. Should I ever decide to learn Chinese again he also recommends a school on Hainan which is cheap where I can go. I talk about my love of literature and he tells me about the Chinese poet Bai Lu – who died staring up and admiring the moon but then falling overboard because he was drunk... 

We go for lunch overlooking the wide coffee brown Mekong River and share a plate of spring rolls and dumplings. He gets out his painter's note book and his acrylic paints and sets to work touching up one of his sketches. He gives his art away often to locals – because the universe always gives back. I tell him I want to start painting again and he encourages me. 

He's getting a bus to Luang Prabang – I take a walk up the hill to see the temple at the top where the monks are. Its all gold and glittery and there are hundreds of monks – young boys and teenagers mostly in their bright orange robes. A couple come up to chat to me – Bat and Bong I think there names are! 

They are studying Buddhism for three years. They are sweet and curious and friendly : 

“Good luck!” they say as I leave. 

In Laos – becoming a monk is something that nearly all young men do it signifies the rite of passage from boy to man. The monks come down every day at dawn to receive alms from the villages but today is an extra special ceremony that signifies the end of their three month fast and the rainy season. All evening the villagers have been wrapping up parcels of sticky rice in banana leaves and creating flower arrangements to float down the river. 

I am taking over the single room that Yuri has been in – and knowledge of this causes me to get very little sleep. I can smell him on the sheets. Its a pretty shitty hotel – the sink comes away from the basin and the water is collected in a bucket underneath. There are no mosquito nets on the window. 

I get up early for The Gibbon experience and go get a pancake in banana and honey for breakfast in preparation. 

The Gibbon Experience is listed as one of Lonely Planet's must do sights (one of the only things to do...) in Houay Xai. It started out as an innovative initiative to stop poachers wiping out the black gibbon native to the jungle in Bokeo Province. They created a series of tree houses with zip lines between the canopies so that thrill seeking travellers could experience what it really feels like to swing between the trees like a monkey – and retrained the poachers to be guides to help travellers hear and see the gibbons– paying them more money than they would have made through the killing and selling of the creature. 

This adventure is something I was planning to do last Easter when I was looking at a 3 week holiday to South East Asia while I worked at Network Rail. Then around 230 pounds for a 3 day 2 night experience seemed like an absolute bargain – these days its feels like a seriously overpriced extravagance. There is a cheaper option for around 180 pounds that is two days and one night – however the chances of seeing gibbons are low to none. 

The women who run the tiny, blink and you miss it, office in Houay Xia are bored and listless and seem to operate on Lao time which means although everyone has been gathered at the doors by 8.30am no one appears till quarter to nine and its about 9.30 when we hit the road. We are taken to the edges of the jungle in a jeep. In rainy season the roads leading to the official start of the trek get waterlogged and too muddy to traverse by car so participants must walk – it can add an extra 3 to 5 hours ontothe trek to get to the campsite. Luckily we have hit the end of the rainy season and the jeep sets off, first driving right through a muddy river then managing deep dirt tracks with deep dusty grooves. The landscape is thick and gives way to paddy fields and banana trees. The Gibbon Experience will take place even if only one person has paid – but I opt to wait a day to join a group of four other people – I figure ziplining will be more fun (and safer!) with some company. My group are Miika – a 35 year old tanned Dutch senior school teacher with cropped hair and tanned athletic build, Dominik - a bearded german on holiday from work in management accountancy and Polly and Ben – a 21 year old and 19 year old brother and sister from Essex. We share our jeep with some Lao locals – a mother with a little boy that keeps falling asleep on his mother – and a couple of little girls sucking lollipops. 

We arrive and start the hour long trek through the jungle to the tree house camp – our home for the next few nights. Bright green paddy fields flank the path – which is at least clear and easy to navigate. Dry twisted vines hang from the trees and the sun is boiling. A lot of the trek is steep and uphill (which they don't tell you in the promotional material) but finally we get to the camp and are issued with our harnesses and then the final steep hike to the tree house. When we get to the first zip line we are shown again by our guide what to do – zip the safety clip and then the harness to the zipline and off you go! Its not for the faint hearted or those who have the slightest problem with heights! And the health and safety isn't quite up to European standards. The guides seem very laid back about everything. I check with them the first two times that i'm attaching myself correctly to the line but they aren't really even watching. On one particulary long zip line I slow down and get stuck before I get to the platform -when this happens you have to pull yourself the rest of the way with your arms. I try and brake but then I go zipping back in the opposite direction to the middle of the line (how typically me!) and I don't have the strength to pull myself all the way back. So one of the guides has to shimmy out to help me. 



Its fairly daunting – a lot of the platforms are just brown slats of dry wood nailed to the tree without any barriers to stop you toppling over the edge – with a sharp plummet of hundreds of metres! But the zipline itseslf is brilliant – a wonderful free whooshing sensation as you fly threw the air with nothing but the tops of trees and the entire canopy of the beautiful jungle spread out below you. A unique way to experience this amazing environment. 

We are shown our tree house and then just left to play in this fantastic playground. But no guides hang around to continue to check our harnasses or that we attach our selves to the zip line correctly. I attempt a first go by myself: 

“hang on a minute – you've got the harness and safety clip attached the wrong way around – oh and the safety clip isn't done up properly..o” Ben says adjusting everything for me: 

“Right there you go, now you can and kill yourself!” 

We arrive at our tree house – which is beautiful and every big kid's fantasy. Its on three levels – with a big rain water shower where the water just falls through the slats to the forest below. There is a little kitchen in one of the other trees and three floors up the branches where we can sleep. Mattresses and bedding has been laid out and there are mosquito nets that hang in great big tents “like a princess' palace” says The Essex. “How appropriate for me” I think. 
 


Our dinner has been left for us – its sticky rice, chicken, cashew nuts, mushrooms and tomatoes. Some of the others have brought biscuits which we eat along with honeyed peanuts for snacks. At about 8.30pm the electricity which is solar powered runs out so we are left with flashlights and the sound of the jungle all around us. I'm blown away by how noisy little creatures can be: cicadas - little insects like grasshoppers sound like an industrial sprinkler systems gearing up to irrigate 30 hectares of land. Geckos - little pale colourless lizards with sticky feet make a loud sharp sucking noise that I thought could only come from a two tonne bird sitting outside my window. The jungle also has a creature which is making the sound like a train hooting and rushing through a station – god knows what it is. We play card games – and Uno courtesy of The Essex – and forfeits are created. The German is told he must zipline to the kitchen in the dark and go get a mosquito coil lit. (We have been expressly told not to zipline in the dark.) The Dutch woman accompanies him (I can't believe they've agreed to it – i'm not feeling secure on the line on the first day and point blank refuse – party pooper that I am) We watch them zipline off and Polly says: 

“well that's got rid of them – well done Team GB” then we turn off all the lights in the tree house. Childish but amusing! 

As another forfeit and so as not to disappoint The Essex I eat a moth. Its a bit like a really low rent version of I'm a celebrity... 

The chances of seeing gibbons are about 50:50 it depends how close they choose to come to the camp. 

But in the morning I wake to the eerie high pitched looping whoops of the gibbons singing heir early morning song. Its only just 6am and the jungle is still a deep dark blue - the sun has yet to burn off the mist that hangs in the trees. But the gibbons throw their songs to each other in ululating waves – crescendoing and then trailing off only to begin again. 

Our guide has arrived to help us try and spot them and he's brought strong coffee and fruit as well for an early morning snack: 

“The gibbons are happy this morning!” he smiles. 

After about almost an hour of people trying to point them out only for me to fixate on a dark black shape that turns about to be a gap in the trees I finally spot them – some way off in the distance but there are few black shapes and you can see their long dangly arms as they swing between the branches. I'm delighted! Seeing and hearing them has made the experience for me. 

We go back to bed for a snooze and wake up later for breakfast proper – egg, rice, vegetables and thick sweet Lao coffee sweetened with condensed milk. Today we are going on another hike to visit the other tree houses where groups stay. There follows yet more really gruelling uphill hikes which I find strenous but may be because i'm finding it difficult to keep up with the younger members of the group who just go storming off into the jungle. The leeches are also back out in force. God I hate them. Both Ben and Polly get bitten three or four times and find them in their socks (they bite through socks did you know?) but I remain unscathed. I still scream everytime I find one on me – and the others laugh. 

To get to these tree houses we must zip across lines as long as 500m. Its awesome and i'm feeling more confident than the day before too. At one of the tree houses we stop for lunch and then all of us except Polly fall fast asleep for a 30 minute catnap. Whereas a lot of the zipline platforms have sloping ground beneath them - the only exit from our luncheon treehouse is via a little step which you shift out onto that has a sheer drop below it, you clip you self to the zip line and basically just let yourself fall into thin air. I actually like this one it is quite literally a “leap of faith” and no more scary to me than some of the others but it does freak out a couple fo the rest of the gorup which actually I find quite comforting asi have been the biggest wuus so far. 

Later that night I have developed a tummy ache so go to bed and get up at around 8pm to discover them all playig cards. 

“If you could have a super hero power what would it be?” asks Polly. Excellent I like to address the important issues of the day whilst travelling... 

“I would be spiderman” I declare “so I can swing between buildings.” 
“NO!” says the German – "not spider man imagine how messy it would be ….all that sticky web..." 

“I don't think” I say “ I could have predicted a more stereotypical response from a German.” 

Late into the night we just stand in darkness and stare out inot the jungle listening to its sounds. A lone bird has a “whoo whoo” call that we then spend half an hour whistling back to. We try different tunes and lengthening the melody but it never plays along. 

We wake the next day – Polly who missed the gibbons before because she couldn't be bothered to get up (young people) has got up early but the day is dark and misty and I think they are all snoozing in their tree tops still. I've woken with an itchy rash all down one arm and around the nape of my neck. 

We do a long gruelling trek back to the main camp and across a particularly dodgy suspension bridge with planks of wood rotting and missing and then wait for our lift. A jeep with the next group arrives and empties. Polly whispers and points at some of them – a few are quite overweight and one man has turned up in white linen trousers and loafers. I don't know how they are going to manage either the muddy steep trekking or the ziplining for that matter! 

We continue to play our card game surrounded by a gaggle of little kids watching intently and then it begins to rain. I think we timed our little trip just perfectly!