Saturday, January 31, 2009

Last khmer ruin before the biggies.

It's drawing to the end of my six weeks in Laos, a wonderful country of friendly happy people. But before I leave I've one last Khmer ruin to visit, on the Mekong River south of Pakse, near the sleepy village of Champasak.Wat Phu is a biggie, but unfortunately hasn't had the sort of restoration that the Thai and Cambodian temples have, so it's a mixture of partial reconstruction and jungle encrusted ruin. It starts on the Mekong plains with a couple of impressive barays, then marches up a steep hill, between ancient frangipani trees, to a serene temple surrounded by huge boulders and towering trees, backed by a freshwater spring. It's a place to absorb the beauty and serenity of the site, and contemplate the fact that this temple was built as a representation of heaven on earth.It's my last Khmer ruin before Angkor Wat, and I'm about to leave a country whose people I've fallen in love with, so it's no wonder I'm feeling a little introspective, even melancholy. Wat Phu isn't as impressive as Phanom Rung or Phimai in Thailand, but it has a majesty all its own. I'm not the only one to feel it, other visitors linger too, absorbing something intangible in the surrounds.Champasak too is a place to stay a little longer. Perched on the Mekong River it's a rural community with a few guesthouses catering to those who'd like to stare out at the waters for a day or two, watching the locals go about their daily life. It too has that strange mix of French colonial and Laos architecture common to Mekong towns.Next I return to Pakse, and fly on to Siem Reap.

For more photos of Champasak.And here's some of Pakse

Friday, January 30, 2009

First complete loop!!

Getting the courage up to try your first loop takes guts. Will the trip be easy, or will it all end in pain and tears? And then there's the question of whether to try the forward or the back loop. The general consensus is that the forward loop is 95% attitude, 5% skill, whereas the back loop is more 50/50.

I spoke to others who'd done it, read the travel log at the guesthouse, and concluded that most people said the forward was the better way to go. The initial bit was easy going, just the last bit required a little skill. And it didn't hurt that much when you fell off!! But first I had to make that decision to go the whole way around or else I'd just end up bailing half way.Now for all you non windsurfing folk, the above sounds like nonsense, but I thought I'd draw a parallel between my ongoing attempts to do a forward loop with the road trip on a motorcycle I completed this week. Part of the road is a nightmare of dust and trucks created by a huge hydroelectric project and I had to decide whether that part of the trip was worth doing it as a loop, or whether I would return the same way I'd come. So here is what happened:I hired a bike for four days in order to visit the Limestone karst area northeast of Tha Khaek, including a huge 7.5km long cave with a river winding through it. Stories abounded about the horrible dusty road along the eastern boundary, about the construction site and the joy of eating dust as truck after truck passed by. Didn't sound like I'd get to see anything going that way so decided to head north up the highway along a smooth bitumen road. This took 2 hours as the Chinese 100cc bike, nicknamed Xie Xie, didn't like going much over 60km/hr without sounding like we were about to be airborne! After a short rest to get the numbness out of my bum and fingers, the road continued east winding through beautiful karst peaks and past a scenic lookout with a spectacular view over the landscape below. The descent into the valley was fun, now I understand why motorbike riders love winding roads. Laos roads are mercifully free of traffic so it's a delight to get out into the country on a bike and enjoy both the ride and the scenery. The valley runs south, surrounded by peaks on both sides, which slowly close in on the river running through. At the end of the valley the river disappears into a cave. This was where I was heading.I stayed 8km up the road from the cave entrance, joining my German friend Marko from the Tha Khaek trek on a boat ride along the river as those walls closed in. Watching our boatman manoeuvre through the shallows and keep us from going aground was half the fun. At the cave I bid goodbye to Marko, who was returning to Tha Khaek by bike that day and had no interest in going through a dark old cave for an hour each way. He had a point, but they'd just put some lights in so there had to be something to see surely?Well Shirley was right! A French organisation had completed installing a coloured light system in a gallery about 1/3 of the way into the cave. Most of the trip was in the dark, with a forward man in the boat directing the driver, both wearing head torches which weren't bright enough foe me to see anything more than a few shadows. But the gallery was superb, boy I wish I'd brought the tripod but if so I'd probably still be there!After arriving at the other end of the cave, which is 7.5km long, buying a drink at the stalls set up near the village there, it was back in the boat for the return trip. As we were now going with the current, the boatmen didn't have to haul the boat up the rapids: we just hopped out and they let the boat go over by itself and hit the beach on the other side. What a hoot! Soon we were back at the Konglor village entrance and the ride was over.Marko had returned in the boat back to the guesthouse as I wanted to walk back. The rice fields were rock hard dry, but the villagers were growing a tobacco crop which made for some bright green foreground for landscape shots. I stopped at a river resort for lunch, only to find that the staff were all on holidays. However the manager cooked me up an omelet and I spent a pleasant hour chatting to him about his life. He and his family had escaped the Laos communists in 1979, swimming across the Mekong to Thailand and eventually arriving in Australia where he had finished his education at Crows Nest Boys High in Sydney. As things improved in Laos, his family gradually returned, opening up a series of resorts in Luang Prabang and southern Laos. So here he was, running a resort with no guests, living near a small village where the people knew nothing of the outside world in which he'd lived for half his life, and he didn't miss any of it.The following morning I headed off bright and early, experiencing the eery mist rising from the river and wrapping itself around the peaks. Soon after a noodle soup breakfast in the village of Na Hin it was a climb up out of the valley as the road headed east through more karst country towards the Vietnam border. I stopped to visit a small Buddha cave, now overgrown with jungle and quite serene. Soon I was in the town of Lak Xao and I had to make my mind up whether to turn around or commit to the loop.My windsurfing friends will be proud of me, I made the commitment and around I went! The road deteriorated almost immediately out of town, so it was slow and steady to avoid the huge potholes and sharp stones that could slice the tyres to pieces. There was little traffic and the scenery was a mixture of farmland and forest as the road winds through a wildlife corridor between two national parks. Didn't see any wild elephants or the like however!Further south the road improves to a smoothly graded dirt road, again no traffic, as Xie Xie and I entered the huge dam construction area. This is a joint French/Thai operation, with 95% of the electricity generated being sold directly to Thailand. Meanwhile, most rural Laos people have no access to grid electricity at all! The road continued to be a smooth ride, though the upper side of each bend was a sandy slippery accident waiting to happen. I just veered all over the road to keep to the hard patches, as did the locals. When in Rome.....By 3:30 pm I'd had enough, so opted to stay the night at a small town called Nakai Neua. It was Chinese and Vietnamese New Year, which may have explained the lack of traffic on the road, and certainly explained the noisy revelling going on at the guesthouse. I poshed it up by going to a nice restaurant for dinner and having a medium rare steak and chips! Since most of the regular customers work for the foreign construction companies, I doubt that restaurant will be around next year once the dam is completed.Day four saw another early start, after I'd push-started Xie Xie to get her going. She doesn't like starting first thing in the morning but nothing that a small hill can't fix! Nakai is on a plateau and the ride down the concrete road was a treat as I looked over the mist enshrouded valley below.I'd made a good decision to stop at Nakai, as the next portion of road was the afore-mentioned dust and truck laden track between the power station site and the town of Gnommalat, where the bitumen resumes again. Yes there was alot of traffic, and yes the road was a bit rough from the constant use, but it was only 10 km and then it was a dust free sealed road all the way back to Tha Khaek. So just what was all the fuss about how difficult doing a loop was?I didn't return straight to Tha Khaek, as at Gnommalat you re-enter the Limestone karst region and an area rich in caves, swimming spots aqnd a recently discovered cave with thousands of Buddha images. I by far preferred the much less often visited cave of Tham Pha Inh with its sacred pool and Buddha images surrounded by beautiful shawls and streamers.I was back in Tha Khaek by lunch time, so after a tour of a nearby Wat I bought a bus ticket south to Pakse, had a much needed shower and continued south overnight to visit the last big Khmer Temple before Angkor.

For photos of the loop.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Kimberley ghosts

8 hours on a bus south of Vientiane is the charming Mekong river town of Tha Khaek. It's hot and humid and I'm already missing the cold northern weather, shame on me!! It has charming old French colonial and Lao Loum architecture and is gloriously laid back, with only a handful of tourists wandering through.It's the gateway to the limestone karst region to the east, the result of ancient coral reefs which have risen up through tectonic plate upheaval thousands of years ago, creating a stunning landscape of caves, gorges and turquoise pools. Between the karsts are plains of dry dusty rice fields, scrubby forest and a scattering of eucalyptus plantations. And villages of stilt houses and friendly locals. Minus the human influence, I could be somewhere near Windjana Gorge in the Kimberley.A Scottish couple, a German lad and myself headed out on a two day trek into the area. It was hot but not strenuous, especially as there were ample opportunities to stop for a swim. We walked through a vast cave which reminded me of Tunnel Creek minus the crocs, to find some large Buddha images at the entrance. I spent most of the day being grilled by our local guide, Mr Mee, on my Lao language skills, turns out he used to be a school teacher! We passed a 600 year old stupa in the jungle, and we stayed overnight in a friendly village where we were treated to a Baasii ceremony, a traditional welcoming involving tying a string around your wrist whilst wishing long life and health, washed down with a good helping of Lao Lao!!The following day saw us walking to another village where we experienced the novelty of being taken by tractor to visit a sacred pool. It was indeed a special place, where I revelled in playing with my polarising filter for some real blue shots.The tractor then came in handy to deliver us a further 7km down the road (yes we could have walked but the trek isn't designed for seasoned walkers) where a short 4km walk got us to some rapids and a final swim before the tuk tuk ride back to town.

For the rest of the photos, click here.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The other way to Vientiane

I couldn't face it. Although I'd heard that the beauty of the scenery made up for the partying atmosphere of hundreds of drunken westerners, I just couldn't see myself coping with Vang Vieng. I've never been a fan of what I call backpacker ghettos, and after my experience in Luang Prabang I needed to get as far away from that scene as possible. So instead of the bus down the highway to Vientiane via Vang Vieng I decided to head down the western part of Laos.First it was a local bus to Sainyabuly, a province known for its working elephants. There are still over 400 being used for hauling logs in the rapidly disappearing jungle, and in an attempt to boost opportunities and income for the beasts and their mahouts a French NGO created an elephant festival in 2007. The next one is next month, and the town was gearing up for a big influx of tourists as a result. I'm not sure where they'll house them as it's a rather sleepy place with a nice market, friendly people and a pretty river flowing through. I got to practice my English constantly, from a young monk in a wat I passed through to a Vietnamese businessman at my guesthouse.

The walk to the bus station south of town was longer than I expected, but a friendly truck driver gave me a lift the final 2 km. I'd been warned that the trip south was on a bad, very dusty road, and a sawngtheuw provides no protection from the elemants. That's my chariot, the silver one on the left.Yes the trip was a doozy, with my hair being a lovely grey by the time I arrived in Pak Lai five hours later. Nothing that a hot shower couldn't fix, then it was a wander around town to appreciate the lovely old buildings surrounding a village green. There was even a place selling coffee with a real espresso machine!The boat trip down the Mekong was a leisurely affair, with bench seats to sit on and even a toilet! Comparing the sides of the river, where one side is Thailand with all the hills covered in intensive agriculture, the other Laos with just degraded forest, was quite a contrast. As the sun set we arrived at the port north of Vientiane and negotiated a tuk-tuk ride into town. Here I've had time to get all the pictures up, have a boozy night on the town with a Kiwi lass from Bangkok, and eat some nice international food. Having a break from the sightseeing for a day or two then it's back on the road.

Photos of Saiyabuly province

Next stop Luang Prabang

Where the Kham River meets the Mekong sits the World Heritage listed Royal City of Luang Prabang. After the second Indochina War the remaining royalty were all sent off to re-education camps by the conquering communist Pathet Laos, where they died of starvation and illness. The study of Buddhism was banned for a while, but now the monks are being given more freedom and the Royal Palace has been restored as a museum for the tourists. In fact the noise of new constructions and renovations on old French colonial and traditional Laos buildings can break into the peace of this tree lined old town.Not since Hanoi have I seen so many Western tourists in one place, complete with international restaurants and prices. I'm not yet craving western comforts and was surprised to find myself experiencing a strange kind of culture shock. I wanted to get away as soon as possible and back to the "real" Laos.But Luang Prabang is an important place in Laos' history and culture, so a visit to the numerous wats and museum is a must. The beauty of the architecture, the leafy streets, and the gorgeous inlaid murals on some of the wats certainly make it worthwhile. It also has a huge night market, selling handicrafts from Laos and beyond. With overinflated prices to boot! Glad I bought my goodies elsewhere!It was also time to offload some gear, firstly my purchases in the post, then some excess clothes to the local Red Cross. It's still too cold to dump the warm clothes, wonder how far south I need to go yet.

Luang Prabang is famous for the daily alms given by the people of the town to the hundreds of monks living there. It's a colourful spectacle of orange robes and devout believers, and has become a tourist magnet as a result. The numerous street sellers trying to sell rice for the monks was my first experience of hard sell since I arrived in the country. I just took a quiet seat in a good vantage point and took lots of snaps.Then I packed my bags and left town!

For photos of Luang Prabang

Friday, January 16, 2009

Stones, jars and bombies

Phonsavan, northeast of the capital Vientiane, is a modern day town with a lot of history. However today's story doesn't begin there, but 70km southwest of Sam Neua, near a village called Ban Nakorn. Here, standing stones and huge stone discs were erected on a series of mountain ridges by ancient people over 2ooo years ago. The discs hid burial chambers, but no-one knows why or who these people were.Getting to the stones involved a freezing cold ride in the back of a sawngtheuw for two hours to the village. We breakfasted on packet noodle soup, deposited our packs, and walked the 6km to the main site. There is a local legend that the stones were erected by a giant, about as believable as all those pagan worshippers at Stonehenge!More pictures here.

Back at the village we had to wait for a passing bus, so before long we were the main attraction for the local kids as Frankie convinced me to teach them the "Hokey Pokey". We learnt that if you are a village lady wanting to take your sacks of wood to market in Sam Neua and have been waiting on the side of the road for 3 hours, that the bus just might be too full and you have to wait another day! Luckily our bus picked us up, though we did have to sit on plastic stools in the aisle for six hours. And listen to all the locals spewing relentlessly. Actually they spew quite silently, until they clear their throats with a loud hoik! They're not quite as bad as the Chinese at spitting everywhere, but they are close!!Phonsavan was cold, real cold, but luckily I still had all my clothes from China. The next day warmed up and we went on the no name tour to visit the usual jar sites, a bombed out russian tank and a Lao-Lao village.The Jars date from a similar time to the standing stones, and are mostly made from stone. They are clustered in groups, usually on hilltops, and are thought to be burial sites. Very scenic indeed, though the surrounding landscape was drought ravaged with a few stands of eucalypts. In fact it looked alot like Australia!!The Jars are also smack bang in the middle of one of the most heavily bombed areas in Laos. The Americans dropped cluster bombs: huge metal canisters which split in two midair and released hundreds of small "bombies" which spun and armed themselves as they fell. On impact they exploded, spraying ball bearings at high velocity over an area of about 250m. They were designed to kill, not maim, and were dropped in the millions over this area. But it is estimated that about 30% never detonated, and these little killers are lurking everywhere. Kids pick them up thinking they are a ball, farmers ploughing a field hit one, even workers building a new road are at risk. And they won't just kill the person who touches them, but everyone else within 250m!! And did I say there were millions of them out there?All these unexploded ordinance, or UXOs, mean that people are frightened to plough new fields, road building is hopelessly slow because full mine clearance must be done beforehand, and kids try and sell the stuff for scrap metal and can end up dead instead. And still "western democracies" make these bombs! for more info see

More pictures of Phonsavan

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Textile villages and hiding from the Americans

It was a long trip to Sam Neua: 15 hours on the back seat of a clapped out old bus. We arrived at 3am yet still managed to find a nice cheap guesthouse and get some sleep. The town itself is quite small, with a sprawling market which extends both sides of the river. There are lots of stalls selling to a mainly local market, so I was able to purchase some nice fabrics and pressies. More work for the postal service!!

There isn't much to see in Sam Neua besides a wat at the top of town, but it has excellent tourist services and the next day we took a six hour bus trip to a weaving village called Sam Tai. The lunch stop enroute was in a tiny village which caters to the daily bus service, where you can purchase some sticky rice and some meat. We decided against the cooked rat offered us, I have to admit to being not that adventurous!! Luckily we had fruit to tide us over.Sam Tai is a sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere, but it's famous for its silk weaving. Almost every house has at least one loom with a work in progress, so it was just a matter of going house to house asking to look at their wares. Some of the work wasn't great quality, but some was superb, and the prices were reasonable. I'm sure the really good stuff goes straight to Vientiane or Luang Prabang, but it's nice to visit the weavers and buy directly from them.We almost stayed longer, as we got invited to a wedding and to join the bride back to her husband's village, but Frankie's visa was running out and this was the sticks afterall. So next day we took the same rattler back up the road to Vieng Xay.Vieng Xay is spectactularly beautiful. It's a narrow valley surrounded by wooded karst peaks, and in these peaks are hundreds of caves. The caves sheltered the Pathet Laos, a communist group who were fighting a civil war against the US backed Royal Laos Army. Not that the US has ever admitted to being involved, in contravention of the Geneva Accord. The Pathet Laos lived in the caves for 9 years, whilst American planes dropped more bombs than were dropped during WW2 in Europe. Eventually the Americans left, the communists won and have held office ever since.The caves housed military personnel and the top commanders, as well as stores, hospitals, bakeries etc. There is a huge theatre in which even foreign performers from Cuba, Vietnam and Russia came, and ceremonies were held. Many of the caves were modified to be more homely, and after the bombing stopped they built houses outside the caves they'd lived in. Each member of the politburo had different architectural tastes, so the houses are a very eclectic mix of the various Laos styles. One house even has a swimming pool fashioned from a bomb crater!!UXO is a huge problem here, as up to 30% of the bombs dropped didn't detonate. Very little of the area has been cleared, so there's no wandering off into the bush around here!

Vieng Xay has a lovely market, complete with the usual assortment of wildlife for sale. Squirrel anyone??
Photos of Sam Neua, Sam Tai and Vieng Xai

Monday, January 12, 2009

Slow boat to Nong Khiaw

The Nam Ou flows into the Mekong just north of Luang Prabang. We joined it at Hat Sa, 20km from Phongsaly for a leisurely cruise down river. The boats aren't too luxurious, and the rapids need skill to traverse, but it's a peaceful way to spend a few hours, watching the simple life of the villagers as we motor by. There's mostly forest along the way, with the occasional village perched above, and every few kilometres there's some ugly water to get through, those boatmen know their river well!We arrived at Muang Khua, a frontier village on the way to the Vietnam border near Dien Bien Phu, about 2pm. No boats going further south that day meant a few hours of daylight to explore the nearby villages along the river. There we met a school teacher who was building a place to house students from remote villages so they could come to secondary school, out of money earned from taking people on treks. The poverty here, yet the generosity of those with little to spare, is quite overwhelming. After a night in our pink guesthouse we continued down the river to Nong Khiaw, a gorgeous town nestled between karst peaks with a passable Indian restaurant. We visited a cave used to shelter villagers during the second Indochina war and watched some men ploughing fields for a new rice crop. For some strange reason we again chose a pink guesthouse for the night.Next stop is Sam Neua, a 15 hour bus ride away on winding roads. Can't wait!!

Photos of the river trip here

Monday, January 5, 2009

I may have missed Xmas but I got three New Years instead!

Bus travel in Laos is an event in itself. The roads are appalling and the buses, packed solid with people and goods, are falling apart, literally. It's a great way to travel if you have time, patience and a great sense of humour. If not, I'd suggest flying!The bus trip from Udomxai to Phongsaly takes 10 hours with a few stops enroute, including a lovely market town with beautifully dressed Akha women everywhere. I was in my element! Frankie, a Melbourne lass with a fun loving attitude, joined the bus there, so we decided to join forces and find some trekking together. After an exhausting trip on dusty roads we had dinner and crashed. So much for celebrating Xmas.Phongsaly is a gorgeous town amongst mist covered peaks not all that far from the Chinese border. It has few tourists, a photogenic old town with cobbled streets, and yes the trekking prices were much more reasonable, with about 50% going to the villages. We opted for a 3 day trek that would take us close to the china border and would stay in 2 different ethnic group villages overnight. Well sometimes the best laid plans.....For photos of the trip to Phongsaly.

A three hour bus ride south to Boun Tai saw us meeting our guide at 11 am to be told we'd missed the truck out to the village where we were to start our trek. Aside from chartering a truck for a phenomenal price, we could alter our plans, take a later truck and go and visit a Hmong village instead who were celebrating New Year. This would add an extra day to our trek. What a no brainer! Off to visit the Hmong we went.In Phongsaly Province Hmong New Year is celebrated some time in December and is held on different days in different villages. It involves much chanting and incantations to send away the bad spirits and illness within the village, accompanied by the blood of a chicken or two and the firing of guns. Then everyone cooks up the chickens and the feasting begins. But not before downing two glasses of Lao-Lao, the ubiquitous rice whisky! Locally made of course! Oh no, not again!!!The feasting continues for hours, with invitations to visit many households, drink Lao-Lao and eat. By the fourth place there just wasn't any room left in our tummies, and after the fifth place we managed to retire to bed. But at 3 am the guns were let off again - just to make sure those pesky bad spirits really left town - and soon after the locals were up and about and getting ready for the new day. The children were all dressed in new clothes, many beautifully stitched, looking absolutely gorgeous.After at least 2 breakfasts and some more Lao-Lao, we left the village loaded with New Year rice cakes, generously given to us by five or six households. What a wonderful extra day we'd had, and now we were off to complete the original schedule. But first we detoured to a second Hmong village for our third breakfast and more Lao-Lao, and watched the young girls and boys throwing balls between them. It's apparently part of a courtship ritual, if they keep dropping the ball then there isn't the right chemistry between them, but if they are in harmony with the ball, then they will be in life! Can't imagine western teenagers doing something like that!About one o'clock we arrived at an Akha village as they were slaughtering a buffalo. They were very eager for us to take photos as they too were celebrating New Year. Then over lunch we were invited to stay the night and join in the celebrations. How could we refuse? We were now up to a five day trek but what an opportunity not to be missed. The Akha live on mountain ridges in houses with dirt floors. They have pigs and chickens but no gardens around their houses, growing all their produce at their farms. It's a stark landscape around the houses and it would be hell getting around in the wet season, but the people are unbelievably friendly and welcoming. My bubbles again came in handy for breaking the ice with the kids and soon Frankie's clown antics had the whole village following her like the pied piper! The evening celebrations began with more Lao-Lao, the Akha preferring 2-4 glasses before you can start on the sticky rice! The food for dinner was challenging, with raw buffalo meat and a blood jelly dish as mainstays. Thank goodness for sticky rice!After our second dinner and obligatory Lao-Lao we joined the youngsters in the schoolyard for dancing. These teenagers also indulge in copious amounts of Lao-Lao and young boys can be seen smoking cigarettes. When the music starts its the girls who get up and go and choose a boy to dance with. Although the music was modern, the dance style was comically conservative. Us two foreigners showed 'em a move or two and soon everyone was dancing the new updated style. The commotion when we left was quite moving, they'd never had foreigners celebrate New Year with them and were keen for us to dance the night away with them. But a long day of trekking beckoned, and sleep ins in these villages just don't exist.

Up with the crowing roosters and snorting pigs, we joined the entire village outside the headman's house to usher in the New Year with offerings to the gods to ensure safety in the fields. This involved tying string around the tractor and the young man sitting on it. Then we were treated to an edible breakfast and headed off into the countryside. But not before I'd solved the riddle of just where all the human waste went. There are no latrines in the village so it's a case of sliding down the hill into the forest for a quiet squat. But there's no evidence of where all the villagers go, and the pigs following me to my private retreat explained it all. It helps to take a stick with you, just to keep them at bay until you've done your business, and then it's hoovered up!! Hmmm, not sure I'm eating Akha pork again!Our third day saw us walking along a road and then through paddy fields to a rather disappointing hot springs. But the forest was pretty and it was nice to have a wash in a less public place than the middle of an Akha village. Our stop that night was in a Yang village, in a lovely stilt house overlooking the river and even had the use of a latrine. Luxury! The villagers weren't nearly as friendly as our Akha guests, however we did get a good nights' sleep.Day four saw us walking through a protected area which still had primary forest. At our lunch spot beside the river, which we crossed somewhere between 20 and 30 times in one day, we encountered an Akha wedding party returning to the husband's village. We joined the procession with this very shy young girl and watched her dress ready for her arrival in the village. All the women were there to check her out and welcome her, quite the spectacle. Then we passed another bridal party going the other way!

Later we were accompanied to the Laobith village, our homestay for the night, by the year 5 schoolkids who have to walk an hour and a half each way each day as their village doesn't have a teacher to teach them. The Laobith are one of the smallest minority groups in Laos, and this village was completely isolated, without road access to allow people to reach markets and sell goods. But they too were wonderfully friendly, and soon yours truly had the whole village in stitches teaching the young kids how to dance the "Hokey-Pokey"!

Our final day saw us walking through newly planted rubber plantations and oceans of sugarcane, past a couple of Akha villages, to the border with China. Here, scores of trucks carrying sugarcane were crossing into China for processing. Without factories, Laos misses out on value added income from processing their cane; more money for China!

A sawngtheuw and bus ride back to Phongsaly saw us arrive back in time to celebrate the actual New Year with a few other foreigners. Not that we made it to midnight!

Rest of the photos here.