Puppies and pyjamas

If I were to name two things that have particularly drawn my attention on the streets of South East Asia it would be puppies and pyjamas, a peculiar pairing perhaps, but an amusing feature nonetheless.
Stray dogs are rife in South East Asia. For the most part they seem to be happily whiling away their time sleeping on street corners, ignoring the people around them and occasionally rummaging through the litter. Some strays have been adopted by local families (or perhaps it’s the other way round?) making fantastic pets with lovely temperaments. The general lack of animal welfare infrastructure means that the practice of neutering is uncommon and consequently puppies abound everywhere. We’ve had some great fun playing with incredibly cute little puppies (I think Simon is afraid one may suddenly emerge from my baggage at the airport) including one that we nicknamed Bart, as he insisted on trying to eat Simon’s shorts as we played a game of cards. Many a playful puppy has made us smile on our trip (even if Simon is laughing more at me than the puppies).

As for the second p, pyjamas, I am
almost at a loss to explain. I was once shopping in the sales when I found a lovely floral hooded cardigan, for some reason hanging up amongst the sleepwear with ‘sleep well’ printed on the label. I looked around but couldn’t spot any matching bottoms and figuring no one would know if it was a pyjama top anyway, decided to buy it. I certainly know other people who have bought nighties and worn them out as dresses, however I never expected to see so many women wandering around the streets, carrying out their daily business wearing what can only be described as pyjamas. I imagine that these ladies don’t simply decide to go out for the day dressed in their sleepwear but have simply chosen to wear something light and comfortable in the heat. However, for those of you back home who have felt the temptation to walk down to the cornershop in your PJs you can rest assured that no-one here would bat an eyelid! Whilst I can perhaps understand the wardrobe choice based on comfort, I must admit that the decision to wear matching teddy bear-patterned tops and bottoms on the streets mystifies me!


Food for thought part four – Laos

Fortunately, after a disappointing introduction to South East Asian cuisine in Vietnam, Laos has managed to redeem Indochina, providing fare with both an abundance of spice and an absence of garlic. Lao food may have a strong Thai influence, with coconut soups and curries aplenty, but it still supplies plenty of uniquely Lao dishes as outlined below:

Sticky rice
Sticky rice is a staple in Laos, served up in woven bamboo baskets, traditionally eaten by hand, by rolling into small balls and dipping into your food. Sweet sticky rice (often billed as rice pudding) cooked in coconut milk supplemented with pumpkin, mango, banana or even chocolate can be a very tasty (and filling) breakfast or dessert.


Sticky Rice with bamboo basket

Laap is perhaps the definitive Lao dish, found in pretty much every restaurant. It consists of minced beef, pork, chicken or fish (although fish proved to be the elusive “Lao option”) cooked with chopped chillis, spring onions, fresh mint, fish sauce and lime juice served on a bed of lettuce.

Fish steamed in coconut milk
We only tried this once so it may vary from the following description, however our sampling of this speciality came in the form of a kind of steamed fish pie. The fish was blended with coconut milk, lime and chillis, moulded into a prism inside a banana leaf and steamed. The final product tastes much like a Thai curry, if somewhat more solid in texture.


Fish in banana leaf

Street food
In Luang Prabang there is a fantastic street next to the Laos Heritage Hotel lined with stalls serving up a Lao buffet, all you can fit on one plate for 10,000 kip (80p, fish and meat extra). On offer are an array of vegetable and noodle dishes, curries, rice and battered deep fried chillis. For some protein you can choose from a variety of barbecued meats including ribs, chicken and elephant ear fish (from the Mekong) stuffed with lemon grass and grilled on a stick. An excellent choice when you’ve blown your budget visiting the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls!


Street buffet in Luang Prabang

Up until our recent visit to Laos I had thought that pumpkin was only good for two things: carving at Halloween and pumpkin pie. Laos has opened my mind to the versatility of this squash, supplying pumpkin curry, pumpkin burgers and pumpkin rice pudding, all very distinct but equally delicious!

Sweet sticky rice for breakfast

Lao barbecue appears to be a combination of the street barbecue and hot pots that we discovered in Vietnam. However, there’s a real sense of ceremony to barbecue in Laos beginning with the revealing of a hidden hole in the centre of the table. A bucket containing glowing coals is positioned into the hole with a dish approximating a metal sombrero placed on top. The middle of the “hat” (perhaps not as quite as pointy as a sombrero) is greased by wiping pork belly over the surface, strips of beef and chicken can then be laid on top and cooked. Meanwhile, a broth is ladled into the “brim” and loaded up with noodles and vegetables. The “barbecued” meat and soup can be seasoned with chopped chillis, garlic and lime and mixed with a spicy peanut dip before eating.



Spicy papaya salad
This salad makes for a refreshing starter comprising grated papaya tossed with chilli and lime juice, with the occasional addition of cashew nuts. The papaya doesn’t bring much flavour but it’s a refreshingly crunchy and zingy dish nonetheless.

Turkey and stuffing sandwich
Ok, this isn’t a Lao specialty, but it was a very nice unexpected treat. In Luang Prabang we discovered a fantastic bakery called Joma who not only produce delicious cheddar and chilli bagels but also put us in a delightfully festive mood. We cheerfully dipped our turkey, stuffing and cranberry sandwiches into little pots of gravy whilst humming along to ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…’ with the sun beating down outside and Buddhist monks strolling by.

Lao Lao
This Lao whiskey can make for some fantastic cocktails including Lao Lao mojito and piƱa colaolao, best enjoyed lolling in a hammock beside the lazy Mekong river.


That sinking feeling


Laura and I at the Khon Phapheng Falls, the largest in SE Asia

Sabaidee! We’re at the Laos/Cambodia border, having just crossed on our way south to Phnom Phenh. It’s baking hot, and we’re all sheltering in the shade by some food stalls while we wait for the rest of our busload of people to come across.

The border itself was a masterpiece of red tape and petty corruption. First we stamped out of Laos, with a $2 unofficial ‘stamping fee’ each. Red ink sure is expensive! We then traipsed over to Cambodia, where there was a mandatory health check ($1, you hand in a form and they quickly point a temperature gun at you). Finally, we got stamped in to Cambodia, ($2 ‘tea money’). This is after we’d already sorted our visa out in advance!

There are a few folks who nobly resisted paying the charges – a couple who apparently took a series of photos of the border guards obviously extorting money. We heard them shouting (which is never a good idea here) that they were ‘going to call the Dutch police’, although I’m not quite sure what jurisdiction they think they’d have! According to a guy who’s just come through, they managed to get through in the end without paying, but the border folks would only return their passports after they deleted the photos.


The Laos side of the border. On the left, the new border post, on the right the slightly less impressive current one!

We’ve spent the past few days in Si Phan Don, otherwise known as 4,000 islands. It’s an archipelago in the Mekong river, just on the Laos side of the border, the islands are home to a set of bamboo bungalows that epitomise the Lao moniker ‘Land of the lotus eaters’. It’s a place where being horizontal is the customary way to spend your time – and who are we to fly in the face of tradition?

Or so we thought! It turned out that we had a somewhat more active few days than we’d planned. When we first arrived on our isle of choice, Don Det, we ended up on a 2km trek to find accommodation with a twin room. Although the walk was a bit draining in the tropical midday heat, we were pretty happy with our choice – a new place overlooking the river where we were the only guests and it was very quiet. However, we hadn’t quite anticipated this meant each day we did at least one hour long round trip into town at the other end of the island. We also got in some additional exercise sightseeing to check out the legacy of the French’s use of the islands. A couple of small islands are not the usual place for a country’s first railway, but the French were determined, and built a 5 km track across two bigger islands (with a bridge between the two), as well as a couple of piers to load and unload goods at each end, and a rusting locomotive. Quite why they didn’t just sail along the river instead of the elaborate engineering, we don’t know. It is a testament to Laos’ non-participation in the industrial revolution that the railway was abandoned when the French left after WWII; until five years ago the country had no track whatsoever, and after Thai effort, the country is now the proud owner of a huge 3km of track, which then heads off into Thailand. Now that’s a miniature railway!


It was us in there the day before

Buoyed by the success of our waterborne experience in Ha Long Bay, we signed up for a day’s kayaking in the Mekong. Setting off early in the morning in a flotilla of six yellow plastic boats, we paddled downstream to (but not actually down) the impressive Tat Somphamit waterfalls, which the locals believe trap spirits as they go over. We then splashed on through rapids and across the Mekong to a spot of lunch in Cambodia (no passport or red tape required, fortunately), before re-embarking on the water to see dolphins.

The Tat Somphamit waterfalls

Perhaps it was the karma from eating tuna the previous day and not checking it was dolphin friendly, but as we got closer to the middle of the river (and this is a very wide river, perhaps 1 km), we had the feeling something wasn’t quite right. In other circumstances one might call the ‘impending sense of doom’* we had a ‘sinking feeling’, and as it was, that was just about right! Laura and I are not experts in kayaking, but we did realise something was wrong when the water was quickly high enough to wash over the side of the craft and all of my lower body was submerged! The swishing sound of the hollow cavity below us quickly filling with water didn’t exactly inspire confidence either. Fortunately, this was the perfect opportunity for us to put into practice our speed paddling skills, and we made it back to the dry land of Cambodia just before we found out the hard way what it would be like to be in a yellow submarine! In a comic discovery, it turned out that the plug had come out of our kayak, and we were half full of water. We’re not sure why they have a removable plug but at least it meant we could get the water back out again! After 15 minutes of emptying and a repair using a crisp packet, a twig, and some elbow grease that Heath Robinson would be proud of, we were off again.

This stretch of the river is famous for its population of rare Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins, and having refreshed our luck through the near-sinking, we were fortunate enough to catch sight of quite a few of them. This time we drifted on the surface, and every now and again one of the silver-coloured creatures would appear, sometimes just a head popping up for air, but quite often we saw a graceful grey arc, their distinctive curved side fin sticking straight up as they dived back down. Sadly their numbers are diminishing, mainly due to various government dam projects – but refreshingly, not fishermen, who revere them as protectors from crocodiles. Fortunately we didn’t see any of those!

We all bundled into the back of a large vehicle (more truck-truck than tuk-tuk) for the journey back, stopping en route at the Khon Phapheng Falls, the largest in South East Asia by volume, and probably the biggest we’ll see until Iguazu in South America next year. With ice creams in our hand, we watched the millions of litres pouring down over the rocks and celebrated a successful outing, with just enough drama to make it exciting.


This woman was sunbathing, and the water buffalo was in the water. Brilliantly, it then decided to sit right next to her, much to everyone's amusement!

And so we leave Laos! It’s a place we’ve really fallen in love with, a pace of life that’s refreshingly calm, with an innocence and friendliness like nowhere else we’ve been.

It takes a little while to adapt anywhere, and Laos was no exception. We’d soon coined the term ‘Laos option’ to refer to a quirk we’ve found across the country – places frequently advertise things that don’t exist. This might be a guesthouse with a sign saying ‘vacancies’, only for you to trudge up to the desk and be told ‘all full’, or the bus ticket the travel agent doesn’t sell in spite of the big poster behind him, or most common of all, the non-existent restaurant menu items – for example papaya salad, the ‘national dish’ apparently as well hidden as the Ho Chi Minh Trail! This was confirmed by one guesthouse owner, who we overheard telling some friends how her chef had insisted on putting papaya salad on the menu despite never having papayas in stock. His reasoning? ‘Once they’ve sat down to eat, they won’t go elsewhere.’ So perhaps not quite so naive a country after all!

We only wish we had longer here – its been a lovely few weeks, and we’ll certainly be back for a second helping at some point in the future, even if the papaya salad isn’t available.


* also a side effect of Lariam, the anti-malarial drug we’re taking. I don’t think sinking is on the list though!


A sunset silhouette over Don Det

Migrating south for the winter


Kazoos at the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls

I’m writing this while in the bus station in Pakse, a dirty, dusty enclosure on the outskirts of town. We’re sitting on our bags on the grey concrete having arrived soon after dawn from Vientiane, now waiting for our onward transport to Si Phan Don, three hours away. The ground around us is spotted with oil marks from the passing vehicles, and there’s litter strewn across the dust; the sleeper bus that brought us here just departed on the return journey, but before it did, the driver kindly tipped out a basket of ticket stubs onto the mud, which have added to the mess. Around us, rickshaws come and go, as do motorcycles with sidecars (a new one for us), and the odd sparkling new car, all Ford Kias for some reason. The stalls around the perimeter are opening up for breakfast; the one next to us is serving steaming noodle soup, and there’s someone barbecuing meat in the distance. You can feel the day’s just getting started, following a familiar routine – the ice man comes round with a flatbed loaded with bags of frozen slush, shovelling them out into buckets for the stalls; a poor mother and her two sons wheel through their cart laden high with woven bamboo baskets each full of plastic to be recycled for a pittance; and a loudspeaker in the distance make some echoing propaganda claim about a candidate in the upcoming election before the music picks up again and relative laziness of Lao resumes.

The bus last night was probably our craziest so far, its interior a sixties throwback of brown faux marble, studded multicoloured gemstone lights, and windows with a pink tassel fringe. It was certainly cosy too, with what were effectively small double bunk beds each side of the aisle, Laura and I having just one to share. The suspension didn’t exactly make it an easy ride, but we both appreciated having a fully flat bed, even if seatbelts and more room to move would have been a bonus!


Our bus out of the 60s

After Nong Khiaw, we stopped for a couple of days fun in the cultural playground that is Luang Prabang. Quietly pottering between Wats and then soaking up the sunset is a great way to spend time. Each morning at dawn, monks pour out of their monasteries and down the streets for ‘alms giving’, an age-old tradition where locals line up to give each monk a small food offering, them making a religious contribution and the monks demonstrating that they are leading a devout life without possessions. The monks collect the alms in metal pots, eating the food when they return to the monastry. There are a lot of monasteries in town and so this is a big daily event, with the streets full of monks draped in bright orange, processing in groups down prearranged routes. However, I don’t think we’d quite prepared ourselves for what a tourist spectacle it has become, with the opportunity for a photo opportunity very much overriding the religious devotion. Our guidebook provides a stern warning not to participate unless you’re actually Buddhist, and then to be very respectful in what you do. Sadly this didn’t seem to have got through to a lot of tourists, many of whom had plenty of flesh showing and were buying cheap rice from the roadside stalls before queuing up to be photographed making a show offering. We’d read that in the past monks have protested against this pollution of their religious ceremony, but that the authorities had instructed them to continue as it’s an important tourist draw to the town, threatening that otherwise they’d be replaced with a false procession just for show. Who knows how true that is, but this is certainly the bad sort of tourism!

Monks receiving dawn alms in Luang Prabang

We also took a trip to the Tat Kuang Si falls, a truely tropical set of cascades and shimmering turquoise plunge pools. The beautiful sunshine re-emerged, and it felt like a glorious summer’s day back home, with the ice cold water refreshing if slightly shocking when we both went for a quick swim. The water was a brilliant shade of blue, and we had a peaceful ten minutes soaking up the atmosphere, and floating near the small rapids. The falls were home to crowds of picnicking locals as well as tourists and it felt like we were back in a National Trust park, although with one exotic addition – bears! There’s a bear sanctuary at the park in an effort to protect the local furry population from poachers. They had lovely outdoor enclosures and we watched from the viewing platform as a huge bear stood on his back feet and turned a drum with his front feet to extract food.

We swam in the pool at the back

We stopped at a Hmomg minority village on the way back, a ‘village experience’ so customised for tourists that a well made concrete path led us on a route through the bamboo houses, lined on both sides with stalls staffed by local children selling handmade craft goods. Although we didn’t buy anything, we did spend a great 10 minutes afterwards playing with the kids, Laura spinning round with the girls clinging on to her arms, and me trying my hand (or more correctly, my feet) at Kataw, a hackie-sack keepie-upie game using a woven rattan ball which is as hard as it is hollow. Needless to say, my young instructor was a lot better than me, but I think they appreciated our enthusiasm!

Playing with the village kids. The ball is made of woven rattan

Having learnt the key moves, we thought it would be time to see how it’s done properly. Luang Prabang is currently hosting the Laos National Games, a four-yearly competition in 25 different sports. We popped our heads into the Kataw venue and saw a couple of frantic matches, played a little like volleyball, but where only the feet and head can be used. Most spectacularly there’s a move involving the front player (it’s two-a-side) doing a forward somersault during which they kick the ball downwards on the other side of the net. I still need to do a little more practice before I master that one!

The real thing - Kataw in action

We spent our final day hiring a couple of bikes and cycling around some of the sights further out. A real highlight was a visit to the weaving centre at OckPopTok, where they have a demonstration on how the complex patterns are made and what natural dyes are used. Unfortunately most of the weavers were out while we were there, so it was a bit of guesswork; reading up on how it’s done via Wikipedia is now on our to-do list!

As we left town for Vientiane, fireworks were filling the sky, marking the opening ceremony for the Laos Games. It was an impressive display, all the more so for us as when it finished with deafening screamers and a huge finale of rockets we were in a rickshaw about 50m away from the ridge they were being launched from! Only seven months until the Olympics and London will be doing the same thing – although I’m guessing Kataw hasn’t made it the list of sports quite yet.



A final sunset over Vientiane

The scorpion and the bamboo hut


Our boat for the journey up to Nong Khiaw. You can see the captain/mechanic trying to fix the propellor on the left.

Eager to discover how Laos could possibly get any more sleepy than we’d found in Luang Prabang and Vientiane, we decided to take a break from it all and head upriver to the remote town of Muang Ngoi Neua.

We’d been promised a memorable six hour journey to the intermediate town of Nong Khiaw, and it was certainly epic – in all senses of the word. The boat was shaped like a javelin, a craft about two metres wide and 15 long, with two rows of child-size wooden seats down each side and a dozen of us on board. And just like its javelin equivalent, it had no cushions. Six hours is a long time to be sitting on a tiny wooden stool with your knees pressed against your chest. It’s particularly long when it turns out the journey actually takes ten hours, travelling all morning, all afternoon, and arriving in the dark!

Even if somewhat of a test of our endurance, the journey was stunning. As we headed upstream along the Mekong and then the Nam Ou rivers, we passed villagers with fishermen out on their narrow canoe-like boats, and towering karst limestone cliffs, which dominate the landscape. I’ve never really travelled a long way on a river before, but it’s interesting to see how much the surface changes as you travel along, from calm quiet waters one second to choppy rapids the next, presumably as the depth decreases, causing the water to run much faster. Although it’s dry season, we were surprised at the speed of the river, with the upstream journey at times an alarming struggle for our small boat. On a couple of occasions the river had narrowed and with the engine going at full throttle we were only just able to keep going forward, us shouting words of encouragement as the pilot tried to find the right line between the slower running water at the edge and not running us aground or into the overhanging greenery.

We’d initially been hoping to make our onward journey the same day, but it became apparent that was not to be, as we soon had to stop for repairs to a broken propellor. After an hour of our captain turning mechanic and running around in just his underpants to everyone’s amusement, we set off again, with the delay meaning we were still going as the sun set and it got dark. Given the boat lacked lights, this was a bit more of a challenge, but we finally made it with the moon to guide us, in spite of the well-meaning attempts of an American woman who got her torch out and proceeded to accidentally shine it in the captain’s eyes, eliminating any night sight he’d picked up. We later found out that some delay befalls the boat every day – everyone we’d spoken to had a journey of at least 10 hours, so they’re quite used to it, although we’re not entirely sure why they don’t have a spare light just in case!


The scorpion in the sink. The plug hole was huge, honest!

After a stopover in Nong Khiaw, we took a quick (well, 90 mins was quick compared to the previous day!) boat journey to the village of Muang Ngoi Neua. It’s brilliantly remote, with no mains electricity or roads, so you have to get there on water. Although not free of tourists – the one street is lined with guest houses – it was a great place to chill out and practice our hammock skills in idyllic rural surroundings. Most of the places are pretty rustic – small stilt bungalows with weaved bamboo walls and floorboards on the floor. On our first night, we found the place we were staying a little too rustic for our liking; we woke to find a small scorpion in the sink. We thought the thing was dead, an assumption that Laura to her horror discovered to be false while in the bathroom – with the door locked from the outside! Yes, I was the the one that locked that door (although with Laura’s agreement), and yes I did feel pretty bad about it! As we were scrabbling to set Dr Butler free from her scorpion prison, i suddenly remembered a less-than-helpful ‘fact’ I’d picked up from a recent Indiana Jones film – it’s the little scorpions that are the most deadly! Fortunately, it didn’t get her. Panic over, we quickly relocated to somewhere nicer on the riverfront, and we were a little more careful about wandering around barefoot after that!


Huge leaves, or tiny hands?

One day we went trekking to see some nearby villages. The trip took us through forests of green bamboo and lines of mysterious tall trees. You could for a moment believe this was a land of giants, with the greenery soaring to the sky above, and humongous leaves carpeting the floor below. Perhaps this is where those huge Buddha footprints came from? We plodded on through valleys of dry rice paddies, their wispy yellow stalks wavering in the wind like wheat, creating a beautiful picture against the sky and green mountains.


The village and rice paddies

The village we stopped in for lunch comprised entirely of bamboo stilt houses – in a design we’ve seen elsewhere in Laos, each wooden stilt of the house rests on a large boulder for foundations, making it look like the whole place could be shifted horizontally with a shove. We didn’t try!


A stilt house in the village. Note the boulders under the stilts.

Since there’s no electricity supply, people who need it rely either on diesel generators for a few hours a day (which is how they light the town we were staying in), or they use little dynamos suspended in the river nearby. We wandered across the paddies to take a look, following the telltale sign of the rustic-style electricity pylons, not great grey monstrosities, but instead sticks of bamboo with a bit of black bell wire running between them. Simple but effective!


Turbines in the water

On the way back downstream, we stopped in Nong Khiaw to visit the local Than Pha Thok caves, home to the Luang Prabang provincial government during the war. Set high up and deep within the cliffs, the caves run for hundreds of metres, with areas for different sections of the administration. Next to the council chamber, there was a space labelled ‘Art Dept’; we had romantic visions of experts in oil and watercolour painting the scenes at war for posterity, until we realised that ‘art’ probably stood for ‘artillery’! Round the cliff, the two 10 year old guides we’d adopted took us to a second much more narrow opening, essentially a long tunnel running far into the rock, with chambers coming off it. With only our torches to light the way, we crawled through, not wanting to look too closely for the eight-legged inhabitants that were probably also enjoying the cool and dry inside. The space was used by the regional bank during the conflict, and it wasn’t hard to see why – the single narrow twisting passageway would have made it easy to defend, and there was plenty of space inside. It was claustrophobic enough though, and I can imagine it must have been pretty hellish during the war with bombers striking the hillside outside making everything shake. At one point, crouched on a rocky ledge, we switched off both our torches to see how dark it was, and our 10 year old assistants soon told us the answer through their squeals – scarily dark!


Tham Pha Thok caves, home to the provincial government during the war

For the return journey to Luang Prabang we took the bus, a cramped three hour trip on a Sawngthaew. At one point, I counted 20 of us on the back, with 5 sacks of vegetables! With the wind rushing past us sitting on the open back of a pick-up and the lack of sun, we both actually felt cold for the first time in months. It reminded us that it is actually winter (I guess those back home might have noticed before now!), and time for us to head south to warmer climes for Christmas.



Our transport home, a sawngthaew. There were 20 of us in there!