Friday, 21 January 2011

What one hand gives another takes

Wednesday 19th January 2011

MP3 track of the day: Paper Planes - MIA

Weather: Sunny and quite warm, until the evening when it became very cold

Once again I was up in plenty of time for the mini-van to pick me up and take me to Phonsavan. Even though there was a big party going on at the hostel last night – hence lots of noise – I still went to bed early and managed to get a good nights sleep. As I thought that I had plenty of time until my pick-up, once ready, I quickly went on the internet to see what the world was up to. At 8:00am I still had half an hour and so I was quite surprised to see my driver, at the hostel reception, waiting for me. I quickly paid my hostel bill and followed the driver outside … to a tuk-tuk. Expecting a mini-van I questioned the driver and he said that he was taking me to said mini-van however first he had to pick up a load of other travelers. The ride was cold however it didn't take him long to get a full tuk-tuk and so off we went to the mini-van bus station.

In Thailand mini-vans come to pick you up at your hostel however, in Laos, mini-vans have their own bus station which seems bizarre to me. Once off the tuk-tuk some people went straight onto the first mini-van to Phonsavan, however I had to wait for another mini-van to turn up as that one was full. This was a good thing as it gave me time to gain more important information about how Laos mini-vans operate. The make and size of the mini-van seemed the same as in Thailand however there was one important change. Luggage within Laos rides on top of the vehicle and, in the case of the mini-van in front of us, with just a bit of string holding the luggage onto the roof. I looked to my left to see another mini-van driver putting a plastic sheet over all of his passengers bags, folding the sheet nicely before finally attaching a net to the top … I hoped that our driver followed his lead.

It wasn't long before our driver turned up and, fortunately, the driver did cover out luggage with a plastic sheet however no net and only rope. Once inside I found that the leg room given was better than in Thailand – possibly due to the mini-van not having a boot – and that it was a little more comfortable than I expected. We set off checking out of the windows for any fallen bags. The group on the mini-van (which consisted of 2x Belgians, 2x English, 1x French and 1x Swed … and I) where very nice; apart from one local all where tourists and all where going to see 'The Plain of Jars'. We got on very well and chatted a lot … I felt good about the journey...

… Until we broke down. Fortunately we were only forty-five minutes into the trip when the mini-van stopped moving forward. We had an hours wait until another mini-van came to pick us up; as we waited along the road side many mini-vans, and a V.I.P. Bus, drove passed us staring, but not stopping. Eventually the replacement mini-van came and I was glad to say that the same care for our luggage, and leg room continued … we set off again.

The scenery was stunning; we were in the heart of the Laos' mountain ranges and, apart from the strength of the sun bleaching the background out a little, views of the mountains, valleys and lush green vegetation was all around. Unfortunately you couldn't really appreciate it due to the roads. Now I had been told that the roads within Laos where awful and extremely bumpy, this was not the case. The problem was that the roads never stopped bending left, then right, then let, then right around each and every mountain. I normally joke about the American roads not having corners however, at this moment, I longed for just three miles of straight road so I could have a breather. I fought to keep myself from moving too much and hitting the Swedish guy next to me too often, it was difficult. It didn't help that we had Micheal Shumacker's Lao cousin driving us; due to us spending an hour at the roadside 'Mikey Lao' had a little catching up to do. He didn't drive dangerously, he just drove fast, and we soon began overtaking other mini-vans that past us earlier (a few, including the VIP bus, had also broken down).

Thinking about the misconception about the state of the roads, I thought about other negatives that I've herd about for this area of Laos. Like I said above, the state of the roads where good however there were very few crash barriers in place on mountain corners, which was a little disconcerting as the drop was sheer. The second negative came about from my guidebook; it stated that within this part of the world there were quite a few hijackings … which was nice. However my guidebook is three years old, we didn't get any problems and after speaking to the people within Louang Phebang it doesn't seem to be a problem anymore … though I still worried a little. The final problem is that there's a lot of UXO (unexploded ordnance … aka land mines) around this area. Laos has the most UXO of any country within the world … thank you Mr Nixon. If you travel through this part of the world you may see Laos people going to the bathroom either near their vehicle or along the roadside; this isn't them being rude it's just that going for a stroll along unmarked paths isn't such a good idea here.

As the roads were fine, and hijacking wasn't an issue, I didn't have to worry too much until I reached Phonsavan. I sat back, chatted a bit, and tried to look out at the view whilst being thrown left and then right, and then left again. We past many villages on our way to Phonsavan; a lot of children where out on the road - apparently no school to go to - and the families within the villages where beating branches against the road and then leaving them out to dry. I asked a few people on the mini-van what was going on and it seems that the branches being beaten, and then dried, are used as roofing within both China and Laos.

We eventually made it to Phonsavan in one piece. We were dropped off at the mini-van bus station however, luckily, it was near the center of town. There were guesthouse owners trying to get us to stay at their properties even before we had actually got out of the van and picked up our stuff. Having sat down for seven hours, and being so close to town, we decided to walk around to find a guesthouse and we found somewhere to stay for 40,000 kip per room (£3) and, as I'm sharing a two-bedroom dorm with the Swedish guy, it's cost me £1.50 per night … total bargain, though no internet.

We all freshened up before going out; I had a lovely hot shower and then met the rest outside the guesthouse. The owner of the guesthouse then did a presentation about his private tour that we could take around the main three 'Plain of Jars' sites plus a village, which sounded good though we wanted to get other prices within town to compare. We walked out of the guesthouse and into town; I was running low on money and so I went to find the closest ATM however it would not accept my 'Plus' card. Instead of having the others follow me around town they went to look at other tourist agencies to compare prices whereas I scoured the town for an ATM that accepted 'Plus'. The up-shot was that I went to four, out of the five, banks here and none of them accepted my card … It looks like I will have to withdraw money on my credit card (which will cost me a fortune). I was really annoyed that the cash machines here only let you withdraw 1,000,000 kip (£80) per transaction; if not I would have withdrawn plenty of money in Louang Phebang. Maybe I should have withdrawn twice in Louang Phebang, however how was I to know that Phonsavan wouldn't have an ATM that accepted my card … thinking about what I should have done was pointless, I shall remember this problem for the furniture and withdrawn twice when I see an ATM that accepts my card.

I joined the rest of the group outside a tour agency. They had found a tour that they liked the sound off - cheaper than the one offered by our guesthouse - that goes to many different places. I looked at the tour and it only did one of the three main sites of 'the plain of jars'. Even though the tour went to site one – the main site -site two was the supposed to be the most beautiful. We voted on it and all bar me, and the Swedish guy, opted for this tour. I had to have a think about this. I was petty annoyed about the conclusion as previously we had all come here to see the jars and I was under the impression that the three main sites where not negotiable. I could have gone alone however that would have cost me a lot more money and besides, the other things we would visit didn't sound too bad … maybe I would have seen enough jars after one site? Eventually I decided to go with the group but I wasn't overly happy with it. We found somewhere for tea and I was still wondering whether I had made the right decision as 'the plain of jars' was the main thing that I wanted to see within Laos. Things got a little easier when other members of the group said that, if I still wanted to see more jars, they would happily come with me on another tour and even if they didn't, the tours only cost £12.00 each and so it's not a lot of money ... lets see what tomorrow brings.

I felt a little happier and now all I had to do was eat before bed … however the food at the restaurant took forever. It took so long that it was an hour after the first person had eaten their meal that the last one was served. On closer inspection the kitchen consisted of four female cooks but only one wok … something was a little wrong there. We eventually eat, paid and headed for an early night.

So in some ways I have gained and in others not. I've gained a good group of people to travel with, however this has lead to me not doing exactly what I wanted to do. I've saved money on accommodation and the tour, but it looks like I will have to withdraw money on my credit card, resulting in a large fee. I am looking forward to the tour tomorrow, I will try to enjoy it, but it isn't want I really wanted. It's so much simpler when you travel on your own.

Toodle Pip!

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