Sunday, 15 February 2009 4:03 PM
Nick Claxton has never ventured outside of Europe before but a combination of too many years in London, a lack of proper responsibilities and an unhealthy admiration for Michael Palin now means he is spending a year travelling the globe. A terminally-disorganised 24-year-old taking on the world – solo. Here is his 27th blog entry:
I woke up just in time to grab the covers and avoid being catapulted out of the narrow almost-bed on the sleeper bus to Hanoi.
How long had we been driving? Ten hours hadn’t seemed so long when I booked the ticket. though I hadn’t realised it’d be ten hours of performing balancing act to stay on my top bunk.
Between the bumps, I grabbed my phone to check the time and happened to check the date for the first time in what seemed like weeks. The 9th. hmm.
As I was bounced across to the other side of the bunk by another pothole, I dimly recalled something about visas and the words ‘one month only’. Flung back across the bed, I was able to grab my passport and flick through to my Vietnamese visa – four days left. and I was only just reaching Hanoi!
Its times like these that I envy some of the other travellers I meet – those who seemingly have no plan, no time-limit and a never-ending money supply. It’s also when I curse the invention of travel guides. Laced with a chronic cheerfulness as my Lonely Planet was, it had been undoubtedly useful.
But still, I’d grown to hate that a quick glance through it would, more often than not, inform me about yet another ‘unmissable’ place that I had unwittingly drifted past. I had a whole list of these places. Now I could add all of Vietnam north of Hanoi to it. But that’s two fewer thigh-slappingly cheery chapters. so there was a bright side.
Thankfully, Hanoi gave us some final fond memories of Vietnam – though unfortunately we wouldn’t get a chance to see Ho Chi Minh in his mausoleum. He was taking a break too – up in China for cleaning.
So instead of hitting the tourist sights, we mainly got our cultural fix through mixing with locals at the capital’s many street corner bars, chatting about city life and the differences between the north and the south. plus jumping up every five minutes to and help rush the chairs off the road when the police drove by.
But all too soon, my three nights in Hanoi were over – and I was left with just a flavour of the place than anything more tangible. I recall the smell of car fumes, the taste of barbequed beef and the sound of a million motorbike horns – but soon enough that vibrant chaos was traded for sweet serenity as I hopped on a plane to Laos just as my visa expired.
Sweeping in low over rolling miles of untouched jungle into Luang Prabang was a jaw-dropping sight. As we angled steeply down to the tiny town nestled in the hills, the view out of the Vietnam Airlines window made it clear how remote we were – even in one of the most-touristy places in Laos. Of course, history plays a role in this isolation – I was told that Laos has the dubious honour of being the most bombed country in the world and so many uninhabited areas are still strewn with landmines and unexploded bombs.
But such a violent past seems a world away in Luang Prabang. I still find it hard to believe this city used to be the capital of Laos before the 1975 Communist revolution as it just radiates a calmness and unhurried atmosphere, probably due to the city’s still strong Buddhist influence.
Monks wander between Luang Prabang’s golden-roofed and mural-covered wats, occasionally asking for alms, and traditional Lao wooden houses line the quiet riverbanks.
Sitting on the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, the small city holds a key location for this landlocked country that still relies on its rivers for trade – thanks in part to the rather sparse and crumbling national road network.
Our simple and comfortable hostel (Vilay Guesthouse – rooms for $6 (Â£3) a night) gave us easy access to the market and the bars and restaurants along Sisavangvong Road – though since all the bars closing at 00:00 during the week, it was normally peaceful at night.
Apart from nosing around temples and relaxing in bars, there’s a few trips offered by tuk-tuk drivers in town – most notably to the Kuang Si waterfall and its numerous bathing pools. But we passed up a day-long visit to the falls as happily our short time in Luang Prabang coincided with the annual boat races.
We’d first heard about the event from Â´GoodÂ´ – a barman at one of the cosier restaurants on the Nam Khan riverside – and he’d agreed to act as our guide the next day. It took maybe an hour to drive to the race site further upstream, where we found a whole carnival of market stalls, make-shift bars and an unnerving number of kids toting BB guns (I’m really not sure why!).
As well as people from Luang Prabang, most of the surrounding villages had emptied out to throng the riverbank and cheer on their team – each sporting their village colours. After an interminable wait for the dragon boats to stop parading, the cheers went up as the first race started- and ended 60 seconds later in confusion as no-one was quite sure who had won!
The event continued in this generally chaotic fashion through the next few races – but with tens of races before the final, Good suggested we escape the heat and get a drink. A few drinks later and having been introduced to some of GoodÂ´s friends and family, the races were forgotten. I think the green team won, if you must know.
But it really didn’t seem to matter much to most people – music was playing, the Beerlao and LaoLao rice wine was flowing, and we had our first sunset in Laos to enjoy!