Thursday, 12 May 2011

Rules of the Road

Road rules and traffic regulations are a little different here.  Insurance is optional, driving licenses easily obtainable (...), the larger vehicles rule the roost and the rules are more like guidelines.  The old "mirror, signal, manoeuvre" mantra is fairly irrelevant, since many vehicles do not have mirrors, or even signals for that get the picture.  Due to their more accessible price and relative speed, motorbikes are the vehicle of choice for most families, and by families I mean families: limited public transport means 4 or 5 family members (plus dog!) squeezed onto a single motorbike is not an uncommon sight. Other passengers sighted include 20 live chickens, masses of market produce and newborn babies!

bike and motorbike
Since the outset my plan was always to get a motorbike; following the advice of a previous IrishAid volunteer I faithfully schlepped a massive UK-safety-regulation-meeting helmet through four airport security controls and 6000 miles from Belfast to Vientiane and I'm now the proud owner of the largest helmet in Vientiane!  The initial sight of the traffic put me off a little and for the first three weeks I suffered the long and sweaty cycle to work until I finally caved and took some informal lessons from a friend and bought an "entry-level" Kolao (cheap Lao brand). Whilst I've gradually learnt a bit more about motorbiking, my Lao vocab for transport has stalled somewhat, resulting in any problem with the bike (ranging from needing petrol, to the engine not starting) typically being solved through a combination of pointing, miming and a frantic game of charades.

Even after more than two months on the motorbike it is still scary sometimes, but once you grasp the basic principle of keeping your mind on what's ahead (because they will almost certainly NOT be thinking about you or your ability to react as they pull out from a side street/slam the brakes on/suddenly turn left) then it gets a bit better.  Unfortunately there is still a very high rate of traffic accidents so it never pays to be too careful, that said, I do think it's safer on a motorbike than a bicycle provided you're not going too fast.

Ultimate goal would be to hire a dirt bike at some point for a road trip - maybe in a few months!

A mother's delight! Not My Bike (a friend rented this beast)

Sunday, 1 May 2011

A very enjoyable weekend - Kong Lor Cave

A few weekends ago myself and a few friends were lucky enough to visit one of the most beautiful places in Laos - Kong Lor cave.   An early start saw eight of us scramble into a hastily arranged minibus and head south.  Four and a half hours later - enduring the cheesiest music CD on repeat ("We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun", multiple times, you get the picture) - we finally arrived.

It was magical: a tantalisingly clear aqua-blue pool of water marks the entrance to the impressive limestone cave, which houses a 7.5km long tunnel formed by the Hinboun river. Due to the topography, there are no paved roads on the other side, so the waterway is a vital supply line to the people living in villages on the other side.   Keen to get through to the other side, we headed down to the boats and began the hour-long water journey through the cave.  As the motorised canoe puttered along, torchlight illuminated vast chasms - tall enough to easily accommodate Big Ben apparently - as well as collections of stalactites and stalagmites.   On a couple of occasions we were able to hop out and walk around the larger areas.  The whole experience was very humbling, and made me wonder how vast the cave actually was as we probably were only able to walk around one tiny bit.

The sun was still blazing as we emerged on the other side.  Eager to work out where we would stay for the night, we pressed on to find the nearest village (about 1.5km walk from the cave exit).   The plan had always been to do a "homestay", which is, unsurprisingly exactly what it says on the tin - staying in someone's home.   This is quite a common accommodation option in Lao villages, you just need to say the magic word "homesatay (yes, like that!)" and you are instantly hooked up with a family who'll gladly lay out some blankets on their wooden floor for you to kip beside them and go out of their way to make you feel welcome, all for the price of a couple of beers.  For us this hospitality meant showing us around the area, killing a chicken for our evening meal (!), inviting us to a massive party that evening (which turned out to be a funeral celebration bizarrely) and giving us a blessing ceremony (baci - see a few posts below) before we left.  The village itself was fairly typical - a collection of wooden stilted houses, teamed with a temple and school and populated with kids playing chasies, women weaving and a veritable menagerie of free-range animals (chickens, ducks, pigs, dogs..).   It had also only just received electricity a few months ago, so unfortunately for us there was no escaping the Thai soap operas in the wee small hours!

The followed day we awoke early (wooden walls are not soundproofed against cockerels) and the group split for the journey back; half of us went on a gentle hike around the area before heading back through the cave, whilst the other 4 decided on a 6 hour hike *over* the limestone cliff which housed the cave - guess which group I was in (!) ?  The villagers were so doubtful of our ability to survive the hike (it is not a common tourist route) they insisted we took two guides for safety and even put together a hasty blessing to appeal to the gods to keep us safe.

It clearly worked: 5 and a half hours of pretty steep rock scrambling, 10 litres of water and a lot of sweat later the four of us emerged on the other side of the mountain relatively unscathed.  The guides managed to lead us up and over on a seemingly invisible path.  As we huffed and puffed (and the 4 of us were not unfit!) and downed litres of water like one possessed, they didn't drink a sip a drop or seem to sweat at all, AND they did it all in flip flops.  Impressive.

Pleased to have reached the other side with (most of) our dignity still intact, we proceeded to down yet more water and then leap into what is arguably one of the better swimming spots in Laos.  After finding the others we were reunited with our minibus and driver (who had sensibly stayed the night in a guesthouse in the nearest town - Laos people think falang (foreigners) are very amusing - we stay on hard floors in a homestay when we could chose a guesthouse and suffer on 6 hour long hikes when we could just sit in a boat for an hour), raced to catch the sunset from a great viewing point and then began the journey back to Vientiane.   A late dinner at a great Pakistani restaurant (Jamil's) rounded off what can only be described as a very enjoyable weekend.