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Travelling the world, hopefully with a cuppa in hand

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Our Laos photos are now online

We'll remember Laos for all the riverboats and ferries and the slower pace of life

Here’s a selection of our photos that we took while in Laos.  We really loved it as a country and would like to go back sometime, particularly to explore the northern and southern parts as we just passed through the middle in around 10 days.  It’s more faithful to the orient that we had imagined before we came and a little less touristy than the other South-East Asian countries we’ve visited.   Hope you enjoy them, you can find them here.

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Mekong meanderings

View of the Nam Ou at sunset

As our time in Asia nears its end, we are finishing in style, having just taken a two-day boat trip up the Mekong to cross the Thai border at Chiang Kong. We crossed the border this morning and then caught a bus to Chiang Mai where we have plans to spend a day at a Thai cookery school (look out for more recipes soon!) and also visit an elephant camp. After a full three days on the road we are looking forward to staying put for a few days!

The Mekong seems an appropriate theme as it’s connected with several of the countries we’ve travelled through. From its source in Tibet it runs through the Yunnan province of China and across Laos and Cambodia before it finds its end in the South China sea in south Vietnam, having traced the Laos-Thailand border. The river links the cities we’ve visited at Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City, Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Travelling by boat was the perfect way to admire the spectacular scenery and witness some of the activities and rhythm of daily life in Laos. Our boat took us past forested hills, jagged karsts and impromptu riverside vegetable plots, taking advantage of a few month’s exposure of the sandy banks before the river rises again. The slow pace gave us plenty of time to observe village communities collecting river weed, throwing weighted fishing nets and hoping for a catch, panning for gold on the banks, having a bathe and even generating electricity by rigging up their own mini DIY hydroelectric plants! The gentle rocking of the boat was also very sleep-inducing so we (especially Lou) frequently nodded off. Jon took the opportunity to get stuck into some reading and made headway with Bleak House but otherwise, our surroundings were just too good to miss.

We spent just under two weeks in Laos and wish that we could have stayed longer. It lives up to the promise of offering a glimpse into an Asia of old, in contrast with the first-worldness of Thailand and the bustling progress of Vietnam. We had some of our most rewarding encounters with local people, including helping a noodle soup lady set out her stall first thing this morning, seeing the monks receive morning alms, and enjoying soaking up the laid-back atmosphere. In addition to the beauty of the country and culture, the warm welcome we received makes us certain that it’s somewhere we’ll go back to.

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Loving Luang Prabang

All buckled up and ready to go

We got on our bikes again today with a hot but scenic ride out to the Tad Sae waterfall. We found out when we got there that it was running a little low on water but other surprises made up for it. On parking the bikes, we discovered three elephants and their mahouts (trainers) offering rides and the opportunity to give an elephant a bath. We accompanied an elephant and his two lady riders down to the river and were highly entertained by the mahout’s best efforts to give the girls a soaking too. The last part of the journey to the falls was up the river by long boat, passing serene riverside vegetable plots and forest.

Rather than a gushing torrent, the waterfall was made of gently overflowing pools as it’s the dry season. Looking on the bright side, this means that there was no risk of us encountering leeches again! Instead of the exhilaration of thundering water, we decided to get our kicks elsewhere and try out the zip wire trail through the forest canopy. The stillness of the forest was broken by our screams, shouts and Tarzan imitations as we zipped along from platform to platform with don’t-look-down views of the forest beneath us.

The (wo)man from Delmonte says yes!

The last surprise of the day came with encountering two lady pineapple harvesters, loading their cart. Seeing our delight, one of the ladies promptly served up one of the pineapples, cutting it neatly in half for us to share. Cue slurps and yummy noises as we quickly devoured our halves, enjoying the juicy sweetness.















Monks collecting their daily rice

Today is our third day in Luang Prabang, a jewel of a place surrounded by mountains and situated on the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers. There’s everything here, from night markets and no frills to boutique hotels, restaurants and shops more resembling life in Chelsea. It’s very picturesque, beautiful sunsets over the Mekong and french colonial style architecture. Everything is pervaded by a very peaceful and relaxed air, perhaps explaining why people decide to linger here a while. Luang Prabang is also the religious heart of the country and is known for its parade of monks collecting morning alms from the locals and interested visitors. We got up to see this before dawn this morning. It’s a bit of a spectacle, especially for aspiring photographers, but the devotion of the people to the monks is evident and it was worth witnessing.

Tomorrow we are getting up early again (much to Jon’s delight as he thinks we sleep in too much) and taking a slow boat up the Nam Khan to Nong Khiaw, 120km north. We’re hoping it’s slightly off the beaten track and that it gives us the opportunity to experience rural Laos life. We’ll report back in a few days once we’re back in Luang Prabang!

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COPEing with UXO in Laos

The COPE center in Laos, helping victims of unexploded ordnance

While in Vientiane in Laos we took some time out off our usual plodding about the streets and sightseeing in order to check out the visitor centre at COPE, the Cooperative Prosthetic Rehabilitation Center. They work with the victims of UXO or Unexploded Ordnance, providing them with locally produced prosthetics and other rehabilitation services. Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the world, and the countryside is strewn with millions bombs, particularly close to the Vietnam border.  Just walking around the cities in Laos, it is quite common to see people with missing limbs and it is just a tragic fact of life to the people living here. We found the centre really eye opening.  One of the exhibits we enjoyed listening to was a BBC Radio 4 podcast about kids foraging for UXO for its scrap metal value – you can listen to it here. There has always been a problem with children mistaking the colourful tennis ball-sized cluster bombs for toys, but over recent years with the increasing price of scrap metal, kids are actively collecting these dangerous munitions for their scrap value.  With a larger munition they could possibly feed their families for a couple of months, fetching around a dollar per kilo for the high quality weapons-grade steel.  Villagers often put the remains of munitions to inventive uses, using cluster bomb casings as supports for houses, cooking stoves, or converting aluminum bands to scythes for example.

Pineapple and BLU submunitions, basically ball bearings encased explosive

Cluster munitions have been used in every major conflict since the second world war and leave behind a dangerous legacy for the local population after the armies have left. No doubt everyone can remember the pictures of Princess Diana walking through a field of landmines, and it is this publicity that has gradually produced the new Convention on Cluster Munitions which bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions. It also places an obligation on states to clear affected areas after their previous use and assist victims. It entered into force last August (2010), and us Brits can be proud that the UK has fully signed up to it. Unfortunately many of the other large states, including the USA, India, China, Russia and Israel have still not signed up, but hopefully the moral pressure now placed on these countries will help prevent their further use.  As for the laborious clearing of the rusting timebombs in countries such as Laos, perhaps the money being spent by the USA in attempting to detect Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDS) being used against them by the Taliban in Afghanistan, will have the side effect of improving the accuracy and speed of UXO detection and clearance.  In Laos, one of the obstacles is the shortage of trained personnel and we sat through a movie where locals were being trained to international bomb clearance standards and forming their own clearance teams.

A cluster bomb opening

If you want to see or learn more, you can visit the COPE website and also browse a collection of photos by Sean Sutton on the problem of UXO here.

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