Time for a picture book. These are my favourite photographs from Laos - a magical country of narrow river valleys, mountainous outcrops and spectacular rocky grottos. Enough said, here are the pics.
Just over the border from Vietnam is the beautiful north-eastern village of Muang Khua. Lining the main road and crossing a confluence of the Nam Ou river, it was a sleepy town where life flowed at a simpler pace. Jumping off the minibus, two wonderful travellers, who will shortly be introduced, and I ventured forth to find some accommodation. That's where the bridge above comes in: connecting both sides, it was a lovely find. From the bridge you could look down on the riverbanks lined with sloping vegetable gardens and young boys playing in the cooling waters. During our couple of days there, we crossed many times, preferring it to the large concrete road bridge and often stumbled upon some wildlife. The chicken on this passage was the perfect element to capture the spot.
The gentleman above is now a true friend. Denis and I first met in Cambodia and as I boarded the bus to Laos, it was his smiling face that greeted me from low down in his sleeper-bus berth: beautiful fortune. We travelled the next couple of weeks together and the photo shows our room for the nights in Muang Khua. Overlooking the Nam Phak river we had a spectacular view and at 50,000 Kip (~£4.80) for a twin room, Manotham Guesthouse was a steal. There wasn't any Wifi, some plugs didn't work and you had a bucket to pour water into the toilet but none of that mattered when you were greeted by the smiley host, his wife cooked fresh food and you had that view. The other key benefit to our digs was that dinner came with free lao lao, the local homebrew rice whiskey. What began as a glass or two at dinner became a wondrous journey through the highs (and lows) of Laotian liquor. Drunk as a shot or a sipper, we sampled many glasses of varying quality across the country. While we did have a couple of better tasting lao lao experiences, the stuff we drank in Muang Khua will forever be my favourite.
This pretty place was Muang Ngoy. Denis and I ventured forth on a narrow river boat with Jgor, our 3rd musketeer from Muang Khua. As often happens in different regions of the world, objects are decorated similarly and here was no different - all boats were painted blue. We carved our way through fantastical jutting landscapes and had a laugh whipping along, inches above the waterline on hard wooden boards while waving at the river-craft passing by. We even collided with another boat en route, much to the passenger's surprise. Fortunately all was well and only some boat trim suffered any significant damage.
Arrival in Muang Ngoy was grand as we stumbled up the jetty and strolled into the village. It was a gloriously cut-off part of the world accessible only by boat: the river was the blue-blood that connected the village and further ones inland to the rest of Laos. Behind the position I stood to take this photo was a sandy beach where more children could be found playing.
The three vagabonds here are Javier, Noémie and Mathilde; we met them on our boat journey to Muang Ngoy. As soon as we'd arrived and negotiated our accommodation, we set off to climb a viewpoint overlooking the village. A pathway up the mountain had been created during times of war where villagers hid themselves. It's fair to say that the climb wasn't exactly a stroll in the park with exposed rocks, makeshift bamboo handrails and the occasional timber crossing a drop. The path is maintained by the village as an attraction and while the main cave was good, it's all about the view and the secondary cave system on the way up to the viewpoint. This point and another higher one under construction were accessible at either ends of the village just by walking to the end of the houses and then further - you'll get to see the other view in just a few moments.
So here are the boys - Jgor, Javi and Denis. We spent near enough 2 weeks travelling together and what a pleasure that was. Occasionally it happens that you find a little squad of people you really enjoy travelling with - its not often it is as comfortable and natural as this was though!
This day was a glorious adventure in the sun as we walked from Muang Ngoy through the back-country to a small settlement nestled amongst the rock spires. I've no idea of its name because I can't find it on any map! We walked for a couple of hours and this was the team on the way back from our excursion. During our journey we climbed deep inside caves, saw water buffalo in up to their eyes as we forded a river and lunched on bamboo at our destination. The next photos present our day out.
Early on in our wander we came across a gorgeous brook crossed by a bamboo bridge with a collection of Laotian gentlemen milling about. The water flowed out of a cave and as we ventured in we disturbed a magnificent swarm of white butterflies. Here's a snap of Jgor looking down into the water that was steadily drifting to the outside world. Deeper in we found whole caverns exposed from years of erosion - I can't possibly describe how the tiny little hole we'd found at the back of this cave opened up. Without torches there was no light to be had and only by phone light were we able to navigate so deep. It was truly colossal caving.
I promise you I didn't stage this photo - the lad was just sat outside his house like this with his parents looking on - they obviously felt very comfortable with their boy casually handling a machete to strip bits off a piece of bamboo! The photo was taken in the far out village that we'd walked to. We lunched in a raised bamboo structure and lounged in hammocks while we sampled some of the local brew. The lao lao we had at that lunch was without a doubt the best we sampled in the country: homebrew definitely proved to be best brew. I can't say much more about this photo other than it was a pleasure smiling at the parents for their consent and great to capture the action. Not sure how he's ended up 'supporting' Chelsea though!
This photo and the one below come as a pair: one is of the boys overlooking the view and the other is the view over the Muang Ngoy. At the end of our grand day out and as the sun was setting; we climbed up the roughly hewn path to catch the last moments of sunlight. Rather sensibly we'd each picked up a beer as we'd passed back through the village. They were a treat to enjoy at the end of our long hike - the view wasn't bad either ;)
You can see the other viewpoint we'd climbed to in the distance - it's just to the right of where the two main tracks meet. As the villagers creating the path worked higher and higher they'd cut some of the trees down and this is taken from the highest point where the path stopped. Although a path was under construction it was still a tough climb and one that required a certain element of fitness i.e. the perfect way to finish a day of hiking, caving and drinking! Climbing up at dusk and watching the sunset meant we stumbled our way back down the mountain in the semi-dark. That and climbing the unfinished route made the day's adventure complete.
These little beauties transported the three boys, 2 girls and me down the river from Muang Ngoy to Nong Khiaw. We'd met on the 4-hour water taxi and we continued with a 4-hour kayak downstream. It was definitely a day for boating and the kayaks were perfect for messing about on water. This pic was taken when we stopped for lunch on one of the many river beaches.
What else can I say about this photo other than that we got sunned on the kayaks. Jgor got particularly sunned! It's more than that though - I just wanted to represent the tattoo on his stomach - I love it. What a great piece.
This was sunset over Nong Khiaw and what we arrived to at the end of our day's kayaking. Javi, Jgor and I rested up on the high bridge over the river to watch the sun depart. Nong Khiaw was a funny little town - there wasn't too much to do there by day - it definitely came across as a transitory town that had just popped up because it was next to the bridge over the river. What we did find was a great little bar, slightly out of the town to the west, where we spent an evening of drinking, dancing and some impromptu Laotian karaoke. It was a cracking party with the locals.
Here's Jgor and me in Luang Prabang, Laos' second city. Many rate it as hugely preferable to the capital, Vientiane and based on my extensive time in Luang Prabang and my very limited time in Vientiane I would agree. Luang Prabang is at the heart of the country and with its French influences, it has the soul too. I like to think this photo captures Jgor's and my warm personalities well.
It was my birthday on the day this photo was taken and the squad headed down to watch the sunset on the banks of the river to celebrate. Shirley joined the 6 of us - she was in our guesthouse on the 2nd night in Laos and followed a similar route to us. It was her who pointed out it was my birthday. While we didn't know it at the time, Luang Prabang would be the last town we were all together.
This might be my favourite photograph from my whole trip. I love the balance of natural forest greens, pale blue tones and the water falling over the layered brinks. We'd organised a songtaew to take us to Kuang Si on the way home from a few late night drinks - surprisingly it all worked out and they remembered where to pick us up from the next morning. The photo shows just one of the tiered sections: further down you could bathe in the cool waters and further up there was a gushing drop waterfall to gaze at. We got there early and that was definitely a winner as the longer the day progressed, the busier it got.
This shot comes from the top of the large waterfall - water calmly collected in a series of shallow pools before plunging below. Up here I found a half-naked man standing alone carefully grasping a bamboo barrier. It was a strange sight and the photo didn't make it in because I just love the reflections and greenery of the one above. We climbed up the treacherous path on one side, lunched on some benches and then clambered down on a series of steps glistening in flowing water. Getting up there was worth it, although definitely not for those unstable on their feet or without a little fitness in reserve.
This photo is my sign-off from Laos. Each year in Luang Prabang, this bamboo bridge is constructed and dismantled for the rainy season. The nominal maintenance fee was worth paying to get to the other side, take a look around and run my feet through the sandy beach. I couldn't help but love the perspective the bridge gave me either.
Unfortunately, in some of our final days in Laos, Denis and I were laid up in bed or sitting on the toilet - fortunately we had each other or those days may not have been so filled with laughter at our bowel predicament. After that was the party town of Vang Vieng and the less said about that the better - I certainly didn't take any photos there!
Next up was a cruise through Thailand on a series of buses to a fairly remote island for some rest and relaxation before the final push to Singapore - the journey was coming to an end!
Monday 13th February – guesthouse overlooking river, Muang Khua, Laos
Tuesday 14th February – guesthouse overlooking river, Muang Khua, Laos
Wednesday 15th February – Penny’s bungalow, Muang Ngoy, Laos
Thursday 16th February – Rainbow House, Muang Ngoy, Laos
Friday 17th February – guesthouse overlooking bridge and river, Nong Khiaw, Laos
Saturday 18th February – guesthouse overlooking bridge and river, Nong Khiaw, Laos
Sunday 19th February – Joy Guesthouse, Luang Prabang, Laos
Monday 20th February – Joy Guesthouse, Luang Prabang, Laos
Tuesday 21st February – Joy Guesthouse, Luang Prabang, Laos
Wednesday 22nd February – Joy Guesthouse, Luang Prabang, Laos
Thursday 23rd February – Joy Guesthouse, Luang Prabang, Laos
Friday 24th February – Joy Guesthouse, Luang Prabang, Laos
Saturday 25th February – Vang Vieng Backpackers Hostel 2, Vang Vieng, Laos
Sunday 26th February – Vang Vieng Backpackers Hostel 2, Vang Vieng, Laos
Monday 27th February – Vang Vieng Backpackers Hostel 2, Vang Vieng, Laos
Tuesday 28th February – Vang Vieng Backpackers Hostel 2, Vang Vieng, Laos