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Muang Ngoi

So, I’m in Nong Khiaw, on the banks of the Nam Ou river, in northern Laos.

I’m still with Erica, the American photographer, who I hooked up with a few days ago.

Nong Khiaw is nice, but we’d like to get a bit more basic, so we decide to travel further north, by boat.

River boats that ply the Nam Ou river

River boats that ply the Nam Ou river

The village of Muang Ngoi, which is a few hours up the Nam Ou, looks like it may fit the bill. It only recently recently received electricity, it’s main street is a mud track and there’s just a single mud road leading to it.

The main way to get to Muang Ngoi is on one of the narrow boats that serve as river transport in Laos.

The riverbank in front of our hut

The riverbank in front of our hut in Muang Ngoi

They’re just wide enough for two rows of people to perch opposite each other on thin planks of wood.

Baggage is dumped at either end of the boat. It’s driven by a small petrol engine and takes about 25 people.

The boat’s due to leave at 10am. It leaves at 11.30, which, by Lao timing, is about right. There’s no particular rush to do anything here. Why should there be?

Countryside around Muang Ngoi

Countryside around Muang Ngoi

The journey upriver passes odd groups of houses and small villages, set back from the riverbank. Instead of a car, each house has a handmade wooden boat parked on the river.

Groups of buffalo chew lazily on the riverbank beaches, swishing their tails in the midday sun.

Arriving at the village, Erica and I secure a riverbank room with two beds and a small balcony. There are only a few rooms on the riverbank, so within a few minutes they’ve all been taken.

Local carrying a log home along the main track in Muang Ngoi

Local carrying a log home along the main track in Muang Ngoi

We’ve only gone a few hours north, but the weather here feels cooler.

It’s a small but pretty village. No roads, just tracks, with two-storey wooden houses.

Typical house

Typical house

Dogs, pigs, chickens and ducks scrabble around in the dust. Children play. People sit in the shade, talking.

At one end of the track that makes up the main street, there’s a buddhist temple. At the other end, a bar. In between are a few shops, restaurants, guesthouses and homes.

One end of the main street in Muang Ngoi, with the buddhist temple at the end

One end of the main street in Muang Ngoi, with the buddhist temple at the end

Side tracks run off the main road, with a higgledy-piggeldy layout of houses scattered across the riverbank.

Wooded mountains surround us. Wooden boats belonging to the villagers are moored along the riverbank.

The other end of the main street

The other end of the main street

As we wander around later that afternoon, a group of villagers indicate that they’d like us to join them. They are sitting round a log fire drinking, listening to music and talking.

There are around 20 of us, split evenly between the sexes. Most look like they’re in their 20s or 30s.

Erica, looking super-gay in my jacket (it was getting cold) as we join a group of locals for beer

Erica, looking super-gay in my jacket (it was getting cold) as we join a group of locals for beer

Around us, children play in the dirt with sticks and beer bottles.

My latest toy - two beer bottles

My latest toy – two beer bottles

We’re given a drink. It’s Beer Lao with ice, which we have to knock back quickly, as there’s only one glass, which we all share.

Fuel for the fire, beer for the people

Fuel for the fire, beer for the people

A young girl, maybe four years old, appears from a house across the road.

As she crosses the track, she picks up on the music and invents an elaborate dance, somewhere between techno-robotics and hip-hop. It’s actually rather impressive. Even her facial movements fit in with the routine.

Tiny dancer

Tiny dancer

I guess she must have seen dancers on TV, as a number of the homes here have large satellite dishes. They are bigger than a man, rusty (one rainy season will see to that) and mounted on the ground outside the house.

Power cables were installed across the river a few years ago, using helicopters.

The centre of "town". It takes 10 minutes to walk across the village (if you walk slowly).

The centre of “town”. It takes 10 minutes to walk across the village (if you walk slowly).

Some of the locals told us that they had no idea that electricity was coming – it just happened. Not all of them wanted it.

But whilst there is electricity, there’s no internet. You really can be pretty much off the radar in areas like this.

I like that.

Monks returning to the monastery at the end of the main street in Muang Ngoi

Monks returning to the monastery at the end of the main street in Muang Ngoi

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People

One of the great things about travelling alone, especially in countries such as Laos, is that you meet a whole bunch of interesting people – both other travellers and locals.

Erica Camille has been my travelling companion for the past two weeks.

Erica Camille

Erica Camille

She’s a destination wedding photographer from New York. And she’s a hoot.

We’ve had such a great time travelling together, getting sick, getting better, breaking down (our transport, that is, not ourselves).

You can find details of Erica’s business at http://ericacamilleproductions.com

Dale, Chani and Monica Caulfield

Dale, Chani and Monica Caulfield

Also had some great fun with a wonderful American family: Dale, Monica and Chani Caulfield. They are on a four-month tour which will end with Chani’s graduation in Australia in a couple of months’ time.

The Caulfields are a true travelling family – great people, with open minds and a thirst for knowledge about the world.

Dale is a heli-ski guide and the family live in Washington State, in the USA.

Erica and Dale on our last night together in Luang Prabang

Erica and Dale on our last night together in Luang Prabang

A few people have asked for some pics of what I’m doing, so the pic at the top shows me trying not to fall off a bridge in northern Laos.

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Papa Papa

Had a very unsettling experience a couple of nights ago.

I’m way out in the sticks, in a little village up in the north of Laos.

It’s the middle of the night and I’m woken by a girl crying.

She’s almost hysterical.

It wakes me with a start and I sit up in bed, listening and trying to figure out what’s going on.

She’s outside my window, on the other side of a wall.

I hear her run up and down the track, shouting and crying.

Something bad is happening to her. She’s terrified.

Is she being raped? Attacked?

I’m not sure. I keep listening.

It’s a young voice – maybe teens or twenties.

I should get up. Go out of the compound where my hut is.

I’m imagining what could be happening to her.

I look at the clock. It’s 3.15am.

Her footsteps come back up the track. She’s running and sobbing uncontrollably.

I think back to a young girl I saw in the village a couple of days ago.

Her mother was scolding her in public and she was crying. She ran ahead of her mother. She was afraid. I wondered if everything was OK.

Outside the window, the crying is beginning to wake the animals. A dog barks.

She starts to cry for her father.

“Papa, Papa… Papa, Papa”

That’s not Lao, I’m thinking. Or is it? I don’t know.

Maybe she’s a foreigner.

Or maybe it’s her father who’s chasing her.

“Papa, Papa… Papa, Papa”

I’m getting out of bed.

The chickens start to call. The dogs are barking.

I listen.

“Papa, Papa… Papa, Papa”

“Papa, Papa… Papa, Papa”

My mind is trying to figure out what exactly is happening.

It sounds strange, but the chickens are copying her.

The chickens are shouting “Papa, Papa…Papa, Papa”.

More of them join in.

All over the village, from different directions, the chickens are clucking “Papa, Papa… Papa, Papa”.

And as I listen, the girl and the chickens begin to merge.

Until all I can hear is chickens. Calling “Papa, Papa… Papa, Papa”.

But I know there was a girl. I heard her run. I heard her footsteps. I heard her crying.

She shouted “Papa, Papa… Papa, Papa”.

Gradually the noise quietens down. Then there is silence.

I lay down again. I lie there for an hour, thinking.

There was a girl, wasn’t there? I heard her.

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Sex in the Rice Fields

We’re in a tiny village surrounded by jungle and rice paddies. There are no roads, just tracks between the fields.

Wooden houses on stilts with low thatched roofs.

No paths at all. Just a collection of houses on a brown dirt floor.

It’s beginning to get dark.

We’re sitting round the log fire drinking Lao Lao with Mr Khaw.

He’s getting a bit drunk. Actually, we’re all getting a bit drunk.

Across the fields we see six people. Three men and three women.

They are walking into the darkened and dried up rice paddies.

Mr Khaw turns to us and bangs his arms together.

“They are going to have sex”, he chuckles.

We ask how he knows.

“One of them is my father”.

There’s an awkward silence.

“But one of the women doesn’t want to. They are from the next village.”

We say that if she doesn’t want to, surely nothing will happen.

“No, not in Laos. It doesn’t matter if she doesn’t want to. They will do it anyway. That’s normal in Laos”.

We’re not sure it is normal in Laos.

We’re also not sure how he knows his dad is going for group sex with some people from the next village. Or why he’s telling us.

“My mother died a few years ago. They are drinking Lao Lao. They will have sex.”

We stare at him. It’s not a pleasant moment.

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Drugs

Erica and I are lazing on floor cushions, having late afternoon samosas.

We’re with Bea and Cris, two Spanish girls who we met on the boat to Muang Ngoi a few days ago.

Bea’s telling us about how she came to be arrested in Vientiane.

“There was a group of us. We were down by the river, passing round a spliff. Suddenly we’re surrounded by police. They arrested us all.

“I don’t even smoke dope, but it didn’t matter. They took us all”.

The police said that they’d get at least a year in jail for this. Maybe a year and a half.

Bea started to cry.

She was in a foreign country, a long way from home. She didn’t speak the language.

One of her group, Phillipe, comforted her.

“Don’t worry, they just want money, it’ll be OK”.

He put his arm round her while she sobbed.

But the police were adamant. They were going to jail.

They were kept in a cell for hours.

Phillipe talked again to the police. They talked about money.

A price of 350 Euros was agreed.

The police took him to the bank and he handed over the money.

The group was freed.

Bea has met Philippe a few times since then, on her journey round Laos. There’s a spark between them.

So tonight she’s seeing him and they are going to share a room.

It’s the first time they will have been together.

I hope it goes well for them.

* * *

We’ve heard stories of travellers being sold drugs by guesthouse owners.

Then they shop them to the police in return for a payment.

But it doesn’t always end with a payment and freedom.

“One guy we knew was put in jail for a year. His friends had to supply money and food to feed him while he was in jail. It cost them thousands,” said Bea.

Whether it’s cannabis or man-made drugs, they are all available in Laos. But there’s a serious risk attached, for those who are tempted.

* * *

Northern Laos was once one of the world’s prime sources of opium.

During the sixties and seventies, when America enlisted the help of the Hmong hilltribe to fight against the communist forces, opium was transported in military aircraft as part-payment.

It still is grown here, but not in such great quantities.

Twenty years ago, you could smoke it with hilltribes in the Golden Triangle area, where Laos, Thailand and Burma meet. You probably still can.

It’s a sweet, lazy and somewhat addictive drug, which was popular among artists during the 19th century.

These days, most of it is turned into heroin.

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The Secret War

Between 1964 and 1973, America fought a secret war in Laos.

Unlike the fighting in neighbouring Vietnam, no help was given to journalists wanting to cover the story.

Cluster bomb casings can often be seen outside tourist hotels

Cluster bomb casings can often be seen outside tourist hotels

So, whilst journalists in Vietnam could hitch rides on helicopters, film the fighting and report reasonably freely, in Laos all they received were denials. Supposedly, no bombing was happening.

And of course, what didn’t appear on TV was pretty much ignored by the bulk of the US domestic population.

However, this belies the size of the campaign undertaken in Laos.

America has never, neither before nor since, dropped so many bombs on a single country.

Bomb casings used as signposts and ornaments

Bomb casings used as signposts and ornaments

Over two million tons of bombs were dropped in 580,000 bombing missions. That’s effectively a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years.

The war was undertaken as part of America’s ultimately failed campaign to prevent Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia from communist takeover.

One of the small bomblets contained within a cluster bomb

One of the small bomblets contained within a cluster bomb

In Laos, the communist Pathet Lao were already fighting against the Royal Lao Government. In addition, North Vietnamese troops and the Vietcong were crossing the border into Laos to train, recuperate and ship troops and weapons along the many paths making up the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Cluster munitions were used by the USA – huge bomb-shaped containers which burst open whilst descending, throwing clusters of smaller bomblets over a wide area. They caused devastating damage.

Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped in Laos. Up to 80 million did not explode.

Cluster bomb casing and one of its many bomblets

Cluster bomb casing and one of its many bomblets

Since the bombing ceased, over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance (UXO). Most of the country has yet to be cleared. Only 1% of these munitions have been destroyed.

Each year there continue to be over 100 new casualties in Laos. Six out of ten die and 40% of them are children.

Local boy holding piece of a crashed US bomber

Local boy holding piece of a crashed US bomber

Laos consequently accounts for more than half of the world’s total for cluster bomb casualties.

The US spent $13.3 million per day (in today’s terms) for nine years during the bombing campaign.

Since then, it has spent an average of $3.2 million a year helping with UXO clearance.

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Aside from the ongoing casualties, evidence of the bombing is unmissable in Laos. Large areas are covered by massive bomb craters and huge tracts of the country are unsafe for people to roam.

Children playing or farmers ploughing their fields can easily set off one of the small bomblets that were contained in the cluster munition canisters. If they are lucky, they may lose a limb or two, but for many the penalty is death.

These days, bomb casings are used throughout Laos as signs, memorials and ornaments.

Metals used in bomb-making are re-cast into bottle openers, available in markets at various tourist destinations.

Crashed bombers and tanks can also be viewed as a result of the conflict.

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The Caves

Historically, there appear to be two uses for caves in Laos: storing old buddhas or sheltering from bombs.

About an hour and a half’s walk from Nong Khiaw are two sets of caves in the mountainside that were used not only as shelters, but as regional centres of government, hospitals, etc.

When the USA was secretly dropping bombs along the Ho Chi Minh Trail back in the 1960s and 70s, this area of northern and eastern Laos was blown to smithereens.

Walking to the caves through the surrounding jungle

Walking to the caves through the surrounding jungle

The Trail is actually a network of routes that straddles the Vietnam/Laos border. America wasn’t at war with Laos, so the action was officially secret.

However, the damage was so severe and prolonged that it was very difficult to completely cover it up. But news coverage was restricted to an absolute minimum and no help was given to journalists trying to cover the story.

Steps up to the cave entrance

Steps up to the cave entrance

The caves are reached after turning off the road from Nong Khiaw about 2 miles out of town, crossing a river and trekking through jungle.

Steps have been built to the entrances.

Peephole to the outside world from inside the caves

Peephole to the outside world from inside the caves

Inside, some of the passages are steep and narrow, opening out into massive caverns where thousands of people could shelter from the bombing and shooting.

It's dark inside, so use a torch

It’s dark inside, so use a torch

Areas are now posted with small signs, showing where the regional government convened, where the police station was set, and where the hospital was situated.

There are numerous caves like these in Laos.

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Nong Khiaw

So, I’m sitting in Dehlia’s in Luang Prabang one evening, thinking about my next move, when in comes an American girl. She spots my Macbook Pro and asks if I have a charger, as she’s just lost hers.

The bridge in Nong Khiaw

The bridge in Nong Khiaw

Her name is Erica Camille. She’s 28 and from New York.

Nam Ou River

Nam Ou River

Erica is a destination wedding photographer (now there’s a cool job!) and needs to recharge her Air so she can edit her photographs.

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As things turn out, we’re both planning to head north, so we team up to travel together – and share the charger.

Typical house

Typical house

Two days later, we’re on a minibus to Nong Khiaw, a small town further north, on the Nam Ou river.

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We set off a little late, as is customary in Laos. The road – the “new, well surfaced Route 13” – is, well, pretty bumpy. This used to be a dirt and rock track, so in comparison I guess it is well-surfaced… but with huge potholes.

Children on the road out of Nong Khiaw

Children on the road out of Nong Khiaw

We go down a massive hole and something breaks. There’s a metallic grinding, dragging sound coming from beneath the vehicle.

... and more kids...

… and more kids…

We stop. Everyone disembarks. There’s some banging and thumping for half an hour, using a screwdriver. And we’re off again.

Pet today, lunch tomorrow...

Pet today, lunch tomorrow…

I’m thinking that this would have cost a day’s pay and a couple of days in the workshop at home, but things kind of work more simply here. If it’s broken, a man with a screwdriver can often fix it.

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The countryside is mountainous, with sheer cliffs, wooded slopes and the odd village punctuating the route.

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Nong Khiaw itself, which we reach some four hours later, is spread across the Nam Ou river, connected by a tall concrete bridge constructed by the Chinese in 1976.

No shortage of eggs here

No shortage of eggs here

We find ourselves little bungalows – wooden houses on stilts – overlooking the river.

Our bungalows on the riverbank

Our bungalows on the riverbank

The town is spread out on both sides of the river, although the far side is officially called Ban Sop Houn.

What's up, duck?

What’s up, duck?

Ducks, chickens, dogs and pigs wander the streets. Things move slowly. Everywhere we go, things move slowly.

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People sit outside their wooden houses, talking, sleeping, cooking over open fires.

Many homes here now have a large satellite dish outside

Many homes here now have a large satellite dish outside

The sun is hot during the afternoon, but by the evening it gets noticeably cooler.

A local heads home

A local heads home

Over the next couple of days, we eat at a reasonably good Indian restaurant, a little Lao food, and wait an eternity for eggs to be cooked.

View from the Indian restaurant

View from the Indian restaurant

In the evenings, we don jumpers and sit outside at a restaurant overlooking the Nam Ou.

Many people in this area spend their time making brooms from grasses

Many people in this area spend their time making brooms from grasses

The restaurant by the river is nice, but in true Lao fashion, things take time to come. It’s not a place to eat if you’re in a hurry.

Rat traps for catching lunch

Rat traps for catching lunch

There’s also no guarantee that you’ll get exactly what you ordered.

Erica orders fried eggs.

Around 45 minutes later, a plate of scrambled egg, bacon and bread arrives.

Lunch

Lunch

“No, I ordered fried eggs,” she tells the waitress.

The waitress looks at the eggs, looks at Erica, and goes back inside.

Another quarter of an hour goes by.

The waitress reappears – with another plate of scrambled eggs.

The boats used for getting around from village to village

The boats used for getting around from village to village

The next morning, the same thing happens in reverse. I order scrambled, I get fried.

We think they only understand the word “eggs”.

Some of the nicer houses to rent, at around 15 US dollars a day

Some of the nicer houses to rent, at around 15 US dollars a day

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Monks’ graves

Have you ever seen a monk’s grave?

In Laos, you’ll often see them when visiting a buddhist temple.

Here are a few I saw in Luang Prabang.

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Many of them carry photographs or drawings of the monk.

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Typically, they are four-sided structures, often accompanied by a small shrine enclosing a buddha statue.

As I'm unable to read the text, I'm not entirely sure if this chap was a monk. He looks more like a member of the old royal family of Laos.

As I’m unable to read the text, I’m not entirely sure if this chap was a monk. He looks more like a member of the old royal family of Laos.

Tributes of flowers are left in small receptacles and incense sticks are burnt in little pots.

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The larger graves have a little door at the back, usually containing something specific relating to the monk.

One was unlocked, so I had a look.

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Inside was a wooden model of a man, together with what I believe is a piece of one of the gold-coloured circular ornaments that top the roof of the temple building.

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You like rat?

I’m currently travelling with an American photographer called Erica Camille.

This morning we went for a 5 mile hike along roads, through trees (kind of jungle, I guess) and up mountains.

It was reasonably hard going in places. Great fun but, boy, were we hot. And THIRSTY.

As we walked back to our village, we noticed a little house that appeared to be running a restaurant.

Outside was a huge yellow sign, showing a large bottle of Beer Lao, sparkling with frost, straight from the fridge.

I desperately needed a drink. Erica fancied a coconut. So we stopped.

As we went through the gate, we walked past a man who was grilling something over an open fire.

His wife came over.

“Do you have a Beer Lao”, I asked.

“No”

“Do you have coconut?”

“No”

“What do you have?”

She pointed at the fire.

He was cooking rats.

We can cook these for you...

We can cook these for you…

This one's nearly ready

This one’s nearly ready

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Mosquitos

This morning I ate a mosquito.

I’m not sure if this is a bad or a good thing. Do I run a risk of developing malaria? Or should I just be happy that there is one less mosquito around?

They hang around outside by bedroom door, waiting to swoop when I leave for breakfast. Breathing in through your mouth is not a good thing to do at this time. They get sucked in.

Here are 10 interesting facts about mosquitos:

1.Only females bite
The females need blood to produce their eggs. Males are just happy to eat nectar, which the females also eat.

2. They are very short-sighted
So they can’t see you very well.

3. They sniff you out
Instead of looking for you, they sniff for the carbon dioxide that you breathe out. They can sniff out CO2 from a distance of 75 feet.

4. They are the deadliest animals in the world
Seriously. They kill millions of people each year, due to the diseases they can carry. These include malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever.

One of the many mosquitos squashed in my morning hand-clapping routine

One of the many mosquitos squashed in my morning hand-clapping routine

5. They pose a risk to YOU!
There isn’t yet a prevention for dengue fever, and malaria pills are also only partially effective. Try not to get bitten in the first place, by wearing long sleeves and trousers, using a protective spray containing DEET, and not hanging around pools, puddles and other areas of water – especially in the evening. At night, use a mosquito net.

6. They bite through your clothes
Yes, I’m sorry, but they do. I got bitten last week through a thick shirt, simply because I sat next to a fish pond for 10 minutes to update this blog. Having said that, a shirt will at least give you some protection, particularly if you are moving.

7. They sing in harmony
Males and females synchronise their wing beats when they meet, so that they whine in harmony. You know that whine? The one they make when they fly in your ear whilst you’re lying in bed.

8. Your body is a nightclub
Male mosquitos know that females want to bite you. So, what better place to hang out? Males can cluster around you waiting for a female to turn up. That way, one of them stands a good chance of mating with her. Similar behaviour can be seen in humans.

9. Mosquitos fly at 1 mile an hour
Or 1.5 miles an hour at top speed. Despite the fact that their wings beat between 300 and 600 times a second. That’s pretty slow. Even butterflies leave them standing.

10. They live for up to 6 months
Assuming you don’t wallop them, that is.

There were around 207 million cases of malaria in 2012, of whom 627,000 died.

Dengue fever is now an increasing risk. The World Health Organisation estimates that between 50 and 100 million people suffer from it each year, of whom around 25,000 die.

Current estimates indicate that around 30,000 people die from yellow fever each year, with about 200,000 reported cases of illness. Without treatment, about half of all cases result in death.

Glass buddhas

Heaven

Oh. My. God.

Safely arrived in Luang Prabang, the ancient royal capital of Laos (the modern capital is Vientiane).

The plane

The plane

To say it is nice here is a bit of an understatement.

The outlying areas of Laos are relatively poor, but Luang Prabang is decidedly more up-market (in a kind of laid-back Laotian way).

Young monks

Young monks

Novice monks from the countryside come here to do their training. The town is littered with wats. The chanting in the evenings is sublime.

It’s heaven. A kind of laid-back, buddhist heaven. Like much of Asia, a mix of buddhism and communism that appears to mix relatively well.

I shared a mini-bus from the airport into town. Two of the guys I was talking to said they were going to Paradise. I think that was the name of the guesthouse where they were staying, but I took it as a good omen.

One of Luang Prabang's beautiful little side roads.

One of Luang Prabang’s beautiful little side roads.

I’m staying at the house of one of the old Laotian princes. Beautiful grounds, buddhist antiques, sun loungers and two swimming pools. Just a couple of days of relaxation here, before venturing out into the wilds of the north. Hill-tribe country.

Flags of Laos and the communist party

Flags of Laos and the communist party

There’s an elephant who lives opposite my hotel. He’s in a field with a big canopied hut, which he stands under during the heat of the day, idly scratching himself with a stick that he holds with his trunk.

Lonely elephant

Lonely elephant

Actually I say he, but he might be a she. I haven’t looked that closely yet. I feel a bit sorry for him/her. He must be lonely. Elephants are intelligent and social animals. Standing alone in a field all day must be mind-numbingly boring.

Flowery shop-front

Flowery shop-front

I’ll post a piece a bit later on the prince’s residence, Satri House.