Vang Vieng - Vientiane - Luang Prabang
Not much more than 24 hours after my last rant about glasses being broken and such, I actually LOST my glasses. About an hour later I fell off a rope swing and broke my watch. Last night (days later) at 0147, while waiting for the Argentina-Cote d'Ivoire match to start, my watch STOPPED WORKING ENTIRELY. I do hope it's just the battery.
So, having no glasses, and having a World Cup to watch, on the morning of June 7 I went back to Vientiane, the only place in the country where prescription glasses can be made. After traveling with Deb (and Ossie, Ben, Jen) for so long, being alone was strange indeed, but I sat on the Mekong river and ate a Mekong River fish, grilled with crispy, salty skin. The next day Deb and Ossie had discovered that, once you've done what there is to do, Vang Vieng is boring as all hell - unless you count sitting around drinking, getting stoned and watching Friends. Seriously. Vanmg Vieng's main street is lined with open-air restaurants where you can lounge on raised platforms with mats and cushions and watch Friends (or the Simpsons, or MTV, or Family Guy, or whatever else, really) all day and night. You walk around at eight in the morning, and people are watching Friends. It's sick, and wrong, and bad.
Anyway, since they were off to Luang Prabang, I had to pick up my glasses at 1600 and get on the last bus to Luang Prabang by 1530, which is easier than it sounds. I got them to do the hurry up on my shiny new brass-coloured wraparounds with variable tint snazziness (for only $70) and got to the bus station by 1530, only to find that the last bus actually leaves at 1600. Luang Prabang is 10 hours away, and I was onle of only 16 people on the bus - the rest of the space, including most of the seats, were taken up by 50kg sacks of fertilizer. At about 2300 we stopped in the middle of nowhere and picked up a man wearing fatigues and carrying an assault rifle. He lit up a smoke and promptly fell fast asleep. Reaching Luang Prabang at 0200, the place was a ghost town, but I managed to find a place to stay, and found Deb and Ossie the next morning.
The rest of the last two days has basically been the World Cup, which is in full effect here. For some reason the last match of the day always seems to be the best one, so we've ended up staying up until 0400 watching the damn things. This can't continue much longer.
Curiously, in Laos, we've met more foreigners than on probably the rest of our journey combined. At the border we met the three gals I mentioned earlier. On the bus to Vang Vieng we met Shaf, an Indian-Kenyan-Londoner, and Toby, a Noo Yorker who'd just quit his volunteer job teaching english in THailand because they weren't paying him (?) Let me explain about Shaf: his ancestors emigrated from India to Kenya four generations ago; he lived in Kenya until he was 17, attending very English boarding schools, then moved to London, and has just gotten to Indochina from five months in India. That's a complicated life. Also in VV we met two nameless Canadians who'd also just come from teaching in Korea, one of whom is an anthropologist who wants to study human trafficking and the sex trade in asia. Here in Luang Prabang we've met Till, a German who looks like Legolas, except with dreadlocks; Filipo, an Austrian who's currently missing his university entrance examinations in Holland; Troy, an obsessive-compulsive, former tourette's syndrome case who worked with autistic children before becoming (at age 22) an oil rigger, worjking two weeks on and a week off for six months a year, then travelling the other six; Liam, a huge (he looks like a prizefighter) dubliner who reckons that the Catholic Church is a load of fookin' bollocks and that Northern Ireland should be pushed off into the irish sea - I thought Ossie was going to crack him one for a while, which would have been unwise given the size differential and Liam's incredible drunkenness. Also Bernardo, a mexican who looks like Zack de la Rocha and likes Superman movies, and others. It takes all sorts.
I have mixed feelings about Luang Prabang. On the one hand it's in a blessed location - the confluence of the Khan and Mekong rivers; I swam at the delta where they meet yesterday. The western side of the Mekong here is almost completely undeveloped, and the eastern bank of the Khan is given over to a few stilt houses and some corn and banana plantations - otherwise it's mountains and jungle all around. It's hot here during the day, but at night it cools down and is very pleasant. The city itself is small enough to walk around easily - an order of magnitude smaller than Vientiane; it wouldn't even qualify as a city in any other country of the world, but the probel is that because tit's Laos' historical capital, and is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it gets huge numbers of tourists compared to the rest of the country, and like Vang Vieng, there's a certain degree to which tourists have displaced locals, and tourist money has displaced local industry. I say a certain degree, because this is absolutely nothing like any of the major tourist attractions anywhere else in southeast asia - it's pure peace and tranquility compared with any comparable site in Vietnam or Thailand, or even Cambodia. Tomorrow we're going to see a bit more of the surrounding area - there's a village on the west bank and some abandoned old french-looking houses in the jungle, some caves and waterfalls around the area, and suchlike. In a few days we'll probably head out of here to Phongsali, way up in the northern mountains.