The beautiful North

After showing our dear friends Renee and Barry around Jerusalem and the Dead Sea area we took a trip up to the North of Israel to attend the Jacobs Ladder Folk Festival and to show them a bit of the North of the country. On the way up I had to work in Yaffo,so D showed them around the Ancient Port of Jaffa,and then we jumped in the car and set off,stopping en route to have lunch on the beautiful beach front of Natanya. We ate sandwiches looking at the sea, and marvelled at the blue sky and warm weather,despite it being December.

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Natanya Sky

On arrival at the site of the festival, Nof Ginossar we settled into our rooms in the Village,signed in to the festival, and checked out the performers. The festival runs over Friday evening and all day Saturday, and is a wonderful mix of folk,rock,blues and jazz music in a great atmosphere.Our family has been going for many years and we love the informal feel and the whole experience of being detached from TV,radio,politics and the like for a whole weekend.It is truly refreshing. The venue,perched on the Sea of Galilee, is always attractive.You can stroll around the kibbutz and check out the Jesus Boat which was found onsite. The next morning we really enjoyed the massive breakfast,and the whole festival was a blast.

Breakfast at Nof Ginosar Kibbutz Hotel

Breakfast at Nof Ginosar Kibbutz Hotel

Once the festival was over, on Saturday afternoon we drove round the Sea of Galilee to Yavne’el a small village in the Galilee area where we had booked an Air BnB place for the night at the house of Lesley, a place called Tuscany in the Galilee.The place was a little hard to find,but Lesley’s baker husband Menny directed us to the place over the phone.We found the most charming house built on a hill which had a superb view of the whole area from our balcony window.We chatted a bit with Lesley and went to bed.The breakfast,which Lesley (from Colchester in the UK) had apologized the night before would only be “continental” was in fact a superb spread of freshly baked cakes,croissants and foccaccia, served with freshly squeezed orange juice from the oranges on the neighbour’s tree,and fresh coffee.It was all just too wonderful,just look!

Breakfast in Yavne'el

Breakfast in Yavne’el

View from the balcony,Yavne'el

View from the balcony,Yavne’el

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View of Yavneel

Lesley explained that they run a coffee place in Ramat Gan,and every week,Menny comes home to do the baking and then takes everything down there to sell.On our last day up north we went round the Sea of Galilee again and up north to Katzrin,the Capital of the Golan since Biblical times.We visited the ancient Synagogue there and then went on to do a guided tour of the Katzrin Winery which was both interesting and tasty.WE saw the whole of the wine production process and got to taste 3 different wines at the end.

The Katzrin Winery

The Katzrin Winery

We would have loved to show Renee and Barry some additional sites in the North, such as Rosh Hanikra on the Lebanese border,or Pekiin, a village where Jews and Arabs have lived together peaceably for generations,but it was beginning to get late and we had a long drive ahead of us back to Jerusalem.So there is always more to see next time.

Where have I been and where am I going?

Apologies for the long silence! Of course I have been disorientated by leaving China, and in mourning for my China life.But never fear! I have been travelling and not sitting and crying.However I have definitely been a little stagnant too,as life at home is not life on the road.This is the difficulty that long-term travellers face,how to be in a “normal,routine” life at home,with all that entails,and how to get on with one’s  non-travelling friends and relations.This has been discussed at length by many a travel blogger so I won’t dwell on it.

But China beckons once again,and it seems that in March we will be back in Xiamen in the gainful employ of another university. Ssssssh,nothing is final yet! But fear not dear reader. You will now get a glimpse of our glamorous life in Israel and the wonderful places that you can visit here,if you are lucky enough to travel here.How can you pretend to be a traveller in your own country? Easy,just host some guests from abroad and you instantly become a tourist,traveller or onlooker.

So when our dear friends Barry and Renee arrived from Hawaii by way of Shanghai we were delighted to take the opportunity of showing them around this tiny but vibrant and diverse country.

We of course began with Jerusalem which has a wealth of sites for the historically minded traveller.We showed them the Haas Promenade in East Talpiyot which affords one of the best views of the Old City. We showed them the Mahane Yehuda Market with its jostling populace and wonderful fruit and spice stalls,and we enjoyed a great meal at the Lebanese Restaurant of my friend from Marseilles.And we explored the Old Train Station and the area of town where the Ethiopian Church and Russian Church stand practically side by side.Exploring these places with guests from abroad allowed me to view them with renewed pleasure and to appreciate the richness and complexity of this weird city I have lived in for the last 30 years.

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Russian Church in the Russian Compound,Jerusalem

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Ethiopian Church,Jerusalem

We showed them the lovely village of Ein Karem, one of my favourite places here, with its slightly Italian feel,its pretty churches and yuppy restaurants. The weather smiled on us and the sites were very photogenic.

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The Russian Orthodox Gorny or “Muscovy” convent of Ein Karem

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General view of Ein Karem from the steps of the Sisters of the Rosary Church.

We then continued down to the Dead Sea and Massada.I had not been there for a long time,and the site appeared much bigger than I remembered, and made for a very impressive day out.We even managed to get lost on the top of Massada and managed to miss the way out!

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Top of Massada

Next post will be about our wonderful trip up North to the Galilee and the Golan,and the Jacobs Ladder Folk Festival,which really deserves a blog post all of its own.! Stay tuned…..

Back from Asia-Where is home?

The title of this entry was going to be “Why Hong Kong is Overrated” but circumstances have dictated a change in emphasis.. Bear with me.

After a few days in Chiang Rai,North Thailand,three amazing weeks in Laos,land of mystery,and quiet relaxation,and four days in cosmopolitan,pulsing Hong Kong here we are.back in Jerusalem. Laos has had its own blog pages,even though I could write on and on about it and post myriad pictures, I will restrain myself.

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Our street in Jerusalem- I did miss the blue sky

 

How to describe reverse culture shock? Better writers than me in other blogs have done this,but I feel obliged to give it a shot.Here goes…Where is my wonderful Chinese life? Where are all my diverse friends from all over the globe- Philippines,Taiwan,Canada,Australia? I left them all behind to return to my family. In China our life seemed to be a constant whirl of the new and exciting.We had  a great time in class with the students,and we had many friends outside the classroom all clamouring to be our friends. Whenever we stepped outside our apartment in the city of Xiamen,there was always something new to explore. Every street corner held a surprise,every face turned curiously to stare at the “laowei” (foreigners)  walking past. Of course family is very important. We miss them when we are away. We were thrilled to see our kids and our siblings and my dad. But when we are with them things can be difficult.We fall back into patterns and rituals that are long ingrained in our behaviour,and that we don’t always enjoy.I am sure many people can relate to this. Reverse culture shock means that what should have been alien and hard to deal with became the norm,and our old familiar life suddenly became strange to us. We peered at the deserted streets and became amazed that we could understand every conversation overheard on the bus and in the supermarket.  The confusion and reverse culture shock we are now going through is compounded by the fact that the Hamas decided to resume shelling the day before our return,and in fact as we were passing through passport control at Ben Gurion airport the officer at the booth told us that sirens had just sounded a few minutes earlier in the centre of the country.Needless to say this was pretty disconcerting ,and we started feeling like turning around and heading straight back to the plane!

So to get back briefly to the last weeks of our trip. We returned to Chiang Mai on our way back to Hong Kong for the return flight home. On our first visit to Chiang Mai the curfew had still been in place because of the military coup there.Restaurants had closed at 6pm and the streets had been deserted. I had considered avoiding Chiang Mai but fellow bloggers assured me it was safe to go there. And on the whole I am glad we did,as the crossing over from CM to Laos was a blast in itself. However when we returned 3 weeks later the tourists had started coming back to Chiang Mai.It was still not  as crowded as on our first trip to Thailand,but it felt a bit more lively and fun.We wandered through the streets of the Old City,saw the Night Market (no big deal after the one in Luang Prabang) and I did something a little unusual- I took a Thai Cooking class! This for me was the highlight of our return to Thailand,especially the Drunken Noodles which burst into flame when we added the Palm Sugar.

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Drunken Noodles

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My Massalman Curry

The cooking school was called “Siam Rice” and I was presented with a certificate and a book of recipes at the end. It was well worth the money and very enjoyable. There are lots of different cooking schools to choose from but I think they are much the same, both in price and what they offer. In any case,this is a fun thing to do, and you have something to take home with you to remind you of your visit.

On arrival in Hong Kong,where we picked up our huge suitcases at the wonderful Butterfly on Hollywood Hotel,we were again upgraded to a larger room,this time with a view! Hong Kong was almost unbearably hot and stifling,but we managed to have a pretty good time,walking around the Soho neighbourhood,and making a brief trip to Lantau Island where after an awesome ride on the 360 degrees Ngong cable car we saw the huge Giant Buddha. This was the part where I was going to lay out my theory that HK is overrated as a tourist destination,but I think I will leave that for another post,as I have been rattling on long enough and with the sirens going off here every few minutes I am really not in the mood..

My friend asked me where this blog is going now that we are not travelling.I said I have no idea.So let’s just wait and see,shall we?

View of the Big Buddha,Lantau Hong Kong

Big Buddha Lantau

Up the Mekong to the Thai Border

We decided to leave Luang Prabang by slow boat- we had travelled down the bumpy Lao roads by bus and taking a slow boat up to Huay Xai over two days seemed like something worth trying.After a short research project I found there are basically 3 ways to do this- public boat,private VIP boat or Luxury boat.There is a fourth way called speed boat otherwise known as sudden death or suicide mission.The thought of hurtling through the water very fast with no safety,a roaring engine and no crash helmet did not appeal.So regarding the other options- the public boat is apparently crowded, noisy and you chance ending up seated on the engine on a hard wooden seat for two days.The two other options seemed much the same except that the Luxury one costs twice as much,and the only difference is you overnight at Pakbeng (the halway point) in a fancy hotel.This didn’t seem to justify the expense so we plumped for Nagi of Mekong, a well publicised outfit which boasts long boats with about 50 padded bus seats, tables, a toilet and lots of room to walk about.Since we were going off season and upstream (most people go the other way) the chances were the boat would not be full.As it happened Adisak,the owner answered me promptly by email and replied to all my questions, and booked us on with just our passport numbers and contact info at the hotel.We would be picked up at 6.15 and depart the pier at 7.00. It indeed turned out that we had tons of room as there were only another 3 guests on the boat (a Canadian couple and their lovely 12 year old son) and the crew of driver,guide ,cook and boss lady.So we had lots of room to lie down and sleep, read, eat and walk about during the 2 day trip.

 

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Our long boat

The price of the two day trip was $150 each which included breakfast and lunch and the overnight hotel stay in Pakbeng,plus a visit to the Nam Ou Buddha caves, a steal as it turned out.

The next two days passed like some mesmerizing dream.The boat was cool when it was baking hot outside, comfortable and relaxing.The gorgeous scenery drifted by and we saw kids swimming,fishermen, water buffalo, cattle grazing on the river bank, people washing their clothes, and even an elephant.It was like being in a National Geographic movie at times.

On the first day we stopped off at the Pak Ou caves,with their thousands of buddha statues. The next day we visited a small very remote village which had no electricity  or water and no school. Most of the inhabitants were out working in the fields, leaving the grandparents and small kids at home. Pigs and chickens ran around and kids gawped at us as if they had never seen outsiders before. The overnight stop at Pakbeng was nothing amazing- it’s just a small place all the boats stop off halfway between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai with just backpacker places and restaurants.

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Buffalo along the river

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Village kids

Along the way Khae our guide told us various things about the places we saw, and answered all our questions.He told us about his ex wife who wasted all the money provided by the sale of 4 buffalo his father had given for their wedding, and told us things about his ethnic group,the Yao.

It is hard to convey in words how wonderfully relaxing this trip was, how the scenery glided quietly by,how the rhythm of the boat lulled us into calm.This was really only brought home to us as we left the boat and arrived at Huay Xai. Khae helped us board a tuk tuk which took us over the Friendship Bridge and back into Thailand,where we spent the night in Chiang Khong,the Thai town over the border. Here too we saw the Mekong from our guest house balcony- but it was all different.

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The beautiful Mekong (0ur Mother in Lao)

Nong Khiaw- a bumpy ride to the most perfect sunset

After chilling out for several days in Luang Prabang we felt ready for another adventure.So we boarded a minibus for the 3 hour trip to the small town of Nong Khiaw, north-east of Luang Prabang.This place is noted for having splendid limestone karst scenery on the banks of the Nam Ou River,similar to the familiar views of Guilin on the Li RIver in China,or the karst scenery in the South of Thailand.Now you might think that an air-conditioned minibus would be a better choice for the trip than the cheaper non a/c open tuktuk which is called a “bus” here in Laos.Well you might be wrong.Firstly the tuktuk goes slower so the bumps and jolts are not so bad.Secondly the driver didn’t actually turn on the a/c for most of the trip so we sweltered and bumped,and one Australian even bumped his head on the roof at one point in the journey.Anyway we eventually arrived at the “bus station” in Nong Khiaw which is minimalist to say the least.We had been reliably informed by the Indian guy who works at the Indian restaurant in NK who happened to be in the minivan with us that it was only 600 metres from the place we were dropped into town,so we walked it and arrived at the “throbbing” town centre in about 15 minutes as it was starting to rain.The place was tiny but there were many restaurants and guest houses to choose from.We found one named the CT,which had a restaurant, rooms with balcony onto the river and checked in.

Most of our two-day stay in Nong Khiaw consisted of gazing up at the mountains. The view was indescribably beautiful and a bit mesmerising. We could have gone tubing,hiking,bicycling,canoing or caving.Plenty of backpackers were doing just those things.But we were content to lap up the view and relax there.For one thing it’s the rainy season.For another we are lazy,and have done so much travelling over the last 3 years we are enjoying living the moment. So we gazed at the mountains in the morning,when they were swathed in mist.And we gazed at them in the evening when the sunset over the Nam Ou was simply perfect.One night we did this over a splendid curry at our Indian friend’s place.The next evening we did it over a wonderful Chicken Laap and Mango Shake,served by the French-speaking owner of Sunset Bungalows. Now tell me that this isn’t just the perfect romantic spot!

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After two days of musing we returned by tuktuk (less bumpy but this time soaking wet) to our lovely Saynamkhan River View room.The owner had very kindly kept our room for us and our suitcases were there waiting for us. Ahh it’s a hard life in Laos.We revisited the Big Brother Mouse in the evening to meet with more young Lao friends,this time accompanied by a young lawyer from Manchester. She has travelled far and wide,including Africa (Ghana). and most of Central and South America, and is now heading to all the Stans -Turkmenistan and so on.So she was an interesting travel companion.More anon…Please leave comments.

 

Luang Prabang- Chillout town of Colonial grace

We have been in Luang Prabang for over a week now and I can’t figure out how to describe it to you. It’s not like any other town I have visited.To say it exceeded my (very high) expectations would be an understatement. Every blog I had read mentioned the gilittering temples,the saffron-robed monks,tne colonial villas, the quiet charm.But that doesn’t convey the real charm of the place.You have to feel it.Luang Prabang is full of tourists but it feels quiet and serene.Even when you walk through the night market and see the many French,Dutch,American and British tourists examining the fine weaving and wood carvings,you still feel calm.Even after you sit in a restaurant housed in a French-style colonial villa, on a terrace overlooking the Mekong or the NamKhan River,you can feel comfortable and not over intrusive.So we have decided to stay here for a while.The original plan was to spend a few days here and then continue south to Vang Vieng and Vientiane.But when we saw that our hotel,the Saynamkhan RIver View had upgraded us to a room overlooking the river we decided to offer them a deal- we will stay at least 10 days if you lower the price.It worked! So we are chilling out here for a while and trying to get to know more locals and do less touristy things.And it seems to be going well.First we went to a place called Big Brother Mouse  a kind of drop-in club where Lao people come to practise their English with anyone who shows up.We found it great to just sit and chat to young people about their lives,and Laos generally.We made some good friends there.Today we went with a young monk called Bee Kham and his friend,also a monk on a short trip across the Mekong.We told him we would like to see a local village so he took us down to the pier and found a boat.We then crossed over the river and walked around in the village with them,talking and asking questions.We got to learn a lot and they got to practise their English- a win win situation.

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Another day we met a girl called Mone from a village near Pakse in the south of Laos. She told me that she is a weaver and that she works in a shop called Ok Pop Tok  which sells woven textiles.She said that she was an orphan and that she had come up here from her village to work and that once she had been to London.I asked her how that came about and she answered “IT’s a long story”.. Her employer is English, and Mone was supposed to attend a weavers’ conference with her  in Peru,Lima.But when they arrived in Lima she was denied entry because of some visa mixup , so they ended up flying all the way back to London,where she was able to have a short holiday and relax before returning to Laos. She told me she cried all the way there because she was so disappointed and tired. Mone gave me her email and we are now Facebook friends.Many of the people at Big Brother Mouse have added us on Facebook, including the monks.

Another morning we took a tuktuk to the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls. We shared the tuktuk with some students from Singapore who spoke Chinese.So we chatted to them in mixedup Chinese and English and also exchanged emails.Last night we met up with them again and had an Indian meal together before they headed off for their Mekong boat trip up to the Thai border

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One of the first evenings here we climbed out Mount Phousi, the tallest point in the town. There is a beautiufl temple near the summit,but the main reason people climb it is to see the sunset or sunrise.We climbed towards dusk and the views from the top were really stunning.IT was hard not to take photo after photo.Maybe we will climb again just to look without snapping so many shots.

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Another thing we enjoy about Luang Prabang is the smaill-town feeling.We jokingly decided that you never meet someone here once only.We keep running into people who we met on the bus down here,or people we saw in other places.You stroll down the main drag or past the night market and you are sure to run into a friendly face.The pace here is uber-relaxed and it is easy to spend many days here doing nothing much- just drinking a fruit shake,watching the river flown.

Off we go again- Hong Kong,Chiang Mai, and … LAOS!

We have finally had our last goodbye party and taken our last goodbye photo in Xiamen.We have returned our house keys and our teachers’ cards and boarded a bullet train to Shenzhen.After a couple of days there we crossed over to Hong Kong and after a couple of days there and a bit of sightseeing we boarded a flight to Chiang Mai,Northern Thailand,with a slight bit of trepidation due to the recent military coup and curfew there. However on arrival in Chiang Mai all was well despite the lack of tourists and the restaurants shutting down very early. We felt safe,even though we saw soldiers stationed at the city gates.I will kind of catapult the trip from Xiamen to Laos, since there is so much to write about in Laos,I don’t want to bore everyone with minutae,especially since we have visited both Shenzhen and Hong Kong before.

Chiang Mai is a well-known tourist destination,full of attractive Buddhist temples, massage salons and lovely really cheap restaurants. We did take one trip from there to the Tiger Kingdom,which is definitely a must see.According to the internet it it not one of those places where tigers are subdued with drugs.The tigers there are genuinely placid as they have been reared there from birth,and are not capable of hunting in the wild.They are sleek and well-cared for,and you pay a price to stroke smallest,small or big tigers for about 20 minutes.It is an amazing experience,rather hard to describe.You walk into a cage full of tigers (and the small are pretty large!) together with a handler,who reassures you.You leave your bag outside and enter only with a camera.You must not touch their paws or head,just tickle their tummy and you can move their tail and sit next to them,and even lie down next to them and put your head on them if you are feeling really brave.It is well worth it in my opinion.I was overawed by being so close to such a beautiful creature.

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Stroking a tiger at Tiger Kingdom- yes it’s real and alive

 

From Chiang Mai we took a minibus package with a few other people which picked us up at our hotel,and drove us via Chiang Rai to the border with Laos,and helped us cross the border,including do all the visa paperwork and deliver us onto the bus from Chiang Khong (the Thai side) to Huai Xi (the Lao side) and then get a Lao bus to Luang Namtha. On the way we stopped at the beautiful Wat Rong Khun,or White Temple in Chiang Rai.This temple was damaged in a recent earthquake and has since been restored.

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White Temple,Chiang Rai,Thailand

When we arrived at the border,we just had to fill in a couple of forms and [ay $35,add a passport photo and board a shuttle bus to cross the 4th Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River into Laos.On the other side we were dropped off at the Bus station for the trip to Luang Namtha.This was rather longer than we thought and the bus was a bit ramshackle and the road very bumpy and primitive compared to the Thai side.We finally arrived it Luang Namtha,northern Laos at 9.30pm.The bus station was in the middle of nowhere,and there were no taxis or tuktuks in sight.Eventually we asked a guy to help us by borrowing his phone and calling our guest house.They thought we wanted a room,and said they were full.Finally we explained somehow that we just wanted to reach the place and had no transport.They didn’t really understand.The man with the phone pointed at a minivan which was loading local people and goods,and said he could take us for 40,000 Kip (about $5).The man said he knew our guest house.So we climbed on and at 10pm reached our guest house.The main street of Luang Namthat was just one long strip of  backpacker guest houses,restaurants and tour companies.THere was very little else there.The scenery was stunning.After discovering that our guest house had no hot water we moved the next day to a neighbouring one called the Zuela,which is without doubt the best bet in Luang Namtha, a  gorgeous log villa,with hot water,clean rooms, a/c, a downstairs restaurant, tour operators and intermittent wifi connection.

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Zuela Guest House,Luang Namtha

After spending a day strolling around Luang Namtha and discovering its very basic charms. we opted to take a one day tour to see ethnic hill tribes in the area by tuktuk, near the town of Muang Sing. There are some beautiful treks around that area which you can do if you are looking for something more challenging, most include a homestay with some ethnic peoples. During the wet season (when we were there) trekking is more strenuous,due to the mud and the hilly terrain. We took the trek with Elaine, a Californian who had spent 5 years teaching in SHenzhen,China and now lives and teaches in Indonesia. The tour was wonderful.Our guide,Hak, from the Black Tai minority was wonderfully knowledgeable and charming with a great sense of humour and excellent English. He took us to various ethnic minority villages. We began at the Muang Sing market,about 3 hours driver from Luang Namtha. The road was pretty bumpy and rough in places.IT was also muddy so you had to watch your step. We took lots of photos and of course asked people before we did this. Most were happy to be photographed,although some younger women were very shy. WE then saw some Hmong, Yao, Lolo and Leu. There are many ethnic minority groups in Lao, some originating in Tibet,others in Vietnam but most have been there for a few hundred years. They speak Lao language but also their own language which is very different, and each group cannot often understand the others’ language. They are mostly Buddhist,but some are also animist.One very intersting part of the trip was a long chat we had ( with the translation of Hak) with a lady who does hand embroidery. She provides pieces for an NGO which sells her work in the capital and abroad,and gets paid over $100 for most pieces,as her work is very fine,and often takes more than a year to complete. She said she has a brother living in Santa Barbara, and has visited him there, and she produced photos of her visit there,and also of her two sons at university,one here in Laos and one in Guangzhou,China. IT was hard to imagine her travelling abroad let alone to the US whilst seeing her squatting in the mud hut of the village,surrounded with ragged children….

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The girl said it wasn’t her baby

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Temple wall drawing showing punishment for gossip and lying

 

We had lunch in one village house, and ate sticky rice (with our hands,rolled into a hard ball) ,spicy pork and chicken,bamboo shoots and spinach.IT was delicious but rather spicy. Dessert was a small very sweet banana. We also saw a village temple,with some amazing wall pictures,highly ornate, depicting the fate of those in the afterlife who have gossipped or lied about their neighbours.IT reminded me somewhat of Hieronymous Bosch. Towards evening we drove back again over the bumpy road back to Luang Namtha,which suddenly seemed like a throbbin metropolis in comparison to the tiny villages around the area.

The next morning we boarded a bus at the Luang Namtha bus station to travel to Luang Prabang, the famed UNESCO heritage city of North Laos.I had been anticipating this city very much and was afraid to be disappointed. After a 9 hour extremely bumpy bus journey the risk of anticlimax was pretty high. The bus journey itself was pretty great. The air conditioning consisted of travelling with the door open. There was a mix of passengers, locals, foreign backpackers – young Americans and French, a Chinese guy from Shandong who works in Shenzhen,and  a couple of very well-travelled Liverpudlians.At one point,it being rainy season, there was a landslide on the road,and we had to get out of the bus and wait for the road to be cleared by bulldozer.There were several food and toilet stops on the way in some tiny rural villages. The view was stunning all the way- thick jungle, tall mountains swathed in mist, river valleys of the winding Mekong and its tributaries, rice paddies complete with picturesque buffalo – all you could ask for in  a South East Asian travel video We finally arrived in Luang Prabang at around 6 pm and very easily got a tuktuk to the hotel,glimpsing a tantalizing view of a gleaming gold Wat on our way there.

More about Luang Prabang later. IT is an amazing town.

Will continue later as internet here is a little intermittent….

Please leave comments!