We are having a stop-over day in Luang Prabang in Laos and are exploring this charming small city on the Mekong river. There are several temples (wats) and thousands of small motorbikes. It is backpacker country and full of gap year sudents.
The border crossing from China was not too bad yesterday. Initially we upset the border guards in China by inadvertently crossing the red and white striped line on the road when stopping to do our formalities. Apparently this is the border point, but seeing as all roads in southern China are mud coloured the first cars in our group had failed to spot it. After a small bit of diplomacy all was sorted and we seemd to jump the queue of all the trucks and were allowed to proceed across a section of no mans land to the Lao border controls.
Here we were met by Nua who is a guide that we have hired in Laos. He is a pleasant young man who had entry forms all prefilled for the group. Laos is not a signatory to the carnet scheme, so we did not need to get our carnets stamped either. All in all we were through in an hour or so and set off. The first stretch of road was mud and had deep ruts made by the trucks. Fortunately most of them we could straddle with a wheel on either side and avoid whatever was lurking in the puddle of water in the middle. Others were so large that we drove in the rut with wheels alternating between being perched precariously on one side or being in the bottom of the pool of water. We removed our chinese number plates at the border, but seeing as the front ones were completely obscured by mud within 5 minutes, we need not have bothered. We have kept the plates and our chinese driving licences as souvenirs.
After 20 km the road became good and we stopped at the first town to buy car insurance and road tax, before heading for Luang Prabang. It is definitely tropical here. Bananas growing beside the roads and very steep mountains that have mostly been cleared of their trees and are now a patchwork of different shades of green.
Compared with China there are many fewer people about, but each village is full of children running around and adults on bicycles along with the usual collection of pigs, chicken and water buffalo (large bright pink ones). The houses are built on stilts so as not to get muddy in the rains and to provide workspace and shelter underneath. 4 p.m. seemed to be bathtime and the streams that ran beside the road had large enamel bowls filled from a leet. Next to these were children being washed down by the mothers. All the women have long hair - often reaching beyond their waists and no doubt also washed beside the road.
We stopped to stretch our legs at a waterfall. (We have a reputation in the group for stopping when all other press on!) The main fall was apparently 11 km away, so we contented ourselve with looking at the first one and chatting with the local youth who had all driven up on their motorbikes. They were very amused that we responded to their opening 'hello' and stopped to talk. The girls had got a fire going and were cooking up something while one of the boys appeared with a half drunk bottle of beer and offered it to us. When I declined another went fishing around in a plastic bag and produced a glass full of ice and filled it with beer.
Fabulous driving on sweeping roads through the hills. Apart from being on the constant watch out for potholes, these were ideal roads to enjoy an Aston Martin and we did just that.
We caught up with the others just before a village with shops and we all stopped for a drink and to regroup before heading for Luang Prabang. Our guide was worried that we would not find the hotel and had arranged for a police motorbike to meet us 20 km outside the city and led us in. This he did at high speed with his lights flashing, gesticulating to all others to move aside for us... reminiscent of Pakistan.
The hotel is peaceful and built in fabulous gardens overlooking the Mekong river. We were welcomed with a glass of fruit juice and then sat down to watch a band and dancers in front of a banner saying 'Welcome London to Sydney classic carvan in Laos'.