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Month: May 2002


OK, we’re back in Pokhara, after a 10-day trek up to the Annapurna Base Camp. Much fun, and much dhal bhat, was had by both of us, despite some initial scariness…

Basically, myself, Catherine and Bhadra our guide, spent a very pleasant first night in Dhampus, the first stop on the 10-day trek. Much rakshi (local millet booze, tastes like watered-down lukewarm vodka) was imbibed, resulting in some seriously ludicrous attempts at Nepali dancing! Thankfully there’s no photos.

Next day, we hiked up to the next town, Pothana, over some very leechy trails (top leech tip: cover your boots in salt, they can’t stand it). All well and good, until halfway through the town a Dutch guy ran out of a teahouse and stopped us, telling us that an English couple had been attacked in the forest just outside the town — of course, we immediately went to meet them. The guy had a bloodsoaked bandage tied around his head, and told us how himself and his girlfriend had been walking through the forest towards the next town, Landruk, when a Nepali guy approached. The English guy said namaste (hello), and was rewarded with a wallop over the head with a 6-foot stick! They then stole his girlfriend’s rucksack and attempted to take his, but (somehow) he managed to fight them off with half of the stick, then escaped.

With some help (and interpreting) from Bhadra, we found out from the locals that there was a gang of robbers operating in this forest, and a week previous to this, 2 Swedish girls had to be airlifted out because they were too badly beaten to walk! Serious problem — and one nobody had bothered to inform any of us tourists about!

After this, the 8 tourists, and their respective guides and porters, all trooped out of the village — Bhadra knew a quick route back to the road over a ridge, which saved us a half-day’s walk back via Dhampus. Along the way, the English couple were stopped by what seemed to be the entire village, who were having a very heated conversation. The upshot was that they wanted the English couple to wait around for a half day until some of the men returned from the forest, hopefully with captive robbers in tow, and then the whole lot would get the bus back to Pokhara (the nearest city) and give out stink to ACAP, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, who run the area. The English couple agreed, and we went on.

Eventually, we sidetracked around to another way up the trek. Myself and Catherine were the only 2 tourists to head up — everyone else decided to head back to Pokhara, but we were happy enough with Bhadra’s assurances that this route was very well-travelled, with no forests and no known robberies (by day at least).

It turned out for the best in the end — we had an amazing trek, got loads of pictures, saw the entire Annapurna range from the Annapurna Sanctuary, no clouds, and no further robberies. And lots of rakshi!

In the end, we heard through the grapevine that the robbers had been attacked by the local Maoists (the police don’t patrol the mountains any more). One 17-year old robber was shot, and 2 more had their arms and legs broken. Rough justice in the traditional paramilitary law enforcement style, I guess. (By the way, the Maoists enjoy about 80% support in the mountains, from what we’ve heard).

The remaining robbers hightailed it to Pokhara as well (they were not locals), and were eventually arrested. Hopefully the Nepalese law enforcement system can sort it out – corruption is apparently rife, but around here they take these kind of tourist-targeting attacks very seriously — for many people, it’s their livelihood, and it’s already suffered a lot this year due to the political situation.

So, a happy ending for us, and a warning for anyone else out there thinking of doing the Annapurna Sanctuary trek — stick to the known-safe trails, and bring a Nepali guide/porter for extra safety.

Photos will be forthcoming once we get back to Ireland, earn some money, get them developed and scan them in. This could take several months though… ;)

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Laos: Speedboats and Pla Beuk

Latest update: (This one’s a bit lazy. I’m just editing Catherine’s mail to travelogue, adding a few bits.)

We flew from New Zealand to Bangkok on the 18th of April. From Bangkok we headed for Laos via Nong Khai in North-eastern Thailand, on a comfy first-class train carriage again (spoiling ourselves!).

We then made for the Northern Thai border, passing through Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.

Vang Vieng is a tiny little town which has evolved into a tourist chill-out zone for falang (foreign) and south-east Asian tourists alike — we spent a nice afternoon with a group of holidaying Thai Buddhist monks, jumping into a deep river pool on a rope swing! (Camera was out of film for that one, sorry folks). Great fun spot though.

Having said that, Luang Prabang was definitely the highlight, I would highly recommend anybody to go there. The city is crammed with Buddhist temples from the 14th to the 21st century counterbalanced with crumbling old french colonial architecture. All of this is set by the Mekong river, filled with river traffic of all descriptions from water buffalo to large chinese sampans.

After this we headed for Thailand, up the Mekong river, on a speedboat. These are a reasonably insane way to travel, hitting speeds of 80km/h, and shooting the occasional rapids! We’d heard it was possible to have to wait a day or two before getting on a boat, so we paid extra to pre-book, just to make sure it was OK.

Things started badly, with an hour and a half delay as our pre-booked tickets didn’t really seem to make a difference; eventually we persuaded our boat to get underway, with 7 passengers instead of the promised max 6.

Then we hit Pakbeng, the halfway point, had a spot of lunch, and waited another bonus 1/2 hour, before our driver informed us that we’d be changing boats after the 2 Lao passengers left, leaving 4 falang in the boat. (The passenger details may seem meaningless, but I think he’d never have embarked on the next bit if a local was around to give him a bollocking).

It turned out our new driver had a nice sideline in trading pla beuk (giant Mekong catfish) and live monitor lizards up and down the river! After about 6 stops for chats, buying and selling, our group of 4 was joined by his 2 mates, 2 sacks of live lizards, 2 2-meter-long live pla beuk and another large, live mystery fish, all thrashing about occasionally. I’d wanted to see a pla beuk, but not this much!

Eventually we lost the rag a bit, and I think this got us to Huay Xai before the border post shut for the day. Not a good experience. For reference, our tickets were booked through a ticket agent 2 doors up from the LPB Lao Aviation office (one of our co-passengers booked through the Lao Aviation office itself), and our agent had assured us that these things — or the ones we could foresee at least! — were not going to happen. Suggestion: don’t bother pre-booking, or if you do, make sure you get these assurances in writing!

Anyway, after that we made it into Thailand, pretty sure we were going to be stuck in Chiang Khong (we’d missed the last bus to Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai, our intended destination). But the good news was that an agent of Namkhong Travel was touting on the far side of the Thai border post, and got 3 of us onto a very comfortable, very reasonably-priced private air-con minibus bound for Chiang Mai — so see, touts are good! Namkhong Travel certainly get my thumbs-up anyway.

So we are currently in Chang Mai which we missed on our last visit, and ahead of schedule no less. We are not sure exactly what to do next, we have a few days to mess about with, as we are leaving SE Asia on the 11th of May to fly to Nepal.

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