The moustache is tiny squid roasts

The title of this entry is just one of the shining examples of Engrish on display at the night food market in Chiang Rai. Thailand has now, for me, sailed past Japan and China for the quality of its low-quality English.
A few days ago we left Thailand behind, and made the two-minute boat trip across the river to Laos. Our tour leader’s joke that we would need to set our watches back by 30 years was not far wide of the mark – time seems to have stopped here, and there is a peculiar, but charming sensation that everyone (and everything) you come across has just woken up from a particularly restful slumber. Looking at all the images of Buddha dotted around provides an interesting affirmation of this concept, as you can see the spirit of the country mirrored in his sleepy, benevolent gaze.

So…to the backbone of my trip, and sailing down the Mekong. Drifting idly down the river on a well kitted-out longtail boat and absorbing the first few days of the trip was a welcome antidote to the organised chaos of the Thailand part of the tour. It reminded me a little of the mood of train travel; having nowhere to go and nothing to do is not nearly as dull as it may sound, especially not when you are floating past riverbanks with the richest greenery imaginable cascading down towards the water.

All of which brought us to Luang Prabang, Laos’s (just-about) beating heart and a UNESCO world heritage site, largely thanks to a stunning 600 year old wat in the centre of the city. The mixture of people here makes walking the streets an endless delight; backpackers so stoned that they appear to be even more still than the natives, monks (resplendent in saffron robes) crowded round computers in internet cafes, and street vendors sparked out by the side of their stalls, with a backdrop of wats, stupas, French-colonial buildings and palm trees. This bizarre melange gives the place its own incredibly unique identity, and despite the fairly common sight of other Westerners, it feels like a just-unearthed gem. Laos as a whole also has that special air which comes with being landlocked in the middle of a vast continent; I had a similar sensation standing in the street in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, and I think it contributes to the feeling of being cut-off from the rest of the world. There are wonderful art galleries as well, and it goes without saying that the food is superb.

Tonight I will binge-shop at the night market, then tomorrow I will be getting up at 5am to watch the monks collecting alms, and then a final embrace with Luang Prabang will be followed by a flight to Vientiane. (I was in a temple yesterday when a plane flew overhead, on its way to land at LP airport. The entire building shook – it was rather special, in a intense kind of way). Apparently the French influence is even more apparent there, so it should be fascinating.

But, of course, the silhouette of Angkor Wat keeps lurking almost imperceptibly at the edge of my vision…

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