Raphael Kessler

Home | Travel Photos | House | Friends and Family | Random | FAQs | Links | Contact Details| Search


South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2



Having left Laos, it's time to write another newsletter I feel. The previous one left off when I got to Vientiane, so that is where this one will pick up.

Vientiane is quite a small town and when I was there a particularly wet one. Unfortunately it doesn't really have any wonderful sights to see, although the That Luang (the main temple of Vientiane) is peasant and the National museum is quit interesting, particularly for the way the Americans are referred to in those sections they have the misfortune to be included in. It is worth mentioning that although America was never at war with Laos, and even pretended to have some kind of relationship during the American-Vietnamese war, the Americans did manage to drop more ordnance on Laos than has ever been dropped anywhere else ever. This led to continuing problems with unexploded ordnance (UXO) being detonated by ploughs, rain, anything or nothing. Couple this to the fact that the Pathet Laos army (who eventually took over Laos) were fighting with the North Vietnamese, It is therefore understandable that the Laos government doesn't hold the US in the highest regard.

One of the more amusing sights in Vientiane is the Anousavari Monument. Laos' version of the Arc de Triomphe. The structure looks moderately impressive from a distance, but loses charm as one approaches it. The sign above the ticket office on the monument even mentions the fact that the monument looks less impressive the closer one gets. Foolhardy as I am I still bought a ticket to climb up to the top of the concrete monstrosity, despite the warning. The views from the top would have probably been rather nice if it weren't for the torrential rain. The view inside thing, reminded one more of a disused warehouse or a multi-storey car park.

In Vientiane I met some decent folk with whom I would spend some time. One of them being American had found a bowling alley and decided we should go off bowling. As it turned out this was a god little expedition and I had a couple of good games. Whilst waiting for our friends in the other lane to finish their games I decided to just throw the ball at the pins, lo and behold I got a strike, this repeated itself several more times and then I got a spare, when the attendant told me to stop as I wasn't paying for the lane. Bloody typical, the best ever round of bowling I have ever had and it wasn't even being scored, with four strikes in a row, then a spare, it was bloody good - shame I don't play like that when I am actually playing.

The crowd of us from Vientiane decided to head on up to Vang Vieng together. Vang Vieng is a small town set in beautiful scenery with a disproportionate number of tourists to locals. There Etai, Mor (a couple of decent Israelis) and I decided to trek off in to the hills to the caves that people visit and spend the night there, as opposed to doing the tuk-tuk tour everyone does. So after stocking up on provisions at the market off we set. We reached the area of our destination in just a few hours and then proceeded to get lost looking for the caves. We finally found one and decided to make camp there. We gathered in fire wood, had dinner, joked about and had an early night as we were all tired from the walk. The idea was to get some sleep, but during the night we were attacked by mosquitoes consistently. In the end I had my head wrapped in my sarong , the only way I could keep the blighters off, although it did restrict my breathing. We had all slept quite poorly so tired we had breakfast and made are way back to the road to walk back to Vang Vieng. By chance there was a tuk-tuk waiting there that took us back to Vang Vieng and much needed showers and rest. My forehead resembled a mogul run from all the bites I had received and by evening it had gone nasty, making me look like a teenager with particularly bad acne. Still the expedition had been fun and no-one died.

That afternoon, I was invited to join some other members of the group from Vientiane who were going tubing down the river, so off we set and sat in our tubes letting the current take us back to Vang Vieng again. We had been told about a nice cave to see that was on the way down so we came off when we saw the sign. At the ticket office we paid our money and were given a candle each and a lighter between us. We then climbed up the steps to the entrance to the cave, which was dangerous enough as the steps were all very sharp shards of upward facing rock, and we were al wearing flip-flops or sandals. When we finally got to the top we had to start the descent in to darkness, hence the candles. It is probably worthwhile pointing out here that Caves are dark, we places, with holes and gulleys etc. we had a few candles and one lighter. We had also been told that it takes about an hour in and half an hour out, so don't use more candles than necessary, going in as then you won't get out. Also there was the fact that if the candles got wet and so did the lighter, we could have some difficulty getting out through the darkness. Claire an Essex girl had already chickened out of the expedition so it was myself two Steves from Kent and Tony from LA. The problem of the unforeseen holes and drops we decided to tackle by putting Tony the American in front, after all he was the most expendable. The cave was rather nice if a little dark and damp. Also rather deep we had walked a couple of couple of kilometres underground before we reached what was the end (at least as far as we were concerned) with a waterfall coming out the roof. We then headed back and Tony who had done pretty well all the way down bodged the return journey a bit, when he led us up the wrong side of an underground ravine. The logical thing would have been to turn round find the end of the ravine and make sure we went the correct side, but lets face it the logical thing would also not be to go pot-holing in flip-flops and swimming trunks with a couple of now broken candles left between us. So candle in hand I led the way crossing the ravine from one monolith to the next. At the time it all seemed very daring as it was rather ominous looking with a precipitous drop etc. In reality it was probably only a few metres down, still all good fun. Anyway, then we finally emerged from the cave down the dangerous steps and re-boarded our inner tubes for the rest of the journey down river. Then the heavens opened and we got even wetter, ah well. Back in Vang Vieng the hot shower was so much more welcoming as a result.
The next day we all took it pretty easy and just hung out in a new place that had been opened by Ian, another guy from Kent who had been living in Vang Vieng for nine months. According to Ian - Etai, Mor and I were the first people who had stayed overnight in the cave at least since he had been around, which made us feel much more intrepid. Ian's place was very homely and served decent English food, which was very welcome. After a few days in Vang Vieng when it finally came to the time we were moving on, Ian got a little emotional taking photos of "the originals" from when he had first opened up.

Jimmy (a Brummy and a recent addition to the group), Etai, Mor and myself decided to head on North together to Luang Prabang the former capital of Laos. After having an argument with the guest house where I had been staying over the fact that there had been flooding in my room on the last night and some of my stuff had got soaked, so I wasn't paying for that night, I got to the bus station and met the guys. After we had all boarded the bus and were about to depart, the landlords lackey turned up with a policeman demanding my extra bit of money, I tried to explain why I wasn't paying the full amount, to no avail and the tension began to rise, so I pulled out my ace and mentioned to the policeman that I had never registered at the hotel so they couldn't prove I stayed there and that the landlord must therefore be cheating the police and government if the guests don't register. My involvement in the conversation ended at that point and the Copper and the lackey went off talking heatedly to each other as the bus pulled away. Game, Set and Match I think.

The following day in Luang Prabang was the day of the annual boat races. We went down to the river in the morning to witness the festivities and some of the races. The roads down towards the river were all taken over by a Laotian hybrid of a funfair and a market. We watched a few of the boats qualifying and had some drinks, waiting for the main event to start. The boats in the race are about twenty metres long, and one metre at its widest, tapering to a point at either end. With about fifty men on them in the main hull of the boat sitting side by side paddling with all their might. There was also several people on the aft and prow of the boats with larger paddles as well as a guy sat right on the stern steering. A major difference we noticed between the calibre of some of the boats was that some included a guy who's job it was to sit right up on the prow of the boat and rape it. For obvious reasons this guy became known amongst the English speaking contingent as the boatfucker. After watching the qualifying a bit and with the start of the races proper imminent we tried to find a god place to watch from, but nowhere was particularly comfy so I had a word with one of the TV people and got us in to the VIP section, much easier. We were joined a bit later by the Prime Minster of Laos, but he was pretty quiet so we didn't mind. After watching just a few races we had noticed a trend, essentially that when those who had a boatfucker raced against those without the former invariably won. Furthermore that the quality of boatfucking would also indicate the winner at an early stage. With this insight we were quite reliably able to pick the winners. The alarming thing was how sedately the people watched the event, apart from the clamour of the traditional orchestra that would accompany each race, there was little other audience participation, something we found rather intolerable and set out to resolve. After just a few races with the few of us howling like banshees the locals around us were beginning to shout and cheer a lot more which added much more to the enjoyment. We had created a hub of excitement, this meant that much of the time the television cameras were focused on the mad falang contingent bellowing away. People would ask us who to bet on and we would give confident advice without any basis of understanding and the orchestra leader would find out who we were rooting for in the next race in order that his xylophone accompaniment would be appropriate (although it seemed as monotonous to the untrained ear as Brian Walden reading a Eulogy). The only negative feedback was when someone with strange, confused, wild, staring eyes asked us to keep the noise down as we were hurting his head. We shouted him back to his place to the approbation of the rest of the crowd. I had been following Sonnebond avidly through the races as they had been winning consistently, had a boatfucker par excellence and most importantly because they wore what vaguely resembled the Spurs away kit.

There were others however who had been following the Vizo team just as avidly, yet without any apparent justification, there kit looked nothing like what Spurs wear. The big showdown was when these two giants of teams went head to head, Vizo had won the finals the past two years in a row and Sonnebond the three years in a row before that. This race was not only to see who was going to get through to the next round, but probably decide the whole event, like a Sampras vs Agassi quarter final. The excitement was tangible Etai ended up involved in a confusing bet with a glockenspiel player the crowd was divided. The race was phenomenal just when it looked like vizo were going to win, Sonnebond came from behind to draw to a photo finish. Arguments were rife and everyone thought their team had won when the decision came over the loudspeakers, it was a draw, they would have to race again. There was an uninteresting race next and then the re-match. If possible the tension was even greater. The race was almost verbatim a repeat of the previous one, again to a photo finish, incredible how two teams could be so evenly matched. Finally the judges announced their decision, which only did harm to the reputation of referees everywhere, Vizo had won. Etai was very happy as that was what he had bet something he wasn't sure what on. Needless to say I thought it a tragedy. We watched a few more races, but the fight had left us, so we went back to our guest house to recoup. That evening we met up for some food, drinks and film with some girls (Anna and Nicky) we had invited into what had undeniably become our enclosure at the boat races earlier that day.

The next day we all met up to go and see the Khong Yi waterfalls. They are some very nice falls cascading down through trees and over rocks. We all got very wet and we learned from Anna never to wear white linen trousers with a G-String underneath when visiting a waterfalls as you will become known as arse-flosser. The day after Jimmy and the girls went to Thailand and Etai, Mor and I did a walking tour of the city ad saw some nice temples. When we got back Jimmy emerged from his room as apparently he had missed the boat. The day after tat Etai and Mor left for Muang Xai and Jimmy for Thailand, except once again Jimmy missed the boat, so we decided to go see some caves. Elizabeth a New Yorker decided to join us and was pleasant company. The caves were nice though nothing spectacular. When we got back to Luang Prabang we decided to go for a massage at the Red Cross (who raise funds by having an internet cafe, doing massages and herbal saunas). The massage was great - Jimmy fell asleep, the reason he keeps missing boats - so he went back to the guest house whilst Elizabeth and I sweated it out in the herbal sauna, a bizarre thing to do considering it felt like a sauna at the best of times. The next day Jimmy did finally leave and Elizabeth and I hired a motorbike and went off to That Sae, another waterfall. This time we had swimming costumes with. After climbing up the waterfall as far as possible we then thought we would tackle it in the water itself as it was more of a horizontal cascade than a very vertical one. After half an hour of struggling and several injuries, we realised it wasn't going to work, so we found a sedate pool to chill out in. Further down the falls I decided to jump into one of the pools below landing on a rock and damaging my leg in the process, still I survived. We rode back through the beautiful countryside and saw a lovely sunset in the hills and had a sedate evening. As the following day I left to get towards the Chinese border. After a day of travelling in Laos and then a full day of travelling yesterday I got to Jinhong the capital of Xisuangbanna prefecture, where I should be leaving soon for Kunming the capital Yunnan.

The strange thing has been how nice the Chinese have been so far on this visit. The immigration guy on the border was helpful and even said "welcome to China" in a way that actually seemed like he meant it. The bus driver was pleasant enough the rickshaw drivers have been helpful and people have smiled at me at least fair amount, hopefully it isn't just here, but this will the standard for the rest of the China I see, but somehow I think that may be a little too optimistic.




All the images and text on this website are the copyright sole property of Raphael Kessler and cannot be copied or reproduced without his express permission. 
If you want to use any of his intellectual material please contact him via the link above