Luang Prabang in 9 Pictures

  1. A toddler watches over his parent’s food stall in the market

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2. Mid morning strolling

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3. Clear skies and temple architecture

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4. Tropical fruits ready to be juiced and blended

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5. Views from Mount Phou Si

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6. Cascades of Kuang Si Falls

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7. Sunset over the Mekong

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8. Grains and grains and grains

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9. Lazy river day

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What I Read: South East Asia 2017

House of Mirth, Edith Wharton.

House of Mirth in a Vang Vieng bedroom

Truthfully, I started House of Mirth in June 2016 but it remained half read until I stuffed it in my South East Asia hand luggage in January 2017.

Lead character Lily Bart is broke. Her rich friends and love of expensive things means she lives way beyond her means, and I can relate. She’s hot, and a bunch of men like her but since she’s broke and it’s the early 1900s she has to marry for money. That’s a task, considering at 29, she’s knocking on in age a bit (remember this is early 20th Century literature) and there’s an absolute bitch intent on ruining her life because she’s jealous and petty. Lily does a pretty good job of ruining her choices herself, but the question is if she redeems herself.

I like Wharton, 20th Century American lit and New York high society dramatics, so this was always going to be a hit. None of the characters are remotely likeable, which again is just American lit in general, but the stories are so compelling – even if the ending is unsurprising for the genre. It wasn’t too heavy to carry in a daybag and was an easy, enjoyable read.

4/5
Beloved, Toni Morrison

Beloved on a Koh Kut beach

If there’s any book I’ve been recommended most, it’s this. It was on all literature reading lists I have received over the past decade, lecturers recommended it, friends recommended it, probably even my friends’ pets. I dragged my heels, though. Any vaguely supernatural theme repels me immediately, and this was no exception. Then I got Beloved as a birthday gift. It too was packed for my travels.

Beloved is set in the late 1800s. Slavery is newly over, and the characters are still recovering from the scars of enduring such an atrocity. Many had escaped enslavement, including the lead character, Sethe. We learn early on that Sethe, based on a real woman, murdered one of her children. The toddler’s apparition haunts the family, its presence initially malicious but morphing into something quite indescribable as the years pass.

Despite finding supernatural fiction unreadably dire on the whole, I found this book so rich, complex and raw. It depicted with honesty the weight carried by slaves even after emancipation. The ghost of the toddler seemed to represent the trauma of surviving slavery, and as the horrors are retold, the spectre’s presence grows more gruesome.

Ghost babies are really not my thing, but Morrison writes so beautifully and with such lyricism. The topic is heavy and the book is often dark, but I read it as a beach read and the poetry in the words complimented the scenery. 4/5
Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray

This tome on an Inle Lake bus

I had never read this as I always found it too expensive to buy, but it was 75 baht in a Soi Rambuttri bookshop. I picked it over a history book, Grapes of Wrath and The Beautiful and The Damned. I’ll say it now, how stupid I was.

I like books that talk about how dreadful high society is and women the in 19th
and 20th Century. I had hopes. The set up is two girls, Amelia “Emmy” Sedley (dry, cries and blushes a lot, literally don’t care about her) and Rebecca “Becky” Sharp, who has a fiery, scheming personality. Her parents are dead so she has to find a rich man to marry of her own volition. Lots in there for me to identify with and like. The tale is 500ish pages of the trials of these women, Emmy never getting a personality and Becky scamming everyone and being wonderfully dreadful.

Becky’s awful excellence was not enough to keep me compelled. I left the book abandoned in Inle Lake after a frustrating ten hour bus journey where I tried, really tried to plough on with the book and found it all so unnecessary and irritating. I got to page 300 or so, then read the last few pages when everyone’s dying.

The book could be about 449 pages shorter if WMT didn’t go on random rambles – “reader, we all know what happened to Geraldine Smithwank! And Mrs if you’re reading this, do not take offense!” Unnecessary. 19th Century writers do it a lot, long unnecessary rambles (the Les Mis Paris sewers chapter for one dry example) but I have never found it so annoying. I’m on holiday, I don’t need my books pissing me off.

2/5 because it occasionally was readable and I managed to read most of it.
An Outline of American History

American History in a Bagan hotel garden

Another Khao San bookshop find. It was cheap and I’m interested in US History.

I think there’s no deception in the naming of this one. When they say ‘an outline’ they literally mean the briefest trace. Massive aspects of history were skimmed over, especially the darkest elements. Internment got a paragraph. It’s the kind of book you read in order to find out which aspects of history you want to learn about more. If I knew nothing of a subject, I learned a lot more, but if I had even slight prior knowledge I learned nothing – or even disagreed with its overly positive (deceptive) perspective.

It was alright. Better than Vanity Fair.

3/5

How The World Really Works, Noam Chomsky

How the World Really Works on a Koh Rong Beach

This was on my reading list for some time, then I came across it in a very good bookshop in Phnom Penh. The title and cover say it all – it almost functions as an exposé on how America works.
Chomsky was interviewed by David Barsamian on a range of topics, and the book was then compiled by Arthur Naiman. Topics covered range from American foreign policy to media, with a critical approach towards the American political system and corporate control.
I was glad to have read the US history book before this, as my background knowledge was more solid, but Chomsky’s book was both far more informative and transformative. The content will shock, anger and make you want to organise. Importantly, despite the last interviews taking place in 1998, Chomsky seems farsighted and in some places accurately describes future developments.
It’s a very good and informative book. Not an easy read, but very worthwhile.

4/5

UNFINISHED: Dr. Zhivago! Boris Pasternak

Dr Zhivago on a Vietnam sleeper train

I bought Zhivago before a seventeen hour sleeper train in Vietnam because the idea of seventeen hours sitting still filled me with dread. I bought a fat book to see me through the very end of the trip, and I had been craving some Russian lit since December.

What I didn’t consider is how much I love being asleep. For a good 14 of the seventeen hours that’s exactly how I passed the time. The rest of the time I was writing my blog and enjoying the beautiful views from the train window. I didn’t get a lot of reading time in the last week, so Zhivago will have to be finished in London!

Travelling When Black: South East Asia

Read about my Travelling When Black series here.

Krabi Town in Thailand broke me. It was the first and one of the only times I cried on the trip. I was tired, far too hot, weak and I had a long bus journey to Bangkok ahead of me. I was ready to cry.

Then we entered an air conditioned department store. The noise and busyness was overwhelming. As we strolled through the departments, I noticed a pattern. One girl would spot me, her jaw would drop, she’d turn to her colleagues and then after a second they’d all turn around and point and scream with laughter. It kept happening, again and again and so blatantly. Others would see me, look away and laugh to themselves.

“Do I have a sanitary towel stuck on my forehead? Is my ass on show? Have I shat myself? Honestly what the fuck is so funny?” I asked myself. I begged Alessio to leave the shop immediately. On the steps of the store and I sat and cried.

“I’d just, for once, like to travel and be Black in peace. Is that too much to ask?”

I began to get used to it. In Myanmar, staring and giggling became the norm. The first was a lady who discreetly slapped her husbands arm when she saw me and he looked at me with a dropped jaw. The practice of one person seeing me, telling their friends, then all of them turning around and laughing happened over and over again, in each new country. I was pointed at and stared at and glared at. Some women would frown if I smiled at them. Women and men pointed at me, and didn’t think to be discreet when I stared back – they just kept pointing and laughing. Once, I felt a tug on my hair as I walked because someone had grabbed a few braids to feel. On two occasions at tourist sites, older Asian male visitors took artistic photos of me with DSLR cameras without asking – once in Angkor Wat as I posed for my own pictures, and another in Hanoi by the lake. They looked at me very sheepishly, and I asked to at least see the pictures. “Thanks… I guess.” Unsolicited pictures were regular, and I often ranted “Are these people here to see the bloody temple or here to see me? Shall I stand here and start charging them?”
A young hiphop-loving Vietnamese new friend was bemused as two men took a photo.

“This happens all the time? It’s because don’t see people like you a lot. Crazy.”

Pulling faces as a tourist takes a photo in Angkor

It wasn’t all bad. Youngsters in caps and sportswear always said hey and smiled. Tables of people would call to me and cheer when I said hello back. People called me beautiful. When I waved, or smiled at people who were staring, some would wave back and give a friendly smile. People asked me to meet their family. I took so many selfies with people who asked kindly, and they thanked me later. Often one girl would take a picture of me and her friend, then hesitantly look at me like a sad puppy as they walked off.

“Do you want a picture too?” I’d ask

“Yes! Oh, yes please! Thank you!”

“What is your name? Are you Vietnamese?”

Is this how it feels to be Beyoncé? Am I as nice to my fans as Lady Gaga?

My favourite was a young Burmese Muslim woman in Mandalay. She saw me and began giggling. When I waved back, she jumped up and down happily and buried her face in her friend’s shoulder.

Fans in Yangon

The nice treatment balanced out the bad and the upsetting. I knew the reactions were because they probably had never seen a black person before. Some maybe only knew of a few Western black people and pictured most to be tribal Africans. I don’t know, but I was certainly seen differently to the white European travellers who passed by without a second glance. I knew their behaviour was not coming from a place of hate, malevolence or racism. I knew it was curiosity, confusion, maybe excitement. But even the good and funny experiences were as tiring as the bad. I sometimes had a little sense of dread when leaving the hotel because of the weight of being so conspicuous. No matter how big or touristic the city, I was conspicuous. I was pointed at, stared at, glared at, laughed at, waved at and photographed.

I understand in Asia, white people are also “other”. I know white people also get stared at and pointed at. Overwhelmingly however, the majority of other Western travellers were white. It’s not rare. If I travelled to around 25 cities and saw a maximum of six other Black people in two months, you can imagine how regularly they see black people. I was the “other” other. If people were curious about Alessio, I was a damn exhibition.

In Inle Lake, Myanmar I was walking towards the pier. Alessio tapped me.
“You’ve made a friend.”

A black girl in a café was waving at me with a huge grin. By now Alessio was used to the Black solidarity smiles that happen every time we’re away.

Five minutes later, the girl caught up with us, out of breath.

“Hey! I just ran to catch up with you guys! I am SO happy to see you! I ran as soon as I saw you! Wait, do you speak English?”

Her name was Simone, and she was a solo female traveller. She had been travelling for only a week, and had cried every night. The staring, pointing and laughing had worn her down too. We agreed it was exhausting, and it felt so good to meet someone who understood. Then she said the keynote.


“It feels like you have to always be so nice and so polite because their entire opinion of black people rests on you, and it’s so tiring.” 

It was everything I knew but hadn’t yet put into words. I could see in her whole element she was sick of it – even moreso than I was. I could see how I also had it easier. She was alone. I was travelling with a white man. As regressively 1950s as it sounds, travelling with him made the weight so much lighter. The asking and answering of questions fell mostly to him. I walked closely by him. When people pointed, I held my head high and his hand tighter. It all said “I’m not that different – I’m with him”.

In Phnom Penh I took a stroll alone. I felt the difference. Without the protection of distant whiteness I was sneered at in a way I wasn’t the day before in the same city, and without distant maleness I was fair game. Curiosity, for that brief time, morphed into a meat market. When coincidence meant I ran into a friend from another city, a white girl, I let out my breath and laughed. I’m with her.


There was another, stranger aspect to my experience. I was sure some people, including Westerners, thought Alessio was paying for my company. It was confirmed when a local asked Alessio why, if yesterday he paid for a Cambodian girl, did he “choose” a different girl today? The fact he had seen Ale before was gas since we’d only just arrived in the city – but it reiterated what I had suspected and what other women of colour in relationships with white men had told me. Brown women and white men together meant money was involved, not love.

A drunk white man stumbled down Khao San Road, fondling and groping at the three Nigerian sex workers he had hired for the night. Some were older, but one girl looked my age. Her braided hair was tied up, just like mine. By chance, we had to wait in the lobby of the guesthouse-brothel-travel agency where they worked as cleaners by day. On the way to the toilet, I saw the same girl cleaning some plates and I smiled. She studied me for a few seconds and looked away. She later seductively winked at Alessio, and I understood everything.

We were not the same. Not to her. I had an expensive DSLR round my neck, writing in my travel journey about an experience costing an incomprehensible amount of money. I was Western, walking around with a white Western man who held my hand not my ass. She was an immigrant sex worker on one of Thailand’s most notorious, sleazy roads at night and cleaned toilets in a brothel for Thai sex workers by day. If I had any audacity to assume mutual solidarity, she soon taught me I had no right, and no idea. If other people didn’t see the difference, she certainly did and if I was having a hard time, she was having it harder.

In Sapa, Vietnam I explained the process of hair braiding to my tour guide. “Wowwwww! I saw one other girl like you before, last year! Wow… that’s so amazing. In Vietnam we have such thin hair, we never have curly hair like this. We can’t do hair like this. Can I put your hair by my face to see how it looks? I love it.” I heard her telling other Vietnamese women how they braid afro hair. When she held up nine fingers and pointed at me, to tell them it took nine hours to braid my hair, they all gasped “wow” in chorus. I smiled. That’s my favourite part of the story too, I thought.

The staring, the pointing, the tiresome weight. It makes it seem all bad.

Travelling in South East Asia whilst Black can be beautiful. I cannot overstate that enough. I can’t overstate how much you can take the curiosity in your stride. You start to shrug it off, wave, say hello back and by the end of the day you barely notice anything at all. You can have fun with it. Pull faces, blow kisses, wave as soon as the whole group turns around so they think you understand the language when really they’re just so obvious. Do whatever you need to do, until it’s part of the background and you can focus on being in a really beautiful part of the world.

And that’s exactly it. It’s a really beautiful part of the world. Remember that no one at all means any harm. Unlike some parts of the world where Blackness is unwelcome because it connotes badness and criminality, your skin here mostly is a fascinating novelty. As tiring as that can become, it’s not worth the days, hours, and minutes of incredible wonder you could miss out on if you only stuck to places where people were used to you.

Lao It Fam: A Week in Laos

The original plan for Laos was to spend a night in Vientiane, and split the rest of the time between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. Travelling means your original itinerary becomes null and void, and we ended up with two nights in Vang Vieng and five in Luang Prabang. I would now do things differently – one night in Vientiane, two or three in Vang Vieng and three in Luang Prabang. 

We took the journey up to Vang Vieng straight from Vientiane airport by minibus. The minibus was an interesting adventure – we were stuffed into a tiny bus with sandbags on the floor and the back seats filled with boxes. Our journey stopped at every point someone wanted to buy fruit or baguettes from roadside sellers.

After a little over four hours, an English speaking Lao guy told us we had arrived at our stop. Rain was falling heavily and we were in a muddy open field. Aside from the bad karaoke emanating from a nearby bar, it seemed nothing like the party town I anticipated.

“Are you sure this is Vang Vieng?” Alessio asked.

“No, I’m not.”

“Maybe they just dropped us here for a joke.”

We walked across the sodden field and asked around for our guesthouse. The locals gave directions, but we feared they were just saying anything as not to ‘lose face’.

Our fears were set aside when we saw the bright yellow sign of our guesthouse. The buzzing restaurant was very welcome to us after ten hours without food, so we took our keys from the easygoing Canadian host, Amber and set down our bags.

Alessio looked around our room.

Look at the kiddy blankets!

This is backpacking.”

Two mattresses and a table in a small hut. The night before we had been sleeping in an airport again. Anything was better than that.

The morning followed a night of heavy heavy rain that had followed us from Chiang Mai – and probably London. We were undeterred from our mission – to swim in the Blue Lagoon. We sent our muddy clothes to the guesthouse laundry and hired a bike for almost double the cost of the bike in Chiang Mai and headed for the dirt tracks and wood bridges. 


An unfriendly group of Dutch tourists mocked our wrong turn and our lack of the apparently essential app Maps.Me. When asked how long they’d stay, the response was “Well, it doesn’t matter.” Icy.

Luckily, we found two friendly American cyclists on the way who were heading to the lagoon too and we travelled with them in the rain towards our destination.

The Blue Lagoon is a natural blue water lagoon pool, deep enough for weak swimmers to require life vests. There are swings, slides and branches to dive from. It is great fun, even on a rainy day. Entrance is 10,000 kip plus 10,000 for the slides and another 10,000 for the life vests.

Nearby is a little food joint where we indulged our need for pizza and hammocks. The pizza is pretty average and aroun 65,000 kip for a margherita


The skies cleared as we headed back to the town, giving a dry run through small villages full of children playing and yelling “sabaidee!”


In the evening, we met a group from our guesthouse – a motley crew of Canadians, Canadian-Italians, Northern Irish, Swedish and Australians and we headed out to the Smile Bar with them for beers and a beautiful sunset. 

And what a beautiful sunset it was. I chatted with a German photographer, with Canadians about religion, life, kindness and politics and watched two drunks kiss. Later, we headed to the popular Gary’s Irish Bar for live music and met a Chicago girl and a Northern lass who teach in Korea.


The Vang Vieng evening was such a lovely, chilled one and staying in a cosy and friendly guesthouse meant we met so many great people to chat with. Our time in Vang Vieng would end the next day after a stroll around the town.


It is often said, but it bears repeating. The bus to Luang Prabang is… shocking. We booked a minibus through our hotel for 80,000 kip. The minibus seems comfortable and we had our own space. The air conditioning was adequate. The roads however were deathly. On one stretch I became distracted with my phone and the car bounced to the extent where I hit my head off the roof. It took all my strength not to cry. This lasted for almost the entire four/five hour journey to Luang Prabang.

Once there, we took a tuk tuk from the station to our hotel but it dropped us at the Night Market. Tired and weaving through with heavy bags, it was hard to fall in love with the World Heritage City. Beyond the Night Market, the city is quite poorly lit and it took 10 minutes to find the guesthouse. When we finally did, we dropped our bags and made for the recommended Secret Pizza. My newly acquired Maps.Me told me it was a 45 minute walk, but a carb fiend and an Italian can never be put off from good pizza.

The walk was worth it. We met an Italian girl who was also seeking the elusive pizza who we dined with. She was one of the most interesting people I have ever met. She has such amazing values and travel plans, hitchhiking her way around the continent, with the eventual plan to walk from Kathmandu back to Italy. And the perfectly crisp pizza was a great backdrop to our chat.


The following day was a lazy exploration of the city and the Night Market. I have to admit, Luang Prabang is truly beautiful. It’s rich history drips from every building. The French colonial touch is very evident – both in the architecture and sadly the poverty.


… but something was lacking for me. I wanted so badly to love Luang Prabang. The city is more beautiful than I imagined, it is aesthetically stunning. It’s like a resort town. But there is a charm that’s missing. 

I remember reading a blog that described it a bit like Disneyland. It felt to me like that on the surface. Everything focused towards tourists. This is great and enables them to generate money but it lacked a charm for me. Not only this, but the prices were Disneyland prices (cafes and sometimes street food equal to London prices), the food didn’t seem as nice, the hawkers constantly seeing tourists as dollar signs – either for tuk tuks, tours, shop goods or food. It became bothersome to walk down a street, past three or four tuk tuks and be asked the same question. The tourists also seemed disrespectful. I don’t agree with clothing policing but I believe we should respect the clothing rules in the temple as tourists. People still wore shorts and spaghetti straps to the sacred temples, haggling over pennies and the infamous alms ceremony. The alms ceremony is a religious practice for the monks and is very sacred. Tourists seem to go and stick their lenses in the faces of serene monks. We decided to avoid this ceremony as not to contribute to it turning into a tourist attraction and to avoid, as Alessio calls them, “the twats”.

But this is no reason to avoid Luang Prabang. I had a vision it would blow me away beyond belief and I would instantly fall in love. My expectations were too high. It doesn’t change the fact the city is breathtaking in ways I didn’t expect. It is the perfect place to take a few days to relax, stroll, swim by the river and indulge in the pricey but beautiful cafe culture. It is a tiny town and you will see the same friends again and again. We saw our American cyclist friends from Vang Vieng on two separate days, a guy from the Phousi mountain top at the waterfalls, the German photographer from Vang Vieng at the Night Market and a French girl from our waterfalls minibus near the museum.


There are other amazing things I definitely recommend:

We took a minibus for 50,000 kip to Kuang Si falls. This didn’t include the 20,000 kip entry. Kuang Si is majestic, incredible and loud


If you climb to the very top of the falls,  up the nearby dirt hills, you are rewarded with a shallow pool to swim and play in 


And great views


Carry on to the very bottom of the falls and there’s an aquamarine pool for swimming.


This was a great day, but there is so much to do! Our minibus tour only gave us two and a half hours, but we could have stayed for many more hours to see the bear sanctuary, butterfly farm, caves and swim for longer.

Another recommendation is the Uxo visitors centre.


Uxo is unexploded ordinance, and Laos is the country most affected by this. During the Indochinese war, two million tonnes of explosives were dropped onto Laos and many remain unexploded today. What this means is, over 30 decades later, Laos is still feeling the deadly impact of war. Land cannot be used for cultivation because of the risk of UXOs keeping the country in a state of underdevelopment. In rural areas, UXOs continue to take lives and maim. One person is killed by UXOs almost every day – either accidentally, or by digging for them to use and sell as scrap metal. The visitors centre aims to educate visitors on the situation, as well as educating Lao people on the risk. It is extremely informative and a great charity.

Crossing the communist bridge is daring but a lot of fun, and you can return via the 5,000 kip Bamboo Bridge.


And Utopia Bar comes well recommended but for good reason. We put it off because we were trying to keep the costs low, but ended the last night with kips to spare so we headed for a drink and a dinner with a view at Utopia. It is very chilled there, with a nice view – but there is no sunset view and sadly no more board games. Eating and drinking can be done cheaply, so go to wile away the day on the sun deck.


Some other interesting places to view, that we didn’t get to see are the Big Brother Project, which aims to educate and bring Lao language books to people who may not ever even see books. You can spend an evening chatting with locals who wish to learn English.

We did climb Mount Phousi for the sunset, and it was interesting, but by 6pm it gets so crowded that it becomes not worth it. 

Better to catch the sunset from other spots and do Phousi in the day.


So in terms of Luang Prabang, it is a beautiful city, beyond beautiful perhaps. But I found it hard to love this city. Like a handsome but vacant man. There is so much to do in and around the city which is pretty unmissable, but I felt disappointed by its lack of charm. My expectations were too high, and that was my downfall.

My foodie and activity recommendations are as follows:

  1. Secret Pizza is a budget buster, 80,000 kip for a pizza. It is made by a guy from Milan, however, and well worth the trek
  2. Kuang Si falls is also unmissable, as is the Uxo Centre. Strolling around town and just relaxing is also great.
  3. Try some of the cafes. I liked Le Banneton.
  4. Hot Lao Coffee is tasty, and available from the sandwich area of the night market. Other recommendations are the crepes and coconut pancakes.
  5. Head to Dara Market, and just around the corner is a big supermarket with real cheese and some cheaper food options if you’ll be around for a while
  6. Spend a little time strolling and watching the sunset on the river beach but swim at your own discretion!


My disappointments were

  1. The general constant tuk tuk hassling also happens in the sandwich area of the night market. Take a coffee, a crepe and maybe a shake
  2. Mount Phousi sunset. And please don’t buy one of those tiny wicker cages of birds to then release for a picture. It’s horrible.
  3. The night market in general. The food isn’t especially great, and what could be bought at one stall could be bought at many other stalls.
  4. Wat Xieng Thong was opposite our hostel, so we thought the 20,000 kip would be worth it for such a highly recommended temple. For us we could really take it or leave it

In all, I have loved Laos. I have loved the slow and relaxed pace of life. The lush green scenery is like something from National Geographic. I am sure that I will be back to visit. I found the people friendly, and it was with such ease that we met new people with great stories. I would love to explore the villages and the South more. It is a wonderful, interesting country packed with history and politics that oft goes overlooked. I wish I could have fallen in love with Luang Prabang, but the country’s beauty more than makes up for it. And in the end, I know I will really miss being woken up at dawn by the crowing chickens that are absolutely everywhere!