The End of the Mekong

I get up early today to check out Vientiane in the cool of the day.  But it doesn’t go to plan.  Number 1 because even in the morning, it is still super hot and Number 2 because the That Luang Festival was held last night, so the streets of Vientiane are very quiet, with most businesses not opening until later or at all.  I just amble around taking snaps here and there of Vientiane’s crumbling streets and then head back to the hotel to chill in the aircon and do a last lot of washing before my flight tomorrow.

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At lunch time, I head out to try and find Makphet.  Makphet is a hospitality training restaurant for underprivileged kids, in the same vein as Friends in Phnom Penh and Koto in Hanoi.  Although it is rather early for lunch, there is already another couple seated in the courtyard when I arrive.  After much deliberation, I choose a fresh watermelon juice to accompany my fresh spring rolls with chicken, coriander and spicy green mango dip.  The meal is really great and the courtyard, even though rather sparse, is nicely relaxing, set in one of the backstreets not far from the river.  Of course, I just couldn’t resist the dessert menu when it came and ordered the cashew nut crusted banana fritters with kaffir lime syrup and vanilla ice cream.

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It’s hard to believe I am down to my last week of travelling.  The last two weeks have stretched to feel like so much longer.

This evening it seems cooler, so I decide to wander down to the foreshore to see if I can catch the sunset and visit the Night Markets.  I am in luck because the sun has lit the horizon a burning orange colour making the Mekong glisten and shine.  Families are sitting along the water taking in the view.  Some more energetic citizens join in one of the two aerobics classes taking place, the music booming out over the stereo seeming rather incongruous to the breathtaking view beyond.

The red tents of the night markets are sprung up between the riverfront and the main street and locals and tourists alike have started arriving to check out the goods.  Clothes, shoes, backpacks and all sorts of souvenirs are on display for those eager to part with their cash, but I’m down to my last few Lao dollars and have just enough for dinner.

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Laos has been a country of incredible beauty and I am so glad I finally made it here.  It was the best trip I could have done right now because the things I enjoyed so much, cost little to nothing but taught me so much.  It feels representative of this time away, that one of my last glimpses of Laos should be the beautiful sun setting over the Mekong.

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Khob chai Laos.

Lima Site 27 and a Tragic Legacy

Local food is a much better way to go when you are travelling, so this morning I pop around to one of the streetside stalls – a much different set up than then Luang Prabang Bakery with it’s open-sided shed configuration – to order a local bread roll, freshly made.  A million times nicer than yesterday’s breakfast and so much cheaper!  The more I travel, the more I trust my instincts to try the local food, which is a far cry from my first trips where I pretty much lived on 2 minute noodles from the supermarket, only drank bottled beer (no ice of course), no fruit in sight and was desperately scared of eating anything off the street.

On the way out of Vang Vieng, we stop by the old airfield.  In fact it is the CIA’s Lima Site 27, which now sits empty and potholed between Vang Vieng town and the lush paddy fields.  And last night it was set up for a wedding party (ah, perhaps that was the processing I spied yesterday!), the remains of the podium still standing.

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I kind of feel like I really dropped the ball on Laos.  Usually I make sure I am aware of a country’s history as much as I can before I travel, but I am ashamed to admit that I don’t know about the ‘secret war’ for which this landing strip was built.  But I guess that’s ok, because technically the runway isn’t supposed to exist.

It was built in contravention of the 1962 Geneva Accord, which prevented US military involvement in Laos, and used to supply the Royal Laotion Army and the Hmong Clandestine Army during the Vietnam War.  It was built because the US needed to get supplies through to these factions who were fighting the communists and the roads in Laos at the time were pretty crappy.  Why the airstrip has remained is a mystery.  Check out Where The Wars Were for more information on Airstrip Lima Site 27 and other war sites in south east Asia.

A bit further out of town, we stop at a local Fish market.  Dissected fish of all types sit drying on various racks by the roadslide, flies clambouring over the fresh meat.  The smell is quite overpowering, so I’m glad the day is still relatively cool.  Imagine this place in the height of the days heat!  Phew!

Whilst making a toilet stop further still down the road on our journey to Vientiane, I have another flashback to my first trips and the horrors of navigating Asian toilets!  OMG I was so scared – I have seen squat toilets in China with no doors on, dealt with a squat toilet on a rocking train where you also have to try and hold your pants/skirt/scarf up off the discustingly unclean floor (concentration to the max required) and had to navigate a toilet on a bus that was too high off the floor for my feet to touch (as well as hold a window curtain that was too short to hide me from the street outside).  I take it in my stride now and these situations provide funny stories to look back on, but if you are travelling through Asia, you are going to have to do the same.  Which reminds me, this generally also includes not flushing your toilet paper (if indeed any is supplied at all) down the toilet – this is thrown into a waste basket instead.  You may also have to paddle water into the toilet to flush it, like in the photos below, though some will flush.  My advice, always carry tissues and hand sanitiser.

This toilet stop is a massive place with restaurant, supermarket and food stalls lined up outside.  The ice cream stall looks good to me, flavours being pandan and yam.  Sprinkled with roasted peanuts, it’s a great little treat as the day begins to heat up.

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Once more, the open road shows us glimpses of rural Lao life, every scene a potential picture postcard that makes the monotony of road travel into something special.

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The landscape is changing from the previous road trips – the homes are grander and the fields more manicured.  Workers move around the rice paddies hard at work in the days heat.  It’s not too long before we arrive on the outskirts of Vientiane.  It’s a big mess city with not a lot of visual appeal.  There’s certainly none of the charm of the smaller cities we have visited.  Our hotel – the Manorom Boutique Hotel – is boutique only in name we discover, as one by one members of our tour group advise Sar that they are missing towels, have leaking showers, dodgy doors or non-working fridges.

Lunch is the first order of the day and most of us end up at Lao Kitchen neraby.  Continuing with the pandan theme today, I order the pandan and chicken which is divine.  So what is pandan?  It’s a kind of tropical plant, almost resembling a palm in many ways, which is used for its frangrant flavouring properties.  You’ll see it a lot in south-east asian countries, and one of my favourites is pandan cake.  However in the case of this dish, the chicken in cooked inside the pandan leave parcels, which are undone to reveal the flavoured chicken before dipping it in dressing.

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The heat packs a wallop here in Vientiane.  So I should have thought twice about heading out on the orientation walk, but I was interested in getting to visit COPE to find out more about this secret war which caused (and is still causing) so much grief to the Lao people.

But that’s last on our tour route, so I try to make peace with the heat.  Our first stop is Wat Sisaket, which is famous for it’s wall of thousands of tiny Buddha images.  Almost 7,000 Buddha images of all materials from the 16th and 19th centuries are housed here.  Thankfully the grounds are rather shady and we get a welcome respite from the heat.

Outside the temple, an artist sits creating intricate drawings of Buddha.

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I have forgotten to mention that we have now been joined by our local guide, Sak, for our time in Vientiane.  Sar describes him as ‘a K-Pop star’ because of his fancy western clothes – denim on denim today – I can’t understand why he is not boiling to death!  But when we get to the Patuxai monument, it becomes clear – this is the latest fashion trend in Vientiane.

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Patuxai is the Victory Monument to remember those who died fighting for Laos’ independance from its various owners, including the French, Siamese and Japanese.  The grounds are beautifully manicured and many locals come to hang out here.

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For a small fee you can also climb to the top of the monument.

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Patuxai is reminiscent of the Arc De Triomphe to many, though its decorative designwork features beautifully inlaid Buddhist sculpture work.  Opting not to climb to the top of the monument, I spent my time looking upwards and enjoying the architecture.

20161113161918_IMG_9449Lastly, we hop in a tuk-tuk for our last stop, which is COPE.

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COPE is the (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and its aim is to provide nationwide rehabilitation services for those affected by unexploded ordinances scattered throughout the Lao countryside.

It is truly discusting to learn that “from 1964 to 1973, the US dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance over Lao PDR in 580,000 bombing missions – the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years” leaving it the most heavily bombed country in the world and then simply left the Laos to clean up the mess themselves.

30% of ordinances remained unexploded when they fell, a tragedy which is still unfolding today with around 40 incidents a year still occuring.

 

It was a highly sobering experience, as I thought it would be, and a sad reminder of the horrors of war.  To find out more about what happened and what COPE does, you can watch COPE’s video here.

Tonight is our final night together as a group, so it’s group dinner time which turns out to be an unenjoyable night consisting of people fighting over how to split the leftover tip kitty and one couple refusing to put their email addresses on the contact list cause they ‘won’t be speaking to any of us again anyway’ – even though we had all had great conversations with them along the way.  Oh well.  The night fizzles out early and I am glad that I have a room of my own.  I need some time to regroup.  I’m finding these tour groups harder and harder to deal with because people are less and less compromising and complain more and more.  And I’m sorry to say, looking back to the last couple of tour groups, it seems to come from the older members of the groups, of which the groups seem to consist more of.  I remember my first couple of Intrepid trips were groups full of young people of a similar age (maybe with one older couple that were very youthful).  The last few groups have been full of problems – with differing expectations for the trip (standards of hotels, having to use local transport/walk/carry their own bags – perhaps not having even read the itinerary beforehand), judgemental comments and behaviour and general misalignment of thoughts to the younger people in the group.  I would really have to reconsider this as an option for future trips.

Anyway, for the rest of my time away, I am on my own and I can’t wait.

 

Snack Attack

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Today I want to wander around town and chill for a bit.  Some of the others are heading out cycling and cave exploring, but my stomach isn’t feeling so great.  I’m not sure if its because of the late night snack we had on the way home, but if so, it was worth it cause it was damn tasty…a kind of pastry thing filled with whatever you like, mine had chicken, onion and cheese and they grill them up on the side of the road.

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Anyway, it’ll be a good opportunity to quietly check out the town without straying too far from the hotel room.

Breakfast is at probably the biggest and most westernised bakery in town – the Luang Prabang Bakery.  The food is good and there’s wifi, which is probably what draws so many tourists in.  There’s a restaurant where you can dine in, and Erin and I took a seat alfresco to watch the town awakening.

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Leaving Erin for her day of caving, I head out onto the streets.  I have no plan for wandering, so I start off with a wander around town. Groups of tourists are getting ready for their days adventures which basically consist of getting into jeeps and travelling out to the caves or further down the river for tubing adventures.  Little dune buggies sport around the streets too carting tourists off to explore for the day.  Unfortunately today is the only day we have here and because I’m not feeling so crash hot, dune buggying is out for me which is a shame cause it looks kinda cool.

I stop by a couple of shops and buy an old necklace and a four faced buddha as little momentos of my trip.  Next I wander aimlessly down the main street.  Damn it’s hot.  I should have stuck to the back streets cause the main road is out in the beating sun and there is no shade.  I feel like I am literally melting.

I pass a temple and take a quick peek inside.  I could be forgiven for thinking that I was the only tourist left in town for the day as the streets are so quiet.

From behind me I hear singing or changing, I’m not sure which but when I turn, I can see a group of people congregated in the streets – possibly a funeral, I’m not sure.

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I pass a sign near the tourist centre telling tourists how to behave and think how it is such a shame we have to be told how to consider other people in different countries.

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Feeling better, I decide to find somewhere to have a leg massage.  I pick one at random, praying to god that it’s not a house of dodgy dealings.  I have chosen a leg massage and am guided to a room with a couple of mattresses on the floor.  With pants removed and towel in place, I lay back to wait for the masseuse, studying the surroundings.  It’s then I notice the little hearts cut out and pasted to the walls.  It’s then that I start to hear male/female giggling from a room beyond mine and it’s then that I start to panic.  Before I have time to leave, the masseuse comes in a begins work.  The massage is really good and I can feel all the knots in my legs unwinding, but I’d be lying if I said I was totally relaxed during my appointment.  An hour later, the massage was done, sans any inappropriate behaviour and I was back on the street heading for the hotel and an afternoon nap.

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Later on in the evening, Hannah, Erin and I decide to find somewhere to have drinks down by the river.  We stopped at one place long which didn’t seem bothered about serving us, so we left after about 15 minutes of waiting.   We were wandering down an alley when we happened to look up and spot a sign to the Smile Beach Bar – which you couldn’t actually see – what we could see beyond the steps was a stretch of darkness down a bunch of stairs.  Not wanting to end up with all the other tourists at some doof-doof bar, we thought “let’s check it out”.  At the bottom of the steps was a clearing and in the distance we could see a string light proclaiming the bar, which seemed hidding behind palm trees.  We could hear music coming from in front of us and let this guide us to the bar in the absence of decent lighting.  On arrival, there was a small group of people to one side and a another group next to a big bonfire.  Beyond the bar itself, was a row of hammocks.  This place was perfect.

A few last groups of tubers came up the bank from the river and sat by the bonfire drying off.  After about an hour and many mojito’s later, we were the only three left here!  So we stayed on, swinging on the hammocks, singing our hearts out to the stereo – oh wait, is that why everyone else left?…

Our time in Vang Vieng ends peacefully swaying away on hammocks beside the river and we are definitely smiling.  Before turning in for the night we stop for a last tipple and some dinner at a different bar.  While paying for our meal on the way out, we spy “War Spoons” for sale on the counter.

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I don’t know much about Lao’s unexploded ordinances (UXO) issue, though I do know that it is not unique to Laos – many south east Asian countries suffer from this problem and I saw some of the effects first hand while in Cambodia years back.  It’s a shame we are leaving tomorrow because a trip to the War Spoon Village of Ban Napia would definitely have been something I would have done.  Nevertheless, I do buy a spoon to support the cause.

On the Road to Vang Vieng

What does today have in store for us?  Well, we’ll be spending most of it on the minibus, travelling from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng.  Vang Vieng used to be known as a real party town, overrun by hoardes of tourists tubing, drugging and drinking their way along Vang Vieng’s waterways.  There were the inevitable spate of deaths at which point the local government decided enough was enough and the party image of the town had to have a stop put to it.  What remains of this former party town is yet to be seen, a few hours away by bus yet.

So what is there to say about the Lao countryside, other than it’s stunning.  The journey is mostly quiet with the majority of the group napping or listening to podcasts.  I lean with my head against the window, camera at the ready for scenes of local life.  So here’s the journey in pictures…

Along the way, we make a couple of pitstops – one for snacks and a toilet break…

…and the other for lunch at a restaurant which is perched on the edge of a mountain.  It is so misty today you cannot see where the edge of the mountain leads to.  Most interesting about this pit stop is the toilets, which consist of very large open windows looking out to the world below.  Well, they would if there was no mist…

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Not far from Vang Vieng, we stop at the buddhist temple at Ban Pha Tang.  It’s a welcome stop, not only to stretch our legs but because of the scenery – beautiful bright temple buildings pop against the dark green of the lush background scenery because of the time of the day.  A little kitten scampers around the site here, small blessings of rice sit upon a bright red plate over there.  There’s a bell tower to climb and extravagantly carved buildings to photograph.  The town itself looks like it would be a beautiful place to stay.

We depart just as the local children are arriving home from school for the day.  Chatting and laughing away, shy of the attention from this group of travellers.  I love stops like this – this is what travelling is all about to me.

It’s fairly late in the day when we arrive at our hotel in Vang Vieng, so after a quick check in and freshen up, Sar guides us through the dusty streets and down to the Nam Song River to find some food just in time to watch the sun go down over the mountains.  It’s a perfect ending to what has been a day of visual treats.   There’s not much of a party vibe to the town right now, but I wonder if it’s different in the light of day?

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Local in Luang

This morning Sar is taking us to see the alms giving.  Several of us are concerned about this because we’ve heard it’s not really the thing to do and that preferably tourists should really remain out of the way of such ceremonies.  He assures us we are going somewhere quieter on the trail, however when our little buggy train pulls up outside the most popular bakery in town, we feel a little duped.  We have buckets of rice and snacks (which to most of us look like packets of no-goodness-at-all for those who are on a basic diet).  More tourists arrive and little stools are put out for them to be seated on.  What follows next, is unforgiveable to most of us in our group – these tourists REMAIN SEATED whilst the monks collect their alms from them.  This seems to be very wrong to us, very wrong in deed.  But Sar sees no problem in it.  He sees it as something which is a part of the local culture that they want visitors to see.  I personally feel embarrassed and wish that perhaps I had gone for a stroll myself this morning and seen the ceremony from a distance so I could have experienced it from a more local standpoint rather than this contrived feeling event.  I feel like such a tourist – and not in a good way.

The rest of the day I spend at my leisure.  I don’t want to sight-see.  I just want to chill and enjoy the town.  A local lunch, a trip down to the river front, a stroll around the streets, some local banana chips, hanging out in a bookshop and a shot of lao-lao (a very strong local Whiskey).  The rain still hangs around annoyingly.  I write a postcard home to my niece and breathe a huge sigh of relief as I receive an email stating I have a job starting the Monday after I return home from Asia.  Now, I just need to make sure my washing is dry for the next leg of our journey.

 

Tuk Tuk me to Kuang Si

The weather isn’t at its best for exploring today.  Light sprinkles of rain interrupt throughout the day and annoyingly the wet sand on the footpaths flicks up the back of my legs while walking.  These jeans will need a wash – and not the kind provided by rain.

Luang Prabang is a pretty little place.  Shady little streets are lined by boutique shops and restaurants – a lovely place to stroll around.  Sar is guiding us around town to show us the sites today.

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First stop is the local markets where all manner of fresh produce is on offer.

A glimpse of one of Luang Prabang’s local trades is on display up one of the small alleyways – a silversmiths workshop.  And what they created was just stunning.  It was so interesting to see just how much work went into making the gorgeous silver bowl.

The streets house all matter of interesting things to see…snake whiskey anyone?

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The Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre (TAEC for short) is a great place to learn about the hill-tribe cultures of northern Laos.  Here, you can find beautifully embroidered clothing, learn all about the different tribes and at the end of your visit grab a traditionally hand-made Lao souvenir from the gift shop.  One of TAEC’s guides enthusiastically introduces himself and shows us around the exhibition.  TAEC also runs handicraft workshops.

As we go to leave TAEC, the rain comes down in buckets.  Sar rounds us up with a tuk tuk to ferry us to our next stop, Wat Manorom.  This Wat is possibly the oldest in Luang Prabang, at least there has always been a temple on this site.  We hide out here from the rain, while we learn a bit about the paintings which cover the wat walls.

A quick change of clothes back at the hotel and those who are heading to Kuang Si Falls pile into a tuk tuk for the ride.  The scenic ride takes around half an hour across single lane wooden bridges and around or sometimes through, muddy potholes.  When we arrive, small stalls and restaurants line the approach to the falls.

Entering the large wooden gate that bounds the falls, is like entering a jungle oasis.  A signboard map explains that we will see the rescued sun-bear sanctuary first and several bears are out playing or just hanging around when we get there.  The pathway to the falls area is very slippery thanks to the recent rains.  Thongs are definitely not a good idea and I just manage to avoid several slips.  It takes a careful half hour to get to the top lake which hosts a beautiful flowing waterfall.  Beneath these areas, aquamarine ponds of water cascade downwards, the water turned by the limestone basin of the waterway. Kuang Si Falls are simply stunning.

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On our way back to town, villages are going about life, busying themselves for dinner, grill smoke gently rising into the wet sky.

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Day 2 on the Mekong

About the only places open this morningare the bakeries lining the main road of Pakbeng.  Each counter is attended by small groups of tourists stocking up on breakfast and snacks for the next part of their journey down the Mekong.  The smell of breads and pastries mixes with the smell of meat roasting along the roadside.  Aside from the bakeries though, most of the activity is down at the dock where goods are being loaded onto long boats and baby chicks peck around in the dirt.

The morning is misty and cool.  I stand down at the dock, eating my breakfast, watching the going ons and noticing a couple of elephants on the opposite side of the river, swaying their trunks to and fro.

Our group all assembled and our bags re-loaded onto the boat, we board for day two on the Mekong.  It’s a subdued start to the day, watching the mist rise out of the valleys and over the mountains, little sprinkles of rain peppering the water.

Most of us are sitting writing in our diaries when a Mekong tidal wave interrupts us with a spray of water across the table and everything on it.  Thankfully the rain covers had been pulled down just moments earlier, but it didn’t stop everything from getting wet.

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A journey such as this could be called boring by some.  But it really is a chance to unwind and enjoy the simple things in life.  On both sides of the river, is pristine forest, mostly untouched by tourism or big business.  People just going about their daily lives – washing, fishing, playing – no technology in sight and I can’t help but think their lives are the happier for it.

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Gentle rain remains with us for the rest of the journey.

After a few hours we stop for a visit at the Pak Ou Caves where we glimpse what can only be described as a resting home for Buddhas of all descriptions.  Big, small, resin, wooden, gold-leafed – all of them reside here in the caves of Pak Ou.  There are two caves at Pak Ou.  One with around 4,000 buddhas, and the other – a mere few hundred steep stairs up from the lower cave – which is home to a less spectacular 2,000 buddhas.  You need a torch to make the best of the second cave, which I didn’t pack, but the stairs are a bit slippery because of the drizzle, so I stay stay and admire the lower cave – judging from the comments of the returning visitors, it’s the better of the two.  I stand at one of the terraces just up from the lower cave and admire the view of the village of Pak Ou across the Mekong, before re-boarding the boat to soak up our remaining time on the Mekong.

A further 40 minutes or so down the river, we say goodbye to our day home for the last couple of days and mount a bunch of steep (but dry) stairs for a 20 minute drive into the town of Luang Prabang.  Our hotel is a 20 minute walk from the centre of town, so we begin our time here with a short orientation walk where we discover the local night market is in full swing.

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Day 1 on the Mekong

Hannah and I rise early to catch the sunrise.  There are too many clouds for it to be spectacular but the serene calmness of the town before its inhabitants awake is priceless.  The air is still apart from the crowing of roosters.   The mountains on the Lao side of the Khong River are shrouded in mist, revealing themselves slowly as the sky lightens and the sun begins to rise.

After breakfast we head for the border.  At the border we are stamped out of Thailand before boarding a bus over the Friendship Bridge to the Laos border.  Here, we pay USD30 for our Laos visas and exchange our Thai Baht into something more useful.

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Back on the minibuses again before, a short way down the road we realise that the second bus picked up the wrong group of people.  Passengers rectified, we move on to the longboat dock.

Along the waters edge, brightly coloured longboats patiently wait for their human cargo to board.  Our bags are loaded into the front section of our private boat, while we carefully board and remove our shoes.  With everyone settled onboard and the driver installed at his car seat, the boat begins chugging and we are off.  The boat is a decent size for us.  Just behind the driver are 4 daybeds, 2 on each side along the side of the boat.  Next are a bunch of tables and chairs, a dining area, kitchen and toilets.  Beyond that I can’t tell without being nosy but I’m told most families live aboard their boats too.

Gold thread curtains line the windows.  The wooden floors creak and groan as we pad back and forth across them.  We leave the daybeds for the older couples and seat ourselves at the tables.

Outside the boat, granite outcrops, fishing poles, small long boats, sticks and other assorted flotsam adorn the waterway.  Onboard is the captain, what I assume is his wife and a second mate.

Noticing that no-one has taken advantage of the daybeds, Hannah, Erin, Dan and his Mum and I wander up the front of the boat to enjoy them, cracking open our beers and snacks.

The Mekong stretches lazily for over 4,000km and spans all the way from Tibet to Vietnam, with the lions share of it making its home in Laos.  In each of the countries it runs through, it is called something different – River of the Nine Dragons in Vietnam, Khong (Mother of the Waters) in Laos and Water of the Rocks in Tibet.

Late in the afternoon we arrive at Pakbeng, where we will be spending the night.  Our bags are loaded into a small lorry as we trudge up the hill to our guesthouse.  Pakbeng is a small town which probably only exists for its location as a halfway point between Chiang Khong and Luang Prabang.  Shops and guesthouses line the single road.

An attempt to visit the local markets ends with a downpour of rain.  Very few stalls remain open but we get to taste fresh tamarind and watch the local kids huddle from the rain.

Dinner is at the guesthouse restaurant but we head out for drinks a couple of doors down.  We call it a day when the Magoo’s rock up.