It was hard to leave Louang Prabang - the nicest city we've come across in the last two months. The city is incredibly green with coconut and banana palms, and we spent an enjoyable few days wandering through the cobbled back alleys and trying out different restaurants and bakeries. The buildings are a combo of left over French colonial architecture and more traditional Laos wooden houses. There is plenty of the derelict and in some spots a bit too much of the noveau touriste, but overall this is diluted by the fabulous buildings, monks etc and it really is a charming little town.
One of the highlights was splashing out on a "Adventurous Lao Gourmet" meal - a five course tasting menu which included grasshoppers (surprisingly good), bamboo worms (bland), crabs wrapped in banana leaves, riverweed, disgusting pickled fish, sweet sticky rice, and finishing off with "cat poo" dessert, so called because of its look rather than its taste.
We then spent 3 days biking over some spectacular roads - the best in SE Asia so far (and people thought we should get the bus! Pah!). Great hills and views, lots of small villages, and one night spent at the base of a hugely impressive peak. This toothy number came out of nowhere as we turned a corner in the road to see the 2000m mountain towering over the valleys around it. The next 30km were spent basking in the mountain's glory as we headed towards it, and a resort at the foot of it was too good to pass up. This place even had a natural hot pool out the front, although we didn't figure that out until it was time to leave.
However... It also apparently had some lax hygiene standards, which had a lax effect on me (D) - laxative that is. After a truly horrible ride the next day as the symptoms got worse and worse, leaving me a gibbering mess barely able to keep my head up, we arrived in Vang Viang and spent the next 5 days mostly holed up in our guesthouse (I would really describe this as festering in a pit of doom, to be suitably dramatic).
Today we managed to leave, after a couple of false starts, and decided to forgo the biking in the heat for a change of pace - kayaking. On hearing that kayaking was our 'break' from cycling, one of the other guys on the tour said "man, that's hardcore". This confirms for you all what we mentioned last time.
We kayaked down the Nam Lik River towards Vientiane, although most of the distance we covered today was actually in sangthaews - a truly terrifying mode of transport. They are the size of a ute with bench seats in the back, filled to the brim and then some with you and 25 of your closest friends. The drivers here don't instill a lot of confidence - they travel fast and they drive like they own the road. At one stage we were four abreast - we were passing a scooter, while being passed by a large bus, with a truck travelling in the opposite direction - and these aren't 4 lane roads. There was also a very near miss with a cow, and in one particularly memorable moment, a tour bus threw a bag of sick out the window which smacked into our windscreen. Bring on the cycling again.
The kayaking itself was great, we were the only people in our group not to fall out on the rapids (did we mention we're hardcore?). Now we are settling into Vientiane and sussing out the best places to eat for Christmas Day when we intend to do nothing else. There are plenty of French restaurants we'd like to try. Christmas is not celebrated here, although some places have made token efforts, and put up trees, singing santas etc.
Hope everyone has a great Christmas and gets everything they asked for Lots of love from Claud and Damien