I am frequently asked by people, usually people who are not travelling themselves, what is the best place I have been to. Generally I regard this as a redundant question. I mean, how does one compare the buzz of the Olympic games to the scenic feast of Mongolian horse trekking or the old-town charm of Pingyao? However, until further notice, the answer to this question is Sayaboury.
The first half of the bus journey from Luang Nam Tha was familiar to me as it retraced the route to Oudomxay I had come from four days earlier. And, as three-quarters of it was also the route into there from the Chinese border, it was the third time I had bumped and crawled along this road.
Stopping in Oudomxay for a quick break to stretch legs and buy food, I got talking to a Dutch girl called Carolien who was riding the same bus. She mentioned that she was trying to get to an elephant festival by the weekend, although she wasn't really sure where it was. This sounded pretty cool to me, so I decided to go as well!
Arriving in Luang Prabang, the bus station was of course 10km outside of town. We squeezed into a tuk-tuk which took us in and dropped everyone at the guest houses they were after. Carolien was pretty focussed on finding the cheapest option in the right area, but after a while I lost the will to heave my backpack up and down the streets in the sweltering evening heat. We finally checked into neighbouring establishments before searching the internet for festival details over dinner.
As best as we could figure out, the previous two years it had been hosted in the town of Hongsa but this year had been switched to the provincial capital of Sayaboury because of increasing numbers. This was Wednesday night so we decided to ride a bus down there on Friday morning, with a view to being ready for the festival to run on Saturday and Sunday. I used the Thursday to get some extra sleep and post home 2kg of books I had read, which made a noticeable difference to the weight of my backpack.
Carolien wanted us down at the bus station by 7am ready for the 9am bus so I reluctantly agreed to be checked out by 6:45, for which I was only five minutes late. It turned out that she was right though. The bus was so busy that it had fully sold out by the time we arrived at ten-past seven. We were able to pay on the bus for the privilege of sitting on plastic stools in the aisle, although due to a mix-up I think we ended up paying double price each. By seven-thirty, with every spare bit of air space in the bus full of human bodies, there was no need to wait any longer so we set off.
The road bounced along for a couple of hours before arriving at a ferry to get across the river. The ferry itself only took half a handful of cars at a time and the roads were naturally busy with festival traffic so we had to queue for about an hour to get across. Apparently there are three ferry boats that sometimes run all at once but on this day two of them had refused to run after an argument with the third about who would run and what prices would be charged etc. We were the lucky ones though as other people who travelled later in the day had stories of having to wait up to four hours for their turn to make the crossing.
Once we did go over, we carried on until having to stop and wait while a road was being relaid. Of all the days to do this, they doing it when 50,000 people are converging on the city! Even then, I couldn't see why we had to wait. They were laying tar and then a layer of stones along one side of the road for a few hundred metres which we had to wait for. Oncoming traffic was allowed to use their lane because it had already been laid. Except, there wasn't really any oncoming traffic because no one was travelling away from the festival. But, apparently, it would have been impossible to let the queue of vehicles drive down this lane in a contraflow fashion whilst someone at the other end made sure that nothing came the other way for a couple of minutes, oh no. Instead we had to wait for half an hour.
This achieved, we completed the last leg of the journey for a total of four hours. From the bus station, we shared a tuk-tuk into town with a large number of others including Ingrid and Kelly, two Australian girls who were working with the festival organisers and who had many bags and boxes of associated items. Can you guess how far the bus station was from the centre of town? That's right, about ten kilometres.
The tuk-tuk took us to a strange place so Ingrid telephoned her boss, Gilles, who turned up on a motorbike to direct us towards the information desk in a badminton hall. Here we were assigned to homestays with local families by Coralie. I was in the nearest part of town, Ba Na Hai, in homestay number nine with Mr Peia and his family.
We took a tuk-tuk down there with a Dutch couple in the same area and were all dropped off at our different houses. After a neighbour had fetched him from the field where he was working, Mr Peia invited me in. He spoke no English but sat me down with a drink of weak tea. I tried my best to carry to conversation by showing them pictures on my camera and my passport photo, which always gets a laugh as it is very different to how I look now. The rate was 30,000kip for each of the three nights. I gave him two 50,000kip notes which he gratefully accepted, but I never saw any change from this. I'm not sure if he thought I was tipping him, but the difference was only about a pound so it wasn't really worth pursuing.
After half an hour, I began to think that I should be making my way to meet up with others back at the booking desk, so started to make my excuses to leave. This was interpreted as being ready for Mr Peia to walk me to the edge of a field where friends and family were enjoying a picnic during a break from work. They shared their food and drink with me and I managed to amuse them all as best as possible, my elephant impression going down particularly well.
At one point I tried to take a group photograph. My host himself had his back to the camera so I put my hand on his head to swivel it, such that he would get the hint to turn around, which he duly did. Everyone laughed at the time, but it wasn't until I was thinking about this a week later that I realised that this had been a serious faux pas. As I well knew, even at the time, touching someone's head in Laos is considered very rude and should never be done. Oops!
After forty minutes with the group, I made more excuses and left. Carolien had planned to come and volunteer to help out at the festival so I had done likewise, thinking that I should be putting something back at some point during my journeys. Therefore, I had been assigned to man the homestay allocation desk for the rest of the afternoon. The instructions made sense but it quickly became very confusing to me when other people who had been there all day would say things like "The list says this place is full, but I know that two of the guests will actually leave tomorrow, so if I move two from this other place etc....". I steered clear of the more complicated enquiries and helped others as best I could. It was actually a good way to meet a number of festival attendees, many of whom would come to chat to me through the rest of the weekend.
Someone was even sent to the desk to see me because they wanted to use a computer to copy some photographs from their camera and they had been told to find me because I had a laptop. In fact, they had actually been told to find "the long-haired guy", which was a surprise to find that my hair was long enough that this is how I am now being described by relative strangers.
The opening ceremony was set for early the next morning, in the town centre, at the provincial stadium (a sports field with a stand on one side and some sports halls on the other). This would be followed by a procession through the town to the river. Elefant Aisa, the French charity who were doing some of the festival organising and who I was helping, were possibly providing security for this. I was very enthusiastic about the idea of working in elephant security so made sure I had my name down for this job. Elephant security! How cool is that? These big creatures may look tough, but actually they need someone like me to protect them!
The job came in two parts. Firstly, people were needed to walk ahead of and alongside the procession to keep the crowds at a safe distance. Ideally, I wanted to do this by riding a lead elephant with a loudspeaker shouting "GET OUT OF THE WAY!" at everyone. More realistically, I would get to wear one of the t-shirts with "SECURITY" printed on it and walk on the ground. Afterwards, when the elephants were finished and back at their resting place, people were needed to make sure the crowds stood behind the outer rope. Not terribly exciting perhaps, but I liked the idea of holding up a hand to stop people whilst telling them "No autographs".
As it happened, local police handled all of this so by the time I got down to the stadium at half-past seven, I couldn't find any of the Elefant Asia guys and when I did make telephone contact I was told not to worry. Damn it!
Soon the ceremony got under way. It mostly involved thanking or greeting a large number of local dignitaries who were referred to as his or her "Excellence". Apparently Ingrid had written this speech. Then, a flag was floated up into the skies by some helium-filled balloons, accompanied by ten seconds of the Star Wars theme. The same ten seconds were reused for a couple more purposes before the elephants were ushered in to walk across the field and then out onto the streets for the procession.
The sight was magnificent. There were sixty-two of them attending the festival and I think they were all enlisted to take part in this. Most of them were adults but there were a couple of infants tagging along, out of numerical sequence but staying close to mum. Spectators lined the pavements to wave, take pictures or offer sticks of sugar cane which were gratefully snatched by eager trunks and pushed into open mouths to be chewed on and swallowed. Apart from perhaps once at a zoo, I think this was the first time I'd actually seen an elephant. Mentioning this afterwards to Gavin, an English elephant doctor from Cambodia, he was shocked and asked me accusingly "Where on Earth do you live then??". "London", I replied. "Where in London???" he asked even more accusingly, as if Harrow may have been an elephant-free zone but Clapham is positively teeming with them.
I found a useful plinth to stand on to take some photographs. After some ornately-dressed pacyderms went by, there were many with passengers on. First, I noticed Coralie had bagged a ride, which was probably fair enough as she was working hard as a volunteer, but I did feel a bit jealous. Then, I saw Gilles riding the elephant behind her. Then, a few more elephants along, even Carolien was riding one!!! Apparently the organisers were keen to have western faces seen riding some of them and they had been asked at the last minute to gather a few people together. If I had happened to be standing in the right place at the right time, this could have been me! I was utterly and deeply sick with jealousy about the whole thing.
All I could do however was take pictures of them and follow it along. First down the street, then as the first of them entered the river, then up onto the long bridge with its crowd of onlookers, running across and down the other side in time to take pictures of them as the exited. Here, Clive, an English photo-journalist, was wading around in the middle of the river looking for the right angle and lost a shoe when it could sucked into the mud of the river bed. He misplaced another pair during the festival and left his mobile phone behind when he left as well.
Meeting up with the group afterwards, I tried to hide my bitterness as best I could as we had a light breakfast before heading off to the t-shirt stall. Here I spent most of the day selling them as well as stickers, postcards, miniature elephant bells and other paraphernalia. It was less complicated than the homestay desk, although pretty hectic at times. The one difficult bit came when someone tried to pay using Thai Baht and Josh and I completely crumbled trying to work out how much change to give. Three women who I think came from the Laolao Beer tent next door came over to help, mistaking our currency confusion for utter idiocy, it would seem.
They then tried to take over the stall, serving customers and helping us when we served. Although they could translate between Lao and English, they seemed to think that they needed to translate between English and English at every opportunity. EG:
AMERICAN LADY: <holding up a sticker to me> How much are these?
ME: Five thousand kip
LAO 'HELPER': Five thousand kip
AL: Can I take fifteen of them?
ME: Sure, no problem
L'H': She wants fifteen of them
ME: Err, yes
AL: Thanks <begins to count out money>
L'H': That's seventy five in total
Me & AL: Err, yes
<AL hands me eighty thousand kip>
L'H': You need to give her five thousand change
Etc and so on...
I didn't do much else for the rest of the day other than man the stall, eat or 'shower' with a cold water hose in the badminton hall toilets. There was some street theatre wandering around, but that's sufficiently common back home that I didn't really feel the need to rush out to find it. Walking back to my homestay that night I stopped by the temporary outdoor cinema where they were showing 1920's silent comedies, which were actually impressively good. I resolved to buy a couple of DVDs when I get home.
Having missed out on Saturday morning, I was determined not to miss anything on Sunday. Coralie's boyfriend Fabien had told me that he had seen great sights from as early as a quarter to five the previous day, so I set my alarm for this time and crept out of the house early to see what I could find. Walking towards the bridge, I saw a handful of elephants being ridden by their mahouts coming towards me. Each mahout is the trainer/owner (not necessarily in the financial sense) of one creature. They will train it from an early age then work it on a one-to-one basis throughout adulthood.
I followed them as they walked down to the river and indulged in a pre-dawn bath. I tried to take some pictures, but just got a load of all-black images for my efforts. It was an unforgettable sight though. I followed them out afterwards and down the road to the field outside the college. Gradually, they were joined by more and more who had come from their night-time camps and come down here via their own morning river baths. The mahouts made sure they had food and gathered around a fire to keep warm while I spent a couple of hours wandering freely amongst them. No one watching or caring what I did or where I went, free to walk up to any elephant I chose for a chat or just to observe. As the early-morning mist lifted, they were all dressed up ceremonially. One of the mahouts explained to me that they were going to be ridden into town and back. I rather-optimistically asked if I could ride one for this, but the way he laughed and walked away shaking his head showed just how realistic this was. Still, no harm asking.
Come eight O'clock, they were ready to ship out. Walking in the order dictated by the numbers painted onto their sides, they headed off down the street. I walked alongside observing it all at close range. Noticing the mahout in front invite a couple of kids to climb up, I looked around at the mahout riding alongside me. To my elated surprise, he took his lead from what was happening in front, and invited me to scramble up for the ride! Furthermore, the penny was beginning to drop that this was going to be the Elephant Of The Year procession!
Each animal had a wooden seat on top to fit perhaps two adults, whilst the mahout sat on the neck guiding the animal beneath. They made their way in a long line past the t-shirt stall, around the back of the badminton hall and then gingerly picked their way down the short, steep slope into the river. The water was deep enough to rise above most of the legs, but not enough to threaten me. Their strides were uneven enough to disrupt a lot of my efforts to hold the camera steady for photographs, but they walk so slow that there was never a sense that I might fall off.
Coming out the other side of the river, we lumbered slowly through the back streets while small crowds took photographs and offered food until arriving at a rough field at the back of the stadium. A number of other festival volunteers had gathered here on the off-chance of catching a ride. I tried to offer my second place up but as there was already one person on board, the organisers seemed to overlook the possibility of adding anyone else.
Remembering how bad I had felt at missing out the day before, I tried to look around for anyone stuck on the ground but with no success. Next we rode into the stadium which had a fair number of people in but not nearly as many as the day before. As we made a ceremonial lap, I heard an old American guy call up to the two girls riding in front of me something along the lines of "You're sure lucky to be able to be up there!". Quickly, my eyes found him and I called down to get his attention "Hey! My American Man, do you want to climb up with me?". "I'm Canadian actually" he replied, "But I'll forgive you since you're being so kind.".
We found a chance to stop a minute later so the elephant could kneel down on his front legs and I could pull him up. His name was Bob. Retired, he had arrived in town the previous day and was staying at the home of a friend of the owner of his guesthouse in Luang Prabang he had got chatting to by chance. One way or another, he couldn't believe his run of luck on this trip.
We rode out of the stadium, out onto the main streets full of crowds and repeated the route from the morning before of about a mile down to the river by the big bridge. Again we climbed down and crossed. The water was a bit deeper in this section so we held up our feet and bags just in case anything got wet. We were high enough to be OK and nothing was sprayed, but I had seen a couple of them start ducking and splashing in the water the day before, so it seemed as well to be careful. Arriving at the eastern bank, we hopped down while they were all quickly stripped of their ceremonials and taken back into the river for a splashing bath for the crowds to watch.
I was considerably more full of the joys of Spring as we sat for breakfast that morning.
Afterwards, some of us headed off to watch the Baci blessing ceremony. A few elephants gathered around a large oranger-flower decorated ornament while half a dozen monks performed a blessing on them. I'm not sure if this would normally be done for animals but I know the Baci blessing is a common ceremony, for example carried out by village elders and family members if someone is about to undertake a long journey.
After this was the elephant buffet, which was odder still. Lots of food was lined up on a 'table' while a dozen lucky animals were brought up to eat from it. Errrr, that was it.
After that was an elephant demonstration. Five elephants (how many times am I going to use that word in this journal? I know it's bad practice to repeat the same word many times, but what alternatives are there? I tried 'pacyderm' once, but that'll sound even more strange if I keep typing it), including number forty-five which I had ridden earlier, stood in a circle to show how they could pick people up by different methods, throw sticks and drag logs around. This was accompanied by explanatory commentary in Lao with an English version provided by Ingrid, who made the whole thing sound like Come Dancing or Miss Word; "Our next elephant is called ----, a twenty-year old from Bokeo province. ---- is accompanied by her mahout ++++ who is also from Bokeo. ---- and ++++ work in together in the logging industry". Probably their interests included theatre, swimming and world peace, although this wasn't specifically mentioned.
I'd pretty much done everything I wanted to by now, so went back to the stall to relieve Ghislain so he could go down to the river for a bath of his own. He found this very refreshing, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I couldn't help but think about what Josh had been told when he first went to his homestay. He asked where he could wash and his family told him "River, river". He then asked where the toilet was and they said "River, river". Besides, I doubt that the elephants were holding it in until after they got back to the bank.
The internet infrastructure in Laos is pretty new and therefore bare, meaning speeds are painfully slow. The exception was, ironically, in the middle of a field at the festival. Laos telecom had a tent there offering free connectivity via a very expensive satellite box, so I was even able to back up a couple of video files from my laptop that I couldn't do elsewhere. Here I also go talking to Marsolon. I don't think he actually worked for Laos Telecom but he was doing something for them. Normally he lived and worked from Hong Kong. Carolien and I had dinner with him that night where he was telling us all about how he personally sponsored the national women's football team and accompanied them to international tournaments footing the various bills that arose.
Afterwards I went back home, stopping to see an excellent Buster Keaton movie at the outdoor cinema. I had arranged to stay with my family for three nights in total, leaving the next morning, but decided to stay an extra day to help the Elefant Asia team pack up. Back at the homestay I managed to explain this request to them, which they happily agreed to. It might be a bit forward to treat their home like a hotel and book an extra night, but the money was probably much appreciated and gratefully received by them.
I had been the only guest staying in their house during the festival - or so I thought. Shortly after I came back that night, to my surprise, a western girl strolled into the room. It turned out that she had been staying there since the day I arrived. She had known that I was sleeping there but, because she was given a bed upstairs, I had had no idea about her presence. Her name was Anna and she was from Sweden. They gave us some more of the weak tea to drink, until Anna mentioned that she was pretty sure it was just water, not tea? "Where do they get it from?" I asked. "I don't know", she replied, but all I could think of was Josh's family who used the river as a bath and a toilet. I declined to drink any more.
Mr Peia's son, aged twenty nine, was called Mr Boumfeng. I'm not sure whether these were surnames, given names or whether the distinction is an irrelevant one in their culture. He had an English phrasebook which was correct and extensive but mostly contained specific phrases that he could rarely usefully apply to an actual conversation. He wanted us to exchange telephone numbers but I politely explained that I didn't have a telephone. This wasn't actually true, but what would be the point? Aside from the cost to both of us of dialling or receiving calls internationally, how were we going to have a meaningful conversation when it took us twenty minutes, three phrasebooks plus physical miming to ask if I could stay one more night? "Sabaidee!" (hello), "Sabaidee!", <...pause...>, "Sabaidee!", "Sabaidee!".
I was awoken the next morning at a quarter to eight by Anna, fifteen minutes before she was due to leave for the bus station. "Sorry to wake you, but they want to perform a Baci ceremony for us" I take a while to boot up at the best of times in the mornings, but all I could do was take a minute sitting up, wipe the sleep from my eyes, and clamber out of bed to join everyone. In the main room were a dozen locals, some of whom I recognised as family, a couple of whom were old so may have been village elders. They were seated in a circle around what might be called a little impromptu altar.
I took my place in the circle and they began praying for us. Then, they each tied a piece of soft white string around our wrists. This wasn't as unexpected as it sounds because I knew other people in homestays who had already been through this. In order for the good luck blessing to last, you must keep the string on for at least three nights. Afterwards you must either untie it or let it fall off of it's own volition over time; if you cut them then this brings bad luck.
Everyone then celebrated our blessing with a meal and some Beerlao. A bit early in the morning to be drinking! The meal was vegetarian, which I think was especially for me. Anna mentioned that she had been asked to pay for her beer, which indeed I was also. Funny, but I guess these people aren't made of money.
When everyone had dispersed after breakfast, I made my way to the house which had been rented by the Elefant Asia team. Inside, everyone was counting the stock and boxing it up. There was loads of it left over, mostly t-shirts. Apparently they had massively overestimated the number of them that could be sold over the weekend and had therefore made a four thousand-dollar loss on the exercise, despite the fact that they had been selling like hot cakes. On the plus side, there will be no need to order any more for next year's festival. To my mind, profits would have been much higher if the central decision makers hadn't been so willing to make deals with the customers on the prices. For example, standard t-shirts cost about twenty thousand kip to make and were sold at thirty thousand, leaving ten thousand profit. But, particularly on the last night, we were told to sell them for twenty five thousand to anyone who asked for a discount. This halved the profit margin per t-shirt. Do we really think that so many people would have refused to buy them for the full price if we had stood our ground? Of course not!
I spent most of the day carefully restoring ruined cardboard boxes so they could be re-used. I was being incredibly meticulous and used up a roll and a half of packing tape on the job for just five boxes, but they assured me that it was very useful. I announced that I was starting a new conservation charity call 'Box Asia' and found myself still being called by this nickname by the end of the day. I planned to host an annual box festival in Laos including a Box Of The Year procession, children's box rides etc.
For lunch we took a leisurely three hours at a restaurant by the river, which was idyllic. Coming back to the house afterwards, two of the gang went off somewhere else instead, forgetting that they had the key to get in. While we stood around trying to get them to answer their mobile phones, I tried to open the lock with my credit card, and was successful in about two seconds! It is truly disturbing how many locked doors can be opened very easily this way, in any country, homes or offices. By way of an example, I verbally explained to Ingrid how to do it and she had the door open within four seconds at her first attempt. The EA team suddenly looked very nervy as they realised that this had been the only lock protecting all of their possessions and equipment for the past three days.
I wanted to buy a crate of Beerlao for my homestay hosts, so set off down the road to see what I could find. It took a while to find anyone who could sell me the beer and the crate, but I got there in the end. Figuring that I was already a third of the way there anyway, I decided to then carry this on to their home right away. It was sweaty work in the mid-afternoon sun, so I was wet and exhausted at journey's end.
When I got there, Mr Peia was sat still on a chair in the garden whilst Mr Boumfeng carefully gave him a haircut. I waited patiently until they were finished before presenting Mr Peia with thirty thousand kip for my extra night's stay, ten thousand kip for my ceremonial beer and then collected the crate from around the corner to present to him. I sort of intended to give it to them, bask in the warmth of their gratitude for a couple of minutes and then go back to the EA house for the rest of the day. What I hadn't anticipated though, was that they had no intention of letting me go until we, led by me, had drunk the lot of it.
Chairs and a small table were brought outside and the bottles were opened. Passers-by joined us for a glass or two, most of whom seemed to be family. At every spare moment I was encouraged to drink up and have some more. I didn't actually have a lot of it, but the bottles are very big and I was very dehydrated so it was going straight to my head. Verbal communication was very limited indeed. Mr Peia was consistently determined to teach me two or three phrases whenever we met, but I had no idea what it was he was teaching me to say. Mr Boumfeng had his surreal phrasebook to hand, but that rarely delivered much useful. He did explain to me at one point that he was a lawyer in Luang Prabang. This seemed slightly odd to me, although I guess it wouldn't mean that his job would be anything like an episode of LA Law. I asked if he was a student, wondering if this was aspirational in any way, but he assured me not.
As time passed by, and after I had run out of little tricks to show people like flipping and catching bottle caps, I was asked to sing a couple of songs for everyone. Not sure what to sing, I gave them some rousing renditions of It's A Grand Old Team To Play For and The Royal Blue Jersey. They all seemed impressed and clapped out a rhythm for me throughout both, even making half-hearted attempts to join in with the repeated chants of "Everton! Everton!" at the end of each. I asked Mr Boumfeng to sing a song in return, which he did. Reading between the lines, I sort of guessed that he didn't know what to sing either so, like me, sang something ridiculous thinking "It doesn't matter, he doesn't understand the words anyway".
We moved indoors after sunset. The crate was finally finished but one of our guests arrived with a few more bottles. They wanted me to stay for dinner and possibly it was rude to have refused, but my bag was still sitting in the house on the other side of town so I apologised and went off to get it. Probably I should have come straight back, but I didn't. Getting to the EA base, they too were on the beers so I joined in, trying to pretend that I wasn't more drunk than they were. We went out to dinner again but the two natural English speakers headed off beforehand so I found myself at a table of French speakers with not a lot of input.
By the time I had walked home, everyone at the homestay was asleep. I had arranged to hitch a lift back to Luang Prabang in the back of the EA truck, but they were leaving just after 6am. So, when I got up and packed in the morning everyone was still asleep. I was able to wake Mr Boumfeng, who slept in the living room while they had guests, but didn't have to opportunity to say goodbye properly to anyone else, which was a shame. Not for the first time when his father wasn't around, he asked me to give him money. I don't think I was to only homestay resident to have someone in the family ask this of them. I played dumb, pretending that I thought he was referring to the rent money and explaining that I had already given it to Mr Peia. After a couple of minutes his shoulders slumped and he gave up. Talking about it later to Bertrand, who has lived and worked in the country visiting many villages for a year now, he said that it sounded like I had handled the situation about right, which was reassuring.
Outside, Carolien and I were picked up by the 4x4 and taken to the EA house where the truck still had not arrived. When it did, we loaded up the boxes and bags, covered them in tarpaulin and secured them. I can just about handle early mornings if they are for a purpose, but next we all went two hundred yards down the road to drink some coffee. To my mind, the best way not to be so sleepy in the mornings is not to have got out of bed so damn early in the first place. Anther advantage over the coffee solution is that it saves money also!
Finally on the road at half-seven, ten of us rode in the little 4x4. The front section was like a normal car, two in the front and three on the back seat. The other five of us had to squeeze into the little cabin at the back. Not much room for legs or to sit up straight and no visibility looking forwards (and not a lot sideway or backwards either). Sebastian was driving and set about conquering the roads as fast as possible, meaning that it was like being in a washing machine in the back. Most people were frustrated that he wouldn't go any slower, but I figured that it was going to be unpleasant however fast he went, so we might as well go fast and get it over with as quickly as possible. We swapped between the front and back sections a couple of times and got back in a stunning two and a half hours, but even people who never get travel sick were bending over and gasping afterwards.
I didn't fancy doing any more travel that day but, arriving at Luang Prabang bus station, I booked myself a ticket on the VIP bus to Vientiane the next day. In the city itself, I went back to the same guesthouse I had been in before the weekend and found myself assigned to the same room. The group hung around together for the rest of the day as, one by one, people went off their own ways to their own destinations. The numbers were also being swelled as we kept running into other people we had met at the festival; Gavin the elephant doctor; Jon who had volunteered but disappeared on Sunday. In the evening we had found Clive the photo-journalist who, still disorganised, had just come out of a restaurant having forgotten to pay the bill. Sitting in a bar with him, he told us all about the piece he was researching over a period of many months for National Geographic magazine on the subject of Laos's rapidly eroding ecology.
Luang Prabang was a relaxing enough place, but essentially it was all about tourism. Clive declared it the worst city in the entire world, and he has seen a lot of it so could say such things. None of us agreed with this harshness, but no one was willing to step in and actually say they liked the place. I wanted to spend a bit of time doing not much to let my brain absorb all that had happened at the festival, but was willing to gamble that if I went elsewhere that it might be cheaper and/or more real. So, as charming as some parts of it can be, I used it once again as no more than a stop-off and headed out the next morning.