Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Day 73: White Dreadlocks

Anybody who knows me well, or who has simply heard me speak occasionally, might know that although usually a person of immense tolerance, there are a few pet peeves I have. With relation to backpacking, it is unquestionably "white dreadlocks". I can accept that some Jamaicans, when not shooting each other, might want to grow dreadlocks, but it is the European dreadlock that I am referring to. It is a quite remarkably bad style. Even I - no stickler for sterile hygiene - can see that it looks pretty damn disgusting. Can I see beetles crawl around? The perpetrators invariably have slightly pinched faces, talk earnestly about a "cosmic consciousness", and dress in a bohemian way. They would attend anti-capitalist protests if they could be bothered. It goes without saying that they want to stick it to "The Man", and detest Starbucks (except when drinking the coffee). The idea of dharma and karma appeal, and their travelling experience is a journey of exploration and awakening without limits - until papa stops wiring the cash. Oh, white dreadlock, how I judge you; I judge you more than you can dream.

I don't generalise - this description applies to all white dreadlocks. And just as I judge a person with white dreadlocks, so do I judge a place that hosts swarms of them. And so, Luang Prabang in Laos, I judge you.

The laid-back town of Luang Prabang, nestled within mountains and the confluence of two rivers in northern Laos, has been my backdrop for the last few days. It is a terribly scenic little town with a charming atmosphere, and as such has been recognised by UNESCO, who have put it on their World Heritage List. Yes, the whole town, which is a bit of an impressive feat. Even if it attracts pantaloon-wearing white dreadlocks finding themselves.

Luang Prabang is a bit of an interlude in my whole Wonder-hunting expedition. While I am focussed like a blinkered horse on ticking off potential World Wonders, Burness wants to see a little more of the world. He also speaks like a man resigned to a grim fate - "This is the last big trip I'll ever do, so I want to see as much of the highlights as I can." Hence, we took the speedy option of flying from Siem Reap to Luang Prabang, at more expense but saving a fair bit of travel. Travel is, one might argue, kind of the essence of travelling, and all this aeroplaning we've been doing isn't really in the true spirit of travel, but because of a lack of time caused in large part by my list of Wonders and a fixed deadline (Burness needs to be back in the UK by the start of May for best man duties) we've had to cut a few corners. And in this same modern spirit of A-to-B-to-C-"take photos here, here and here", we rush from Cambodia for a few days in Laos and tomorrow - yes, tomorrow - we fly to Hanoi in northern Vietnam. We then have nine days to get to Ho Chi Minh City in the south where a flight to the Philippines, and my next Wonder, await.

It's a shame, because although a bit of a backpacker central, Luang Prabang is genuinely nice. It's touristy, but not garish, and is a very pleasant place to just hang around and not do too much. Lorries and buses are banned from the town, due to its UNESCO status, and cars and motorbikes are at a very low level. Horn honking is banned. There are many restaurants by the riverbank, and a large bottle of the excellent Beer Lao costs from just 70p. Food has been excellent, and we found a friendly bar with a pool table. To my delight - which Burness can testify to, he said it was the most excited I've been outside of seeing a Wonder - last night I had a stormer at pool. My pool game is shoddy and unreliable at the best of times, and damage limitation is normally my primary aim, but last night I beat the entire bar for hours. The pool gods smiled upon me, and the entire bar cheered and gasped at my every audacious shot, as they chanted my name and carried me on their shoulders in a victory procession around the whole whooping-for-joy town.

Aside from pool playing I've also been - and you'll love this smooth link - pool swimming. Kind of. Burness and I decided to do a little day tour yesterday, as they were cheap and sounded interesting. My Java experience of tours should have warned me otherwise. It was a packed tourist-fest. We quite literally became numbers - I was number 40 - as we were allocated boats. People of all ages had gigantic cameras with Hubble-like zooms swinging around their necks. But I quickly embraced the fact that the day would be relentlessly touristy, and it was alright.

The morning featured a slow boat ride up the Mekong river to some disappointingly small caves stuffed with Buddha statues and fat tourists. The boat ride was very pleasant, along some very attractive stretches of river, and our long, narrow boat only had five people plus the driver on it, so the journey was peaceful. The afternoon part of the trip saw myself and twelve others stuffed into an air-con car and driven to a waterfall. The waterfall was spectacularly beautiful and worthy of all the photos taken of it by the hordes of day-trippers. Here's mine.

But the highlight of the visit was the downstream pools and smaller waterfalls, which were perfect for swimming. After the initial shock, the water wasn't too cold, and not too many people were swimming so the experience was very calming. At one point, a rope swing had been attached to a tree, above a pool of water. Burness had a go.

He was much better than the people - and there were more than one - who forgot to let go of the rope and smashed straight back into the tree.

So the day trip was kind of worth it, as long as you didn't value independence or adventure too much. It's the most adventurous we've been though. On our first full day we took a wander round Luang Prabang, aided by Lonely Planet's route recommendation, but otherwise we've just enjoyed eating and drinking, and relaxing in the pleasant surroundings of this quiet town. Just while trying to avoid catching the eye of any cosmic consciousness-seeking white dreadlocked hippy (there's one in our guesthouse with the front half of his head shaved and the back half with congealed dreadlocks, and with a colossal black beard on the lower half of his face I'm particularly trying to avoid).

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