I’ve been feeling a little uninspired the last week or so when it comes to thinking of things to blog about so I thought that – in honor of our upcoming trip to India – I would share with you an old blog post from when we were backpacking through Asia in 2005/2006:

October 17, 2005: Nong Khai, Serpents & Fire balls:

We can actually SEE Laos! We are still in Thailand but we could swim there if we wanted to, which means no more stressing about our visas – what a relief! The trip here was.. LONG! We left Chiang Mai at 8pm, arrived at Udon Thani at 8:30am and then got straight on another bus (the tin can variety) to Nong Khai. By the time we finally got a room at a guesthouse it was 11:30am (phew!). Our overnight bus was nice and comfy and big and there was lots of leg room for everyone which was nice and SUCH a change from our other travel adventures – anyone remember Death Highway?? Although at around 2am we passed another ‘VIP’ bus which had broken down on the side of the road so all the passengers then piled into our bus and had to STAND for the rest of the journey (around 6 more hours!). Poor guys!

We are staying at a place called the Mutmee Guesthouse. The rooms are ok but they have a BEAUTIFUL garden area right on the banks of the Mekong River where you can sit and read. and the people who own it are great! It seems that the delay in Chiang Mai must have been destined because after arriving here we have realised that we are smack bang in the middle of the serpents fire festival! Luke and I read about this festival a while back and REALLY wanted to go, we especially wanted to see the ACTUAL serpents fire, but the Lonely Planet didnt say when it was, just that it was on the 15th day of the 11th Lunar month, which was no help to us! Well it turns out that the 15th day of the 11th Lunar month is TOMORROW!

Incidently the 15th day of the 11th lunar month is also the day that our Thai visa expires BUT we have spoken with the immigration people and they have said that we can stay an extra day but there will be a 200B fine for each of us when we go over the border crossing (200B is about $8). SO! we are going to see the serpents fire tomorrow (yay yay yay) and then we are going to cross the bridge over to Laos on the 19th instead.

So about this serpents fire thing.. I dont know how well I can explain it but I will try.. basically there is a particular part of the Mekong where this happens and it only happens on the 15th day of the 11th lunar month each year (which is obviously a different day each year) the end day of the buddhist lent. Anyway.. every year on this particular day natural red, pink and orange fireballs shoot out of the mekong river just at this one point and hover above the river. It was only known about around this area until a few years ago when a thai man made a movie about it (its called ‘The Mekhong Full Moon Party’ for anyone who is interested) the movie was huge in Thailand and some other countries picked it up as well and now every year THOUSANDS of people come to look at the lights.. noone knows what it is or why it happens but skeptics have been trying to prove it as a fraud ever since the movie was released and they can’t explain it either! There are two stories that are popular.. one of them is the traditional story about the Naga Serpent and the other is that at this time of year there is so much plant and animal life decomposing at the bottom of the river, that it begins to emit flammable gases. Apparently these gases are only released by the gravitational pull of the moon, at its strongest when the moon is full, and ignite when they reach the oxygen at the surface. Sounds odd to me! Surely if this was true then there would be fireballs coming out of every river! Or if not then this one EVERY moon and not just this one.. Who knows! anyway we are going to see it tomorrow! I’m excited..

There is also an actual festival that accompanies this fire ball thing and goes for a week so we are heading into town tonight to have a look at that as well! What good timing huh?

We don’t have any other news. Yesterday was spent recovering from the bus trip and today we have been organsing money and things for Laos and Cambodia (who have no atms!).

We will update from the other side of the mekong in a couple of days!

N+L

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October 20th, 2005: Nong Khai to Vientiane

Well, what has been happening here? After our last update Luke and I headed into town for the festival. It was pretty amazing, there was a huge stage show with Thai dancers and a performance of the legend behind the Naga fireballs. There were food stalls galore, but silly us, we’d eaten before we went so we were too full to try any of the local food. We didn’t stay too long, the stage show was interesting but was continuously interrupted by long stretches of commentary that were (of course) in Thai so we quickly got tired of standing there pretending not to be bored! It worked out well for us though because when we got back to the Mutmee guesthouse, the owner, Julian, was setting up a showing of the Mekhong Full Moon Party at his house so we were able to watch the film that got the fireballs all the attention they have these days. It was a really interesting movie, and although it didn’t give an explanation for the phenomenon it went into quite a few of the different theories behind it.

The day of the Naga fireball festival was incredible! From start to finish it was an amazing day! Julian had organised transport for everyone at the guesthouse and at 1pm we all piled into the back of two songleaws and made the one hour trip to the village of Phonphisai. The amount of traffic on the roads was incredible. Luke and I were sitting in the front with the driver and we had a great time watching the reactions of all the thais overtaking us in their cars! Barely a car went by without at least a smile or a wave but most often there was cheering and shouting or laughing and pointing. What a sight we must have been.. two bus loads of farang! The cars that went by were packed to the brim, it seems EVERYONE wants to see the fireballs! In the back of one ute I counted 12 adults and four children!!

The road on the way to the village was absolutely breathtaking! Along the sides of the road were a few houses but mainly it was jungle area, about fifteen minutes into the drive I started noticing trees that had been shaped into animals. They were hiding within the normal trees of the jungle so you couldn’t always see them clearly but they were just fantastic! Now you have to understand I am not talking about the little shrub animals you see in Australia, these were actual trees transformed into animals.. some were almost TWO STORIES high! For miles and miles and miles there were elephants as tall as four men, horses with actual riders holding onto reigns, circles of children dancing and holding hands – each child in a different position, dogs, cats, birds, even dinosaurs!!! It was just incredible to see and sometimes you would go a kilometre or so without seeing anything and then out of nowhere you would see another giant tyranosaurus rex or a elephant on his hind legs.. spectacular!!

We arrived at Phonphisai at about 2pm, and even though the fire balls don’t appear until well after dark there were already thousands upon thousands of people. We walked down to the river and all along the river bank, as far as the eye could see, were hundreds of tents and thousands of bamboo mats, all filled with (or covered with) people. Away from the river, every available patch of ground, through the streets and along the footpaths were food and drink stalls or people sitting on the ground selling bamboo mats or fans or hats. The streets were swarming with people! There were news vans and jumping castles and ferris wheels and dodgem cars and merry go rounds and and loud speakers going off all over the place, there were men selling balloons as big as children or carrying stalks as tall as three people covered with fairyfloss.. it was mayhem!!

Luke and I wandered around for an hour or so getting our bearings and taking in the atmosphere of the place and we eventually found ourselves a shady place in the middle of the main market where we sat down and after much sign language and pointing managed to order lunch and two cokes (the coke part was easy – coke, it seems, is universal). We ate our lunch and then went in search of our own little piece of land by the river, we bought two bamboo mats to sit on and two bamboo fans to fan ourselves with and then fought our way through the crowd. Surprisingly we managed to find ourselves a spectacular spot only two metres from the waters edge. By now there were still three hours until sunset so we got comfortable and watched the crowds swell. The amazing thing about the festival was the happiness of the crowd, there were so many people, some of whom had been sitting in the hot sun since it rose just waiting for night fall, there were people drinking huge amounts of alcohol but we didnt see one fight or disagreement. Every single person I saw was smiling or laughing, it was magical!

By sunset there were hundreds of thousands of people there to see the fireballs (some have even said there were over a MILLION people who showed up!) We were squished into a sea of Thais, there was only one other farang in sight (a man who was sitting on – of all things – a banana lounge!).

On one side we had a group of thai men in their thirties who not only had a huge feast set out on the mat but had icebuckets full of beer and (many) large bottles of whisky, they befriended Luke and insisted on trying to get us drunk. We didnt want to offend so after the third offer of a drink we accepted and then no matter how much we protested they kept filling up our glass the second it touched either of our lips, they also gave us a cigarette anytime one of them decided to have one. One guy in particular was very friendly – although he couldnt speak english except to tell us his name was bruce (this took about four minutes to establish) and that he likes soccer and goes for Manchester United, as he got drunker he got chattier and by the end of the night he was enlisting the help of strangers in the crowd to act as translaters!! (at one point he insisted that he could introduce luke to some ‘beautiful thai ladies’, luke respectfully declined and not long after that the man started swaying dangerously and fell asleep.

On the opposite side of the boys was a family of locals (by family I mean Great Grandparents, Grandparents, Parents and Children) who had a bucket of iced water and because we had lent them one of our fans, wanted to share it with us all night. Part of this family was a young woman with a four month old baby boy named flame. Thankfully she could speak english (thankfully because the eldest woman refused to accept that I couldnt understand and babbled at me at a hundred miles an hour every time I made eye contact!)

There were a group of young thai girls who had a crush on Luke and were keen to practise their english with him, except when he introduced us they got confused and though I was luke and he was Nikki so they kept calling him Nikki each time they spoke with him which kind of ruined the seduction…

There was a young thai couple who were celebrating being lost in a crowd by making out. We gave them one of our bamboo mats so they didnt have to sit on the wet ground (one of ours was big enough to fit both of us) and they were so grateful that they too kept offering us whisky.

With all that whisky I guess it was lucky that we were able to walk back to the bus when the time came!!

Amidst the whiskey sharing and the translating and the explaining to people we didnt speak thai we watched fireworks from both the Thai side of the river and the Laos side (from both professional firework companies and those that were being let off in the crowd) we cheered at nothing, just for the fun of it, we stood up a hundred times when someone else cheered for the fun of it and everyone thought something was happening – though nothing was, and we watched beautiful boats float down the river covered with candles and fairy lights.

We had agreed to meet back at the bus at 10pm and when it was time to go back to the meeting place we still hadn’t seen a single fireball! Thats right not a single one! By this time a lot of people had given up (especially those with kids) and the crowd was starting to thin but the strangest thing was that no-one was mad, noone was annoyed that they had waited all day – and you have to remember that some people had travelled hundreds or even thousands of kilometres especially for the fire balls – noone was impatient with the crowds or anything like that.

The hour trip back to Nong Khai took three hours (one and a half of which was spent on one 50m stretch of road) but even that was great fun.. all the farang (still the subject of much amusement) jumped out of the back of the songleaw and stood by the side of the road smoking and chatting or running to nearby stores to buy drinks or icecream taking a few steps each time the bus started inching down the road so that we were within jumping distance in case it decided to go anywhere. When we finally did start rolling Luke and I were already on the bus but there was a mad rush as everyone else jumped into the back of the moving bus! Luckily we didnt leave anyone behind! The driver certainly wasn’t checking!

The next day we checked out of Mutmee Guesthouse and crossed the border into Laos. (we caught a tuk tuk to the bus station, a bus to the thai border, another bus across the Mekhong to the laos border and then the dodgiest taxi in the world – an old datsun – to a hotel that we didnt ask to be taken to – but thats another story)… We didnt even get fined for overstaying our visa!

Laos is beautiful. It is strange that two countries so close together can be so similar and so different at the same time. Laos is calmer somehow, less tacky, more genuine. I am looking forward to spending the next month getting to know the place!

Ok enough Nikki babble. we are off to explore!

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