Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng

Luang Prabang

After the shock of getting what we actually paid for on the journey from Nong Khiaw and being dropped at the door of our hotel it was back to business as usual again with a truly shit room. Barely divided from a corridor, really noisy, dirty, plastic on the mattress (which we removed!) and a terrible toilet and shower room. The staff were absolutely lovely but we still opted to move the next day.

After the bitterly cold conditions of Nong Khiaw it was good to be back in more typical tropical heat and Luang Prabang is a lovely UNESCO World Heritage town with a fabulous setting on the Mekong River.

Mainly common birds seen while wandering around the town but while walking around Phousi Hill (a small island of forest among the buildings) came across 2 Black-throated Laughingthrush and 4 White-crested Laughingthrush. They were feeding together in dense cover but very close to civilisation and I suspect they may be of captive origin, although there are reports from others years.

Black-throated Laughingthrush Garrulax chinensis

White-crested Laughingthrush Garrulax leucolophus

The only pond heron I saw here was starting to moult into breeding plumage; the deep maroon colour indicating Chinese Pond Heron; the default species according to distribution maps. See here for a brief discussion of winter pond heron plumage.

Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus

Otherwise the butterfly life was superb here. Painted Jezebel, Dark Blue Tiger, Glass Tiger, Chocolate Tiger, Great Eggfly, Common Castor, Common Jester, Common Fivering.

Baron sp. Euthalia

Chocolate Tiger Parantica melaneus

Common Castor Ariadne merione

Common Fivering Ypthima baldus

Dark Blue Tiger Tirumala septentrionis

Glassy Tiger Parantica aglea

Great Eggfly Hypolimnas bolina

Painted Jezebel Delias hyparete

Oriental Garden Lizards were also quite common.

Oriental Garden Lizard Calotes versicolor

Really enjoyed our time in LP. Highlights were the extremely cool Utopia bar, set overlooking the Nam Khan river (and inspiring a song that would go on to appear on my album "Fear The Flames") and the young lads at Viengchalern Guesthouse who invited us (who could have been their grandparents) to join them celebrating one of them finishing college; an amazing evening.

Vang Vieng

The seven and a half hour journey to Vang Vieng was one of the better ones in Laos. A half decent bus, frequent breaks including a stop for reasonable food included in the price, spectacular mountain scenery in the main and the now familiar juxtaposition of extreme poverty and expensive Chinese infrastructure projects. A Crested Serpent Eagle was about the only notable bird seen though.

Annam Limestone Babbler Gypsophila annamensis
More opportunity for birding from the town here and I mainly explored the base of the karst outcrop west of the Nam Song river around the Tham Chang cave. Best here were 3 Annam Limestone Babblers (at the time still called Limestone Wren-babbler prior to the three way split to Annam, Rufous and Variable Limestone Babbler) feeding around the ticket booth near the base of the steps up to the cave, possibly on food provided for them. I also saw what may have been a Pale Blue Flycatcher but views were not sufficient to be sure of excluding Verditer Flycatcher. Crimson Sunbird, Indochinese Yuhina, Pin-striped Tit-babbler and Common Iora were among the other species present.

We also took a walk around the northern and western edge of the outcrop along a tributary where Blue Whistling Thrush and a Dark-sided Thrush were along the stream. Taiga Flycatcher, Black-naped Monarch and, high on the cliffs, a Blue Rock Thrush also seen.

More good insects here with Common Birdwing, The Clipper, Red Lacewing, Restricted Demon, Grey Pansy, Red-base Jezebel and Stream Glory (demoiselle), plus a spectacular Giant Golden Orb Weaver.

Grey Pansy Junonia atlites

Red-base Jezebel Delias pasithoe

Red Lacewing Cethosia biblis

Restricted Demon Notocrypta curvifascia

Stream Glory Neurobasis chinensis

Giant Golden Orb Weaver Nephila pilipes

We only spent two nights here before moving on to Vientiane via one of the most dangerous minivan journeys we've ever experienced. A long sorry tale but we made it to the capital ok in the end.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Luang Namtha and Nong Khiaw

We'd made our choice and decided to explore the far north of Laos starting with a gruelling 4 hour minivan to Luang Namtha. We had a lot to learn about travelling in Laos. First lesson was the tuk tuk from the hotel to the bus station. 50,000 kip (c.£4.50) seemed quite a lot but we were used to bus stations being well out of town in Thailand so thought it was ok. Turned out to be virtually walkable! Then the promised big bus at 12:30 turned out to be a fabrication and instead we were presented with a 12 seater minivan, which was then packed with 17 people and set off at 12. Lesson number two; transport may vary wildly from that advertised. Further pickups took the total on board to 20 as we headed off into the mountains where half the locals started throwing up and all the babies started crying.

The hills were mainly cleared forest with many rubber and banana plantations but the villages we passed through looked extremely poor with few substantial houses, children working or at play and no signs of schools and many drying reeds by the roadside to make brushes. Roads potholed and often unsealed but passing ultra-modern Chinese high speed rail and hydro-electric projects, the latter even on rather small river systems.

A long 4 hours later saw us arrive at the outpost of Luang Namtha. Just a few kilometres from the Chinese border and with that edgy feel that often accompanies border towns. The tourists here were few and far between and either passing through like us or here for the exciting looking trekking in the nearby Nam Ha Conservation Area. We decided to take a day to explore here so stayed two nights and rented bikes to cycle to the Nam Dee waterfall about 5km to the NE.

The route took us across a local landmark, the alarming scooter bridge constructed entirely from bamboo. The uneven surface made cycling across a dangerous prospect, so whereas locals were zipping over on bikes and scooters we gingerly pushed our bikes across.

We rode past rice paddies and small settlements where the welcome was often not warm at all, despite our friendly smiles and waves. Small children would point pretend guns at us (and one actual handgun or convincing looking replica!) and older children pull away toddlers who waved back. Older adults looked away or had an openly hostile look on their faces but when we got to the waterfall and adjacent 'cultural village' tourists seemed to be more accepted and we had a pleasant walk on the jungle trail along the river.

Birdlife across the rice fields included apparent Common House Martin, Striated Swallows and Red-throated Pipits. At the waterfalls and nearby were Long-tailed Shrike, Greenish Warbler, Brown-cheeked Fulvettas, Black-throated Sunbird, Scarlet Minivet, Plain Flowerpecker, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Black-naped Monarch, Verditer Flycatcher, Blue-winged Leafbird, Streaked Spiderhunter and decent flock of Asian House Martins.

The Clipper Parthenos sylvia

Common Jester Symbrenthia lilaea

The following day we bought a 'VIP bus' ticket to Nong Khiaw but after the mini-songthaew to the bus station found that no such bus existed. There was a dreaded minivan going direct but we opted to stick with the small local bus that would take us as far as a junction at Pak Mong some 30km short and try our luck from there. With 30 people on board this was full but still better than the minivan, and despite the ominous sick bags handed out at the start and the winding mountainous roads stomachs remained much more settled on this 5 hour journey. The roads through the deforested hills were sealed all the way and in reasonable condition. The main hazard seemed to be the lorries that plied the route as we passed two on their side on bends; one narrowly missing a house and the other blocking ours and everyone else's path for a good 40 minutes while a crane was summoned to clear the wreckage.

We talked our way into a shared taxi for the final leg and arrived in the stunning river crossing town of Nog Khiaw at about 16:30. Found a place to stay easily enough, had some excellent food and hit the bar. Here we bumped into several travellers we'd met along the way, one from a village right next where I was brought up and then astonishingly Amber and Rico, the friends we'd been out with in Chiang Rai, walked in! A battered guitar appeared from somewhere and we all sat around the fire set in an old American cluster bomb casing! A few songs, travel tales and plenty of beerlaos and rum made for a wonderful evening.

The views of the mountains and Nam Ou river here were stunning but weren't to last. The first morning dawned cold, grey and misty and was a factor in us staying only three nights here. Temperatures down to 6 C were uncomfortable in wooden walled accommodation and we spent more of the evenings around the fire in the bar. It's normally much hotter here but a few days like this are expected at this time of year and it can last for about a week. A shame because the birding here was pretty good. Among the more expected birds were Dusky Crag Martins (at a cave complex used as a war hideout), Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Grey-crowned Warbler, White-browed Piculet, Purple-naped Spiderhunter, Rufescent Prinia, Violet Cuckoo, Indochinese Yuhina, Grey-backed Shrike, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta and Rufous-capped Babbler. I'm sure I would have turned up far more given time.

Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius

Brown-cheeked Fulvetta Alcippe poioicephala

Common Iora Aegithina tiphia

Grey-crowned Warbler Seicercus tephrocephalus

Indochinese Yuhina Staphida torqueola

Violet Cuckoo Chrysococcyx xanthorhynchus

We'd chosen this route partly so that we could take the river boat trip from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang but just two months previously a major Chinese hydroelectric dam project had been completed downstream and the through boat was no longer possible. We were offered a more expensive combination of a boat to the dam and car from there to the city. Sharing this with a couple of young Swiss travellers made it affordable and it proved to be very worthwhile. For once a 'VIP' service that actually did what it said it would, right down to delivering us to the door of our accommodation in LP.

Wildlife was sparse during the 2+ hour trip, which passed by some fascinating and extensive rock art estimated to be around 3000 years old. White-throated Kingfishers, Dusky Crag Martins, Striated Swallows, Cook's Swifts, a Striated Heron and some unidentified raptors were about the size of it.

Friday, February 02, 2018

To Laos and Huay Xai

Time to leave Thailand. We'd run our visa clock right up to the 30 days (not recommended - you never know when you're going be delayed randomly by a day or two). Anyway, partly because we couldn't risk getting held up we decided not to attempt the appealing but slightly sketchy route along the Mekong to get to the nearest land border open to foreigners. Although Chiang Saen is a border town, only locals can cross the river between Thailand and Laos here and the more entertaining route to the international border at Chiang Khong involved a change of songthaew half way with no guarantee of a connection.

So we took the local bus back to Chiang Rai and another to Chiang Khong. In theory you should be dropped at the junction for the new friendship bridge over the border, where tuk tuks were waiting, but our bus just sailed past and stopped further on where other transport was waiting. Another case of cartels controlling who gets the business. The border is scam central. Nothing serious but the captive nature of the market puts the prices up and they tend to be non-negotiable. So a ฿50 per person tuk tuk 8km to the border post, a (not unreasonable) ฿20 p/p 2.5km bus ride across the bridge, an extra $1 'overtime' fee on the $35 visa charge on the Laos side because it's after 4pm (!) and finally an eyewatering ฿100 p/p for the 7km tuk tuk to Huay Xai (but at least they accepted the Kip we'd taken out at the border, which gave a slightly better rate).

Arrived at our riverside accommodation at 17:30, some 6.5 hours after leaving Chiang Saen. On the way we'd seen a Black-winged Kite, a Peregrine and a Small Asian Mongoose from the bus. Our first experience of a communist country and one of the world's poorest nations. First birds were a couple of Common Sandpipers, Barn Swallow, Ashy Woodswallow, White Wagtail and, in the gloom of evening, about 8 Small Pratincoles! Went to put some rubbish in a large bin and got snarled at by a vicious-looking Bamboo Rat at the bottom, presumably destined for the pot; they are good eating apparently.

We were faced with a choice here. Nearly everyone takes the famous "slow boat" to Luang Prabang from here. A two day scenic trip down the Mekong with an overnight stop on the way at Pek Beng. Reports of this trip range from "best trip ever" to "overcrowded hell, never again!". I'd had it on my wish list for a long time but we were aware of an alternative. Buses across the mountainous north of the country could take you to Nong Khiaw on the Nam Ou river where a fabulous looking one day boat trip linked you back to Luang Prabang. The scenery looked amazing and it promised to be a trip a little more off the beaten track. So we made the decision to book the first bus to the town of Luang Namtha. A good decision or not?