Right Here, Right Laos.

by hamishandkat

One epic post for most of our 5 weeks in Laos..

Our original plan for Laos was along the lines of:

Slow boat from Chiang Khong in THailand to Luang Prabang, with an overnight stop in Pak Beng, Luang Prabang and around, Nong Khiaw with the possibility of some time in Muong Noi, Nong Khiaw to Sam Neua, and then onto Vieng Xai, birthplace of the Pathet Lao communist movement and base during the American Secret War, Vieng Xai/Sam Neua to Phonsovan to see the Plain of Jar, Phonsovan to Vang Vieng, for all things backpackery and maybe tubing, Vientiane, capital of Laos, Khom Lo Cave, southeast of Vientiane, onwards to Vietnam.

Kat and I both really loved Laos.  It has some well worn tourist trails between some cities, but it’s surprisingly to escape that when you need to, and when you’re on it everything is so easy.  We ended up extending our visas for an extra week, (total of 5wks) and could probably have spent another couple in the south.  We move very slowly at the moment – deciding at the last minute to spend extra days or nights places.  Being landlocked, a month is a long time for us not to be in the water at the moment, but that’s probably all that is missing.

There’s already a post about Luang Prabang here , but these are a couple of extra photos I like…

Nong Khiaw

Nong Khiaw

Nong Khiaw was a bit of a bummer overall.  Not because of the place or the majority of the people… just three in particular.

Firstly the creep who broke into our room, stole the iPad and the cash from our travel wallet while we were sleeping.  Secondly the two police officers who held true to what we were told is communist tradition and swept said theft under the rug.  It’s hard to work out whether they wanted some sort of payment for the production of a police report (which we couldn’t do because all our money had been stolen) or whether they just didn’t want the extra work.

We had booked a climbing guide for that day so after an extended period of begging at the police station we headed up to the crags behind the village.  We ended up having a great day with the two other punters – Frenchies Bene and Rapha, with who we discussed the differences between reading Tintin in French or English – “Snowy’s name is Milleu? WTF?”

Kat climbing in Nong Khiaw

We had intended to travel onwards from Nong Khiaw to Xam Neua, but following the break in and theiving we had to return to Luang Prabang, the only place we could get to with the small amount of money we could cash advance.  To add insult to injury the ATM in Luang Prabang reset itself to a Windows XP screen as my card went in, adding another day to our unscheduled re-visit.  There are much worse places to spend a day doing admin and recomposing ourselves with good coffee and food on hand.

We don’t like backtracking – but in this case we were suffering a little bit from a lack in confidence to travel through to Sam Neua and arrive late at night, so decided to head to Phonsavan and ViangXai, backtracking quickly to Vang Vieng later.

Phonsovan, MAG and The Plain of Jars.

Jar microcosm

Phonsovan was the centre of a lot of the land based fighting between Pathet Lao and CIA supported non-communists.  This is one of the reasons that it is one of the areas in Laos most affected by UneXploded Ordinances (UXO).  Between 300 and 400 people are killed every year in Laos by UXO, a lot of which are children.  During the US’s Secret War in Laos, large numbers of cluster bombs were used – a outer shell about 1500mm long splits in two after being dropped, releasing hundreds of tennis ball sized fragmentation ordinances.

Markers like these indicate where is safe, or unsafe to walk. Stay on the white side.

MAG, the Mines Advisory Group is one of the many NGO’s (non government organisation, usually funded by charities or foreign aid programs) doing a great job of not only clearing UXO from areas to allow safe farming practices but also of training local people and giving them paid employment in this work.

Click here to find out more about the work MAG International are doing.

Kat with some (hopefully) deactivated shells

The main reason we had come to Phonsovan was the Plain of Jars.  Consisting of three main sites but many smaller ones around Phonsovan, they are shrouded in mystery.  Different legends and theories exist on the reason for their existence – my favourite is the one about huge containers for brewing LaoLao rice spirit for a huge party to celebrate the successful campaign of a king centuries ago.  I can imagine word arriving of the army’s win, and everyone busying about chipping out some huge casks which would take years before the party could actually take place.

Site 2

Site 2

With our new Canadian friend Ian, we headed out on a couple of rented motorbikes to the three main sites.  The rice was close to being ready for harvest, and the trip took us through some remote communities.

Ian in the background at Site 1

We visited the sites in the ascending order, i.e. Site 1, 2 and then 3.  Site 1 is the easiest to access, and has the largest number of jars that you can see all at once.  Site 2 has some of the largest jars, while we had been told Site 3 was the nicest setting.

Site 3 was definitely mine and Kat’s favourite – very quiet and sheltered in a stand of trees behind some rice fields.  We had a great day, and although it had rained a little it cleared up during the day and gave us some beautiful afternoon light.

Viang Xai

Viang Xai is heralded as the birthplace of the Laos PDR.  The Pathet Lao, with support of Uncle Ho in Vietnam, fought for power over Laos.  The US, in an effort to stem the spread of communism, supported the government established by the departing French colonialists after WWII and proceeded to unleash hell.

The Pathet Lao leaders, including a member of the Laos royal family, took to caves around Viang Xai where they orchestrated their operations.  The cave systems here contained housing for the leadership party, a hospital cave, a cave for printing propoganda, a theatre cave and a cave serving as barracks for up to 20,000 soldiers.

The tour of the caves, run by the tourist office, is the most professionally run tour we have experience so far.  An Australian produced radio guide gives local accounts of events and detail that blew us away.  The strange thing is that we were the only westerners to pass through the town in over a week.

The resourcefulness of the people of the area around that time is astounding – breeding out light coloured poultry (US pilots were often not supplied specific targets, instead being told to drop payloads wherever they saw chickens or ducks) and hiding in caves during the day, farming during the night.

Systems of tunnels link different caves together, with the caves of some leaders including safety rooms, complete with airpumps to provide fresh air for extended stays.

Phonsavan, Sam Neua and Viang Xai are all at altitude (1100-1800m) and it was the first real cold we’ve experienced (at reasonable hours, not like a 5am on the lookout of Bromo, Indonesia).  After Viang Xai, and back in Sam Neua we went for lunch – with me wearing long icebreaker top and pants, jeans, longsleeve shirt, shoes and beanie.

Due to our backtracking, we were going to spend two days on buses to get to Vang Vieng.  One of the slowest buses of our trip so far, but one of the most entertaining was on this old girl – 10hrs to cover 274km between Sam Neua and Phonsovan.

Sitting next to us on the back seat was a two day old boy, complete with black and stitched umbilical, and his mother and (maybe great) grandmother.  The women were all eating fresh rice. The battery was flat so all the younger guys that could get out easily gave it a push back out of the bus station.  It had to be parked on hills whenever we made toilet stops so it could be bump started.  It had wooden floorboards and scaff-tubes inside supporting the roofrack.  It was fantastic.

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng is now on the popular backpacking circuit for Laos, and can be anything from a three day return trip to Chiang Mai to getting work in a bar to staying for a month or more.  And despite it’s wider beauty, the reason for most people to come here involves a grammatically questionable “in the TUBING vang vieng” t-shirt.

We were undecided about the tubing (floating down a river in an inner tube between bars) but decided to hit the crags again and get some climbing in.  We walked down to Adam’s Climbing School after we arrived and booked a guide for the next day.

Other Vang Vieng highlights included a set of sweet waterfalls out of town and watching the first half of the Ireland v Wales rugby match with a predominantly Irish crowd.
In the end, we gave tubing a miss – Kat was sick for a couple of days and we decided to head on down to the capital.

Vientiane

Vientiane saw us back on the banks of the Mekong and, similar to Luang Prabang, with some good espresso coffee and pastries.

I am slightly surprised that it’s taken me this long to get to commenting about Beerlao.  Beerlao is number one on my SouthEast Asian beers so far.  I’m not sure if the recent Vietnamese beers may have pipped Beerlao or not – I might need to arrange some sort of tasting to compare them all.  Made from all imported ingredients, things were getting quite expensive, so they changed the recipe to include a percentage of locally sourced polished rice instead of imported malt. Genuis!
Vientiane’s version of the Arc De Triompe…
… and its counter-productive marketing.
We managed to jag the timing of our visit to coincide with the annual boat racing festival, which is intended to signify the retreat of the monsoonal rains, celebrate in-line with the lunar calendar.  All along the Mekong shoreline was set up with stalls selling mobile phones, sanitary products, underpants in cubic metre piles, super loud music and carnival games.

We had managed to avoid most of this (“seriously, i might be getting old, but that was TOO loud”) and didn’t really have much reason to venture down that way.  On our last day in Vientiane while doing some admin in the hotel lobby, we bumped into a coupe with whom we’d had a brief chat in Vang Vieng, Alli and Taylor.  It was Alli’s birthday and we joined them for an afternoon of felafel, walking by the waterfront and cocktails.

It seemed as if everyone in town was busy preparing floating offerings for launch later that evening, and there were plenty of stalls down by the water if you didn’t have the time/inclination.

Taylor ends up waist deep in the Mekong after trying to rescue someone’s seriously flawed design of ship style offering.

Rooftop Dog – leant into the corners and everything

Khom Lo Cave

Khom Lo runs for 7.5kms underground – which you slowly motor through in a longtail boat.
The ride from our hotel down to the cave was interesting… first we didn’t ask which way it was, and headed off through the backroads.  I turned instead of going straight, and after turning around (Kat saw the arrow pointing straight, I thought it was left) we hit a rooster.  Then we ended up at a ford crossing a small river.  Gauging the depth on the shins of the cows that were crossing it, I was confident the bike would make it.  With Kat watching from the near bank I slowly powered the bike across walking alongside it – forgetting that bikes have air intakes relatively low to the ground until it stalled.  A frustrated push got it to the other side and to my joy and relief it kickstarted third time around.

The rest of the ride was one of the best – a long straight road running in the middle of a flat, narrow plain shouldered either side by steep limestone karst mountains.  Families were out harvesting, with all the kids helping out, buffaloes sent into recently harvested fields – we were both all smiles all the way to the cave.

Entrance to Khom Lo is just above a small rapid – which had me wondering about the flow of water inside.
The exit on the other side of the cave
Coming back into the cave for the return journey
The lights weren’t working on the way upstream, but on the way back down they gave a much better impression of the size of the cave.  This path section skirts around a gravel race that filled the cave with the sound of rushing water.
Safety is paramount in the stunt game.
Feeling a little inspired for photography, we stopped a few times as we rode back down the valley.
Departing Laos for Vietnam happened a little quicker than expected – I had gotten the dates wrong that we were meant to meet Rhiannon, Reece, Lou and Kokwah in Hanoi… meaning that our Vietnamese visa started on the 19th of October and we needed to be in Hanoi by the 20th.  There was nothing else to do but to head back to Vientiane and catch the overnight bus straight through.  We found it surprisingly tolerable, although everyone else seemed to be self administering Valium to sleep.
The last shot of Laos, as we walk across the border crossing.

We Were Reading…

Kat – Girl With The Dragon Tattoo & Three Cups of Tea

Hamish – Mr Nice & Three Cups of Tea