Made my way across the Mekong river that acts as the border between Thailand and Laos and stayed the night in Huay Xai, before catching the boat down to Luang Prabang. There is no road between the two so the option is between slow boat and speed boat. Changing cash is fun as there are 18,000 kip to the pound and the largest note is the 20,000 (it was the 5,000 until 2 years ago). It makes it an easy country to become a millionaire.
Wandering though town I bumped into an Australian father & daughter who I had met on the ferry across the border. They had arranged for a tuk-tuk to take them round some of the local villages and asked me to join them. The girl was facinating having lived in Thailand running a bar with her boyfriend for a couple of years. The bar was bought out to build a 5 star resort so she was taking up a career in the Aussie civil service. Not sure how long she’ll last before the wanderlust gets her again. The villages were basic, wooden buildings with children, pigs and chickens running around. One of them produced paper by pounding bark in a pestle and mortar into a paste that is then spread across canvas-like frames to dry. Unfortunately as I was just pottering through town when I met the Aussies I didn’t have my camera with me. It hadn’t rained in the area for over 4 months so the unsealed roads were very dusty & so were we by the end of it. Time pressures meant my friends had to catch a speedboat the next day whilst I got the slow one.
The Mekong passes through some lovely country that is mostly undisturbed except by the occasional village and the incredible howl emitted by the unsilenced engines of the speedboats. I cannot imagine what it must be like to spend hours next to that noise. The night half way through they journey is spent in a village, Pakbeng, that probably only exists as a staging post for the boat passengers. Near Luang Prabang the boat pulls up at the Pak Ou Caves. These are crammed full of statues of the Buddha, left there by people over the ages. I was expecting the passengers to be a mix of tourists and Laos but we were 95% tourists. Guess I’m not off the beaten track yet…….
Luang Prabang is a wonderful city in the north of Laos. Now a UNESCO world heritage site its fame is spreading and there are a fair number of tourists here. That doesn’t take away from the charm of a small city full of traditional architecture. I met Tara again in the 3rd country so far. I was having a drink with a Glaswegian I met on the boat coming here, in the only busy bar in town, when she comes up to say hi. We arranged to meet next day to see the Royal Palace Museum.
It turns out the museum was closed next day so we headed to the most significant Wat in town, Wat Xieng Thong. It’s quite a place, however I don’t know enough about the religion and its history to understand the significant differences between them; one Wat looks very much like the others to my eyes.
I did get to the museum the next day. It was the residence of the Royal family before they were arrested by the communists in the 1970s. The family itself were imprisoned in a series of caves in the north where they died soon after from poor food & no heath care. The building itself is a wonderful airy building, lacking the ostentation you normally expect in a royal palace. Although the place is a museum to the family, full of photographs and explaining the key rooms of their time here, no mention is made of their fate. Also stored in the museum is the Prabang, a small statue of the Buddha after which the city is named. For something so significant it’s very small, only about a foot in height.
Facing the palace is a small but steep hill, Phousy, with a series of Wats and images of the Buddha on top. It gives a marvellous view over the city with most key landmarks visible. I realised I really like it here; despite the number of tourists here the pace of life is slow, the people friendly and its easy to potter about on foot.
I had hooked up with a Dutch couple, Tol & Marjorie, for a couple of meals and they introduced me to an interesting concept; a cross between a barbeque and a fondue. A small charcoal burner is put on your table with a metal cover. The cover is domed in the middle with small vents and has a moat round the outside. You are served with some raw meat, noodles and vegetables, spices, herbs and a pot of stock. You fill up the moat with stock, veggies, noodles, spices, etc to make soup whilst you grill the meat on the dome. Its a fun way to make a meal. Tol & Marj had given up eating chicken because of the bird flu, as had many others, but I didn’t feel it was a problem in cooked food. On the other hand I was not looking to spend any time with live chickens.
On my last day here Tol, Marjorie & I hired a couple of scooters / motorbikes to visit a set of nearby cascading waterfalls at Tat Kuang Si. They were easy to ride, the only difficulty being the first time you move off. What initially seems to you to be a mild turn of the right wrist produces a lot of reaction in a scooter in 1st gear. The woman hiring them out must have through she’d never see mine back as I wobbled off. Apart from that initial difficulty the ride was easy. Most of the road was unsealed so speeds were below 30 MPH, well within pedal bike range. Having seen many people with burns from the exhaust pipe I stuck to wearing long trousers.
On arriving at the falls we passed a couple of cages housing animals rescued from poachers. One off the cages housed a young female tiger and the other 3 young Asiatic bears. You could go into the cage with the bears and they were as curious about you as you were with them. Both cages had donation boxes by them to pay for their upkeep and feeding of their residents.
The falls were lovely and when half way up the main section we realised we were walking on parts of the falls that would be covered by water during the wet season. They must be truly spectacular then. Further down is a pool you can swim in and go under the falling water. It was wonderful on a hot day, especially as it had started out looking dull and over cast.
I took the bus to Phonsavan towards the east of Laos. The journey itself is about 9 hours long and to begin with I couldn’t work out why as it didn’t look far on the map. It turns out the whole northern part of Laos is mountainous and the road though now sealed winds its way up and down into valleys the whole way. Also a shock was the bus was half empty as we set out and there were only 5 farang on board.
The journey was an experience : 1st I noticed we had an armed guard carrying an AK47, 2nd I realised that Asians do not travel well and the little plastic bags hanging from the ceiling were not for an Easter egg hunt, 3rd at a village half way we picked up a very extended family carrying of all thing a rooster in a bird flu epidemic and 4th it was probably best it was misty so I couldn’t see the drop at the side of the road as we hurtled round hairpins trying to preserve speed for the next climb.
The next day I visited several sites on the Plain of Jars, named after the 2000 year old jars carved from solid stone that litter the area. Some of them area huge (3m tall) and its a mystery how they were moved and what they were used for. Current theories believe they were used as part of a 2 stage burial process with the jars being the store for the 1st few years. 3 main sites are open to visitors but there are at least 16 different clusters of jars. The process of mapping all them is currently under way. A few hundred meters short of the first site the road was cut by work to put a large pipe across underneath it. At first the driver asked us to walk before deciding to drive it. I had my doubts by we got across OK, however on the way back another tour group had got stuck blocking our way. There was nothing else to do but pitch in and haul them out.
Its also one of the areas most heavily bombed by the Americans in their secret war in Indo-china. More bombs were dropped on Laos by the USA in the “Vietnam War” than were used by all sides in WWII. It means the area is full of UXO (unexploded ordinance) except where cleared. In particular the US had heavily used cluster bombs, each deploying 600 or so bomblets over a wide area. The big problem being that these bomblets failed to go off in 20% to 30% of cases. It will be another 25 years before Laos’ high priority areas are cleared of UXO and over a century for the country as a whole. Evidence of craters is everywhere and these were mainly caused by little 500lb bombs!!
The hotel I was staying at, the Maly, was owned by the guy who had rediscovered the jars after the war and it was he and his son who had cleared much of the main sites from UXO (unexploded ordinance). It gave the hotel an incredible collection of armaments, with all the candle holders being defused cluster bomblets.
Also staying at the Maly was an guy working for an NGO doing a report on Lao’s UXO and the programmes to solve it (from whom I’ve got some of the above information). He’d flown in, to which I commented that he was a brave man; a Chinese copy of an old Russian design of plane, maintained by local mechanics does not make Lao Aviation’s Yaks the most reliable flying machines in the world. By all accounts it once had a helicopter fleet but they were all lost through attrition (mainly crashing!!) He pointed out that on the bus routes I was to take there was a far greater risk of me being shot than there was of crashing in a dogly Yak, with 2 attacks in 2003 killing over 10 people. The armed guard on thebus took on a whole new light.
We also visited a Lao and a Hmong village so we could compare the two, saw Lao Lao (rice whisky) being made, stopped at an abandoned Russian tank, walked along the dykes of paddy fields to reach one jar site and saw a small field of opium poppies. The only problem the weather was cold, wet and miserable that day and looked like staying the same. I was tempted to go and see the Ho Chi Ming trail and a large field of poppies the next day but decided to head south to Vang Vieng instead. I would see the trail further south.
I turned up half an hour early for the bus to Vang Vieng to find it had been filled and had already left. I had 6 hours to kill and did so by visiting the Lao and Vietnamese war memorials and taking a walk out of town. Phonsavan is not an easy town to like as it entirely been built since the Indo-China war and lacks the charms of Luang Prabang. It does show how things are improving here as last year the final section of road connecting here to the rest of Laos was sealed and with it came 24 hour electricity.
The 3pm bus was to the capital, Vientiane, and was completely packed. Once all the seats were filled plastic stools were placed down the isle. Fortunately I had a proper seat, but it was a 9 hour trip to Vang Vieng (3.5 more for those going all the way) back over the same mountains and hills. Finally got off the bus and started looking for a place to sleep around midnight with most of the town shut but did find an OK place.
Vang Vieng is another traveller haven, existing mostly for farang who decide to split the bus journey between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. It really just a series of restaurants and guesthouses, but there are a few caves and villages nearby worth a visit. You could tell that this town was catering to travellers away from most of Laos life when several places state on their menu that they will make a pizza “happy” for a dollar more.
The first day there I pottered round town and the market before visiting the nearest set of caves with a few other travellers. These had had the floors smoothed by concrete and electric lighting installed but were large and famous as the locals had hidden there during a Chinese incursion in the 19th century. The evening was spent in a gluttony of western culture as we watched several films and had a curry. Both were remarkable. Most Lao cities have a couple of Indian restaurants and they are really good. I really didn’t expect Lao to be the first place I have had a decent curry in since leaving home. The films were hilarious as although the sound was in English they would leave on the badly translated English subtitles. Beer almost came out my nose when during Pirates of the Caribbean “and we’ll save your bonny lass” was translated as “and we’ll save your bony arse”. I’ll have to get a copy as a souvenir.
The next day Dennis and I hired scooters to go and visit the more far flung caves and local villages. In the largest of there we walked in for around 45 minutes before turning back in case our torch batteries ran out. It was extremely long and a breeze told us there was another way out but we had no idea how far away it might be. The villages were cute and quiet on the way out, but on the way back the schools had let out and the places were a riot of activity. At the schools themselves a flood of children in white shirts and riding bikes would fill the road.
The next day we were looking to catch the 10am bus to Vientiane but by 9:15 it was already booked out. Another bus left 4 hours later or there was the option of a minibus. We took the minibus but ended up wishing we hadn’t. The driver should have been certified. It did mean that we arrived fairly early and had lots of time to find somewhere to stay. Dennis went for a cheap place with shared bathroom but as I had a mild case of the trots I wanted my own loo. Didn’t do a lot that day but dropped my visa off at the Cambodian embassy for a visa and visited the main market the next day.
My original plan had me going east from this point into Vietnam and visiting its two main cities before heading into Cambodia. I now decided I like Laos and would prefer to get to know it better by travelling through its quiet southern regions than head into a new country.
Other than getting my Cambodian visa and having a look around the markets I didn’t do much in Vientiane. The city didn’t appeal to me, the nightlife was non-existent, the cheap restaurants crap and the more expensive ones little better. Although there were supposed to be a couple of large nightclubs there didn’t appear to be anyone out on the town warming up for them. More importantly for the traveller is that it only has one second hand bookshop and one for new books and both are dreadful. If you have a limited time in Laos spend more of it in Laung Prabang than in the capital. Having said all that its not a really bad city, just disappointing after the delights of Luang.
Travelled by bus down to Tha Khaek as it appeared to be a good starting point for Kong Lo caves. Something has gone wrong in this town as the most highly recommended hotel has closed and another big one being built was abandoned after 80% of the work has been done. In addition most of the restaurants in the town square had also disappeared.
Over dinner I met up with Marco & Willeke, a Dutch couple, who were also looking to head to the Kong Lo caves. It was a 6 o’clock alarm to get up, packed and onto the 7 o’clock bus that would take us the first section of the journey. Although the roads were good, the repeated stops meant it took around 3 hours. We then hired a jumbo (a large tuk-tuk) to take us to a guesthouse within reach of the caves. At first the unsealed dirt road was OK, having been graded, but before long it was a bumpy dirt track with us taking all sorts of diversions to avoid the really deep mud. A jumbo only has 3 wheels and is really meant for town use, not this off road malarky. Got to the Guesthouse just before 1pm, checked in and had some lunch.
The jumbo driver volunteered to take us on the over 1 hour drive to the village where we could catch a boat through the caves. Seemed fair enough, but the road if possible was even worse. At points it crossed the dry paddy fields with the remains of dykes and irrigation canals sending my head into the roof. Having got there we arranged a boat for the 3 hour ride to the other side of the caves and back.
It has to be said the caves and the boat journey were both spectacular. The boat was a long-tail river boat and being near the end of the dry season the water levels were low. It meant we regularly had to abandon ship and wade through to deeper water, sometimes helping to haul the boat up a water fall. The caves themselves are 4 km long and generally about 50m wide and 30m high, though at points both dimensions double. On the other side is a valley with a village whose only access to the outside world is via the caves. Talk about a lost world. We come across one of their boats paddling through the caves loaded with supplies, mainly Beer Lao. It really was a remarkable place and worth the effort of getting here.
After 3 hours on the boat it was back to the jumbo for the one and a bit hour long bumpy journey back to the guesthouse. All the children we passed were waving and shouting sabadee (hello/goodbye) as is often the case in Laos; it really is a friendly country. Sore but satisfied we headed for the showers to find the hot water had run out. Dinner was accompanied by a few Beer Lao and the fact that the electricity went off at 9pm wasn’t a problem; we were exhaused and ready for bed anyway.
The next morning we caught the 7am bus back to the main road. The bus was a pick-up truck with a roof and 2 rows of seats along the sides added to the back. As is typical with Lao transport they seem to fill it with twice as many people as a westerner thinks possible, plus all their worldly goods. 2.5 bottom aching hours of bumpy dirt road later we were back at the main road and jumped into a similar vehicle bound for Tha Khaek.
We again picked up enough people to populate a small village, everything they owned plus a small herd of livestock in the shape of 4 goats. Initially 3 of them were on the roof but when one decided to take a piss which then cascaded down over the passengers the driver had other ideas. The goats were all hog-tied and then tied to the railing platform at the back of the truck. We set off and 20 yards on one of the goats has squeezed itself out the side and is now in danger of being hanged. Its retied in place, but more securely, and we set off again. Another 20 yards and the goat on the opposite side has partially slipped its bonds and is now hanging upside down off the back of the platform. The driver had another go at retying 3 goats securely to the platform and putting the smallest on the roof (where it would later take a piss over the drivers assistant). For the rest of the journey the goats were secure despite repeated attempts to escape and making their fright and displeasure very well know. A scared goat has a horrible cry. Laos is not a place to come if you have strong animal welfare concerns.
Just to properly seal this as a journey through hell I lost the torch my brother gave me. It was in a fastened pocket but somehow when I was sitting cross legged on top of some sacks of rice the pocket had come undone. As I went to fasten it the torch fell out and bumped along the road. I didn’t react quickly enough to stop the bus and that was that. You get a bond with the stuff you brought from home, and in particular with any presents so I was really depressed by the turn of events.
We arrived in Tha Khaek but as it was early afternoon I had the opportunity to make it to Savannakhet. I didn’t like the idea of another night here so jumped in the 3rd converted truck of the day for the 2 hour journey, arriving in Savannakhet at 5pm. This one had a hog-tied pig fastened to the back of the truck for part of the trip, though the pig seemed much less upset when secured than the goats had been. Totally shredded I checked into a hotel and went in search of dinner and a beer.
Savannakhet doesn’t have a lot to offer. The local provincial museum has a few war relics outside, but inside has only 108 photos, 98% of Mr Kaysone who was president from 1975 until his death in 1992 (don’t forget the full name of this country is the Lao People’s Democratic Republic!!). Still it had a bank where I could change cash and laundry facilities.
The plan for tomorrow is to head to Pakse, on a proper bus please.
The trip to the Kong Lo caves had been hard on my kit, I’d lost my torch, my Teva sandals had the stitching fail at a critical point and the zip had failed on a set of shorts. On my last evening in Savannakhet I managed to restitch the sandals, though only with doubled up cotton thread as that is all I had. In addition the only way to find the holes on the plastic part of the sandle was every two stitches to unthread the needle, push the needle though the hole in the plastic, the webbing and neoprene backwards and then rethread the needle.
There were no major dramas on the bus the next day down to Pakse except for some reason the bus stations in Lao towns are miles from the town centre. Its not a big problem, it just doesn’t seem to make sense. What also seems mad is that in the town of origin the bus will stop regularly to pick up passengers on long distance routes making the first few miles maddeningly slow.
Pakse had a little more to offer than Savannakhet, but not a huge amount. I found a good deal on a nice room with a balcony so could lie down in the sun and plan my crossing into Cambodia. The Lao guide I had had few details and I hadn’t managed to get hold of a Cambodia guide in the towns south of Luang Prabang. I had decided to ask any travellers in town if they had come up that way and if they had a guide to sell. Success with the first person I asked though it did turn out to be one of the dodgy pirated Lonely Planets that are common around here (at different points it claims to be both the 4th & 5th editions).
Whilst on the subject of Lonely Planet’s its worth a comment on Lao’s. Its a useful book that I’d rather not have been without, however it has a feeling or being more out of date than other LP’s I have used despite being published fairly recently in 2002. Possibly Laos is changing faster in places than other countries .
The traveller hang out in Pakse is an Indian restaurant and I was well up for curry. Unfortunately this was the first disappointing curry I had in Laos, the pakora being all batter and no vegetable and some of the chicken in the curry being very overcooked and tough. It was strange that it had become the traveller hang-out when there was a far better Vietnamese place across the road.
I stayed here for two nights and on the second night sat chatting with a Scottish girl I had originally met on the boat down to Luang Prabang and a Canadian guy. Around 11ish we realised everywhere was closing up and the people at the place we were sitting were watching us expectantly. We paid up and headed home only for me to find my hotel locked up! I banged on the gate and shouted sabadee but no one responded. There was a shop and restaurant attached so I tried their doors, also locked. Things were looking bad until I noticed an unmarked door round the corner. I tried the handle and the door opened. With relief I headed inside and found myself in a small room behind reception. I made no mention of the problem the next day as the manager had been very helpful in getting the zip in my shorts replaced.
I had decided to stay on Don Khong, the largest of the Si Phan Don islands in the Mekong river. The transport there was another converted pickup, this one even more crowded than usual with a wooden bench down the middle in addition to the two rows down the sides. It meant for the bulk of the journey until the river ferry we had to sit without being able to move our feet or legs. Once at the ferry myself and a couple of Irish lads, Mannix & Kieron, hung on to the platform at the back. The bus did a big loop round the whole of the island before arriving in the biggest village Muang Khong. There we sorted out the best accommodation deal yet $3 a night for wonderful little bungalow rooms. An OK dinner was had in the attached restaurant on the river before the numbers of insects drove us back. We bought a bottle of the local Lao Lao (rice whisky) and some mixers and headed back to the porch in front of one of our bungalows to chat and listen to music. When the first bottle was finished we bought a second…… Next day was a write off.
The Sunday was to be my last full day in Laos and I decided to rent a motorbike to explore the waterfalls and other islands. Having crossed the ferry and headed down a side road I noticed that my back tyre was flat. I had it fixed nearby (it had an inner tube) but also noticed that at one point the rear tyre was down to the canvas. I took the bike back over the ferry and insisted on getting my money back. I found another bike somewhere else and the tyres looked good so I headed off again back over the ferry. First stop was the Khon Phapheng Falls where the eastern part of the Mekong drops 15m. That may not seem like much but the Mekong is a big river, you can get close to them and there isn’t the commercialism that surrounds Niagara.
Next stop was to go and see the Cambodian border at Voen Kham as I planned to cross tomorrow and wanted to do a little recon. 4km from the town was a barrier across the road next to building market Lao Customs. I came to a halt and the bike stalled and wouldn’t restart. The guys from the buildings came out and pulled the bike up next to theirs. After failing to start it a couple of them took out and cleaned the spark plug. Eventually the bike restarted but I had a hard time believing teh plug was the problem. I thanked them for their help and was waved though the barrier onto the dirt road to the town. At the entrance to the village was another barrier marked Lao Immigration that I was not going to cross so I turned round and headed back. My plan was then to leave the bike and head on the ferry to Don Det and Don Khon, but there did not seem to be a secure place to leave it and my passport was held until the bike’s safe return. I headed back to Don Khong but on the road back to the ferry the bike cut out and wouldn’t restart. After leaving it to cool for a while I tried again without success. I had no option but to push it the 7km back to the rental place. Various people tried to help or fix the bike but to no avail.
Whilst I waited for the ferry to depart a diesel plow puller (their 2 wheeled equivalent of a tractor) pulling a trailer lost control down the hill and came speeding at the ferry. I prepared to jump ship if it came my way but it headed down the opposite side finally jamming between the railing and a pick-up. After dropping off the bike I headed back to the bungalow for a shower and a beer.
Staying in the bungalow opposite myself were a Seattle couple, Richard and Nancy. They were also planning to cross into Cambodia and had done a little more research than myself so we planned to team up. At 8am next day we caught a boat across the river and then a converted pick-up down to Voen Kham. The plan was to catch the midday slow boat into Cambodia down to Stung Treng and thereby avoiding the speedboat mafia so we had planty of time to take a boat trip to see the freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins which are now endangered in the Mekong. We did get to spot a small pod several times (photo to follow) and headed back to the border.
Coming up to midday it was clear that there were no other passengers waiting for the midday boat and therefore little surprise when by 12:30 nothing had shown up. We had to deal with our first Cambodians, the speedboat mafia.
Unfortunately the first Cambodian we met was a nasty little sh*t who was determined to rip us off. First of all he wanted to charge way over the going rate for the boat and then was going to fill it up with his mates travelling for free. We finally negociated a small discount but had little leaverage as we had stamped out of Laos and couldn’t return. Then he asked for the payment up front and suspecting that all would not go well we refused, moving to half now, half on arrival. he was having now of it and pulled his mates out the boat. Whilst arguing we took the opportunity to get one full width seat each and when we relented he wanted to stick all his freebies back in. We refused saying he could have the remaining seats but that we were so big and the seats small we were having one apiece. Finally he relented and we set off. It was only a short hop over the river to the Cambodian checkpoint where we would get stamped into the country and whilst this was done we made sure one person was always in the boat so it couldn’t abandon us. Having been stamped in the driver pulled the silencer off the exhaust and we set off on the run down the river to Stung Treng. Thankfully the remainder of the journey was uneventful .
Stung Treng is a small place that has only just got on the beaten path as the border opened. Dinner was a Cambodian style Sweet & Sour soup followed by an early night as the express boat south left at 7:30am.
The express boat looked to be a big Russian built thing and on arriving at the pier bumped into Robert & Nancy. Having done this before they suggested travelling on the roof of the boat which seemed a great idea. It was fantastic travelling down the Mekong river with the wind in your hair, the sun shining and a panoramic view. Occasionally we would slow right down to transfer goods and passengers onto small boats that had come out from the villages. At 11am we stopped at Kratie where Robert and Nancy got off, however I was continuing for 3 more hours down to Kompong Cham. After another hour on the toof I realised I was on the verge of getting burnt so had to head inside. The aircon in there kept it pleasant enough but it wasn’t the same as the roof.
I knew I could get a bus from Kompong Cham to Phnom Penh but didn’t know the times so was prepared to stay the night here if necessary. First I had to get some lunch. On the way into town I was joined by a motorbike taxi who wanted to knwo where I was going, whether I intended to stay and telling me all the wonderful places I could go. My mistake was being too polite and not being blunt enough and had to put up with his diatribe until my food arrived. There were still buses running so I decided to move on that day. In getting to the bus station I noticed how much hotter it feels this far south, distinctly different from Luang Prabang and Vientienne. The bus was air conditioned and in good repair and the initial part of the road was good. What was awful was the driving of some other drivers and around half way the road deteriorated with potholes spanning much of it.
Arriving in Phnom Penh it was clear that the only way to get to the hotel was to catch a motorbike taxi. With my large rucksack wedged between his knees and me perched on the back we set off through the local traffic where everyone has right of way. Not sure whether to close my eyes or to prepare to jump off we actually made it in one piece.
I was staying near to a Phnom Penh pizza house that has become an institution, so indulged in my first western food for a while that evening. I was tired from the days travels so crashed out earlyish after watching a bit of BBC World in my room (my first TV in weeks).
Cambodia feels a lot more busy than Laos and in general the people seem friendly.