Northern Laos

(James) We were up fairly early the next morning in Luang Nam Tha (not as easy as it sounds as our bed was amazing!) and having loaded the bikes were on our way. Although Luang Prabang was to the south, the combination of mountains and a fairly basic road network meant our route initially took us further to the north east to the town of Na Toei, just 5km from the border with southern China, from where we were finally able to start our run south. The road up to Na Toei was surprisingly good -roads connecting trading partners always seem to be in fairly decent shape, and Thailand and China had spent money on the link road that cut through Laos between their two countries. Obviously trade between them and Laos isn’t quite so rewarding as the road south was in a pretty poor state. Initially we rode through sections where roadworks had started but never progressed beyond ripping up the old surface, but soon it was just good old ‘bad’, and we spent the next few hours riding up and down twisty mountain roads that had short paved but potholed sections interspersed between longer sections of dirt and stones. I won’t lie; despite the slow progress, we were actually really enjoying ourselves! Thailand had spoilt us too much with its perfect roads whereas this felt more like the adventure we’d enjoyed in the less developed countries earlier in the trip (in Thailand we’d started to get the feeling that the ‘adventure’ part of our trip was over). We passed through the occasional dusty village, with simple wooden houses sitting on stilts and, just as we had in central Asia, were greeted by a mixture of insane waving or open-mouthed stares. Before, whenever we’d moved from wealthier countries to poorer ones, there had either been a gradual change or a suitably large barrier in between (a sea or a mountain range) so we were quite shocked by the sudden change in poverty levels when we had crossed the river into Laos, and this shock continued as we rode through the mountains in the north. People here live the most basic and backward lifestyle. There were no small shops (even in the most undeveloped places we’ve been through, people have normally set up a stall to sell water to those passing through) and no sign of any schools. We’ve generally found that in communist/socialist countries, even in the poorest village there’s normally a hut or a propaganda banner for the ‘party’ (the political kind, not the fun kind!) but not here. Clearly these people, with their subsistence lifestyle, were of little value or interest to the government (and I don’t suppose that a total change of government would remotely effect these villagers lives either); their only ‘contact’ with their government being when officials blast through (not stopping, of course!) in their Lexus  4x4s and cover them all in dust.

At around midday we saw some sort of military style truck up ahead with German plates – fellow overlanders? (More often than not the overlanders we meet are Germans, they  really are the most adventurous travellers!) Having caught up and passed them, we pulled over to say hello; they were, it turned out, Hubert and Ana-Laura, a husband and wife team who were driving in an ex-military ambulance around the world. In true overlanding style they had been on the road for 8 years since retiring and selling everything they owned! Even before this epic undertaking, they’d ‘overlanded’ for three years in South America with their kids on board – they acted as teachers for the academic subjects and for the remainder, travelling provided an ideal education (their children have both gone on to work in the travel industry and marry partners they met in South America!) After a quick chat, we swapped details (overlanders always do – it’s a great way of getting the kind of information we need on everything from state of roads and recommended places to security, documentation and contacts) and set off on our way again.

The roads continued to be ‘changeable’ but as we continued deeper into the mountains they became unbelievably twisty. Even though Dean (the Aussie biker) had told us it was the most twisty road he’d ever been on, we couldn’t have envisaged this – it was ridiculous! The Mae Hong Son loop had been winding but not like this, and the surface quality here meant we were limited to second and third gear only. The hairpin turns went on and on, severely hampering our rate of progress to the extent that we started to talk about not making it to Luang Prabang that day. The problem was that despite being in the middle of nowhere, the terrain meant that there were no tracks off to the side of the road to find a quiet place to make camp, and when we did find an area of forest it tended to be on fire (the result of a fairly widespread ‘slash and burn’ policy that is seriously deforesting the region at a rate that’s not remotely sustainable).  So we continued to slowly make our way through endless corners and banks of smoke and by 4pm were still 100km north of our target. However, not long afterwards our road came out of the hills and ran down to a large river, normally indicating that the road will straighten itself out, and true enough we suddenly found ourselves on beautiful, smooth, pristine tarmac where we were able to stretch the bikes’ legs a bit – always nice after being stuck all day in the low gears! The farmland along the river was incredibly lush and there was no burning going on so we also got to enjoy the clear air and vivid colours of the dazzlingly green rice paddies, all of which refreshed us nicely as the temperature was in the high 30’s and  humid!

Having made up for lost time, we rolled into Luang Prabang at around 6pm and spent half an hour trying to find a guesthouse in the dark that had both cheap rooms and somewhere to park the bikes. Unfortunately, we’d arrived after the daily bus and river boat that comes down from the border crossing up where we’d crossed into Laos so the best options had already been taken (Em: and many places were seriously over-priced – Laos really was surprising us in that respect) . With little choice we settled on a place for that night (if only to have a shower and get out of our riding gear), with the plan that we’d move in the morning when we’d oriented ourselves and could see what we were doing! After we’d showered and changed, we went out to stretch our legs, get some food and locate some (very) cold beer, which we found in the shape of the nightly street market that runs the length of the town’s main road. An added bonus was that many of the food stalls were selling baguettes (Em: a legacy from French colonialism which I very much approve of!) , so Em and I were able to indulge in a couple of fantastic freshly baked baguettes absolutely stuffed with salad and chicken before heading back to our room for an early night.

In the morning, we spent an hour or so riding around the town and found somewhere suitably cheap and cheerful to stay before getting out and about to explore on foot. Luang Prabang is Laos’ ancient and spiritual capital and remained the capital until the communist takeover in 1975. Despite its important historical role, the town itself is still very quaint, small and quiet (the local authorities have banned large vehicles from entering the centre of the town) and, being situated on a peninsula between the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers, it’s easy to walk from one end to the other. The town is full of small back streets filled with guesthouses, boutique hotels, bar and cafes, all of which are incredibly ‘French’(including vintage Citroens parked in the street), and what doesn’t fall within that description tends to be a temple or monastery. As a religious centre it is something of a pilgrimage site and throughout the town we constantly pass Buddhist monks and very young ‘apprentice’ monks (I really want to say ‘padawan learners’ for all those Star Wars geeks out there!) wandering around in their orange robes and colleting alms from the locals. All in all a charming combination. Our walk didn’t last long though as we soon found ourselves flagging; the temperature into the low 40’s but it was the humidity that was taking its toll (Em: James was actually sweating – for those who don’t know him personally, he has some sort of genetic anomaly which means that he rarely perspires, so it really must have been hot!) so we made our way back to our room for a cold shower. This was something we ended up doing three times that day, and then three times more the next, until that evening when the weather finally broke and we had a much needed downpour to clear the air!

While staying in Luang Prabang, we went to visit some local waterfalls with Juan (who we’d managed to bump into  in a small side street – I’m really not sure how it happens but overlanders seem to be drawn to each other!) The falls themselves were about 30km south of the town in some nearby hills, giving us a nice little ride through small villages and peaceful rural pastures. Well, that was until there was an almighty explosion right next to us! My first instinct was that it might be a mine (Em: Juan and I thought we were being shot at!) but a quick glance to the left revealed about two hundred camouflaged Laos Army soldiers who had decided to do a live fire exercise, quite literally, at the side of the road! We quickly stopped and looked around in amazement to see several very large calibre machine guns on tripods large enough that the weapon itself was a head height, small artillery pieces and several mortars. The sound we heard had been the sound of a mortar round landing near a target no more than 300 metres away, and we watched in amazement as a couple more rounds were let fly before being told, in no uncertain terms, to leave! It was hilarious, and just another example of the kind of surreal experiences that life on the road gives us on a daily basis – I mean, can you imagine driving near your home and then seeing the army doing a live fire exercise at a bus stop or lay-by?!….

The waterfalls, when we got there, were beautiful. Starting on a high cliff hundreds of metres above us, they cascaded down in sections falling maybe 60 metres at a time before dropping off the next ledge, creating, in effect, several falls in one vertical column. The highlight however, came when the water reached ground level and ran down a gentle slope through the forest in a series of streams that divided and re-converged before reaching dozens of crystal clear pools where it then fell, sometimes just 30 cm, sometimes two or three metres down into the next pool, before repeating again over and over off into the forest. It was simply beautiful and within minutes of arriving, we were all in the water enjoying the now rare sensation of not being ridiculously hot! Late that afternoon we headed back to town but this time Em and I took Juan’s big BMW (Em: needless to say, I went pillion – I wouldn’t have been able to touch the floor!) while he had a play on Em’s bike. It was a bizarre feeling to be back on a big bike and the 1200cc engine made the riding effortless as we floated along – not that we regret our choice. We both love the more involving aspect of riding our Yamahas (Em: as for being a pillion, it was blissfully comfortable compared with the XT!).  On the way back, we passed by the soldiers again who were now wrapping things up (Em got caught trying to sneak a photo as we went by! They weren’t impressed!)

Juan left early the next morning and we hit the road south some 24 hours later. We were in two minds about where to go. We had fully intended to head east to the Plain of Jars (a plain with, as the name suggests, lots of ancient clay jars made and left sitting there, somewhat mysteriously,  by people unknown) but Juan, who’d already been that way before coming to Luang Prabang, had said it was quite literally ‘just a large boring plain with a couple of jars on it’ and not really worth it. A final decision was made early on in the day when, once again, we passed Hubert and Ana-Laura, the German overlanders in their ex-military ambulance. We pulled over to have a chat with them and drink yet more water (the heat and humidity at this late point in the dry season is really dehydrating!) and they too said that they’d been disappointed by the Plain of Jars. Well that sealed it! We hadn’t been that keen on this particular detour anyway so we decided to continue due south to the small town of Vang Vieng. We didn’t know anything about this town, aside from the fact that pretty much every backpacker in Thailand and Laos seemed to walk round wearing a t-shirt with ‘tubing in the Vang’ written all over it. It had become something of a inside joke for us when we’d been riding with our friend Darren before xmas and we were determined to become the first people in history to visit Vang Vieng and NOT buy a ‘tubing in the Vang’ vest/t-shirt!

The decision to continue south paid dividends almost immediately as the road was fantastic, twisting up into the hills, and then when we came over the crest of the final hill we were rewarded with even more spectacular scenery. Ahead of us were dozens of dramatic peaks, each sitting over rock formations that seemed to rise vertically out of the lush green rice paddies in the wide flat valleys below. As we ran down to the valley, the road ran alongside the river so our progress was good. I was aware as we rode along that somewhere on the other side of jagged hills to the east lay the ‘secret’ city of Long Tieng, somewhere I’d really wanted to visit. Long Tieng is in effect a ‘secret’ city and has been described as the most secret place on earth. It, like so much here, is a product of the Vietnam war. Laos, despite being declared neutral, was brought into the Vietnam war to such an extent that it has the dubious honour of being the heavily bombed country in history (an estimated 260 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam war – that’s more than during the whole of World War II!) Its fatal flaw (if it can be called that) was having a border with a significant section of Vietnam. The North Vietnamese used this fact to try to circumvent American attacks on the Ho Chi Minh trail, the supply and communication lines used by the communists to support fighters in South Vietnam (the ‘trail’ is not just one road as is normally assumed but a multitude of roads, tracks and footpaths). The decision to run their supply and communication lines across the border into neutral Laos led to the Americans secret bombing of  Laos, although they were already secretly operating in the country to counter a growing communist insurgency (the fact that the US was operating in Laos was kept from the public  for years). Amazingly, the majority of the ordinance dropped on the country was not as part of a strategic bombing campaign but because US bombers returning to base after being recalled (for whatever reason), would dump their payloads over Laos to avoid long winded procedures for landing fully loaded (you can’t be blamed for dropping bomb in a country you’re not even supposed to be in!) The CIA established an operating airfield  as early as 1962 in what had previously been an uninhabited valley and from this airfield launched raids and support operations against the communists using Hmong fighters and Thai mercenaries. The town of Long Tieng quickly grew (despite not officially existing) into the second largest city in Laos with a population of 40,000 people, and the airport became one of the busiest airports in the world! (If you have ever seen the Mel Gibson/Robert Downey Jr film ‘Air America’- that was about the CIA operation in Laos, Air America being the name given to the CIA operating fleet.) Reminders of Laos’ past remain everywhere as there are signs at the side of the roads warning of unexploded bombs and mines – millions of cluster bombs were dropped on Laos and many remain unexploded in rice paddies, forests and just hanging in trees (a reminder not to go wandering off paths). Unfortunately, they’re painted yellow making them irresistible to those children that discover them whilst out playing. Local NGO’s try to educate them but, of course, each year there are still plenty of victims of a war that ended more than 30 years before.

Needless to say, Long Tieng is still a no-go area so we had to knock the idea of a visit on the head and continued south, enjoying yet more fantastic roads. We rolled into Vang Vieng in late afternoon and having instinctively navigated our way to the area we felt would have guesthouses more suited to our needs, we rode in through the gates of the one that looked best only to find Juan’s BMW parked there! (Em: we’re pretty much stalking each other at this point!!)  There was no sign of Juan himself so having showered, we went out for a walk and quickly realised that Vang Vieng was a weird little place. Everywhere we went were young (and not so young) backpackers walking around in swimming shorts and bikinis carrying buckets of cocktails. They were all absolutely wasted have been drinking and tubing all day – basically this involves getting given lots of alcohol and then sitting in a large inflatable tube ring, something like a large inner tube, and riding down the river. When finished for the day, they’re driven back to town where they then wander around making tits of themselves (some have to go to hospital first and then do the same with bandages and crutches) and generally offending the locals. For evening entertainment they all go and sit in one of the many bars that have their sitting areas laid out in rows where they drink more, eat almost exclusively non Laotian food and watch endless episodes of Friends! (Em: it was like Malaga in southern Spain with its full English breakfasts and sunburnt Brits abroad…) Needless to say we weren’t impressed with it! We were pleased, however, to bump into Hubert and Ana-Laura once again so, with Juan located, the five of us went out for an enjoyable dinner together (at one of the few places not screening Friends!). The next morning we left with Juan who claimed that he, in fact, was the first person to ever come to Vang Vieng and not buy the t-shirt!

Despite getting up reasonably early it was already very hot so, after a quick breakfast, we hit the road and headed south for the capital, Vientiane. The road south was pretty unspectacular after the last few days but it was quick, and dusty, very dusty. By the time we arrived in Vientiane, it was mid afternoon and ridiculously hot and humid, but as Em and I had already been here once before (for our visa run) we were able to ride straight to an area which we knew to have lots of guesthouses. Unfortunately almost every single one was full, and those that weren’t were asking exorbitant prices for some absolute toilets so we had to start searching further away from the tourist centre – never ideal when it’s over 40 degrees (that’s over 105 Fahrenheit for those north Americans reading), very, very humid and you’re wearing motorcycle clothing. Having found a couple of options further afield we were about to chose one when Em sent me off one last search of the area (Em: who wears the trousers…?!). I came back with only one option. It was very posh but was only charging a couple more dollars for a room than the hovels we were looking at. I expected no interest as Juan, in particular, is a real budget traveller so was surprised when he asked jokingly if it had full air-con. When I told him that even the reception area was air-conditioned, his ears really perked up and he agreed that we should at least have a look (Em tends to be more easily sold when it comes to a bit of luxury!). Suffice to say, having stepped into the cool of the lobby (yes, it actually had a lobby!) everyone was instantly onboard so we checked in and were shown to our rooms, each of which were named after a different flower, and each of which smelt of said flower! (We were in Jasmine!)  (Em: The nagging feeling of guilt at paying more than usual was soon pushed to the back of our minds by the excitement of fresh white linen, a modern bathroom and quality teak furniture. I was worried that Juan had felt pressured into more expensive  lodgings that he’d have liked but, when he emerged from his room to give James a hug and a sincere ‘thank you’ – comedy, and quite unlike Juan! – my fears were allayed!!) We had a low key evening, having already seen the sights on our previous visit, and began to get excited about the prospect of visiting the less ‘well trodden’ paths of southern Laos and north-eastern Cambodia…

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3 Responses to “Northern Laos”

  1. joanna says:

    Hi Chaps – were beginning to think you had forgotten all about us! Glad to hear you are still having fantastic adventures – definitely more exciting than us who had the dreaded OFSTED pop in for a visit last week!

    Lovely to hear from you both
    Love from all in Bisley land
    Joanna xxxx

    PS How do you eat noodle soup with chopsticks?!

  2. Mary says:

    Thank you, it seems all is back to normal with you both and the blog……….. history, drama (tho I don’t understand how a mortar landing so close was hilarious) and adventure. Not forgetting the super pictures of course, I loved the ones of the waterfall.

    Love Mary

  3. Jackson says:

    Hello EggBob

    been waiting a long time for this installment!
    well the 1st thing – gutted to hear what Vang Vieng has become. I loved the place when I was there, spent a few days walking (including climbing up some of those big kast rock formations), kayaking, visiting villages and yes a bit of relaxing tubing. But no T-Shirt….and certainly not rammed with gormless gap yearers spoiling the traditional atmosphere. What a shame.

    It was quite a popular place but then it was all relative because it didn’t seem that many of the hoards from Thailand bothered coming further over the boarder than the short walk needed to extend their visas… and inevitable photo under the Laos flag (a similar thing to what went on in Burma, which there was inexcusable because it just handed the fee into the pocket of the Junta).
    Anyway way it all meant for us a real sense of adventure and new experiences from the boarder all the way down to Vientiane. Even more so with the trip I did out to the Plain of Jars (you certainly didn’t miss much with the actual Jars, many of, scattered over a errr plain) but it was the pioneering spirit of making it out there.
    Alas this is what changed across 10 years I guess.

    James – great waterfall shots…..nailed the shutter speed there, did you have a neutral density filter to slow it down (or maybe the polarizer helped)

    The shots of the football/volley certainly brought back some memories. I just went and retrieved my wicker ball from the garden….still in tact after 10 years! Katia can now vouch for how painful it is smacking on the skin.

    Enjoy life out there….I don’t think it gets much better than an overland adventure, especially on bikes and your prose and ability to communicate the feeling of being there are inspiring. When I quit my job and set sail for S America you will be held at least partly responsible!

    Jackson (x)

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