Vientiane to Vang Vieng to Phonsavan - Saturday 8-Thursday 13 November 2008
We actually left Vientiane far later than originally planned and so only got a few hours down the road before stopping at a little restaurant in the forest where we camped for the night. Even though not far from the capital there is a different feel out here. Very little English is spoken so you often have to have a bit of a game of charades to communicate what you are after. My chicken impression …very like my duck but different sound effects - is a real winner! This time there was a menu in English which was a major help ..including such delights as "well boiled port intestines" "squirrel soup" and "soft turtle soup" ..not for the conservationists! We stuck with chicken laab and rice and very good it was too!
It is a pretty drive passing through lots of little towns all of which have markets down the main street - maybe particularly because it was the weekend. We saw a lot of monks on the move - no doubt on their way to the massive festivities in Vientiane for Bun Pha That Luang -as mentioned before.
Next stop was the major tourist centre of Vang Vieng - though reputed to be beautiful we had heard mixed reviews about this area so favored by westerners it's come to be known as "Vang Falang." Having gritted our teeth to expect the worse we were actually quite impressed.
Set on the Nam (or river) Song against the backdrop of limestone karst hills the area is very lovely. The bad rep comes from a lot of young Westerners who take part in tubing activities -floating down the river in rubber rings - whilst off their heads on drink and drugs. We camped out at the organic farm -first stop for tubing -and whilst everyone was high spirited, there was a good fun atmosphere; if they were off their heads they weren't bothering anyone else. The organic farm was lovely and we were allowed to camp in a gorgeous spot overlooking the river. They farm goats out there and their goat's cheese and baguette was wonderful - made you feel like you were in France.
They also had an incredible organic mulberry shake. There are a lot of activities organized to support the local community and you can get involved with teaching English to the local kids. I had a traditional skirt made by the local sewing club ..you could pay to learn to do it yourself but I still carry scars from school sewing classes so I declined!!!
Vang Vieng was a pretty little town to wander around with fabulous rickety old bridges over the river and very friendly people. It also had some nice restaurants - but that leads me to the weird thing about the place. Most of the restaurants were playing old episodes of "Friends" 24/7 at top volume! This stopped us going in a few but presumably there is a market for it or they wouldn't do it. On one little bar strip 3 different episodes were playing simultaneously. One theory is that it ties in with the druggy nature of the place -you'd have to be off your head to want to listen continuously to old sitcoms - it'd certainly help!! We read about it in the LP but can now personally witness ..it's true ….all very bizarre.
The temperature took a slight drop whilst we were there - we had been planning to go for a tube trip ourselves but it was a bit nippy for us. Perhaps drink /drugs would help!!! Due to a mess up of communications I missed the girl who made my skirt so didn't get to pick it up - a good excuse to stop off here on the way back down for more goats' cheese!!
Our next stop was Phonsavan in the province of Xieng Khuang. It was a really pretty drive going through lots of indigenous villages. The road was fairly twisty and as the streets are often full of kids/ducks/dogs/goats /buffaloes you have to keep your wits about you especially as the bikes/trucks coming the other way are moving at speed, including the "saucepan bike" in our picture (when we finally get to load it ..not going to happen in Laos!) -who was zooming around corners like a bolt of lightning!!
We arrived safely and were lucky enough to find a place to camp within Laos Fuel's head quarters.
The guys were very welcoming and allowed us to stay there for a couple of days. Due to a cold snap -allegedly from China- the temperature now feels distinctly chilly - 8 degrees one morning -a lot colder than we've had it for a few years! We have unpacked jeans rather than shorts for the first time on the trip.
The XK province has a real problem with UXO or unexploded ordnances i.e.) landmines, munitions mortar shells etc. Laos was the most heavily bombed country in the Vietnam war due to its proximity to Vietnam and the USA's fear of the North Vietnam communists using Laos to move their troops around.
Though officially it wasn't bombed, as part of Nixon's "secret war" on communism more bombs were dropped on this small peaceful nation in the late 60's early 70's than fell in the whole of Europe in the 2nd world war all on civilian targets. Many of the UXOs are still live and in a country this poor where people go scavenging for crickets and roots to eat many people are still killed as a result of explosions.
At the MAG or Mines Advisory Group in town www.maginternational.org they were showing an excellent Aussie movie "Bomb Harvest" about an Australian man whose work is de-activating the bombs. It is (obviously!) highly skilled dangerous work and the movie is fascinating - see it if you get a chance. There is now a thriving (though illegal) trade in selling scrap metal from the UXOs to dealers mainly from Vietnam. For this reason a lot of the villagers ignore warnings to scavenge for metal - again children are often the victims. You also hear horror stories like one about the village that were using an old bomb case to barbeque goats on - until the detonator which hadn't been removed suddenly exploded killing several people.
We hadn't even known Laos was in this war (which officially they weren't!) and were shocked at how much these gentle people suffered. In this area the damage can still be seen everywhere and several villages were simply wiped off the map. It is though interesting to see the versatility of the Laos people -using old bomb cases (hopefully detonated ones!) for a variety of purposes!
Phonsavan has a pretty good market -selling lots of handicrafts from the local indigenous tribes. They do a roaring trade in silver bullion -which is used a lot in these parts as currency. There are quite a few Vietnamese in the area and we had a lot of Pho -the Vietnamese noodle soup - which we'd enjoyed whilst there.
We spent a few days exploring the nearby Plains of Jars. These large stone jars are on over 20 sites in the area with 3 mainly open to the public. They are a pretty amazing sight and have long been a bit of a mystery as no one knows what they are for.
Thought to be about 2,000 years old the theories include that they were used to bury bodies, to store rice or to make rice wine. As they were carved directly from large boulders they vary greatly in size.
Some have huge lids on them with basic carvings of men on them - which reinforces the burial theory. It is incredible how they got them up to the hill tops ..a bit like our Stonehenge.
The surrounding countryside is very lovely with rice fields, hay stacks, indigenous villages and blue hills in the background.
We saw several herds of small horses thought to be descendants of the Mongol legendary horses …tough little animals.
On Thursday 13 November we said good bye to the hospitable guys at Laos fuel and headed on to far NE of Laos and the remote town of Sam Neua capital of the Huaphan province.