Phonsavan to Sam Neua to Udomxai - Thurs 13 November- Sat 22 November 2008
We drove on through very attractive scenery, winding around the mountains. As mentioned previously we pass very close to the Vietnamese border and we had a bit of an unpleasant reminder of this. We heard barking and then suddenly a big truck loaded with dogs ..tiny puppies to fully grown all absolutely packed in and barking hysterically poor things….on the way to Vietnam where they are destined to be eaten. Not sure if they breed them specifically for this purpose or if they just round up any waifs and strays from Laos ..probably the former! - we saw 2 or 3 trucks that day and whilst I do try not to be judgmental about other countries' ways it was very upsetting especially to see the less from ideal conditions in which these poor animals are kept. The way they are killed is allegedly particularly cruel..but we won't go into that here!
First camp spot along the road was at Baw Nyai which is a hot mineral spring. You couldn't get into the actual spring which we found deep in the jungle but there was a nearby resort and restaurant. They allowed us to camp nearby; again no English spoken here so back to charades ….and use the hot baths. For 5,000 kip (about $1 AUS) you get to luxuriate in the hot water in huge tubs. Neither of us could remember when we last had a hot bath ..but as it is now pretty chill soaking in neck deep hot water was bliss!
Next morning after a really good night's sleep we drove on to Sam Neu or Xam Neua. As an aside whilst I am the first to admit that I am not the world's greatest map reader it is a real challenge here! There are various names/spellings for all the places ..a great many of which are used at random so it is very hard to "follow your thread" road wise. Also some of the roads marked etc are just wrong. The Laos people aren't big on maps - actually that has gone for all countries on our journey so far ..and they look at you blankly when you produce one ..even pinpointing where they live isn't easy. Nevertheless we do muddle through GPS-less as we are ..and often we have interesting encounters through not following the intended route. The drive to SN was very scenic though you wouldn't want to do it after heavy rains - there were numerous landslides and some very hairy bends with nothing between you and a huge precipice but a flimsy bit of bamboo…..best not to look down!!!!
We passed through numerous indigenous villagers. It is a pretty hard life up here but the people seem happy they all run out to wave and smile at us and there seems to be plentiful food ..rice and a large crop of maize being collected everywhere when we drove past.
Everyone seems to work from kids that are really just toddlers carrying huge loads of firewood to old ladies doing the same.
The men seem to be the ones looking after the kids quite a lot …maybe it was just the time we got there ..I bet the women aren't off watching soaps though!! Locally they often use the water to harness hydro electric power and we also saw villages with solar panels everywhere ..provided by foreign aid which is great.
Village life unfolded before us ..an old man having a haircut ..the barber (using huge kitchen scissors) comes down from another village and there was a queue forming by the time we left, and kids playing with wooden spinning tops.
Every evening the young men play Kataw an incredibly athletic game by which they kick /hit a small woven ball over a net. We saw ladies and girls spinning at wheels and weaving cloth. We stopped a few times to buy fruit and veggies at little markets and agreed that the fruit is delicious compared to the stuff you get at home- truly organic!
The area is a big producer of timber and we saw several teams of tree cutters sawing up huge logs. We stopped at one Chinese owned (actually much of the good timber gets carted straight to China) wood carving shop and saw some exquisite carving ..real artisans!
As we twisted and turned climbing to 2,000 metres with sheer drops on either side we were a bit alarmed to see the "Sliding Carts" sign ..sorry this will be clearer when we load our pictures. I guess the one we saw with the 2 boys was what they were meaning ..thank God we didn't meet one at speed going around a corner!!
We hit Sam or Xam Neu (SN) just as dusk was falling. Though the provincial capital it still has a very remote tucked away feel to it.
We parked up in the bus station on the top of the hill and tried to find a nearby restaurant to avoid going down the steep hill to the centre as the car was suffering a bit as the rough roads had loosened the differential which needed sorting out. This was easier said than done as the local area is predominantly indigenous and they have very different eating habits! The friendly man in the local restaurant we went to proudly showed us his "dish of the day" a tray of rats all laid out like a school science experiment!!! Yeuch!!!! We went into another where they were all eating fried crickets. We slowly drove down the hill to a restaurant in town where 10 or so Westerners were already …and had a very nice noodle dish ..not a rodent in sight!
SN was a pleasant enough town with a nice sculpture and monument in the centre. We thought that this was the Victory monument mentioned in our LP but found out that the real one was up on a hill overlooking the town ..and it remained locked all the time we were there …again we'd got there Friday night and of course it was all shut for the weekend as was the tourist office!
The market though was open and very interesting it was too. Alongside fruits (delicious pineapple) and fresh vegetables were rats, (live and dead) squirrels insects -wasps and crickets- and tobacco.
The majority of the stall holders are indigenous people who journey down to sell their wares. There are some lovely woven cotton and silk threads and textiles which is a skill of the Hmong people particularly.
We had to wait for Monday for the bank to open -no ATMs in this neck of the woods- so we had a relaxing day and got the car sorted before heading out on Sunday to the ViengXai caves.
These caves are the "Hidden City" a network of limestone caves where, during the intensive bombing of Laos from 1964 the Pathet Laos - or Laos Communist party hid out. There are 5 caves now open to the public -these include the caves belonging to the high command -all of which came equipped with an oxygen pump in a secret room for use if the cave was hit with a gas attack. Incredibly these caves were home to around 20,000 people over the next 9 years. They really were quite amazing. After the PL won the war many of the Royal Laos Government forces were placed in re-education camps -designed on the Vietnamese principal with Vietnamese help- in this area. The King and his family all perished due to harsh conditions and poor medical care in cave prisons in the Huaphan province. Amnesty International believes that one such camp still exists in this area and still holds political prisioners in very harsh conditions. The Government has never confirmed or denied the existence of these camps which allegedly held over 30,000 at their peak in the late 1970s.
After a final night in SN we drove on taking highway 6 to the East. We stopped off to have a look at the Suan Hin or Stone Garden about 60 kms back from SN. Suan Hin is about 6km off the highway down dirt roads quite a scenic drive. It was initially discovered by a French archeologist in the 1930s and consists of several 2 m tall upright stones alongside huge stone discs. The site is thought to be linked to the plain of jars, particularly as they are made from the same stone. There are tunnels built beneath them and whilst like the jars their purpose isn't really known the dominant theory is of a funereal function. We had a picnic out there and an indigenous lady came over and was fascinated by the car particularly our kangaroo sticker. It is still quite remote in some of these areas and they are quite blown away by us and our vehicle.
We camped that night further down the road at Vieng Thong. As the sign says they have tigers here ..though I guess you have to go trekking to see them. I'd love to see a tiger in the wild but not one as angry as the one on the sign looked if I was camping! The reason we stopped here was due to the public hot water bathing area. A kindly donor had set these up for the village in the 1990s and they were certainly appreciated..it was like Piccadilly Circus when we got there we couldn't get near them.. we queued up for our turn but then went back the next day for a long pounding in beautiful hot water! It must really have improved the quality of life for the villagers.
Sitting down to a meal we had a nice surprise when we were approached by Juliet and Jeff. They are overlanders from Belgium currently driving with a couple of friends and they are going the other way having just come down from China they are on the way to Australia so we had a very late night by Laos standards (11pm!!!!!) trading travelling stories. Jeff and Juliet's adventures are detailed in French and Dutch on their site but they both speak very good English so we include their site here. As they are happy to answer questions. www.bearoundtheworld.be It is always a real treat to meet other overlanders and they took some of the attention off us as we both did a bit of vehicle maintenance before leaving our separate ways the next morning!!
We had a quick look round the market and I found this local dentist sign- again no picture yet sorry! He presumably also deals in music..maybe to drown out the noise of patients screaming! Andrew had been complaining of a niggily tooth but he backed off when he saw the sign. I thought the pliers are a nice touch!!!
Next stop was Nong Khiaw which is a pleasant little market town on the banks of the Nam or River Ou. We found a really good camp site on the river a couple of kms out of town at Cave or Tham Pathok. It was a really scenic spot set amongst the rice paddies, and we watched the local indigenous girls came down to gather berries and insects from the riverbanks to eat. Things weren't always as peaceful here though and the cave was where all the local villagers sheltered during the war years as bombs rained down on them. We were given a guide who didn't speak English but just scampered ahead and boy was it scary!
The trip involved a climb down a narrow rickety bamboo ladder which we then had to climb straight back up ..I thought it was a round trip or I'd never have gone down it! There was a separate cave ..which you trekked through the jungle to get to (leeches everywhere!) and you followed a tunnel down deep inside the mountain where the bank was for the Pathet Laos. The money was hidden in a very secure place!! It was really interesting but the caving bit scared me to death!
That afternoon we saw a familiar bike and once more met up with Rob and Anna the Aussie/Polish couple we saw last in Cambodia. Again we got the maps out and picked each other's brains for a while!
The next day we arranged to leave the car at a guesthouse (Jeff and Juliet had told us where) and caught the boat up the river to Muang Ngoi Neua an hour to the north. It was a lovely drive up the river passing villages and grazing buffalo.
Though quite a tourist hang out (the boat was packed) this was a lovely peaceful spot with basic accommodation and a village relatively unspoilt by tourism.
There was an old temple but the real attraction was the scenery ..we had a couple of days lounging on our hammocks on the river front reading ..though it got chilly so we had to lounge wrapped in duvets!!
Well rested on Saturday 22 November we drove on to Udomxai or Oudomxai or Muang Xai ..that thing with names again …a busy town in the centre of the country which is a big centre for Laos/Chinese trade.
We went to the Red Cross and had a herbal sauna (a bit of a Laos thing) followed by a massage which was lovely for our travel weary muscles! We asked the police where to park and ended up in a hotel car park where we were permitted to use the bathroom for a small fee! It was a bit noisy with huge trucks thundering up and down the road to China but after our journey and sauna we still slept fairly well. Next morning we set off for our next stop Muang Sing a remote town in the NE very close to the Chinese border.