Published: February 12th 2008January 21st 2008
Our boat guides
Kong Lo cave, Laos
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(N) "A lot of life is about doing something essentially pointless and not necessarily very enjoyable in order to feel the satisfaction of having done it." I read this quote recently in a Times article by Robert Rampton, and it sums up one major chore I completed before leaving for Latvia in September (albeit only on the morning of departure), namely going through all my old Wanderlust
travel magazines (about 7 years' worth) and reading the stuff relevant to the places we were going. One tip advised entering Laos from the Thai town of Nong Khai, which we hadn't considered previously and is pretty much what we ended up doing, entering from Bangkok on 12th January.
We took a tuk-tuk from Nong Khai to the "Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge" where we completed immigration formalities and crossed one of the few bridges over the Mekong into Laos. We changed money at the border, the local currency being kip
, on which the number 2 looks enough like a 6 to cause
2,000 kip (10p)
The '2' looks like a '6'
confusion. Just before entering Laos proper, there was an official on a turnstile who really was going to charge us to enter the country, even though we'd paid around $30 for a visa! This, he explained, was on account of the fact that we wished to enter the People's Democratic Republic at the weekend
of all things, and for this an official charge of 15p was payable. I still have the receipt.
So, a little about Laos: when the country was reunified in 1353, it was called Lane Xang
, "The Land of A Million Elephants". Geographically, it is slightly larger than Great Britain with a population ten times smaller. Politically, its recent history is complex but the key events are (i) the French ("aspiring lotus eaters"!) granting it full independence in 1953, and (ii) the taking of power by the communists in 1975, who are still at the helm, ending a six-century-old monarchy. The country is officially known as Lao P.D.R. (People's Democratic Republic - how democratic can communism be?!), and frequently where a Laos flag is flown (e.g on government buildings or houses), a hammer & sickle flag will be accompanying it. As elsewhere in the region, the
communist takeover in the 1970s coincided with the US withdrawals, but not before around two million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Laos during the fighting, which is more than fell on Europe during all of WW2; to put it another way, 1 plane-load of bombs deposited every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years; or another way, half a tonne for every man, woman and child in the country at the time. And Laos wasn't even fighting.
The national psyche is always talked about by people who have been to Laos; everyone always seems so laidback, and in fact there is a saying that "too much work is bad for your brain"! Laos also follows Theravada Buddhism which stresses that karma rather than prayer or hard work determines the future, so they tend not to get too worked up about anything. The language is Lao, which is closely related to Thai and, to us, in written format it looks like a lot of squiggles; additionally, there are six tones
, which means that the same word can have six meanings depending on how you say it, and additionally Lao vowels can be written before, after, above or
below consonants! Needless to say, we are not yet fluent.
Laos remains relatively undeveloped, with no railroads, only a basic road system (parts of the country were not accessible by road until 10 years ago), and electricity is not available everywhere. Subsistence agriculture, dominated by rice, provides 80% of total employment. There are no coins in circulation; the smallest note is 500 kip (about 2.5p), and the largest that we've had is 50,000 (GBP2.50!).
As with Thailand, many males become a monk at least for a short period in their life, and it is an honour for the family if a member takes 'robe and bowl'. Consequently, monks in saffron robes are a common sight, sometimes with umbrellas to protect themselves from the heat. Early in the morning, they can be seen doing their rounds with their bowls, relying on the local population for their food and a small amount of spending money.
Although France was the colonial master of Vietnam and Cambodia as well as here, it is Laos that seems to still reflect it the most today, with various streets still called "Rue" (eg Rue Hanoi), plenty of stalls selling baguettes & pate as a
snack/for lunch, post boxes labelled as Boite aux lettres
and the odd Maison de vin
and Projet de Co-operation Lao-Francais
So, back at the border...we found a rickety old bus to take us the 20km to the Laos capital Vientiane. It was a small vehicle on which passengers and luggage are heaped together, and holes in the floor afford a view of the wheels going round. On the way, and true to form, Paula befriended another Japanese traveller, a girl travelling on her own, who eventually stayed in the same place as us.
Almost immediately on the main road we saw a billboard for Carlsberg, which is a bit like having an advert for Asti Spumante
in the Champagne region of France; Beerlao
, the national beer, is one of the world's best by reputation, and the
best according to a Wanderlust
survey (we later found out that Carlsberg owns 25% of Beerlao). After passing the beer factory itself, and the leafy-smelling national tobacco factory, we got a room in a guesthouse in central Vientiane, whose balcony looked over a road alongside the Mekong River. Vientiane
(lit. "Sandalwood City") became the capital city when Laos became
a French protectorate in the late 19th century. Before that, the territory was controlled at one time or another by the Vietnamese, Burmese, Siamese and Khmers - it's been bashed around a lot. It sits on a bend of the Mekong, and has a midnight curfew for businesses, restaurants and bars, in keeping with its political paranoia. This is a far cry from when Paul Theroux was here in the 1970s and commented that opium was easier to find than fresh beer. Now the place is a sanitised socialist town, but with plenty of charm.
After a brunch including the delicious Lao coffee, we headed out to see some of the capital's sights including the so-called Black Stupa
, an old Buddhist monument that was reportedly covered in gold till a 19th century Siamese invasion, followed by the markets of Talat Sao
and Talat Khua Din
, the former being quite western, but also featuring goldsmiths at work with their hot tools, and the latter being an earthy food market with a heavy emphasis on the fresh - no need to write about the visceral scene here, as it was similar to plenty of others described amply in other blogs...!
Vientiane has its own Arc de Triomphe, called the Patuxai
, nicely described by its own plaque as "like a monster of concrete"! Built in the 1960s (with US-purchased cement supposedly for a new airport...) and, inside, the lack of ornamentation is notable by its absence, leading Paula to make a comparison with Slough carpark. There was a good view from the top, however, of the park below and of the very empty 4-laned main road below.
On the way to the Arch, as well as seeing several huge wooden carts all seeming to only sell one thing, tangerines, we also watched two policemen speeding past on a scooter, one of whom was trying in vain to stop someone further ahead in the traffic...by furiously blowing on his whistle!
Vientiane sits on the Mekong River, whose width rises and falls dramatically with the wet and dry season. At this dry time it looks like a dry field for a full 25m down to the water. Not long after our Beerlao sundowner, the sun disappeared in a big red ball on the horizon. Being at another bar, Sala Khounta, was also great for sunset, as kids played football in front
of the sun on a sandbar that is covered by water in the wet season.
The following day, we hired bikes and peddled to Laos' most important national monument, Pha That Luang
, a 20th century reconstruction of a 16th century stupa
(a monumental pile in memory of Buddha), in the shape of a large golden pyramid. In the blazing sun, it was an impressive sight to behold and, for Buddhists, its architectural features reflect aspects of their beliefs.
Back in the centre, Wat Si Muang
, which houses a centuries-old stone pillar, is considered to be the home of Vientiane's guardian spirit. The pillar is wrapped in sacred cloth, in front of it is a wooden panel (stele) with a carved Buddha. We were amazed at the riot of colours around the altar, not just the bright colours of the building and the fruit offerings, but also flashing lights around the stele that would be considered the height of tackiness back home (see the video).
Another long cycle ride, which are becoming a theme, reared its head again as I persuaded Paula to ride the 15km to the Beerlao factory, which, naturally, was closed when we got there,
so we sufficed with a bottle of the Full Taste of Happiness at the nearest bar to the brewery; it did indeed taste fresh.
By the time we were back reaching the city outskirts from our jaunt, and our next planned stop of Wat Sok Pa Luang
, it was dark. We had come to this temple, off the road and in a forest, because it comes well-recommended for its herbal sauna and massage. After taking a wrong turn or two in the temple grounds (firstly to the graveyard and secondly to a toothless old monk's house, who laughed as he pointed us in the right direction - well, it was dark), we came across a little wooden building on stilts. Before long, we were down to a sarong and being motioned towards the small sauna in the corner. I have never been to one similar: as soon as we opened the door, visibility was about 10 cm! We couldn't even see where to sit, but someone whose eyes were adjusted to the tenebrosity was kind enough to take our hands and guide us. Herbs grown from the garden infuse the steam, and I'm pleased to report that, owing to
the extreme humidity, sweat soon flowed in rivers from our pores. After going in and out of the sauna a few times, we washed in a cold barrel of water before being pummelled and clicked in every direction for an hour, and left after a cup of tea feeling exhilarated, all for $4. We rounded the day off in a timber-floored traditional Lao restaurant, where Paula had the local fruit drink and soup, and I opted for Laos sausages, which were as deliciously unhealthy as our own, before pedalling home.
Before leaving Vientiane, we also visited the national museum which, as well as displaying the obligatory busts of Ho Chi Minh and Lenin, churned out revolutionary commentary against the "French and their appointed lackeys governing the country" on its photos, and showed pictures of the "brutal French colonialist yoke" and the "US imperialists and their puppets". There was also an insightful history of the relationship between the old Dutch East India Company and the Laos in the 17th century.
A brief mention of a few other wats we visited: Wat Si Saket
, built in 1818, thought to be Vientiane's oldest temple, and is impressive for its 2000
Buddha at Haw Pha Kaew, Vientiane
This is an unusual Lao-style Buddha (ie not Thai or Indian), hands crossed at wrist meaning that he is Contemplating the Tree of Enlightenment...
small and 300 large Buddhas in the cloister walls, and Ha Pha Kaew
, formerly a royal temple but now a museum of religious art, plus a couple of others famed for their large Buddhas / scary-looking guardians and tiered roofs etc etc...!
We ate and drank well in Vientiane, it was great to be able to keep to our $15/day budget and still eat in a cozy French-style bistro, or gorge on curry & Beerlao in the afternoon! On the subject of Lao food, the first time visitor is struck by small cylindrical bamboo pots which are brought to the table, they contain the staple carbohydrate of sticky rice. The bamboo keeps the rice moist, and traditionally you take out chunks with your hand to put on the plate. When Lao people eat, the food is served in the middle of the table, to share. The concept of "this meal/dish is mine" is foreign, and in fact the word for "mine" and "yours" is the same. As in Vietnam and Cambodia, the coffee is of good quality. If you ask for coffee with milk, it is usually condensed
milk. Liz Anderson in Red Lights and Green Lizards
"When asked whether I would prefer my coffee black or white, I proudly answered with the Cambodian phrase which literally means "coffee with liquid from the breast of a cow". What comes is always the same; a glass filled to the brim with pitch black coffee, solidly supported on an inch of sweetened milk that is neither liquid nor has seen the inside of a breast for a very long time. It is, however, delicious".
We left Laos on a nightbus to go to a small town called Tha Khaek
, further down the east bank of the Mekong. This was to be the starting point for a real adventure for us, embarking on a three-day, off-the-beaten track circuit into remote parts of Laos via moped. Never having ridden one any real distance before, we weren't sure that we would actually go ahead and do it, but we had a brief instruction course from Mr Ku the following morning at the guesthouse where we'd arrived at 01h00. Ideally we'd have had more of a practice than just the bumpy driveway of the Tha Khaek Travel Lodge
, but time was already getting on and as we suspected the
On route 8a
With trusty steed.
best practice was on the road itself, where the traffic was not too heavy, so we paid up and set off. We prayed for a safe return and this was granted, but not without a couple of scrapes along the way! Traffic was fairly light, and after a couple of wobbles we were quite used to our bikes, small bags strapped to the little baskets at the front. It was a great feeling to overtake our first lorry. Armed with only a photocopied hand-drawn sketch map from Mr Ku, and tips from the guest house log book, we pootled east on National Route 13 towards Vientiane the capital, but didn't see a sign on the road for it once!
There was not much of interest in the scenery along this small but principal road, but everyday life is worth commenting on; hens and piglets moved out of our way when we honked, but goats and cows didn't flinch! So we had to skirt around them or wait till the troupe had moved out of the way. The armies of schoolchildren were best avoided too. A common means of transport between villages was a trailer powered by a tractor engine
At the Sala viewpoint
On the Loop, near Ban Na Hin.
(think tractor minus the cab, with a big wooden cart being pulled behind, see photo). Everyone moved very slowly
using them. One man was carrying a cow or a water buffalo in one somewhere.
By the time we were due to turn off, after about 100km, we were averaging 60-70kph, at which speed it was quite rocky due to the wind factor. My mirrors were quite flimsy and no sooner did I pick up speed than they quickly wilted to completely the wrong angle. I was reminded of an old Alexei Sayle programme, where in the first episode he is riding a moped, then sneezes into the visor obscuring his vision with phlegm, and promptly crashes - the rest of the series was filmed as if inside his head.
We turned off north onto Route 8a, where the scenery suddenly became spectacular: huge limestone mountains towered over us, green glades and winding corners provided a striking environment in which to drive; at the viewpoint named Sala we could see craggy peaks and plateaux all around us, and our voices echoed for miles as we shouted into the distance. We hit Ban Na Hin
(confusingly officially known as Khoum
Happy birthday mum!
Kham) in the late afternoon, our shadows casting long onto yellow-grass hillsides. We found a comfy guesthouse with a simple but tasty eaterie next door. That evening was the first time in ages we had worn warm clothes, as it got a bit nippy when the sun went down. DAY 1 TOTAL - 166KM
It was Nick's mum's birthday today - many happy returns!!
Day 2 - was not dull. We headed off to the highlight of the trip, the caves at Kong Lo
. We knew that, to get there, there was (i) an old bad road and (ii) a new good one. This being Laos, there was only one sign which was the bad road. The cave was only 40km away, but it took us 2 hours to travel half the distance because of the terrible condition: down and up steep overgrown ridges, sandy patches, herds of animals etc. It was more like driving through a forest. We could go not further when we came to a river, narrow but wide enough to be impassable with a moped. Thankfully a local man pointed us to small detour, which got us right round it. Soon, however, we were
Trailer pulled by a tractor
The beautiful scenery around Ban Na Hin.
in the middle of a farmer's field and the path forked, with no indication which was best. I turned to consult Paula and caught sight of the same local man waving frantically behind her that we had already taken a wrong turning. He had obviously been there a few minutes and thought that we hadn't seen him, so drove off. I raced after him, honking my horn repeatedly (making a noise like a poor kazoo player), eventually catching up to him and getting more directions - he was going to the new road too, and could take us there to join it, which we did, zooming through a small farming community and almost bisecting one of two puppies that were lying in the path. We had been just 2km from the new road and thanked the man for his help by giving him enough money for a beer. The contrast between the flat new road and the rolling countryside was huge, so much smoother and quicker. It was a joy to cruise past more towering mountains and bright green fields, full of what looked like cabbages, with lots of wooden houses and shops, some of them looking like wattle and
daub construction! When the engines were off, there was often no sound but silence.
The track finished in a small forest glade, where we came across The Boat Committee, their carefully painted sign showing that they were well-ready for visitors: $10 to visit the caves on a 2-hour boat trip, $0.50 cave entrance fee, $0.50 to park a moped - and $0.20 to use the toilet! Kong Lo cave is one of Laos' natural wonders, and the best way to visit is to take a motorised canoe into the interior through to the other side, and then come back. Two guides, Bom and Tuan, came with us, one driving the engine at the back, and the other paddling/steering at the front. Most of the 7km was in semi-darkness, punctuated by the torches on our guides' heads, but it was possible to make out plenty of shapes, and the scale of the cave itself: up to 100m wide at some points, with giant stalagmites and stalactites looming at the sides, which we got out and scrambled up to see on one occasion. Actually we got out 4 times in each direction when the water level was very low, in which
case the guys had to advance the canoe with nobody in it, and at one especially difficult time I gave them a hand. "I wonder how they know when it gets too shallow?" asked Paula on one occasion, just as there was a scrunch underneath, indicating that it was time to get out again.
We emerged 7km later into the bright hot weather on the other side. Before we turned round to go back, our guides visited the one man and his stall that was on the riverbank, buying a small amount of tobacco, and rolling it in leaves from a nearby bush. I took a couple of pictures of them, which they were interested in seeing, so I also showed them some of our recent travels.
Leaving the cave back to Ban Na Hin on the good road
(expected to be finished by May 2008) took less than half the time. The plan was to push on to the small town of Lak Sao (pop 28,000), 60km away on a good road. Barely out of Na Hin however, up on the hill out of town, I suddenly couldn't steer properly and, getting off the bike, saw that
both tyres were deflating. I pushed it back down the hill, with Paula going on ahead to alert the repair shop, where a plump, rather sad-looking mechanic put 2 new inner tubes on, and we set off again. At virtually the same point on the hill I had the same feeling and sure enough the front tyre was going flat again. Back in the repair shop, I communicated to the aforementioned mechanic the fact that the inner tube he'd put on did not cut the proverbial mustard, so he changed it again for free, giving us a better quality one at no extra cost. By this time, it was too dark to start the journey, so I had the faulty headlamps fixed too. We ate that night in a small cafe named after a 12-year-old boy called "To", who had befriended me as I pushed my bike to the repair shop (the first time). I said we would call by that evening for dinner if we were still around, so we went there and he was very proud in front of his mum that he'd brought in 2 gringo customers. His English, which he practised on us over dinner, was
almost perfect. He said one day he really wanted to see Big Ben, so we said we'd send a postcard. DAY 2 TOTAL - 107KM
Day 3 - we were on the road before 08h00, with the goal of completing the 200km back to Tha Khaek in one day. It sounds easy enough but a lot of the way is pot-holed to smithereens, plus road construction is in full swing, all meaning being stuck frequently doing 20kph - 30kph, in addition to the concern about further punctures / bike problems / not wanting to drive in the dark (after 18h00). We reckoned we could have one problem and still make it.
It was another beautiful morning, clear blue skies and this time my bike made it all the way up the hill (the third attempt) and beyond, all the 60km to Lak Sao
. It was a stunning drive during which ascended about 400m, and it was mostly freezing
on the bikes, due to the windchill and the early morning shade of the hills. Firstly we rode around winding mountain roads, peaks of karst closing us in on one side, deep green forest to the other, over which mist
hung, not yet burned off by the morning sun. There followed a long period of flat road, mountain peaks towering over cultivated land; the short grass, thin air and people wrapped up warm reminded us of South America, of maybe how Patagonia looks. While I waited for Paula to catch up once, I turned off my motor and, as when we were on the way to the cave, there was absolute silence. It was the same pretty much the whole loop; peace and no noise, apart from the roadbuilding stretches at the end of the trip.
We left Lak Sao after refuelling and began the long difficult strip south, which we knew would provide the biggest challenge. The sealed road duly gave way to what in the UK would be regarded as a wide and very poor quality country lane. A lot of the route was extremely picturesque, as we drove through the Nan Theun and Phu Hin Bun National Protected Areas, a descent through thick forest, with the foliage nearest the bumpy road being coloured orange from the dust. Eventually it flattened out again, and this was where the serious road-building began. Lots of stones made steering difficult.
Making new friends...
A coffee stop we made near Tha Lang
We were making good time, so we stopped at a tiny village just outside Tha Lang for a coffee (instant Nescafe, would you believe, the sachet containing whitener and sweetener already, in this land of top quality bean), in the local store that also served as a cafe/snackstop. Several customers were already there, snacking on fried chicken feet and all drinking the local firewater, a rice whisky called lao lao
, 50% ABV, typically priced at about a dollar for a large bottle! They motioned to Paula and I to join their table and have some; we did the former but not the latter, aware of what the effect on our driving would be. We exchanged some basic Lao phrases for a couple of minutes and showed them the Laos Lonely Planet with its photos from all over the country. In the middle of this, a bloke pulled up on his moped and joined our table, greeted us and drank half a large bottle of Beerlao (which he opened with his teeth), offered the rest of it around the table and sped off again, all in the space of 10 minutes.
The ongoing road construction merged with a new dam
On the new road, The Loop
Still quite a bit to be done.
construction (Nam Theun 2), making it interesting to see how the environment was being manipulated for human use. I did think about turning off and following the signs to the dam construction site, but it was a bit out of the way and a man with an automatic rifle was loitering around, so we pushed on. (The dam area is expected to be flooded around 2010, and some roads that we travelled on to disappear as a result).
Not long after this, I had yet another problem with my bike; some screws had worked themselves loose and the chain fell off. Very detrimental to making progress. I flagged down a huge cement truck, and bless them as they got out their tool kit to try and fix it there and then. They couldn't, so we hoisted my bike onto the back of their truck and I rode with them in the cab to the next town, Nakai, 7km away, having agreed a price with them for this service of 15,000 kip ($1.50), around 50% of what they first asked for. Paula followed on her bike, and they dropped me off at the repairs shop where the necessary was done
while we bought and shared around a bunch of bananas (in a comedy moment, a goat came up and ate the skins off the floor, and then half the mechanics' lunch on a nearby table till they realised and chased it away).
It was mid-afternoon and we were still more than 60km away, but we were confident of getting back and had just completed half of this remaining distance when Paula's bike slipped on one of the many patches of gravel, and she came off, thankfully at very low speed, suffering some bad grazes but nothing worse. Gingerly back on the bike, after becoming something of a local celebrity as lots of people rushed over to check she was ok, we continued on the final leg. My bike wasn't ready to give me an easy ride yet either, and shortly afterwards it just jammed and would not move; I got off and shook it backwards and forwards with the little energy I had left and amazingly that was enough to dislodge whatever caused the blockage. The light was now beginning to fade; if we had one more problem, we might have to stay somewhere else for the night. For
That Luang, Vientiane
Laos' most important national monument.
a major road, it was in terrible condition. We rode for one more hour in the dusk and early darkness, and the road did in fact improve before we pulled back to the Travel Lodge, with a great feeling of satisfaction and pleased with our accomplishment. After washing all the dirt and dust away, we enjoyed swopping stories over food & beers with other guests who had also just completed their trips, especially an Aussie named Brad who we'd met both at the start and half-way round, travelling in opposite directions. DAY 3 TOTAL - 212KM
The following morning, we took a bus to our next stop, Savannakhet
, and I bought a snack of pounded sticky rice with a sweet filling, all wrapped in a big leaf, which was nicer than it sounds. However, there was also a stall selling rats; two were already splayed across a mini barbecue, and three fresh dead ones ready for sale on the pavement nearby! In another example of how Laos is different to Europe, you sometimes see people on long bus journeys going to the toilet in the road, not necessarily because they can't be bothered to find a bush, but because
Outside the Beerlao factory, Vientiane
As far as we got (on our first attempt)
there is still unexploded ordnance from the war and unmarked paths in certain regions are no-go.
This bus was a real
local one, with 2 mopeds and tonnes of luggage strapped to the roof. The previous bus service seemed to have been cancelled, and it was particularly squashed inside; people were on little plastic stools for the length of the gangway and I was stood up for half the journey. We also had to change buses before we got there, although it was supposed to be direct! We arrived about 3pm.
***** Footnote on The Loop - we came across this account by an American writer (Chris Tharp) of his own experience, which summarises the trip pretty well:
When I tell people about the trip, about the plague of breakdowns, most lament my awful luck. What had I done to accrue such bad trip karma? But the mechanical failings, the problems, these forced me to stop along the way in places that I would have hardly given a glance to from the road. I got to spend time in these villages and get a glimpse into real Lao life - not what is packaged and sold
to the Khaosan Road [Bangkok] hordes. The problems on the trip made me relax, they made slow down. And Laos is a country best viewed in first gear.
Buying an ice cream sandwich, Vientiane
Yes, that's a dollop of ice cream between 2 pieces of bread!
There are more photos below