Waiting through the rain... Exploring the Hidden City... and slowly saying goodbye to Laos!

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Asia » Laos » East » Sam Neua
July 27th 2013
Published: September 27th 2013
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Another bus journey… This time we chose to go during the day though. The bus was supposed to leave at 8am from the Northern Station, but thanks to a guy working at the bus station in the centre we would be picked up from the centre instead! He said it was no problem at all, he would just divert the bus for us. Wow! How nice was that! As we were waiting for our bus I thought that maybe he forgot to do that after all as it was 9am and the bus was nowhere to be found yet (we were supposed to leave at 8am). But eventually it came a few minutes after – funny yellow minibus packed with locals and their stuff. At the beginning it looked like we might have to fight over the seats as everybody took two seats for themselves and didn’t bother to give up any for us. Then they tried to squeeze us (two tallest people on the bus) at the back right on top of the back wheels – meaning I would have to sit with my legs basically tied to my chin the whole way – sorry but no way I would be signing up for that seeing other people had two seats each! Finally one guy gave up one of his seats and we were ready to start our journey to Sam Neua. From the very beginning it looked like it might be a fun journey as they were playing a DVD with some Lao music (with lyrics of course, so everybody could join in), full volume on! These buses are definitely not made for western tourists – no leg space whatsoever! Still at least we had two normal seats instead of a seat in the middle row – it was hard enough trying to sleep on a ‘normal’ chair, the middle ones had a very short back so basically there was nothing to lean your head against. My head was swinging enough, but seeing one woman sitting in one of these chairs, trying to hang on to it, while her head was swinging along with her whole body, well… let me just say I was more than happy with my seat! It wasn’t exactly the most adventurous trip, except the usual honking before every curve (meaning all the time as the road was very curvy!) and the smell of poop in the air – two babies started pooping in their pants, nothing out of the ‘ordinary’ happened during our journey at all (yep! no nappies, so their mums just wiped their butts with the dirty trousers and wrapped the babies in blankets afterwards… I do understand that they may not have money for diapers, still it’s not an easy sight to look at…).

And so we got to Sam Neua. It was surprising to find that the rooms here were more expensive than in Phonsavan, especially seeing the town was much smaller. There wasn’t much difference between guesthouses and hotels either, so went for a hotel (free wifi) and we even managed to get a discount on our room. Except a few Chinese guys, there didn’t seem to be many tourists around anyway… Since we didn’t have lunch, our stomachs were in desperate need of food so after a quick shower we went in search of a place to eat. It was only 7pm but the town looked as if it went to sleep already. First we went to a Chinese restaurant recommended by LP as it was next door to our place, the tables seemed to be prepared for dinner (spices and sauces set on each of them) but they said ‘no food’ to us…He? Well that was beyond weird… Was it because there was nobody else there and they just didn’t want to bother cooking for two tourists or what? Just as we were leaving we saw a Chinese guy taking his seat at one of the tables and looking through the menu… Guess it was just us then? Anyway… We would look somewhere else then I guess… We walked around but everything seemed to be closed? Finally after circling around we found another LP recommendation around the other corner from our place and it actually had some people inside! Good sign! The people working there were very friendly as well – looked like we would be eating that evening after all (at some point I started having serious doubts whether that would happen). Food was pretty good as well, so we knew we would be back here for sure! Who knows maybe there wouldn’t be any choice anyway?

The following day we went for a stroll around Sam Neua. First a visit to the market! There is always something interesting or unusual at the markets so we were sure we were going to find here some local specialities again. Still I’m afraid I wasn’t exactly prepared to see a dog chopped up on a table… How do I know it was a dog? His legs were left almost untouched, apart from being cut off from the rest of the body they were still covered in gingery coloured hair, that’s how I knew… Yep, think I should be avoiding meat sections by now as nothing good ever comes from that… Slowly learning my lessons… They had some lovely banana fritters at the market at least, not that I was that hungry… Later on we headed to the tourist information, even though it was closed (Sunday!), at least there was a map hanging outside, so we could check out a few interesting sights around – Lonely Planet totally out of date (I was actually wondering whether the person writing about Sam Neua walked around the town at all…)! We walked past some old stupas and headed to the temple. Monks seemed to be a bit surprised to see anyone there, and we felt our presence there wasn’t exactly the most welcomed, so we didn’t spend much time there either. We were only walking for half an hour or so and it looked like we already saw all the ‘landmarks’ of this town. We didn’t exactly feel like going back yet so just turned into some random street. We came across a few boys who were playing some kind of flip-flop throwing game. I was trying to figure out the rules, but the more I was looking at it, the more they seem to be changing after each throw. Still the boys seemed to be having a lot of fun and were treating the game very seriously. Who said that kids need toys to have fun? Very inventive I’d say. We heard some very loud music coming from a bit further away so decided to check out its source. I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised as to what we were going to find, nevertheless big karaoke bar hidden on a hill a bit on the outskirts of town seemed a bit out of place. Some boys were having fun here as well – these ones were a bit older though and instead of a game of flip-flops they were playing ‘who can sing like a cat the best’. 😊 They saw our smiling faces as we were passing them by and we got invited to join them, but the volume was set so loud that I wasn’t sure if my eardrums would survive this kind of entertainment, so we decided to skip it this time. Instead we headed further up to check out a new temple at the top of the hill. Quite lovely view of Sam Neua from up there – the monks sure knew where to settle down. 😉 On the way back we thought it would be best to check out some other places for dinner. Well it wasn’t that easy it would seem… Many places seemed to be closed but finally we found some Vietnamese restaurant – which I believe was recommended by LP as well. We sat down and were ready to order some lunch only to be shooed away by a guy working there… What??? Was it a sign of things to come in Vietnam or what??? I certainly didn’t like it at all… On the way back to the hotel we found some noodle place and we thought we would at least try to have a beer there. It took a bit of sign language but eventually the lady working there with a huge smile on her face, and a bit of giggling in between, brought us the beers (I badly needed one after a visit to the Vietnamese place!). So I guess there were some nice people in this town after all! We passed quite a few smiley faces that day, still most of the people around didn’t look too friendly at all. What a difference to the other places in Laos we have been to so far! Was it the proximity to Vietnam? Or maybe the fact that this region was one of the most bombarded one in the Vietnam War? Certainly this town had a slightly different vibe to it… I thought I would still give it a chance, not that we had a lot of other choice, our Vietnamese visa was valid from the 1st of August, so it looked like we were going to spend here the next couple of days anyway… There were still Viengxay caves on our list, but we weren’t planning to stay there for the night. As we were having a beer at the noodle restaurant it started pouring rain again… Guess we would have to wait there and have some more beers then… and a noodle soup of course!

Basically that’s how our days looked like in here – a visit to the market, waiting through the rain, something to eat, waiting through the rain again, then some more food and more rain and quite a lot of relaxing in between. A trip to Viengxay caves seemed a bit tricky as we were getting some mixed information from the tourist office and from the internet as to what time and how often the buses were running, still in the end we decided to give it a try. The plan was to catch a bus at 7am, then a tour at Viengxay that was starting at 9am and take a bus back at 1pm (apparently the only one that was running in the afternoon). I have to say I had some serious doubts about that. The other option was to take all our stuff, spend the night (or two) in Viengxay and from there head to Vietnam. Still Viengxay was even smaller than Sam Neua so I was wondering if they were going to sell any food to tourists there at all, so instead we just decided to stick to the original plan. One day we woke up early and walked to the bus station to catch our bus. We were there on time of course, but it looked like the bus wasn’t there yet. At 8am I started getting a bit anxious… Some other foreign girl appeared at the station and said she was told that there was only bus at 8am (we were told it was leaving at 7), but then she added that she was waiting for it the day before and it didn’t show up at all. Nice! However a few minutes after some packed bus stopped for a moment and as it was ready to take off a woman from the ticket office ran after it and told us to quickly jump in. Suddenly all this rush right? Hmmm… There weren’t enough seats so Grant ended up sitting at the back, on luggage… Next to a few bird cages as well – one lucky birdie seemed to have escaped and was waiting for a first chance to jump out of the window… Poor thing… It looked like the bus driver wasn’t going to bother to take us to the centre of Viengxay and just dropped us off at the main road. Ah well… What can you do? It was already a bit after 9, so it looked like we missed the morning tour at the caves… Still we headed to the visitor’s centre hoping they would let us in anyway. Thankfully there weren’t any people visiting the caves that day, so they said we could go with a guide whenever we wanted. We rented a pair of bikes, got our audio-guides and were ready for the tour. Our guide had a bit of an advantage as she was driving on a motorbike while we had to cycle behind her. It was nice to cycle around a bit though. The village was set in the middle of limestone formations, really beautiful sight! It was fun biking around until it started raining, or should I say lashing like crazy? Even the raincoat wasn’t helping so we took out the umbrellas as well – maybe riding a bike with an umbrella in hand works well for the Asians, but it certainly didn’t work that well for me! I was wondering when I was going to fall on my face… but thankfully it didn’t rain too long, so there were no casualties on this tour after all. 😉 The audio tour was very good I have to say, a lot of information and we had a chance to listen to some survivors telling their stories as well. It was still quite hard to imagine that 23,000 people were hiding in these caves at some stage. No wonder they called it a Hidden City. They had everything here – schools, hospital, even army barracks and artillery. They were used by Pathet Lao (Lao revolutionary movement). Once again you could see quite a few bomb craters around – US were definitely doing their best to wipe out all the ‘signs’ of communism from this side of the world…

Once we came back to the visitor centre we asked where the 1 o’clock bus was leaving from. The girls seemed to be a bit puzzled by our question as they said they didn’t hear about a bus like that at all. Hmmm… They did say that we could try to catch a bus from Vietnam from the main road though – it could be coming any time between 1 and 5. Aaaah… Very precise schedule then! They also said that we should try at the market as maybe there could be some more info about buses there. There was no time to wait I guess but to head to the market then. We found a ticket office there but it seemed to be closed though. There was some guy sitting on a bench, so we asked whether he knew anything about a bus, he just laughed and said ‘today? Noooo, no bus… Tomorrow!’. What??? Ok, it was time to eat something and come up with some kind of a plan then… We found a noodle soup place. It looked pretty decent, maybe beside the fact that it had dog on the menu! Just in case we opted for a veggie noodle soups, however it looked like they might have been cooked in some kind of meaty broth (my guess would be dog, since it was the only meat on the menu…)… Let me just say that the soup didn’t taste good at all! After a few spoons I just gave up on it… In the end we decided to try to hitchhike back to Sam Neua and if that didn’t work we would just catch a bus back in the morning (if there really was one that is!). We got a pretty good spot on the main road, just in front of some shop (which unfortunately closed a few minutes after we got there, but we managed to buy a bottle of water and… a beer at least). A couple of cars stopped by but they all were going to some local villages only, but at least we found out that there was a bus from Vietnam coming this way each day, so there was a small light at the end of the tunnel after all. We were told that the bus would come around 4, however it looked like it was our lucky day as it came a bit after 2 instead! What a relief! I never thought I would be so happy coming back to Sam Neua! 😊

And that was it when it came to our adventure in Laos… I have to say that the country really surpassed my expectations. Really friendly people (the longer we stayed in Sam Neua, the more friendly people we found there after all… so maybe we just bumped into the wrong ones at the very beginning?), very slow pace of living, beautiful landscapes and so much history… Really incredible place! And we only saw a very small part of it… Sure it has much more to offer still! Nevertheless it was time to move on and explore another culture… Having read so much about Vietnam I had really mixed feelings about it though – some people loved it, while others had some really bad experiences when being there… Would we like it? I sure was going there with an open mind (and heart) and was ready to give this country a chance to prove itself… So off we went again… Next stop: Hanoi!

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very well said...very well said...
very well said...

about the people of Laos that is! :)

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