You're the Only One Moving Fast in Laos

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July 8th 2013
Published: July 8th 2013
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You’re sitting in the Bar Ponnyang, 4 stories above the Mekong, gazing across the marshy sand bar that separates you from the river. Across the river is Thailand, greener and obviously more developed.The river here is wider and slower than the fast moving muddy channel you left a week ago in Luang Prabang. It’s only 2 and you’re a couple of beers ahead of where you should be. The map says the hotel is 2 blocks away so it shouldn’t be too hard to find your way.You’ve had a good day touring Vientiane and you don’t want to mess it up now by getting lost. You’re reflecting back on your busy week following the Mekong River south to Vientiane. It doesn’t seem possible it’s only been a week; you’ve made 3 moves and probably won’t be here long either.

It’s a hazy day, thank goodness. Yesterday was crazy hot with no breeze to help. You arrived in Vientiane a little after noon, the tuk-tuk driver laughing when you approached him for a ride and explained where you wanted to go. It’s only a block to the hotel from the minibus drop-off and he says you should save some money and walk. Maybe the only honest driver in Southeast Asia.You check into the hotel and turn the air conditioner to 16, hoping for the best. The heat quickly overcomes and you fall asleep quickly without even unpacking.You wake 2 hourslater feeling disoriented and dehydrated. In 2 hours the thermometer says it’s dropped from 31 to 30. The guesthouse roof is made of tin and 10 feet above your head. It’s never going to cool off and you realize you’ve made a mistake. You tried to save a few dollars on the hotel, but it’s the capital and the backpacker prices of the north aren’t going to be found here. You tell the teenage clerk you want to find a new place. He’s got a huge scar on his leg from the surgery to repair his knee, trashed from playing soccer. He tells you there is nothing he can do; you have to pay for a half days rate for your bad dream nap. You want to argue but its Laos and no one does that here.

You left Luang Prabang, a week ago, early in the morning, a bit sad to be leaving the warmth of the home-like atmosphere of your guesthouse, but happy to be making your way to new adventures. You don’t really have set plans anymore and made a quick decision on where to go next. The friends you made around the breakfast table had good ideas. You listened and took good notes. Everyone seemed 20 years younger than you (at least) and maybe they weren’t quite where you were in life, but they had some good ideas. You weren’t ready to head to Vientiane yet but didn’t know where to go next.

Phonsavan is a small town in the highlands of Central Laos. The town is famous for 2 things, the Plain of Jars and for being ground zero for secret U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War. It is in a southeast direction from Luang Prabang and would be your next destination.

Along with 13 others, you crowd into the waiting 10 person minivan, destination Phonsavan. The road climbs quickly into the hills surrounding Luang Prabang. The road is an amazing achievement, winding its way up the lush green hillsides. The recent rain dislodged many rocks from the steep roadside, which now litter the roadway intermittently. The first hour of the 6 hour ride is the worst, switchbacks and hairpins pushing the driver to his limits. The steep climb necessitates turning off the air conditioning and the heat and lack of air quickly takes its effect on the sardine-like passengers. The westerners seem to fair better than the locals, perhaps just covering their car sickness better. Luckily the windows are open as people start to throw up. The ones that aren’t spending time at the window have their heads down and have taken on a noticeable shade of green. As you reach the top of the first set of hills, you make a welcome stop at a well-placed roadhouse with unbelievable views over the valley and road you have recently traversed. Passengers stock up on crackers and chips to help their queasy stomachs. Only the brave or foolhardy grab a bowl of the delicious soup or a plate of spicy Laap, the Lao specialty food.

You arrive in Phonsavan, happy to be done with the ride. There is not much selection to the hotels that line the one main road through town. The town has a look of a dusty border town in any third world country, flashes of wealth and business nestled close to many others just trying to make ends meet. One main street lined with the necessities of travelers, tiny restaurants and small, cheap hotels. You get your hotel for the night, no AC but you don’t need it up this high anyway. You’re starving and you get Indian across the street. The hostess is also the waitress as well as the cook. Her two daughters help serve. It’s surprising good and as authentic as it gets. Phonsavan is your kind of town. Back in the hotel, you find blurry CNN and semi-hot water showers. Despite the long ride, it’s been a good day.

The travel agencies want too much money for a tour of all the Jar sites. You arrange a tuk-tuk to take you to Site 1. It’s the best one and you heard from other travelers that the other sites were hard to get to because of mud caused by the recent rain. The tuk-tuk driver stops at a government agency on the way. No one speaks English and everyone has military type uniforms on. You’re not really sure why you’re here. They ask for your passport and fill out several pieces of paper. An official from the back comes out of his office and asks you where you are from and what your birthday is. He seems satisfied and relates that he has relatives in California. We always say we’re from California; it seems everyone has a relative there. He stamps several pieces of paper and gives them to the driver. No charge, so maybe all is well.

The Plain of Jars is a collection of stone containers of unknown origin spread in different areas in the green hills surrounding the high plain area around Phonsavan. Probably burial containers from an earlier civilization.Perhaps celebratory wine jugs of some giant warriors who ruled the area in the past, if you believe the legends. The jars are strewn in many locations across the plains, most areas off limits due to un-exploded ordinance (UXO) still active more than 40 years after the war, known as the American War locally. America dropped more bombs over a 9 year period on this area of Laos than they did on Japan and Germany combined during World War II.

Back in town that night, you find a bar to watch a video about the Secret War in Laos. The video is banned in Laos and the bar owners late father is a featured interviewee. The U.S. secretly bombed Laos from 1964 to 1973. Half way through the movie the power in the town goes out. Candles get lit and the guitars come out and no one seems to miss a beat. The guitar gets passed between the Lao’s. Everyone seems to be able to play something, mostly American songs. The beer starts flowing pretty well and someone has just lit a joint. There’s not a light lit in town, but the party is going good where you are and you’re happy you found the right place to be when the lights went out. You’ve got a bus to catch in the morning and you head back to the hotel before it gets too crazy.

The next morning, you’re back on the bus again. This time destined for Vang Vieng. Backpacker Central for Laos.You pass through several small villages not far out of town. It’s the poorest towns you’ve seen in Asia so far. Woven palm sides on the houses. The houses are braced by wobbly pilings driven in to the steep cliffs along the roadside. Outdoor shower areas from the one water source in town. Chickens, dogs and pigs running loose everywhere. The driver uses his horn to clear the way as best as he can. Lots of little kids playing on the road, women with tiny babies watching from wooden steps nearby. Everyone seems to be smiling and happy despite the situation. Some houses have outdoor toilets and a satellite dish on the tin roof. It makes you think a lot.

The bus ride seems easier today. Perhaps you’re just used to it or maybe everyone is distracted by the stunning scenery. Once you begin the decent from the plains the road gets faster. The van is less full today and the driver turns the AC on, now that you’re heading downhill. Stunning limestone karsts rise from the valley you are descending in to. Rising perhaps thousands of feet from the valley floor, some have rock faces and some have tall trees somehow clinging to the few outcrops. It’s stunning and you wish the driver would stop so you could take a picture, but he seems to be in a hurry now. You stop for a quick bite to eat in Kasi at the bottom of the hill, where all the other buses stop.

An hour later you arrive in Vang Vieng. The town is a little rough looking but the scenery is breathtaking. The town is situated on one side of the Nam Song River. Huge mountains line the opposite bank as far as the eye can see. Young people come here to tube the river or explore some of the local caves. They stay closer to the cheaper guesthouses and Don Khang Island where the party goes late every night. The package tourists and older crowd stay at the quieter end of town closer to the old bridge that leads to the cave. The hotels here have manicured lawns and views overlooking the river towards the mountains.

Mostly you stay around the hotel during the hot part of the day, gazing at the misty mountains that don’t clear until mid-afternoon this time of year. Just before the sun drops behind the mountains you cross the old bridge. You get a sense of what the town probably looked like 20 years ago when people first started coming here. You meet Kaz, the owner/chef of the elevated bamboo shack-like restaurant with wooden floors that shake when you walk on them. He strikes up a conversation, telling you about being born in Thailand and growing up in Germany. His restaurant serves both Lao, German and Thai food. It’s a combination that is hard to resist and you decide to combine cultures and order a plate of Schnitzel to go along with another plate of Lapp. A spicy papaya salad sounds strangely complimentary. He brews his own lemon flavored beer which comes frothy and oddly delicious.

Kaz heads to the garden to pick fresh lemongrass, mint, cilantro and other herbs. Green papayas are picked for your early dinner. He brings them by the table to let you smell. The combination is wonderfully fragrant and you’re appetite increases. A few minutes later he returns with the most tender Schnitzel you’ve ever had. No two Laap dishes are the same in Laos, but Kaz’s is unique and perhaps the best you’ve tasted. He tells you his recipe, but swears you to secrecy. More people start to show up and it’s soon time to head back across the bridge toward town.

You hang around Vang Vieng for a couple of days enjoying the view when it’s not raining. Mostly just making your way into town for a bite to eat. It’s fun to listen to the backpackers swapping stories about river adventures or just trying to clear their heads from a late night. You make easy reservations for an onward bus to Vientiane the next day. The road will be flat and fast and should only take a few hours in the morning.

You arrive before noon the next day in Vientiane. After checking out of the hot hotel, you did some quick shuffling and grabbed a tuk-tuk to a nice remodeled Colonial Hotel in the center of town. It’s all dark wood, black and white tiled floors and ceiling fans. It nicely creates the French ambience that you were hoping more of the town would look like. The old days are certainly gone from Vientiane, though. The stores look modern. The people dress western and you realize the old days are probably gone now. It’s a nice town filled with young educated people. There are a few temples to see and some beautiful wide boulevards just off downtown that lead past the government offices, around a small version of the Arc de Triomphe and finally ending up at the Pha That Luang, the national symbol of Laos.

As you gaze across the Mekong, you realize it’s time to head home and end your day. You’ve been in Laos for 17 days, but it seems a lot longer. Everything slows down in Laos. Perhaps you cross the river back to Thailand soon. Perhaps you use the remaining time on your visa to spend a little time in Southern Laos. You already have a visa for the one country you haven’t visited in Southeast Asia. It’s kind of burning a hole in your passport. Maybe for today you just want to finish your beer and enjoy the sunset over the Mekong. It’s Laos and decisions don’t have to be made quickly here.

Additional photos below
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8th July 2013

The drive to Phonsaven sounded horrible. You've had many interesting experiences and they seem to continue. When we were in Laos we didn't have much interest in the Plain of Jars but now I wish we had seen them. We enjoyed our time in Laos. We were their during the boat festival and it was extraordinary.
8th July 2013

No I didn't do all those things...
but wish I had...except the ride to Phonsavan. Interesting use of the third person. Great pictures!
9th July 2013
Plain of Jars

Makes you wonder. Interesting you were not advised a definitive reason for their existence. Would have taken considerable skill & effort to hollow the stones out.

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