One of the first thoughts on entering Laos is the sudden slowing of pace in the people, traffic and general approach to life. The currency however is mind boggling as there are 8000 kip to the dollar so every purchase involves working back from kip to dollar to pound. Whenever you go to the ATM you withdraw the maximum one million kip and become an instant millionaire. Vientiane itself was settled by the French as an important hub of Indochina and traces of this history endure everywhere, whether it is the whiff of fresh baked baguettes or the romantic shuttered villas. There are quality spas, boutique hotels, high end shops, tree lined boulevards and tangerine robed monks. Much of the old Soviet, Chinese, Thai and French architecture is still intact.
Yet despite all this I found the whole place distinctly dull and lacking in charm. It was full of wannabe tourists and the French - ahhhh!!! Its only redeeming quality was the food and the stunning sunsets from the Mekong looking over the river to Thailand.
There is much to do just nothing I wanted to do; this is a place for the older generation and this was obvious from seeing many octogenarian tourists around. On the plus side I met a Canadian called Judi who was a lawyer but has traveled around for two years and she gave me some good tips. She had devoted an entire article on her blog to a yellow whistle I had bought myself before I flew out. It cost $2 from Amazon but I paid $20 in postage fees and felt a bit stupid for doing so. Essentially it emits a very high pitched noise for when you may be in trouble. Judi told me she was once cornered by four angry teeth gnashing monkeys in Burma and she blew the whistle as hard as she could and they fled instantly in total terror. If only I knew this when I was attacked by those dogs in Thailand! I also had dinner with Cassandra who is a nomad type living in Thailand and then met Janna, a German girl traveling around. So I was not short of company. One of the worst timings of my life occurred here however. I went to a truly horrendous bar to watch Newcastle play Arsenal late in the day. After Arsenal scored in the opening minute my heart sank, then another goal and another until we were 4-0 down at half time! I left in disgust and went to bed, only to wake the next morning and read that Newcastle scored four goals in the second half and it was described as one of the most dramatic premiership games ever - lovely. The yin to this yan was luckily stumbling upon Chelsea playing Liverpool after returning to the guesthouse. This is a huge match so I was very happy, that was until I went to the toilet and the only goal of the game was scored; Mike if you are reading this I am sure you sides are splitting (whenever I went to the toilet during a football match in the flat in Maida Vale a goal was scored. It was almost like 'Dom this game needs a goal, pop to the toilet will you'). I then lost my room key and slept on the sofa in reception as I didn't want to wake the boy sleeping in his mosquito net on the floor
After several days in Vientiane I decided to head north for Luang Prabang, the spiritual capital of Laos. My first mistake was to put my bags in the boot of the lower class bus at the bus station, when I noticed there was also a 'vip' bus I quickly moved my bags and avoided disaster. The journey would start at 8pm and take roughly 10 hours. Being unable to ever sleep on public transport I bought a cheap bottle of Korean saki and befriended a Japanese woman at the station and we agreed to sit together, as luck would have it our actual ticket numbers were seats 21 and 22. Nine hours, several stops and thousands of bends later we arrived at Luang Prabang. Being exhausted due to lack of sleep I went straight to my booked guesthouse and slept a few hours and then spent the rest of the day getting my bearings and seeing a quite astonishing sunset from the Nam Ou river. The town lies on a peninsular at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, lush with palm trees and dense tropical foliage in a mountainous landscape.
Janna and myself had agreed to meet in the town the next day and it was nice to have some company for the next few days. Luang Prabang proved itself to be a real breath of fresh air after Vientiane with its riverside setting
, lantern lit streets, Indochinese architecture and ready supply of French and Asian cuisine. Many regard this city as the Pearl of the Orient (although I have heard this said of Phnom Penh, Hanoi and others) There are boutique hotels, wine bars, trendy bars, great restaurants and top draw spas. Despite this I was content to eat an achingly dull Laos buffet for 10000 kip or just over $1 every night. Janna and I decided to spend one of the days at the Kuang Si waterfalls. 32 kms from the city they are a sight for sore eyes with a very high multi tiered waterfall tumbling over limestone formations into the menthol green pools below.
People often say how beautiful a certain place was they visited but this was truly inspiring. The waterfall is set in a beautifully lush and well kept public park which also is home to a bear sanctuary.
After making the often steep ascent we reached the very top of the waterfall and had to waid through the stream at the top to get to the other side and get down. At the bottom I was sweating from head to foot and plunged into the turquoise water in one of the bigger pools to cool off. Being German Janna refrained. There was also a rope attached to a tree near the pool where you could swing high in the air and drop into the waters. On the way back down we saw some hippies dancing to some Indian songs in a circle and it was unclear whether they were on drugs or just deluded - never a hippy shall I be. Later in the day we wandered around the huge night market which is open from 5 to 10pm and has over a hundred individual stalls, despite this I could not find a whiskey flask for those often arduous bus and boat journeys.
So we determined to see the centre piece of the city, which is the Phou Si Stupa and is the most common image of the town in guide book and postcards etc.
This golden stupa is located at the top of Phou Si, which is the prominent hill in the center of the city. It is forested with Frangipani and Hibiscus and provides magnificent views across the town from all directions. There are also some interesting Buddha images on the steps down to the southern exit. Laos iconography has been described as similar to Mikey Mouse in its style; fat and cherubic statues.
Although I am not a cultural buff it was obvious this town was full of outstanding culture and it was nice to get an insight into traditional Lao culture. The people of the town carry out rituals and celebrations that have remained unchanged for centuries. One in particular being the sunrise alms giving to the monks whereby every day the monks walk through town and are offered gifts from the members of the community outside their homes. Did I say how good Laos beer is?
Because traveling in Lao is so slow and my Vietnamese visa started on 20th February I really had to plan my route meticulously. Therefore I chose to head north to a scenic village called Nong Khiaw, head west to Muang Xai to visit the stupendous Chom Ong cave system and then take a painful west to east journey to get to the Vietnamese border. Due to the horrible bus journey Janna and I decided to take a slow boat to Nong Khiaw for a seven hour journey up the beautiful Nam Ou river, and this was a beautiful experience. The boat itself was tiny, with twelve little red seats big enough only for a toddler, yet this seemed to add to the charm. However, we had to be careful to tread carefully from one seat to another or the boat would likely capsize
. The Nam Ou is a shallow river reaching five feet maximum depth on this stretch of the river and we had to stop three times and get out due to the boat being too heavy to traverse these sections. However it was nice to stretch your legs and go to the toilet at these times, although one stop involved a foot crunching thirty minute walk wadding upstream where pebbles are everywhere in the water. The river itself winds it way through lush forests with mountains in the background and occasional fishing villages
. There was an endless supply of cute kids waving at you from the river banks as you passed.
Children in Asia are so adorable that I even find myself sometimes finding myself feeling broody, who would have thought that. After the scheduled seven hours we arrived at Nong Khiaw, a beautifully placed village sandwiched between soaring karsts and the wide waters of the Nam Ou with an attractive bridge connecting the two sides of the village.
It is quiet and a perfect place to unwind. You can trek or visit a nearby cave but I decided to rest, eat well and have a sauna and massage everyday; knowing I would have several painful days of journeys ahead of me.
The woman who ran the Nam Houn guesthouse
was a lovely lady and had her husband at hand, two little boys and was about to conceive another any day soon. She always had a huge smile and we ate several family meals with her and her family at night. It was a memorable stay and we ended up staying there five nights. On one of these days a middle aged Englishman arrived at the guesthouse, but he looked familiar from somewhere. He looked very organised with pen and paper and tried to make some inquiry's to the father of the guesthouse, who nervously looked at me as if to say 'help me out'. So I explained to this man the room rates and other information he required. He was fascinated when I told him I was a professional poker player and then the conversation came around to how I had found word of mouth and guidebooks in this area of limited use. 'In particular I found Lonely Planet to be rubbish' I said, to which he replied laughing 'That's funny because I am the Laos author for Lonely Planet'. I knew I recognised his face and it was from the photo in the Lonely Planet guidebook! I then backtracked a little and said I understood they had limited space to write with and things change all the time so it was a tough task and being a nice guy he was not in the least offended. He asked how the book could be improved as he was visiting Laos to update the December 2009 edition and that the new edition would go to press in January 2012. 'Cut down on all the history and beef up the facts and info on accommodation, transport etc as this is what people need. If you want to know the history you can buy a book. Oh yes and make a nice mention of this guesthouse'. We smiled and I bumped into him several times again in the village and exchanged more stories.
Feeling relaxed and well fed I decided to move onto a town called Oudomxay so that I could see the Chom Ong Caves. Janna decided to stay and I was pretty relieved as although she was pleasant enough she tended to be negative in her outlook and totally humorless; I wanted to just move on my own. Four hours later the bus pulled into Oudomxay, a dusty trucker town full of Chinese workers who are currently logging timber in Laos as they have a domestic shortage in China, in return they build bitumen roads for the Laos. It is a charmless place and I went straight to the tourist centre to enquire about visiting the caves. Unfortunately no one was in town as this area is little visited and therefore the starting price for one person was close to $100 dollars. After some thought I decided to do it because I had traveled so far and was so interested to see these caves. By the time I returned the booking the office had shut so slightly despondently I made my way to my guesthouse and went to bed early in order to take a long bus journey the next day to Sam Neua in the east. A three hour minibus journey later we arrived at Pak Mong which is the only place from which to travel on to Sam Neua. But it was 2pm and the bus left at 9pm so I had seven hours to kill in deads-ville
. The only tourist I saw was a sallow looking American and his wife who asked me whether they could get eel to eat here. Tired and generally not so fond of the Americans when traveling I replied 'no idea, ask the Chinese'. After walking a mile from the bus station I was sweating like a pig and had not changed clothes that morning in my rush so a shower was a priority. With the power of gesticulations and some very basic Lao I convinced a lady who ran a Chinese restaurant and guesthouse to allow me use of her stone age bathroom and to change with lock and key in a room upstairs for $1.
Clean and refreshed I then recharged my laptop battery in her restaurant, ate some disgusting pork and cabbage soup and watched some dire Chinese tv. Now I was actually looking forward to the bus journey ahead just to get out of this hell hole so I made my way a mile to the bus station. There I saw this amusing sign
The journey was an eleven hour tortuous affair where there were more bends than straight roads, cows in the middle of the road, stop offs to pick up people and a tree which had fallen bang in the middle of one section of the mountain pass. I was the only foreigner on board but felt perfectly at home as the Laos people laughed at everything from me to the fallen tree. Two near crashes later we started climbing steeply and at 6am I saw a little rock telling me it was now 50kms to Sam Neua. With the sunrise the rest of the journey was breathtaking with forested hills cloaked in early morning mist
, sometimes it was as if you were in the sky yourself flying as the mist was so thick and you could just see the mountain peaks above these clouds of mist
. Finally we arrived and I took a one hour tuk tuk ride to Viengxay as I had heard it was beautiful and had some historical caves to see.
It was as if no one visited this whole north eastern area, not a tourist in site
. Whilst this made me happy the lack of infrastructure worried me a little. Another hot walk a mile down the road to a recommended hotel was another disappointment after a man who spoke no English at all showed me around the hotel and my room. Whilst showering I contemplated pulling a runner to escape this prison camp of a hotel which resembled a Soviet era hospital. So I did and found a charming guesthouse a mile away which just happened to be directly opposite the office for information on the caves I wanted to visit. After making some inquiries and lying in a hammock for a while I went to bed at 8pm as I was exhausted. Waking refreshed and alert an Australian, myself and two guides began the tour of the Viengxay Caves. These are a series of caves where the Pathet Lao nationalist movement built a hidden city hide out during the 'Secret War' the Americans fought while the Vietnam conflict was occurring
Because of Laos' geography it was a critical target for the Americans in trying to suppress the Communists efforts in the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Laos used the caves to hide from the US bombing during the Indochina War.There was an audio tour and we shown caves ranging from various party members bedrooms, the Pathet Lao meeting room, a hospital, bakery, emergency bunkers and finally a huge auditorium within a cave which served as an entertainment area for weddings and dancing.
This provided a fascinating historical understanding of the role of the war at these sites and made my journey out to the middle of nowhere worthwhile. Under almost constant bombardment from 1964 to 1973, about 20000 people sheltered in these caves and forests, living mostly under the cover of darkness.
The enjoyment of the tour gave way to the realisation that I was now in a real predicament, as it turned out that my location for entering Vietnam was not as good as I had been led to believe. I was stuck in the middle of nowhere and told that to get the bus to Vietnam I would need to walk a mile or two up the road and catch the bus but the exact location would be a guessing game. However if I got back to Sam Neua I could get the bus from its starting point and would have the use of the internet to make some key flight bookings. Fortunately bartering and resourcefulness have become characteristics I have gained from traveling, and particularly so in Laos. So I managed to grab a ride in the back of a nice comfy four by four which the cave guides used, as they were on their way to Sam Neua.
What a result and obviously I said I would pay them some money for diesel. So now I was exactly where I needed to be and the Aussie guy had the very latest Laos guide (two months old) so I took photos of several of its pages and had all the info I now need to cross to Vietnam. Feeling elated I thought to myself what a topsy turvy time Laos had given me. There had been painful and often wasted journeys, horrible food where you ate just to survive and countless times of complete incommunicado with the language. But above all I thought of the natural beauty of the land
and the grace and warmth of the people and the importance of family to them. These people have literally nothing but they will invite you to sit down and eat with them when you poke your head round a dirt track shop hoping to get some water. It was tough but extremely rewarding. I now head to Hanoi tomorrow to meet two Swedish girls I met in Thailand, should be fun!
After saying goodbye to Oi and Bangkok it was time to hit Laos and so I boarded a plane to Udon Thani in the very north of Thailand. After various additional short bus rides I arrived at the Friendship Bridge border and duly paid my visa fee and agreed a $5 pound taxi fee to Vientiane the capital of Laos and a 30km ride. The excesses of the time I spent in Bangkok meant I was ready to just relax, recover and be frugal in Laos. It was also a good opportunity to really spend some time on my own and think some things through in my head about the future and what routes I could possibly take. So I checked into a guesthouse in the center of town which was clean and had a big bed and decided to stay two or three days there for around $10 a night.