29th December – 6th January
The second day of our three day bus marathon back to Laos starts at 5:30am. We’re cold and bleary eyed after an uncomfortable nights sleep on a particularly hard and lumpy Vietnamese mattress.
It’s only two hours to the border from Dien Bien Phu, most of which we cover in darkness. The border crossing at Tay Trang is one of the quietest and most remote we’ve passed through, lying deep in heavily forested mountains a long way from any real civilization.
As we leave Vietnamese soil, a young, rather smug customs official sidles up to us and says “In Laos, no tarmac like this. Roads very bumpy!” He bounces up and down on the spot, accentuating his point and highlighting his own country’s highway superiority.
We politely rebuff him and remind him that the Vietnamese roads we’ve spent the last two days on aren’t much to boast about…
The friendlier side of Asia
He’s right, though – northern Laotian roads are terrible. They are horribly bumpy, dirt track affairs which are still impassable in the winter, despite renewed effort by the ubiquitous Chinese road building companies.
It’s nice to be back in Laos though. The pace of life in this country is far slower than elsewhere in south-east Asia and its relaxed and good natured people are a world away from the harsh and often abrupt intensity of the Vietnamese.
Our bus stoically ploughs on, following the meandering, contour hugging dirt track through jungle, remote little villages, pretty valleys and areas of countryside scarred by generations of slash and burn agriculture.
Eventually, nine hours after setting off in Vietnam, we reach a road-head of sorts at Muang Khua. The sludgy brown yet highly spirited Nam Ou River glides over the road – there’s no way across here in a wheeled vehicle (the cable-tug system appears out of action) so this, it would appear, is the end of the line.
We lug our bags into a small and overcrowded longtail boat and are whisked along with the other passengers the 30 metres or so across the river to the main town.
We’re still nine hours and two bus journeys from Luang Prabang so we decide to make the most of our (relatively) early arrival into Muang Khua and push on in another local bus to Udomxai, three hours further south, before nightfall. Luck is on our side for once and there is a bus leaving in 15 minutes… as always, it’s full, but there’s space! We sit on our bags in the back row of the 30 year old minibus sardine style, five abreast.
It’s dark when we arrive in Udomxai, but it’s a dreary, Chinese trading town so we don’t feel like we’re missing out. Having enjoyed our first meal back in Laos (an immeasurable improvement on last night) we go to bed early, relaxed that we’re just a straightforward six hours back to Luang Prabang and our car.
Luang Prabang, at last
Our final long distance local bus is possibly our least comfortable, compounded by the poor local girl in front of us, who’s stomach finds the winding roads too much and decides to eject it’s contents over the floor of the bus, just two hours in…
Never mind. We’re now in Luang Prabang, Laos’s most glorious and relaxing town, in time for lunch and in good order for tomorrow night’s New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Luang Prabang essentially consists of four parallel streets on narrow spit of land between the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The peaceful, truck-free streets are lined with charming French colonial houses and endless frangipani trees, punctuated with dozens (34 in total) of ancient and colourful wats (monasteries).
Saffron-robed monks are everywhere and dozens of little boutique bars and restaurants calmly cater to the tourists – for once here is a touristy spot that has retained all of its charm and relaxed air.
Even better, our car is ready – Ivan and his manager Aye have come up trumps and their friendly local garage have successfully replaced our cylinder head – and despite having to arrange all the parts to be bussed up from Thailand over Christmas, the whole job costs less than half what we’d expect to pay in the UK. Everything seems rosy again!
New Year’s Eve
We’ve arranged to meet up with one of Charlie’s old work mates from Macquarie, Andrew (now another itinerant victim of the recession) and his fiancée Catherine, to celebrate NYE.
Old City drinking habits die hard and despite Luang Prabang’s tranquil, almost soporific atmosphere we see in the New Year in good style, on the wrong end of a decent blend of cocktails, beer, wine and champagne.
The live band playing at the local’s street party make absolutely no concessions to melody and their enthusiastic singing gets more dreadful as the night wears on, yet we still manage to give them a good lesson in rock’n’roll dancing. Judging by the numbers of photos being taken of us, we think they appreciated it!
But the highlight of the evening is the amazing sight of hundreds of paper lanterns, candles wired beneath their bases, being lit and floated into the night, rising serenely skywards and gently illuminating the night sky.
New Year’s Day is, unsurprisingly, pretty low key. After a late breakfast, the four of us decide that the most we’re up to will be a gentle boat trip up the Mekong for an hour or so, ostensibly to look at some caves upstream but really just to idle away the afternoon doing not a lot…
It doesn’t start quite as planned. Our friendly boatman isn’t quite the ‘man of the river’ he thinks he is and within two minutes of casting off we are grounded on one of the Mekong’s many sandbanks that lurk invisibly in the dry season shallows.
He can’t free the boat himself, so Charlie and Andrew have to offer assistance, much to the amusement of the girls. Old rugby skills are put to good use and a quick ‘scrum down’ ensures our little boat is soon floating freely in the water.
But that’s where it all goes wrong – both Charlie and Andrew, even less familiar with the ways of the river, forget that the sandbank on which they are standing will disappear within a few steps… as they walk round the side of the boat, both disappear into suddenly bottomless murky water, with ‘Roadrunner’ style expressions on their faces, legs invisibly spinning…
It’s hilarious for the girls, although makes for rather a damp trip for boys. The rest of the trip passes without incident, the highlight being the journey itself rather than the unremarkable Buddhist caves upstream.
Another night to remember
Ivan has very kindly invited us to have supper with him at The Apsara tonight. Still weary and by no means fully recovered from the night before, we leave Andrew and Catherine to their own devices and head down to The Apsara for 8.30pm, late enough to ensure that Ivan’s supper rush-hour should have passed.
Dinner is a delightful culinary experience, made more so by the company of Ivan and his charming and glamorous partner, Lumphong (apols sp.!). The evening rush hasn’t finished, so Ivan darts to and fro ensuring everything is running smoothly.
He’s been here for eight years, but it seems it’s still hard to get the little things right. “After eight years, I still can’t get my bloody napkins laundered on time!” he jokes, as a late influx of diners has his waiters scurrying around in search of clean linen.
After a bottle of excellent Riesling we are beginning to perk up – which is a relief: Ivan’s partner has been roped in to organising the 50th birthday party of a high-flying local luminary – the party is tonight, and will soon be in full swing. Lumphong apologizes that she must leave us early, but asks Ivan to bring us along later on – it seems that invitations are fairly open!
After a nightcap we head to the party – Ivan on his scooter and us following in the car. Drink-driving out here is almost de rigueur – apparently the worst that will happen if stopped by the police is a polite scolding and instructions to ‘wait at the side of the road until you feel better…’ In fact, there’s so little traffic, it’s almost immaterial, especially when we start driving on the left hand side on the way home…
When we arrive, the party is in full swing.
It is being held at a new, yet to be opened chic hotel on the other side of town, and is crammed with a startlingly eclectic mix: a handful of ex-pats (including an energetic young French lesbian couple), the remnants of the Laotian royal family (now living a low profile life in Luang Prabang since their grand-parents were deposed in 1975), a handful of transvestite dancers specially invited for extra spice (our second transvestite experience in two days, following our recent entertaining haircuts!), and finally numerous well-oiled, glamorous locals getting stuck in to the mulled wine and the dancing.
The French DJ is playing 80’s classics and the swimming pool has already claimed one fully clothed victim. It’s quite a night…
The Plain of Jars
Needless to say, we feel even worse in the morning. Luckily, we’d given ourselves another day here, and a gentle cycle round town followed by serious comfort food is all we can manage.
The following day, we head south east with Andrew and Catherine to Phonsavan, home to Laos’ most mysterious attraction.
Stretched over half a dozen sites on the scorched and dusty red earth of the 1,100 metre high Phonsavan plateau are around 1,000 enormous stone jars, each between one and two metres tall, each carved from a single lump of rock. They generally occur in groups and are reckoned to be around 2,000 years old, but to this day no-one has a clue as to their original use.
Several theories exist – the more rational suggest that they may have been sarcophagi, or possibly food storage (there are a handful of stone lids to be found near the jars), or maybe used for some religious purposes.
But ultimately nobody knows, and given they don’t contain any ancient material that may provide clues, it’s unlikely anybody will ever conclusively find out. It’s rather fun when the mystery hasn’t been revealed.
The Secret War
Phonsavan holds one other claim to fame. It is the second most heavily bombed province in Laos, which itself is, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in the world.
Between 1964 and 1973, the USA (despite having signed a treaty promising to keep Laos out of the Vietnam War) secretly dropped 2,093,100 tons of bombs on Laos in over half a million separate sorties on the country.
The rationale behind this extraordinary, and at the time totally covert, campaign was simple – to destroy the Pathet Lao communist movement and try to stop the Laos communists assisting the ‘Viet Cong’.
It didn’t work, but it did result in around one third of the country’s 2.1 million population becoming internal refugees. No-one knows how many died, but to this date ‘bombies’ (unexploded cluster bomblets) still kill some 60 people per year, mainly farmers and children, and maim many more.
Much of the farmland here and in southern Laos remains dangerous and unusable, ensuring that villages are restricted in the quantity of crops they can grow and poverty remains inescapable.
Whilst we are here, we spend some time learning about a British based group, MAG (Mines Advisory Group) which has been clearing UXO (unexploded ordinance) in Laos for 16 years.
As well as clearing mines and bombs, they are training local recruits (around 1/3 women) to carry out bomb disposal work, thus speeding up the process and giving the locals a sense of self-empowerment about their own future, in addition to a decent salary.
Of all the good causes we’ve seen on our travels, this organisation is extraordinary in our eyes – little known back home, working tirelessly in incredibly remote parts of the world (including Angola and Sudan) in permanently dangerous situations.
We’re lucky (or unlucky?) enough to witness one of the local teams going about their work here. In a small town not far from Phonsavan, we see a MAG truck parked up, its inhabitants carefully digging up a patch of soil underneath someone’s garden fence, of all places.
Eventually, up comes a foot-long bomb fragment – safe, but a stark indicator that stuff like this is simply strewn all over the place in these regions.
Needless to say, we keep off-roading to a minimum on our way south-west towards Vang Vieng.