7th – 14th January
Waiting for the weather
On our original itinerary (planned from the comfort of our warm and cosy London flat), we envisaged entering China on 8th January and Mongolia on 15th February.
We expected Mongolia to be cold, maybe -20°C at night and barely above freezing during the day, but as we’ve got closer to this ‘point of no return’ (our itinerary in China being set in stone) we’ve subsequently learnt that -20°C is, actually, a little optimistic: apparently -60°C at night is more likely!
Added to this, it appears that everything outside the capital, Ulaanbaatur, goes into shutdown until April, meaning the chances of finding accommodation outside the capital, in a country almost the size of Western Europe, is effectively nil.
Sleeping in the car at -20°C is one thing – we have the kit for that. But -60°C suddenly sounds pretty scary and we don’t fancy ‘doing a Scott’.
So, sensibly (for once!) we put our dates back and are now anticipating entering China on February 25th – assuming the reams of paperwork that are required to authorise this relatively innocuous and understandable date change, three months in advance, can be processed by the overwhelmingly inefficient and bureaucratic Chinese authorities.
We now have six weeks longer than expected in south-east Asia, most of which we’re planning on spending in Laos (with a jaunt into north-east Thailand at some point).
It’s pretty cold (granted, not by recent UK standards…) in the north of the country at this time of year, so given our newly acquired slower schedule, we decide to head south and make the most of Laos’ hugely varied climate.
We leave Phonsavanh on a chilly, misty morning and retrace our steps to the main north-south highway.
The morning’s excitement is provided by two things: (i) a fresh choice of music thanks to Andrew & Catherine’s iPod – we spend the journey listening (and in Nina’s case singing) to ‘Australia’s Greatest Hits from the 80’s’; and (ii) coming across a local sawngthaew (pick-up style minibus) that has managed to embed itself in an deep concrete gulley, despite being on one of the few dead straight sections of road…
The sawngthaew’s passengers, mainly women heading for the market, are all unscathed but clucking crossly at the driver. Astoundingly, their cargo (mainly eggs, of all things) is undamaged, despite the truck lying at a 45 degree angle in the ditch.
Luckily, our tow rope is easily up to the task and we have them out in no time, to a chorus of kop-chais (thank yous) and a bag of oranges for our efforts.
Costa del Laos
Our good deed done for the day, we head on to the dubiously popular town of Vang Vieng.
There are some travellers with whom it is a pleasure to spend time with, and others who are really worth avoiding. Luckily in Laos, the latter tend to concentrate themselves in a handful of locations and are thus easily avoided.
The picturesque, karst-studded Vang Vieng, halfway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, seems to hold most of them, enticed by the town’s plethora of thumping bars serving cheap booze, ‘happy shakes’ and showing endless re-runs of Friends, and ‘tubing’.
Sounds like hell on earth? Actually it’s not that bad – the paralytic and sunburnt Australians, Kiwis and Brits making fools of themselves are an attraction in their own right and almost as entertaining to watch as the surrounding river, cliffs, caves and karsts are beautiful.
We spend a few days here, kayaking, caving and enjoying the scenery, intermittently tutting at drunken backpackers and generally feeling like geeky old farts.
From Vang Vieng we drive four hours south to Vientiane, the capital of the country yet home to only 400,000 people. We arrive on a Friday and spend three days, yet even at the weekend, in the centre, in high season, the place is still surprisingly quiet and relaxed.
Despite this aura of peace, Vientiane is surely home to some of the world’s more peculiar parking regulations.
After our first night in a decent hotel on one of the main streets, we find that the car has been clamped. It’s the flimsiest clamp we’ve ever seen, but a clamp nonetheless…
It’s a one way street and about 15 cars an hour drive down here. It’s hardly Piccadilly Circus! Bemused, we go in search of a policeman and find one at the end of the street. A friendly local hotel manager acts as translator for us, and, on asking why we’ve been clamped, it all becomes clear.
We’ve parked on the left hand side of the street, on a Saturday.
“Today, not allowed to park on this side!” reports the hotel manager.
“What do mean ‘today’?” asks Charlie. “And where’s the sign?!” Stupid question…
After more conferring, the manager reports back. “Now, you must park on right side, then tomorrow, left side” he points to a road sign displaying two parallel vertical lines. This, apparently, is meant to tell you which side of the road you should park on each day.
“So yesterday, I was on the right side of the road?” “Yes, but today it change, so now you are on wrong side, so you must pay a fine. You must give policeman your licence”.
“This is ridiculous” It’s pretty hard to keep one’s cool in these circumstances, but it is important. “How much is the fine?”
More conferring. “80,000 kip [about £7] to release now. Otherwise you must go to police station and hand over licence”.
Almost on principle, we’re not prepared to support such blatant profiteering. Not even the Russians could dream up such avaricious chicanery. “OK, tell him we’ll pay 20,000, at most” we reply.
Finally we agree upon 50,000 kip and as we accompany the policeman to the car, Charlie makes a show of writing down his name from his name badge in our ever handy black book.
It seems to do the trick, and having unlocked and removed the clamp, he sidles off without another word, or his 50,000 kip. 1-0…
Andrew and Catherine are excellent and easy company and we’ve decided to carry on touring together for another week or so, exploring more remote parts of central Laos.
Leaving Vientiane, we follow the Mekong east and south before leaving the main road at Vieng Kham and driving east through densely forested, arid hills, pockmarked with craggy limestone outcrops, cliffs and the occasional red dust coated village.
Despite the apparent remoteness of the area, there’s not a lot of wildlife to be found.
Laotians are voracious game-eaters (game here constitutes anything that moves, including flying foxes, snakes, civets, gibbons, lizards, barking deer, tigers and everything with wings) – this never used to be a problem in a country with a tiny population, but now there are over five million mouths to feed and there’s not much left.
In the four weeks that we’ve been here so far, barring a solitary stoat dashing across a road we have yet to see a single wild mammal alive.
The main attraction in this area, aside from the general scenery itself, is the unusual river cave at Kong Lor, created by a small watercourse that runs right through the centre of an enormous limestone monolith.
It’s 7.5km long and, unsurprisingly, the locals didn’t dare navigate the entire length of the cave until the 1990’s. As we enter the cave, on a small, leaking motorised dugout, it feels like we’re descending the River Styx into Hades.
Our torches our pathetic and we have to rely on the light given off by our two boatmen’s head-torches, which, mercifully, are strong enough for them to navigate by.
Traversing this subterranean waterway makes a remarkable journey; each meander harbours a new sight – round one corner amazing stalactites descend from the ceiling and pierce the current, round another the cave opens into a vast underground chamber, the ceiling so high as to be barely visible even by the boatmen’s lights. Through other bends, the ceiling is so low we almost have to duck to avoid being knocked out.
It’s not the most comfortable journey in the world, nor the safest – despite our driver and navigator’s obvious experience they still run aground five times and have to use swift evasive action (and a large stick) to stop us smacking into a cliff-face that suddenly appears out of nowhere. Each grounding requires us to hop out, into the pitch black water, and tentatively wade through the darkness until they find a part of the river deep enough to re-float their vessel.
Nevertheless, it’s jolly good fun, although we were still relieved to see daylight at the other side…
A dead duck?
We spend a very peaceful night in a bamboo and thatch guesthouse in a local village near the caves. The setting is picture perfect and uber-relaxing but the highlight is an hour or so playing with the village’s numerous children – a friendly, feisty bunch who are keen to show us (amongst other things) their excellent slingshot skills.
All is good clean fun until one of them takes aim at a passing duck – presumably owned by a local – and fires. It’s a bloody good shot and much to our mortified disbelief, the duck plunges forward on its beak, seemingly stone dead.
Thankfully, Catherine (she really must become a vet!) uses her compassionate animal husbandry skills on the wretched animal and nurses it back to life.
A few minutes later we all breathe a sigh of relief as the stunned animal waddles confusedly back to its friends. Could’ve been an embarrassing incident, not that the children were concerned…
South-east Asia’s battery
Leaving the caves behind, we head 100km further east, past the ugly, modern town of Lak Sao and spend another night in a local village. This time, the scenery is very different.
Until 20 years ago, Lak Sao used to be home to a large number of tigers, dense and untouched forest and little else. The town didn’t exist and the region’s human population numbered around seven (it’s now 30,000).
But, like elsewhere in Laos, the government has succumbed to lure of easy foreign cash, attainable by the construction of hydro-electric dams and the subsequent sale of electricity to the energy-hungry Vietnamese and Chinese.
It’s hard to blame them, but driving through the remnants of this savaged ecosystem is a pretty disturbing, eerie affair. This particular dam was finished roughly a year ago but its planning started nearly 20 years ago. Since then, the area has been fair game to (illegal) loggers ($40 million worth of legal logging in 1996 alone) and poachers.
The dam itself is situated within a very wide, shallow valley, meaning much of it is less than 15 feet deep. Consequently, its efficiency as a hydroelectric plant is limited by inadequate vertical pressure, whilst its environmental impact is massive.
The road cuts right across the reservoir on a causeway. The whole area is a silent, tree filled swamp – except that most of the trees have long since drowned and died, forming a vast timber graveyard.
At least twenty or so similar projects litter Laos’s countryside and the effect is the same, or worse, at all of them. Rather depressing, but it’s difficult to preach from the comfort of our Western lifestyles…
Our last day with Andrew and Catherine is 12th January – a swift few days’ jaunt having turned into a fun-filled fortnight.
We celebrate in the old, sleepy, French regional capital of Savannakhet, still home to a handful of quaint colonial era buildings complete with wooden louvred windows and arched coach houses.
There’s not a great deal of choice about where to celebrate, it has to be said.
But with an uncanny skill we sniff out just about the only decent French restaurant south of the capital, and go to town on terrific beef bourguignon, chicken chasseur, numerous amuse bouches and some excellent claret, all for a bargain $8 per head.
As we said before, old habits die hard…