LAOS Dec 12-28
The previous border crossing from Chiang Khong, Thailand into Laos changed on the day I crossed. Instead of crossing the Mekong River by boat, the route changed to the New Bridge several kilometers south. After paying the $42 fee (Canadians pay more than any other country), I ended up in a money exchange line full of 30 people belonging to a Kontiki travel group. I’ve never wanted to travel in this way and I guess they don’t mind paying significantly more to have security and their entire trip completely organized. It certainly removes the adventure and “spice” from ones trip. They are tourists, not travelers. I still made it to the bus depot in Huay Xai in time to catch the bus NE to Luang Namtha to do some trekking.
Instead of the usual 4 hours, our crazy driver had a death-wish and made it in three on the windy, mountainous road. Fortunately the road was excellent as China has spent considerable money improving transportation infrastructure in Laos. Logging clear cuts scarred most hillsides. Rubber plantations are a common crop that have replaced opium poppy growing.
Northern Laos and Nam Ha National Protected Area is supposedly the trekking mecca of SE Asia and trekking has almost mythical status with the backpacker crowd. When the closest road is rarely more than a few kilometers away in most of Europe, any chance to see nature is a sure draw. There were many trekking companies lining the main drag In Luang Namtha and I found it difficult to judge the offerings. Each company has its own trail offering one to three-day walking options with jungle camping, homestays and the possibility of kayaking mixed in. As a single, I needed to find a group to join and finally found a three-day trek with two others. I did not understand what a jungle camp was.
The first day was auspiciously Friday the thirteenth. I don’t believe in superstitions like this, but was wondering how things would turn out after it rained heavily all night. The trail had several trees fallen across it and the down hill sections were incredibly treacherous with no cut steps. We all fell several times getting covered with mud and wrenching different parts of my body. Amazingly the guides with their simple plastic shoes and no socks seemed to have no problems. After crossing a small creek several times, we finally reached our jungle camp – a simple lean-to with a banana leaf roof and floor. After downing a small forest of banana trees, the roof and floor were completely reinforced (and this was advertised as an ecotrek). It was dark at 5:30, it started to rain, we had supper, and were in our sleeping bags by seven. With no ground sheets, little pools of water started to collect under me and I put my rain jacket under to try to keep dry. The rain was incessantly heavy all night and by 2 AM, I was completely wet as my sleeping bag soaked up the never-ending stream of water like a sponge. The roof worked but the floor didn’t. Down looses most of its insulating value when wet and I was cold by 4. Not light till 6:30, it was the most uncomfortable sleeping experience of my life. I have spent 12 hours on trains and buses with no possibility of sleep, but at least I was warm and dry. All would have been preventable with a simple sheet of plastic, but this was never mentioned by the trekking company (Luang Namtha Travel Company – avoid them like the plague).
In the morning the guide was able to get a fire going for a hot breakfast of sticky rice and scrambled eggs. The three of us had a difficult time convincing him that the trek had to be abandoned as everything we had was wet, despite that we were to stay at a dry homestay that night. We basically returned the way we came, now wading through the swollen, chocolate-brown creek. They greatly exaggerate the times given to walking. The quoted 5-7 hours took us 2 1/2. The rain had stopped and we able to rinse all the mud from our packs and shoes in a stream.
The saving graces of the trip were the excellent guide, who prepared superb meals and was able to start a fire miraculously with all the wet wood, and my two hiking companions, a lovely Australian/Dutch couple. I am not sure what the other companies trails were like, but this one went through second-growth forest and there were no big trees. The other draw to a jungle trek is the possibility of seeing wildlife. There was none here other than a fresh water crab the guide let loose in our sleeping area not to be found again, and fireflies.
Back in Luang Nam Tha, it was sunny and I was able to hang all by wet gear to dry before sending to the laundry (they charge by weight and it would have cost a fortune). After sleeping a full 12 hours that night, an unheard of amount for me, I took the whole day off to read, watch TV and write this blog. It rained cats and dogs all day. For a tropical place, northern Laos has been incredibly cold. I have had the opportunity to wear all the warm clothes I bought (and had regretted bringing till now. They only good way to stay warm in my room is with my down jacket on.
No money was refunded and I was unable to convince the tour operator about his negligence in at least advising us to bring a groundsheet of some kind. He did take my sleeping bag home to put in his drier. If you do trek, make sure to inquire about the sleeping facilities and what their definition of a jungle camp is. Not quite as romantic as it sounds. At least there were no mosquitoes.
The next day I met a Spanish couple who had done our trip in reverse. After a night in a dry hut in a village, they spent their next night in our jungle camp with an identical experience. Unbelievably, they had a worse time than us. We were to meet them on the trail between the jungle camp and village and give them our pot to cook with. Besides getting completely soaked, they had no warm food other than some frogs and a crayfish that were cooked directly over the fire. We had a good laugh at our horrible experiences and both vowed to slag the company on Trip Advisor. These unbelievably bad travel adventures are the ones you always remember and are often the ones you talk about with other travelers.
Luang Namtha has a pack of old, very short women dressed in traditional garb of some ethnic group. They accost every tourist at every opportunity trying to sell jewelry and don’t take no thank you for an answer. They hang around forever and can be incredible pests. Their only saving grace is that they are also the only dealers for drugs, mostly opium and marijuana. This may sound rude, but the only effective way to deal with them is simply ignore them. They get pissed off, cuss you in their language and leave fairly quickly. They also hang around the night market and mooch food from tourists. They will even take your chicken bones and pick them clean!
Travel clinics at home advise to take anti-malarial drugs whenever traveling in SE Asia. Information I read on the internet (where else would you get reliable medical advice?), advised that it was only necessary on the mountainous Thai/Myanmar/Laos border areas. I haven’t met anyone consistently taking anything and haven’t seen a mosquito in any of these areas. I really don’t even give the problem a thought. I haven’t applied repellent yet on the trip, but I don’t react to bites. Nobody is getting malaria or dengue fever.
As I had no desire to trek again (and there is little else to do in Luang Namtha), I caught the public day bus south to my next destination Luang Prabang. Most people coming from the north reach Luang Prabang by slow boat from Huay Xai by slow boat, a two-day/one night trip down the Mekong River. The bus left an hour and half late, and after changing tires and getting gas, we were guaranteed to arrive in the dark after the 10 hour bus ride. The entire trip was through mountainous terrain. The initial road was as good as any at home (due to the Chinese influence in the north), but soon lost its shoulders. Eventually it narrowed to less than two lanes and then there was more dirt than pavement, but not many pot holes. We went over a mountain pass, and eventually on the way down, full pavement returned. Most of the forest was logged on the green to-the-top mountains. Tiny collections of farm houses butt right on the road. Built of wood with often thatch roofs, many are raised off the ground on stilts. They show the abject poverty of rural Laos people. Backed by steep ravines, the kids play next to the road – I saw a three old girl standing right next to the pavement playing with a small machete. Family rules are slightly more lax than our over the top North American parents’. I’m sure there is some median ground and feel some nostalgia for my free-range upbringing. Again it was cold and I wore a long sleeve top, light fleece and jacket to be comfortable. We stopped occasionally for food. The open air food stands often sold meat on wood skewers but I can’t imagine stuff less appetizing. Almost everyone settled for fruit and junk food.
Luang Prabang (pop 70,000) is a Unesco World Heritage Site with its mix of 33 Buddhist temples and colonial architecture. With only 50 hotels three years ago, there are now 250, many of them mid-range and higher, lining the banks of the river. The Old Quarter is built on a peninsula one kilometer long by 300m wide between the Mekong and Nam Khang Rivers. The unseasonal three days of rain have swollen the rivers to their max inundating low crops and destroying the two bamboo bridges that normally cross the Nam khang in the dry season. We arrived late, easily found a room and visited the night food stalls offering all sorts of cheap food.
The Royal Palace Museum was built in 1904 as the royal family home and converted into a museum after the revolution in 1975. Of interest were the royal bedrooms and all the gifts from several foreign countries. The car collection had two Lincoln Continentals and an Edsel. Wat Xieng Thong is the jewel of the temples. Built in 1560, the chapel has low sweeping roofs and richly decorated wood columns. The highlight is a tree-of-life mosaic on the rear wall. Surrounding buildings are covered with lovely glass mosaics depicting animals, boats, people and village scenes, something that is typically Lao. One hundred meter high Pho Si hill has a temple on the summit and 360 degree views. A cave shrine, Buddhas footprint and many Buddha images line the alternate path down. Several teenage monks were fun to talk to with their good English. Novices till age 20, many enter the monastery at age 9 or 10, often as the only way to obtain an excellent free education. Streams of monks walk the streets around 6AM as the village feeds them.
Every night, two city blocks are taken up by a massive night market. Tents are set up, electricity connected, and all their merchandise is set out each night to be removed and repeated every night. It is quite unbelievable.
Pak Ou Caves are 35kms upriver on the Mekong. These two limestone caves contain hundreds of Buddha images. The upstream trip took about 2 hours and on the way we stopped at a small village, basically a large market. One building contained several large glass jars full of endangered animals, each with its own species – snakes, lizards, bear paws and other unrecognized critters. They were destined for the Chinese natural medicine market. This is one small example of how the Chinese are raping the earth of its endangered species for spurious “health remedies”. The Mekong was in high flood after the record, unseasonal rainfall. The caves are hardly worth the effort and this tour is more about the river voyage.
In the afternoon, I took another tour to Kuang Si Falls, about a half an hour drive out of Luang Prabang. The high multi-tiered falls cascade over limestone formations that form large draperies of rock into menthol-blue pools. After the main falls, the river continues over multiple terraces and pools where most people swam. The color of the water and limestone formations result from the high mineralization in the water. The river above the falls is apparently only five kms long. I walked up the right side of the falls, crossed the shallow river and walked down the other side. This is a well worthwhile trip and possible the highlight of the Luang Prabang area. I have been to a similar area with even more deeply colored water in Havasu Canyon in northern Arizona.
I then had an eight-hour drive east to Phonsavan. The road crossed a very rugged set of mountains with steep, deep canyons. After the mountains, the landscape was of low foothills in a much drier climate. The main reason to come here is the Plain of Jars, a huge area of Xieng Khuang province scattered with thousands of huge sandstone jars. The culture that carved them is unknown, but they are thought to have originated 1500-2500 years ago. Even their purpose is uncertain and the best guess is that to be funerary as bones have been discovered in some. Storage of rice wine and salt has also been suggested. There are 58 known sites, only 7 have been cleared of mines, and tourists regularly visit the three largest, all included in the tour I went on. Site 1 is the biggest and most easily accessible. It has 250 jars from 600kg to the biggest known weighing six tons. Some have rims and most were thought to have lids, but only one has the lid still on. The few other lids were carved with concentric circles and had men or animals carved in the center. This site also had many bomb craters and trenches. Site 2 has 90 jars all on two adjacent hilltops and a nearby Russian tank. Site 3 has 150 jars. They all look like graveyards. The trails to the sites are marked with small cement blocks labelled MAG or Mining Advisory Group, the British organization actively demining the country since the 1990s.
With little other reason to stay here, I caught a sleeper bus south to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I thought I had seen every type of bus before, but this one was unusual. Most sleeper buses have two tiers of bunks with singles on one side and doubles on the other. Here there was a narrow aisle and two narrow double bunks, which meant that you would be sleeping side by side with a complete stranger. They were also only five feet long! Lao people are short. The bus drivers assistant initially put me with an old guy in a berth different from the one on my ticket. There was no way I could have slept here and I went to my assigned berth above the drivers area. With no aisle but less length, I was able to lie diagonally and spread out more. Big fluffy pillows and a thin blanket are provided, I became very cold and eventually got out my sleeping bag. This all worked fine for a reasonable night’s sleep.
Vang Vieng is between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. There are caves to explore and other adventure trips but the main raison d’être is the tubing on the Nam Ou River and the party scene. Prior to two years ago, the river was lined with 20 bars and crossed with zip lines. Alcohol, marijuana and mushroom shakes were imbibed voraciously. Many young tourists died by drowning of breaking their necks when diving into the shallow water. High water levels produced dangerous waters. The police and town clamped down and now only 3 bars are open and the drug use was more controlled. I didn’t go and simply road the bus through town.
Vientiane (pop 300,000) is a cosmopolitan mix of Soviet-, Sino- and Franco-styled architecture on the Mekong River across the border from Thailand. When Laos became a French protectorate at the end of the 19th century, Vientiane was named the capital, was rebuilt and became one of the classic Indochinese cities along with Phnom Penh and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).
COPE is a local organization that supplies artificial limbs, and occupational and physical therapy to Laos citizens injured from the detonation of UXOs (unexploded ordnance). It also carefully chronicles the devastation of the Secret War waged by the US in Laos and Cambodia. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita in history despite being declared in 1962 by the Geneva Convention as a neutral country. Over the 9 years of the Vietnam war from 1964-1973, 580,344 USA bombing missions dropped 2 million tons or 27 million bombs on Laos. That is one every eight minutes for the nine years. In 1963, the CIA established a secret airbase at Long Tieng in North Laos and most of the bombing missions originated from there. Many of the bombs were cluster bombs containing up to 680 fist-sized bombs that were dispersed over as much as three football fields and thus present a horrendous clean-up problem. During the war, ground fighting only took place south of the 17th parallel and supplies entered South Vietnam from the north via the many Ho Chi Minh Trails that went through Laos (the war was originally between communist South Vietnamese fighting South Vietnamese).Caves were used as homes, bomb shelters, hospitals and meeting rooms during the war. Unfortunately 30% or 80 million bombs didn’t detonate and they remain scattered over 87,000 sq. km of Laos. Farming is a dangerous activity. 20,000 Lao have been maimed or killed since the war ended, 13,500 of those lost limbs – 40% were children. There are still 100 casualties per year. Scrap metal can obtain $1-4/kg and is dug up by children and farmers. They use the bombs to make planters, boats, doors, whiskey cookers, ladders, sickles and knives – anything where metal has a use. Often houses are built on stilts made from bombs. As a result children get confused and don’t recognize them as dangerous. A hectare (100x100m) takes 10 days to demine – it will take forever. Living with this appalling legacy has become an intrinsic part of daily life. Since the British Mines Advisory Group (MAG) began clearance work in 1994, only a tiny percentage have been removed. This was the Secret War the US waged in Laos as they carpet bombed most of eastern Laos. By the early 1960s and the onset of the Vietnam War, Vientiane was teeming with CIA agents, madcap Ravens (maverick US Special Ops pilots) and Russian spies).
The hostel I stayed in offered a city tour. Buddha Park, located 25km outside Vientiane was built in 1958 by a yogi-priest-shaman, who merged Hindu and Buddhist images into a bizarre but creative bunch of statues. One of the most unusual structures is a huge round building with three interior floors each with many images and a mammoth tree coming out of the top. Pha That Luang is a another large gold stupa and several surrounding temples. Patuxai is Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe replica commemorating the Lao who died in pre-revolutionary wars. Built with money donated by the USA intended for the construction of an airport, it is referred to as the “vertical runway”. Inside stairs lead up to the roof for panoramic views of the city. Haw Pha Kaew is a royal temple originally built to house the famed Emerald Buddha but is now used as a national museum of religious art. It has massive ornately carved stone columns and the best collection of Buddhist images in Laos.
For dinner that night, I went to Ray’s Grill. Owned by a guy from Seattle who has been in the same location for 27 years, this is one of the best burgers I have had in my life.
After Vientiane, I was onwards to south Laos and decided to take a side trip to Kong Lo Cave, about 1 1/2 hour off the main highway in a magnificent karst landscape. Huge limestone cliffs were interspersed with ridges of jagged pinnacles and spires. The bus even stopped at a viewpoint of the best formations. The mouth of the cave was used for protection in the Silent War, but it was not realized that it had an entrance on the other side of the mountain until a duck was seen exiting the cave. The 7.5km underground river was first navigated in 1995 and the first motorized trip waited till 2002 to occur. Lights were installed in one small section of the cave with the best formations in 2008, so it is a very new attraction. We rented a small longtail boat for $6 each. The two guides each had powerful headlights that made our own torches unnecessary. After about one km, we walked over a large sand dune area and through a good area of stalagmites, stalactites, columns and a few draperies (this is the lit part), got back in the boat and continued. A few areas were shallow and there were two small rapids that required the guides to get out and pull us across. The roof varied from 5-20m high and only had a few formations. On the other side, the river continues about a km to a small village where we had a drink before returning the same way we came. There is another short channel that bypasses the lit area. After 3 hours, I felt that we had just seen a spectacle that deserves to be on the 7 Natural Wonders of the World List – easily the best seen thing I saw in Laos. Wear flip-flops for the wading, but warm clothing is unnecessary. A must-see.
Christmas day was spent on a 9 hour truck and then bus ride south to the city of Pakse. From this town, travelers explore the Bolevan Plateau, a coffee and tea growing area with waterfalls and ethnic village visits. It was then 2 hours in a minivan and a short boat ride to Don Det in the Four Thousand Islands. This was to be a few days off before heading on to Cambodia – or as the young traveler would say, some “chill” time. The Mekong River is massive here and braids through thousands of islands, most tiny and tree covered. The three islands with villages here are Don Knong, Don Khon (both quiet) and Don Det (supposedly the party town). It was quiet too with a bunch of guest houses and restaurants lining dusty streets surrounded by branches of the river. I stayed on the sunset side and did little for 2 days. The only real activity is renting a bike to ride through endless rice paddies to some waterfalls. I only went to Sophamit Falls and missed Khone Phapheng – supposedly the largest water fall by Volume in SE Asia. I met the usual bunch of entertaining young travelers. With two young Dutch doctors, we ate both nights at Little Eden, getting our fill of great Western food. Lao cuisine is OK but I have a weakness for chicken in mushroom sauce and mashed potatoes. Laos is plumbing challenged – the sink in my room drained onto the floor producing puddles of tooth paste laden water in the low spots where you stood.