Korb jai, korb jai; thank you lovely Laos for the last couple of weeks. And here they are, our Laos photos.
I write this last Lao post just across the border in the Thai city of Khon Kaen. This is not a place we planned to go, as we had plotted our route straight from the border town of Nong Khai to Phetchabun, where friends live and we are picking up some packages with supplies sent from The Netherlands. More about this surprise route diversion to Khon Kaen later.
Birthday bash by the Mekong
This blog post is quite a bit later than planned anyway. We had four days of downtime in Vientiane, which I was going to use to write. Instead we met up with half of our cycling friends from Tajikistan and had a great time catching up on recent travels, hugging, reminiscing about the Pamir Highway days and drinking. We celebrated Cyrils birthday in style, with hamburgers, a little snickers cake with candles, a pink dolphin balloon and knocking back Beerlao, cocktails and tequila shots. This was our first big night out since our friend Corrie took us out for wine in Batumi and we really can not hold our liquor anymore.. Cue monumental hangover. I gave Cyril a machete for his birthday, so from now on we will have immaculately trimmed camping spots, and a novel and intimidating way to clean our dirty finger nails.
Luang Prabang to Vientiane
We celebrate a pretty relaxed New Years Eve in Luang Prabang, listening to reggae music by a camp fire in a tropical beer garden. In the morning all is quiet in Luang Prabang and we feel some of the old backwater vibe as we remember it before the hordes arrive.
We are happy to leave this overly touristy place and get back into rural Laos. Luang Prabang has abundant historical charm but it comes at a price, since it is overrun with tourists.
The N13 stretch from Luang Prabang heading South is very hilly, but ultimately doable with a fully loaded bike and enough gears. We never have to push the bikes, even if we sometimes hit double digit percentages.
At the moment there is unrest in this area, with Hmong rebels being persecuted by the Lao army. This means that camping is not possible, as army men will find you at night and escort you to the nearest guesthouse. We don’t even try to camp, after hearing the stories about night-time army visits from other cyclists. On the first day out of Luang Prabang we have to hitchhike a short distance to make it to a guesthouse in the tiny hilltop village of Kieuw Kacham. There is a thick fog and rain when we roll in so we are happy with our simple room and hot shower. In this small village we find no less than five other cyclists. The jaded Luang Prabang glam-packers are soon forgotten, and we share our nerdy stories of cycling life, routes and equipment over dinner.
In the morning it is still a bit foggy. During the day it is beautiful, sunny and peaceful, with no sense of unsafety apart from the occasional friendly man on a moped with an AK-47 slung over the shoulder. Since they wear shorts and flip-flops it is hard to tell if they are rebels or army, but later on we hear they are definitely army people. The official story is that they are sent out to this area to help out with the harvest. Could this be a classic case of hitting two birds with one stone? Surveillance of dissident Hmong villages while at the same time creating goodwill by helping out with the harvest. It is a complicated issue and the end of this conflict between Hmong and Lao army is not in sight.
Plains of jars, plains of bombs
We make a very last minute decision to do a little non-cycling detour. Both of us have been in Laos before, and we both didn’t go to Phonsavan, home to the mysterious Plains of Jars, and infamous for being one of the most heavily bombed areas in the most heavily bombed country on the planet. After half a day of cycling uphill we leave our bikes at a roadside guesthouse and hop on a bus for the four hour journey to Phonsavan, where we spend one night. The day after we rent a motorbike to explore the area.
The Plains of Jars are exactly that: more than 50 sites on the high plain around Phonsavan, scattered with massive limestone jars. There are three fields that have been cleared of unexploded bombs and are safe to visit.
The fact that most fields are still contaminated with unexploded ordnance (or UXO) is the reason that this site is not yet recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site. Strangely enough nobody knows how old the jars are or which culture made them. They are about the height of a human being and most likely used for burial, but even this is not really sure. The sites are beautiful, like large works of land art, where human-made objects actually enhance the natural surroundings. The sites are dotted with deep bomb craters, now overgrown with grass and trees. Even these ugly human interventions add something meaningful to the special landscape. They tell of the recent atrocities that this land has endured, in the Secret War that was waged here by the USA. Some of the jars have split because of the blast of nearby bombs. The Mine Advisory Group created paths with markers that indicate where it is safe to walk: the red side has not been cleared yet, the white side is safe.
We visit two of the sites and one nearby town. Muang Khoun bears witness to the Secret War with a beautiful buddha statue that survived the bombing, even if the temple around it was completely destroyed.
Two stupas from the golden Lan Xang era also survive. They are in bad shape but the ruins are beautiful nonetheless.
Back in Phonsavan we have an hour to spare before our bus departs, and we spend some time in a local centre for UXO survivors. It is a place where you can buy products made by people who can no longer work on their farm as they have been blinded or otherwise maimed by bombs. The victims are often children who are playing in the fields or forests, or farmers who are working their fields or looking for scrap metal to sell. A blackboard keeps a tally of the victims in Phonsavan of this year, and their photos and stories are on the wall for us to read. We were very impressed by the work done in the centre, especially by and for the kids. It is possible to donate and help improve the quality of life of the victims here.
Kasi hot springs
After our short but intense visit to Phonsavan we start the return trip to our bicycles. A deep mist envelopes the mountains. The minibus driver crawls along at about 20kph because the road is hardly visible. It is very quiet so we are half asleep, half terrified, making for an interesting state of mind. Around midnight, three hours later than planned, we arrive in the village where we left our bicycles. It is dark and misty, but thankfully our guesthouse is the only place that is lit up and open. The dank basement room we stagger into looks like a palace to us and we sleep a deep and dreamless sleep.
The day starts with rain but it clears up soon enough. It is only a short ride to the Kasi hot springs resort which we had heard about from other cyclists. Since we are still tired from our mad dash to Phonsavan and back again we decide to stop there and take half a rest day. The term resort is quite grand for what it is: right by the roadside are a few simple wooden huts next to a pool that is warmed up by a hot spring, surrounded by limestone hills and green. Across the road is a small restaurant. Perfect! We spend the rest of the day soaking in the hot sulphuric water and chatting to Lao visitors. Life as a bicycle traveler is so hard!
Kasi is a small town 20km further down the road and nothing to write home about.
Vang Vieng without the party
Well rested we roll into Vang Vieng, a small town infamous for its crazy party scene. I was here 16 years ago, when it was still only one street and one bar that provided ‘tubing’: floating down the Nam Song river while drinking. I loved it then as it was just me and maybe 10 other backpackers. In the following years things went downhill as many cafes and guesthouses opened and the town experienced a stampede of backpackers looking to party. Every year a few ‘tubers’ died so eventually the government did a halfhearted attempt at cracking down on the endless party.
Vang Vieng now tries to rebrand itself as an eco tourist destination, with the caves in the surrounding limestone cliffs as the main attraction.
We stay 3km North of the city center, putting up our tent on a peaceful organic mulberry farm with great half-outdoor showers and a restaurant overlooking the river. Tubers (mostly Korean tour groups these days) are still launching into the river here everyday, but when you walk around town it feels a bit sad. The party is definitely over, even if people are still looking for it and some cafes are still offering ‘happy’ pizza. We spend one day cycling and hiking the surrounding hills, finding the weird and wonderful caves that are a bit too far away for most and therefor less popular. Some caves are quite deep, with huge stalactite formations. There are no signs or lights, hardly any other tourists, just us and our little headlights.
In two fairly easy days we ride to Vientiane. The N13 gets busier so we pick a smaller road to take us into town. We really enjoyed exploring Vang Vieng but again it is great to leave a touristy place and be back on the rural roads again, where people smile and wave at us and no one tries to overcharge us.
Closer to Vientiane the road gets busier again, but as far as capital cities go it is a breeze. The traffic consists of mostly mopeds and there is enough space for us. Vientiane has a nice mix of charmingly crumbling low-rise Soviet and colonial architecture and a lot of shiny wats. All wats date from after 1827, since the city was destroyed in a war with Thailand in that year. They spared only one wat, one that was built in Thai style. The city is small and pretty laid back. A perfect place to meet up with friends and celebrate a birthday.
We organise our visum for Thailand here as well. Thai visa used to be very simple, but until very recent you only got two weeks when you cross into the country via a land border. We secure a 60 day visum free of charge, as the fees are waived until end of February. Who knows what the situation will be after that.
Sawasdee kaa, Prathet Thai!
After we recover from our epic hangover it is time to hug goodbye to our Pamir pedaller friends, wave goodbye to Laos and cross the Friendship Bridge into Thailand. Here the culture shock is only minor, as Laos and Northern Thailand are culturally very close. There are still notable differences: Thailand is obviously wealthier, with a lot more traffic because everybody has a shiny new car or pick-up. Another difference that we never anticipated was the stray dogs. There are packs of dogs that sleep during the day but at night they roam the streets and they can be quite vicious. The dogs in Laos never so much as barked at us, let alone give chase. Here we have to keep the pepper spray close at hand again.
The Thai town on the other side of the Friendship Bridge in Nong Khai. A lovely place bordering the Mekong, with a fascinating park nearby. Sala Keoku is full of buddhist/hindu follies, built in 1978 by a local visionary and his followers. The huge statues are made of concrete and are very expressive, in a style unlike any other Thai or Lao buddha statue. We cannot read the Thai texts but it is obvious that these sculptures are telling unique fantasies and stories.
It is great to be back in Thailand again. I used to live here 15 years ago, and for a while I worked as an English teacher in Phetchabun. This town is our first goal, and after a night in Nong Khai we set off with an aim to get there in about two to three days. The road is flat, the weather is great, we are flying along. We talk about aiming to break our personal record of 136km in one day. This should be a breeze.
Then I hear the most horrible metallic breaking and scraping sound behind me, and that was that as far as breaking records went.
Cyrils chain fell off the largest chain ring, blocking the wheel and snapping the rear derailleur clean off. This also bent the frame and snapped a spoke. It is incredible how fast it happens: one second we are flying along, the next we are stranded with no way to fix the bike in sight. We hitchhike to Udon Thani, the nearest town. A local welder gets the frame more or less back in shape. From there we take a bus to Khon Kaen where Cyril finds the Good Bike shop. We worry that the frame might be damaged beyond repair but luckily this is not the case. The bike shop is indeed a good bike shop. They have a new derailleur and within two hours Cyril is back on the bike again. Enormous relief washes away the stress from the last two days worrying about the bicycle.
We are good to get back on the road again, on our way to my old home town Phetchabun.