It took five months of paperwork before we had all the approvals and two days to get into China, but it only took one hour to get out of China and after 300 meters we came across a sign that said “Sabaidee to Laos”, followed in English by “Welcome to Laos”. We organized a visa, paid our insurance, got the carnet signed and off we went back into the free world once again. No more guide, no more permits, full Internet and Facebook again. Only 53km to our first stop in Laos, Luang Nam Tha and a guest house where we could camp inside the compound, use electricity to recharge the truck batteries and use a small shower, which was a real treat after 4 weeks bush camping. This guest house (Zuela) was right in the middle of town and opposite the Night Markets. After 4 weeks of bush camping, living with an extra guest (our minder) and having no fridge in the front, we needed a few days R & R and we had to reorganize a few things. We wanted to hire motorbikes to explore the remote villages in the area and take a boat up the river. Coming further south, the weather has also started to get a lot warmer and much more humid. We got rid of our Chinese Yuan and we now deal in Kip (8000 equals 1 AUD or E 0.75) so we became instant millionaires when we went to the ATM and received 1 million Kip for 125 AUD or 100 Euro. The first night we went out for dinner and spent the huge amount of 50,000 kip or $7.00 or E 5.00 on dinner for 2 and soft drink and 2 beers! During the next week we explored the National Protected Area (NPA) and the many remote villages in the mountain areas. We crossed rivers, drove through rubber plantations and camped near the Mekong River.
The population of this area is also supposed to have the most minority ethnic groups of people in Laos. These include the Lahu people who originated in Southern China and who now live across Myanmar-Thailand and Northern Laos; and the Akha tribe which is a mix of Tibetan and Burmese speaking ethnic group. The Akha settlements are marked by their towering swings and gates. These gates mark the boundary between the human world and the outside, called “the natural world”. As visitors we are not allowed to touch the gates. The Len Tan tribe mainly from southern China live along the rivers and streams. Then there is the Khmu tribe, one of the larger ethnic groups in Northern Laos. Plus, the Hmong tribe, who mainly have their villages on top of a mountain. They are known for their knowledge of the forest. The Yao tribe, originally from China, bringing cultural practices and beliefs based on Taoism mixed with animism and ancestor worship. The Tai-Lue tribe live in beautiful stilted houses with long sloping roofs. The people practice Theravada Buddhism and every village has a Buddhist temple and monks. And then there is the Lolo tribe, the smallest minority in the Muang Sing district. We visited the That Phoum Pouk Stupa, which was built in 1628 but destroyed in 1966 by American bombers and the new Stupa was rebuilt in 2003 next to the ancient ruins. We were never aware of the secret war conducted by the Americans in Laos between 1966 and 1973. Laos was declared a neutral country in 1954, however this did not stop the Americans, and specifically the CIA, conducting activities in Laos. To quote a local, “Every nine minutes devastating carpet bombing with devastating effect was carried out. In total, over 500,000 bombing runs and over 2 million tons of ordnance were dropped; equivalent to 500 kg for every person living in Laos.” Today the legacy of this bombing is still there for everyone to see, with over 78 million unexploded bombs littering the country.
We are told the British Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is doing the clearance but to date they have only scratched the surface. Every year, cluster bombs still come to the surface in many areas presenting a real life-threatening environment for the local communities as they go about their daily lives. Once we left Luang Nam Tha, we drove through the highlands with picturesque valleys, pristine waterfalls and stunning views.
The road however was a real problem and the landslides and slippery red clay, and mud made driving a challenge. We arrived in Nong Kiao, a small rustic town surrounded by thick rainforest and high mountains. This village and the surrounding area has some of the best scenery in Laos with vertical limestone cliffs and offers spectacular panoramic views. The road in was carved out of the mountains passing many villages, but again landslides made the going slow. In fact, the road to the caves was completely blocked. From here there are no roads crossing the mountains hence we had no choice but to hire a boat and follow the river north. The Nam Ou River is the only way villages north of here can be reached. Finding a campsite on the river was impossible as the muddy bank and very narrow tracks did not look very safe. Hence, we opted for a local house where the owners allowed us to stay in their backyard. Next morning, we took the local boat to Muang Ngoi Neua and followed the river north. This area is not even accessible by motorbike. We returned early in the evening, had dinner and made it an early night.
On a few occasions we woke up to rain, something we didn`t really want in this area of poor roads and many landslides. From Nong Kiao, we had to back-track 30 km to Pakmon where we turned south to Luang Prabang, one of the Laos tourist hot spots. It is a UNESCO world heritage city.
Here we parked right on the Mekong river and attracted a lot of visitors; both local and international backpackers. But unfortunately, we were sent away from here by local police and we had to find a spot out of town. We decided to use the GPS coordinates given to us by Kym Bolton who camped at a guest house in town. We received a friendly welcome and we could stay in the car park for $3 AUD or E 2.50 including the use of a shower and toilet.
The city is famous for its monasteries, sounds of temple bells and drums, huge caves and the former royal palace of the kingdom of a million elephants and the sleepy Mekong River. Since leaving Mongolia, it was also the first town we encountered that was full of tourists and the usual NGO do- gooders. The motor-bike hire (in Laos this is a scooter) was something we really enjoyed so we decided to hire one for 2 days to explore the area. Up north, we only paid $10 AUD, but here, with all the Tourists and NGOs, prices are double i.e. $20 AUD per day. So was the food and so were the boat trips. Nevertheless, we still had a substantial meal for below $15 AUD for 2 including drinks and desert and a lunch for 0.75 cents. So, we are not complaining but we rather prefer the areas away from the tourist trail where you can enjoy the real Laos; and with driving our own truck, this is what we are able to do. In the three weeks in Laos and so far, we think Laos is the highlight of all the South-East countries we have visited in the past 40 years. The Northern part that we visited last week has been saved from the mass tourist trail. This relatively undeveloped nation is located between rugged mountains and the fertile low lands of the Mekong, and is touched by both European and Asian cultures. Vang Vieng the most “un-Laosish” place you could ever imagine. Eradicated are the quaint, street lanes and gold temples of Luang Prabang, to make way for “buy one get one free” bucket, bars, massage parlours and restaurants, all claiming to sell “The Biggest All-Day English Breakfast in Asia”. Having said this, it is the Backpacker hotspot of Laos. The Backpacker market has proven to be recession proof. Despite all this, Vang Vien is in a very nice area. We camped in a car park of a newly opened Hotel. For us one night in Vang Vien was enough and we left the next morning to visit Vientiane, 150 km south, the capital city of Laos.
We were told that in the 70s Vientiane brothels were cleaner than hotels, marijuana was cheaper than tobacco and opium easier to find than a cold beer. No More. Brothels are now illegal; no more weed on the market, but I can confirm there is plenty of cold Lao beer. We were surprised to see so many hippies or would-be hippies and we also noticed a lot of girls with older men. This sleepy capital is changing rapidly with all the foreign aid workers and NGOs. Most of them seem to be money hungry and living the good life. Vientiane is a town where temples and religious affiliations still blend with the rural foundations of the city. But the many bars and massage parlours give us a strange feeling that another Bangkok is in the making. Aussie Bars, Belgium beer cafes and German steak houses are popping up. Even an Australian Club with swimming pool. Our camp spot for the night was in the middle of the old town on the waterfront in a car park overlooking the Mekong River. It was very convenient and close to the key places in the city. Internet just across the road. We do not really like cities so after we serviced our truck we left and made our way to central Laos and the Laos/ Vietnamese border town of Lak Sao. But before leaving Vientiane we visited an enterprise called COPE which is short for Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise. This is a must for every visitor to Laos and see what a war can do to a country, even 38 years on. We can’t believe President Nixon’s claim that there were no US troops in Laos. After we left Vientiane, our first stop was the Tham Konglor Cave in Ban Na Hin. Here we hired a 12ft wooden long boat with driver and guide. The 7km long cave has a shallow river flowing through it and it is pitch black. At first, we couldn’t see a thing. Approximately half way in we got out of the boat and walked past beautiful stalagmites, and the best thing of all was we were the only people around, apart from our boat driver and guide. The cave is massive, cathedral like in some sections, with huge caverns up to 100 meters high and 100 meters wide. When we arrived at the other side, we visited the local village before returning the same way as we came.
SOUTH & SOUTH-EAST LAOS
From here we wanted to follow the Ho Chi Min Trail turning off from road 1E to Route 12 towards the border with Vietnam. We tried to follow the trail, but with heavy rain and bad roads we had no choice but to turn around. Laos is embracing tourism but away from the tourist areas the infrastructure is very poor to none existent.
Every afternoon we enjoyed a huge storm, but mornings and late afternoons were perfect as we drove through pretty villages, passing row upon row of wooden houses built on stilts, each village has many young children playing on the road side and all seem so full of life, waving and smiling as we pass. We are driving up the winding roads through beautiful green mountainous terrain; we pass the tiniest of villages consisting of a few wooden huts clustered together along the dusty road. We found nice bush camps on the way and near Hue we had our own little waterfall allowing us to have a real long powerful shower. We tried the shortcut to Sepone, but half way the navigator had her say. “Robert, turn around. we are not going to drive over this bridge!” Clary also reminded me of what we had been told about the many unexploded cluster bombs lying around in this area. After a very long day and more detours we decided that it was not a good decision to continue as we were travelling on our own and having been already bogged three times, it was time to turn around and head back to Mahaxa. Route 9 was only 50km away, but we had to turn around again. It is at times like this that you like to drive with a few other cars. Unfortunately, we drove solo in a 7500kg truck on roads and bridges only designed to carry 2500kg. It would also be easier to drive a land cruiser with lockers and mates to back you up when you need it. It was very late before we arrived in Thakhek. After speaking to some locals, we heard of a pretty good track to Saravane (catching up around 50km south of where we turned around yesterday) and turning off route 13 at Bounxe. Unfortunately, we only covered 185km in one day and we ended up in Sepone. Again, and again we were warned not to walk outside maintained tracks and roads and not to venture into the bush away from the marked tracks, due to the many unexploded bombs still in the area. Every day in Laos someone is killed by an unexploded bomb. We tried to follow the direction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Ho Chi Min Trail was a transport logistic system during the Vietnam War. It ran North to South mainly through Laos and Cambodia. It was not a single route but rather a complex maze of routes and paths. Today most are overgrown as they are in deep forest, but some main tracks are still drivable and accessible from Route 9 going North or South. We were warned not to venture into the craters left behind by air bombing as many unexploded bombs remain in the area. More than 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos during the period 1964 and 1973. This included 270 million sub munitions from cluster bombs. This amount gives Laos the unwanted distinction of being the most heavily bombed and cluster munitions effected nation on Earth. More than 30% of the cluster bombs did not explode and remain lethal today. Also, extensive ground battles left artillery and mortar shells, mines, rockets and other items of unexploded ordnance (UXO) littering the country. This limits agricultural production and expansion and the villagers` ability to achieve sustainable livelihoods. Many of the poor and vulnerable groups in remote rural communities face the dilemma of risking life and limb when tampering with unexploded ordnance. From Sepong, the route takes us through what I can only describe as a land lost in time, people in the villages living in the most basic of small wooden huts, women carrying heavy baskets on their back and groups of children playing out near the roadside. We didn`t spot any shops or schools here either. As we progress, the roads deteriorate, becoming corrugated with many potholes, thus reducing our speed considerably. Nevertheless, we let the tyres down slightly and pushed on. A mere nine arduous hours of driving on winding roads through the mountains left us completely fatigued, and on more than one occasion we found ourselves lost. This area was heavenly bombed during the Vietnam war even though Laos had been declared a neutral nation. However, we are told that this did not stop the Americans, and specifically the CIA conducting activities in the region. The locals tell us that the US carried out a devastating carpet bombing campaign where a plane load of bombs was dropped every nine minutes. In total, over half a million bombing runs and over two million tons of ordnance were dropped. Today the legacy of this bombing is still in existence; over 78 million unexploded bombs litter the country.
While the British Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is doing a great job carrying out clearance, to date they have barely scratched the surface. With each year that goes by, cluster bombs are still coming to the surface in many areas, presenting a life-threatening situation for the locals. It was another long and exhausting day before we arrived in Salavan. The town was disappointing, so we decided to push on to Tad Lo swimming hole. Unfortunately, we missed the UXO offices and display which were much better than the one we visited in Sekong. After 3 days of mud, sweat and rain and no showers, we needed a soak and how nice it was to dive into the water just before it got dark. That night we had dinner for 5.40 AUD including 2 x 750ml bottles of Lao beer. Next was the Bolaven plateau, an area filled with waterfalls and coffee plantations.
After having dropped to 180 meters above sea level, it was now back to climbing up to 1300 meters to a nice area with lots of waterfalls and a cooler climate. Pakse became an overnight stop and we found a place to camp in the hospital car park right in the middle of town. Next morning, we visited Vat Phu, a religious complex of Khmer architecture and Hindu religion. It was hot and unfortunately not many of the buildings were still standing.
That same afternoon we continued further south and camped the night in the small fishing village of Nakusan. Si Phan Don, also known as the 4000 islands, is an archipelago of sandbars situated at the southern tip of Laos, surrounded by the expanse of the Mekong river and famed for the near extinct Irrawaddy dolphins. It also boasts the largest waterfall in SE Asia by volume, the Khone Phapheng waterfall. Due to the Mekong being in full flood at the time of our visit and nearly 14 km wide, we were told that spotting the Irrawaddy Dolphin would be very difficult.
The same for the Somphamit (Liphi) waterfall. Put off by the many disappointing reports about Khong Island and Don Ket, we decided not to take the ferry across. Instead, we enjoyed a lazy afternoon in Nakasan reading, walking the village and tried to find an internet cafe but with no luck. After Northern and Eastern Laos, we were a little disappointed in the southern part of Laos, so we pushed on and once we arrived in Kratie (Cambodia) we would probably have a better chance seeing the Irrawaddy Dolphins.