Leaving Laos, Viva Vietnam!

Travelling is about the journey, not just about the destination; as is so often the case, our adventure begins with a journey of note!
Having returned to Pakse from 4000 Islands, it was now time to traverse southern Laos and cross the border into Vietnam. Our bus was due for departure at 5.30AM, and we were going to be crossing the less ‘touristy’ Dansavanh/Lao Bao border (a border that we have since found it out much more popular with smugglers!).

Bleary eyed, we arrived at the departure point and, amongst much chaos and confusion, we were herded onto the bus. This was to be our first experience of the bus that resembles a cattle transporter, with two level seat/bed hybrid accommodations suitable only for people who are 5’8″ or shorter! Having jammed ourselves in, observed that we were the only foreign tourists on board and the only English speakers, the real work on the bus began as they promptly set off about their business collecting the other cargo for the trip; a few hundred weight of rice and sugar that would be piled in amongst us for the entirety of the journey-you couldn’t help but laugh as the walkways in the bus slowly loaded up with various goods to be shipped across the border.

As all of the journeys begin, with pure and unadulterated optimism!

As all of the journeys begin, with pure and unadulterated optimism!

Slowly but surely, apprehension and confusion start to manifest...

Slowly but surely, apprehension and confusion start to manifest…

Ahhhh, here we go, the aisles start to fill up!

Ahhhh, here we go, the aisles start to fill up!

Keep it coming lads, plenty of room to fill the bus up!!

Keep it coming lads, plenty of room to fill the bus up!!

Bus fully loaded, we watched as the last of Laos passed us by and Vietnam loomed ever nearer. Eventually we arrived at the border with the bags of rice and sugar, and were promptly ushered off the bus to negotiate the Visa and passport formalities. It became apparent that all those on the bus with a Laos or Vietnamese passport were being looked after for this part of the process, and so we headed in to face the most difficult of border crossings to date.

With no real idea of what we were supposed to be doing, we entered the border offices and found ourselves in what can best be described as a frenzied maul! It was at this point that it transpired that the Vietnamese do not engage in the art of queuing, and that the general rule of thumb is that it’s every man for themselves. As a pair of very typical Brits, we found this extremely disorienting and could not fathom what was going on. There were no English speakers, people elbowing us out of the way, pushing, shoving and throwing passports with money in at the officials-it was chaos. In no time at all we realised that we were going to have to put up a united front, and so we staked our claim to a spot at the front of the queue and guarded each others backs with ‘necessary force’. The situation was exasperated somewhat by seemingly inert border control staff, they were literally just sat there looking at the hoards of people gathered in front of them. From what we could muster the computer systems were down, and so ensued an uncomfortable stand off until the systems refreshed-and the border control staff lurched into action. Finally our passports were taken to be stamped and Visas checked, and after a little bit of an uncomfortable delay with my passport-we were granted leave of Laos, and formally entered Vietnam….We had made it!
The confusion at the border was not to cease there, during the time in which we were inside, the entire contents of our bus were being unloaded and passed through an x-ray machine outside. With the afore mentioned stock pile of sugar and rice this was not a speedy process, and so we were left mulling around in what we discovered to be no-mans-land. Now we were completely clueless as to our course of action, each time we made movements towards the bus we were barked at in Vietnamese and waved away…To where we did not know. It turns out that we actually needed to walk across the entry point into Vietnam proper, have our passports checked by yet more officials, and wait for the bus to pass through so we could re-embark. After a lot of head scratching and hanging around, we eventually made it back onto the bus and began our journey on Vietnamese soil-to Huế!

We actually arrived around two hours ahead of schedule, quite how that transpired I don’t know-but for sure it was a pleasant surprise.
It is an odd place to start your adventure in Vietnam, usually people head to the either Hanoi in the north, or Ho Chi Minh in the south, but as our start point was southern Laos, we headed to the middle of Vietnam and the city of Huế.

Hurrah!

Hurrah!

It was the capital of Vietnam until 1945, until Emperor Bảo Đại abdicated and the following communist government was established in the northern city of Hanoi. During the fateful Tết Offensive in the Vietnam War, the city suffered considerable damage to many of the grand buildings situated in the central citadel, a monument to the cities illustrious past; not only due to American military bombing, but also during the massacre at Huế committed by the communist forces. Mass killings were carried out by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army during their capture, occupation and subsequent exit from the city.

The killings were perceived as part of a large-scale purge of the social class systems, including anyone ‘pro American forces’. Press reports also exposed South Vietnamese “revenge squads” had been at work in the aftermath of the battle, searching out and executing citizens that had supported the communist occupation.

Today the citadel is undergoing extensive renovations, but still serves as a great sight to spend a day exploring. A walled city 10km squared and with a surrounding moat, the grandeur and opulence of what once lay there is obvious, and is fantastic fodder for an inquisitive imagination. Tales of the various Vietnamese kings and how they conducted their court are told throughout the grounds, they even had teams of eunuchs who were responsible for the administration of communities of concubines… It really was quite the eye opener.

The highest flag mast of them all...Well, in Vietnam anyway

The highest flag mast of them all…Well, in Vietnam anyway

One of the Citadel gateways, and the obligatory Vietnamese fisherman on the moat!

One of the Citadel gateways, and the obligatory Vietnamese fisherman on the moat!

One of the many 'contemplation spots' in the palace

One of the many ‘contemplation spots’ in the palace

One of the many grand walkways in the Forbidden Palace

One of the many grand walkways in the Forbidden Palace

Within a walled city, you have a walled palace! One of the many ornate 'inner gates' within the palace area

Within a walled city, you have a walled palace! One of the many ornate ‘inner gates’ within the palace area

Aside from the Citadel, Hue proved to be a lovely place to expose ourselves to the ways of Vietnam-things to note that will prove to be ever-present:
1. Fantastic food at rock bottom prices.
2. Food markets where you can get any ingredient, dead or alive, fresh or dried
3. ‘North Face’ jackets/bags for sale at ridiculously low prices (just to be clear, they aren’t genuine North Face, but they are extremely high quality copies)
4. Tailors-if you want to get yourself kitted out in some custom made gear, then surely Vietnam is the place to come.
5. Traffic…More specifically-motorbikes! The place is heaving with motorbike traffic, and crossing the road is hilarious! You just have to put your trust in chaos, and all will be well.

Our first Vietnamese market, 'hustle and bustle' doesn't really do it justice!

Our first Vietnamese market, ‘hustle and bustle’ doesn’t really do it justice!

Obviously if you wanna get your teeth fixed, just pop down here and take your pick from the many roadside dental clinics...

Obviously if you wanna get your teeth fixed, just pop down here and take your pick from the many roadside dental clinics…

Traffic....Tremendous!

Traffic….Tremendous!

Motorbike madness!

Motorbike madness!

All in all a great place to begin our Vietnamese venture, and the perfect springboard for our onwards travels-next stop the picture perfect Hoi An, and a reunion with some friends from the UK.

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4000 Islands & Don Det for birthday business

Foolishly we thought that the terrifying bus journeys were behind us, after all, the roads in Southern Laos are pretty much flat and straight. Unfortunately for us this means that minibus drivers are more akin to kamikaze pilots-although with less concern for their personal safety! We thought that we had toughened up to the terrors of road travel, but this journey was something a bit special-it certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that the driver had his phone tucked into his sun visor, and was checking Facebook as we hurtled down the wrong side of the road!
But, as per, things worked out! We got to our destination in one piece and on time-albeit a little shaken and stirred. What better way to begin your birthday week than a six hour minibus ride where you get to see your life flash in front of your eyes on a number of occasions?!

Our travels had taken us South of Pakse to the Mekong Delta, and the area of Laos known as Si Phan Don, or 4000 Islands-a beautiful riverine archipelago set in a lazy winding section of the Mekong river.
There are three main islands that travellers visit, Don Khong, Don Khon and our destination of Don Det.
On arrival in Don Det we were both a little disappointed at first impressions-thinking that this was going to be an island paradise similar to the joys of Koh Jum, our boat arrived in a little harbour and we found ourselves in quite a busy backpacker village. Feeling a little disillusioned, we set about finding somewhere to stay, and the first thing that we started to note as we walked through the village was everyone was smiling at us….People were saying hello, locals and fellow travellers, nods and smiles all round. This is something of an oddity, sometimes you find yourself bumping into other travellers and they will do everything that they can to avoid making eye contact, possibly wanting to avoid the standard introductory chat that you end up sharing with so many (are you travelling or on holiday, how long have you been travelling, where have you been, where are you going, etc.) Don Det was the first place where it seemed that everyone was looking for the eye contact, happy to make a connection. Still being a little shell shocked from the journey, laden with our rucksacks, and in need to finding accommodation, we kept the social engagements mostly cursory and continued our search for a room for the night.
As soon as we had walked about ten minutes from the drop off point, things started to change. There are no roads on Don Det, only a dusty path that circles the island, and a couple of off branches where you can cross sides-and as you walk along this path you find quaint little guesthouses and restaurants dotted around the banks of the Mekong.
Within about twenty minutes, with the heat beating down on us, we had found a hut overlooking the river for us to spend the night. What we would realise in retrospect is that we were a little hasty, but for sure there are times when you’re travelling that you just need to settle quickly-and this was one of those times!
Still, it wasn’t a bad spot for our first night, we had the standard essential hammock on the balcony, and a pretty sweet view!

A look to the left....

A look to the left….

And a look to the right!

And a look to the right!

Having spent some time ‘chillaxing’, we headed out to explore the rest of Don Det, and discovered a little piece of heaven in the Mekong Delta. The island is only 3km long, has a sum total of three ‘roads’ and at the one end you have a bridge that joins to the adjacent Don Khong. On our exploration we discovered a hut on a more isolated part of the island that was just £2.50 per night, and had the equivalent of rocking horse manure-a double hammock veranda overlooking the river! Not to mention en suite-what followed was a number of funny negotiations with a very little old Laotian lady who spoke absolutely no English (but hey, how much Laos can we speak!!)-but would speak at length to us in Laos. She didn’t know what we were saying, we had no idea what she was saying, but as is typical of the helpfulness of the Laos people eventually someone turned up with a phone with an English speaker on the other end to mediate our transaction, we eventually managed to confirm this as our home for the next week!
It would have been given 10/10…If it weren’t for me having a bit of an ‘incident’ with the toilet! Yes, that’s right, I blocked the toilet…and it was a nightmare! I guess that it’s probably too much information for this blog, but these things happen and I’m not going to cover it up like our very own ‘Poogate’! What made it worse was that there was a French couple staying in the adjoining bungalow, and they did not leave the hammocks for the whole time that we were there, thus making it difficult to smuggle in various unblocking tools…OK I’ve said enough, but just so you know it’s not all roses and it took a couple of days to eventually sort it out-with much hilarity and nonsense in between!

What followed was a extremely sedate and relaxed few days where we took something of a holiday from our travels. The value of just stopping for a while is something that we have realised over the last few weeks of travelling, and so we took the opportunity just to settle for a while. We did some sightseeing of another fabulous waterfall, and I celebrated my birthday in this little haven of tranquillity. Jo decided to commandeer the camera for my birthday and document it for all of you that would have liked to celebrate with me…Everyone needs a good montage eh?!
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Needless to say I had a great birthday! So the remaining time in Don Det was a continuation of finding our preferred restaurants, bars and photo spots-and you certainly find some gems for all tastes! Amongst our favourites were a place set up by some hippies called Shangri La where you could get involved with some form of art project; a restaurant called King Kong, run by a rock and roll Liverpudlian with great conversation and some classic music; the Reggae Bar, which delivered on all the name would suggest; and the Beach Bar near the waterfalls on Don Khong-where you happen upon one of the many hidden beaches around the islands on the Mekong. It was a wonderful week of rest and relaxation, be warned that if you visit-you may not want to leave!

Don Khong 'waterfalls'...or boody great big rapids?!

Don Khong ‘waterfalls’…or boody great big rapids?!

Water buffalos-serious bits of kit!!

Water buffalos-serious bits of kit!!

Not averse to land travel either!

Not averse to land travel either!

Think that the rubber ducky t-shirt sets off the falls nicely :-)

Think that the rubber ducky t-shirt sets off the falls nicely 🙂

Amazing sounds and sights

Amazing sounds and sights

Just watching village life pass you by

Just watching village life pass you by

Even the derelict buildings are beautiful!

Even the derelict buildings are beautiful!

Little Piiiiiiiiig!!

Little Piiiiiiiiig!!

Getting 'artistic' from the balcony!

Getting ‘artistic’ from the balcony!

A trip into town...No Tesco's here!!

A trip into town…No Tesco’s here!!

One Love Reggae Bar

One Love Reggae Bar

Show me the way too Shangri La...Just follow the signs you say?!

Show me the way too Shangri La…Just follow the signs you say?!

Every day is a lazy Sunday on Don Det!

Every day is a lazy Sunday on Don Det!

Positively soaked in good vibes, our time in Laos had come to and end-Vietnam beckons!

Bolaven Loop blows our minds!

With our Vietnamese Visa mission complete, our next stop was the Southern town of Pakse-recommended to us by a Belgian couple we met at the beginning of our trip in Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia. Specifically they had told us to go to Pakse, hire a motorbike from Ms Noy, and do the Bolaven Plateau motorcycle tour. Not something that had crossed our minds prior to the trip, but given the manner in which they enthused about the experience, we thought that we should give it a go!
All that stood between us and our destination was a mere twelve hour bus journey….Whoop! Fortunately as soon as you hit Southern Laos, the roads both straighten and flatten out-so it was time to get on our first night bus, lie back and relax….As you can see, once settled I was pretty excited about the prospect of 12 hours on the ‘disco bus’…

As you can see...I was pretty excited about the prospect of this journey

As you can see…I was pretty excited about the prospect of this journey

Oh yeah...Unless you're 5'8" or less, you're getting no leg room!

Oh yeah…Unless you’re 5’8″ or less, you’re getting no leg room!

Even though there was a lack of leg room and the sleep was intermittent at best, it was better than I expected. We arrived in Pakse on schedule, albeit pretty tired, and set about finding Ms Noy to organise our motorbike trip.
It’s at this point that we have to give a huge amount of kudos to the guys at Ms Noy, and here’s a fantastic example of brilliant ‘non-customer’ service! They have 30 motorcycles for hire, and when you hire a bike from them they don’t give you any time restraints as there are a couple of different options on the route that may add a day or two to the journey. As such, they never actually know how many bikes are going to be returned on any given evening, so they get all people interested in hiring bikes to meet at the shop for a ‘route briefing’ the evening before they want to go. They then spend at least an hour going through a map of the Bolaven Plateau, giving their insights and recommendations for things to see and do, which you note on your own copy of the map that they provide. This is done irrespective of whether they will be able to hire you a bike, then the following morning you go there at 8AM to see how many had returned the previous evening. Should there not be anything available, they recommend another hire shop for you and let you keep the map and all of their tips. It may sound trivial, but the information that they shared was invaluable, we were one of the unlucky few that had to hire a bike elsewhere the following day-so they got no business out of us, but hopefully through reading this someone else will go there and we will have repaid them in some way!

Our route round the Bolaven Loop

Our route round the Bolaven Loop

The Bolavan Plateau ranges from 1000-1300m above sea level, is crossed by several rivers and has a number of picturesque waterfalls on the main route which circles the area. Armed with Ms Noy’s map, we set off to see what we could find…And boy were we glad that this was something that we followed up on-it was absolutely incredible! The first day would be a 82km ride from Pakse to Tad Lo, a stunning little village where we would be spending the night and, hopefully, seeing some bathing elephants; before making the 103km return journey to Pakse the following day. The entire route punctuated with various picture perfect waterfalls, and opportunities to sample the wonderful local coffee.
Katu Homestay deserves a special mention as we’re talking about coffee, the first stop on our outward trip and what a great find! You’re met by the owner, Mr Vieng, and for a nominal fee he will give you a tour round his farm giving you a fantastic insight into coffee production and other crops that are traditionally farmed here, and of course you get to sample his delicious self-grown and freshly-roasted Arabica coffee. It is possible to stay at Katu as well, but it’s a little early on the route to be practical for the tour that we had chosen-so back to the bike and onwards we went.
What ensued is best described in pictures, for I have no words that can do it justice…

Our trusty steed!

Our trusty steed!


The peripheral landscape that would accompany us for the next two days!

The peripheral landscape that would accompany us for the next two days!

First waterfall..Already very happy with ourselves!

First waterfall..Already very happy with ourselves!

Our first waterfalls-Tad Pasuam

Our first waterfalls-Tad Pasuam

Tad Pasuam

Tad Pasuam

Getting my hair wet at Tad Hang!

Getting my hair wet at Tad Hang!

Invigorating to say the least!

Invigorating to say the least!

Elephant bath time at Tad Lo

Elephant bath time at Tad Lo

After a hard days work, you just wanna kick back and take a bath with loads of people watching...

After a hard days work, you just wanna kick back and take a bath with loads of people watching…

The larger falls at Tad Lo...just a taster of what was to come!

The larger falls at Tad Lo…just a taster of what was to come!

Pretty special!

Pretty special!

After a nervy beginning just standing on the side taking photos-it was deemed acceptable to get wet!

After a nervy beginning just standing on the side taking photos-it was deemed acceptable to get wet!

Take a walk behind the water at Tad Champi

Take a walk behind the water at Tad Champi

And Tad Champi from t'other side!

And Tad Champi from t’other side!

Finishing with views of the spectacular Tad Fann!

Finishing with views of the spectacular Tad Fann!

As I’m sure you can appreciate from the pictures, our two days on the bike were absolutely incredible. Even though we were following a well established route, it really felt like we were exploring a little off the beaten track-and Tad Lo was a wonderful place to spend an evening, it has a really laid back and very local feel to it; not to mention how cheap it was to stay there-our room only cost 30,000kip (around £3), and we were fed and watered that evening for less than 50,000kip!

Feeling invigorated on our return to Pakse, we set about our most important mission yet-choosing the next location where we would be spending my birthday!

Visa pit stop-Vientiane in pictures

As our travels were soon to be taking us to Vietnam, we needed to get our Visa’s sorted before heading to Southern Laos-and so we made our way to the capital where we could get things sorted at the Vietnamese embassy.
Strangely enough, Vientiane doesn’t figure on many peoples ‘to-do’ lists when it comes to Laos. You often hear people talking up Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and 4000 Islands, but the capital just doesn’t seem to feature as a tourist draw.
Personally I think that this is a bit of a shame, it’s a bustling city with some fantastic street food options and plenty to see, and wholeheartedly recommend that you add it to your itinerary should you be planning on a visit to Laos.
In the most part we were just sightseeing a city while our Visa was processed, so rather than bore you with the details-I’ll do it with pictures instead!

Wat Si Saket

Wat Si Saket

The many Buddha images found surrounding Wat Si Saket

The many Buddha images found surrounding Wat Si Saket

Sunset over the Mekong in Vientiane

Sunset over the Mekong in Vientiane

Watching over the Mekong is a statue of King Settathirath, the king who established Vientiane as the capital city in the 16th century

Watching over the Mekong is a statue of King Settathirath, the king who established Vientiane as the capital city in the 16th century

Patuxai Arch or the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane

Patuxai Arch or the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane

View from the top of the Patuxai Arch

View from the top of the Patuxai Arch

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Notice anything odd...?

Notice anything odd…?

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Some great food to be had in Vientiane-with many Vietnamese influences

Some great food to be had in Vientiane-with many Vietnamese influences

King Setthathirat guarding Pha That Luang

King Setthathirat guarding Pha That Luang

Pha That Luang (Great Sacred Stupa)

Pha That Luang (Great Sacred Stupa)

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Gone fishing

Gone fishing

Great use of available land between the city and the river

Great use of available land between the city and the river

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One thing that does need a special mention from our time in Vientiane is COPE, a local not-for-profit organisation that works in partnership with the Centre of Medical Rehabilitation (CMR) and provincial rehabilitation centres to provide access to both orthotic/prosthetic devices and rehabilitation services, including physiotherapy, occupational therapy and paediatric services to people with disabilities.
http://www.copelaos.org/
Each year many people are injured and left with debilitating injuries as a result of the millions of UXO still lost in the countryside of Laos, COPE is just one of the many charities looking to address the ongoing problems that are faced here. The COPE visitor centre gives you an excellent insight into harsh realities of the these ongoing issues, and despite the grave subject matter-you leave the centre with a feeling of optimism…Definitely add this to your itinerary if you are visiting Vientiane.

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Va va…Vang Vieng

As traveling continually proves to demonstrate extremes, from Phonsavan and the historic Plain of Jars we travelled to Vang Vieng, a riverside town made famous for its tubing scene. Famous that is, until it became somewhat infamous for hedonistic parties and danger on the river. The problem was that people were mixing heavy partying with fast flowing water-not a fantastic combination in anyone’s book.
The Laos authorities recently addressed the issues that were facing Vang Vieng after a large number of fatalities on the river, and have clamped down on the riverside bars that were causing much of the mayhem. Now it is attracting plaudits for the right reasons once again, and is establishing itself as a destination for mountain biking, trekking, kayaking, caving, swimming, rock climbing, and much more reserved river tubing. Did I mention how beautiful this place is? No? Well Vang Vieng is little more than a few streets lining the one side of the Nam Song river, while on the ‘other side’ you have a backdrop of spectacular cliffs and a patchwork of vivid green paddy fields. It really is stunning!

On arrival in the town we set about finding somewhere to stay, a task royally cocked up by my good self when I found somewhere online-only to book it for the following week. Thanks to the good folks at Agoda, this was a booking that couldn’t be amended, and so we were left wandering the riverside looking for somewhere else to stay. This wandering took far too long, either the guesthouses were full, or they were too expensive for our liking, and frustration was beginning to show in my ever reddening face! It’s at this point that we fell upon some ‘accommodation Karma’, one of the guesthouses that declared themselves full to me was actually showing availability on Agoda, and so thinking that they may have reserved huts for online bookings we booked online and rocked up to secure our hut. As it turns out their standard rooms were fully booked-and they just hadn’t gotten round to updating their account on Agoda-so with some quite obvious disdain to the manager, they had to concede and honour our booking with one of their ‘executive huts’….Thank you very much!!

Oooooh yes.....

Oooooh yes…..

Preeeeetty happy I can tell thee!!

Preeeeetty happy I can tell thee!!

Settled and happy, we turned our attentions to immersing ourselves in the surrounding landscape-literally! We had found a couple of nearby caves that we could explore, as well as a small vantage point to climb from which we could view the town-and so it was a simple case of following the signs through the rice fields..

The 'signposts' here had a much more rustic feel...

The ‘signposts’ here had a much more rustic feel…

There was no real clear pathway-it was just 'that way'

There was no real clear pathway-it was just ‘that way’

A shrews eye view...

A shrews eye view…

The mountains that set the backdrop for this riverside town

The mountains that set the backdrop for this riverside town

Difficult not to be blown away with the surrounding environment...

Difficult not to be blown away with the surrounding environment…

Jumping for joy!

Jumping for joy!

The walk took a little longer than expected-but eventually we found our way to the first challenge of the day-the climb up to the vantage point. No health and safety risk assessment here, just a makeshift ladder that starts you off on your climb-before all obvious direction disappears and you’re left to ‘follow your nose’ and climb for the top. The climb was so much more challenging than we were expecting, but it was absolutely worth it as we stood at the top with shaky legs, and took a moment to soak in the views:

The view starting to materialise as we climbed through the tree canopy

The view starting to materialise as we climbed through the tree canopy

Slowly but surely we made our way to the summit

Slowly but surely we made our way to the summit

Despite the fearful climb, it was more than worth it!

Despite the fearful climb, it was more than worth it!

As gravity dictates, the climb down was very much quicker than our ascent and we continued on to the caves. A little more reassuringly we were advised that the caves weren’t accessible without the accompaniment of a guide, and so we ventured into the cave while trying to keep up with a ‘gazelle like’ local vaulting effortlessly between the stones through the entrance. Inside we were met with stunning rock formations and a myriad of ‘musical’ stone that our guide drummed and played with glee.

Into the darkness....

Into the darkness….

Some alien like rock formations

Some alien like rock formations

Caves-fun for all the family!

Caves-fun for all the family!

If you look closely you'll see that this is 'disco stone'!

If you look cosely you’ll see that this is ‘disco stone’!

Stone snakes....

Stone snakes….

Musical stone

Musical stone

Feeling like quite the intrepid travellers, we retired back to the town to enjoy one of the other magnificent sights that Vang Vieng has to offer-outstanding sunsets with hot air balloons floating by, adding to the drama.
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Having thoroughly enjoyed our time in Vang Vieng, once again we were ready to hit the road-next stop the capital, Vientiane, where we planned to secure our Visa for Vietnam before heading to the South of Laos. As usual, the prospect of boarding another bus filled Jo with joy, but at least this journey was ‘just’ five hours..

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Phonsavan, Plain of Jars

After the quaint, comfortable and easy Luang Prabang, our next destination was the town of Phonsavan-the capital of Xiangkhoang Province and the home of the historical Plain of Jars sites, which have been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status.
This was to be our first real exposure to the horrific recent history of Laos; the town of Phonsavan was only built in the late 1970s to replace the old Xiangkhouang which was destroyed during the Second Indochina War. As you enter the town, you start to notice old bombs, munitions cases and other military relics dotted around, now being used as café decorations & even as fence posts-a visible reminder recent atrocities the country had to endure. A far cry from the nice cafes and restaurants of Luang Prabang.

Bombs-just a part of everyday life, obviously!.

Bombs-just a part of everyday life, obviously!.

On our first exploration we discovered that the main town is pretty much one main street, and very little else in way of development-but absolutely stunning scenery surrounding the main drag.

The surrounding area of Phonsavan

The surrounding area of Phonsavan

The main reason for our visit here was to visit the afore mentioned Plain of Jars site-and so we hired some pushbikes to set about exploring one of the sites. If you haven’t heard of the Plain of Jars before, (as I hadn’t) they are a number of areas surrounding Phonsavan where thousands of megalithic stone jars are found. The sites range from single isolated jars on hillsides, to sites where up to 400 hundred jars can be found.
Local stories and legends believe that the jars were created to brew and store huge amounts of lau hai (rice beer or rice wine) by giants who populated the area in the Bronze age, although it is now widely accepted that the jars were built as burial chambers and are dated to 500 BC – 200 AD. They remain something of a mystery as no-one has a definitive answer as to who actually built them, and why they would create such burial chambers…

Currently there are only three sites that are deemed safe to visit because the area is still ‘polluted’ with unexploded ordinance (UXO), as the region was carpet-bombed throughout the Indochina wars-it’s amazing that so many jars survived at all.
Even at the most open of the plains (sites 1, 2 & 3) you are advised that you should stay within the designated safe areas as there is still a chance that you could have the misfortune to stumble on UXOs. As mentioned in one of my earlier blog posts, per capita Laos is the most bombed country in the world; between 1965 and 1973 the US dropped over 2m tonnes of bombs on Laos, that’s more than were dropped by all sides in the whole of WW2. Just to drive home the point once again, if you averaged out the total bombing on Laos by America it would equate to a bombing mission every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years-262 million cluster bombs were dropped, 80 million have not exploded yet and remain a threat. It’s impossible to really imagine or appreciate the scale of the clean up operation that the country has been left with, just have a look at the map detailing the extent of the bombing:

The extent of the US bombing on Laos

The extent of the US bombing on Laos

According to the UXO clearance NGO, at the current rate of clean-up, it will take more than 2,000 years before the countryside of Laos is rid of UXO. Read that again…Two thousand years…

We arrived at the site and took some time to absorb some of this information presented in the visitor centre, and then made our way onto the plain-obviously while heeding the many warnings to stay within the marked zones. Evidence of the bombing still exists, with many of the jars displaced or damaged, and bomb craters punctuating the landscape, it was a sombre yet beautiful place to visit:

Toppled jars on the side of a bomb crater

Toppled jars on the side of a bomb crater

You can really see how close the jars were to being destroyed

You can really see how close the jars were to being destroyed

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One of the jars with the lid still intact

One of the jars with the lid still intact

Back in the town we decided to pay a visit to the local market where we were once again reminded of the ‘comfort bubbles’ in which we live our lives! Quite unlike our normal shopping trips in the UK where everything is nicely packaged, and the ‘dirty work’ is done for us-the markets of South East Asia let you see your food in all its original glory. Not only that, but also the variety of animal that is considered fair game here-already on one of our bus journeys in Laos we happened across a jar of monkey hands in one shop, in Phonsavan market we were treated to a plethora of live seafood, pigs, various birds and squirrels-no nicely butchered cuts of meats entombed in plastic wrappings here-very much ‘DIY’! It makes you realise how molly coddled we are-we’re a long way from ‘village life’ that’s for sure.

And so our time in Phonsavan drew to a close with plenty of food for thought, once again the time came for us to prepare ourselves for the next bus..Next stop the somewhat infamous tubing town of Vang Vieng.

Jo's excitement about impending bus journeys was clear for all to see...

Jo’s excitement about impending bus journeys was clear for all to see…

The rolling mountains of Laos, and Buddha’s MASSIVE feet…

We said our farewells to Luang Namtha and ‘enthusiastically’ boarded the minibus for our next 8 hour bus journey to Luang Prabang, former capital of Laos. You would think that after seeing the decrepit state of the local buses, the first feeling you would get when you see a shining new silver minibus would be joy; quite the opposite, the newer the vehicle, the faster the driver, the more terrifying the journey.
What we now needed to figure into the equation was the state of the Laos roads. If it wasn’t bad enough that the road between Luang Namtha and Luang Prabang has more twists and turns than Jive Bunny, the issues were compounded somewhat with the fact that at least 30% of the roads had been dug up for resurfacing…What transpired was the bus journey to end all bus journeys. Terrifying, exciting, painful, wondrous and exhausting-it had it all (oh, and late, mustn’t forget late, 10.5 hours in total, and we travelled just 350km)
Truly the journey rattled us to our cores, and put something of a sombre mood on the end of the day….Given our plans to only travel overland, and the lack of any working railway in Laos, we really were just going to have to try and get used to long, terrifying, bus journeys! Realisation that this was going to be how ALL of our travel would be conducted in Laos was starting to sink in! At this point Jo hit delirium…

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Still, we had arrived in Luang Prabang UNESCO World Heritage Site and former capital of Laos. The ‘French connection’ here is still hugely influential, the first place we went for breakfast even had the menu written in French! The town is very picturesque, with many quaint restaurants and coffee shops, as well as a plethora of temples. Luang Prabang is the most popular destination in Laos for holidaymakers, and many fly in for a few days before setting off for their next destination in Asia. This kind of throws you off kilter a little, and you feel slightly removed from authentic Laos culture-or at least I did anyway.
That’s not saying that the town is anything but likeable-the familiar feel and friendly local manner immediately puts you at ease and you find yourself relaxing into the local pace of life. The architecture is beautiful, and the thirty plus temples in the town are amazing, but as an example of a Laos town it lacks some authenticity in my eyes. Essentially it’s a Laos town that is easy for Western travellers visit…and love!

The ‘Old City’ of Luang Prabang is situated where the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers meet, it’s almost a small island in itself, and so the geographical surroundings are absolutely gorgeous. The sheer number of temples ensures that your days are filled to the brim with sightseeing opportunities, and come the evening there is a large craft night market that takes over the main street-with opportunities to chow down on some great street food.

Football on the banks of the Mekong-literally!

Football on the banks of the Mekong-literally!

Breakfast with views!

Breakfast with views!

First of many picturesque temples!!

First of many picturesque temples!!

Buddha's footprint, up until this point no one had mentioned that he was a giant....?

Buddha’s footprint, up until this point no one had mentioned that he was a giant….?

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Jo 'owning' the bamboo bridge across the Mekong

Jo ‘owning’ the bamboo bridge across the Mekong

Buddhist Builders Ltd, your one stop shop for construction!

Monk Builders Ltd, your one stop shop for construction!

Wat Xieng Thong complex

Wat Xieng Thong complex

Buddha!

Buddha!

One of the shrines at Wat Xieng Thong

One of the shrines at Wat Xieng Thong

View from  Wat Phra Buddabhat

View from Wat Phra Buddabhat

One of the biggest ‘attractions’ in Luang Prabang, the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony. In a nutshell, at 5.30 every morning all of the monks leave the temples and walk in single file, with the most senior monk at the front to the most junior monk at the back. As they walk through to town they collect offerings of food from people of the village who are lining the streets waiting for the passing of the monks. The purpose of the alms giving is to make merit and for the monks to collect food for their daily meals. (Merit is a concept in Buddhism/Hinduism. It is that which accumulates as a result of good deeds, acts, or thoughts and which carries over throughout the life or the subsequent incarnations. Such merit contributes to a person’s growth towards spiritual liberation. src Wikipedia)
In Luang Prabang this ceremony is one of the most famous in Asia because of the sheer number of temples in the area, and as such hundreds of monks participate each morning.
This ceremony is a highly revered ritual for the locals, and so it is important to have some respect for the rules of conduct to follow during the procession.

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Our top tip if visiting the ceremony is to check with your hotel about the route for the monks, and to try and venture a bit further from the ‘main drag’ of the high street. As is the popularity of the ceremony many tourists do visit to observe the spectacle, and all of the mini buses and tours drop people at the same place….By moving a bit further down the route you avoid the ‘crowds’ of other tourists.
In addition to this, sometimes the monks engage in drumming practice in the afternoons and it’s absolutely amazing-loads of energy and not exactly what you would expect. I don’t know whether this is a scheduled occurrence, I’ve tried to find out since but haven’t found anything-but we were lucky enough to be nearby when the drumming started and hightailed it over to watch: http://youtu.be/VosQNXOXcKc

Another local tradition that we got to ‘experience’ while we were in Luang Prabang was that of a local funeral-not as macabre as it may sound, we didn’t gate-crash or anything! We know about this as there was a funeral being held opposite our guesthouse. In Laos culture a funeral is very much about a day of mourning, and then two days of constant partying celebrating the lives of those who have ‘passed’. I kid you not the karaoke, music, drinking and dancing didn’t stop for three days! It was absolutely incredible, and for sure I will never again underestimate the power of karaoke.

As the bus journey from hell had finally started to fade in our memories, it was time to leave Luang Prabang and put ourselves through it all over again. Next stop Phonsavan and the mysterious Plain Of Jars.