1-09-O4 - STAGE 4 - THROUGH LAOS
This heritage town is a must to see on any trip to LAOS, as a European it wreaks of history, especially the French architecture and the magnificent Wats, scattered around the town.
I emailed Simon and Susie, and soon caught up with them at a nice coffee lounge selling great croissants and Laos coffee. They had been there for 2 days and were ready to move on, were I needed a day for laundry etc, and just rest after the last few days of dramas, I’m not getting any younger you know!
We decided to stay an extra day, so off we went on a bike ride out to the Kuang-Si Waterfalls, we weren’t disappointed, because it was the wet season, the falls were filled to capacity, and not many tourists, even the 30 odd k ride in on a dirt road was a great change from the perilous rides through the villages we have done since arriving in Laos.
PHONSAVAN AND THE PLAIN OF JARS
It was an early start the next day, and after the usual bacon and eggs for breakfast, the 3 of us headed down highway 13 towards our next destination, the plain of jars, about 240k of good road, or so we thought!
The “highway” during the wet season is nothing more than a bitumen goat track, meandering though countless villages, we all rode at a very steady pace, only averaging around 60k/h, after about an hour and a half we come to the intersection of PHOU KHOUN, were we turned left.
So far we have avoided the rain that has dogged us on the previous 4 days, and as we were now well and truly into the mountains, the deserted, twisty roads began to mesmerize us, and lull us into a false sense of security, I was the first to succumb, looking down through a series of 90 degree turns, I could see for about 2k’s with one blind corner in front, as I cut the corner to straighten out the road, all I could see was the whites of a little LAO drivers eyes and the silver pickup truck on a head on collision, I immediately kicked away with my left foot and missed him by inches. Funny how I wasn’t even shaken, I just kept riding until the next piss stop, wonder how I’d felt if I would have hit him!
The mountains are breathtakingly beautiful on this road, we are up at around 1500m and the limestone escarpments have a mystic of their own, especially shrouded in mist.
We arrive at PHONSAVAN in the afternoon, with no other dramas, book into yet another cheap guest room and have an early night, ready for the ride out to the plane of jars and our continued journey.
During breakfast, I noticed a sign next to the restaurant, MAG, which stands for MINES ADVISORY GROUP, they are a humanitarian organization, consisting of ex military personnel who dedicate there time to ridding the world of land mines and unexploded ordinances (UXO’s), the manager there was an Aussy called Stewart, great bloke, and did he open our eyes to the American Secret War in LAOS during the late sixties and early seventies.
Basically they dropped over 3 million tons of bombs on a country the size of England, up to 30% failed to explode, and remain in the ground, the result is the poor buggers can’t farm their own land and the whole country remains impoverished because of it. This is not including the tons of defoliant the Americans dropped over the Ho Chi Min trail, (which runs through LAOS). One of the reasons the yanks won’t clean up their own shit, is, that it was a secret war which they won’t admit too, therefore no responsibility.
Oh ye, they are happy to supply their services to private enterprise in Laos, to clean up the land ….. for a fee.
THE PLAIN OF JARS
Or as we think an American General misinterpreted “The Jar of Planes” Jar in Vietnamese meaning “squadron” (a very loose Aussy interpretation) this would definitely answer the stupid question why the yanks decided to carpet bomb this world heritage site.
It is still worth a visit for all ancient history buffs, it would have been a great deal more pristine before the B52’s wreaked havoc.
On the road again, and as we sat at the little restaurant at the Plain of Jars, we noticed a big rain front looming towards us from the north, we decided to sit it out and see if it passed.
There again mother nature works in mysterious ways, the luck of the draw really, the day before we got totally clear, perfect riding weather, today, as we approached the same mountain roads as we navigated the day before, the heavens opened up.
Quote from a Lao Tourist Brochure.
“You should not attract the DEVIL, avoid for instance to leave behind any object or non secured bag in the front baggage holder of a two wheel-machine. An attempt at pocket picking (fortunately rare) could provoque you falling. And here as well be protected! Wear a helmet, even if the weather is hot.”
About road safety:
“Driving in Laos is risky, mainly in urban areas. Lao people are driving by inspiration and with the assistance of Bouddha…. The road code is existing, but not really respected by the Lao people. So be careful and especially with motorbikes. The insurance civil responsibility is a necessity in Laos.”
The road between PHOU KHOUN and VANG VIENG was the worst we encountered as far as the usual village obstacles occurred, you know, chickens, pigs cows, kids… Simon was negotiating a left hand corner, with Suzie and me following about 100 m behind. As usual he goes wide into a corner, has a look, then peals off tight under acceleration, he seen the first pickup but failed to see the next vehicle, which was on his side of the road, on a collision course, It was luck again that played its cards, he managed to squeeze between the two approaching cars, pannier boxes and all.
As soon as I arrived on the scene, (about 3 seconds) Simon had already turned and accelerated after the culprit, knowing that was a bloody stupid thing to do, I also gave chase. Remember this is the same road that two tourist bicycle riders were shot a while back, and has been known for the odd bus robbery by bandits brandishing AK47”s.
I turned a corner and found Simon giving this Lao driver all type of insults in perfect oxford English, like “if you drive like that, us tourists won’t come to your country and spend our money and you won’t be able to pay for your car!” Meanwhile as I arrive, turning in front of the pickup and becoming highly visible, the little Lao guy by know was feeling quite vulnerable, so he started to pray to Buddha, thank god he wasn’t carrying a gun. I motioned to Simon to get out of there, before any of his mates turned up. The Poms have a funny way of telling people off!
We proceeded towards Vang Vieng at a very subdued rate, keeping an eye on poor Simon.
It rained all day as we approached the town, nestled on a river in a beautiful picturesque valley, surrounded by walls of limestone outcrops, we booked into bungalows by the river, bought a bottle of Johnny Walker and got totally wasted!
We stayed there for 2 days, allowing our gear to dry out, and give us time to have a look around, a great little place to chill out.
After 2 days in Vang Vieng, it was time to move on; the rain had pissed down all night, but fortunately had stopped by breakfast, so it was off along the mighty highway 13 to Vientiane.
It is only about a 160k ride, so we were taking it easy at around 50k/h through a village, when all of a sudden, a young toddler of about 3 run out in front of a girl, riding a moped, one handed and holding an umbrella with the other, just in front of us, she tried to avoid him, hit the brakes, and fell on top of the poor little bugger. Simon and I immediately stopped and run over to give assistance, getting the bike off the baby and making sure the girl was ok. She was in shock, but no signs of serious injury, the baby had a few scratches but seemed ok.
The trouble is, in these situations, especially in 3rd world countries, foreigners can be used as cash cows, better to get out of there ASAP! So Beware!
We arrived in Vientiane around 3.00pm totally exhausted, found a hotel to stay and relax a little before having a look around.
8-09-04 THREE DAYS LATER, AND I’M STILL HERE!
We all arrived safely in Vientiane, the rain had stopped and we found a little hotel called “The Dragon Guest House” in the centre of the town, Simon and Susie were anxious to get to an internet café to check if there friend was arriving from London, so I just cruised around looking at the great French architecture that has gone to wrack and ruin since the communist takeover.
It was the night of the Motorcycle GP, so I looked around for a pub that had it on Satellite TV, sure enough, I found a Pommy pub, disco and 2 large tellies, no sign of my English mates, so I settled in for the night. Great race and after bumping in to a couple of young poms I met on the road, we celebrated the DOCTORS win a few excellent BEER LAO’S.
Unfortunately I didn’t get out of bed early enough to catch up with Simon and Susie, as they left early for the Cambodian border.
I wanted to have a look around Vientiane, because of the history etc, so I decided to stay an extra day and catch up with the others later. Unfortunately it pissed down in buckets for a day and a half, just clearing enough for the National Lao Soccer team to play the Qatar National team in a World Cup qualifying match. Got a ticket for 10,000kip (roughly 1 US Dollar) and got a seat in the stands with the near capacity crowd of 3500.
The trouble with the people in this part of the world is they are rather short and petite; they play very skillful football, but in the end went down 5-1 to a much bigger and disciplined Qatar team, good to watch and filled in the night.
The next morning it was on the road to Savannakhet an old French border town about 460k south.
The road south out of Vientiane is 2 lanes each way, for the first 13k, then it turns into the typical Lao highway, 2 lanes of bitumen, meandering through endless villages, at this time of year the whole road is used for various uses, including cattle, pig, duck and chicken grazing, this is because the rivers have broken their banks, and all the grazing land is flooded.
Even though it didn’t stop raining for the whole trip, I was becoming quite complacent, sitting on 100k/h most of the way, and then about 50 k out from my destination, Doris gets the wobbles, another flat tyre!
Cursing the bloody roads in Laos, that’s 3 flats in 10 days, I proceeded to unload Doris and fix the puncture. I was near a bridge, traversing a reasonable sized river; each side was the mandatory army post that is dotted all around Laos. After about 10 minutes a young soldier walked the 100m to were Doris and I were, he didn’t speak English, but immediately seen the problem and gave me a hand to replace the tube, I was back on the road within half an hour, thanks to my little mate, I gave him a couple of dollars for a beer, made his day.
I arrived in Savannakhet at around 5.30pm totally soaked to the skin, found the first hotel and booked in for the night.
The next morning it was off to find immigration and customs and arrange the Carnet for Doris, and my departure documents. The difference in prosperity between Laos and Thailand is quite amazing; the Lao customs is housed in what would pass as a farm house in Aust. With a leaky roof and chickens running everywhere, I got my documents passed in record time, and then it was off to find the vehicular ferry.
Driving down the flooded road parallel to the Mekong River, I come across a line of trucks, finishing down a concrete ramp on the edge of the river, beside the ramp lay a barge with a kind of little tug attached.
This was the ferry to take us to Thailand. Thank God the Mekong is fresh water, because you have to traverse across 1 metre deep water for about 10m to get on the barge.
The cost is 200b and you are across the river in no time, No dramas at all, until you get to the other side and another barge is blocking the Thai side ramp because of a truck breakdown.
We waited for about half an hour while they tried to fix the truck, as we had a few pedestrian passengers, the skipper of the tug boat pushing our barge, decided to run her up the steep embankment along the shore to allow the blokes on foot to disembark. This created more dramas, as there was about a 3 foot drop into the water and about the same of fresh air between the barge and the land. You guessed it, everyone made it except one poor bugger who slipped and ended up in the river up to his chest in water, brief case and all. He got out ok. Just his pride a bit bruised.
We finally got into the ramp to disembark, with another 3ft of water to ride through to get onto Thailand soil. It was still raining and all I wanted to do was get something to eat and have a hot shower, but first it was immigration and customs. The buildings on this side of the river are air-conditioned and modern, a sharp contrast with poor old Laos. About half an hour later I was on my way. It is only a short ride into town and I find a good hotel with undercover parking for 350b a night.
Posted by Tom Forde at September 14, 2004 02:25 PM GMT