We’ve spent a lot of time on buses recently. Laos has proven to be a lot larger and longer than expected. And as our penchant for getting night buses has been gradually extinguished – bus company thieves rifling through bags in the hold, sharp corners and hard seats, and Celyn proving too tall (!) for even the V.I.P Sleeper Coach – we have been treated to some epic yet eye-opening daytime bus trips.
Vientiane, Laos’ capital, came and went without either of us really noticing it. We wandered around the hot streets, completed some dull admin tasks and briefly looked round the rather uninspiring night market. In all honesty, it was just another capital city – functional yet strangely nondescript.
Having checked the capital city off the list, we got an early morning bus in to the mountains towards Phonsavan. As the bus climbed along the stomach-clenchingly tight corners, the air grew cooler (we spent the best part of the journey with the coach door open and the conductor hanging out) and the population more sparse. Every couple of kilometres along the road we passed mountain-top villages consisting of a scattering of precariously balanced wood and thatch houses, most of which backed on to terrifyingly steep drops. This is the rural Laos, the mountain villagers who are named according to the altitude at which they live: Lao Thai (living in valleys up to an altitude of 400m); Lao Thoeng (midlevel mountain slopes); and Lao Soung living 1000m or more above sea level). I’m not 100% sure which groups we encountered, but seeing as we passed a 2819m peak en route, and that all our fellow Lao bus passengers reckon that it was freezing (it was about 30 degrees), I’m assuming the latter.
There were kids everywhere –small children trotting alongside the road with a younger brother or sister strapped to their back, groups of girls in dirty dresses crouching beside a litter of miniscule kittens, a game of boules with family members from all generations, elderly ladies being terrorised by their grandkids or great-grandkids as they tried to wash them or comb their hair. Mothers would stand in the doorways to their houses, many of them unbelievably young and beautiful, a youthfulness equally matched by the fresh faces and taut bodies of their husbands. There was a communal tap in each village, evidently the sole source of water as each one was crowded with people washing themselves or their offspring – leading to a whole lot of naked soapy children cheekily escaping the firm hand of their mothers. So I guess some things exist all over the world!
Ponsavan, our destination, was welcomingly cool after a stuffy and (for some) vomit-inducing journey. It is renowned as the site of the mysterious Plain of Jars – a huge area scattered with thousands of limestone jars of undetermined age and purpose. Scholars believe that they were funerary urns, the locals prefer a tale about needing wine fermenters to celebrate a victory of the 6th century Lao-Thai hero, Khun Jeuam. No one knows, and the random scattering and varying sizes do give the plains a rather enigmatic feel. However, I think our theory that the jars were used as upside-down loudspeakers will achieve little recognition in the history books.
Another draw of the area, and perhaps one that is slightly more exciting if not a lot more recent, is that the whole area (Xieng Khuang province) was the site of the ‘secret bombings’ during the Vietnam war. The Ho Chi Minh trail passed through the Northern part of Laos, sparking the decision by the U.S. to carpet-bomb the area, in spite of the reticence of the Lao people to become involved.
For anyone unsure about the term ‘carpet-bomb’ (we had to look it up) here’s a definition and some stats:
Carpet-bombing: Large aerial bombing done in a progressive manner to inflict damage in every part of a selective area of land. Achieved by dropping many unguided bombs. The phrase evokes the image of explosions completely covering an area in the same way a carpet covers a floor. Also known as saturation or obliteration bombing.
The USA conducted 580,344 missions over Laos in a 9-year period (1964 -1973). Bombs fell by the planeload every 8 minutes during this time, creating a grand total of 2 million tonnes of bombs. That’s more bombs than were dropped in the whole of WWII.
So would we be wrong in saying carpet-bomb and annihilate aren’t too dissimilar?
Tragically, of all these bombs dropped, about 30% failed to explode, which left the North and East of the country littered with UXO – Unexploded Ordnance. The Plain of Jars site, which is now a dedicated UNESCO heritage, has been meticulously cleared and the ‘safe route’ through them is delineated with reassuring white markers. However, a lot of the surrounding land still contains UXO, which has rendered much of it out of bounds and essentially futile – it cannot be farmed, it cannot be built on, you cannot even walk there for fear of unearthing something explosive.
Fear not, however, as the Lao people are remarkably resourceful. When you walk about the town you realise that the empty shells are all being put to use – small shells used as decorative pieces in restaurants, cluster bombs being resold as boules sets, large ones artillery propping up the foundations of houses. Even the scrap metal from the bombs has been smelted and refashioned into cutlery. Their stoicism and refusal to get stuck in the past is both impressive and astonishingly humbling.
Our little sojourn also included a brief stop to a whiskey making village where we were invited to try the local specialty – rice wine.
Another gut-wrenchingly wiggly journey (sickbags, I love you) took us down to the border town of Tha Khaek – situated on the banks of the Mekong and facing Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. On arrival we were heralded with some aggressive thunderstorms, a theme which was to continue throughout our stay. In fact, the apocalyptic weather combined with a severe lack of accommodation and the unwelcome appearance of Imogen’s mysterious skin disease – misdiagnosed by my suffering self as leprosy, but rediagnosed (by Google) as heat rash – made us all feel rather ill at ease in this unusual town.
However, Tha Khaek more than redeemed itself the following day as we got on our manual motorbikes (MANUAL, I TELL YOU! WE MANAGED A MANUAL) and began exploring the province’s myriad network of caves.
Frankly, the caves were alright. I mean, a cave’s a cave. They were all sufficiently dank and dingy, many of them contained some sort of algae ridden water in the bottom, and nearly all were drowning in litter. What was far more exciting was steaming along the wide-roads, the paddy fields either side giving way to dark purple mountains, so steep they seemed more like vertical towers of rock; or trying to cross a swollen river with the bikes accompanied by a giggling audience of local children; or partaking in some miniature motor-cross racing as we found ourselves completely lost, along with some bewildered cattle, on trench-like dirt tracks. That was fun.
Still there was no time to waste and we were on the bus again the next morning for the last leg of our Laos journey – 11 hours on the road to Si Phan Don, otherwise known as 4,000 Islands. This is where the widest section of the Mekong is punctuated by sandbars and islands adorned with betel trees and sugar palms. Most travellers stay on Don Det, which is where we ended up; the facilities may have been basic but it more than provided a welcome respite from hours of travelling in cramped buses, tuk tuks and sorngtaaou. When you emerge from the ‘do nothing’ stupor of Don Det, it’s worth hiring a bicycle and pedalling over to neighbouring Don Khon, Not only does it offer stunning views across to Cambodia, but if you’re lucky you will catch a glimpse of the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that frequent the waters. We didn’t manage to spot any but were content to waste some time cooling off (cycling in 35 degree heat is SO SWEATY) in the hope that we might see them. Don Khon also has some magnificent waterfalls; great roaring cataracts and wild waters which make slightly nervous when you realise that only barrier between you and certain death is a flimsy bamboo pole. Erk!
Our two days R & R here were absolutely ideal, although the leprosy still hasn’t cleared up. I think with 4,000 Islands you need to know what you’re in for before you arrive. If you’re looking for luxury, go elsewhere. If you don’t mind an intermittent electricity supply, sharing your bed with a cockroach or two, yet some undeniably incomparable views, then this is bliss.
And so ends our time in Laos. Two very enthusiastic (mums) thumbs up from us both, it has had everything. Onwards and downwards to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where we will be joined by the three Musketeers. Watch this space.