Northern Laos

Trip Start Mar 05, 2010
Trip End Mar 04, 2011

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Louangphabang,
Thursday, June 10, 2010

I still can't say if these sleeper buses are cool or not. But I can say we survived the 23 hour bus journey to the Loas capital Vientiane from Ha Noi. Just! Twas a long uncomfortble journey slotted in a space even a sardine would find cramped but I did manage some sleep so it's 1 point for the sleeper bus. I'd give it another point for Bugs but she'd manage sleep absolutely anywhere.

Loas with it's 11 million population is pleasantly chilled and the pace of life slow. A stark contrast to Vietnam's 90 million, 90 mile an hour way of life. Lao we find are also a lot friendlier and seem to be a lot more humble and honest. No scamming to be on constant guard from! One's blood pressure has dropped for the first time in weeks.

Vientianne is a quiet little city with French influence ever more apparent. Coffee shops and bakery's litter most streets and the architecture too reveals a French colonial past.
We had only a day in Vientianne so decided to trek the city for a popular landmark or two on our way to COPE.

We came across a huge structure remeniscent or the Arc de Triomphe. We also discover it was built a few decades ago by the French using American cement meant for the airport. Can just imagine a short fat hairy Frenchman sitting in his cigar smoke-filled office self amusingly redirecting US aid.

COPE is a rehabilitation centre which mainly helps Lao people injured by unexploded ordinance (UXO) from America Secret War. Between 1965 and 1975 the US flew over 580,000 missions dropping an unbelieveable 2 million pounds of bombs over a supposedly neutral and independant Laos. COPE's work deeply touched Burgundy and I and we felt the need to write a blog entry entirely dedicated to our visit there. If there's only one blog entry you read we hope it's that one. It will be the blog after this one.

From Vientiane we took a night bus (normal seated one this time) north to Luang Prabang. Only 380 kms but 11 hours journey through the hills and mountains, not that we could enjoy it much being pitch black outside. Ride was awful, turning left, right, breaking, accelerating all through the night thus we didn't get much rest. I'd say 1 more point to the sleeper bus but I wouldn't want to credit the sleeper incorrectly so will correctly award -1 to the seated bus instead!

Luang Prabang is Laos second city but feels no bigger than a large town. Picturesque though with the mighty Mekong in the valley on one side and a gentle hill on the other. The town also has a large monastry and many monks roam the town. We've spotted a few westerners taking pictures of monks only for the monk to whip out some modern technology in the form of a mobile phone camera and take a pic of the westerner in return. Quite amusing.

We didn't come to Laos for it's cities or towns but more for it's countryside and we set out for the largest waterfall in the area. After much haggling for a ride in a tuk tuk we managed to grab a shared one to the Kuang Si falls. We weren't dissapointed. It was spectacular, not so much in scale, although top to bottom was a long way but the lime rich water had caused pools to form at many different levels creating a multiple tiered fall. We headed up the escarpment figuring we'd earn our swim by doing the trekking first and checking out the spectacular falls, and we were so glad we did as we found a superb pool just below the very top fall. Getting to it looked like it was going to be a mission as the shrub on both sides of the falls dense and the rock almost vertical but the two English lads we shared the tuk tuk with were rock climbers and suggested we venture back down and follow a little tributary back up. Success! Great fun too. A little expedition of sorts. We stayed up there for pretty much all of the time we were there and watched as more people walked across the top, pointing down at us in our sublime little spot, and disappearing again obviously not finding the route we did. Some eventually did manage their way, though we were quite happy to give up our spot having been up in this amazing little secluded place for a couple of hours. Back down the falls we went, passing the main swimming area packed with as many Tommy T's as Heathrow Arrivals. We were so grateful we didn't hang about down there earlier in the day.

From Luang Prabang we wanted to take a river boat up river to a couple of small villages only accessible by boat and for once we were looking forward to journey more than the destination. We understand the river journey is meant to be one of the most spectacular in Laos but it turned out to be so expensive and when we realised how uncomfortable we'd eventally be, sitting on a long tail boat (probably fairly cramped) for seven hours we reluctantly decided to give it a miss. The next idea of sorts was to venture either north west into the jungle area close to the Thai/Chinese border rich in jungle and wildlife or failing that go in the oposite direction, north east, close to the Vietnamese border to see caves so big they sheltered whole villages during times of war. There are also huge craters that the American bombs left behind to see up there. Both trips would entail at least 15 hour bus journeys there then 15 hours back plus another 11 down to Vientianne again before we continued on south towards Cambodia. All well and good if one has the time to break up the journey but the prospect of 40 hours on various buses crammed into 3 or 4 days wasn't appealing. We looked into hiring some scooters and make a trip of it ourselves but it was just too expensive so we sadly decided to pack up and head south leaving northern Laos's tantalising sites and history for us to discover another time.

We headed back to Vientiane early the next morn. Now I know why the night bus up here a few days earlier was so tough; break turn, accelerate, break, turn, break, turn, accelerate.... the mountain road was nonstop and for a good 4 or 5 hours the view truly epic and unforgettable.
11 hours later were again in Vientiane and were chuffed to find a sleeper bus leaving for the south just 15 mins after we had pulled in. Bonus! And what a sleeper - fully flat beds! Double bonus! Two rows now, with one center isle down the middle of the bus. Bug and I occupied one bed quite comfortably. Bus points awarded this time 475,263! That's the first time I've ever had a proper sleep on a mode of transport!

We were expecting to be woken up about 3am for our stop, Tha Khaek in central Laos. Nada. I woke up about 3.30am but couldn't get to the driver as there was someone passed out in the isle. I figured we'd be OK though as I had been joking with the driver earlier in some entertainingly broken mime and it was also him that told me the stop would be about 3am. I went back to sleep but woke up again at sunrise and made my way to the driver who acted shocked, like a guy who had obviously just been reminded that he was meant to drop some passengers off a few hours ago. He indicated Tha Khaek was way past. In our limited communication we agreed to go on to Pakse and sort something out there. In Pakse, now 300kms south of where we were meant to be, as I tried to tell the driver he had to organise a bus for us back north, he annoyingly changed his tune and refused saying he tried to wake us, which I'm convinced is a total lie and certainly contradictory to his reaction earlier. We had no choice but to either wait around till mid arvy for a bus back north, and have to pay for it, or stay in Pakse. It was very early morning and Burgundy was still very tired so we pulled into a cheap hotel to get cleaned up and rest a little before assessing our situation with a clear head. After all if we had to take a bus back north, and pay for it too, we could easily just leave the next day.
On a positive we weren't charged for the extra mileage - and rightfully so (although Burgundy also saw this as an admission of guilt) but we'd miss out again on a few days bike touring around Tha Khaek with a 7.5km cave/tunnel that can only be taken by boat the highlight.
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