We wake in Laos, a country which is said to be one of the 20th poorest in the world, a stark contrast to Thailand just a few hundred metres across the river. Despite this, trade in recent years with China, and the influx of tourism, which accounts for a large proportion of revenue, is bringing change and money in to the country.
Laos is embracing tourism; in most towns and some villages, you will find countless guest houses and restaurants. However to date the influx of tourists has not taken away the country’s charms. There are still many places outside Vientiane, Luang Prabang & Vang Vieng, (the main tourist areas) where you can get away from the busloads of tourists, however we wonder for how long….
The Secret War
Although Laos had been declared a neutral nation in 1954, this did not stop the Americans, and specifically the CIA conducting activities in the region. The US carried out a devastating carpet bombing campaign where apparently, every 9 minutes a planes load of bombs would be dropped; in total over half a million bombing runs, and over 2 million tons of ordnance. 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) are 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 real-life threatening environment for the local communities to go about their daily lives.
Our First Day
We drive through pretty villages, passing row upon row of wooden houses built on stilts and small children playing in the street. It takes a few moments to get used to driving on the other side of the road. It is a 470km journey to Luang Prang, but don’t know how far we’ll get today.
Driving up the winding curving roads through beautiful green mountainous terrain, we pass the tiniest of villages consisting of a few wooden huts clustered together along the dusty road. Each village has plenty of young children playing along the road side; they seem full of life, waving and smiling as we pass, despite being covered from head to toe in unrelenting dust being thrown up by passing trucks, cars and bikes.
Suddenly, we have to come to a screeching halt to allow a family of ducks with their chicks to cross the road!
We are using Garmin maps SE Asia; however in Laos they only seem to have the main roads, and the roads they do include are not accurate. They are shown as straight roads rather than the twisting roads up and down the mountains that actually exist, and are sometimes a few kilometres away from the actual road. As soon as we stop, we reload Openstreet maps, and find they are much more detailed down to street level and give much more accurate distances. The roads are good up until Na Toei, fast solid roads.
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 don’t spot any shops or schools here either.
As we progress the roads deteriorate, becoming corrugated, with many potholes, reducing our speed considerably. Nevertheless we let the tyres down slightly and push on. The hills seem to be on fire, and we assume it must be related to ‘slash and burn’ farming which is practiced in the area.
A mere 9 arduous hours of driving on winding roads through the mountains leave us shattered, and getting lost in the town once we finally arrive in Luang Prabang doesn’t help!
We finally find a modern, new and relatively cheap guest house with off street parking, and head in to town for some dinner.
23rd March Luang Prabang
Sitting on the peninsula between the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang is the quintessential Lao town, with its royal palaces and wats and scenic riverside location.
We have a relaxing day, walking around the town, having lunch by the river, followed by an hour Lao massage. There aren’t many people around and assume they are visiting the wats or sleeping off the midday heat. We spot a few young monks in bright orange attire walking past; many are ordained temporarily spending a few months to a couple of years in a wat.
In the evening we head up to the night market, a long line of perfectly orderly stalls with (mainly) women in charge, selling handbags, purses, jewellery, and home-wares, joining the hoards of other tourists who have now emerged by tucking into some street food.
After a lie-in we take a drive to some near-by waterfalls, Tad Sae. Crossing the river in a tiny wooden boat, which takes us downstream, we disembark on the opposite bank. As we arrive we are informed that the falls aren’t flowing today but could buy a ticket and take a hike to them anyway. We politely decline, and head to the more popular waterfalls of Tat Kuang Si, an hour’s drive out of town.
Near the entrance is a bear rescue centre; the bears are inside as it’s feeding time, so decide to visit on the way back.
The Kuang Si multi-tiered waterfalls cascade through shaded woods; each fall, with its own little pool of blue clear water, are perfect for a quick dip. Following the series of falls up, we reach the highlight, a tall dramatic fall, dropping through several tiers.
The Asiatic black bears are out again; time was needed for the keepers to enter the enclosure and hide food, giving the bears an incentive to exercise and forage for their food as they would in the wild. One of the (English) keepers explains that the largest weighs in at 170kg and all have been rescued from poachers.
Once back in town, we visit Wat Xieng Thong, an elaborately decorated royal wat built in 1560. Later we head back through the night market for dinner.
25th March Vang Vieng
Informed that it would be a 4-5 hour journey on bad roads to the traveller’s playground of Vang Vieng, we set off driving at 1000m through the mountains, with beautiful views over valleys and tropical rainforests driving along ridges of the mountain.
When we climb to 1300m the temperature drops to 20; we pass tiny schoolchildren, a few walking along eating rice wrapped in leaves, and wonder how far they have to walk to actually get to a school out here.
By the time we get to 1500m, there is hardly an adult in sight, the villages seem to consist solely of kids.
Arriving in town, we manage to find a nice bungalow off the main road and have a relaxing evening in the centre.
Vang vieng, famous for it’s karst-studded scenery and tubing; where you hire a water tube and float down the river, stopping off at the numerous bars along route on the river, seems to be a magnet for backpackers. The main street is filled with cafes and restaurants playing re-runs of Friends.
We go for a drive around looking out for the markers which will take us to the Tham Sang Triangle, which takes in three caves within short distance of each other.
Driving down a rough dirt track, we arrive at Tham Sang or ‘Elephant cave’ so called due to the elephant shaped stalactite near the roof of the cave. The cave is small so after a few minutes, we head to the next, Tham Hoi.
We pay for tickets and then follow a local guide into the cave. He takes us through the long dark cave, for 2km’s over rock covered surfaces, high ridges and awkward rock tiers. Some of the rocks are really slippery and there are tunnels of water too. Martin has a ‘Carry on..’ moment when his feet slip so many times on a rock that I am amazed he manages to stay upright! There’s also lots of low rock which even I find hard getting under, so needless to say we have a few bumps and bruises by the end of the expedition!
We are told a further 10 minutes on there is an underground waterfall. There is quite a steep and slippery path down so I decide to wait while Martin and the guide continue on to check it out.
At the bottom there’s a knee deep underground stream to wade through; the air down there feels smoky and dusty. A few minutes further on is a deep pool where Martin has to swim a further 20 metres or so in the darkness to the waterfall which is only lit up by his head torch.
With the torch off, it’s pitch black, all I can hear is the sound of dripping water from the rocks above. Flashes of the film ‘The Descent’(movie where people get eaten by monsters in a cave) suddenly go through my mind!
Before long I hear the splash of footsteps back through the water. On the way back up Martin loses his footing and manages to slide all the way back down the narrow ridge, gashing the palm of his hand and scraping his arms on the way. Ouch!
Next we head to the Tham Phu Kham cave, with a blue lagoon outside. It is a steep climb to get up to the cave and not an easy path through either, with large slippery rocks everywhere. We get to the main cavern and then turn back, having had enough of caves for today!
The evening is spent playing cards, and we decide to go for some western food; I go for a hamburger, and Martin has his first steak in 6 months which is surprisingly good, then go into town for a drink or two.
27th March Vientiane
It takes a couple of hours drive to reach the capital Vientiane, along good roads compared to the ones we’ve driven on so far. There seems to be an abundance of accommodation here so take our time in finding somewhere decent. Deciding to have a lazy day, we head to the riverfront to find some cheap eateries and decide to languidly while away the afternoon in a beer garden whilst the rain sporadically falls around us.
It is a very long drive and rather boring drive to Pakse; the roads are good and fast so we arrive at 6, find a hotel for the night and go for dinner.
29th March Bolvean Plateau Loop
From Pakse, we visit the Bolvean plateau, an area filled with waterfalls and coffee plantations. Climbing to 1300m we head towards the town of Pakse; on route we stop at various waterfalls, the first of which is Tat Fane. A short drive down a dirt road and we reach the view point, the two narrow falls dropping over 100 metres into a large chasm beneath us.
The next is Tad Yuang; on top of the falls is a large picturesque garden with small waterfalls cascading through it. From here you’re able to stand right on the edge of the main falls, dropping spectacularly down in to a splash pool. There is a short walk down wooden steps to reach the bottom.
We had read that there are two loops which can be taken in the area, one a small loop and another larger loop which takes you out into the jungle along a 70km dirt track; so naturally we decide to take the bigger loop and take in some scenery.
As we turn off on to the big loop, the road turns from tarmac to, gravel, then to powder. The road is currently being rebuilt, every few hundred metres we are forced off the road through a few inches of powder, which bellows everywhere, covering everything and everyone in its path in huge clouds of dust. The road itself is just as bad as we pass small villages, our dust trail swamps them. We feel guilty, but there’s not much we can do, apart from driving at 10mph; the problem is there are quite a few other cars on the road blasting down the track at 50mph, so we push on. After 30 or 40 km, we eventually end up on a smaller deserted track winding through the forest.
The drive is great, really picturesque, and we’re both enjoying it. It hasn’t felt like we have been off road for ages, apart from in North Laos where the roads were so bad that it just wasn’t enjoyable.
We pass a sign to Tayick Seua Waterfall, and take a small detour along a very narrow track. The track looks as though it only had been used by motorcycles in recent months, with trees and branches hanging in our path. At the end of the track we reach a small collection of huts where we park, and make the rest of the journey on foot.
The path to the falls is quite steep, with a newly cut pathway through the foliage.
We see the falls in the distance through the trees, and push on. Once there it’s awesome, a massive falls plummeting over the rocks, and best of all we are the only ones here. We relax for a while under the cooling spray from the waterfalls before heading back up to the car.
We continue on the dirt track, where the scenery just gets better and better, and we feel much more isolated.
Once we join the main road again we continue the 90 miles all the way Pakse, and in a sudden impulsive change of mind, try to make it all the way to Don Khong, the biggest of the 4000 islands, that evening, which is another 100miles south.
The drive is going smoothly on good roads until the rain appears. In the dark with the splattering of hundreds of insects on our windscreen in combination with heavy rain, visibility is terrible and makes the journey slow going. We eventually make it to the car ferry, which luckily, is still operating. They charge us 100,000kip to cross by car, which seems a bit steep at first, but given we are the only ones on the ferry, we are just glad to be heading over, instead of having to turn around.
We pull in at Villa Kang Khong and to our relief are greeted with a large, clean, room for a bargain of 60,000kip (£4.60).
30th to 31st March 4000 Islands
Si Phan Don, also known as the 4000 islands are an archipelago of sandbars situated at the southern tip of Laos, surrounded by the expanse of the Mekong river, famed for the largest waterfall in SE Asia by volume and the near extinct Irrawaddy dolphins.
The next day we realise that there is not much to do in Don Khong but to sit by the river in one of the many outdoor restaurants, so make the most of it by having a couple of lazy days eating and chilling out. Taking a drive around the island, there’s not much else here, just a deserted wat and a few wooden houses.
In the morning we leave the Island returning by the same ferry, but for a fee of 50,000 this time. Before leaving Laos, we take a detour from the border to the Khon Phapheng waterfall, the largest by volume in SE Asia. It’s pretty impressive, millions of litres of fast flowing water pouring over jagged rocks into the frothy white river below.
Seeing a sign leading off the main road for boat trips, we can’t resist a chance to spot the endangered Mekong Irrawaddy river dolphins. Agreeing a price of 100,000kip (£7) with the boatman, we board the tiny covered wooden boat, which is already taking in quite a bit of water! Our elderly boatman takes us up the Mekong river and 15 minutes later we are in dolphin spotting area. It is dead quiet and there is no sign of any dolphins, we half expect not to see any at all. We had heard there was a 50/50 chance of spotting them. The boatman takes us to some nearby rocks where we can get out of the boat and get a better view. Clambering on top of the rocks, we suddenly hear a splash and the unmistakable shape of a dolphin in the distance. This one is being followed by three more! They come around in a circle, the ripples on the surface of the water the only signs that they are there at all. Then they come to the surface, swimming just yards away from where we are standing. We hear a loud splash, as one does some acrobatics, jumping out of the water into the air, and turn round to see one right behind us coming up around the rocks. We’re amazed, and feel very lucky that the dolphins came in so close.
Coming to the border crossing, our first task is to get stamped out of the country, but the border guard is asking for $4. Explaining that we didn’t have to pay to enter, so why do we pay now and asking for a receipt was enough for him to reconsider and stamp our passports out, minus the fee!
However we were dreaming if we thought we’d be let off, as the visa ‘officials’ overcharge us $10 and we pay $25 each for our visas. The policeman checking our passports then also demands a cheeky $2 as well! Although on the bright side, the whole process is really quick and we are over the border within minutes.
Martin & Nicole