2nd Feb 2010 – 26th Feb 2010
2nd Feb Tues
We are off to Laos to go on a motorcycle tour of the northern part of the country with a tour company called Remote Asia. We will be riding their bikes. It will, we think, be a bit like the Cambodia trip we did two years ago. Whilst doing that we were told by other tourists we met that laos was very pretty….we shall find out.
We have booked on a flight from Heathrow to Bangkok at about 9pm tonight. Have decided to go to airport on our own bikes because they can be parked for free. This may seem mad to some but seems very sensible to us! Luckily the weather seems to have warmed up very slightly this morning and it is not snowing or icy any more ( by some great good fortune the ice and snow have melted over night). So with the temp at 4.5c we set off with plenty of time to spare. One bag each on the back of our respective bikes, my F800GS BMW and Clive’s little “airport “ bike..his Honda 600. We have had to pack for temperature in Laos to vary from 10c to 33c. So I have many layers on , some of which will be left with the bike. Downside is it’s raining as well as being cold!
We arrive and do a bit of a clothes change ready for the flight. Clive gets seat by an exit door…good for legs but very bad for a freezing cold draught. 10 hour flight through which I manage to sleep a bit aided by a new purchase of a blow up neck pillow which I recommend. Now loitering in Bangkok airport waiting to catch flight to Ventiane, the capital of Laos. Laos is landlocked between Thailand,Vietnam, and Cambodia.
4th Feb Thurs
Hot here, 34c. Having caught up on sleep ( 7 hours time diff)we wander the town. For a capital it is very small very unhurried and quiet. It is very different to Phnom Penn, a very frentic busy place with lots of traffic and tooting. Clean and seemingly organised. Quite a few tourists of the back packer type, with Lonely planet guides in hand!
We got hotter and hotter, had cups of tea and fresh fruit smoothies. Finally I thought it would be cooler to bicycle slowly around so we hired a bicycle each for about 75p and slowly cycled passed the president’s palace etc. Clive had protested a bit but took to it I think. Another drink by a rather dried up Mekong and we called it a day on sight seeing Ventiane. In the evening we met Jim our guide who brought the bikes over. There are 4 of us and we are all keen to get going. Gus from Hong Kong and Peter whom we met on the trip in Cambodia. 3 men and me! The 4 of us go out together to eat. Its very hot still 33c…Laos traditional food….stuffed frogs from the river. Then a bar 4 storeys up, looking across the river Mekong at Thailand.
5th Feb Fri
Up early and off first to be blessed by a monk from the temple across the road. Then it was a few miles on tarmac before plunging on to dirt road. A quick stop to put bandanas on, check googles in place and off we went. Within moments we are covered in dust. Peter’s new Hein Gericke white bike trousers soon look they have been used for at least a season; Clive’s face is covered in red dust as he is the only one with no bandana and just his helmet visa. My clean hair is soon matted with dust where it peeks out of the helmet.
We follow the Mekong river and look at Thailand on the other side. Everything is jungly and lush. Houses have concrete walled first floors but topped with a second floor made of wood. There is a laid back feel…life takes a slow pace. When we arrive in a shack like restaurant, the owner takes his time to even stand up; cooking slowly starts but a nice bowl of noodles appears without much ado. Round the back ( and front) things are very basic. There is a loo ….in a shed; it is a squat type and water is in a tank . Birds make noises but not so easily seen. Across the road a house is being blessed with a party. Someone comes across and offers us a homemade potion made from rice.
We get used to the bikes and the roads and sort our riding speeds out. The dirt road is mostly graded but there are some random potholes of course and large cracks and gullies to sometimes negotiate. Tarmac appears every now and then and just as quickly stops. Road works slow us down as they tend to spray the road surface with water which makes it very slippery. Outside of villages there has been very little traffic.
In the afternoon we get a good stretch of tarmac and Clive and I are getting along just fine when suddenly it goes to dirt on a bend and round the corner and down the hill is the Mekong river and a ferry. Across the river is our nights stop.
We arrive, filthy, dusty and hot. But we are now well into Laos and a place called Pak- Lai. Short break to clean up and then supper at about 6.30pm in a restaurant across the road. They eat very early here…by 9pm most restaurants are closing. We are all quite tired….we being not so very young! Breakfast at 7.30am across the road.
6th Feb Sat
Our itinerary states that this day will be 220kms and mostly dirt road. That means quite a long day probably! Weather great , so breakfasted, we set off. Rough road in places but we do a very picturesque loop on perfect dirt road. Back to the rough and we get along! Pretty drink stops with river views; lunch in S……….. over the river. Then we take right turn and head up in to the hills. Road is taxing in parts…steep bits, slippery bits in road works, very dusty bits and the odd bit of creek water.
Dust pervades everywhere. It has reached inside my pockets, down my bra, up my nose, in my hair and constantly on my googles which need a regular wipe with the gloved finger.! Certain pressure to keep going until Clive gets a puncture just outside a village. Jim the leader is unlucky, as he was back marking for a change, and was the guy who was around to fix it. However he did not have the right spanner. Tiny delay until a truck came by and having flagged them down they produced the right sized spanner and joined in on helping. Soon quite a crowd had gathered to watch Jim fix the tyre( and tube). All done and off we went again this time into the last rays of a sun going down which is no joke if you are following a bike ( or truck) making a dust cloud.
In spite of having to concentrate on the dirt road, the whole ambiance of Laos is not lost on us. The houses ,the villages etc. The forest clad hills and the logging. We caught up with two working elephants off to do their bit in getting logs down the hill I guess. Villages are pretty with flowers and sometimes tree avenues. It all seems so relaxed. Not so many car owners but plenty of mopeds. They seem to have electricity most places…tarmac road is the next best thing. I do feel quite bad as we go through covering the people out on the road in dust. We stopped in Hangsa.
7th Feb Sun
Breakfast and then a quick look at the local market. Amongst the delicacies on offer were live frogs, oxen skin ( raw without hair), some unimaginable parts of inards… cooked, tamarind, banana flowers, and plenty of fish including cat fish. Off we then went to do a 120 km stretch to Luong Prabang via a cross country route. It was excellent. In and out, up and down , through various small rivers ( which always is a thrill on a motorcycle) and passing through various hill top villages. We saw working elephants and took various photos. The riding demanded concentration as some parts were steep ( up or down) with bends at the same time with sheer drops too. Some of the time we were riding a ridge with fantastic views to either side.
After a crossing of the Mekong we reached Luong Prabang about 2pm. Afternoon off seeing the sights. It is a world heritage site with lots of temples. We have hit tourism again after 2 days without seeing a single tourist.
8th Feb Mon
Woke to various sounds….cock crowing, minah bird(?) whooping, monks chanting ( nearly as loud as Muslim call to prayer). Early breakfast in a room on stilts in water. The hotel had various bits of water including some, which had catfish as well as flower pots in them. Today’s morning dirt road was like a farm track with a good surface. We were following a river to begin with so there were many villages. Children waving, chickens everywhere including some very beautiful cocks, some little black pigs and piglets and adults sitting around as well as working. Fairly basic housing mostly made of wood with woven bamboo walls and on stilts. Leaving the river we took a road along a ridge. Again many villages, none that big, with waving children and chickens. I have noticed several small boys carrying babies on their backs. Later I saw men carrying babies in slings. Its not something I have seen elsewhere. Babies were being carried by women too!
We reach tarmac where upon Clive thinks there is something up with his bike. It’s the back wheel bearing. Yi, our back marker, swaps bikes with Clive, and we four set off while Yi goes more slowly with Clive’s bike . Jim goes ahead and in the next village he seems to have found a shop and a bearing that should do the trick. We go on following a very pretty winding road, climbing up and down. We infact do not get along any quicker than we did on the dirt road! Night in Vieng Thong..small town with rationed electricity and no mobile coverage.
Everywhere very pretty; green, lots of vegetation. BUT plenty of logging has gone on and hills do not all have lovely big trees on them! They are not stark either as plenty of lesser plant life is there. Some trees have been planted where trees have been cut down. Many of the villagers seem involved in wood, building from it, making charcoal, making planks etc. Many men carry a large “knife” ready for hacking. Many little boys carry slings and I am told these are for trying to get birds.
Just as we entered Vieng Thong we visited Wildlife Conservation Laos . it is involved in trying to conserve the Tiger. There are 13 tigers that they know about in their large area. Not very many!
A little note re.our hotel tonight! It has an ensuite bathroom, like all the hotels we have stayed in so far….However though it looks great…basin , loo , electric shower etc, it has one or two hiccups! If you run the basin tap( only one) the water goes down the plug hole and down the neat looking pedestal pipe but then floods across the floor from a neat hole at the bottom of the pedestal. This water does end up in a floor drain, which is a blessing,. The loo, all neat, has no flush. You look in vain and then realise that you have to use a saucepan in a tub of water to ladle water down the loo. The shower will completely soak the loo and loo paper when you use it. In a moment our electricity is going off for the night…..nevertheless all is fine and we had a good meal in the local restaurant cooked over an open fire in large black saucepans.
9th Feb Tues
Another early start…breakfast at 7am. This seemed tough but in reality “things” woke us earlier. Things like a bus leaving, market at 5.30am, cocks crowing, pigs squealing….
Tarmac road winding through the hills, up and down and round and round. Villagers slightly less poor than yesterday perhaps. Home weaving seems to be an industry. More men carrying babies whilst women work ( I guess). We reach where we are to spend the night by lunch time. Sightseeing this afternoon at “The caves”. Between the mid 1950’s and all through the Vietnam war there was a revolutionary peoples party in Laos. It kept its headquarters in these caves in the north east of Laos. We toured 3 of the caves in these limestone hills. They were slightly disappointing as natural caves for they had been helped along with dynamite. However the history lesson was good. One set of caves belonged to the party, one to a Prince who had become communist in outlook ( he became one of the post war presidents) and the last one we saw was used by the revolutionary army ( the military cave). This last one was extensive and had steep steps to climb as part of the tour. ( Clive rather laboured up them). It was hot too. The extraordinary thing about our tour round the caves was that the group ( not just us, other tourists too) travelled around from one set of caves to another by moped ( or motorbike). The guide led on his moped! If you did not ride a moped you were a bit out of it. One guy was on a bicycle and he got quite hot and bothered trying to catch us all up at the last cave! Walking was out!
Xam Nua, where we are, is fairly full of Vietnamese. It is very nearly the time for the Vietnamese to celebrate their New Year. Also the Chinese New year is about to take place. The Laos new Year is in April sometime. So the Vietnamese in this town are tonight beginning to prepare. Huge pots of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves are cooking over open fires in back streets. This is one of many rather bland dishes ( according to Jim). We tasted some of it the next morning and agree that it was particularly dull
10th Feb Wed
We set off early again and retrace 90 kms of a tarmac road till we reach a turning for Phonsavan. An easy days riding in terms of no off road. We all get along fine and stay ahead of schedule! Clive and I do a section together at our touring pace! At one point I and Gus follow Jim off on a diversion to see Standing Stones. It was 5 kms up a dirt road to see a kind of burial ground from about 1500 years ago. Interesting. it reminded me of a similar type area in Sardinia. Strange burial chambers and stones put upright. Lots of hard work and we really do not know why. It was worth visiting.
We reached Phonsavan mid afternoon after a nice lunch on the way. In the evening we watched a video at the MAG offices ( Mine Advisory Group). It was all about the ordinance/bombs that have been left on Laos land, unexploded. The USA bombed Laos heavily during the Vietnam War. About 30% did not explode and are left in the ground for people to dig up, step on , strike etc. Cluster bombs are the worst as they look like tennis balls and children pick them up. Also the poorest villagers have tried to supplement their income with scrap ie from these unexploded bombs, with dire consequence . Lots of statistics making depressing reading for the Laos. Interesting for us in our ignorance.
11th Feb Thurs
A day sightseeing, albeit by bike! Off to see Site 1 of The Plain of Jars. I had imagined earthernware but no, these are hewn out of granite and hollowed out and shaped like giant jars…some with lids. They were then dragged miles from the quarry and positioned in many sites. The use and why is a mystery. Site 2 that we also went to was on a hill top. How did they get a 7 ton granite jar up there about 2000 years ago? As well as looking at the jars we also saw lots of bomb craters and were told to walk in certain places only. All the Unexploded ordinance/bombs (UXO) in Laos has had a big impact on their present day lives. Even 40 years on people are being maimed and killed out in the countryside. Fields cannot be tilled until checked by MAG. Children find the little “bombies” and play with them as they look like tennis balls. Until they explode…….
We see a bombed and ruined temple Wat Piawat where the Buddha has survived. In fact the temple, built in 304 ad , had been ruined before by the Hans from China. Then 3 of us follow Jim on the “aggressive “ dirt route back to town (Phonsavan). Steep in parts, river crossings and a narrow road. I hear later that I was the first female he had taken on it. We go through a couple of villages, one so remote that they have only ever seen Jim and a few other riders from outside of their village. Discover from Jim that many of these hill top villages are Hmong people. They form about 6% of Laotians and are a problem to the government in some parts of the country.
12th Feb fri
Off we go , on tarmac. First stop a cave with a large Buddha inside it. The cave had also been used as a hospital in the war. It was lovely and dry, as have all caves we have been in , but they are not so dry in the rainy season as can be evidenced by the stalagtites and stalagmites. On we go ..it is a main road and then becomes even mainer as we join the Vientiane to Luong Prabong road. On the map it looks dull and trafficky. However in reality it was very beautiful and the traffic was minor compared to UK. Jim told us that to the right of the road was an area where Hmong refugees from Thailand were still being resettled. Apparently no one can go there even though there is a road. They are to be left alone. Military makes sure that that is so. To the left is another area of unrest!
The road went through the mountains which changed to carst limestone scenery. With jungle plants and trees hanging off the steep rocks , slow moving rivers and bits of water, the paddy fields and the people it was all that you would imagine the country to look like. We have ended up in Vang Vieng, on a river. Tomorrow we do things round here. It is now hot as we have come down from the mountains where at about 1000m it was pleasant. It has been high 30s in Vientiane.
13th Feb Sat
Three of us go off with Jim and Ye to do some little trails round here. It included a rocky river crossing where Clive starred so we could take photos of him. He likes it. It looked rather worrying but I got through as did the others. Very basic villages linked by this very small track. Back to hotel and off to do kayaking. Peter had in the meantime relaxed and then taken a boat ride in one of those slim boats with a fishtail engine. He didn’t fancy the labour of kayaking. We were taken 6kms upstream by road. Discovered that Yee had been born around here and used to play in the river as a small boy. He also used to bicycle 15kms to school every day.
All looked nice on the river and there were some little shallow rapids every now and then. So the current flowed along okay. Approaching a lot of noise which sounded like a party we rounded a bend to see masses of young, locals and Europeans playing. Some in rubber rings floating along, some on a kind of bungee type zip ride which ended with jumping/falling into the river, some on other kinds of zip rides that ended up with splashing into the river. etc. Music, sunbathing, swimming, drinking…..everyone enjoying the river on both banks. Slightly further on was a water slide that ended with an up bit so you were hurled upwards before falling into the river. I decided that I had to have a go at this so Clive and I went ashore and had a go. We made it and all the young cheered at us oldies having a go!
Lots of butterflies but lack of bird life. Water buffalo herd completely immersed in the water looking like hippo or rocks. All this happiness will be spoilt before too long. Health and safety will appear, population will expand and pollute the river even more , too many tourists etc. In the meantime the young boys still play in the river and try and catch fish just as before. But for how long?
14th Feb Sun
Our last day. We head off on the main road. There really is not that much traffic BUT we do have to watch out, for cows, for mopeds of which there are lots ( cheap Chinese ones) often 3 up or even 4 on occasions supposedly with crash helmets on but not always, for pick up trucks of which Toyota is the king ( if you are middle class or rich enough then a Toyota Hilux double cab in silver is what you want), and crabbing local buses belching out diesel. Dogs too need watching though they seem quite wise. Long legged cockerels usually stay their side and children can dash across. Speed limit says 30 kms through villages and towns but no one takes a blind bit of notice..just get along as fast and safe as you can. White lines…where? Traffic lights?
We have lunch over looking a river and eat delicious river fish cooked with three different flavours. Then a little bit more off roading and a very sweet little wooden ferry across a final river. Into Ventiane to finish…we power along a dual carriage way with mopeds coming up the wrong way!! My bike has made it..Honda FX .
Its hot as the four of us go out together to celebrate a great few days. Jim and Yee are off elsewhere.
Clive and I leave Ventiane the next day and head homewards via Thailand.