Friday, June 06, 2008

Up and around and down northern Laos

LUANG PRABANG: "I'll be there for yooou ...". Welcome to the strangest town in Asia. The surreal Vang Vieng where walking the streets you will bombarded, at any time of day, with the sounds of Friends blasting out from TVs in the lounge restaurants scattered amongst this small town.

I am not sure if the producers of Friends realise, but there is a spot on earth where their show is still being watched 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. Backpackers lying up on cushion covered plinths in a small town in Laos glued to a TV showed that ended years ago. I counted over six of these restaurants all loudly playing various repeats over and over. Bizarre.

We had come to Vang Vieng from Vientiane. It was the logical next step north on highway 13, the only real way to get to the northern provinces. For us the attraction of the place wasn't crap TV, but a beautiful surrounding countryside and yes yet more caves to explore.

Over the two days which we were there we headed off on bikes to stop and be amateur spelunkers. Some of these caves extended some distance into the hills and with the caverns opening up it was hard not to see similiarities to childhood weekend matinee watchings of Journey to the centre of the earth. Except there were no claymation dinosaurs in these journeys, just a stillness and the drip drip dripping of water.

Painting the walls ..
Cave exploration

Venturing further north on route 13 we got our first taste of the roads of Laos to come. Up until this point our journey was along realatively flat countryside, following the Mekong valley. Now, however, we got to experience some of the windiest roads I have ever encounted. For our 7 hour road trip to Phonsavan, covering only 200 odd kms, we twisted and turned up and down and up and down endlessly through the mountainside. There was never more than 100 metres of straight road and more hair pin turns than I could possibly count.

We eventually made it into Phonsavan, though it was in the dark, and more 5 hours later than we thought – our first bus choice was full, so it was a 5 hour wait until the next one. The town is nondescript, but it wasn't the town we came for, instead the ancient attractions nearby. The Plain of Jars.

A day trip tour was needed to get out to these mysterious relics. The reason these jars of stone and ceramics were made and then scattered across the hillsides of this region is still a mystery. Were they, as local legend suggests, made for making whiskey? If so, the more than 500 littering the area and their giant size means that those ancients were having one hell of a party at some stage. More likely is that they were made as burial urns which were subsquently looted in their 2000 year history. One thing is for sure is that they are an amazing sight and it is a crime that there aren't more - 30% were destroyed by American bombs.

Ancient jars
A few of the Jars

Phonsavan is a nondescript town now because in the 1960s and 70s this region was the scene of some of the heaviest bombing in the history of the world. An average of one plane load of bombs was dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. And nobody outside the country knew.

We stuck our noses into the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) exhibition to see the good work they are doing in removing the bombs that didn't blow up. The entire countryside is still littered with unexploded bombs and it's taking years to remove them. In all the guesthouses in Phonsavan there are large collections of bomb bits lining the walls. In one cafe they have even turned small cluster bombs or bombies into ash trays. Deadly souvenirs of a past most are trying to forget.

From Phonsavan we had to backtrack for 4 hours back up and down and around the mountains to get to route 13 and then more around and up and down for another 4 hours as the road north of the turnoff junction became yet more curvaceous. Hill tribe villagers build their grass huts right alongside the roadside. These roads really are quite incredible - 8 hours of travelling for 220kms. But again the travel was worth it, as it landed us in Luang Prabang.

This town is a UNESCO world hertiage site and a damn fine nice little place. It was the seat of Lao royalty – in days prior to the communist takeover. And it has the old world feel, which Hoi An in Vietnam had. A feeling of this is the way old Asia was. It is the premier tourist destination in Laos and deservedly so.

We have spent our time here in relaxation mode. There are sights to see, more so than there have been in other parts of Laos, but we are more in a mode of soaking it up. The days have been revolving around the weather as well. Now is the rainy season and there has certainly been more of it than before. But with all the cafes, wats, markets and cheap eats, it is easy to forget about the rain.

And so from here on for the next while the trip is possibliy more about the journey than the destination. We have two days slow boating up the mighty Mekong, then go up close to the Burmese border. And there will be a hell of a lot more rough roads in the back of beaten up trucks over mountain passes to experience. Eventually, before our Lao visa expires, the goal is to get back into northern Vietnam. Somehow I think the least of our worries on this trip will be having to watch crap TV repeats.

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