Having picked up our Russian Visa’s we made a snap decision to leave the same day and see where we could end up. We headed North up route 13 and after making slow progress for the first 30km we wondered if we would reach anywhere interesting before dark.
As with much of Indo-China, you only have to get a little way out of the larger towns and cities to find that traffic thins out pretty quickly. In less than 3 hours we covered the 150km to Vang Vieng and we decided to stop in.
Vang Vieng has a very bad reputation on travel web-sites and in some print media, chiefly because it is a mecca for backpackers looking for cheap booze, illicit drugs and good times with like minded people. The worst of it was obvious when we eventually worked out where the main street was and drove along looking at a bunch of people sat around in café’s on Thai beds, all aligned and facing several TV’s showing the Family Guy. Added to this worrying welcome is the fact that on the South side of town are a couple of incredibly ugly, pollution producing cement works and the overall town appears to be generally run down.
However the actual valley that Vang Vieng sits in is quite spectacular – mountainous limestone karsts, jungle taking hold where it can and the greenest fields and rice paddies we had seen so far in Asia. And through it all a picturesque river flowing strongly from the North.
As is befitting of people arriving in town with their own transport, we checked into what is considered one of the more up-market hotels – The Elephant Crossing. A quick check of the room standard was irrelevant – the hotel is right on the river with a bar and restaurant on a deck out over the water. A good value menu with beer the same price as everywhere in Laos (10000kip - $1.25 - for a 650ml long neck) was the deal clincher and it didn’t matter that the room was only average – it had a balcony so all was good. Our dinner was interrupted by a tremendous thunderstorm with a spectacular lightning show highlighting the karsts.
So despite what many say, we actually loved Vang Vieng and would have stayed longer if we were just visiting Laos for 2 or 3 weeks of annual holidays – we would even venture into town and mix with the TV watchers next time.
Next day we headed North up some incredible mountain roads before turning East for Phonsavan. Of the devastation inflicted on Laos during the Indo-China wars, none of which Laos was officially involved in, much of it occurred in the province of Xiong Khoang.
The drive across to Phonsavan winds mostly along mountain ridgelines, dipping in and out of river valleys until you suddenly come onto a high plain. The changes are amazing, particularly given that the distance covered isn’t great – averaging more than 30 or 40 km/h is difficult and unproductive on the winding and at times poorly maintained roads. The roads are also narrow and driving a left-hand drive car for the first time meant that I was a little bit disoriented at times. In fact turning back to check Molly’s door was properly shut, whilst going around a right hand bend that switched back to the left soon saw our little dual cab ute bouncing down into the 3 foot drain on the mountain side of the road – and then bouncing back out as she ground her belly on the verge and I reefed the wheel back to the left. Lesson learnt – no room for error on Laotian roads!
Anyway, we hit Phonsavan with time to visit the Plain of Jars (Site 1) the same day and thus free up the next morning for an early get away.
The Plain Of Jars is an interesting place – not fully explained by historians or archeologists, the huge stone jars litter an area of about 2 sq km at site 1 and the scene is similarly repeated at 2 other sites within 40km of Phonsavan. Whilst there purpose is unclear, the craftsmanship and sheer efforts that must have gone into their construction and placement is as amazing as it is baffling.
We enjoyed a simple Lao meal in Phonsavan for dinner, having been eaten alive by mosquitoes at the highly recommended western café and information hub, had an early night and headed North to Muang Kham in the morning.
The drive was again an amazing mix of scenery and activity, as basically life revolves around the thin ribbon of roadway running between towns – if not then it is because a river takes precedence. It was a special day for us and for 8 hours we drove North-East, then North and then West before seeing another Eurpoean or anything remotely associated with tourism. We did see hundreds of pigs, thousands of piglets, hundreds of goats, lots of puppies and some really basic villages. There were a lot of naked kids but almost without exception they always had thongs or sandals on. We drove through National Park that supposedly is home to Tigers and towards the end of the day saw caves that used to house Pathet Lao freedom fighters prior to 1975.
Whilst there are a lot of ways to get around Lao, we really felt that for our situation the hiring of a 4WD was the right decision and allowed us to see something of what Laos is perhaps famous for.
There were some alarming sites as we drove – particularly worrying is the type of agriculture used through out much of Laos. The use of slash and burn techniques to prepare fields for re-planting is practiced to great detriment of both air quality and soil stability. In fact we eventually became lost for words wondering how landslides are not only more common but also more devastating for communities. I think it is only the sparse population that limits the effects of this in the Laos’ countryside. Of course the steep mountainsides were once covered in primary forests so already there has been a cost but the continued use of the land for subsistence agriculture is not progressive. There are many programs reported upon in the local English language papers but I excpect it will continue to hold back progress and cause air and water pollution for years to come, as well as risking lives through instability along hillsides.