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No Worries 'Mas o Menos' 2 years on the road, travelling South East Asia, China, South & Central America and who knows where after that... Photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dojo77/collections/


LAOS | Wednesday, 8 July 2009 | Views [2483] | Comments [2]

Leaving the cat behind we got an overcrowded boat back to Nong Khiaw and took in the spectacular scenery we missed during our rainy trip north, unfortunately our bags were at the bottom of the pile on the boat and were soaking wet by the time we arrived. We got our tickets for a 14 hour bus ride to Sam Neua and Jo went off to find some lunch for the journey, when we experienced reverse Laos time when the bus turned up 45 minutes early! With Jo nowhere to be seen I loaded the bags onto the bus, asked them to wait and went looking for her, luckily Nong Khiaw is relatively small so finding her didn’t prove too difficult and we were on our way.

The ride took in the most fantastic scenery yet, the roads were windy and steep and the bus driver would probably have been a rally driver in another country. He was actually a good driver but not the sort of driver you want on public transport. The driver and the roads took their toll on the bus, every hour we stopped and water was thrown onto the brake discs to cool them down and after 6 hours they finally packed up. We had finally broken down for the first time and to top it off we were in a National Park known for its tigers, where local villagers don’t venture out after dark through fear of being eaten. Luckily, it wasn’t yet dark and the driver and his pit crew had all the tools and were able to get the bus going again.

Despite breaking down we still arrived in Sam Neua 4 hours early where we spoke with a French couple who had been cycling around Asia for nine months as a honeymoon. We shared a sawngthaew to look for a guesthouse and both decided on a guesthouse where the owner, the Danny Devito of Laos, a shirtless, short rotund guy spoke a thousand words a minute but not a word of English which amused us all, him included. 

Sam Neua had a very Russian feel too it..............

Vieng Xai

The reason for heading to Sam Neua is not to see the Russian looking monuments

It’s to visit Vieng Xai, an idyllic little town of limestone cliffs and karsts. The town is renowned in Laos history as it is here that the Pathet Lao (land of the Lao) hid during the second Indochina War (Vietnam War). Fearing a communism ‘domino effect’ in South East Asia, the US secretly dropped more bombs on Laos between 1964 -73 than were dropped during WW2. 

Using the natural surroundings near the Vietnam border, the Pathet Lao hid from US aerial bombardment in over 400 caves of which 6 of the most important are now open to the public. The caves are no longer furnished but give an idea of the conditions the people lived in.

We finished the tour around 11.30 and headed back to the bus station past some lakes made from bomb craters,

to make our way back to Sam Neua. With no staff around and no timetable, we decided to have lunch at a food stall next to the bus station. We asked the restaurant owner when the next sawngthaew was and she said 1o’clock. The sawngthaew turned up at 1.30 and the driver mimed eating and indicated he would be back at 2pm. Laos time being what it is, we didn’t expect him to return at 2 and he didn’t disappoint arriving at the not unreasonable 2.30. He then indicated that he would now be leaving at 3pm. 3 o’clock came and went and at 3.30 he headed off again, but not before suggesting 4 as the new departure time.

At 4 a worker from the bus station came over to us and placed his hands together and put them by the side of his head, miming sleep and then pointed to the ground. We thought that he was suggesting that we should have a sleep while we waited. When everyone else left the bus station we realised that he was telling us we should find somewhere to sleep in Vieng Xai as there would be no transport for the rest of the day!

Public transport in Laos is not public in the true sense of the word, the majority is privately run with the drivers owning the vehicles, if there aren’t enough bodies then the transport doesn’t run. So not wanting to pay for 2 rooms, leave our unsecured belongings unattended back in Sam Neua or rearranging our onward travel plans we were left with no other option than to try and make our own way back. Being that it was a 30 very hilly kilometre trek, walking was quickly discounted. Trying to convince locals with cars to help us get back fell on deaf ears, so we decided to try the guest houses in the hope that someone would be able to speak English and be able to help us find some transport. It took a few guest houses and a few strange looks but we finally found someone who was prepared to help. Laos may be different to many other countries, but money still talks, it’s just that here less is needed.

So after agreeing a price of $US20 we had ourselves an off duty sawngthaew which when deducting the price of paying for an extra room and the actual cost of travel back the next day it amounted to a little under $10, so we were very happy and relieved to pay for the convenience. At times during the day I considered it the worst day of the trip so far, but having worked through the challenge it ended up being one of the better days for what we managed to achieve.


The next morning we easily made our scheduled bus to get to our next destination of Phonsavan. The bus station had a great view

There wasn’t a very diverse range off food for breakfast on offer at the bus station, so we ended up with a bag of sticky rice each!

The journey was a little different to the previous trips but alluring none the less, this time our unscheduled stop was for a tree that had fallen across the only road out of town, while locals with chain saws cleared the way.

In Phonsovan we went to the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) office to find out more about Unexploded Ordinance (UXOs - clusters bombs, land mines, grenades). During the second Indochina war over 30% or around 131 tonnes of all ordinance used on Laos didn’t detonate and people are still affected today as most remains undiscovered. Farmers are afraid to expand their land boundaries due to fear of UXOs. The poor collect UXO scrap metal to subsidise their income but the the recipients don’t what the explosives so the collectors try to remove it themselves often with disastrous results. Inquisitive children are also affected despite efforts to educate them. According to MAG, at the current rate it will take over 100 years to clear Laos of UXOs.

After educating ourselves we booked onto a tour to see the Plain of Jars. The Jars are a little like Stonehenge, i.e. stone constructions of which no one really knows their purpose. Plain is an apt way of describing them, the first few were interesting to look at and trying to guess their purpose also caused some amusement, but in all honesty they didn’t excite me, without any history and information about them, it was just looking at concrete in a field.

At one site I had a call of nature and thought about going in the bushes, but hastily retreated when I realised it would have meant stepping into the red zone and not staying in the safe white zone area already cleared of UXOs.

Getting back to nature in this area is not a good idea! Something else that struck us as not a good idea was golf. However, on the way back to our guesthouse we saw a sign for ‘adventure golf’, adventurous indeed!

Luang Prabang

Our next port of call was the much hyped Luang Prabang and thankfully it didn’t disappoint, if anything it exceeded our expectations.

Not being able to write a blog without mentioning the journey, this is one that will be etched in my mind for ever. The scenery was 'Laos normal' but the music, well I don't really know where to begin. Like in all countries in South East Asia the music on buses is played at the loudest setting and in Laos they play mostly Thai pop, which i thought was the worst music in the world, until...... and I'm not sure if they played this for our benefit, they decided to play the Vengaboys greatest hits along with Aqua and other less noted Euro dance-pop acts (if that's possible), my ears are still bleeding!

The town was made up of beautiful French colonial buildings, understated temples and monasteries, which were smaller and had more rustic charm than those in Thailand.

The food was also to die for, with cake, crepe and baguette stalls

and the night market particular highlights

One of the major ‘falang’ attractions in Luang Prabang is getting up at least once at 5 am to see the monks collecting alms. Jo broke her morning curfew to venture out on her own early to witness this, only to return an hour later to say she couldn’t find the masses she was expecting and had to chase a small group of monks down a road to catch up with them for the obligatory alms giving shot to prove she did it, but still not worth getting up so early for!

Maybe the monks were put off by the rain, it did rain a lot while we were in Luang Prabang, but that didn’t dampen our spirits, or the glasses of wine we indulged in for the first time on the road! 

Vang Vieng

From Luang Prabang we headed to another much hyped town, Vang Vieng. This also matched the hype but that wasn’t a good thing. 10 years ago we probably would have loved Vang Vieng a sort of Phuket meets Khao San Road of Laos. The main activity is sitting in tractor tyre tubing and floating 4km down river, stopping at make shift bars to get drunk along the way. The town itself is full of bars with bright neon lights, restaurants showing continuous episodes of Friends and every other plot of land has a building site on it, waiting for a new hotel to be built to fill with more Falang. I shudder to think what the locals must think of Westerners based on this snapshot of life. This is not the place to discover Laos.   

We packed up our pipes and slippers and headed off the next morning. At the bus station we were greeted with a suspicious “the bus is full, but you can get a more expensive minibus in 10 mins”. As the next bus was a 4 hour wait we decided it was worth it, and made our way to Le Capital..........

Hope you’re all well

Ryan & Jo


Tags: luang prabang, phonsavan, plain of jars, sam neua, vang vieng, vieng xai




Hey ryanandjo,

We really liked your story and decided to feature it this week so that others could enjoy it too!

Happy Travels!

World Nomads

  World Nomads Jul 7, 2009 11:00 AM


hi Guys,

Loving your blogs and very happy that you are enjoying Laos. I've told you a thousand times that you would love it, so I'm glad I didn't overhype it, leaving you disappointed. The title of your blog (very clever) kinda indicates you're enjoying yourselves.


  Len Jul 8, 2009 10:51 PM

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