June 14, 2003

mountains, remote villages, waterfalls and kayaking

leaving nong haet

It has been a couple of weeks since I wrote the last update about my Vietnam and Laos trip, but I'll try to pick up where I left off.

Although we had a pretty good idea ahead of time of the route we would take through Vietnam, our time in Laos was a bit less planned in advance so the first evening in Laos we sat down with the guidebook and came up with a rough plan. There had been a couple of bandit attacks on one particular highway in Laos over the months leading up to our trip, and I found out online that a new one took place the weekend before we entered the country. This information helped to shape our travel plan as we decided to avoid the highway where the attacks had taken place. The route that we eventually settled on took us through beautiful mountain scenery to several out of the way towns that don't see very many tourists.

one of the jars
The first bus of the day from Nong Haet (where we spent our first night after crossing the border) to our next stop of Phonsavan left without us. We were used to Vietnam and Cambodia where a bus or taxi driver will try his best to get more customers, especially foreigners, before actually leaving. However, in Laos they are much more laid back and after driving past us and honking briefly (we didn't really show any signs of wanting to board the bus), the bus left town without us. The next "bus" was a pickup taxi with seats in the back and left around 3 hours later. While waiting we kept ourselves busy by buying and eating food from the local market.

jars from a distance
The taxi ride to Phonsavan was one of many very scenic drives in Laos. I found that I could enjoy the view better by riding on the very back of the pickup, where there is a platform for people to ride standing up. Besides the numerous hills and mountains, we also passed many hill tribe villages before eventually arriving at our destination.

Upon arrival we checked out several guesthouses before eventually settling on the cheapest one, which also had hot water and reasonably priced bicycle rentals. After dropping off our bags we rented bikes and rode them out to the closest of several archeological sites on the Plain of Jars, which is the main tourist attraction of Phonsavan. The Plain of Jars site that we visited lived up to it's name pretty well with a bunch of ancient stone jars strewn around a couple of fields.
slash and burn
It was fun to wander around the place wondering who might have carved these jars and why. Before riding the 8 km (5-6 miles) or so back to town we waited out a brief rain shower while snacking on fresh watermelon and mangos. In the evening we visited a traditional style sauna and massage place which was very relaxing and helped prevent us from getting any sore muscles from the day's bike ride.

one of our pickup taxis
In the morning we caught another pickup taxi for the 7 or so hour ride through the mountains to the village of Sam Neua. On the way we passed through hill tribe villages and long stretches of scenic, unpopulated hill country. Near the villages we also saw plenty of slash and burn going on, with some good sized fires burning next to the road. In Sam Neua we found a guesthouse and then browsed through the local market. The market in this town was pretty well stocked since it is close to the border with Vietnam. Although the nearby border crossing is closed to foreigners, local people are allowed to cross and bring all sorts of goods with them. The market was filled with all kinds of fresh products ranging from small plums, to bananas, to oranges to live chickens and also had plenty of prepackaged goods. After browsing in the market we found a small restaurant where we enjoyed a tasty Laos style meal of vegetable soup with tofu and rice before heading to bed.

hintang archeological park
In the morning we decided to splurge and hire an old Russian jeep with a driver so that we could explore the countryside surrounding the town. It took a while to find someone willing to take us, yet another sign of how much more laid back the people are in Laos. Our first stop of the day was at some ancient stone monoliths which were compared to Stone Hedge in England by our guidebook. We didn't think they were all that close to Stone Hedge, but it was rather bizarre to see a clearing full of upright carved stones. Nobody really seems to know who put them there or why, which only adds to the oddness.

rice paddy field
Our next stop of the day was at a waterfall which was quite tall with many levels of smaller cascades. I hiked up to the very top of it and was surprised to discover rice paddy fields and a calm looking river just above the steep waterfall. It was a nice hike and I got back in the jeep just as a tropical thunderstorm hit. I stayed relatively dry in the jeep, although it was pretty old and had several leaks that let in a little rain.

ordering food by pointing
On the way back to town we stopped to check out some hot springs. After driving a few kilometers off the main road we walked out across the rice paddies to the hot springs. We were quite surprised to find that there were several individual rooms, each with a modern style bathtub and faucet. I think the bathhouse had been built by the UN at some point and you could fill your tub with water from the hot springs. We were hoping that we could just relax in some warm pools in a stream, so were a little disappointed to find the bathtubs. We decided not to take baths since it was daytime and the weather was still fairly warm, but we did enjoy the trip there at least. The walk across the rice paddies was worth the trip on it's own with several small bridges and narrow mud paths to balance on along the way.

flat tire
In the evening I wandered around town checking out various shops and things. I took a long walk and was invited into a local house where someone who was studying English wanted a little practice. I yet again noticed how laid back the people were in Laos as the other people in the household hardly gave me (the foreigner) a second glance. In the same situation in Cambodia the entire household would probably crowd around and stare if a foreigner came to visit.

river gorge where I tried to catch a boat
After a good nights sleep we packed our bags and boarded another bus. Daren and Sujoya decided to buy tickets all the way to the town of Luang Prabang, while I opted to stop a few hours sooner in Nong Khiaw where I hoped to take a boat the rest of the way to Luang Prabang where we agreed to meet up the following day. The bus ride was rather long but very scenic with still more mountains and hill tribe villages along the way. The place we stopped for lunch was one of the larger towns and only had 2 restaurants that we could find. By the time we arrived in Nong Khiaw it was well after dark. The village seems to have electricity normally, but the night that I arrived they only had candles burning in the restaurants and guesthouses which made it extra fun to locate a room. I was really glad to have my flashlight along since the hotel I ended up staying in was completely dark when I arrived and I even had to wake up the owner. I shared the room with a German guy who had been traveling with us, so we split the cost of $1.50 between the two of us.

on the way to luang prabang
The next morning (Tuesday) I spent a few hours trying to catch a boat down the river to Luang Prabang, but eventually gave up and took a taxi instead. I had heard that the river trip was very nice, but couldn't find enough other tourists to share the boat cost with. There were some planning to go the following day, but I needed to catch up with Daren and Sujoya so caught a taxi instead. The taxi was completely full of foreigners which was a bit of a shock since I had only seen a couple of other foreigners over the previous few days in more remote areas. The scenery along the road was nice as it followed the river for part of the way.

In Luang Prabang I met up with Daren and Sujoya and we went to an all you can eat vegetarian buffet for $1.50. Luang Prabang is a fairly small and quaint town, but it is extremely touristy with lots of restaurants, shopping, travel agents, internet cafes and of course tons of tourists. It was kind of nice to enjoy some more familiar food and email access after spending about a week in small villages with only Lao food. In the evening we wandered around town and eventually ended up at the local Red Cross office where we got some decent 1 hour massages for around $2 each. We also spent some time exploring the bustling night market where you could buy everything from banana stuffed crepes, to all kinds of hand woven textiles.

sunset on the mekong in luang prabang
Wednesday morning we were up bright and early to go kayaking. The tour we took was led by a guide, but Daren, Sujoya and I were the only tourists. We were dropped off at the river where we boarded our two person sit on top kayaks and started paddling downstream. The river trip was very nice and we enjoyed a couple of stops along the way. The first stop was at a waterfall, although there wasn't very much water in it because we were there during the dry season. We were still able to swim in a small pool at the waterfall, but didn't really see much flowing water. The setting was still very nice and we could imagine how beautiful it would have been with more water.
door to one of the temples
The second stop (which also doubled as a lunch stop) was at the burial site of a French explorer who was the first European to discover the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia among other achievements. We really enjoyed the kayak trip since it was through a fairly unpopulated area and we got to go through some rapids. We also swam a little bit along the way before arriving back in Luang Prabang where we ate out at an inexpensive Indian restaurant.

On Thursday morning we walked around town and saw a few old temples before Daren and Sujoya caught a ride to the airport. They decided to take a short flight from Luang Prabang to Vientenne (the capitol of Laos) in order to avoid the stretch of road where the bandit attacks had taken place. I, on the other hand, decided to extend my trip by an extra week so had enough time to take a longer overland route around the bandit area to Vientenne. Daren and Sujoya needed to get back to Cambodia for work, and by flying they were able to save enough time to stop in Bangkok for a couple of days on the way.

one of the many temples in luang prabang
After saying goodbye to Daren and Sujoya I walked around town some more and visited a family run sauna and massage place where I got the last and best massage of the trip. Next I visited a few more temples and then wandered over to the night market for some snacks before heading back to my hotel.

night market
In the morning I started the next leg of my trip which I will write about in the next update.

Until then,


For more pictures from this part of the trip see my Nong Haet to Phonsavan photo album.

Posted by andrew on June 14, 2003
Post a comment

Remember personal info?