Back from Tad Lo waterfalls. 31.1.16

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 17.09.03

Our route back to Pakse. Too hot.

IMG_3667

Stunning morning.

IMG_3670

Cassava and coffee beans drying naturally.

P1110632

Garden gnomes. Odd.

P1110640

The gecko has seen the light.

The Bolaven plateau is the centre of a huge extinct volcano. Loads of volcanic pumice stone and the whole plateau is rimmed by the crater’s edge. Fairly cool compared with the Mekong plain, so only 30C not 38C.  Lots of coffee, thanks to the French occupiers earlier. Now a big industry. Some of it is very tasty.

We thought that the ride back we thought was going to be easier than it was. Left at 8.30, so missed the cool of the morning. Over 3L of water each, and 2 Pepsi’s but still too dry. Banana’s and bread knicked from breakfast helped us on our way. Could become a habit. Where did we learn it from?

Back to a nice hotel. Sheets that are clean, water that is hot, and from a tap. We now take nothing for granted, and appreciate some things more.

Tomorrow a gentle day.

Both feeling fitter but the bearing of Paul’s knee might be a bit wobbly. Time will tell. Apparently a mix of some green plant and the urine of a local medicine man might fix it. We think ibuprofen might be better. Actually Linda is in favour of the local urine but it’s Paul’s knee. And he takes ibuprofen.

Tad Lo waterfalls. 29-30.1.16

P1110583

Captive, but seems happy. Not sure how you tell…..

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Rickety bridge, rebuilt every year. Hope it lasts the next 20 seconds.

P1110591

Upper bit of the waterfall. And a bath.

P1110577

A bit of the waterfall. Slippy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Bit more of the waterfall. Noisy, but doesn’t come out well in the photo.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

100ft drop. Linda says “Step away, … Now!”

Despite our best intentions to leave early before the heat of the day, we still only managed to get out of Pakse by 7:30am, together with all the morning scooters and trucks.  Felt really good to be back on our bikes although a little apprehensive as fully loaded and a long uphill ride ahead.

The best days are the unplanned ones.  It was so hot and Linda was beginning to question why take this detour to some waterfalls, when after crunching some 50 km and Paul having a near miss with a truck, we decided to make a stop for lunch and a break out of the sun.  A couple on a motorbike had just pulled in ahead of us to a “restaurant” and we followed.  Turned out to be a party day in the town and everyone cooked and shared their food so all the restaurants were actually closed.  The most charming middle age Laos gentlemen invited us in to share spicy noodle soup with the young Belgian couple also on their way to the waterfalls.  Learned his life story and the adventures of the Belgians and despite our protestations would not take a kip, or even a dollar.  Result!

Onward to the Bolevan plateau fealing much better and not so far to go.  Completely astonished with the first sight of the beautiful Tad Lo Falls.  Checked into the first guesthouse with a view over the river. Feeling quite smug after our free lunch and only £6 for the night.  You don’t get a lot for £6.  Our sac de viandes are getting well used. No hot water, no breakfast, but great view and the odd mozzie, and maybe a few bed bugs. Beer is cheap. Result.

Today we went in search of the other waterfall ‘up river’. We didn’t have much idea where we were going, even a discussion was had over Left / Right out of the guesthouse. Eventually arrived. Little water, but golly gosh, what a drop. And what a view over the plain. Linda conceded that it was worth the effort. Might have been easier on a moped. But that’s not cycling. Or cricket. Neither of us play cricket. Eh??

Now we are on our own we are not at all protected from the ‘big world’, and so far it is a most interesting place. Klaus, manager of where we are staying tonight, Tad Lo lodge, is a lifelong traveller, from USA but so far from mainstream America that he freely admits that he no longer recognises fellow countrymen. Interesting guy, who seems to have his world rather better sorted than most. Then Jan, a Dutch lone cyclist who was very helpful. He is on his journey of personal exploration and growth. Jolly fit, and hopefully more in tune with himself. All interesting, all on the same bit of our planet.

Tad Lo Lodge has 2 ‘pet’ elephants. A long story but they are much loved by the team looking after them and seem happy. 200kg a day of food each the running costs are huge. As are the poos.

 

 

 

Van Time, Vang Vieng, Vantiene. 26-28th Jan.

IMG_3657

No trips, well, outside, anyway. Vang Vieng in the wet.

P1110566

Broken down van time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sunset over Laos to Thailand, across the MM.

Three days, 1100Km, one back pain, one broken van, loads of near death experiences – for us, people close by and lots for cows, goats and chickens. We decided to rent a van with Ayrton Senna as the driver, sadly with some of his speed, none of his skill but almost similar end result. We went from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, then to Vientiane, then to Savannakhet and now in Pakse, south Laos. Rain has gone, yea!! But now too hot, groan!! 38C this pm, and hotter forecast tomorrow. We are used to 5C so need to readjust our inner temperature settings. Hopefully this will happen soon, or the next month isn’t going to be much fun.

The van broke down, but quickly fixed. Vientiane rather good coffee but not as cute as Luang Prabang, which has our vote for ‘best city in Laos’. This may change as we go further afield.

The next few days there will be little wifi, so update on Monday. Our audience (both of you!) need not be worried, and we are sure the anticipation will be difficult to deal with.

Museums, Monks and Morphets. 25th Jan 2016.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Chatting with the Locals.

P1110564

Great company. Thanks Sian and Lawrence.

Today started cold. Then it got colder. Alot. This wouldn’t have been a problem but the city just isn’t expecting it to be so cold. It just can’t do it. No heaters, windows that don’t work, no one has warm clothes so people wear anything they have to keep warm. This includes a sleeping bag used as a scarf and blankets wrapped around smart shoulders. We were cold all day. We still are as the rooms don’t have heaters.

We started the day with a trip around the Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang’s oldest Wat. We were worried about catching a particularly cynical illness easily caught in these parts: Temple overload. This is caused by seeing too many temples in one day. We restricted ourselves to 2 or 3 of the most superb, and retained our joy at seeing them. Wat Xieng Thong was suitably impressive.

Next the Royal Palace Museum, which houses the gold Phra Bang Buddha, after which Luang Prabang is named after. Sadly no photos allowed. Not that you can see it anyway, but it is apparently there.

We then walked up Mount Phu Si. The view at the top and the Wat were impressive but the thing that made it so good was meeting an 18 year old novice monk on the way down. He wanted to speak English and it had been suggested that he stayed up the mount and chatted to tourists. This was a great idea when it was 20C, but bonkers when 5C. He was shivering, jumping to try and keep warm but wouldn’t leave until the 5.30 time his teacher had told him he should remain for. He looked ill but we talked for 20 mins or so. Really interesting. He hadn’t felt so well this morning when he had to go for Tak Bat. It was raining, cold and they don’t wear sandals. He got better and then braved the cold to chat to us. He has been a novice for 3 years, gaining an education and a way of life. He goes home twice a year but is up before dawn every morning, except today.

It’s an interesting city, but so much more had it been a few degrees warmer. We were lucky compared to the monks. We at least could wear coats and warm up with hot coffee, which we did. Alot.

Our final evening with Sian and Lawrence. We have had fun but reality will need to kick in. Cabbage soup and warm beer for the next few days, we fear. Thoughtfully Lawrence managed to find a few tot’s of good malt whiskey to toast Burns night. I’m not sure the locals understood it, but it went very well with the temperature. Thank you both. Safe travels. Hope we bump into you again.

Tomorrow to go south, searching for a warmer wind.

Around Luang Prabang. 23/24th Jan 2016

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 17.38.15

To the 1,000 Buddha caves.

IMG_1684

The final group photo. Thanks guys, great time.

P1110484

Cruise down the Mekong.

P1110451 (1)

Green snake. Apparently quite nasty if bitten. So we didn’t bite it.

-10

Pensive walk. Will the bamboo collapse??

Last cycle out with our great guide Loun.  Headed to the Buddha caves in glorious sunshine.  Some Mekong fried fish for lunch before a boat ride across to the caves.  Eagle eyes spotted the bright green rather nasty snake in the trees.  We kept well clear.  Buddhas in the caves not the most exciting.  Laos people are more animist than Buddhist. They believe there are spirits in all things; mountains, rivers, plants, animals that need appeasing. This usually involves fruit, blood, goats and a virgin if they can find one.

Gentle boat trip down the Mekong back to LP (both fell fast asleep).  Back to our busy guest house. Not sure how the backpackers can afford the place. We can’t.  A huge stand of fresh cakes for sale outside but saved ourselves for supper with Sian and Lawrence.  The town closes down early even with all the backpackers around.

Shock Sunday morning to torrential rain and freezing cold.  How can this be?  All layers on for a wander around LP, hanging out in coffee shops.

Supper in L’Elephant restaurant in LP. Best meal. Buffalo steak for the lucky ones. Paul had fish. Steamed. Lovely red wine, The Chocolate Block from SA. Bloody cold. They put warming charcoal braziers under the wooden table. Bonkers but jolly effective in warming us up. And the wooden table.

Hope it gets warmer. Winchester is warmer that here at present.

Luang Prabang is an interesting mix of Buddhism and tourism, done in a mellow way. Great place to chill (literally) for a bit.

The next 5 days is now sorted out. To travel south to Vientiane, then to Pakse in southern Laos. We will be looking forward to warmth, although we will want it cooler too soon. It can never be right!

To Luang Prabang, World Heritage Site, Laos. 22.1.16

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 22.48.31

Hard day, but what a day! 1000m climbing, up to 39.8C, and 80Km. Superb.

P1110386

For some this is an everyday view. For us, awesome.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Such a view…Top of the world, well, Laos anyway.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our first sunset on the Mighty Mekong.

P1110392

The first of many Temples. Luang Prabang.

Very happy to leave our “guesthouse” room.  It was damp, grey, dark and grimy. A bit depressing, really.

Very foggy this high up in the mountains, a big shame as we had hoped to get a better view of the vast panorama of mountains.  After a transfer through the fog along the pot-holed road, a speedy 18km downhill to Loun’s village, Ban Khoua Nam Ming, on the river Ming.  Sadly, his brother had left to work in the fields, but we met his sister in law and great nephew.  Loun is probably the only member of the family to read and write, and certainly the only one to speak English.  We played with the two new puppies who chased the chickens on the mud floor of the house while Loun grabbed a late breakfast before hitting the next big hill, a 16km climb with pockets of searing heat.

Lunch of fried noodles sat on a log on the top of the hill before a cooling downhill.  The cycling  here is amazing.  One final killer of a hot climb before Luang Prabang and our first sight of the Mighty Mekong.  What a beautiful city with its french colonial buildings now transformed into smart boutique hotels.

Final Group supper, ie Paul and Linda. At the Coconut Garden restaurant where we were joined by Winchester friends, Sian and Lawrence who had just arrived from Chang Rai via the Mekong.  Looking forward to a couple of days here and a chance to explore the area.

Can’t wait to try out the fresh croissants and proper coffee tomorrow am.

Plain of Jars to Phou Khoun. 21st Jan.

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 18.25.16

Great day’s cycling. Stunning scenery and awesome S bend descents. And 23C. Yea!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Paul and Loun contemplate the view, and life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Working and baby sitting. True multi tasking.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lunch walking in front of us. Oink, Oink.

P1110377

Linda, Loun and Paul. Great mountains.

Started our ride in thick fog out through the town and along a good road with gentle ups and downs.  Very little traffic.  By mid morning the sun had burned through and we were treated to some beautiful scenery, forests of pine and grasslands.  Passed through lots of farming villages, mainly timber framed houses on stilts, built by the Khmu.  A glorious ride with fabulous scenery, enjoyed the climb up the hills to have the thrill of the downhill through the mountains.  Simply stunning.  Lunch at Ban Nam Chat, a popular stop for the local buses travelling from Ventiane up to the Plain of Jars.

Walked through a Khmu village, neat and tidy with lots of children running around.  The village is perched on a steep hillside  looking quite idyllic on this warm sunny day.  Hard to imagine the mud streets in the rainy season.

We also saw lots of people having a shower in the village communal water pipe. An indication of how hard life is here. No one is fat. Most work the land as best they can. Astonishing to see pineapples planted on 45 degree slopes. Any tractor would fall over. No tractors anyway, except the odd cow. Water buffalo are for lower, flatter fields.

Loun treated us to a BBQ’d sweet potato in the market. Rather nice, but relieved he didn’t suggest a piece of unknown brown meat on the stall.

Great day. The evening meal was lovely.

Now back to cell block H to try and sleep. Our guesthouse is not the best. Yesterday’s was great and tomorrow is, ..er,.. another day!  We travel with a positive approach to it all. It is all a rich, if itchy, experience. Jungle formula does not work for bed bugs, we have found out. Hey ho.

 

 

 

Hot springs to Plain of Jars. 19th + 20th Jan.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hot springs, but still cold out side.

P1110324

Sunset over the Plains.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The picture tells the story. Shocking.

P1110357

Maybe the function of the jars? Body should be dead first.

No morning shower at the Hot Springs community lodge as too flipping freezing.  Good to be cycling to warm up.  Over the hills and down the other side and 15 degrees warmer – lovely.  Pedalled into Phonsavanh, quite a busy and bustling town with lots of restaurants and guesthouses.  Delighted to check into the Vansan Plain of Jars Hotel.  Hot shower, clean towels, sheets and even a balcony overlooking the Plains.  Everything actually works, pretty unusual in our experience.

A welcome lie-in before a cycle to Site 1 of the Plain of Jars, one of the four Sites where the unexploded ordinance have been removed.  Sadly, there are over 200 other sites still waiting to blow people (and animals) up.  The jars are extraordinary.  Ranging in different sizes, there are a number of theories as to why they are here.  They are carved out of sandstone, although local legend says they are made from mud, sugar cane, buffalo poo and sand.  Did the conquering giant king use them for his rice wine or were they burial urns?  No-one knows with any certainty.  They are certainly 2,000 years old and lots of them.  Why?  Interspersed between these ancient vessels are huge bomb craters from The Secret War.  The dense vegetation that once covered this area was obliterated and destroyed by the American bombs.  Only scrub grass will grow here now.

A great lunch at Site 2 followed by a lesson in how to play Boules, Lao style, from Loun.  This involves, beer, rice wine and shouting.  Extremely good fun.

Walked into town to visit the UXO information centre.  Deeply depressing stats around how much ordinance was dropped on Laos and how much still remains.  People are still dying and many fields are abandoned as families are terrified to work them because of the risks.  Several NGO’s are doing good work including MAG and the Quality of Life Association .

Despite this experience, the Laos people are amazingly positive, friendly to westerners and just want to improve their lives.

 

 

 

 

 

To Nam Nern Eco-Lodge. 17th + 18th Jan.

P1110223

Above the clouds. Warmer up here.

P1110297

Super speedy up the Nam Nern river. Long tail boats, a bit like James Bond.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lunch at Nam Nern.

P1110286

Local supper. Avoided the river weeds, oops, herbs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Breakfast at Nam Nern. Mainly cassava and pumpkin. Loo roll not eaten, but needed.

They start weaving young.

Rushes for brushes. Really.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.50.17

To hot springs.

Early breakfast with Isabelle.  Fried eggs and, unusually, some really nice bread.  Gave her a lift to the bus station as en route for our 3 hour transfer up to Ban Sonkhoua, and Nam Nern River.  The brochure sold it as a safari cruise.  We had anticipated a tourist boat capable of serving food, beer and an easy time.  What we got was so much better.  A high speed long tail boat able to take us, a spotter, a translator and a helmsman plus some food for the night.  Sadly, no beer.  Paul packed four small cans which doesn’t go far between 5.  The canoe got up to 40 kms/hr.  Pretty racy skimming over the shallow river bed, but our spotter did have to get out and push once.

The “village” that we were staying in for the night was a good 2 hours up river, probably 30 kms.  Late lunch and then a look around this eco-lodge.  In fact, it is 5 bungalows on stilts.  Each one can sleep 2 people, has one light bulb, and, nothing else.  We were staying in the core protection zone, as designated by  the Wildlife Conservation Society.  This is to support the income of the 14 villages moved out of the zone in the 90’s and to increase the density of wildlife, especially, tigers.  This is a very ambitious project which seems to be working well.  It pays the villagers whenever a tourist spots an endangered species.  For example, villagers receive 40,000 kip (£4) when we saw a Sambar deer.

Our supper was cooked by the guide and spotter on the banks of the river above the village.  A bit odd, but a great fire.  We then drifted down in the dark for 2 hours while our spotter scanned the banks for any signs of wildlife.  Excitingly, we were treated to 3 Sambar deer, a muntjac and a civet.  A larger group last week didn’t spot a single animal.  Probably too noisy.

Having got back to the village at 10:30 pm, headed to our hut, freezing cold and damp.  Linda remained fully clothed all night.  No shower, no power, no flushing toilet or sink. Actually quite uncomfortable, but worth it.  The jungle experience is to be recommended.  This is the first time we can honestly say we have been totally off grid.  The nearest help was at least 4 hours away.  Fortunately, didn’t need it.  No, we have no interest in applying to the next Bear Grylls island survival.

6.30am walk around what was the old village. The jungle has reclaimed it. Back to our bikes and sort of civilisation. A gentle climb, amazing downhill onto the plains and then to a hot spring for a warm bath. We felt we had earned it.

Viang Xay to Xang Neua. 16th Jan.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 17.42.19

Viang Xay to Xang Neua. 30km but 500m climbing. Sunshine. Yea.

P1110200

Gun placement in Vieng Xay caves. Great views of mountains, and American planes in the 70’s.

P1110210

To keep morale up, a Cinema.

 

IMG_1655

Lunch.

P1110214

Great cycling. Warm, and the views….

A quite extraordinary day. We started with breakfast of bread, banana and Loun had sent someone away for fried eggs, which came back in a polystyrene box. Rather yummy. Our guest house was not geared up for visitors, which is rather a shame as it’s a guest house. The room was basic, the shower worked with intermittent hot water, no drainage and no wifi, sadly. Even worse, no beer, but a shop just over the road. Phew.

Then a trip around a cave complex, the Vieng Xai caves. Sounded Ok on paper, but the reality was so different. It totally blew us away. The caves had an audio guide which lasted about 3 hours. We learnt that Laos had had more bombs dropped on it per person than any other country on the planet. Ever. We also spent some time talking to our guide about the reasons for the war, and the fact that the Laos battles were almost invisible to the wider global community. The war is now called “The secret war”. Very, very shocking. The Laos people have been to hell and back, but have shown the most remarkable resilience. The caves were the headquarters of the Pathet Lao (Communist movement). They had to go there for obvious reasons. At the height of the war over 20,000 people lived in the area, farming at night so that spotter planes could not see them. All the white ducks and the red chickens were slaughtered as they were too visible from the air.  At the time of relocating into the caves, there was only one very small village in the area.  Wildlife was abundant, with leopards and “tigers so prevalent you had to be careful not to step on one”.  There were deer, large and small.  All were hunted to feed the military and politburo who ended up in the protection of the caves.

We toured around four of the largest caves.  There are hundreds.  One was the hospital, servicing the wounded and delivering new babies.  Against their tradition of cremation, the dead could only be removed at night and buried.  No-one knew how long the war would last and so some of the dead waited 10 years for a proper cremation service. War is awful for all sides.

Tourism has only started to be promoted since 2000.  In the early years, the older generation of Laos people were not excited to see western visitors – all too soon and too painful. Now, the younger generation is welcoming to most tourists, even Americans.  It did feel uncomfortable tipping our guide in US dollars.

For anyone planning a visit to Laos, the caves and the story of the people is profoundly affecting. We would encourage all to see and experience it.

On a brighter note, we are so enjoying the blue skies and the sunshine.  The first for two weeks.  Noodle soup lunch and back on the bikes for a roller coaster ride into Xam Neua.  Some tough climbs, but the scenery is so stunning it makes it all worthwhile (the downhills are jolly nice too).  We can finally see and enjoy the beauty of the towering karst limestone landscape.  Temp up to 31C – the chill of northern Vietnam is leaving our bones.