Plain of Jars to Phou Khoun. 21st Jan.

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

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Paul and Loun contemplate the view, and life.

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Working and baby sitting. True multi tasking.

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Lunch walking in front of us. Oink, Oink.

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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.

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Hot springs, but still cold out side.

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Sunset over the Plains.

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The picture tells the story. Shocking.

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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.

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Above the clouds. Warmer up here.

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

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Lunch at Nam Nern.

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

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

They start weaving young.

Rushes for brushes. Really.

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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.

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

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

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To keep morale up, a Cinema.

 

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Lunch.

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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.

First ride in Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos. 15th Jan.

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First day of cycling in Laos. A beast. over 1000m climbing.

 

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First corner in Laos. Oops. Only happened yesterday, but rather common apparently. Shocking.

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Local girls, dressing up for the boys, as they do all over the world.

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Younger boys watching.

 

Early breakfast of noodle soup with the government workers before transferring over the border crossing into Laos.  Goodbye Zan, hello Loun.  Visa was expensive at $45 each, but, three different guards looked approvingly at our passports and let us through.  Linda desperate for coffee but, no.  On to bikes and welcome to the Laos roads.  Dusty, gravelly and pot-holed they are.  Loun, helpfully, showed us the climbs for the day on paper, rather harder than cycled so far in Vietnam.

Around the first bend we were shocked to see a huge lorry had fallen over the edge of the narrow road.  Swiftly followed by two dead chickens on the road and a kamakazee cockerel under Paul’s wheels.  Paul was ok but we’re not sure about the cockerel.  The downhills are great but last a tenth of the time of the uphills, sadly.  Temperature is already 8 degrees warmer than in Vietnam and by lunch the sun broke through.  The world is a different place with sunshine.  We cycled through rural villages, lots of really friendly children shouting sabaidee and hello.  These are new words for us to learn now having just mastered Cam on and Xin Chao.  All very confusing for us non-linguists.

Before our guest house in Vieng Xai, a final kick in the legs, a nasty hill.  However, a hot shower and life is much better.  The shower was in a wet room ie the toilet bowl leaks onto the floor when flushed and the shower doesn’t drain anywhere, anyway.  We were met by Loun for supper up the road, sticky rice and beef salad.  The art is to roll a smallish ball of rice between your fingers and then mush the beef into it.  Very filling and helpfully washed down with Lao beer at £1 for a large bottle, and jolly good.  As yet, we have no kip, which is the Laos currency, so rather sheepishly have to borrow money off our guide.  He charges one beer, happy to pay.

Shared supper with Isabelle, an adventurous 20 year-old gap student, travelling alone for four months.

Bed, damp, cold, no wi-fi,  but no karaoke.  All good.