Enigmatic stones on the Plain of Jars, a hidden city in the caves of Vieng Xai, 12% hills in 35+degree heat, two campsites infested with leeches (but thankfully not unexploded ordnance) and one campsite disturbed by the police, (who expected us to pack up and cycle in the dark to a guesthouse, which may or may not exist, 20km away. Haha. Funny guys!). Yup, it’s been another fun-packed few days for your favourite Pino pedallers.
North eastern Laos has felt a little different to the parts of Laos we’ve been in before. Although the area is poorer than where we’ve been before, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of houses that are built of brick – we think this could be a result of the influx of aid from the Soviet Union and other communist countries when America finally stopped bombing the cr@p out of the place in 1973. Another hangover from this period is the number of elderly Kamaz trucks on the road. We also noticed that both brick and bamboo buildings were now surrounded by fences, carefully denoting each family’s plot of land, and quite unlike the clusters of houses jostling together in villages elsewhere. The most obvious difference though was the sudden decline in tourists. In Phonsavan we saw a handful of other ‘falangs’ but from there on it was clear the guidebook had been accurate when it described this corner of Laos as one of the least visited. The only other Western faces we’ve seen belonged to a Spanish couple on a homestay in a medium-size village we passed through. We’re not sure why this part of Laos is less popular as it’s got a fascinating history and the scenery is truly breathtaking.
The town of Phonsavan captured our attention for several days. It’s set in rolling pastureland that looks like alpine meadows, surrounded by conifer trees (where did the jungle go??). It’s also one of the parts of Laos that was particularly targeted by US bombers during their ‘secret war’ of ’64-’73. We visited the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) Information Centre and were shocked by what we learnt there.
The legacy of those nine dark years continues to wreck lives and stifle development in Laos to this day, in the form of unexploded ordnance (UXO). We want to support the work of MAG here in Laos and other countries contaminated by UXO, and if you haven’t already done so then please do visit our ‘Giving’ page where you can read more about the work of MAG or go straight to our ‘Just Giving’ page to make a donation.
We saw first-hand the results of the work that MAG has been doing here in Laos when we cycled out to see some of the iron-age stone jars that give the area its name: the Plain of Jars. In between the numerous bomb-craters that pock-mark the earth are scattered several hundred huge stone jars dating from 500BC to 500AD.
The jars are located at 90 sites – each containing between 1 and 400 jars – and seven sites have now been cleared of UXO and are open to tourists. Laos is applying for UNESCO World Heritage status for the entire area to help preserve the jars and boost tourism, but much more work needs to be done to make the area safe for tourists before that status can be granted. Three of the jars sites, (the three that were first made safe and opened to tourists between 2004 & 2007 – over 30 years after the bombing stopped) are within 35km of Phonsavan so we decided to do a day-trip without the panniers and trailer (a wise decision given that a few km out of town the roads deteriorate to hard-packed dirt) to visit them. On the way, we passed a MAG team clearing UXO from some farmland.
If our visit to the MAG info centre hadn’t brought home the message that UXO is a real and present danger then this surely did.
Despite their location at the heart of worst UXO contamination, the jars sites are strangely peaceful places. At site one there were a couple of Laotian tourists, and a few more arrived as we were leaving, but we had sites two and three to ourselves.
A number of theories have been mooted as to the purpose of the jars. Local tales favour an ancient race of giants who used the jars as ‘LaoLao’ (rice whisky) glasses. Another theory sticks with the LaoLao theme but suggests they were vats for fermenting vast quantities of the stuff for standard-sized humans (now that would be some party!). The most widely accepted theory is that they are some kind of funerary urn, but whether for a whole body (they’re certainly more than big enough to fit one) or for cremated remains is still being researched and debated.
MAG were brought in to make the sites safe for tourists and have done this in two ways. Between white markers the ground has been swept with metal detectors and any ordnance above ground or below ground has been destroyed. Outside this area are red markers which denote where surface UXO has been removed, but not the underground ordnance. You are advised not to walk in this area. Working in such a historically significant area was particularly challenging and MAG worked with archaeology experts to develop new methods to destroy the bombs without damaging the artefacts.
With time ticking away on our visas we had to drag ourselves away from Phonsavan and head north east towards Sam Neua and Vieng Xai. The terrain became even hillier than it had been between Luang Prabang and Phonsavan. And the days became even hotter. We were lucky on the first couple of big climbs as the weather was fairly overcast, but even so we still dripped with sweat. And then it got really tough. We’re rarely confronted with gradients of more than 5 or 6%…but from Phonsavan to Vieng Xai we were regularly seeing over 12%….a steepness that has us straining every fibre just to keep our heavy rig moving forward at a pitiful 5kph. Add to this a blazing sun and not a breath of wind and we soon realised we were not going to be having a fun day. We hauled ourselves over 1450m that day (the height of Ben Nevis) but covered just 50km. I’m not sure exactly how hot it was, but it was hot enough that even when the road levelled off we were still panting for breath and unable to recover ourselves. Progress slowed to a crawl. We would literally flop off the bike in a patch of shade and lie on the road until we’d composed ourselves, then haul ourselves back into the saddles, strain on the pedals, and gasp and pant our way up to the next patch of shade. On flatter sections we might manage 2-3km between rests. On the steeper sections we sometimes couldn’t even keep the pedals turning for 1km before having to stop. It was a long, long day. We tried pushing the bike but to be honest it was no better. Even the descents were stressful as they were so steep we cooked our brakes, glazing the surface of the pads and losing braking power. We had to stop and let them cool down. It’s the first time that’s happened to us in over 27,000km (inc 2011 trip). After that we began employing our emergency v-brake to take some of the strain off the disks. By 4.30 our legs were like jelly, our lungs were scorched, our heads were melting. On the outskirts of a village we found a little track leading to a clearing that was just the right size for our tent. It was a bit closer to habitation than we’d prefer, but because of the steep terrain suitable sites were few and far between, and to be honest, we were so cooked we didn’t care. We just wanted to stop.
A few of the villagers came to gawp at us as we cooked our dinner, but they politely left when we served up and began to eat. By 8.30 I was in bed and drifting in that ‘exhausted but unable to sleep’ state that can be rather irksome, and Keith was typing up his log. At 9 o’clock we were disturbed by torches and voices outside the tent. It was the police. I was not pleased. I HATE being woken up, particularly when I’ve finally dozed off after the aforementioned irksome state of affairs. They insisted on seeing our passports and visas. I was all for telling them to bloody well come back in the morning, but thankfully Keith was in a more sensible frame of mind. After failing to put them off by explaining that we were in bed and trying to sleep he gallantly got dressed and went out into the bug-infested night whilst I wrapped a scarf around my head and tried to ignore the torchlight glaring into the tent. They spent the next 40 minutes laboriously copying out all our passport and visa details (not made easier by the fact that border guards never seem to put their stamp on a page anywhere near the visa, which had clearly expired, and the visa extension we got in Luang Prabang was only denoted by a biro’d-in note over a stamp that said we could now stay until the 17th instead of the 8th). Keith explained we have pedalled from the UK and showed them our route across Laos. He told them what a tough day we’d had and how tired we were, and of course also threw in some nice comments about how much we like Laos etc. The conversation eventually went something along the lines of this:
Plod: “Why are you here?”
Keith: “We’re cycling to Sam Neua and then to Vietnam.”
Plod: “ Why aren’t you in a guesthouse?”
Keith: “We stayed in guesthouses in Luang Namtha, Nambak, Luang Prabang and Phonsavan, and now we’re going to Sam Neua where we will stay in another guesthouse, but in between it is too far for us to pedal so we camp.”
Plod: “But why are you camping here and not staying in a guesthouse?”
Keith: “Because today it was very hot and the hills were very steep. We have only been able to cycle 50km and we have not seen any guesthouses.”
Plod: “But what do you intend to do here?”
Keith: “We intend to go to sleep – we were asleep. We are very tired.”
Plod: “We need you to stay in a guesthouse.”
Keith: “Is there one in the village?”
Plod: “No. But I think there is one in village X which is about 20km away.”
Keith: “It has taken us all day to ride 50km. I don’t think we can ride another 20km. We are too tired. It is now half past nine at night and dark. The road surface is too dangerous to ride in the dark.”
Plod: “Well, perhaps we can let you stay here for tonight. Are you planning on going into the village? You must not go into the village tonight.”
Keith: “I don’t want to go into the village. I just want to go to bed!”
Honestly. It really was that ridiculous, and I don’t know how Keith kept his polite demeanour. I was gnashing my teeth and muttering dark curses as I really wanted to be asleep and not listening to stupid conversations.
The next day we had more steep hills, but thankfully not so many, and we were helped up one of them by a couple of youngsters on a scooter. They started off insisting on pushing the bike whilst we pedalled (one kid on foot pushing us, the other riding the scooter), and then we hit upon being towed by the scooter. It was rather precarious as I had to lean right forward to grab the handle on the back of the scooter without my pedals bashing into it – and even then there was barely enough room – but it got up us up a couple of steep kilometres that would have taken us considerably longer under our own steam. We gave the guys our business cards by way of a memento and a little thank you, but then they rather spoiled their spontaneous act of kindness by asking for petrol money.
After being disturbed by the plods we took more care the following night to camp well away from habitation. Sadly our ‘perfect’ site turned out to be occupied by an army of little blood-suckers. We thought leeches only lived in damp conditions on riverbanks or near ditches, but twice now we’ve found them in grass where we’re trying to camp. The first night we found them wasn’t too bad, but on the second occasion they were everywhere. Putting the tent up and unpacking our things took far longer than usual as we had to dance around and keep our eyes on our feet to catch them before they breached the shoe/sock barrier and made contact with soft, juicy flesh. Somewhat scarily, crushing them with rocks had little effect – after a few minutes the crumpled body would re-inflate and begin looping towards you like some unstoppable zombie-leech. A quick snip with a pair of scissors is the only answer.
We rolled through Sam Neua, sad that we hadn’t the time to linger as the market looked like a good one, and then there was just one more small climb to breach before rolling into beautiful Vieng Xai.
If we’d thought the rest of Laos was stunning then we were lost for words when we got to Vieng Xai. Densely jungled hills surround a small plain that’s punctured by grey karst peaks dripping with yet more foliage.
Frangipani trees (the national flower of Laos) scent the air and although it’s not a large town it’s been built with wide boulevards and elegant residences that housed the victorious leaders of the Pathet Lao (who subsequently became the governing party in Lao People’s Democratic Republic) when the American bombing finally ceased.
For nine long years the fight for independence was directed from a series of caves built into the karst cliffs around modern-day Vieng Xai. At the time the town didn’t exist, it was simply jungle. Over 2000 people lived in the cave complexes, only able to leave after dark to try to grow some rice and gather food. The seven leaders of the Soviet-funded Pathet Lao had their headquarters here and directed the civil war effort against the US-funded Royalist party from these caves. Against all the odds communication lines were maintained and convoys of food to supplement what they could grow at night managed to get through despite the constant bombardment. Allegedly the US spent $2million a day on bombs. It’s inconceivable that people survived here…and yet they did, raising their families, schooling their children, and defending their land as best they could. We went on a guided tour of the caves and were impressed – there was everything from government offices to a hospital, to a cinema, all hidden in the rock.
From Vieng Xai it is just fifty-five (thankfully predominantly flat or downhill) kilometres to the border with Vietnam. It’s a little-used border so was a breeze to cross. At the Laos side there was no queue at all and we were quickly stamped through. On the Vietnam side there was a queue at customs, but by the time we’d had our passports and visas checked the cars had vanished and we just opened a couple of panniers for inspection and then were waved on our way.
First impressions of Vietnam are:
1 – The roads are awful! We’re hoping matters will improve when we get off the minor road we’re currently on, but at the moment we’re bumping along on broken tarmac punctuated with sections of rock and dirt.
2 – The Vietnamese people seem as determined as the Chinese to abuse our poor Pino. We stopped to buy some eggs just a couple of kilometres over the border, and although we only stopped for a five minutes we had to almost forcibly prevent a woman and a few moments later, her son, from using the Pino as a climbing frame. Grrr.
3 – The Vietnamese are just as noisy as the Chinese, shrieking ‘Hello!’ repeatedly from the minute they see us until the minute we fade into the distance, hooting their horns at anything and everything else on the road, and shouting in hotel corridors until late into the night.
4 – There are no ATMs in the mountains. It took us four days to find one. Luckily we’d bought some Vietnamese Dong back in Luang Prabang in Laos.
Matters improved a little on our second day in Vietnam – there were longer stretches of better tarmac and although people like to touch the bike no-one actually tried to clamber on it again. And the owner of a cafe we stopped in for lunch was really kind to us when Keith took ill (it wasn’t her food, he’d been feeling peaky for the hour before lunch). She let him sleep on a bench and gave him some paracetamol and some other unidentified drugs after he’d finally rushed into the street to vomit. An hour later and he was feeling sufficiently revived to make it to the next town where we took a guesthouse for a couple of nights so Keith could recover properly in an ensuite aircon room – much nicer than being ill in a sweaty tent.
The days have continued to be punishingly hot as we’ve made our way down the Ho Chi Minh Highway (good tarmac but frequently reduced to half a lane by harvested crops that have been spread out to dry on the road). We reached the coast yesterday and Keith enjoyed a quick dip in the South China Sea. We haven’t seen the sea since our ferry crossing from Harwich to Hook of Holland a year ago.
We’ll write more about Vietnam in our next post and leave you with a few last pictures from lovely Laos.