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We left the hotel quite early and followed the directions we had been given last night. I fully expected not to see a bus station and that we would have to double back. If the worst came to the worst we could always head back to the one we arrived at last night where people were touting international buses to Laos. As it turned out at the end of the day this may have been a better option that what we ended up doing but we have no way of knowing that for certain.

Public transport, Laos style

We had expected the bus station to be quite near by so after walking for about ten minutes we asked a policeman. He waved in the direction we were going and indicated “one” which we thought was that we needed to go one block further on. After one block the bus station was still nowhere in sight so we asked again and we waved on in the same direction. Finally a man coming up behind us said “Mohan?” the name of the border town on the Chinese side, and pointed us through an archway to the bus station. We probably would have missed it without his help. He showed us where to get our tickets and we were on the next bus with just a fifteen minute wait. It was a little minibus similar to ones we had got in South America. The main difference though was that people on this bus did not talk to each other whereas in South America everyone chatted and yabbered away non stop.

A bit after we got to the bus station a little bike rickshaw pulled in with a woman and a young girl. The woman, Helena, had matted dreadlocks and looked like she had just come from some sort of hippie commune. We have assumed that the girl, Ruth, was her daughter but never actually asked her. We ended up spending pretty much the rest of the day with them. They are from St Petersburg and they came on the Trans Siberian express to Beijing and travelled down through China. Helena wanted to bring her daughter to China because she will start to learn Chinese at school next year. After Laos they will head to Thailand and keep going until the money runs out. The little girl Ruth is only seven years old and I think she is made of pretty robust stuff. Her mum left her on her own a couple of times to look after their stuff while she went off to buy tickets, drinks or apples (which Ruth ate and then threw up on the bus!). I wished that we could communicate better as St Petersburg is on my list of places to go and visit and it would have been good to learn more about the city. You do not meet many Russians travelling around and I wondered what sort of lifestyle they have there.

We drove through more tropical forest, again cutting across the work for the new express road. It really is a massive construction project but a lot of the work still seems to be labour intensive. Next to the road men were sitting with chisels and hammers bashing away at big lumps of rock to make the stone bricks used for the supporting walls. When we finally got through the border a couple of Western men in orange high visibility jackets drove past us on motorbikes so I think that western companies are involved in the project and that Chinese labour does most of the back breaking work.

The scenery here is so unlike anything we have in the UK and it is beyond by abilities to do it justice and describe it. Trees lined the roads so we have not even been able to get many photos along the way. It reminds me of pictures you see in films like Tarzan and Gorillas in the Mist of vast expanses of hills/mountains stretching into the distance all covered in thick forest and vegetation. Clouds above mingled with steam and mist rising from the land with the sun just starting to break through.

When we reached Mohan, the Chinese border town, I was surprised to see quite a large town. Everything looked very neat and tidy with grass verges lining the roads, the first I can recall seeing in China. It is almost as if the town has been newly built in readiness for the express road coming through. Chinese immigration was easy as we just had to fill out a departure form and get a stamp in our passport. Outside the immigration office a more military looking checkpoint was set up so we had to show our passports to the guards there too. And then we were sort of out of China but not quite into Laos, whose border is three kilometres further up the road. Local entrepreneurs are on hand with dusty and dirty trucks ready to take you that distance for a couple of Yuan. It was the middle of the day and hot so it was definitely money well spent.

If you ever do this border crossing treat what Lonely Planet says about it as a great piece of fictional creative writing. Their book implies that there is a town on the other side with a bank where you can get Laos currency and easy transport connections further into Laos. It is simply not true. There is one large building which is the immigration post. The staff there live up to the Laos reputation of everyone being laid back and relaxed and I think it is only because Stef went wandering around the building to see what was behind it that they realised there were people waiting to come through. Finally someone turned up to process people’s entry.

Although you can get a visa on arrival we had applied for ours in Kunming in China. There we had been given a sixty day visa, which we fortunately had not paid extra for because at the border the maximum they would give is thirty days. Having seen the crossing I have no confidence that people applying for visas on arrival would be successful. We met an American there who had been told in Udomxai (just under four hours away) that he could get a visa extension here. He had a wasted trip because the people here refused to give an extension.

The border also gave us our first taste of the Lao people’s approach to queuing which Lonely Planet accurately describes. They have no concept of a queue and simply push in in front of you. It seems that he who is seen first is served first no matter who else is around. They also like to try and deal with three people at the same time, rather than sorting things out for one person at a time, which also slows down the overall process.

We eventually got through and then went to look for the bank and the bus. There was no evidence of either. About two hundred metres further down the dirt road, the tarmac stops between the Chinese and Laos border controls, there was a wooden shelter with minibuses and open sided trucks sat outside. As we walked down a pick up stopped and offered to take us part of the way to Na Toei. The American quickly hopped on board (a trend of western travellers in the know in Laos) but there was clearly not enough room for me, Stef, Helena, Ruth and our luggage. He did not even wave goodbye as the pickup pulled away.

We found ourselves really at the mercy of the Laos drivers. The American had warned us that they are catching on fast here to the ability to charge Western tourists different rates to the local people. They also know that when you cross the border you do not really have an accurate and up to date feel for local prices so in effect we were sitting ducks. For a private car that would leave straight away they wanted something like double the amount we had expected to pay based on Lonely Planet. Naturally we refused to pay and had to sit and wait until more people turned up for the regular trip. Stef worked out later that we were arguing the toss about £2.50. In London terms it hardly seemed the bother, especially as it is about a four hour journey. However, there is an unwritten code of responsibility to switch your mindset into the local cost of living so that you do not perpetuate tourist driven inflation that makes prices extortionately high for the local people.

The drivers said they would leave at one o’clock but about thirty minutes before that another couple of backpackers turned up also wanting to go to Udomxai so we left a bit early. This couple were a bit odd. He, Sean, was from Derby and had met Sabrina, a German who now has a Derbyshire accent, while they were both travelling. They are still in the getting to know you/young love sort of phase and made pretty irritating travel companions with constant giggling and tickling. They have both been to Laos before and like the American before hand, also know the ropes of travelling here.

We were bundled into the back of a sawngthaew, which is essentially a pick up truck that has covered bench seats fitted into the open part at the back. It was a very rocky and bumpy journey and both Stef and I bashed our heads on the roof as we went over yet another pothole. This truck took us as far as Na Toei, the junction with the main road that goes from Luang Nam Tha to Udomxai and then down through Laos. Na Toei was a small village, not much more than a collection of bamboo houses, that only seems to be there because of the road junction. Here we had to wait for just under two hours for a bus to take us to Udomxai.

With time to kill we headed for a local eatery. There a man said that a bus was leaving a bit earlier and that it was going all the way to Luang Prabang, one of the main sites and another six hours further on from Udomxai. It seemed like a good option to try and get that far so we all decided to give it a shot. When the man at the restaurant said the bus would be leaving soon, Sean and Sabrina shot off pretty quickly while Stef and Helena went to get drinks for the trip. We soon found out why. This “bus” was simply a larger sawngthaew which was already pretty full by the time we got there.

It was not so much the volume of people in the truck but the amount of stuff they had with them – huge bags of shopping, logs and rice which were all just piled onto the floor in the middle of the van, not leaving much leg or foot room for the rest of us. Sean and Sabrina sat and watched as we struggled on with our bags, so much for travellers helping each other! A couple of local men got off the sawngthaew so that we could get on and they then perched on the back, one almost not making it. I have to say that the start of that trip rates as the most uncomfortable I have done so far. My left leg was twisted between bags and my foot was wedged under Sabrina’s pack. My right leg did not fare much better. Stef was in a similar state of play and we were both getting irritable as the discomfort set in, especially knowing that we had many more hours to go. As people gradually got off we were able to get a bit more comfortable but still it was not the best of journeys.

Lonely Planet says that the road network in Laos has been improved greatly in recent years so I had expected the road from Na Toei to be in reasonable nick. Not so. It was tarmac'd but there were lots of sections where there were potholes in the road or big dips and bumps where it has subsided over the years. We soon perfected the art of crouching down each time the van slowed, knowing that a bump was coming, and not wanting to bash our heads again. These things are not designed with tall people in mind!

Most of the time we were on a gradual down hill incline, winding around the mountains and valleys. We passed through lots of small Laos villages. Here the traditional houses are built on wooden stilts. The ground floor is used for storing wood and livestock and the house itself is up a steep set of stairs. Further south I saw weaving looms also on the ground under the houses. Life looks hard here and the people looked poor but happy. There is a very relaxed and laid back atmosphere with people seeming to just sit back and watch the world go by.

It took about three hours to get from Na Toei to Udomxai by which time the only passengers left were the western backpackers. Rather than carrying on to Luang Prabang they told us that we would have to wait for another hour and then change onto a bigger bus to finish the trip. The road goes through the mountains and it would be difficult in the truck and too cold in the open back for us to go. Stef and I ummed and aheed about what to do. We had not originally planned to go as far as Luang Prabang today. We were both feeling very dusty, tired and had numb bums and the prospect of another six hours was not great.

As we pondered we met a Dutch family who said it would probably be closer to eight hours to get to Luang Prabang. That pretty much sealed it for us as neither of us wanted to arrive in a new town at two in the morning with no hotel booked, no way of getting there from the bus station and no local currency to pay a tuk-tuk (three wheeled motorbike taxi – see the pictures). Across the road from the bus station is a new hotel, not in Lonely Planet, that for 70,000 kip (about £3.50) had a clean double room with bathroom – fine by us. Helena, not having been keen on doing such a long journey with her young daughter also came across to the hotel but decided it was too expensive and went back and got the bus. We both thought she was mad.

We checked in, spent some time in our room (long enough to discover English speaking TV channels) and then headed up the road to find a local eatery. There was a place by the junction where the road turns down to the bus station. I have no idea what it is called but we had a really tasty meal there. The only other people eating there were Western tourists (four French people and a sole Dutch lady). My final gripe with Lonely Planet for the day is that it states Chinese Yuan are widely accepted throughout Laos, as well as US dollars, Thai Bhat and the local Kip currency. The people at this place were not at all keen to take Yuan so no doubt we have been well and truly stung on the exchange rate.

The staff at the hotel were all very friendly and wished us good night as we climbed the stairs again in our socks (shoes are taken off at the door here). We tucked ourselves up in bed and both fell asleep watching Pirates of the Caribbean.

We woke early to get the bus down to Luang Prabang. The bus station Bus station is a large open concrete shelter with about ten “bays” for buses to pull up. Each has sign in Lao script and English confirming where they are going so it was easy to find where we needed to be. The chap from the bus yesterday said that a bus would leave at nine in the morning today but we thought we would get there early just in case. A bus did leave at nine but it was a little minibus not a big coach style bus. By the time we had our tickets and went to the right place it was full, although that did not stop them trying to get us to squeeze onto it.

Tropical Laos

The next bus did not leave for two and a half hours but it soon pulled up into the empty bus bay. The Lao way seems to be to get on a bus as soon as it comes into the bus station and simply wait for it to go. Stef seeing this happening on other buses made me get onto the bus quickly after only one other person had got on. We stowed our bags on the floor in front of us rather than having them go up top, much to the annoyance of a woman who ended up perched on them for most of the trip. Every bus in the station seemed to be doing the same thing and there must have been a couple of hundred people who all sat for almost two hours waiting for their bus to go. It was a good ploy though because our bus was full.

It left on time and headed down yet more lumpy bumpy roads. If what we saw was the improved road surface I dread to think what this journey was like before. As in southern China our route took us high up into the hills (or are they mountains?) and we climbed for a good two hours. We twisted and turned climbing ever upwards and as we had in South America, every time I though we had got to the top a higher peak came into view around a corner. For much of the route electricity pylons lined the road, only sometimes cutting across a valley rather than following the road. What I want to know is how do they get the cables across the valley?

Here the landscape was again very green and tropical and I said to Stef that I was waiting to see monkeys and gorillas swinging through the trees. We did pass an elephant at one point although this one was no longer wild. The mist from the ground again rose up to meet the clouds in the sky but the sun only shone through when we were back down at lower altitudes. Everywhere you can see the signs of the local slash-and-burn agriculture, clearing swathes of forest land and burning the scrub to provide fertile soil for a year or two (it is then unusable for about eight years). With the population so low this is currently a sustainable practice but it leaves scars on the landscape and no room for wildlife.

We passed through more very poor villages where kids with few clothes on played in the dirt or on the streets. Pigs seem to be plentiful here, and large, with their bellies (full of piglets?) scraping along the ground as they walked. There were chickens being followed around by their chicklets and very colourful cockerels proudly strutting their stuff. The local women were also very colourful with bright patterned sarongs with gold and silver thread woven through them. It seems to be a national holiday and young girls were out in traditional dress (white trousers and a long shirt with colourful panels/aprons over the top – it is incredible that they can keep the whites white in all the dust that gets blown up) playing some sort of a game with a ball.

Our bus was so full that there were people standing in the door well and up front five people had crammed into the space for four. Between us and our bags a young man from Luang Prabang was perched on a small stall. He trained to be a teacher and studied English for three years so we chatted to him off and on. Any teaching aspirations seem to have evaporated as he is now an agricultural researcher. I do not know what it is about the maps in Lonely Planet but even this man, who is obviously educated (not something highly valued in Laos) could not make head or tail of the town centre map when we asked him to tell us where the bus would stop.

Maps and books in general seem to be luxury items and I have the feeling that most people here rarely see them. While we waited for the bus to leave Stef was writing his diary and people seemed fascinated by it and the fact that he wrote in a script different to the Laos script. The pictures in Lonely Planet also went down well and each time we got the book out to read during the journey I could sense the chaps behind us peering over our shoulder to have a look. Even the bus passing through the villages seemed to be a novelty factor even though several pass through each day. The local kids started at the bus with eyes wide open and that was before they spotted a couple of western faces near the front.

Unfortunately, the Chinese habit of spitting everywhere is also present in Laos and I suspect we will see it in Vietnam too. There was lots of spitting on the bus and I hope that it all went out the window but I doubt that is the case. One the ladies perched in the door well was travel sick, OK to start with as she was on the other side of the bus but later she switched to our side. Fortunately Stef spotted what was about to happen and shut the window before we got covered in vomit! The bus stopped a couple of times, once for petrol, once for a ten minute driver’s break and two other times for people to go to the loo. Not that there were any loos here for them to use. It is perfectly acceptable to just pee on the side of the road.

Off and on I mused about whether we did the right thing staying in Udomxai last night. The only full blown coach style bus (the VIP bus) to do this trip is the one that leaves Udomxai at 6pm. I kept reminding myself that we would have arrived in the middle of the night with nowhere to go and no way of finding and getting our bearings. Also we would have missed the chance to see the countryside around us. It was still a struggle make these factors outweigh the boredom that had well and truly set in. I really do not enjoy long bus journeys!

After five and a half hours we finally arrived at a bus station in Luang Prabang where tuk tuk’s were on hand to take you to your final destination. The local chap we had chatted with on the bus confirmed that the price they were asking was fair and waved us on our way. On the bus he had asked us how much we had paid for our bus tickets, which was the same as him. He is aware that these days tourists are made to pay higher prices than the locals something he did not think was fair. As we headed into the centre of Luang Prabang I understood why he had not been able to make sense of our map. The bus station was about ten minutes or so out of town and off the map.

As we turned off the main road and into town within minutes we had seen more western tourists than we have seen since Peru. We had chosen a guesthouse hotel out of Lonely Planet expecting to pay around USD25 for a night. When we got there they said their original building was full but they now have a second one a few minutes drive away. They are obviously doing well and have refurbished the original block too. As a result prices have gone up to USD40 a night for one of the standard rooms whereas Lonely Planet states this price for the biggest room.

Stef perched on the back of the owner’s scooter and went off to look at the room. Even though it was a good room we decided USD40 was too much to pay and decided to walk on and look at a place just up the street. Here too they were almost full but the room they had available was nowhere near as good as the first place. We decided to head back there and were met en route by the chap from reception telling us that he could after all give us a discount and let us have the room for USD35. We have no idea whether they also have a room tomorrow but no doubt we’ll find out in the morning.

The room is neat, tidy and clean and decorated very much with western tastes in mind. It has HBO and an English language film channel, air con and a mossie net. It was dark by the time we checked in but in the daytime we have a view out onto the Mekong River. We relaxed for a while and then headed out to eat, Stef in particular feeling very hungry not having eaten since last night as we were both wary about combining potentially dodgy food with a long bus trip. We ate at one of the places by the river, opting for traditional Lao food. Neither of us really thought much of it and we both left feeling dissatisfied.

Luang Prabang's Mass Transport System

Our book says that on Sundays pretty much everything in Laos closes down so we decided to just have a relaxed and easy day, ambling about town, adjusting to the climate and getting our bearings. It felt pretty warm as we headed out and although there was sunshine it was quite hazy and grey as well.

We turned right out of our hotel and followed the road round the peninsula that separates the Mekong River from the Nam Khan. There is a totally relaxed and sleepy atmosphere about the place with some people cycling, some walking and a fair few just sitting around watching the day go by. The water level in the river is pretty low and there is a sandbar in the middle which has been turned into fields for crops. No doubt in the rainy season these fields are under water so it is a short term plot to harvest.

Along the river banks terraced fields led down to the water’s edge and people were out and about watering their colourful crops. The soil looks very sandy but also as if it is pretty fertile. Local kids were mucking about in the water, part swimming and part just floating along with the current, which seemed quite strong. We stopped for breakfast at a little café on the river and watched as they larked about, running barefoot up and down the banks to start the downstream float all over again.

As we turned to head onto the main street we stopped off at our first temple, Wat Siphoutthabat Thipparam. A set of steps led up from the road into a small garden with the temple to our left and the monks living quarters ahead and to the right. As we made our way into the temple one of the monks came to talk to us. He was the Ven. Khaonoy Thammavong, a teacher at the temple’s school and he also seemed to be the person with overall responsibility for the temple.

He looked as if he was in his mid to late twenties and came here last year after spending time in Thailand where he gained his teaching qualification. The temple has basic facilities and he is now starting the process of building it up and improving the facilities for the monks and their education. His first priority has been to create a library which has religious texts as well as novels and some general management type text books. A friend of his, Ven. VanThong Sysavath, also came with him from Thailand and they have lots of plans and ideas of what they want to achieve. You can sense an eagerness in them to get going and make a difference but they both know that it will be a long and slow process that will evolve in stages.

They told us that in Luang Prabang there are fifty five active temples and about seven hundred monks. The monk’s education combines normal schooling with their religious education and meditation also seems to be an important part of their life, so much so that they tried several times to get us to come to one of their sessions. Despite their other worldy lifestyle they are keen to keep up with the modern world and launching a website seemed high on their list of priorities. It was certainly higher up the pecking order than maintaining the temple's buildings, which have seen better days. They explained that maintenance of material things is way down compared to ensuring that people are living in accordance with Buddhist principles.

As we chatted VanThong adjusted his robes which are simple but complex at the same time. They have a basic tunic which has pockets on the front but then over that comes a wide almost tube of material that they wrap around and tuck in, each seeming to do so in a different way. When the French were here they were suspicious of the monks robes and thought they used them to hid books and other papers which the French were in the process of destroying. Although most of the monks we saw here wore orange, there were colour differences with some yellow, brown and red. These reflect different roles and responsibilities within the temple and could signify that someone was a teacher or the master monk.

From the temple we carried on up the main road of this part of town, Th Sisavangvong, stopping at the All Lao Service Co to ask about travel options down to Vang Vieng, Vientiane and Phonsavan. We have a bit of a dilemma of conscience because the cost effective way to travel is by bus but a nine hour bus journey can be replaced for a forty minute flight. Much as the bus is the way to see the local countryside neither of us has a great tolerance for long bus journeys, even less so in Laos where the roads are so poor. We walked away armed with information and options and will mull over whether cost or speed wins.

With a whole stash of Chinese Yuan to change we went in search of a bank, but again found that this currency is not as highly liked as Lonely Planet implies. The Banque pour le Commerce Extérior Lao would change our Yuan but at a very bad rate. Fortunately the Lao Development Bank further up the road (opposite the handicraft market) played ball and gave us a fair rate. Considering everything is meant to be closed at it is Sunday everything seemed to be open. It could just be another symptom of tourism changing the local way of life.

From here we criss crossed down through small streets to end up back down by the river. This part of town was a real mix of old and new, the old being the traditional houses of the local people and the new being concrete boxes going up all over the place that were very obviously going to be yet more guesthouses for tourists. The central part of town is a cultural mix of mainly Dutch, French, Australian, British and German and we were back into our “guess the nationality from the look of people” game. It makes me wonder what the locals make of it all. Even the cheap guesthouses will have facilities that are probably better than in most of the local’s homes and I am intrigued to know if it just washed by them or whether it is creating a yearning for a different standard of living. Certainly the prices in the café’s reflect the international mix of people here and it seems more expensive than China.

It was mainly small paths, wide enough for a motorbike but not much more, that crossed between most of the houses. Some were wider and were generally where the guesthouse entrances were but the smaller paths took you to the local houses. We sensed that not many tourists walked down these but people were all friendly and said sabaidee, hello. I was left with an impression of colourful gardens and plants in pots.

Young monks in Luang Prabang

Stef stopped for a bowl of noodles at a little riverside café used by the locals, ignoring the tourist café next door. It was a small bamboo hut perched on stilts on the riverbank with a single table flanked by benches for you to sit at. A young chap dragged himself away from his music video long enough to take an order and then a woman appeared who did the cooking. The result was a big bowl of noodle soup which Stef declared to be bland until he started to doctor it with the usual concoction of chilli and other sauces. Even the woman from the café was surprised to see him add so much chilli and she brought him cups of tea and water to cool his mouth down. I somehow think it slightly made her day to have foreign tourists in her café, no doubt not a regular occurrence.

As Stef slurped his noodles in true Chinese style we watched a group of chaps trying to get their concrete mixer going again. It looked as if the mixing “bowl” part had tipped a load of concrete onto the floor and that it had set before anyone noticed. The only problem was that it was covering part of the mixer itself which was now useless until it had been freed up. There was much bashing and banging mixed in with chuckles and giggles from all concerned. Whether they ever got it going again I have no idea.

In the evening for dinner we walked along the river and down to the Somchanh restaurant which from the write up in Lonely Planet sounded like a good bet. We perhaps should have known better when we got there and there was only one small group of local looking people sitting around drinking and chatting. There were no staff in sight and Stef went in search of menus and service. We never got everything that we ordered and I am not sure that what they actually brought out to us was what we did order. The food was not very good and we probably could have simply got up and walked away without paying, the staff were that disinterested.

To try and rectify a poor meal we stopped on our way back at a French restaurant which looked reasonably new. It was tastefully decorated and had a little bar area at the front. When we arrived there were still some people eating inside and with jazz playing softly in the background it was a nice place to round off a meal. We ordered a desert and coffee but before they arrived everyone else had finished their meals, paid up and left so it was just us and the staff left in the place and it was not yet nine thirty at night. I could sense the staff thinking "we can shut up shop as soon as they've finished". Stef was oblivious, probably partly due to the large slug of dark rum he was having with his hot chocolate.

Temple detail

We went for breakfast at the Tum Tum Cheng café which was tasty but overpriced for what we had, no doubt a symptom of its cooking school. From here we headed for the Wat Xieng Thong, the former royal temple of Luang Prabang which was built in 1560. We entered from the city entrance which comes in next to the Funerary Carriage house. Inside is a large ornate, gilded carriage that was used to carry the funeral urns of the royal family. It is quite an impressive site although it is a shame that the carriage will never be out and in use again. The building was constructed around the carriage and would need to be demolished if the carriage ever had to be moved.

Although this building was ornate, it paled beside the main sim or ordination hall. This has been constructed in a typical Luang Prabang style and has tiers of roofs that come down low to the ground. The outside is highly decorated with glass mosaics that shimmer in the sunlight and the inside has gilded patterns on the walls and supporting columns. Smaller buildings off to the side of the sim were equally ornately decorated, creating a stark contrast to the simplicity of the monk’s quarters.

A group of monks were sat chatting to each other on what seemed a rare break from the continual activity that most seem to be occupied with. Stef asked he could take their photo and the one that said “no” to the “yes” from all the others found himself slightly ribbed and teased by his peers. We have been surprised by how many speak English, or at least how many say “hello, how are you” and it again brings about a little frustration that we are at a loss with the language here as we were in China.

Dotted around the temple complex were a number of stupas, pillars which must have some religious significance but we have not yet worked out what it is. A boathouse shielded two long and narrow boats from the elements just by the river side entrance which we used to get back down to our hotel. It creates an impressive way to first see the temple as wide steps, flanked by large lion statues, lead up from the river to the temple complex.

We had a quick stop at our hotel then headed back to the central part of tourist ville where coffee and cakes at the Scandinavian Bakery set us up for the afternoon. At the tour office we booked tickets to go by bus down to Vang Vieng, opting for the slightly faster mini bus route. I think we both have mixed feelings about Vang Vieng. The landscape will be similar to what we saw around Yangshuo in China and it will also be wall to wall western tourists, something that neither of us particularly likes.

In the afternoon we went to the Royal Palace Museum. This was built for King Sisavang Vong and his family in 1904 and, as with the temple, is accessible directly from the Mekong River. Set in pretty gardens the site also houses the local theatre, which we came back to in the evening for a traditional dance performance. Just inside the grounds to the right of the entrance is a new ornate pavilion which is still being finished. Once complete it will house the Pha Bang, an 83cm tall Buddha which is about one thousand years old and has a fair history of being traded from one set of hands to another. When we were there painters were still putting the finished coats to the columns on the inside and the seven headed dragons that flank the steps on the outside. They are also still in the process of adding gold leaf to the building and small flakes of gold were just lying about on the floor. One has now been added to our small collection of bits we have acquired along the way.

The tour of the main Palace Museum starts on the outside where you are directed to the current home of the Pha Bang. Much as it has a complex history it did not really create an impression on me as it was dwarfed by the sets of carved elephant tusks on display all around the room. On the inside, the palace was a real contrast of public and private spaces. The main entrance was a lofty room with a very French style, the focus of which was a large square chair on which the master monk sat to receive guests and perform ceremonies. Rooms led off to the right and left with the main throne room being set behind the entrance.

Around the throne room were more glass mosaics. I thought they had been sewn onto fabric which was then stuck to the wall but no. The walls have all been painted a rich dark red and the glass mosaic has been applied directly onto it. The public rooms of the palace all seem to have been refurbished and made more grand by the last King, no doubt his way of stamping his mark when he came to the throne. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take any photos inside the palace but it was awash with bright colours and character.

Traditional Lao dance/theatre

The rooms leading right and left off the main entrance were also for public use serving as reception rooms for the King, Queen and the Secretary. They too were highly decorated, but more in a French style. In the Secretary’s reception there is a display of some of the gifts that have been given to Laos as diplomatic gifts. They are displayed by country and I was staggered when I got to the case with gifts from America. In the early 1970’s, Lyndon Johnson the American President sent a piece of rock from the moon with a message that he hoped it would help to forge peace and unity across the world. I would love to know what the Laos people made of it bearing in mind that at the same time the USA was in the process of bombing north eastern Laos to bits, a legacy that still plagues them today with tons of unexploded ordnance.

Set behind the public rooms were the private rooms of the Royal family. These were almost monastic in their simplicity. The King and Queen had separate bedrooms which were both large, sparsely furnished and with just one or two paintings hanging on the walls. The same was true of the dining room. It was a total contrast to the public rooms but apparently is an accurate reflection of the rooms as they were when the royal family lived here. It was also very modest compared to stately homes and castles that we are used to seeing in Europe.

Over the road from the museum we climbed up the slopes of Phu Si which, from one hundred metres up, gives you a good view over Luang Prabang. We were surprised at how big the town was, again realising as we did in Lijiang that the map in Lonely Planet just focuses on a small area of the town. Monks at a temple at the top were again happy to chat and told us that the golden temple we could see was one were they go, effectively on retreat. Below us the town radiated out amongst the palm trees and in the distance we could see the runway from the airport.

With time to spare before we went to our traditional performance I went in search of a much needed haircut. We had spotted a place down by the river so I left Stef in a café and went in for the chop. Here communication was a problem for the first time since we had arrived in Luang Prabang but old photos of my hair when it was short bridged the gap. I was a bit surprised to be waved onto a bed and motioned to lie down. That was nothing compared to the shock of icy cold water on your head when you have just come in from the heat of mid afternoon. About twenty minutes later, and 30,000 Kip poorer (£1.50) I came away with the cheapest haircut I can ever remember having. Needless to say it is not perfect but it will do the trick and was a much needed tidy up.

I could not see Stef anywhere along the river so worked my way back to the hotel hoping to find him there. Not so. On my way back I spied him having what looked like a confrontation with the staff of the café he had stopped at. He had ordered some food but what was delivered was not what he ordered and the replacement was also pretty poor. With me not around to stop him he had decided to argue the toss and refuse to pay, probably right in principle but hardly worth the effort considering how much money he was talking about. I bet Westerners were cursed a few times at that place today.

We ambled back through more little streets and headed to the theatre. Everywhere you look there are temples and I have lost count of how many we walked through during the day. They all have a similar design of a main sim, a drum tower, the monks living quarters and then various smaller temples or stupas dotted around. They are also for the most part pretty ornate, but all showing signs of wear and tear.

The theatre was back in the Palace grounds, on the second floor of the building to the left as you walk in. It looked like it was originally a large reception room but a stage and rows of chairs have been added in. Depending on how much you paid for your tickets you either got a comfortable lounge chair, a normal upright chair or a plastic garden chair. On the right of the stage a small orchestra, all men, sat and started to tune up their instruments waiting for the performance to begin.

Before the show about seven men and women came onto the stage and sat in a line facing forwards. They conducted a small ceremony with some chanting which ended with them coming out into the audience and tying cotton threads onto everybody’s left and right wrists. They said something to each person as they tied on the threads but we have no idea what this was all for or what the symbolism was.

The main performance was similar to the dance we had seen in Kerala in India. There were decorative silk costumes and most of the performers wore masks which gave them larger than life features. We had been given notes before hand explaining the story which was all about a baddie spying a beautiful girl and deciding he wanted her, the plots he hatched to get her and the steps taken by others to try and save her. I think it is part of the Ramayana tales and if we want to see the end we will need to come back on Wednesday and Saturday when they perform parts two and three of the story.

In this and the other dances some of the characters were animals and I thought the performers had cleverly reflected the movements of the animals. One dance was a monkey dance and as about ten men kept leaping about and pretending to scratch themselves I could feel my skin start to crawl and itch. The opening and closing dances were performed by the ladies who, dressed in silk sarongs and blouses, were graceful and calm in the way they glided about the stage. It was definitely worth going to see.

As we made it back out onto the main street we found ourselves in the middle of a large street market which happens every night. One end of the main Th Sisavangvong is closed off to traffic and stalls are set up on either side of the road and down the middle. You do not need to walk far to see that they are all pretty much selling the same stuff. Alongside the jewellery, bags and slippers were beautiful duvets and linens. Stef was on the look out for an interesting opium pip and was less than interested but I though the linen was pretty beautiful. We did have a look at some but I think they may have been a bit on the small side for a UK sized double duvet so I left empty handed. It is probably just as well.

Morning alms ceremony

We had a bit of a change of plans when we woke on Tuesday. What was meant to have been a good night’s sleep last night in advance of a bus trip down to Vang Vieng turned out to be a restless night. Stef has been burning up with a bit of a temperature and rather than sitting on a bus for a few hours he really only wants to be sitting somewhere within running distance of a loo! Our alarm had woken us up and as we agreed to sit it out in Luang Prabang for another day I heard noises outside and went to have a look.

Around town we had seen, but not close enough up to be able to read them, small posters about Luang Prabang’s Alms giving ceremony and I think that is what was going on beneath our window. A little further down the street some of the local people were sat on low stools with bowls of rice in front of them. Walking in a long line one behind the other, were monks from the local temples, each with a large covered bowl slung in a loop of material over their shoulder. As they walked past the locals they lifted the lid off their bowl and the local people put in some rice.

The temples have no source of income other than donations so this must be one of their main sources of food. It is customary for young boys to spend some time as a monk before they settle down to marry so I suppose in some ways the donations of the local people are ensuring that their own children in the monastery get food to eat. A commercially minded lady who saw me watching motioned for me to come and buy some rice to give and I hate to say that I did. Some of the monks were happy to take the food I offered but others were not. I felt like a real fraud and worse than that felt ripped off when more and more was forced into my hands and then a huge bill was stumped up at the end. I would have preferred to give the money directly to the temple as I am sure the lady pocketed the profit and kept it for herself.

An early call to the tour company we had booked our bus tickets through cancelled our travel plans for today. Stef was definitely not himself and spent most of the day dozing and not really able to focus on anything. We decided to skip Vang Vieng and head straight for Vientiane tomorrow. The only downside was that by the time we had made it down to the tour agency to change our travel plans it was late afternoon and there were only seats on the evening plane, which meant another day in Luang Prabang on Wednesday. It probably worked out in our favour as by Wednesday I was also starting to feel under the weather. We spent most of the day in an internet café catching up on admin and as the day wore on I started to feel worse and worse.

We hopped in our tuk tuk to go to the airport for our flight to Vientiane. It was a tiny little place, again reminiscent of some of the smaller places we had been to in South America. As we waited for the plane to arrive my tummy rumbled away quite nicely and I looked forward to being in a hotel and near a loo at the other end! The flight was a short forty minute hop and before long we were in a taxi and off to the Inter City Hotel.

From the outside it did not look too great but our room is large and airy with lots of dark wood furniture and a hard wood floor. It has a comfy bed which I crashed into not longer after we checked in and, as with last night, we were glad to have HBO and Star Movies to keep us entertained.

Why Laos didn't make it to the World Cup
Languid beers by the Mekong

Well, our first day in Vientiane was not much better than our last two in Luang Prabang. Stef spent most of the night in the bathroom and although I managed to sleep I still felt pretty foul in the morning. Stef made it to breakfast but had to go on his own because I could not face the thought of food. When he came back he promptly went back to bed and made up for last night’s lack of sleep.

By the time we made it out and about it was already almost five in the afternoon. Leaving the air conditioned cool of our room we were met by a wall of warm, thick air when we went outside, a real shock to our senses. Neither of us was feeling great but we both knew that we needed to be out and about for a while. We ambled along Th Fa Ngum heading for the local bank where we wanted to change the last of our Chinese Yuan into US Dollars. No luck there as they do not accept them.

Both wanting to show willing, but both quietly just wanting to go back to the coolness and near a loo-ness of our room, we turned left and ambled through town for a while with no real plan of where we were going. The centre of Vientiane seems very small and, for a capital city, pretty quiet. There is more traffic on the roads here than we have seen for a while, probably since Lijiang in China but it is still low key. We soon saw evidence of the local sewage system and understood the warnings in Lonely Planet about avoiding a thoroughly shitty end to the day. The sewers run along the side of the streets. For the most part they are covered over with concrete slabs but quite often the slabs are missing or have collapsed so if you do not watch where you are going you run the risk of falling in – nice!!

Like Luang Prabang, Vientiane seems to be full of Western tourists, guesthouses and agencies selling bus and plane tickets. In both places I think it would be interesting to get all the foreign visitors together and count the number of copies of Lonely Planet and, to a lesser degree, Rough Guide books that are in town. There must be hundreds if not thousands. Some of the guesthouses were fully booked and were turning people away. Where ever there was a guesthouse there was also a chap with a tuk tuk waiting to take you where ever you wanted to go.

After about half an hour of slow mooching we found ourselves back on the banks of the Mekong and heading in the direction of our hotel. A car park had been turned into a football pitch with balls bouncing off the curb back into play being an acceptable part of the rules. The goalie of one team obviously felt his team mates were doing a great job as he was lying down stretched out on the floor in the goal he was defending, watching the play taking place in front of him. Further along the river in what looked like an open air market building Vientiane's free evening aerobic session was well and truly underway. About five people were doing their stuff on a raised platform setting the example to the thirty or so people below who were following them. Most of the people there were locals but there were a couple of very hot looking Westerners also taking part.

We stopped off for a cooling drink at the Riverside Café and watched the sun go down in the distance. It seems strange that on the other side of the river is a different country, Thailand. Stef was tempted by food and warily munched his way through some pork and rice before we both admitted that we just wanted to head back to the hotel. It is unusual for both of us to feel so out of sorts at the same time. We were so bad that we actually sat through the last forty minutes or so of Honey I Grew the Kids and found it amusing. The hotel’s restaurant was a safe, and tasty, option for dinner and we were back in bed by about nine o’clock, both with tummies grumbling and rumbling away.

Golden Pha That Lua
Buddhas galore

We both had a much better night’s sleep and feel that we are on the mend. Our aim of getting up and out early before it got too hot did not quite materialise though and it was almost ten before we hit the streets. Our first stop was a bank, to try again to change our remaining Chinese currency, which again failed. Our next task was to book onward flights tickets both internally within Laos, to Phonsovan, and then on to Hanoi, our first stop in Vietnam.

Diethelm Travel, an agency who seem to deal with Germans (not that the name is much of a give away on this one) was close by so we gave them a try. They could not get us onto flights tomorrow for Phonsovan so we looked at a detour down south to Pakse and Champasak to fill time. It was an expensive detour and not what we really wanted to do so we left saying we would think about it and go back. Round the corner was the Lao Airways office so we stopped there on the off chance that they may have different options, and they did. They came up with flights that Diethelm seemed to have no knowledge of and before long we had tickets for what we wanted.

That gave us the rest of the day free to do some sight seeing around Vientiane. A tuk tuk took us up to Patuxai which is on the outer edge of the town centre plan in Lonely Planet. It was probably only about a kilometre from where we were but in the midday heat walking was not a sensible option. We were both again surprised at how small Vientiane is, considering that it is the capital city of Laos. With a population of around two hundred thousand it is the size of a smallish town in the UK.

We went up Th Lan Xang, one of the main streets which had a few lanes of traffic going in either way. There are rules of the road here but lane markings are a waste of time. Patuxai is a Marble Arch/Arc de Triomphe style construction spanning a junction in the road. It was built out of concrete bought by the US which was meant to be used to build a new airport, hence the expats “vertical runway” nickname. From a distance it looks pretty impressive but close up you can see that forty years worth of weathering is taking its toll and parts of the concrete are starting to fall away.

It has been built in typical Lao style with temple like roofing and motifs. Where it has also been decorated there are highly coloured murals and some glass mosaics. The upheaval and bombings the country faced in the late nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies meant that the project was never completed and most of it is just bare concrete. You can walk up to the top from where there are good views out and across Vientiane.

A little further out of town is Pha That Luang which is a large Buddhist stupa set in a walled enclosure. Re-gilded in 1995 to celebrate the Lao People’s Republic’s twentieth anniversary, it shimmered away in the midday sun. The wall surrounding it is a cloister which provided some welcome shade from the heat. At four points around the stupa steps lead up a level and you can walk around the stupa itself seeing the different decoration at various levels of the structure. In the cloister local artists had their work on display for passing tourists to admire and snap up. It was punishingly hot in the sun and we did not linger here for long.

Our tuk tuk took us back into town to Wat Si Saket, a temple built in 1818 and one of Vientiane’s oldest surviving temples.  As with Patuxai and Pha That Luang there was a gringo tax to get in and at all three the price for foreigners was 250% of the price for locals. It is the first time we have come across this in China and Laos, although it was quite common in India. The outer temple buildings are free to access. Here there are the monk’s quarters (a big new block is in the process of being built), the library and various stupas. The library was a small wooden building raised up on stilts. Inside was a large wooden cupboard, a couple of metres square and probably three metres high. It was decorated in red and gold on the inside, black and gold on the outside. Here the monks would store all their books and religious texts.

The centre of the temple was again in a walled in cloistered enclosure. Here the cloister is home to a large collection of Buddha statues and the archivist of the temple (which is called a museum) has totted up that there are about two thousand two hundred in total. The walls of the cloister are full of small niches each holding two small Buddha statues. Larger statues line the cloister all the way around. In the left hand wall there is a store room of damaged statues of all sizes. They have been rescued from temples from around the Vientiane area and were damaged during the various different wars and sieges that have beset the city.

In the centre of the enclosure is the sim, the main building of the temple. Inside the walls are covered with frescos, most of which are now in a poor state of health and need lots of tender loving care. At one point they have taken photos over the last few years and what was a two inch hole in the plaster five years ago has now grown to a hole about a foot long and a couple of inches wide. It is quite a stunning place to see though. Here for the first time since we left Canada I was also aware of the sound of birds twittering. We have not really come across any in Asia, no doubt an effect of bird flu.

From here we ambled back along the river and to the cool comfort of our hotel. Along the way we stopped for a typical Vientiane snack, a pâté baguette. The pâté was not really what we know back home but it was tasty. It came piled with various different veggie bits and a small splot of sweet chilli sauce. I am glad we tried it but I am not sure that I would rush to have another one.

By the time we got back to our hotel we were both feeling pretty zapped out by the heat. The air con went on and we simply crashed out for a while before venturing out for dinner later in the evening.

Saville Row, Phonsavan
Laos has a legacy of unexploded bombs to cope with, and a gaggle of well-meaning humanitarian organisations

We had both felt much better last night but whatever bug it is that we have picked up decided to wake me up at five this morning and keep me running to the bathroom for the next few hours. Fortunately by the time we left the hotel for our flight to Phonsovan I was feeling much better.

A taxi took us the short distance to the airport. For some bizarre reason they ask you to check in ninety minutes before the flight. It is a bit excessive because in all the time we were at the airport there was one international flight and one domestic flight, ours. Here we found out that our flight to Phonsovan was not the short thirty minute hop we were expecting. It goes first to Luang Prabang and then on to Phonsovan so it is just under two hours in total. Even so, we still got to Phonsovan much faster than we would have done on the bus, which is about nine hours!

The flights were pretty uneventful. Behind us to our left a young woman had a huge Winnie the Pooh cuddly toy with her, so big that he happily had a seat to himself for the first leg of the trip. Flying back up to Luang Prabang gave us another chance to see the green tropical hills that stretch for miles ahead of you. It was a strange feeling to go back to somewhere we had left a few days ago, never expecting to see it again. The second leg to Phonsavon was a quick twenty minutes. Here the landscape started to change though as the hills were brown and seemed to be bare of vegetation.

When we landed at the airport the plane taxied off the runway and came to rest in a small turning point which was an untarmaced surface. At Vientiane as I walked onto the plane I thought the tyres looked a little on the flat side but I decided not to look here. We had got here safely and that was all I was bothered about. For about the next fifteen minutes I watched them doing stuff with the luggage, driving the luggage van to various bits of the plane before they obviously decided they had taken off everything they needed to. I was fully prepared for our bags to have gone astray somewhere en route but all was OK.

While we were waiting for the bags Stef had gone to check on the state of play for getting into town. Tuk tuks were on hand as always and before long we were off. It was a short drive in to Phonsovan and to the Maly Hotel, our chosen bed for the next two nights. The Maly is a Lonely Planet recommendation and seems to be the best option in town, not just for the room but its restaurant is rated as well as its associated tour company for trips to the local sights. We were met with a warm and friendly welcome and checked into our large and airy room with views out over the rice fields behind us.

The hotel also runs Sousath Travel, an agency offering tours around the local area to the Hmong villages and to the Plain of Jars. We signed up for trips for the next two days tomorrow and then ambled up and into town. We took a bit of a back route in and just one street off the main road we were walking along a dust track. Even the main road into town has dirt strips either side as wide as the tarmac down the middle. All the local people we passed along the way smiled and we exchanged sabaidee’s while also getting some good photo’s.

To call Phonsovan a town is probably stretching the definition based on our normal set of standards. It is really just where a couple of roads come to meet each other and there is a market on site too. The roads have a few shops, quite a few of which seem to be car repair shops, and on the main street there are a few guesthouses and places to eat. Before long though we had walked pretty much through the length of the town and both agreed that we had made a good call staying at the Maly.

We headed back to the hotel first making our way through the market. Most of the stalls were under cover, some under a high corrugated steel roof but more under a covering made of empty rice sacks propped up on bamboo poles. We both had to crouch down a bit to stop our heads peeking out through the holes in the bags. As well as the usual food type stalls you could buy here everything you need from clothes to toiletries to household hardware. A few food stalls lined one side offering tempting morsels to the locals.

It was starting to get dark as we headed back out to our hotel. Here we relaxed for a while in our room before heading down for dinner. We had opted not to order in advance, a Lonely Planet suggestion which means you get a special dish cooked for you rather than choosing off the already quite lengthy menu. The food was pretty good but the service was incredibly slow, even for Laos, something that everyone experienced every time they had a meal at this hotel. We were soon tucked up in bed in anticipation of what our trip tomorrow would hold.

Mysterious Plain of Jars

In the end there were six of us in our little group for our trip to the Plain of Jars. We were kept company by a French couple, who kept themselves pretty much to themselves, Bill (an American doctor) and Apostoles, a Greek chap who we had seen yesterday coming into the hotel to check availability. He had gone to one of the places listed on the main street and not surprisingly did not like the fact the rooms had no windows. He told us that most of the other places in town were not much better either so the Maly definitely sounds like the best option to stay (unless you are on a really tight budget).

Our guide, Soon, is from a Hmong village further north towards the Chinese border. He did not really tell us much about himself, other than that he is thirty, but he seemed very proud of his sister who now lives in America. He spoke very good English and was able to explain the history and background to the local area. It was a short drive in our minibus before we reached the Site One on the Plain of Jars.

The Plain of Jars is so named because at about thirty different sites local people and archaeologists have found huge stone jars. There is debate about what they were originally used for with tow main theories prevailing. The more believable story is that they were used as funeral urns, either for burying bodies or for holding the ashes of cremated people. A more colourful story links them to successful campaigns of a conquering king. It claims that the soldiers would ferment rice in the vats producing huge quantities of rice wine which was then used to celebrate their victories. From the size of the jars if the latter story is true then they would all have been blind drunk all the time and there is no way they could have won at battle!

At the entrance to the first site is a sign from MAG (Mines Advisory Group) confirming that the whole area is still full of unexploded ordnance from the CIA’s secret war in Laos. This war was waged to try and stop the Viet Cong from successfully sending supplies through Laos on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Both Vietnam and the US ignored international agreements about Laos’ neutrality and the upshot was that this whole area of Laos was intensively bombed so much so that by the end of the war half a metric tonne of bombs had been dropped for every person living in Laos, more than was dropped on Germany in World War Two. Although the wars have been over for thirty years, people are still killed and injured by UXO (unexploded ordnance). Children are now taught in school about the different types of ordnance so that they know what to do if they find some and there is still lots lying around.

Markers on the ground show you where a path has been cleared and where it is safe to walk. It is an eerie feeling knowing that wandering out of this path could result in you stepping on a land mine or cluster bomb with nasty results. Unfortunately for the Plain of Jars, the war took place right across this area. Soldiers would hide in the jars and many have been peppered by gunfire, with bullets still lodged in some of them. Inevitably it means that many of the jars are damaged and broken but you still get a sense of awe at the site.

The war is ever present here though. The town’s airport was built by the Russians and the complex they used to house their spies is clearly visible on the landscape. Ironically, changes at home meant that they abandoned Laos before they completed the passenger terminal which is why it is still just a small shed like building. All around Phonsavon there are bomb craters clearly visible, some now overgrown or silted up with rainwater but others looking fresh and as if they were created just a few days ago. Within site 1 itself there is also a cave that the Viet Cong used as a command base during the war. Soen showed us where the senior officers used to sit and work out their strategy while others cooked food using petrol for fuel as it gives off no smoke.

Site one is split into two main sections. The path from the entrance leads slightly uphill and this is where some of the largest jars are found. Archaeologists believe that they were carved out of rock in a quarry about twenty kilometres away and were transported across the valley by elephant but there is no certain way of knowing if this is true. Some of the jars are almost two metres high and one metre wide so they would have made a pretty heavy load. Down at the base of the hill, near the Viet Cong command cave, there are a lot more jars all smaller in size. On one the silhouette of a dancing person can still just be made out, giving weight to the theory that the jars were used for celebrations rather than funerals.

The path winds back up another small hill from where you can get good views across Site One and the valley stretching out below. The area is still very remote and rural in modern terms. The town of Phonsovan only got mains electricity four years ago and most of the surrounding villages have no electricity or running water. If you are a local here and want some land you can simply go and stake out a plot that no one else is using and have it registered as your own.

Shells (centre) used as stilts in villages

Site Two was a short drive away off on a bumpy untarmaced road. A path leads up from the road for a short walk up a hill to a small collection of jars under some trees. Our guide Soon told us that local people had been coming here for years and standing in the middle of the jars totally unaware that they were standing on top of a large bomb that MAG, metal detectors in hand, discovered when they surveyed the site. The jars used to all have lids on them, huge stone slabs with a spiral decoration on the top. Before the importance of the sites was known, local people came and took the lids, carving them up into smaller pieces to use as bases for the wooden stilts of their houses. The stone stops termites being able to eat away the wood.

Across the road on another small hill are more stones, a second part of Site Two. From here we walked up to another hill and down to the village of Ban Xieng Di. It was a short walk, about an hour, but baking hot in the heat of the midday sun. Along the way we passed one of the traps the local people use to catch swallows. They conceal nets under a layer of dust and watch from a distance until a swallow comes to take a dust bath. They then haul in the nets to catch the bird which is killed, plucked and then fermented. Apparently it’s a rather pungent local speciality to eat, one that the people who run our hotel enjoy but our guide does not.

As we walked to the top of the hill Soen called out to some young girls who were pursuing their normal Sunday afternoon hobby – scouring the hillsides to find bombs and other bits of metal to sell for scrap. A metal recycling factory set up in town a few years ago and since then the nearby hills have been pretty much cleared out of any left over bits of planes, tanks, bullets, bombs and other military paraphernalia. They turned out their bags to show a collection of bullets, many still live. It was not far from here that Soen showed us an unexploded cluster bomb. We all gave it a wide berth but behind us were two young chaps, one Dutch, one Swiss, who came closing to nudging it with their feet.

The area around the top of the hill is also full of foxholes used by the Viet Cong army to hide and watch the enemy go by. From one of these story has it that a local man shot down an American plane with his rifle. We were showed the site of another plane crash. All that remains is a scar on the landscape, the metal has long since been recycled. Walking down the other side of the hill there is a small cemetery with a handful of white and gold stupas set among the fields.

In the village a small cabin has been pulled together to provide lunch for people “doing” the jars. There are only western people eating in there, the drivers and guides are on a little patio out the back by the kitchen, and the menu is noodle soup – meat or no meat. It provides a welcome break away from the heat of the sun but before long we are off again to see Site Three. Two rickety bamboo bridges cross a small stream one of which gets flooded in the rainy season and cannot be used. We were then off through the rice fields, dry and bare at this time of year. As with the walk from Site Two to the village this whole area is potentially full of UXO so the guidance is to only walk on well trodden paths, the logic being that any bombs there would have blown long ago.

As we neared Site Three I slipped and fell and watched as our zoom camera lens went flying out of my bag and landed nice and squarely in the middle of a muddy stream. Needless to say it is knackered as even if the water and condensation inside it eventually do dry out it makes a horrible grating sound as the dust that has got inside gets squashed up a bit. Site Three seemed more peaceful and serene than the other two. It had a bamboo fence surrounding it and like Site Two benefited from shade from trees. Here the jars were quite small compared to those we had seen earlier in the day.

Back down in the village we were walked along and through some of the local houses. They are all wooden stilt houses but in quite a few the stilts themselves were made from old bomb casings rather than wood. I think each house we saw had bombs and/or bits of planes in active service in one way or another. Under the house turkeys, chickens, cats and other animals lived, the turkeys being in fine form fluffing up their feathers and strutting around making strange noises. The houses themselves were large and each had several different buildings that were used for storing food and wood.

From the village we worked our way back to Phonsavan, stopping en route to see the wreck of a Russian tank. Only the main body is left now, the rest (tracks, guns, and interior) all having been stripped away a long time ago. Soen said that the locals wanted to keep the tank because it brought tourists here so they stopped people taking it away for scrap. Newspaper clippings back at the hotel tell a different story – Mr Sousath himself pays the locals an annual retainer to prevent them from scrapping the tank

The people from the village where the tank rests had built a cave into the hillside that they could use to hide in when bombers were overhead. On a day when they were all out in the fields, the tank came by and drove across the top of the cave which collapsed under its weight. The tank could not get out of the hole and it was simply abandoned by its crew. As we drove back into town piles of concrete pylons were stacked at intervals along the road. Mains electricity is on its way. It has the potential to radically change the lives of the people here but I wonder how much of a difference it will make to their way of life.

In the Hmong village

This morning we had time to go to a local Hmong village before our flight back to Vientiane. It was the same group as yesterday, minus the French lady, and Soen was again our guide. As a native Hmong he knows the language and also seems to be very familiar with the villagers. No doubt this is a regular run that he makes.

We headed out of Phonsovan passing the local teacher training college and lots of young kids cycling and walking to school. After about twenty minutes we came to a small village along the side of the road and then turned off to the right along a dirt road. This road went through a small forest, past a quarry and then out into a village.

At the first house we were invited to come in and have a look. As with the village we had seen yesterday, the house was made up of four or five different buildings set within a fenced off area. The main house was no more than a bamboo hut with a compacted earth floor. It was quite large but inside it was incredibly basic. A fireplace had a few burning embers still glowing and a few low stools were dotted about for people to sit on. Above the hearth on a bamboo rack the family’s cooking pots were stored and the space was also used for curing meat. Along the back wall was a small animist shrine. The family had no possessions other than their clothes, cooking pots and their animals.  A small bed was pushed into one corner of the room.

In the wet season the dirt road from the village to the main road is impassable and the families are now moving to the main road. When they move they do not just take their few possessions with them, they also take their house. The family who had invited us in are moving next week but because they have no money they will have to walk the few kilometres to the main road carrying their belongings and their house with them. They will still have to come back to the village to tend their fields and to go up into the jungle to get the firewood they need.

They were incredibly poor. We had not realised that we would be going into people’s houses and had not come armed with gifts that we could leave for them. All we could do is promise to send copies of the photos we had taken. We had the same problem for the next couple of hours as we were taken on a tour of what turned out to be quite a large village. There must have been more than fifty homesteads in the village, each surrounded by a bamboo fence and each with a main house and a few outbuildings.

Most families had pigs, chickens, ducks and turkeys running around freely and there were also some cows. Some of the pigs and cows had sturdy branches tied horizontally around their necks to stop them getting into the fields and eating the crops. Most families also had a bull. These were penned in to small bamboo enclosures and they looked like they spent most of their time there. They seemed pretty docile but Soen said that at New Year the bulls fight each other.

Under one of the houses an old woman and two girls were preparing sugar cane. The cane has been peeled, cut into small pieces and put into a large pestle. The girls stand at one end of a large plank of wood that has club shaped stump at the other end. They paddle the wood up and down so that the club mashes the sugar cane which is then fermented.

The village has grown up around a small valley. On the valley floor are fields for rice and other crops. A couple of women were working in the fields bringing in a crop which they will then sell at the market in Phonsovan. Soen offered to drive them into town but they were not ready to leave at the same time as us. Instead we took three large sacks of their crop to the main road and they walked with the rest later in the day. The sacks looked really heavy so I have no idea how they would have made it.

A boy from one of the families had earned a scholarship to study chemistry in Germany. He met a German girl there who he has now married, not easy as Laos people are forbidden by law from having relationships with foreigners. They now live in Vientiane and have children. I would just love to meet them and find out how they, or in particular the German lady, manage the cultural divide. The houses here are so basic there are no bathrooms or toilets. When Bill needed the loo Soen asked if it was just for a pee and then told him just to go wherever he wanted.

As with the villages we passed in China and the rest of Laos, even though these people are incredibly poor they seem contented with their lot. The men spend their days up in the jungle collecting wood while the women keep house and tend the fields. The children go to school from the age of six and spend ten to twelve years in school learning a wide range of subjects. We were met with friendly smiles and had many women inviting us into their houses and even to join them for a meal. They were incredibly photogenic but having a group of westerner shoving large cameras in their faces did not really sit comfortably with me and Stef so while the others snapped, and got good photos, we took a bit of a back seat.

Hmong woman and child (and tree)

In total we spent about three hours ambling around the village. I was just staggered by the conditions these people live in. Water comes from a spring down in the valley, any heat or power comes from burning trees, there is no concept of hygiene or waste disposal, rubbish is simply strewn about between the houses, and everywhere you walk you are dodging animal droppings. The smell was quite over powering at times.

We whiled away some time in the afternoon while waiting for our flight back to Vientiane. After a couple of hours waiting at the airport our plane arrived and everyone got on board. Behind the pilots is a sealed off compartment which is normally used to store everyone’s luggage. On this trip though bags and cases went somewhere else as two patients from the local hospital were laid out flat in the luggage space. The medical facilities in Laos are basic and people are usually sent to Thailand for anything more than basic treatment. They could not have had a very comfortable flight at all.

At the airport we got chatting briefly to a woman we had seen on the flight out. She is a PHD student from Wiltshire and is here trying to get work with UNESCO on projects to clear unexploded ordnance (UXO). She has been accompanied by a local man who works for the tourism section of the government. I think he has probably had a bit of a hard time with her. She is trying to explain that more and more people will come to Phonsovan to see the Plain of Jars and that there needs to be a tourist infrastructure to support it. Linked to this is the need to continue with the UXO clearance programme. She told us that MAG, the British Company that UNESCO contract for UXO clearance, have a much lower work rate than the local Laos company who are now specialists in this field. Whether the stats she was using were a like for like comparison we do not know but she certainly was enthusiastic about her subject.

Back in Vientiane we were met with a really warm and friendly welcome at the Inter Hotel. We checked into our room, enjoying the air conditioning as Vientiane is warm and muggy compared to the cooling breezes of Phonsovan. In the evening we decided to eat at one of the local places on the river. For a few hundred metres there are lots of little eateries with plastic tables and chairs, nightlights in empty water bottles and the occasional street light. The “kitchens” are simply trestle tables with a small barbecue style grill in front and a cool box of drinks. They serve up very simple but tasty food and our salted grilled fish was delicious. Being along the river they have no facilities and I watched with surprise as the lady at the table behind Stef got up, climbed over the fence, walked down the river bank, pulled up her sarong and promptly peed in full view of anyone at the tables. It is the Laos way but not the nicest of sights when you are eating your dinner!