We drove straight past the border check point it was such a nondescript shack on the right side of the road. A quick reverse and we were welcomed by what appeared to be a very friendly border guard– 10 minutes later we were trying to negotiate getting our passports out of his locked drawer!! Yes it’s that nasty word again-CORRUPTION. He was most surprised that we were not prepared to give him $2. ‘One for me and one for my boss’. It’s not the money, it’s the principal– if we pay then the next person passing through is expected to pay. Sometimes you just have it in your head that you are not going to accept something.The road is still under construction so is a little dusty and bumpy, but not too bad and by the customs office, which is 2km’s further on– it was sealed. The customs men were great, friendly, polite and no mention of money– but nowhere to buy the ‘compulsory’ vehicle insurance.
A few short miles and we were at the Khon Phapheng Falls where the Mekong River explodes over a rocky ledge– a pretty impressive sight. We stayed in the grounds of a nearby resort where we enjoyed our first day in Lao by swimming in the Mekong with the local kids and enjoying the superb location, just above the falls.
A short drive and we were on the ferry over to one of the largest islands on the Mekong– Don Khong, it’s maybe a great place for backpackers but it’s not an overlander place. We drove around this average island trying to find a spot to camp– in the end we parked up in town and used the public meeting building as our sitting area. Swimming in the river on this island involves a steep down climb to bathe in some murky water.
Back on the mainland and we are having trouble finding fuel and food– wish we’d stocked up more in Siem Reap. We decide to attempt Route 18 which our book claims is impassable and we hope it will take us to Attapeu. WOW! What a fabulous drive!!! It took 6 hours to travel 47 miles. The route, or rather track, is very rocky at times with sections of bull dust, this is the worst stuff, it’s the equivalent of diving through a thick layer of fine brown dusting powder– it gets EVERYWHERE. We had to cross 11 rivers that ranged from narrow to wide, shallow to deep, we walked each one and three held very nasty surprises for the unwitting driver.
We stop at a weaving village to buy some material before driving to the standing stones of Hintang. It’s a steep, rough and, at times, very muddy track up to this ‘mini Stonehenge’- which in itself was a little disappointing yet we probably had one of our best camping experiences here. The Hmong tribal people hack a living out of the land surrounding the stones, working from dawn ‘til dusk whilst the children forage nearby for berries. Initially the children ran and hid from us but, with some patience, we got them to come over. We had a fantastic experience with the people up here who seemed amazed to see foreigners, we tried to give them as good an experience as they gave us and we would have stayed longer, but we were very concerned about the track– the weather is bad and if it rains we will be stuck up here for quite some time.
We decide to try and complete our ‘loop’ by taking Route 1, another unknown road for us, which fortunately turned out to be sealed for the most part (the middle section needs some maintenance).
The Hmong villagers appear to be stunned to see us and few people wave, they seem too amazed to react. We even see some tribal villages where the women wear short full skirts and open jackets, bare breasted beneath– unusual for the normally very modest Asian women. We complete our loop by reaching Luang Prabang- it’s been a superb trip.
Luang Prabang is another very difficult town to camp in but we are beginning to understand the problem. The police are very strict about foreigners and you MUST be registered into a guesthouse/hotels book WITH a room number, to be legal. If they catch the guesthouse letting you camp it can cause major problems. There’s a very strong element of control in the country, for example; pubs and clubs must close at exactly 11.30pm and tourists should be back in their hotel no later than midnight. It’s not a party animals country! We use this difficulty as an excuse to book into a room– we both need the rest after our adventure. Wimps.
It’s with some reluctance that we leave Luang Prabang and drive north to the caves at Pak Ou, stopping en-route to buy a large water gun! Several water fights later- we rent a boat and cross the river to visit the caves before camping for the night by the Mekong. The road north to Udomxai is good, we had planned to turn east to drive up to Pak Nam Noi, a route that has been personally recommended as the best place to see traditional tribal villages– but we’ve ran out of time. Instead we drive north on Route 13 to Na Toei– it’s a terrible road, sealed but narrow and full of rough sections. We have arranged to meet up with the other 2 vehicles at Luang Nam Tha, fortunately Route 3 is an excellent road and we make up for lost time, reaching our friends by 6pm. It’s been a hard days drive– 9 hours to complete the 208 mile trip.
THOUGHTS ON LAO:
Another country that has a troubled past yet is safe and welcoming to overlanders. With superb waterfalls, caves, limestone karst and temples– there is always something to see. It’s the best country in Asia to see traditional tribal villages and people. We really enjoyed getting away from the main tourist areas and meeting the locals– sometimes it takes a bit of work as they are frightened of you, but ultimately you will be welcomed and rewarded with a unique memory. It’s these experiences that have made Lao so enjoyable for us.
BUDGET: We have not included personal gifts or Nessie servicing costs.
FUEL: At times it difficult to find and we’re not convinced it’s good quality. Costs 9,160 Kip per litre.
SHOPPING: Poor selection of food shops. Vientiane has good but small supermarkets– elsewhere it’s corner shops with basics only.
WATER: Not easy to find in the south and the quality can be poor.
ROADS: Much better than we expected but some are 4wd only. Routes 13, 11,16E,12,1E,8,8B,7,6,1C,2E and 3 are surfaced (sealed).
All of the sealed routes have toll booths– for a landrover sized vehicle it cost 2,000 Kip per toll. In total we spent £1.26 on tolls.
POLICE: Seem to be firm but fair. Lots of motorbike checks for locals and the Vientaine police are very strict– each big junction is staffed.
SAFETY: Other than the risk of unexploded mines, we felt very safe camping here– even with locals walking around with AK47’s to go hunting! BUT there is still a risk of banditry, some buses have armed guards on certain routes.
Driving standards are reasonable but that’s mainly due to the good roads and lack of traffic.
LANDY: It’s the worst country so far to source parts. If you need anything drive over to Udon Thani in Thailand- that’s what all the Lao landy owners have to do! There is a ARB shop in Vientaine– see top tips page for details.
ARRIVAL DATE: 13th MARCH 2008
17,400 KIP = £1.00
$1.98 = £1.00
WEAVING VILLAGE LOOM
HMONG TRIBAL PEOPLE at HINTANG
Wat Xieng Thong in LUANG PRABANG
The only thing that stops this route from being consumed by the jungle is the occasional logging truck– they rip their way through the vegetation clearing a path. We passed remote villages where the people survive by foraging in the surrounding jungle and by growing some vegetables. The local transport is a trailer pulling cultivator that carries locals and the odd cow between river crossings. It was a magical day that ended with us bush camping by a village and entertaining the local’s with Dave’s tricks- the local men love magic!
The following day we begin to suspect our adventure is over when we reach a bridge– damn civilisation! The jungle has cleared and is now replaced by forest and arable land. But we still have an eventful drive-8 bridges in total, if there’s a detour take it as most of the bridges have collapsed supports!
DO NOT attempt Route 18 if there is any chance of rain – you will be seriously stuck.
Route 13 is very dull so we push on and have a long drive to Tha Khaek stopping for lunch at That Ing Hang- a revered religious edifice. The scenery around Tha Khaek is gorgeous– limestone cliffs and karst abound and we decide to spend the night at a old colonial picnic spot called Tha Falang. Next morning we were treated to a wake up call from a baby buffalo that sounded almost prehistoric as it echoed off the surrounding cliffs.
There are 2 caves that we want to visit in this area; Tham Pha Pa, which was discovered by a local foraging for a bat dinner, contains 229 bronze buddhas that are estimated to be 600 years old set in an small cave full of stalagmites and tites- it was like entering santa’s grotto. And Tham Xieng Liap, well we think that’s the one we visited– the road has no kilometre markers on it and none of the caves are sign posted!! Anyway it was on the same side of the road as Tha Falang, next turning off. It was gorgeous– there’s a monk who stays from 9-4ish to pray so if you want to swim in the lake it’s better to wait ‘til later. This is where the cars split up again and we drive Route 8B up toward Lak Sao. It’s another great drive through pine forests, beautiful villages where the locals play petang and the women fish with hand held bamboo cantilever nets.
(The road after the dam was pretty bad but much better than Route 18.)
The drive from Lak Sao was great we saw huge bomb craters where the Americans had tried to blow up the road, local women silk weaving and lovely karst scenery. The only bad point was seeing 3 trucks loaded with cages stuffed full of live dogs heading for the kitchens of Vietnam. Awful.By lunchtime we are at Tham Kong Lo and about to experience something fabulous– a wooden canoe trip through a SEVEN kilometre cave. WOW.
The weather broke just as we reached the main road, thank god, and we were plunged into a huge lightning storm with black skies. We drove all the way to Vientiane, where the weather was good, to join Frank and Sue on the impossible search for somewhere to stay.
With a combined search effort of 10 hours we gave up and booked into a hotel!
Vientiane is a lovely ‘city’, more like a small town with a village feel to it– French cafes, temples and a couple of small supermarkets. We did eventually source somewhere to camp but decided to stay in our comfy hotel– Dave’s not too well. We end up having to seek medical advice and went to the Australian health clinic, where Dave got some heavy duty antibiotics. Be prepared to open your wallet wide– it’s NOT cheap! After a few days of rest Dave’s ready to move on so we rejoin Route 13 and drive up to Vang Vieng, only to come upon Frank and Sue broken down at the side of the road!! Their bearings have disintegrated after all the river crossings on Route 18. We drive up to Vang Vieng and manage to find 2 in their size, so they are on the road again within 6 hours– very, very lucky. It took a bit of effort but we eventually found a place that would allow us to camp, so we settled in for the night by the river.
We are keen to get away from the backpacker scene so we leave the next day. Route 13 finally comes good– the scenery from Vang Vieng to the Route 7 turn off is fabulous, lush rice field valleys edged with dramatic limestone hills and friendly villages. By mid afternoon we are at Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars, a series of meadows littered with large stone jars that are thought to be 2,000 years old. The area is high risk of UXO’s ( unexploded ordinance) so be careful where you choose to bushcamp! With Dave still feeling delicate and a huge storm looming overhead, we book into a hotel for the night. The town is full of evidence of Lao’s violent history– old Russian tanks, bomb shells being used a fence posts and a MAG office– these are the guys who clear the country of land mines and bombs.
We’ve had problems trying to find out about the road conditions in this area and , with no clear answers, we decide to try and drive up to Vieng Xai along Route 6. It’s a long way on roads that bend like pretzels and seem to never end– but at least they are sealed. We are regularly at heights of 5,000 feet and pass through tribal villages where people are amazed to see us. The road is littered with trucks that have broken down and, because the area is so remote, the drivers have set up kitchens by their trucks, facing a LONG wait for help and parts. We reach Vieng Xai by late afternoon and decide to camp outside one of the cave entrances. A local family live in a thatched hut opposite and come over to invite us over to sleep with them for the night, thinking we don’t have a bed. What a lovely family– typical Lao, friendly and welcoming but not obtrusive. The mother gave Rose a hand woven sarong as a parting gift after we gave them a padlock to lock their hut.
Vieng Xai which, when translated, means WIN CITY is a fine example of the absolute genius of the Indochina war. Whilst the Vietnamese were fooling the yanks with tunnels, the communists in Lao were hiding a ‘city’ of people in over 60 caves hidden in a beautiful valley surrounded by limestone hills. Doctors from Cuba came to staff the hospital, artists from China came to perform in the theatre cave and the Pathet Lao revolution leaders plotted their eventual take over of the government in these caves. Whilst the eyes of the world were watching Vietnam, the Americans were waging a ‘secret war’ in Lao, heavily bombing the east of the country and dropping tonnes of mines. Over 30 years later mine clearance teams are still cleaning up the mess.
The communist element is clear to see– the bank at lunch time is left open, with the computers still on but is absolutely deserted of staff! You see young families walking down the street– the wife in tribal dress, the husband in communist green ‘workers party’ clothing yet carrying a baby in a elaborately decorated tribal papoose. That’s Lao.
ANYONE SEEN THE TRACK?
NOT THE SAFEST OF DRIVING POSITIONS!
Tham Xieng Liap pool. A unusual vegetable planter!
Dressed up for a picnic
THAM KONG LO and BAN KONG LO SIGHTS
Pha That Luang & Wat Si Saket in VIENTIANE
ROUTE 13 north of Vang Vieng
A SPECIAL HELLO TO NOVICE THONE AND FRIEND
BUN PHA MAI –water fight in Luang Prabang
LOCAL MAG TEAM & RAMBO!
Route 18 to Attapeu– only do it if it’s dry season and you have self recovery equipment.
Driving down to Ban Kong Lo and entering Tham Kong Lo cave– absolutely fabulous!
Meeting the locals whilst camping at Hintang standing stones, Bolaven Plateau and Vieng Xai.
Chilling out in Luang Prabang.
Scenery around Tha Khaek and Vang Vieng.
Having the opportunity to see so many different tribes, their villages and to watch everyday life.
Another country where you have to tackle some large mileage for small sights BUT it’s what you see along the way that makes up for the journey.
Having every last Kip squeezed out of your wallet– you have to pay for EVERYTHING; parking, entering some villages, even parking at some hotels who happen to have a very distant view of a waterfall! And the exchange rate changes on a daily basis from bank to bank, shop to shop.
Not being able to camp in towns.
LAST MINUTE NERVES
The day before we are due to leave one car’s servo pump splits– what a predicament. There is a frantic DIY attempt to fix it but in the end the unit has to be completely drained and he faces driving with no power steering.
Early the next morning we reach the junction with route 3, where there is a barrier, believe it or not but this is where you get your carnet and customs check, 20km’s BEFORE the border-very unusual. It was a simple enough process, we continued to the official border at Boten, a place that sells endangered animals, maybe that’s why customs is so far away– what they don’t see....! Our passports were checked by rather arrogant officials who then INSISTED that we had to walk across the border! The passenger in the first car complied by grasping hold of the guards hand and strolling him across the painted line (hilarious), the 2nd held up her baby and refused and one look at our expressions made it perfectly clear they dare not ask.
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It’s a beautiful small town packed full of temples, shops and restaurants, nestled between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It’s here that we visit one of the best temples of our entire journey– Wat Xieng Thong with it’s stunning mix of artistic styles. Bun Pha Mai is Lao New Year and is traditionally celebrated by throwing water over each other to cleanse away old sins. Strictly speaking it doesn’t start for another 10 days but the weather is at it’s hottest of the year and the children just can’t wait- so we find ourselves having a huge water fight with some local kids. Superb fun.
We all spend the next day looking over our cars, nervous about the trip into China. It’s absolutely typical that the one time you do not want to have mechanical problems you get some. All three vehicles have problems– 2 are overheating and one has leaking seals!! We enter China in 2 days time, we’ve paid almost £1,900 each for the privilege, face a very tight itinerary and will lose all our money if we can’t enter. We are all understandably anxious. Fortunately a thorough clean of Nessie’s radiator does the job but the other two cars still have their problems.
All too soon we were on sealed roads and shopping for food, unsuccessfully, in Attapeu. We did see a insurance office on the main road, didn’t bother to get any, but we did find a sim card– ETL for 70,000 kip including 30,000 call credit. It’s not cheap to use and we’re not sure we’d recommend getting one. We carried on north before turning off to drive up to the Bolaven plateau, we slowly climbed past some lovely scenery having to speed through a bush fire at one point before stopping to admire the beautiful Nam Tok Katamtok falls. We thought the noise we heard was the waterfall but in actual fact it was another forest fire ripping through the trees above the falls. We passed lots of coffee plantations, some of which grow the most expensive coffee in the world, before settling down for the night by a village. It was the next morning, just after Rose had hung up our laundry, that the cows appeared. We were surrounded, with one cheeky cow trying to push Dave out of the way whilst the rest of the herd made a bee line for our washing line- gaily wiping their noses on our freshly washed sleeves! The herds owner scatters salt on the laterite rocks that surround the river bed and we were parked over one of the rocks. Driving the plateau gives you an insight of rural living– traditionally this is the time of year that the people clear their land by burning, hence the fires and acrid air we have passed through. We rejoin boring Route 13 at Pakse and bush camp out of town in a quiet field watching a distance fire spread down a hillside like a lava flow.
Our adventure began by stepping into the time capsule village of Ban Kong Lo, the canoe travels upstream from here nudging water buffalo out of the way and teasing you with glimpses of everyday village life. At the cave entrance we had to get out briefly, as the canoe had to be dragged up the small rapids, before climbing back in to travel into the total darkness of the cave. It was halfway through the cave that we met the unexpected– a live cow lying on a narrow canoe and being ferried downstream to the village. Quite a surreal sight in torchlight! All too soon we were out into the light at the northern valley before turning for the return trip. It was only when we got to the village that we saw where the cow was– being butchered in a riverside field for tonight’s festival. We camped nearby that night and enjoyed a swim in the river before driving back up the beautiful valley and onto Route 8. (The road to the cave is almost complete and should be sealed by mid 2008.)