Northern Lao PDR

We skipped Xaignabouli and went straight to Luang Prabang, Lao PDRs main tourist attraction. It has changed a bit since my last visit in 2002, and as a result it might lose its Unesco world heritage site status (see a Vientiane Times article). Saw some temples and I got my stitches off at the provincial hospital for 15000 kip.

Then on to Phonsavan and the plain of Jars. The last time I saw the Jars there it was late July, and it was raining and looking very stonehengy. I expected thing to be brown and dry now, but no, the rains have started early this year. It was all very stonehengy again: dark clouds hanging low, green green grass and grey rock.

Also went to the old capital of the province, Xieng Khuang where there is a Buddha with a quirky smile – I suppose a bomb went off right next to it and it got some shrapnel in the face. It’s one of the most bombed countries on earth, the often quoted statistics say that US bombers dropped 2000 million metric tonnes of bombs from 1964 to 1973, meaning that on average a planeload came down every 8 minutes for 9 years. The Plain of Jars area was especially hard hit. There are craters everywhere. It is estimated that up to 30% of all ordnance did not explode.
Lao governments UXO LAO and NGOs like MAG are cleaning up places and have more info.

The bombs dropped include approximately 270 million anti-personnel submunition bomblets or “bombies” released from cluster bombs. The Finnish military wants to replace its stock of anti personnel mines with this stuff. PM Vanhanen thinks theyre OK, and so does president Halonen, but these more modern things will all explode with 99,8% certainty said Chief of Defence Kaskeala, so things are fine.

Phonsavan and the surroundings were nice and quiet after Luang Prabang and Songkan in Vientiane.

From Phonsavan a long ride to Houa Phan province where neither of us had been before. I did try in July 2002 but was stopped by landslides on route 1 between Nong Khiaw and Sam Neua. The main reason for going was to see the caves in Vieng Xai where the leaders of Pathet Lao (the party in power since 1975) hid from american bombers. A small pretty valley with karst mountains and small lakes. It was rainy. The caves have been restored somewhat and are now named after Pathet Lao leaders, and have some nice french style mansions built in front of them (after the ceasefire fire in 1973 the guys could stay outside the caves and had these built for themselves). The Lao government wants to push the caves as a tourism destination, but at least now there were very few tourists around.

Sam Neua, the capiptal of Houa Phan is as small and sleepy as the usual Lao provincial capital. Surrounded by green mountains, cold and rainy. A lot of Chinese is spoken in the streets, and as usual most of the guys working at construction sites seem to be Vietnamese.

Heading west from Sam Neua we stopped at Nakorn village and trekked 6km to Hintang “archeological park”, where someone erected some 1-2 meter high stone slabs some 1500-2000 years ago for some reason. There are some also some holes under the slabs, and stone discs covering these. It was green, grey and rainy again. We walked back to the road and flagged down a Vientiane bound bus and rode until Ko Hing, the intersection of routes 1,6 and 7, called Phou Lao on the map (?!?) and stayed in a very basic guest house (no water, no electricity, sticky rice and tinned sardines in tomato sauce for food).

Next morning we stopped a Luang Prabang bound songthaeow and rode it until Nong Khiaw, landing firmly on the tourist track once more. The banana chocolate pancakes were ok. We didn’t go to Muang Ngoi Neua where everyone else was going but stayed for 2 days not doing much (i needed to spend a lot of time in the toilet after eating some slimy greens with my laap in Sam Neua).

Spent one night in Udomxai between Nong Khiaw and Luang Namtha. It is raining and green here too.

As we arrived we spotted a 3 day forest trek available at Green Discovery. 6 persons had already booked so it was fairly cheap for 3 days and we went for it. The trek was a bit different from most, as we didn’t stay in villages but a lodge built in the forest for the first night and a house in an abandoned Akha village for the second night. We had a Lao and Tai Dam guide, Two Khmu ladies cooking for us the first night and two young Akha boys for the second one (there was a wedding in their village so the parents sent their kids as they wanted to party), all friendly people. We went through forests, at times old with huge trees and at times younger swidden fields on their fallow period, and in the end some just burned forest. Also bamboo thickets, a bit boring to walk through. As it has been was raining, there was slippery mud and leeches. Got stung by 2 bees and 7 wasps and got 2 leeches suckomg blood and ripped many more off me before they got into it. The trek was “moderate” on the brochure, trekked 4-6 hours a day, up and down a lot, which was ok.

After the trek spent one more day in Mueang Sing. It was raining all day so we didn’t do much. In the morning eyeballed some colorful people at the market, and then rode a bus back to Luang Namtha. We’ll take a 13.30 bus to Huay Xai and cross back to Thailand today or tomorrow morning.

edit: photos added.

photos from Friday, May 2nd 2008
Abandoned village Worn out trekkers
photos from Thursday, May 1st 2008
photos from Sunday, April 27th 2008
Burning field
photos from Friday, April 25th 2008
Suan Hin 3 Suan Hin 2 Suan Hin
photos from Thursday, April 24th 2008
Sam Neua
photos from Wednesday, April 23rd 2008
The way to a cave Pathet Lao caves Pathet Lao caves 2 A lake in Vieng Xai Modern Lao architecture (tm) Down with USA Savang Vatthana
photos from Monday, April 21st 2008
Quirky smile Buddha Old Xieng Khouang
photos from Sunday, April 20th 2008
Jars 4 Tank Jars 3 Lao Lao Jars 2 Jars Crater
photos from Friday, April 18th 2008
Buddha Mr.Cat Door decorations Relief
photos from Wednesday, April 16th 2008

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