I was exhausted after finishing my motorbike tour of Vietnam and considered finishing the trip early and returning to Australia. But after a few days recovery from the Northern Loop, I let my remaining momentum carry me across the border into Laos. This is the photo journal of the three weeks to follow.
It was late in the day by the time I hit Laos, but the scenery was encouraging. It distracted me from the bone-shaker of a road and the blister on my derriere the size of a dinner plate.
After a comatose sleep and a few handfuls of steroid creams, I left Vieng Xai and took this road. A never ending goat-track that snaked its way along the ridges of the mountain range.
It wasn’t the best road I’ve seen. One slip here, and I’d arrive in the next town looking like a crumbed sausage. The shame!
But every so often I remembered to look up. And would see things like this.
Or this. Nice isn’t it?
It was a road that took me through some of the poorest corners of a desperately poor country. The villagers looked at me as though I had been beamed in from a different planet. To be honest, I felt a little bit as though I had been.
Every village had trays of fire-cracker red chili drying in the sun, breaking up the trip like punctuation marks…
A theme that continued when I reached civilisation two days later, in Luang Prabang
This old city is the former Imperial seat of Laos. Take a few steps in any direction and you will walk into a temple. Like this one. Just remember to remove your shoes.
Orange is the new black in these parts. It looks terrible on me though – can’t wear it at all.
Leaving Luang Prabang, I curled around west again heading for Phonsavan. A tiny sign on a side road announced the standing stones, so I turned off to have a look. This is what I found. They mark a burial ground for a forgotten race of man, and are considered to be a few thousand years old. The menhirs (standing stones) serve as a head stone, while the flat discs form a lid over the actual burial chamber. Eerie.
They think that the same people created the quite famous Plain of Jars. There are 2000 ofthese things- massive hollowed-out boulders that were somehow lugged to these plains from a distant mountain quarry. The dead were placed in them, and the bones were later taken and reinterred. It’s a very strange feeling to peer into someone’s coffin, but it’s impossible to resist.
I marveled over this creation for twenty minutes. Then someone told me it was a rubbish bin made out of old tyres. I felt it deserved a photo anyway, since it sympathised with the theme so well. We’ve come a long way in 2000 years.
Phonsovan is a UXO (unexploded ordnance) hotspot. I was staggered to learn that Laos was the most heavily bombed country on the planet. In an effort to obliterate the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam War, the US dropped 2,000,000 tonnes of bombs on the eastern margin of Laos. That equates to a bombing mission every 8 minutes, 24/7 for nine years. It beggars belief. It is believed that 30% of what was dropped didn’t detonate, leaving 600,000 tonnes of live ordnance scattered around the Laos country side, to be stumbled upon by civilians. Above is a cluster bomb – an invention of pure evil.
COPE is an organisation that helps rehabilitate local people whose lives are turned upside down by UXO. Every few weeks, someone loses a limb, their vision, or endures horrific burns. 40% of them are children.
The COPE visitor centre is an extremely confronting place to visit. But I think it is important to acknowledge the horrific legacy of war that is silently endured by these most gentle people.
Phonsavan finished, I doubled back on myself and headed for Vang Vieng. The road in was like the illustration from a child’s fairy story. Just beautiful.
It took hours to get through this stretch. Every corner opened up a new view that I felt compelled to point my camera at. Like this.
And this. Just the scenery made me hungry for root vegetables.
If you escape the grime, hawkers and throngs of vomiting 18 year olds, Vang Vieng itself is also very pretty. If you look carefully, you will see a bird-shaped hole in the cloud. You may also notice some colourful boats in the foreground.
After a short stay in the capital, Vientiane, I headed for Thakhek to take on the much acclaimed Thakhek loop. Its crowning glory is a high speed canoe trip along 7km of river that flows through Kong Lor cave. It’s pitch black and quite frightening. Above is the start and finish.
Back at the beginning, I celebrated survival by washing my hair.
The early morning views at Kong Lor were very easy on the eye.
But really, the farming land on the Thakhek loop was picturesque at any time of day…
…even if I did have some differing views on bovine nutrition.
The second half of the loop cut through an enormous wetland, created by a dammed river. Damn rivers, they’re everywhere in Laos.
Here’s that same damn river again.
Heading further south, I spent a night in Savannakhet. Just because of its name I had assumed that I would find it exotic and charming, but aside from some interesting street-scapes it was grubby and easily forgettable.
Except for its dinosaur museum. This is me holding a fossil of some part of the leg of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and grinning like a split watermelon about it.
Further south, from Pakse, I set off on another loop around the Bolovan Plateau. There are waterfalls everywhere. These ones were pretty good.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
This was the biggest of the lot, but it had almost no water. This is me sitting and wondering why that might be. Later I realised that the hydroelectricity plant just upstream had dammed the river (damn river). At any moment they could release 50 billion gigalitres onto the rock I was sitting on. I doubt I would escape that with dry shoes.
I celebrated survival again with another hair wash.
This little building was completely out of context. And that’s exactly what I liked about it.
Mostly, the plateau is famous for its coffee. There are several hundred km of plantations just like this, against dramatic mountain backdrops and an enormous sky
The Laos roads were quieter than Vietnam, but the vehicles were just as dangerous – overloaded, top-heavy, and with more breaks than brakes.
This truck was trying to walk its way down a 10 degree gradient.
And this one needed emergency open heart surgery right in the middle of the road.
Sometimes they just catch on fire. I had been following this truck for miles before it erupted in flame.
But mostly the conditions were good enough that I felt like I was flying.
Heading for the Southern border, I visited Wat Phu in Champusak. It was built by the same bloke that put Angkor Wat together. He was a busy fellow.
How they managed to carve things like this without a Dremmel has got me stumped.
A few days of recovery at the 4000 islands finished Laos for me. This is the last photo that I took in the country. It’s a view of the ‘ferry’ that I had to ride my bike on to to cross the Mekong. The little character holding the rope entertained me for a full ten minutes with his incredible repertoire of sinus clearing techniques. I think that he could have kept going all morning, but I really needed to leave.
Although I could have thrown a stone into Cambodian waters, I wasn’t allowed to cross with a bike. Instead I had to do a two day, 600km detour back through Vietnam to make it into Cambodia through a different checkpoint. But that’s a story for another time.
Na Meo – Vieng Xai – Vieng Thong – Luang Prabang – Phonsavan – Vang Vieng – Vientiane – the Thakhek Loop – Savannakhet – The Bolovan Plateau (Pakse Loop) – 4000 islands – Xayden.
18 days – 3000km