2 Wheel Vagabond

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Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Laos


I arrived in Laos with little Idea of what to expect, with my usual lack of planning I crossed the border without even knowing what the local currency was and had no idea they wouldn’t take my US dollars. It wasn’t long however before this amazing country took my breath away, Laos is truly the land of beautiful smiles, lovely people and stunning scenery (oh….and cheap beer). My first stop was the small riverside city of Pakse which was a great base for exploring some of the surrounding temples and the Bolavan Plateau. After a few days of riding southern Laos and a few evenings drinking beer while watching the sun set over the Mekong I decided it was time to head north and I was soon making my way to Kong Lor cave. A river runs through the 7km long cave and I was soon in the dark cavern, precariously balanced in a narrow motorised canoe as our guide navigated his way past rocks and through the occasional set of small rapids. There was a small village near the entry to the cave, which consisted of mainly eco retreats and guesthouses, with only a handful of tourists there it was a great place to relax and enjoy the mountainous surroundings.

After my river cave experience in Kong Lor my next destination was the countries capital, Vientiane, I arrived with a little trepidation thinking that it would be a bustling city but with a population of around 800,000 Vientiane was small enough to have a bit of charm about it. I managed to catch up with my friend Cody, a fellow motorcycle traveller who I met in Cambodia and we naturally ended up at a few of the local bars, my next 2 days of sightseeing in the city was done with a reasonable size hangover.

If I had any hopes that I was going to avoid hangovers for a while I was sadly mistaken, my next stop was Vang Vieng, the infamous river tubing capital. In its heyday Vang Vieng was best known as a place of anything goes debauchery, starting up river revellers would sit in their tube and head down stream, bars along the bank would throw out a rope and pull you in so you could enjoy a complete excess of alcohol and drugs. Needless to say, the combination of intoxicated travelers and the river resulted quite a few people drowning every year and eventually the powers that be clamped down hard on the drunken shenanigans, it’s starting to pick up again now and a good time can definitely be had as you spend the afternoon floating down the river in your tube. Something that took me by surprise was the natural beauty of the area surrounding Van Vieng, caves and waterfalls are spread out through the thick jungle and jagged karst formations rise up dramatically to make a perfect backdrop as you watch the sunset from one of the riverside restaurants.

As I continued north the flat roads disappeared and the roads began winding their way up into the altitude of the northern Laos mountains. My eventual destination was Luang Prabang but I wanted to do a detour to visit the mystery shrouded archaeological landscape of the plain of jars. Thousands of stone jars are scattered across the areas foothills, ranging in diameter between 1 and 3 meters and dating back to between 500 BC – 500 AD. The discovery of human remains and burial goods support the belief that the jars were used for burial purposes although one fanciful local legend would have you believe that they were used to brew large amounts of rice wine to celebrate the local population’s liberation from cruel overlords in the 6th century.

I decided to take the long way to Luang Prabang and my 550 km detour to the North East was one of the best days of riding I have had in a long time. The roads climbed high into the mountains and weaved there way from one beautiful village to the next, as I rode through each one I was greeted by glowing smiles from the locals and children waving at me from the side of the road as I passed by. This was Laos at its best…. quaint villages, breath taking scenery and incredibly friendly people. I arrived in Luang Prabang keen to see what the hype was all about, surely a city couldn’t live up to the high expectations that this UNESCO heritage listed city carried with it. I was wrong again, Luang Prabang was the prettiest city I had visited in South East Asia and seemed to have overflowing amaountsmof charm and character. Situated on the confluence of the Nam khan and Mekong rivers and encircled by mountains Luang Prabang is a mixture of Buddhist temples and French provincial Architecture. The pace of life seems to go by a little slower here, I watched hundreds of monks and there novices make their way through the streets in their iconic orange robes as I sat back with a coffee in one of the many fine cafes and restaurants that fill the town. Walking through the remarkably clean streets, visiting the Wats and taking in the local architecture was enough to take up most of the day but the ethnicity museum was worth a visit to learn about the local tribes and the night markets were by far the best I had visited, no pushy vendors or cheap, fake clothing brands here. I also pais a visit to Kuang Si falls and the bear rescue centre, home to bears that were mistreated as performing acts or even kept for traditional medicines where the Bears bile is thought to cure sickness.

On my last night I met some BMW riders that had just led a tour group through China and they told me that the mountain road to the north was being upgraded and to expect long delays. I managed to weave my way through much of the congestion but the high volume of trucks meant that traffic would come to a halt as two trucks tried to pass each other with not enough room for even a bike to squeeze through. After not meeting many touring motorcyclists since I left Thailand I met another two groups coming down from China that afternoon and it was great to stop and share stories about our travels, even if it was on the side of the road with cars almost sideswiping the bikes as we chatted.

My last stop in Laos was Luang Namtha, the town lacked the character that most of the other Laotian villages, towns and cities offered but what drew people here was the trekking and most people would only stay in town long enough to organise a tour and then head out into the jungle for a few days. I spent the evening hanging out with a group of travellers that had made their way from Europe via China in their own vehicles, I knew china was expensive to ride through but I was still a little surprised when they told me how much it cost. As we had dinner I was constantly being approached by what I thought were lovely old ladies from local minority tribes trying to sell me handmade bracelets. I felt a little na├»ve when my new friends explained that these “nice old ladies” were actually selling opium, the bracelets were just a cover, as they handed you a bracelet they would also hand you a bag of the sticky brown substance, no wonder the old dears seemed so cheerful, they were probably high as a kite. Before I made my way to the Thai border I rode to the Lao/China border to gaze into the big neighbouring country to the norththen I headed back to Thailand and sadly said goodbye to what turned out to be the favourite country of my trip so far.





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2 comments:

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