Monday, December 16, 2013

Laos, South to North

ORIGINALLY Written from Luang Prabang (a town of many spellings, but this one looks about how it sounds)  December 15, 2013.  Day began broken overcast and cool.  Variable sun and cloud, some fog after noon in high country (very dense fog) and finally heavy rain tonight.  Take your pick.   EDITED AND EXPANDED EARLY MORNING 12/17/2013, and FINALLY FINISHED IN HANOI ON 12/21!!!

Written on 12/15:
Today's run was the penultimate northerly leg of the journey back through Laos to Viet Nam, Hanoi and the flight home.  It has been a series of days of hard traveling, long hours on the horse and not much in the way of fascinating side trips.  Basically we get up, find coffee and breakfast, pack the bag, pay one last visit to the toilet, and get on the road.  If there's a particularly lovely pagoda or a pretty boat (or even an ugly one if its something I didn't have before) then we stop.  If breakfast was a good sized meal (a whole baguette and something in it for example) we probably won't stop for lunch.  More coffee maybe, and more gas for the horse.  In the afternoon, if we get in much before dark (wherever we were going) we go out looking to see what there is to be seen.  Along the Mekong, you'd expect boats and. . .well, there are a few, but compared to the same length of coastline, it's pretty bare, and the boats tend to be very very similar.  Long and skinny, to be precise.  There are some really ugly ferries across the river, barges with ramps dragging in the water at each end, bullied across the water by really ugly little tugboats with houses tall enough to let them see over the tops of their semis and heavy freighters.  Tomorrow, looking ahead, we'll either sit here and let this storm system blow itself out, or if it looks better than I expect. . .we'll go for one more half day riding northbound, then turn the corner Eastward.  The big goal for that next day on the road, is the hamlet where the highway crosses the Ou River.

But, as I've learned to my sorrow, counting too much on what you're going to do can lead to disappointment, so let us just consider where we've been the past few days.

Pakse to Savannakhet was a wonderful run, relaxing & actually going somewhere after the misadventures on National Road 18a. . .but not what you'd think of as "thrilling" scenery or a great many warm personal contacts.  The land is flat, the road is straight, the bridges are wide, there are villages and towns every little ways (pay attention or you'll blow into the middle of a village at speed. . .they come up fast!
These are the basic rice handling tools here, the conical steamer (it goes in a bell mouthed pot) and the cylindrical sticky rice holders.   The young lady declined the chance to pose with her basketry.  

One sort of small village Pagoda. . .I've only rarely seen the inside of one and they clearly couldn't hold a large group, so perhaps they're more of a shrine sort of thing.  Beautifully decorated, though sometimes the depictions of hell would do credit to a televangelist! 

I'm not sure just what a fearsome snake might have to do with worshiping a gentle meditator.  Will have to see if I can find out.  But he's impressive!

You can just make out the hellfire to the left of the doorway. . .which is guarded by lovely young ladies.  Go figure!.

Lunch. . .sticky rice and a whole chicken leg done perfectly on charcoal.  By a grumpy lady.  You never can tell.  If the trucks and suv's suggest that I'm the small fry on the road. . .yes, that would be the case.

 But then we spent a day in Savannakhet itself:

The southern Lao river canoes are remarkably similar, only varying somewhat in size.  Three planks and a motor, just about all there is to them.  But boy what planks!!

There's a Pagoda along the river front in Savannakhet with lovely sculpture everywhere.  This is a wood carving on a door. They are all different, and the old gilding only seemed to add to the beauty.

They make a business out of producing concrete Buddhas in all sizes and poses.  They come out of the molds pretty rough and missing hands, topknots and hair spirals (or snails if you prefer that explanation).

Many hours of sanding and painting and they are smooth as glass.  

If you thought the canoes were a bit ugly, these dip net rafts will give you a useful comparison.  They were being taken out of service, the nets rolled up and hauled home.  River too low?  Too fast?  

Actually, the canoes look pretty nice from a little distance in the right light. . .
From Savannakhet we made a longish run to Paksane.  We were hoping to get close enough to the capital, Vientiane, to make it feasible to go on by without going into the city.  That may seem a little odd, skipping the capital of a remarkable country like Laos, but I've seen the city before and the horse didn't care one way or another. . .and we have a long way to go still, so rather than spending the day in yet another city, we pushed the day before and the day after and made three days' distance in two days time, and still had time to look around a bit.  Actually, to tell the whole truth, I'd have just as soon stopped in Pak Kadding, which is a charming little spot at the mouth (Pak) of the Kadding river.  It's about the right distance from Vientiane to be a good first stop for the long haul busses, so the town has spread itself along the highway as a string of quick food stands.  NOT fast food. . .just quick.  Fried fish, sausages, chicken over charcoal, mounds of sticky rice, sweets and drinks and so on. . .all ready to go as soon as a bus rolls to a stop.  However, this time I was chasing a canoe down the highway determined to measure it up.  I was so sure it would stop in Pak Kadding I forgot to stop when it didn't.  By the time the thing pulled off the highway we were halfway to Paksane, so, having measured it, I pointed the horse north again and we pulled into Paksane. . .which is an uncharming bigger town with very little to recommend it besides its ferry across the river. . .which is really ugly!  I have no Lao, so as the boat's new family kept trying to put it away and roll it over and I kept trying to get all its measurements written down, I realized one of the teenagers was coming along behind me miming my measurements, but going to extremes. . .we all cracked up when he made a show of measuring the thickness of the dried mud on her bottom.  I finally left them in peace with their new boat.

I'M VERY SORRY. . .but the software is giving me fits and moving the photos all around rather than leaving them where I wanted to insert them. . .so here's a whole bunch of stuff, not in proper order. . .oh well!  Maybe it will work best to read through the text first to get some idea of what the photos are all about.  Or not, as you wish!
Leaving Savannakhet. . .the morning alms ritual passed by.  Someone may have had a guilty conscience earlier on the route, the monks have a full bag of sundries in addition to their usual begging "bowls".  All along the street ladies (and a very few men) are waiting on their knees with offerings for the upkeep of the monks, who depend entirely on charity for their living.  The monks (I've been told) are not usually for life, but rather for a period of time at some point in their lives for discipline and education.  

A stupendous concrete stupa in a very small pagoda in a very small village.  It no doubt has major significance, which a person who was not illiterate could easily read from the inscription on one side.  Being illiterate (as well as deaf and dumb) is the pits at times.  Most of the time. . .

The first real sign of vertical scenery. . .south of Paksane a good ways

A very small pagoda in a very small village. . .really peaceful and pretty. . .

A really ugly ferry barge with a paying load, headed for Thailand across the river.  A really ugly tug trying to make her move. . .don't ask about the small structure aft.  The Mekong at Paksane.

Some very nice trucktor wagons. . .not the nicest, but with the addition of a nice cover and some upholstered seats they'd be there.  Maybe those are just dealer added options. . .

And this proves there really is such a thing as a new trucktor. . .though really, this is still just a pair of tractors. . .add the wagons and you're in business.  Un-flipping-stoppable.  Love 'em.  These were in Paksane.

On to the North, from Paksane to Vang Vieng.  Anything beyond Vientiane counts as "northern Laos", so when we turned the corner about lunch time, it was the beginning of a very different road.  Actually, passing Vientiane turned out to be an interesting affair.  There's a clearly defined real road, National Road 10, which splits off the freeway into the city about 7 km from the center and immediately turns to. . .bad road. . .or rather, perfectly awful renovation.  It goes on that way a good 10 km. . .or maybe more, and at one point it lets a totally different side road lead you astray (the side road looks so much better you just naturally take that side of the Y. . .Fortunately, when in doubt (no road sign, so lots of doubt) I always stop to check.  I went through the full performance, "English?  No Lao. . .er. . .Vang Vieng?? then confusion and despair on faces and people pointing back the way I'd come.  Unthinking, I asked, in Vietnamese "you mean go back 2 km and take the left side?" Which prompted a flood of Vietnamese detailed instructions and obvious delight.  I find more Vietnamese people and language here than I'd ever have expected, and it's saved me no end of trouble.  They find a Vietnamese speaking (??) white guy on a motorbike in Laos totally amazing.  It works.  But I've digressed again.  The main difference was that the bilingual kilometer markers and signs came to an end when they emerged from the dust.  Nothing but Lao script.  Lovely stuff, graceful and distinctive.  Just not terribly informative if you're illiterate.  Darn.  That lead to confusion at times. There's an intersection 14km from the intersection with the main highway northbound for example. . .I swear you have to make a 270 degree turn around the market and through town to make the corner you need, and not a sign of any sort.  We came up with another Vietnamese speaker who drew it all out in chalk on the sidewalk for me. . .but my  pantomime and repeated "Vang Vieng??" had already produced a pretty clear understanding.  We could have gotten away without the linguist if need be.  He'd spent 5 years studying in Hanoi though and his accent was really clear to me (I, too, have a northern accent now. . .good grief).

That was the day I didn't kill the little boy.  It's the sort of thing that haunts the back of your mind whenever you're on the road here, the little kids live like kids did in America sixty years ago, they run loose, play with their brothers and their neighbors and have a fine time.  We were way out in the country. There was a loud wedding going on in an open clearing on the left side of the road and a string of homes along the right.  The boy was rapidly approaching the roadside from one of the houses, ready to dart across as I approached.  I put on a panic stop, skidding a little.  A grandpa shouted from the wedding side . ..and the little boy and I came to a stop a foot or two apart.  He wasn't in the road yet and I wasn't moving.  I waited.  The boy looked at Grandpa.  Grandpa told the boy to stand still and waved me on.  I let out the clutch and left. . .and remembered to breathe again a little later.

We were just approaching the northern  end of a big hydroelectric lake with a sweet village along both sides of the road and the lakeshore when I spotted a fine example of the local canoe upended beside the road.  I doubled back, got out the tape measure and started taking dimensions and photos.  A youngster was watching every move and when I mimed helping me with the tape, he jumped right in.  I'd poke the tape under the boat to measure her width and he'd tag the end to the gunnel like trained help.  We measured her every which way (I write such things down in the back of my diary) and he helped the whole time.  When it was time for me to leave do you think I could get him to smile for the camera? Ha!  There was no internet in the village though, so I passed both the lovely old hotels by and kept on the last 15 km or so to Vang Vieng.

Although the construction zone came and went all day, eventually we had rejoined the main highway, National Road No. 13N, which was, itself, torn up and hoping for rehabilitation.  But even bad roads come to an end and we pulled into Vang Vieng, the ultimate tourist party town in Southeast Asia, in time to have a look around town before dark.  Oh my.  Hot air balloons over the valley??  That's just the start.  There are more truck inner tubes, sit on top kayaks, rock climbing schools, banana pancake makers, and restaurants of absolutely every nationality and price range (with hotels to match) than you can begin to imagine.  Utterly amazing.  It all comes of the right attitude by the city fathers I suppose, combined with an unbelievably gorgeous natural setting among limestone cliffs copied from Chinese water colors and a sparkling white water stream borrowed from somewhere in Montana.  Vang Vieng had a problem with all night loud music a few years ago and I'd sworn never to try it again, but it's mellowed (or clamped down?)  and the night was quiet after a reasonable hour.  Perhaps they went inside!  But we did not come to go tubing or white water kayaking or definitely not to fall off of a limestone cliff and hang by a rope. . .we just wanted a quick look around, supper and breakfast and a tank of gas and. . .we got it all.  The hotel was lovely and only $10, the supper was not anything special (I waited a bit late perhaps) but the eggs and tomatoes were fine for breakfast and the horse thought the fuel was okay.  We didn't get away at first light, but it wasn't late and it was a long ride in gradually darkening conditions.
Vang Vieng from the highway, no balloon, but a little nicer framing. . .better light to see the cliffs by.

On the road from Paksane toward Vientiane, some small hills, and what will soon be a very large Buddha.
On to National Road 10 North, we've turned the corner and are headed east at last.  Lovely road while it lasted, through pleasant countryside, but no mountains yet.  Be careful what you wish for. . .
I later saw two more of these "trucks" farther east, so this one was not the only one on earth, but they're pretty rare.  Look closely, you'll see the original tractor engine just ahead of the BACK wheels, with the headlight pointed directly into the small of the driver's back.  I've no idea what the front end came out of, but it has a more or less standard sort of steering wheel, but mounted amidships, not off to one side or the other.  There are no useful lights of any sort, and the cargo platforms (or passenger accommodation!) fore and aft are remarkable.  Advantages??  You don't have to get out of the seat to make a hard turn??  You don't have to worry about changing it back into a tractor for plowing?  I dunno!
A quite nice little roadside village in the lowlands, northern Laos
National Road 10 east of Vientiane, beginning to pick up a little elevation, but this still is just rolling hills.  Those bumps in the background probably count as mountains though!

East of Vientiane on N.R. 10, one of those puzzling things, a row of market stalls along the road, all with bananas and banana flowers (good for salads).  Each with its own lady, each an independent business, and no way to choose between them.  What an odd way to deal with the abundance.  I can only imagine that the middlemen take such a big bite out of the earnings that it's better to try to sell on the highway and throw away what rots. . .or feed it to the pigs I suppose.  H'mm.
An interesting canoe. . .27' long and too skinny to believe.  I've ridden in one of these and could hardly sit still enough to keep us upright.  Twitch and she rolls!!  The  skipper didn't enjoy having me along I think, but we stayed dry and saw a lot of the lake. . .years ago now.  The young man was a big help with the measuring tape, but no smile.  Sigh.
These two, on the other hand, were nothing but smiles and tomfoolery.  At the edge of the skinny but sweet little town alongside the hydroelectric reservoir.  
The horse outside the hotel we didn't stay the night in.  Peaceful, lovely, sweet people, but no wifi.  I'd been out of touch too long, so, regretfully, went on into the hive of hedonistic pleasure seekers in Vang Vieng.  Oh sigh.
Back on National Road 13, the main highway through this part of the world. . .this is the main street (and the highway) of the little town by the lake. . .just a nice Lao town, nothing really amazing, but if you like fresh fish or dried, this is your place!
But the hotel we did stay at was no slouch either really. . .though the people weren't quite as cheerful.  Maybe they'd seen a few too many tourists in their lives. . .
Looking due west from the hotel across the old bus parking place, the balloon was coming down quickly (burning a lot of propane too!) so I only had a moment to catch him.  $78 and you too can see Vang Vieng from the sky.  I almost think it would be worth it on a nice day. . .what an interesting viewpoint to see the mountains and the river from.  
Sunset over Vang Vieng.  mountains copied from Chinese water colors. . .

From Vang Vieng to Louang Prabang:
In the diary entry for December 15th I wrote "This is the high mountain crossing, a short ride for a day, only 230 km, but very slow, with an infinity of curves, steep climbs and desperate descents."  It was very cool on the ridges and just pleasantly warm in the valleys. . .and becoming cooler as we continued during the day.  In the late afternoon we came around a sweeping curve just before the crest of a long climb and could look ahead to the brink of the drop off into the valley we were just leaving. A wall of fog was pouring through the trees and rocks of the crest and tumbling down the mountainside like the ghost of a great waterfall, a stupendous sight.  It was obviously much colder air, heavy, falling through the relatively warm air we'd been riding in.  We crested and began the descent and that was the end of light for the day.  The fog closed in all around us and made the day dark and wet.  

This was a region of tiny hamlets on the ridge tops or tucked into the corners of switchbacks.  These are the poorest of Laos's people I think, clinging to a nearly vertical landscape, building their bamboo homes on the edge of the paved road, so their doors need to open inward to avoid sticking out into the roadway. Their front wall is founded on the road bed but their back walls are perched on stilts fifteen or twenty feet or even farther above the slope of the mountain falling away below.  They live in a terribly steep environment, no level ground for any purpose for most homes, and the homes are tiny and tightly packed together.  They grow bananas on the slopes and maize, turnips, cabbage, the tougher sorts of things.  I've seen them with home made shotguns (muzzle loaders, fired with a cigarette butt against a tiny hole through their barrels) and crossbows, so they take some game from the mountainsides as well, I tried to photograph one of the muskets but the young man was vigorously opposed, told me "no" in English!! and shielded the mechanism with his body as he walked away.  Maybe they're prohibited?? There are chickens everywhere in the little villages, and sometimes goats, or a pot bellied pig, but not larger stock, there'd be no room for them to stand.  Down in some of the valleys the villages are less desperate, a little more room per house and a little more ground that isn't truly precipitous, but not much.  There are thousands of people living there along the roads, large families and getting larger.  Sometimes it seemed to me that the primary occupation of the adults was holding small children and bouncing them or lugging them around  in slings on their backs (or sides or fronts, the slings are versatile).  I'm usually eager to take photographs of the people and their houses, but somehow I felt out of place flaunting my camera along with my shiny motorbike and fine clothes. . .so I have very little to show you of those villages.

We carried on into town, made one wrong turn, doubled back as the thunderstorm unleashed its deluge. . .and found our way to the guesthouse I'd used before, which was full.  Darn.  However, the overflow room in the house next door was passable for the night and we had pretty free use of our preferred place as well.  The older couple is gone now and their son and his new wife are running the place.  They hadn't met the horse before and didn't remember me.  Oh well.  Dinner, when it came, was in the very first restaurant down the block and took a mad dash under an umbrella to make it happen.  The joys of open air travel!
16 December was a day of fiddling with the horse's problems and then doing a cold, gray, threatening sort of day's worth of seeing the sights again.  Louang Prabang is a World Heritage City. the old imperial city, with the old palace (now a gorgeous museum) and an amazing amount of lovely old homes and businesses, many dating back a very long time, but even the recent structures dating back into the years of the French administration, so you have a fascinating blend of Lao pagodas (a number of them), the old Imperial administration buildings, the French residential and commercial architecture. . .and the place is surrounded on three sides by river!  The Mekong makes one long boundary to the town with its steep banks, and a smaller tributary (running dark with mud just now, though I've seen it as a sparkling crystal clear little stream) a smaller tributary as I was saying, making a sudden hooked entry into the big river and confining the town to a narrow peninsula between the two.  It's a lovely setting and a lovely town, rich with history and culture and tourists.  And with the tourists. . .good food!!  Oh my.  The night market is an amazing thing, a long long street closed off to traffic and full of local handicrafts, all color and beauty. . .too much to choose from (and no where on the horse to carry anything anyway) so I just walked and looked and snacked through the evening while the horse rested.  She needed it.

That's the World Heritage part.  Up and downstream along the Mekong the real Lao town stretches.  No tourists, very few guest houses (and most of them aren't obvious, they're not looking for foreigners), but lots of Lao restaurants and shops, motorbike mechanics and bike washes, shops selling every sort of daily thing, markets full of fresh food and everything you'd expect in a real town (and nobody selling new cameras, gps's or knickknacks),.  I suppose all those waiters and tour guides and taxi drivers have to live somewhere. . .they certainly couldn't afford rents in the imperial city.

The old slow boat terminal for voyages upriver to Houayxay (by way of Pak Beng) has turned into the new ferry terminal and the slow boat terminal has split in two and moved upstream.  One part picks up and drops off tourists in the hotel zone.  The Lao people who use the boats for a lifeline to their riverbank villages now have to (or prefer to?) get on and off the boats at a terminal 7 km upstream.  I'm not sure what they've accomplished with the move. . .hopefully the boats are still filled with a mix of mostly local folks and a few tourists.  I enjoyed that when I made the trip years ago.

Oh!  And I finally have watched the heavy cargo freighters running loaded up stream and being offloaded at the new "terminal" where trucks can back down to the water's edge and get a gangplank over to the ship for the longshoremen to carry the cargo ashore or load it out.  I'd only seen these big vessels laid up over low water, when their route is unpassable for them (though the slow boats and speed boats can make the run in almost any river stage.  The big boats' general trade is to load teak logs in Louang Prabang and carry them upstream to Thailand at Houayxay (you say that somewhere between "Why-sigh" and "Hoo-ay-sigh"  Maybe "HooWy-Sigh"). Anyway, then they load cargo from Thailand, motorbikes, TV's, ready made clothing, manufactured goods in short. . .essentially trading resources (finite and limited) for stuff.  The one I saw though was running upstream from Vientiane with a load of gypsum wall board!  I watched men packing the heavy sheets out of the hold and up into a horribly overloaded little truck late in the afternoon.  There were a great many truckloads to come out of that vessel!  Besides being the biggest thing on the upper river, they're very distinctive with their peaked roof house aft and their sweeping sheer line.  Their folks live aboard during the working season. . .they're either coming or going or loading, no time for moving ashore.
The new Foreigner's landing for slowboats to Thailand (a 2 day voyage!)

Slow boats, which aren't really all that slow, rafted up, waiting for a run North.

The new catamaran ferry (with ramps on both sides!) and a heavy freighter loaded with gypsum wall board from Vientiane.

They're supposed to make you feel. . .meditative??

Riding through the Lao part of town!  A bit different than the "World Heritage" city!

A lovely coffee shop in the tourist zone.   Wonderful lemon tart.  Shame on me!

Offloading gypsum wallboard. . .poor little truck had pretty flat tires when they quit stacking it up.

The wallboard freighter and a smaller bulker alongside.  The Mekong running hard and full of mud.

The building shelters a standing Buddha that's really impressive. . .but you can't photograph both the building and the statuary at once. . .too much contrast in the lighting.  Sigh.

Hand made stairwell of old hardwood, some very wide planks in the floor (25-26 inches wide)

Simply far too many stunning pagodas all over town.

The carved wooden doors on many pagodas. . .wonderful work

The bows of a four-wheeled funeral boat. . .complete with dragons.  The various symbolisms escape me, but it's fun sculpture.

Night market, Louang Prabang

The parasol maker has great artistic sense. . .you could photograph his display from a dozen angles, what fun!