Saturday, March 12, 2016

And into Northern Laos at Last

Written from Louang Prabang, Laos, the 12th of March, 2016.  When last we spoke I was still comfortably in Savannakhet, my favorite of the southern Lao Mekong River cities.  We've come a ways since then, arriving in Louang Prabang yesterday afternoon late after a serious couple of days traveling steadily northbound on Hwy 13S.

I always hesitate to say that one stretch of highway is much like another stretch just before it, but coming northbound the full length of Laos, that's really pretty true for a long ways, easily 1000 kilometers.  You're riding on a good, level, straight road, usually quite a ways above the surrounding countryside. . .no doubt to keep the road dry during flood times.  The road is generally flanked by rice paddies or some other sort of farmland on both sides, rarely close enough to see the Mekong, though it's always there, off on your left a mile or so, and sometimes there are hazy mountains just visible in the distance on your right.  You pass frequently through small settlements, some big enough to think of as towns or villages, but many nothing more than a single shop or two and a scattering of homes.  You slow down for them all, and sometimes they're quite close together   It's easy to believe the region feeds millions of people, though now in the dusty dry season almost all the rice paddies are brown and bone dry.

It was through that landscape we traveled straight through, Attapeu, Pakse, Savanakhet, and onward to Pak Kadding and to the very outskirts of Vientiane.  And that marks the end of the South of the country.

I mention Pak Kadding and Vientiane in the same breath, but they are opposite poles.  Vientiane, the Capital, a modern cosmopolitan city extending miles from the center. . .Pak Kadding, a tiny little place at the mouth of the Kadding River.  It's perfectly placed to be a lunch or dinner stop for highway traffic headed to or from Vientiane, so its highway frontage is almost entirely lined with quick (not fast!) food shops, with here and there some other sort. . .hardware and motorbike parts stores, and a place that sells lady's clothes and purses, all great fun to poke through. More, the narrow lanes of the village hold some really nice homes and there's a dignified old Pagoda on a low bluff overlooking the Mekong (and Thailand on the other side).  Best of all, there's a neat little small boat harbor right under the bridge that carries the highway over the Kadding.  Nothing here is to die for mind you, but it seems to be a good place to live, and a fine place to walk around on a warm afternoon.  We did, and spent the night in a fine new hotel on the edge of town. My old favorite guesthouse was padlocked, though clearly still ordinarily in business. . .I just caught them on a bad day.

I met a team of European Engineers (German, Belgian, Swiss and a Scotsman from Austalia) who were in on the very first efforts to build a huge new hydroelectric dam and powerhouse on the Kadding, only a few km upstream from the mouth, it's to be 177 meters high and require an unbelievable volume of concrete.  I think if you want to see the place I like you'd best see it soon.

I don't dislike the capital any more than any other large city I always get lost in. . .but I do like to avoid getting lost whenever I can. . .and the last time I tried to ad lib a slightly different route to avoid going into the city my new telephone lead me a wild goose chase out onto some of the roughest country roads (without signposts at all) that I've ever not been lost on.  The phone continued to assure me we were purely on course and to continue on to the highway.  Well, it was right, in its own way, but it was truly a wild chase.  So, this time I studied ahead rather than winging it under fire.  A search of the map was pointless, it simply is too short on details and too many of the details it has are wrong. But two different mapping programs on line indicated we could sneak by through the northern suburbs of the city and proceed straight back out into the countryside on something called the "450 Road" instead of going all the way in to the airport before turning north, that's what we did. Amazingly, not only was the 450 Road signposted, it was perfectly clear--this way lies Luang Prabang, and it was a wide and almost straight route and it was almost impossible to get lost on. . .there was, after all, no other road around so totally devastated by re-construction.  We had only to stay in the roughest, muddiest (water trucks trying to keep down dust) most miserable part of the road and we were right on track.  It probably would have been worth while trying the route through the city.

But once we turned north there at Vientiane we left the South of Laos behind us and moved into a new and perhaps more interesting phase of the journey.  By pushing hard and getting lucky (?) with the route past Vientiane, we made a single day out of the 300 plus km from Pak Kadding to VanVieng.  Though there was  no one minute when you could say, here, precisely, we've moved into northern terrain, nonetheless, as the afternoon went on and the road moved into hills and began to wind back and forth across the landscape it became clear we'd made it.  This far anyway.

And so we came to Vang Vieng.  Even when you're just hurrying through making northing on a long ride, you can't pass through Vang Vieng without paying a little attention. The place is set in one of loveliest little river valleys , with utterly stunning mountains rising vertically in the back ground and the sun setting behind them. It's a photographer's challenge, the dramatic light behind the mountains and deep field of focus needed, but it's also the ultimate party town on this part of the word-traveling tourist trail.  Given the lovely setting and the sparkling little river (it could be a Montana trout stream to look at) it doesn't take much imagination to see how the party started. . .it was inner tubes and Beer Lao.  The rest was just a matter of elaborating the details.  More hotels, more restaurants, kayaks, rock climbing classes, zip lines, massage parlors (after rock climbing and kayaking, why not?), and late night dancing and. . .there you are.  The wandering youth of the world (all colors and sorts are welcome)  are here in force.  A few old geezers turn up and try to remember what that was all about.  I got an inexpensive upstairs room above an evening restaurant (the horse had to sleep outside and felt slighted), got the telephone working right at the superb Lao Telecom customer service desk (full internet by golly, there's less wifi in the north but adequate mobile service) and managed another back rub. . .ahhh.

And so, on to Louang Prabang in the morning.  There are times you get bright clear air in your mountains and other times you don't.  This is a "don't" season and the sky is hazy. . ."clear" no doubt  in that there are no clouds overhead, but not clear to see through.  So you'll have no gorgeous panoramic photos to see and I'll not try to write purple prose to describe this stretch of world. . .it's a lot of long hard climbs (the horse's problem) and corresponding long swooping downhill runs, a thousand (probably more) sharp turns, uphill and down one long long grind up to a scenic outlook overlooking a vast valley with just the faintest hint of the stupendous mountains on the far side.  It was mountain riding on a motorbike.  You might like it.

There were some interesting details during the day, meeting five young French persons (two couples traveling by minibus and one young man pedaling a push bike) eating a picnic beside the road and drinking ice water from the little shop there. . .we visited a while.  Later, a European pair, Belgian and Spanish, with a terribly beat up old cousin of the horse's. . .stopped at a repair shop hoping to get going again.  I stopped to see if they needed any of my spare parts (no, another problem) and then tailed them for a while to see if the poor old nag kept going. . .and she did.  They didn't want a tail anyway, assured me they could hitch a ride of the poor thing died underneath them.

And so to Louang Prabang.  Perhaps I'll write about LP again later, or perhaps not.  It's maybe enough to tell you that the first time I came here I'd traveled 31 days without pausing and when we finally arrived here, we stopped for five full days and were reluctant to leave.  There's too much to tell and so much of it lovely.  So we're leaving in the morning (very soon now) on a 2-day "slow boat" trip   upstream on the Mekong to the Thai border crossing at Houayxai.  I'm not sure where on the boat the horse is going to ride, it's not apparent at the moment, but she's coming too and then we'll ride out from Houayxai to Hanoi by the best route we can figure out.  But that's a story that hasn't happened yet.

Changing money. . .in a gold shop.  This is real stuff.  

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Pak Kadding.. . .the canoe harbor

Pak Kadding. . .the old pagoda

Pak Kadding

Pak Kadding

Pak Kadding

She's called an "Apsara", a Lao angel of a sort.

The main doors of the pagoda . . .Pak Kadding

Pak Kadding

On the road, moving into the mountains

A typical shop in the small villages

A lovely old hotel I've stayed at, though they don't rent rooms anymore.  I spent a wonderful night with a big team of Chinese engineers working on hydroelectric project siting. . .an evil trade, but brilliant, exciting men.

The hotel. . .

Vang Vieng,  a cheap room for me, the horse slept outside. Poor girl.

Vang Vieng,  guest house and cottages.

Vang Vieng at sunset

If you can do it for fun. . .

Vang Vieng, second sunset

Vang Vieng, loading up for the day. . .

Among mountains. . .

Near Vang Vieng, these hills will fall away for a while, then we'll climb way up. . .

Into Louang Prabang in the evening.  Sunset on the Mekong,  Slow boats & a power canoe. . .

Louang Prabang at sunset--slow boats on the Mekong

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