20th October 2018
How time has flown. Kyrgystan, so hot in the summer, has already had its first fall of snow in Bishkek.
The wonderful Tunduk hostel is no longer crammed with gap year travellers who are all now back at their Universities.
Yet we are still on the move and are further South, in Laos, in Vientiane its Capital City, having travelled a few hundred kilometres South we now find ourselves in tropical heat. So damp and sweaty. No autumnal chills for us.
In Vientiane, in addition to Lao food, we quickly found the fancied European eateries and had good French and Italian food. We also visited the main temple with its massive Stupa.
Clearly the towns’ main feature is the Mekong River. It is massive here and at night you can see the clearly visible banks of Thailand across the water. So near yet oh so far.
Everywhere we go there are Buddhist shrines and statues with little bowls of food offerings which attract vermin.
Each shop or business has its own shrine and the sale of these is big business. There are big garden centre type shops selling a vast array of these products including shrines, Stupas, gongs and massive animals like elephants.
Our main trip here in Vientiane though was to Mike Murphy’s yard. He is an ageing Irish Canadian, who has made his home here after 7 marriages and almost as many divorces! He explained that he has no signs showing the way to his garage because otherwise he might attract customers! Needless to say it took us a while to find him, even with directions. He like many gone before, ventured an opinion on the gears and as ever we are waiting for parts to arrive to be replaced which are unlikely to work.
We ventured out of town to visit a statue park which had the most amazing collection of religious statuary. The Buddha Park (aka Xieng Khuan) with more than 200 religious statues includes a huge 40-metre high reclining Buddha. It was built in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a monk who studied both Buddhism and Hinduism.
We now feel we have largely done Vientiane and should move on. The problem is that the car is still poorly and whilst waiting for parts to be delivered Jim hatched a plan, buoyed by the fact that the gears had started working again, to drive back North into the hills towards the Plain of Jars. It is a megalithic archaeological landscape consisting of thousands of stone jars scattered around the upland valleys and the lower foothills of the central plain of the Xiangkhoang Plateau. The jars are mostly arranged in clusters ranging in number from one to several hundred.
The area was also heavily bombed by the US and an estimated 262 million anti-personnel cluster bombs were dropped and as many as 80 million did not explode. This means that access to the area is limited to known cleared sites comprising 3 distinct areas where thousands of large old pots are lying around on the surface of the ground.
Or at least that was what I thought he had in mind!
Being nervous about the car I was in two minds about back tracking our route, but if he went alone, it was a long drive. So I decided to go with him, even though a room with air conditioning in Ventiane was a temptation.
As we progressed on our journey, it became clear that the real destination was not the Plain of Jars, but Long Cheung, the former CIA base hidden in the jungle, which was known as the most secret place on earth.
From this massive runway the CIA had co-ordinated dropping more bombs on Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s than were dropped on the whole of Germany in the Second World War.
There had been an army of 50,000 H’mong tribespeople funded by a heroin factory. The base had been captured by the Pathet Lao, now the Lao government, in 1975. Allegedly this area was now no longer off limits and Jim just had to go.
As the day progresses we got a message from other Overlanders proposing a get together. There were half a dozen vehicles, who like us were drifting around in Laos wondering how best to leave.
The Cambodians will only currently issue vehicle paperwork to travellers in person or otherwise through a travel agency. These guys are now charging silly money for this service so we don’t have to leave our car at the border to request the paperwork many hours away in Pnom Phen. The alternative route out of Laos is directly via Thailand, but they have introduced a rule requiring foreign travellers to be accompanied by a guide - not again!
It was suggested that we all camped together outside Vang Vieng, at the Eco Village campsite, surrounded by Karst hills and bordered by the Nam Song River and good facilities for travellers including clean showers, washing machines and electricity.
As it happened we were now only an hour away and decided to join them. The campsite was fab and it was good to be in company of like minded others for a few days and to share border crossing tips and drink a few beers in the well lit garden.
The site owner (a Thai businessman), was delighted to see us all and was blogging madly on his own website with photos of us occupying his facilities.
Jim however, was still intent on a day trip to a jungle runway and we decided to take off the next day in search of the CIA. He was full of dire warnings about road blocks etc. I scoffed and told him he was only saying that to make the excursion sound more intrepid.
Before long, we were driving down country lanes which had no tarmac, were full of potholes and led only to impoverished villages in jungle clearings with cows, pigs, goats and sheep and many small children. There was the odd tiny shop and empty cafe, but also occasional small motorbikes, driven by women with Chinese style bamboo hats, or umbrellas, surrounded by hundreds of packages hanging off their body and every part of the small bike. These were portable shops! These little villages with few vehicles still relied on the travelling salesman.
We came across directions to a hydroelectric dam under construction which meant that there were some large trucks delivering materials along these tiny steep roads which clung to the sides of the ever present Karsts.
However, how wrong could I be? After driving for 4 hours we passed a small farmhouse with the usual chickens, when a young guy came running out to intercept us, wearing army fatigues. He had a lovely Lao smile, but also an automatic rifle and it was clear we were going no further. So we had no alternative but to return to base camp and dinner and company back in Vang Vieng. We were never sure whether it was the presence of dam builders or the runway that impeded our progress? Such a disappointment!
We were never sure whether it was the presence of dam builders or the runway that impeded our progress? Such a disappointment!
By now, the number of Overlanders camped was dwindling as people set off separately to tackle the borders singly. One happy couple, en route to Australia for Xmas, made Thailand on their second attempt and there was much celebration.
My only regret about leaving Vang Vieng had been that I had not tried the tubing or kayaking, so was delighted when MC suggested we join her family the next day for a Kayak trip down the river.
I was worried whether, at our advanced age, we were strong enough to cope with the rapids, but Marie-Claude put me at ease by pointing out that her 7+9 year old girls were going. That put me to shame.
I was less relaxed when on arrival at the fast flowing rivers banks, I discovered that the girls were not canoeing themselves, but tucked in with guides! The others were all fit looking types half our age.
Nervously, Jim and I were pushed off into the current, (with life jackets) and we approached the first rapid before we had worked out one end of the paddle from the other.
The first one was enough to frighten the horses! However we made it through with Jim yelling behind me to steer more to the left. He was still hollering as we tumbled out the other end.
We had at least an hour and a half of this and I was full of forbearing and trepidation. However, we got used to it and by the end we were partly looking forward to the next one and partly hoping to stop as our shoulders and backs had had enough.
We looked over at the children every now and then, busy splashing everyone and having a good time, but they largely traveled with their feet up and their paddles firmly held inside the kayaks!
We survived and thoroughly enjoyed it, but had not applied enough suntan cream to the normally covered up extremities.
That afternoon we packed up camp and set off again for Vientiane. Our car parts had arrived and the next day was a public holiday and we were promised a big show to celebrate the end of summer. Fireworks and processions. So more about that later.
In Vientiane, we have just returned from the Boun Ok Phansa Festival held on the banks of the Mekong after the end of the monks’ three-month fast and retreat during the rainy season (Boun Khao Pansa).
At dawn on the first day, donations and offerings are made at temples around the city. In the evening, candlelight processions are held at temples and hundreds of colorful floats decorated with flowers, incense and candles are set adrift down the Mekong River to pay respect to the river spirit.
It is a massive excuse for everyone to get out into the streets and eat food and to hang out with their friends and eat any number of dodgy looking delicacies.
Tomorrow we can witness a popular boat racing competition held to celebrate the Mekong River. All this is done with Thailand doing something similar on the opposite bank!