Phonsavan to Luang prabang – BANG and the bus is done!

1 Feb

The next day was spent chilling out and wandering round the market (where you could buy live porcupine). We also went to visit  MAG, an organisation in Laos which helps clear unexploded bombs and weapons etc from the Vietnamese war. They said that 800kg of bombs were dropped by the Americans on Laos for every person in who lived there at the time so there is still a lot of material left in the ground – one person a day dies because of it. This hadn’t occurred to us when we went walking down the track to the waterfall the day before…Also explained was why people in Laos, especially in small villages, aren’t as smiley or friendly as the Vietnamese towards foreigners – they see white skin and assume you are American.

You see bombs and shrapnel left over from the war everywhere – the shells are used to make fences, support for the houses and as decoration. Even our room key was made from a shell and the bar we had drinks in with a few other travellers in the evening was called Bombies.

As we were there already and the owner spoke very good English, we decided to book a tour for the next day with the Belgian woman who was staying in our guesthouse with Bombies as they also did trips. The trip we picked was quite expensive ($40) but as it included a lot of activities and lunch we decided to go for it. We were going to go to the Plain of Jars, see another cave, have lunch, bathe in hot springs, see a Hmong village, trek to a weaving village and then go to “Happy village” where opium and cannabis grows and try laolao (local rice whiskey) and chicken soup.

We set off in the minibus to the Plain of Jars first

There are 85 sites where these stone jars are found – this is site one where 250 jars are. They are 2,500 years old and as no material has ever been found in any of them (although money, bones and tools have been found next to some of them), no one knows why they are there or what they were for. There are lots of theories including them being used as prisons, coffins, banks or storage, but my favourite is the Hmong legend that giants came from the sky, drank rice whiskey all day and then forgot their massive drinking cups on the way back up :)

We then went to a huge cave where Lao people hid from the American bombings. In 1968 the Americans used small planes to get right up to the entrance of the cave and bombed it, killing 374 people.

Unlike the other one we went to, you couldn’t go far into this one, but you could see where the local people had arranged some of the rocks that fell down into the cave during the bombings into little piles to look like  stupas (grave markers). They also have a shrine for the dead and leave open cans of drink for them. They also leave lit cigarettes on the rocks, just in case the dead don’t have Nicorette.

On the way back, I followed the guide over the scary rickety bamboo bridge (Adventure Sarah)

but the others went over this one

This was definitely not because I hadn’t seen it, I’m just amazingly brave.

After the cave we went for lunch in a very grubby cafe. Having looked at the state of the kitchen, the animals running through the restaurant and the whole (as in, head, neck and legs etc still on) chickens in a dirty cabinet, we decided that the noodle soup was safest. Luckily it was vile, which saved us from eating the undercooked beef in it.

We arrived at the hot springs and found that that yes, they were hot, but they were more like shallow pools and you couldn’t sit in them. There were bathrooms but they were locked and they didn’t have baths or showers in them anyway. They were so small I found it impossible to take a worthwhile photo so didn’t bother. What was good about them was the woman who was weaving in the little shop there, using a very complicated-looking machine

She was making an intricate scarf, which the guide told us can take up to two weeks to complete. Craig bought a green and black one with elephants on it for 60,000 kip (£4.80), which seems very little for two weeks’ work. We then went to see the “weaving village” which was a very expensive shop and a few more looms in a workshop. We did see where they dyed the silk they were using before hanging it out to dry though

but the guide didn’t really explain much and everything was expensive so we left quite quickly.

The Hmong village we went to next was a bit of a strange experience because it felt like a people safari. If I was in my house, I would be annoyed about people peering in and taking pictures! I didn’t end up taking any pictures as it felt so uncomfortable and as the guide didn’t explain much, we were there for about 10 minutes.

We were going to go and see another bomb crater (there were quite a few at the Plain of Jars)…however, there were some people digging up the road to put a pipe in so we had to turn around. We went back the way we came to find this

so we didn’t have much choice but to sit and wait for the digger to flatten it all.

We were then taken back to the bar – an hour early and a bit deflated as apart from the Plain of Jars and the cave, the guide hadn’t really explained anything, we didn’t do any trekking or visit the second village and all of the things we saw were either free or 5,000 kip maximum (even lunch was only 10,000 kip), so we felt the tour was very expensive for what it ended up being.

We explained this to the owner who came up various excuses (the tour programme was old, the Belgian woman was “too old for trekking” – she’s 61 and treks all the time – we told the bus driver to turn around and come back, trekking takes a day, they thought they didn’t have enough time to do everything and so on). I felt a bit sorry for the guide as he clearly hadn’t been told to do all the things we’d paid for, but we asked for some money back as it was so disappointing. The owner told us that would be coming directly out of the guide’s salary – I don’t believe that’s true but he was trying every trick in the book not to give any cash back, including saying he wasn’t the owner and that he had to ring his brother to make the decision…the brother being the driver who was sat in the minivan outside the bar! We ended up getting $8 each back, which I suppose is better than nothing.

In the evening we sat round the bonfire again with a few other people who had got to our guesthouse that day. I’m all for cheap travelling but the guy who only ate one small baguette in the morning and a bowl of rice in the evening to keep costs down (telling us this over a 10,000 kip bottle of beer), might have been taking it a bit far. He missed out on laad, a traditional Lao dish of minced beef, lots of chillies, garlic and fresh mint, which was delicious. I suppose he must never get ill though. He was good company as he knew lots of Cornish sea shanties, and one of the staff from the guesthouse had a guitar and knew some English songs (personal favourite – Hotel Scranaforna by the Eagles, his accent was hilarious) so it was another nice evening.

Having decided our next stop would be Luang Prabang, we booked bus tickets for the following morning (8 hours and £9.60 each) with a hotel. It would have been slightly cheaper to get them from the bus station, but that’s 4km out of town so you have to get a tuk tuk there and back so I think that would have cancelled it out. You can get a minibus to Luang Prabang but we heard that some hotels squish lots of people on so thought the bus would be the most comfortable option.

We got picked up on a tuk tuk from our guesthouse to the bus station. The bus (where I’m writing this), isn’t too bad as there’s quite a lot of leg room and it’s only half full. A bit of a boneshaker as it’s quite old but ok.

The other half is taken up with everyone’s bags…what people take on a bus here is amazing. Huge bags of fish food, a pile of sticks (literally, an old man is sitting next to a pile of sticks), sugar cane and a live chicken. Luckily he’s in the hold. I could have probably done without the girl being sick behind me (in a carrier bag and then throwing it out of the window).  There was also a guy with a cockerel which he clearly loved over everything as it didn’t go into the hold, he got his own seat. When we stopped for lunch, he made a dinner plate out of a leaf and fed it rice and cupped his hands in a bucket to enable it to have a drink…I don’t think he ate himself but he made sure his best friend the cockerel was alright!

We had another flat tyre – something that is becoming an all too depressingly recent occurance – but apart from that the bus journey was ok. Craig made more friends by helping again :) We got to Luang prabang in under 8 hours so not bad. It’s high season here so the guesthouses are full and want to charge ridiculous money to stay but we found one for 15 dollars so for a couple of days we can stick that. Luang prabang is so upmarket and there’s a lot to do here so unfortunately the prices are expensive, but there is an awesome night market where I got a couple of bits and pieces (trousers and a skirt – don’t go travelling with just one skirt, nitwit). We sat and watched the Mekong river drift by during the sunset and had a meal and a few Beer Lao’s…a very relaxed, warm place :)

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2 Responses to “Phonsavan to Luang prabang – BANG and the bus is done!”

  1. patryantravels 1 February 2012 at 4:04 pm #

    After all these years, the bombs are still there waiting to surprise a new victim. So the war goes on and on. That’s a depressing thought.

    • toaustraliathelongway 2 February 2012 at 12:02 pm #

      Apparently at the current rate of clearance, it will take 100 years for the whole country to be safe

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