Sunrise over a distant ridge, invisible in the mist
25/11 I keep bumping into the same people again and again, which is quite nice, we get to know each other a little. I backtrack most of the way back to the border, collecting my spare tyres in Luang Namtha, then head SE. Immediately the road is a very broken. It seems that road maintenance in Laos consists of filling holes with dirt and stones. It's very nice, though, cruising through the greenery and lots of thatched villages where the kids wave and jump with joy upon seeing a foreigner on a bike. I meet two cycling couples and we stop to chat for a while. Looking for a lunch stop on Muang Xai I spot Gilles, Cecilia and Rainer, who have just finished theirs. It's hello and soon good bye again, this time possibly for good, although I might meet Gilles again in March, when he will return from his work trips. Gilles stays in town for some bee spotting, while the other two set off for Luang Prabang. The Austrian cyclists I met earlier arrive after the others have left, so it's a constant coming and going. All this eats up time, however, and as the road now is winding and slow going I don't make my goal of Nong Khiaw. There is nowhere to stay so I enjoy a quiet camp site all by myself for a change. Only a few fireflies keep me company.
26/11 I discover by chance that there are a lot of mimosa plants around, not the big trees we get at the Riviera a lot, but very small plants. When I touch the leaves they close very quickly. Watch the action here. (22 MB) In Nong Khiaw I stop on the bridge to watch the river "traffic" and take some photos. Pity I didn't make it here last night, it seems a very pleasant place. Overnight in Vieng Thong. Not much happens here.
27/11 This morning I have to unpack my fleece jersey and thick gloves again. I didn't think I'd need them again before Oz. When I get ready to leave early in the morning I can't find anybody to pay my bill, but worse, my tyres are gone. I can't ask anybody, as nobody understands me. After a long time the landlady finally appears and she produces the tyres that were stored safely in a shed. The road from here to the junction with Route 6 has recently been resealed, but they have done a shoddy job with rough chip seal, wafer thin. The first big holes are appearing already and soon it will be atrocious. The problem seems to be that other countries jump in and build new roads, but then nobody shows the Laotians how to maintain them. Generally, they seem to throw just dirt and stones into the largest potholes. Anyway, right now it is near perfect and once up into the hills the fog goes and it warms up again. I arrive in Sam Neua for lunch. Can't rouse anybody in the recommended guesthouse either before or after lunch. In another one two kids are playing at the reception, but I can't make them go and get an adult, either. In town I meet Ellie, who has been living in Asia for about 5 years, mostly teaching English. She's fallen in love with India, but right now lives in Thailand.
28/11 After another early start I reach Vieng Xai just in time for the guided tour of the caves. As I'm the only tourist today I have the guide all to myself. During the 2nd Indochina war the US saturation bombed NE Laos and the Pathet Lao moved their headquaters into a network of caves here. The terrain is mostly vertical and heavily overgrown, so the US bombers had no targets. For 9 years they dropped more bombs on Laos than what was dropped in the entire WW2. It had no effect on the leadership, who sat it out in the caves during fine days and only ventured out at night or in bad weather. The US used rockets, the impact sites of which can still be seen on some cliff faces, but they couldn't see the entrances and so that didn't work, either. They didn't use chemical weapons, but the PL were prepared for that, too. The caves today are practically empty, so not all that interesting, despite their historical significance. Still, I can imagine what it must have been like, roughing it in there with the constant noise of bombs dropping outside.
From here I must backtrack again, stop off for a quick look at a waterfall, then the prehistoric menhirs of Suan Hin. LP makes it sound quite interesting, but I'm afraid I can't agree. They are relatively small and standing under big trees they are not that photogenic, either. It's getting a little late and there are lots of good camp spots around, but this is at 1500 m altitude, so I decide to push on. I soon regret that, as the road descends there is nowhere to get off the road and pitch a tent. I end up going back some distance to Nam Noen, where there is only one basic, but expensive guesthouse. Perhaps I should have bargained.
To get to Site 3 you have to cross a bamboo bridge. Not this one, though ...
29/11 Next stop on the tourist circuit is Phonsavanh. This is a rather ordinary modern town. The attraction is the nearby Plain Of Jars. To aid the local economy the authorities have forbidden the hire of bikes, so tourists are forced to use more expensive options.
... the new bridge
Little is known about why these jars were carved out of solid rock and what they were used for and nothing more is known about the people who did it. The most plausible theory says theywere burial urns.
I have my own theory as to what they were for: cooking. The builders were cannibals!
The evidence is here: traces of prehistoric soup and seasoning in one of the jars
1/12 An easy day's ride gets me to Luang Prabang. This town, being a UNESCO site, is full of tourists and a little more expensive. I stay in a rather simple wooden guesthouse in a room without any furniture, but it is clean and has character. The owners are friendly and I get to meet a few people in the yard.
It's a lazy hazy life in Luang Prabang