This week started with one of the worst bus rides I have had thus far on the trip. Nate and I woke up early to get some breakfast in Phonsavan. We had difficulty finding somewhere that was open and ended up just walking down the street for awhile. We were running out of time so we grabbed a tuk tuk to the bus station because we needed to get there at 7:30. Nate found a restaurant there where he got a bowl of soup and I found some bread and just had peanut butter and bread. We were already off to a rough morning. Then, we see our mini van and it is surrounded by people with huge bags of stuff. We loaded up the van with people in every seat and they set up buckets in the aisles with cushions on them for the rest. All of the floor space is covered with more bags of who knows what so you have to keep your feet up. Then, we sit there like that at the bus station for about 45 minutes.
Once we start to drive, we are further irritated because the bus starts to drive around town picking up more people and shoving them in a van that cannot hold more people. It was 2 hours in the van before we even left Phonsavan. Then, we continued to stop more and more to let people on and off as we went. This combined with the heat in the van, the feeling of claustrophobia, and lets not forget that the road is just full of switchbacks and poor road. This made for an awful journey. At our highest capacity the minivan had 26 people in a 16 person van with people standing and it took 9 hours to get there. Our van even had to stop at one point because our tire was falling off from too much weight.
Finally, we arrive in Sam Neau (also spelled Xam Neau). This was a very bizarre place and it definitely felt a bit more like a communist town. Nate and I said we wanted to get a bit off the beaten path and we sure did here. There was probably a maximum of 10 foreigners in the whole town who were all staying at a total of 2 guesthouses and all ate at the one restaurant with an English menu. The place we found the first night was not one of those two places and it was a very bizarre hotel. We were put into a room in the basement which felt like a dungeon and we had to listen to loudspeakers in the the park spitting propaganda at random times. We went to eat at the one foreigner restaurant that day and tried to make plans to rent a motorbike for the following day. We wanted to head to Vieng Xai to see the caves where the communist party hid out during our secret war on Laos.
Now, it is time for a bit of history. I am writing about this because I knew nothing about this history. It is not something they taught us during school and I think it is important for Americans to know their history. During the Vietnam War, the US took the opportunity to conduct a secret war on Laos. The CIA built an airstrip in the middle of Laos and they began to fight an air battle against the communists in Laos. Laos was a strategic country because it was between Communist Vietnam and China, and Democratic Thailand. The goal of the US was to curb the spread of further communism in the region. Therefore, they conducted air strikes where a bomb was dropped on average every 8 minutes for 9 years. The US dropped two million tons of bombs which is more bombs dropped than Vietnam and WWII combined. Laos is now recorded as the most bombed country per capita on the planet.
Rooms built inside the caves in Xam Neau
During this time, the communist party hid out in caves in Vieng Xai and created a military base, hospitals, party headquarters, and homes in these caves. It was hard for the US to see and so instead they were bombing the countryside with no other orders than to bomb even if you see a chicken (the communists killed all their brightly colored animals so they were less detectable.) The Laos people had to go out and farm at night and live in the caves or hunker down in secret villages at night. This only led to more people joining the communist movement. Many of the small villages had never even seen outsiders and were confused on why they were being killed.
The problem now is that many bombs had a large outer shell which opened in the air and little bombs came out to explode in more places. The problem with these types of bombs was that many did not explode. Now, there are about 75 million unexploded bombs spread across the Laos countryside. This means that it dangerous or nearly impossible for farmers to expand their field and crop because while farming they could hit a bomb. This means that many families cannot grow enough food to survive. On average one person a day is injured or killed because of one of these unexploded ordinances. If you want to see more on this there is a great documentary on Youtube recommended to us by our hostel called “The most secret place on Earth The CIA’s covert war in Laos.” Ok, end of history lesson.
So, Nate and I tried to rent a scooter that morning, but unfortunately the one scooter for rent in the entire city was already rented out. A really nice French man in our hostel took pity on us and said we could pay to rent the scooter he had bought. He was really taking a chance on us because if something happened he would not be able to get to Vietnam. We drove to Vieng Xai which was a stunning drive and arrived about 1:30 ready for the 2:00 tour. For a decent price you go to the tourism office and they take you around with a combined audio and guided tour. This tour teaches you the history of the caves and how they survived there. It was amazing how resourceful they were. They also had a lot of assistance from the Chinese and the Russians. The Russians even provided air filters for the chambers in case the US dropped a substance like agent orange.
After the caves, we went back to Xam Neau and went to the night market to try and get some food. It was a pretty hilarious scene because it was also like a carnival. There was a game set up where you throw darts at balloons and win various drinks depending on how many that you hit. Everyone was looking at us with wonderment because they were not used to seeing foreigners. We even tried to go to a store and ask a lady the price of snacks and she had no idea what we were asking, but she had the best laugh every time we pointed at something.
The following day we woke up early again, grabbed a quick breakfast, and headed to the bus station for our final very long bus journey in Laos. It was supposed to be a 12 hour journey that took us 10.5 hours. It was a bit better of a journey this time because it was a larger bus and we had more foot room. They did not try to push a huge amount of people on the bus, but there was some comedy with the small seat in front of us hanging by one screw the whole time. We thought it was going to break. Also, Nate looked at his foot at one point and there was what we thought was a slug, but it was actually a leech. So, I saw my first leech ever. He was scared to put his feet on the floor after that. All in all, eventful bus ride, but not as bad as the one before.
Then, we arrived in Nong Khiaw which was by far my favorite place in all of Laos. It was a little dream land and I could have stayed there much longer. We planned on staying for 3 days, but ended up staying for 4. The first night we arrived in town and didn’t have a booking. We went to a place I had found online, but they were full. Fortunately, his brother owned a place next door who had some rooms available. So, we checked out the place and it was wonderful. It was a little bungalow on the river with a balcony that had some seats and a hammock. It was basic, but lovely and only $12 a night. The first day we wandered around town and had some breakfast and lunch. Nate was feeling really sick so he stayed in bed sleeping and I hiked up to a viewpoint.
It was a steep incline up and I tried to push myself to do it fast so I could get some exercise. I got up there in 45 minutes instead of 1.5 hours as advertised. It was worth the effort. You could see everything in all directions and it was so clear. I have never been to a place with true 360 degree views. They even built a little structure at the top with some benches, chairs, and a hammock. I got in the hammock and waited for the sunset while reading my book. It filled up around sunset, but it was such a peaceful experience. The only problem is that you then needed to hike down in the dark. I met a Finnish couple and I hiked down with them and it went quickly although you did need a flashlight.
The next day Nate and I were going to do a trek, but the dates didn’t work out and he was still under the weather so we took another chill day. We walked around and scoped the bus station, booked tickets for a hike the following day, walked across the bridge, and enjoyed some amazing restaurants nearby. The whole town was basically one road with some restaurants and guesthouses, a bridge, and a similar setup on the other side of the river. There were minimal cars and in the mornings the fog was so thick in the mountains and on the river that you could see it blowing across in wisps. It was just wonderful. That night Nate climbed to the viewpoint and I opted to just stay back on the balcony and read a book with a beer. Great choice!
The following day we embarked on a two day trekking tour with the Nong Khiaw tour agency. Our guide’s name was Thom and he was a great guide and spoke very good English. We met at the office and then they took us on a tuk tuk down to our starting point. We started in a village and then started to hike past farms. It was really beautiful, but also a bit sad because China has leased many farms to grow watermelons. They do pay workers higher than normal wage, but they do not let them use gloves and the chemicals are making the people sick.
We entered the woods and continued to hike and everything was very beautiful…until the leeches. I had seen my first leech only several days prior on Nate’s foot and so this rendezvous with leeches was an interesting experience. It’s almost as if they sense the fresh blood and as you start walking they pop their little heads out of the ground and start coming at you. I have never seen an animal move like this. It is not like worms where they slither on the ground. Leeches go end over end and move pretty fast. They wait for you to step on them and when you think you killed them, they just latch onto your shoe and then try to crawl up your leg and into your socks. We were lucky we were there in the dry season because evidently wet season is much worse. So, we are hiking, looking down at our feet, but cannot stop or more leeches will find us. Occasionally we pick them off our shoes, put them in a pile, and burn them.Yet, I figured out at the end of the hike that a leech had made it through my sock and sucked me dry, let go, and I had a sock soaked with blood and two really itchy bites. I also had a bit of a rough time because I slipped on some wet rocks and fell really hard on my arm and shoulder. I cut up my hand and elbow a bit and I really hurt my shoulder.
The hike was really nice and by mid afternoon we reached a Hmong village where we were going to spend the night. Each of us had a little room with a double bed and we sat down for some coffee. Quickly we were found by the village children and we played with them for the next couple hours. Nate was the forerunner in this activity and we were flipping them, picking flowers, playing with puppies, playing musical chairs, and playing ride the bus. The kids had a blast. Meanwhile, I played with the kids for awhile and then went to help with dinner. Since the mother of the homestay was out of town at a wedding, it was up to the father and our guide to make us dinner and breakfast. They were laughing the whole time because to them, cooking is women’s work. They killed a chicken and plucked it, we picked leaves, and they made an eggplant type dish. In general, the food was just ok. They said it would have been better if the women made the food.
After dinner, Tom came over with some really disgusting rice wine and had us start taking shots. He then declared we were going to play a drinking game with the rice wine. He left and came back with two bowls with the rims of the bowls together and told us there was a chicken head inside. The game was kind of like spin the bottle. One person shook the chicken head in the bowls and passed it to the next person. Since no one can see the chicken head, the next person could spin the bowls to any angle. Then, they would lift up the top bowl and wherever the chicken head pointed was the person that had to drink. We did several rounds of this and unfortunately the chicken head really seemed to like me. After, we wandered up to a viewpoint, laid down, and watched the stars until we were too cold and went to bed.
The following morning we woke up, had some noodle soup for breakfast, and headed out again. We first hiked through a forest with many banana trees up to a viewpoint. Unfortunately, we arrived too early for a good view because the morning fog was still thick. Then, we hiked down and were basically hiking along a riverbed. It was a bit tricky not to slip. Finally, we reached a village where we were to wait for a boat that was going to bring us upstream a bit. It was quite hilarious waiting there because it was swimming time for the neighborhood kids and most of the really little ones just got naked and went in. In the next town up the river, we ate a lunch of sticky rice with bamboo soup and dried riverweed.
After lunch, we hiked through many rice paddy fields to a waterfall. There were a series of waterfalls leading up to the larger one and at one point we even had to climb a series of steep rocks to arrive. The waterfall was very beautiful, but the water was a bit too cold to get in. Our guide found a very large grapefruit and cut it open for us to eat. On the way back down we saw a whole bunch of buffalo bathing in a mud pit which was a hilarious sight.
Finally, we returned to the river and there were kayaks waiting for us. We were to spend the rest of the day kayaking back to Nong Khiaw. The scenery and the peacefulness of the kayak was stunning. The water was so calm that you could see the reflection of the mountains in the water. Occasionally we would pass people on shore, other boats, or even buffalo going for a swim. It was a great way to end our trip. My only trouble was that it was hard to paddle because I had hurt my shoulder the day before when I fell. It started getting a bit darker and colder and we had to speed up a bit to finish.
Once back, we set about finding a place for the night and ended up back at our previous place again. We had some dinner at our favorite restaurant which was a comedy of errors in how long it took to get our food (1.5 hours) and the size of the food (I got a burger with a patty smaller than a slider). Then, finally went to bed to get ready for our trip the following day to Luang Prabang. See below for a couple more pictures of our kayaking trip.