Vientiane is the capital of Laos and the start of our trip. After a comfortable flight from Singapore on Air Laos we are ferried to the Green Park hotel where we meet up with cousin Christine and Diego. We only have the evening in Vientiane so spend an hour walking around the rather shabby old city centre and through the market down by the Mekong - full of Chinese and Vietnamese clothes and locals eying up new denim jackets. The following morning we meet our lively guide, Dao, and driver Mr Pan who will be with us for two weeks. We have a 360km drive ahead of us, first up route 13 - Laos's main through route from Cambodia to China - and then heading East up into the hills to Phonsavan on the way to Vietnam.
As we head north Dao tells us about the French legacy in Laos - Architecture, Language (although not known by the young), bread, coffee and boules. We tell Dao that we want to see local life so our first stop is a roadside market where women are selling bowls of ants eggs (in season) and other bugs, bags of bright red duck blood and more appetising local vegetables. Our next stop is a village that specialises in dried fish and the market (above) by a lake is full of fish on skewers, in baskets and made into paste. As we drive north the landscape gets more hilly and at Vang Vieng, a popular tourist spot, the river Song cuts through spectacular limestone karsts. This is also the location of a Chinese cement factory and source of the lorries that threaten to drive us off the road.
After leaving Vang Vieng the road starts to climb through increasingly impressive mountain valleys. Laos is not particularly high - the tallest peak is around 2600m - but it is full of steep sloped valleys and hills. Much of the original forest has gone - since 1975 the forest has reduced from 70% to 30% of the country as timber has been shipped off to Vietnam. "You owe us" is Dao's explanation after all the support the Pathet Lao received during the war. We also see much evidence of slash and burn farming. In February new patches of hillside are being cleared and will be burnt in April before the wet season when "dry rice" will be planted. The villagers now practice 3 year crop rotation so the land has a chance to recover. After a long climb we stop for lunch at a spectacular restaurant perched on top of the hills (above). A gang of grumpy looking German cyclists is heading off while a big party of Koreans are finishing off their lunch.
We continue our drive along the ridges passing wooden villages and locals selling oranges which are in season. These don't look very appetising with black patches on the skins but are tasty like small tangerines. We also see cabbages in sacks waiting to go to market, peanuts being grown and bullrushes all over the hillsides. When we finally get out of the hills we speed up and soon reach the "Plain of Jars" a strategic access point from Vietnam which was heavily bombed in the war. Surprisingly the hundreds of ancient stone containers after which the plain is named were largely undamaged. A Czech group is also exploring the site as we watch the sun go down before driving the last few kilometers into Phonsavan, the regional capital. Our hotel is comfortable but quite basic. Dinner is good home cooking of Laab (ground pork), chicken curry, steamed fish with ginger and vegetables - all flavoured with local herbs and spices.
The next day we are heading for Vieng Xai - another long drive, 6 hours this time. Also the temperature has dropped and it is misty in the mountains which reduces our speed to about 15kph at times. We drive past basic villages and stop by a big bridge. In the town girls are selling river weed (above) and we have a tasty noodle soup for lunch. Pushing on we pass water buffalo grazing in dried paddy fields and women making thatch or drying "broom grass" by the side of the road. Just before Sam Neu we drive through a village full of weavers. We reach Vieng Xai at 4pm. This is the site of the caves where the Pathet Lao leaders lived from 1965-73. We are too late for the organised tour but Dao manages to find a guide as we watch employees playing boules outside the tourist office. We only have time to visit three caves - the home of the General Secretary, Kaysone Phomvihane (below), Prince Souphannouvong's cave and the Xanglot "elephant" cave that was used to hold meetings and concerts and which features in Colin Cotterill's great Dr Siri mystery,"Disco for the Departed". Life must have been pretty grim with constant American bombings, cooking only very early in the morning or at night, and washing in rain water.
After a night in a hotel that rivalled Fawlty Towers we head back along the road we came on yesterday for 2 1/2 hours before dropping down to the river at Ban Son Khua where we meet our guide for the Nam Et/Phou Louey National Park. Villages ladies load our lunch and bedding into long boats and then we head up river towards our camp in the park. The river is fast flowing and our boatman frequently revs the engine to get us up through rapids while the man at the bow fends off rocks with his pole. It is really cold on the river and when we reach camp we are relieved to find comfortable huts with quilts and blankets. After lunch I crawl under the blankets to warm up and then we head up river again.
We are having a "Night Safari" so we have supper off banana leaves by a camp fire and at about 6.45 are poled down the river without engines. The boatman stands at the front, steering with his pole while searching the banks and trees for wildlife with his strong headtorch. The most nerve-wracking moments were when we could hear rapids approaching in the dark while the boatman was still looking for game - he knew the river so well that he always steered us through the rocks. I am doubtful whether we will see anything - the park does have tigers, leopard, deer, civets and many other small mammals - but in fact we get a good sighting of a palm civet in a tree by the river as well as the glowing eyes of a couple of deer high on the hillside. The others spot a porcupine, an otter, more civets and more deer.
In the morning we have an interesting walk around the site of an old village which was moved when the National Park was opened in 1996. Highlights were an old stupa (above), built by the village in 1702 when the villagers were Lao Buddhists. Later they were replaced by Khamu animists.
When we get back to Ban Son Khua Mr Pan is waiting with the minibus. It is a 4 hour drive to Nong Khiaw and we stop at some hot springs and villages along the way. The mist has cleared so we get better views of the hills. Pigs and piglets run along the road with chickens and children. When we arrive in Nong Khiaw the receptionist has lost our reservation. Fortunately all is well when the manager turns up and finds it.
Our hotel, the Riverside (above), is beautifully located beside the Nam Ou river although the rooms are a bit dated - nowhere to hang your clothes and the hot water runs out! It is also cold everywhere due to the unseasonal weather so we buy unfashionable but warm jumpers and jackets in the local shops.
It is raining the next day so we give up any thoughts of a walk and head instead for a weaving village - Ban Nayan. This is a great success. The ladies all want to sell us their weaving and Dao encourages us to try to buy different things from everyone. We have a good go at this before touring the village to see more spinning, weaving and indigo dyeing as well as tobacco drying in house sized ovens. Lunch at the Mandala Ou, a pretty resort owned by an Englishman and his Lao wife, before relaxing for the rest of the day.