Monday was spent wandering around Luang Prabang visiting the numerous wats (Buddhist temples where novices live and study) that are scattered throughout the city. The architecture of these places is impressive but the Lao seem to have a major problem with painting. Gold paint is slapped everywhere with no effort to actually restrict it to the areas it should be. If you have any colouring in books at home please send them to Laos - they need to learn how to keep within the lines.
The old palace, now a museum, proved to be one of the least opulent palaces in the world, being more like a French style stately home. The highlight of the town though was the night market. Hundreds of vendors set up stalls along the main street lit with millions of low wattage bulbs to sell all manner of handicrafts, textiles, paintings and tat.
On Tuesday we slung hook and headed south in the Landy with a delightful 4:30 departure time allowing us to see the sunrise over the Laos landscape. We arrived in Kasi around 10:30 and negotiated with a guesthouse to allow us to leave the Landy there while we took a bus to Phonsovan. A bit of the French lingo turned out useful here as the older generation still speak French. Our timing turned out to be quite good as 20 minutes later we were on the bus and heading towards the Plain of Jars at top speed. Unfortunately, Laos is such a mountainous country, top speed equated to about 30 Km/hr as its impossible to find a piece of road straight enough to get out of 2nd gear. The bus ride also proved interesting for the sheer amount of puking that was occurring. It seems the village-dwelling Lao aren’t used to the constant twisting, turning, up-hilling and down-hilling and it upsets their delicate stomachs. The first thing the bus driver does is hand out a rake of plastic bags. These get filled with great regularity and slung out the window. One old woman behind us was going hell for leather. I reckon she slung at least 7 bag fulls. The sound of her constant retching was starting to make me feel queasy towards the end.
Eventually though the Vomit Comet reached its destination and we were in the bizarrely wild west town of Phonsovan. Consisting mainly of two long dusty streets with some cheap hotels, the town didn’t have a lot to offer. We checked into a grubby hotel and got a taxi out to the Plain of Jars Site 1 for sunset.
The Plain of Jars is and odd attraction. Large jars carved out of single lumps of rocks litter several areas of the plains of North Eastern Laos. No know knows exactly how old they are, what they were made for or why they are scattered in 3 randoms groups within 30 Km of each other. Theories abound of course but conclusive evidence is had to find because of the vast amount of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) in the areas. The Mines Advisory Group has an office in Phonsovan and the visitable areas of the Plain of Jars have been cleared by MAG. Every hotel lobby and restaurant has a huge number of empty shells and casings on display, giving stark evidence of Laos’ unenviable record as the most bombed country on earth.
The next day we visited the other two sites for jars and enjoyed a visit to the local market. One of the delicacies of the area is swallows stored in jars until they ferment but unfortunately they had sold out of them. They did have bats, mole-like rodents and the usual gamut of unsavory meat and fish products though as well as a whole host of vegetables and nuts which I’d never seen before. The five hour bus ride back to Kasi had less vomiting this time due to the late hour.
On Thursday morning we drove to the touristy town of Vang Vieng. I didn’t think this town was going to be any good but fortunately I was proved wrong. The main activity in the area is Tubing - floating down the river in a inflated tractor inner tube and stopping at various beer stops on the way. Good craic and for 4 dollars you could hardly complain. Some bars had TVs blaring endless episodes of Friends and these were the ones that were packed. Luckily this left the other bars with quite a quiet and relaxed atmosphere.
Friday was caving day. We got on the bikes and toured around the area to a number of caves. The first one was fairly deep but not hugely impressive so we went 13Km further out to see some others. These were massive - we spent an hour walking one way into one before we decided that given our total lack of preparation, it wasn’t too wise to go any further. Rumour has it that this cave extends over 3Km into the mountain to an underground lake.
The next day we drove further south to the capital Vientiane. There isn’t really alot to recommend this city. The streets have an odour of poor sewerage and the monuments and temples are not impressive. The most important stupa in the country, That Luang, proved to be thouragly tedious. However, I did see a monk there who had his whole body tattooed with Buddhist scriptures, including his head. That’s devotion for you.
Sunday was spent seeing the other sights (such that they were) and generally hiding in air-conditioned buildings to avoid the heat. On Monday we were going to get a bus out to central and eastern Laos to visit the ActionAid projects there.