|At the border of Laos, we became instant millionaires because when we cashed in our Chinese Yuan, we recieved huge bundles of Laotian Kip, the local currency exchange. The women money-changers fought against each other for our business, offering higher and higher rates of change , promising such incredible rates that we got the feeling something had to be fishy with the deals. Our hunches proved to be right when we discovered that in the bundles of 100,000 Kip notes, about half was missing!
The road to Luang Prabang passes through a jungle-like landscape, where we heard many strange sounds from animals hidden in the undergrowth.
Especially charming are the typical houses which stand on high stilts and are sometimes bulit up on the steepest hillsides. Their walls are made of woven bamboo, and the roofs of straw.
During the Indo-China war Laos was a protectorat of France up until 1949 which explains why many public buildings and monuments carry inscriptions in French. A welcome change to the culinary palate are the crusty Parisettes and the cream cheese „La vache qui rit“ The Laotian coffee is known as one of the world’s finest, and is in fact simply delicious, however the somewhat work-shy Laotians would rather serve a quickly and easily prepared Nestle’s instant coffee instead.
The beautiful and historic city of Louang Prabang is situated at the junction of the River Khan and the Mekong and here we visited a number of remarkable temples, some of which were built in the 16th Century. The night market is especially attractive and here one can choose from an unbelievable variety of ethnic handcraft so it’s really a great Chistmas market place with a very pleasant ambiance.
After a few days on the road, 75 km before Phonosavan, the gear-cable snapped on Nathalie’s bike. Our Torx screwdriver didn’t fit the torx screws on the Rohloff gearbox to remove the broken cable, so there was nothing else to do but to ride to the next village, the whole way in second gear, then wait for the bus which the locals said would be coming at 2pm. The 3 hours we had to wait passed quickly as we admired the traditional attire of the Hmong people, who were already in the process of celebrating the New Year. We weren’t very surprised in the end when after 3 hours there was no bus in sight, so we tried hitchhiking, and very soon a couple from New Zealand in a minivan stopped and took us with them.
In Phonosavan we found an Aluminium and Steel specialist who managed to bore the jammed screws out so that we could finally remove them however changing the gear cable turned out to be yet a further challenge…
The „Plain of Jars“ was very impressive; a vast plain over which are scattered hundreds of massive jars, some up to 3 meters tall, made of stone and elephant bone. One theory is that the jars, made about 2000 years ago were used as burial urns. The Plain is now a designated World Treasure under UNESCO.
The province of Xieng Khuang was one of the most bombed-out areas during the war in Vietnam, and still you can see huge, brown craters everywhere, and occaisionally you come across empty shell cases lying around on the ground. The Americans and a few charity organisations are currently trying to clean up the unexploded bombs and at the same time, educate the children in the schools to be aware of this ever-present danger.
Our onward route to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, would be going through a „special zone“ but in Phonosavan noone could give us any idea of road conditions or necessary pemits so we pedalled off anyway relying on our good luck and fortune. The unsealed road was sometimes so steep that we had to push our bikes along through the rubble for hours on end sweating like pigs. The locals in this area had obviously never seen any tourists before, and it all seemed pretty wild to us. Most of the men carried rifles but we never saw any results of their hunting so it appeared that the hunt was actually just an excuse for the fellows to go off to meet with their „Brothers“.
When young people or small children caught sight of us, they would run terrified into the houses, the younger ones even beginning to cry in fear.
The path we were on turned out to be a culdesac, ending after 87 strenuous kilometers in the middle of a rice paddy. After persistently questioning the locals about the way to Vientiane, , and then finally asking a truck driver the same thing, we were forced to accept the fact that this path continued as an unpassable, narrow, foot track, and like it or not, we had to turn around and ride all the way back we came….
The climate changed radically the further south we ventured so as we left the mountains behind us, the weather became more warm and sultry and to acclimatise ourselves to these new conditions, we relaxed for a day in Vang Vieng.. Kurt managed to carefully shove his heavily loaded bike over a rotting and rickety wooden bridge to at last arrive at our comfortable bungalow equipped with hammocks which we thoroughly enjoyed.
The small town of Vang Vieng is renowned for it’s numerous limestone caves and tunnels which one can visit on the west side of the Nam Song river.
It seemed that in December all the hotels in Vientiane were completly booked out so we decided to camp out just outside the city, then early next morning again try our luck in the city center. However, already at 8am most of the guesthouses in the capital were full, and the hotel personell were really unfriendly, not to mention the exorbitant prices that were demanded, but in the end we did succeed in finding ourselves a nice clean room.
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