5 06 2010

Well our motorcycle voyage is over and we have arrived safe and sound. Other than a few close calls with livestock and one unfortunate incident with a baby chicken the ride was just spectacular. So all of you out there who have a tendency to worry,  can relax (you know who you are). We have finally ended up and settled into a town called Luang Prabang in the northern half of the country after being on the road for past six days since we left Vang Viang. We have covered over 1400km’s on our journey and I am now just beginning to realize how incredibly amazing the past nine days have been. I do not believe I could begin to relay in words all that we have seen and experienced, it would take too long and honestly I do not think that words alone could really do the trip justice. Instead I will list a brief description of our route and some of the highlights we encountered along the way.

DAY 1 Vientiane to Vang Viang—190km—8 hours— Our first day on the bike. Got lost in Vientiane. Travelled route 10 to route 13. Passed through a national park and many Laos villages. Road was wider and had a moderate amount of traffic. Had to pass several trucks en route. Experienced a bit of rain. We met a new friend Martin along the way before arriving in Vang Vieng. (See Motorcycle Diaries Pt.1)

Day 2 & 3 Around Vang Viang— Spent some time enjoying the town and activities around Vang Viang including caving, trekking, tubing, and rock climbing (See Motorcycle Diaries Pt.1)

Day 4 Vang Viang to Phonsavan—220km’s—7-1/2hours—Left Vang Viang in the morning heading north and began to climb into the mountains. Traffic lightened up along route thirteen. Stunning mountain scenery. Road travels on or near the ridge top most of the way. Stopped for lunch and a restaurant on the top of a mountain along the way. 110kms to unmarked junction with east bound route 7 in a little mountain top village. Route 7 is a bit narrower but has less traffic. The scenery is breathtaking. Travelling less than 40km/hr due to the extremely windy and mountainous nature of the road. Saw and elephant in the back of a large pickup truck (some sight to see). Began to pass through the hill tribe villages. End of grid electricity. 110km’s on route 7 to Phonsovan. Road surface was good most of the day. Great riding and weather. Stayed in a rough-looking guesthouse out-of-town which we had our suspicions may have been used by women of negotiable virtue from time to time. Met a German film maker working on a documentary at dinner.

Day 5 Phonsavan to Vieng Xai—295km’—8-1/2hours— Breakfast consisted of cookies and a Pepsi. Visited the Unesco World Heritage site,The Plain Of Jars (see below). Continued east on the relatively flat route 7 for 50km’s to yet again another unmarked junction with northbound route 6. Imediatly began to climb steeply up into the mountains. The weather looked as if a storm might be brewing. Very sparsely populated with only a couple of huts every 10-15km’s. Very mountainous terrain. I expected to reach a pass and then descend down the other side but we spent almost the entire day up and along the ridge.Up until today we had passed moderate sized villages at frequent intervals but we have not passed a single guest house or fuel stop since we left route 7. Starting to realize how far away from everything we know we really are. Scenery and landscape continues to unfold in spectacular fashion. Despite wearing SPF50 still managed to get a bad sunburn on my forearms and hands. Ran out of gas on the way, thank goodness for the reserve tank. Was able to get 2 litres from a barrel in a little village. Another amazing day of riding, we are starting too really feel like we are beginning to see the real Laos. Viang Xai is a nice moderate sized town surrounded by beautiful limestone peaks. We found a guest house in Viang Xai which was an old eastern bloc designed government building, it was really bleak.

Day 6 Viang Xai to Viang Thong—190km’s—6hours— Started the day by visiting the caves used by the residents around the town during the war from 1964-1973 (see below). After our tour we stopped by a market to find me a long sleeve shirt and some gloves (not common items in this part of the world). Backed tracked west for 125km’s  to the junction with route 1c. Very steep climbs and descents. The bike was really working hard requiring gearing down to 2nd to get up some hills. The front brake pads are starting to get a bit thin. We got smart and got gas along the way this time. Route 1c was incredible again winding in and around a ridge for most of the way. The villages are amazing with children running out waving and smiling as we passed through. We only saw 2 trucks along the way. Passed through a National Park which was not only beautiful but exciting due to the sign at boundary indicating that “Tigers Live Here”. We eventually stopped in the only real town along the way called Viang Thong. We found a decent little guest house in town. We took a nice ride around the area before finding a place to eat.  Because the town  relies on hydropower, during the dry season they only have power for a few hours during the evening. Another great day, great roads and decent weather.

Day 7 Viang Thong to Nong Khaiw—165km’s—5hours— We waited out a severe thunderstorm with a heavy downpour in the morning. We eventually set out in the rain around 10am. The road was again wonderful but we where getting very cold and wet. We again passed through the thick green Jungle of an almost completely unexplored National Park also home to tigers. It was a tough ride for the first three hours until the rain let up and we began to dry off a little. Eventually the sun came out and we descended down off the ridge tops and down into the lovely limestone karst surrounded town of Nong Khiaw. We decided to splurge and get ourselves a nice bungalow overlooking the river. With a nice big soft bed and an amazing balcony overlooking the valley. It was really what we needed after so many days on the road. We went to visit some more caves in the afternoon. After climbing up and down some scary ladders at the first cave we had to walk a bit to the second one. Only after we left the second cave did we realize that our feet and lower legs were covered in leaches. We ran back to where we had parked and spent twenty minutes picking them off of us. We eventually got back to our bungalow and got cleaned up before settling in for the night.

Day 8 Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang—140km’s—4hours— As we only had a short day riding to get to Luang Prabang we spent a leisurely morning reading on our balcony and relaxing in the bungalow. We eventually hit the road and made the last leg of our journey to Luang Prabang. We drove about 30km’s on route 1c before finally reconnecting with route 13 again this time heading south. The road was wide again and two lanes in most places and not nearly as steep or windy as the road s for the past couple of days. We made a detour to some caves along the way at Tham Ting. They are located in a cliff on the other side of a river and require you to take a boat ride to get to them. Unlike the other caves we had previously visited on this trip these caves are being used as temples rather than as a shelter during wartime. After the caves we made our way back to town interestingly enough passing a couple of elephants out for a walk along the way. In town we found ourselves a great little guest house run by a wonderful family right on the river. We got cleaned up before grabbing some delicious Water Buffalo burgers and a couple of Beer Laos and then visiting the night market.

Day 9 Around Luang Prabang—80km’s—3hours— We headed south to a park with a beautiful cascade of waterfalls. We hiked around the base for a while before climbing to the top. Once back down at the base we fund another trail which we followed for about 3-1/2 kms to a really incredible cave. It was quite long probably close to 500 feet. We where the only ones in there and it was a bit spooky with only a little headlamp to illuminate the way. After the cave we trekked back to the top of the falls where we were able to work our way through a rushing stream and a couple of cascades to a swimming hole at the top of water fall. It was an amazing place with water falling all around you and over the edge of the pool into a 100 foot drop. We soaked and swam for a while before heading back to the park entrance where we watched some bears rescued from poachers hanging around and snacking on bamboo. We finished off the day by visiting a temple just outside of town. Eventually much to my disappointment we had to meet up with a guy who was to pick up the bike. As Justyna can attest it was tough for me to let go but I finally relinquished the keys and said goodbye to my trusty steed.

I mentioned above that we where finally beginning to see the real Laos because what you see in the cities and tourist destinations is a far cry from what the majority of the country looks like and how most of the population lives. Most developed areas are dominated by French colonial architecture built during the time of their occupation in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I have mentioned before that at times you would be hard pressed to differentiate a city like Vientiane or Luang Prabang from a city in western Europe. It is only when you make you way out of these developed areas and into the mountains that you begin to see how the rest of the country lives. Laos is a beautiful country with an amazing and enduring population. Having spent most of their existance being controlled, occupied and manipulated they have finally succeeded in gaining and maintaining their independence. I must admit again that I knew almost nothing about Laos before my arrival and all I can say now is that I am more than a bit shocked by what I have learned since I have been here. I really encourage everyone reading this to try to learn more about Loa’s history especially the role of the United States in the 60’s and 70’s. I do not like to say this but I am extremely disappointed in our country due to the fact that we dropped more bombs on Laos in the 9 years from 1964 to 1973 than was dropped in the entire second World War. This makes Laos the unfortunate record holder for being the most bombed country on earth. Can you imagine a bombing run being made every eight minutes for 9 years straight in and area not much larger than New York. To top it all off the CIA had recruited and trained local indigenous peoples to fight on the ground taking on massive losses eventually requiring them to enlist children as young as 12 to fight as there were very few older men or women left available to fight. The numbers are staggering with over 2 million tons of munitions being dropped costing over 7 billion dollars per year. These numbers are not inflated numbers provided by the Lao government but rather provided by the USA. The lives lost will never be known as there was no real record of how many people lived in these area’s. I find it very hard to understand or see that there is any justifiable reason for this. The bombings occured to prevent “the spread of communism” but was more of a proxy war between the USA and USSR. I do not bring this up to simply bad mouth my home country or to question politics and motivations but rather to let people know that the effects of this devastation did not end in 1973. One thing that has been ever present since we left Vang Vieng is that there are signs of the war everywhere. It is estimated that nearly 30% of all of the bombs dropped during the 9 years failed to detonate and are just lying around in fields, yards and forests. On average one person a day dies from coming in contact with UXO (UneXploded Ordinance) and several more get injured. There are bomb craters everywhere and you do not have to look very far to find someone with a missing limb. This has kept a lot of the people in poverty as they are afraid to clear any new fields to help feed their families. Also many families are saddled with the extra burden of trying to support members that have been injured by these munitions. Another recent development has been that due to the increase in scrap metal prices some individuals have resorted to trying to defuse some of these bombs in order to unloaded them and sell the casings eventually ending in tragedy. The one thing I can say is that Laos is a country on the mend thanks in part to a tremendous amount of foreign aid and investment. The people are simply wonderful, warm friendly and genuine. I really cannot say enough about this intriguing country, I have really fallen in love with the land and the people. Of all my travels I have never been to a place that has touched me so deeply. Two last things I would like to mention and in hopes that you my readers might be able to learn more and make a difference. First off , although there is a lot of foreign aid coming into the country the USA is presently only providing 3 million dollars a year to help in the removal and destruction of UXO’s which I consider unacceptable in light of the fact that we spent over 7 billion a year to drop them back in the 60’s and 70’s. The second thing is that the munition that has by and far caused the most problems in Laos is called a Cluster Bomb which when dropped it will disperse 200+ bomblets that are designed to explode upon impact and spray small pellets and shrapnel and all directions killing or maiming all personal within its blast radius. unfortunately as mentioned above with over 30% of these not detonating and 2 million plus tons of weapons dropped there are literally millions of these lying around throughout Laos. I realize that we cannot stop the bombs that have already been dropped but while most of the rest of the world has signed a ban on the use, manufacturing and stockpiling of cluster bombs, the USA has thus far not adopted. I  apologize for ending on such heavy subjects but it is truly difficult to travel in this part of the world without being constantly presented with the results of the devastating pasts that these regions have endured. Although I understand that most of you may never visit Laos, if you did I promise you that you would have the trip of your life, I still hope that some of you might learn more about what has happened here.




One response

6 06 2010

Hi Andrew and Justyna, I understand your feelings now that you have seen first hand the remnants of war but keep in mind that if you could go back thirty years and visit Europe you would not only see the restored showplaces but the deep scared left on those countries and people too. War is a horror and the innocent are always trapped in the middle. Let the goodness of the people lead you on. There are always two sides to a story-even in war.
I bet those people who would worry if they knew about your bike trip are glad it was successful and over. Bikes, Tigers and Leaches…..OH MY! It is quite an adventure but I have to tell you that Gary the farmer on Sofia’s road had his herd of cows escape two days in a row and she had to drive to meet me because of the bull and cows being in the road. We are not without excitement here. Also Maggie went up to David’s to play in the yard and do her thing and met a lama in the second yard behind the house. He has been there for three days now.
The pictures are great and don’t worry. You will get over having to say good-by to the bike. Vacation romances never last. We will have to start calling you two Mr. Alnut and Rosy like Hepburn and Bogart in the African Queen with the leaches.

Love M,D,M

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