We made it to the other side… eventually!
The route from Hanoi to Luang Prabang follows a fairly major road through Vietnam to the border, a nondescript collection of concrete buildings, before deteriorating into a winding track through Northern Laos’ mountainous countryside. It would be reasonable to expect the 526 mile journey to take a while, but at an average speed of 17 mph it was almost unbearable. We left Hanoi at 17:30, continued to pick up passengers and cargo throughout the journey and arrived sagging in Luang Prabang 30 hours later!
Luang Prabang is the second biggest city in Laos, but with a population of just 62,000 it feels more like a town. Bordered by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, it is a UNESCO protected peninsula made up of stunning temples and colonial French buildings. The relaxed atmosphere has drawn increasing numbers of visitors, but despite the blossoming guesthouses and restaurants it has retained its charm.
We knew very little about Laos before arriving, but like other SE Asian countries it is steeped in a rich history; fighting kingdoms, French rule, and the U.S. “Secret War”. Between 1965 and 1973, in response to the Viet Cong funnelling massive amounts of war munitions down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the U.S. devastated eastern and northeastern Laos with nonstop carpet bombing. The scale of the bombing is almost unbelievable, with an average of one B-52 bomb-load being dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 8 years! Due to the secret nature of the war, the usual rules which govern warfare (as applied in Vietnam) were not enforced, and so all types of weapons, from cluster bombs to chemical agents, were released indiscriminately on civilian settlements. It is estimated that 30% of the cluster bombs that were dropped failed to detonate, and death and injury from unexploded ordinance (UXO) remains a very real fear in many provinces of Laos. One of the most interesting exhibitions in Luang Prabang is the UXO visitor centre, where the story of the Secret War and its after effects are documented alongside the efforts being made to clear Laos of its UXO.
Having spent Christmas eating our way through Hanoi we were in desperate need of exercise. We had heard that the jungles and rivers of Laos were excellent for trekking, kayaking and mountain biking, and so by the end of our first day we had booked the most challenging (longest) trek and mountain bike trip we could find!
On reflection we worried that a challenging route in the mountain biking world could mean technically as well as physically difficult, but when our guide arrived in a designer shirt and jeans our minds were put at rest, and in fact both the distance and the dirt track terrain made for a brilliant and suitably “challenging” day out.
We are usually more than happy walking with a map and compass, and tend to avoid organised treks. However, considering that the country is peppered with UXO and made up of dense jungle, we decided to make an exception this time, and following our mountain biking tour we headed back into the jungle for a 3 day, 2 night, home stay trek.
Aside from walking through the countryside, which after an easy first day became harder and harder, we learnt about the different tribes of Laos and how rural communities live without the need for electricity and running water. Both the villages in which we stayed were welcoming and happy for us to get involved in their daily jobs, and as usual the most inquisitive of all were the village children who challenged each other to get a closer view of the strangers. We were lucky to be joined by a diverse, interesting group for the trek, and were lead by 2 knowledgeable and funny pint-sized Lao guides. We both returned tired, dirty and stiff but with a much better knowledge of the Lao countryside and its communities.
Our final sight seeing trip was to the Kuang Si falls, a 40 minute drive from the city. Armed with camera and swimming attire, we spent an afternoon exploring the multi-tiered cascade and splashing about in the turquoise lagoons at its foot. Its description as “a tonic for sore eyes” wasn’t far off the mark.
Luang Prabang has been a welcome break from the hustle of Vietnam, and the perfect mix of sightseeing, relaxation and exercise. It has also not disappointed in the range of street cuisine on offer; fresh fruit shakes, French style baguettes and barbecued bananas to name but a few of the more healthy delights on offer. We are now off to Vientiane, Laos’ capital, on a relatively swift 10 hour night ride.