aos of the North
May 16 - June 8 & July 4-10, 2001
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Laos is almost entirely surrounded by Thailand and Vietnam, but Laos is Laos, not Thailand and not Vietnam. To read or write this may seem puzzling, but it is not. Throughout the last 1000 years the Vietnamese have wanted Laos to be part of their country; they have wanted to colonize it and make the Laotians (as well as the Cambodians) good ethnic Viets. And they almost succeeded, only to be thwarted by French Colonization efforts and later awakening nationalist feelings.
Laos, on the other hand, is not quiet so not Thai. The northern Thais and Laos are culturally very similiar; their languages are mutually understandable, their alphabets are very similar, and up until about three centuries ago, were often part of the same empire. At one time Luang Phrabang, the ancient capital of Laos, xxxxx
In the far north, China and Laos share a relatively short border and in the far south Cambodia is neighbor. But for the most part it is a question of Thailand and Vietnam. River and Thailand on the west; mountains and Vietnam on the east. The Mekong River serves as a large part, but not all of the western border of Laos. The Mekong separates Laos and Burma (Myanmar) and at the "Golden Triangle" it leaves behind Burma and becomes the Thai-Laos border. But in a relatively short distance it becomes surrounded by Laotian territory, passes through the small town of Pak Beng at the mouth of the Pak River, goes on to the ancient capital of Louang Phrabang, and then, 100 km upstream from the modern Capital of Vientiane, again becomes the border between Thailand and Laos.
When we looked at the map of Laos and considered our mode of travel we decided to concentrate on the north. We could either exit Laos to Thailand or Cambodia. Since we wanted to visit family near Pitsanoulok, Thailand before going to Cambodia's Angkor Wat, the choice was easy: go north. We ended up making two stays, one of 30 days and the second, after some visits in Thailand, of 10 more days. It was just about enough to see all that is significant without rushing too much. Of course, we could have always enjoyed more laid back time at the swimming pool, on the river, or in another delightful temple or rustic village, as explained below.
Our introduction to Laos came in Vietnam, where we spent three months; the last few weeks of which were a tour around its northeast — we started at Bac Ha, spent some nights in Sapa, and one night in Dien Bien Phu. From Dien Bien Phu we spent an afternoon driving to the Laotian border — or nearly. The military had a road block that kept us from going the last five kilometers or so; thus we only got to see from a far the ridge that makes up the border. While in Dien Bien Phu we leaned that one of the origins of the battle was an incursion the Vietnamese forces under General Giap made from Vietnam into Laos, going almost as far as Phonsavane. The French were protecting their rear as much as anything else when they set up a forward base at then extremely remote Dien Bien Phu.
After we had been in the Northeast of Vietnam we went back to Hanoi for a few days and arranged our transport to Laos: an all night bus that would take us to Vientiane. On a Thursday?? evening we showed up a half an hour early for the 7pm bus departure and were rather surprised to find that we'd have a 14-passenger van rather than a large, long-distance bus. A majority of the passengers to-be were Laos returning home. About 5-6, including us were backpackers. One was a girl who was going on immediately to Bangkok, a total trip of two days, done by bus as it was far cheaper than any other mode of transport. That, besides the adventure and desire to do as much by land, is why we had chosen this $25 package over the $100 airfare that would get us there in under an hour of flying (and six hours everything combined.
As the map shows by the orange line, upon leaving Hanoi we went south to Vinh, which appears to be an unremarkable Vietnamese city; all that we saw of it, besides some headlights, were the tables of a cheap restaurant where we stopped for a midnight snack and to releave ourselves. Once we left Vinh and got off the coastal highway the route became much worse, and we slowly worked our way west up into the mountains that separate Vietnam from Laos. We arrived at the border just about dawn; far to early for it to be open. So we waited, some sleeping, some like Gerry wanting to see things, through two hours of the morning cold. The border station can most easily be described as similiar to a large toll station on a highway. In this case, from what we observed of it, a toll station far to large for the tiny traffic that comes through.
When it opened we went through with little problem and were soon on the road, soon to be faced with actually using a new currency. We descended the mountain on a good if narrow road and passed through numerous villages with stilt houses. It has aspects of the northeast Vietnam we had so recently visited, but was it seemed even less crowded and less colorful. As we went along a few times, and only a few times, there were cross roads, with signs. Clearly they went north; would we becoming back here in a few days to explore this part of Laos? We hadn't decided. In a few hours we had made our descent to the Mekong River level, and, after some anxious waiting to see what it would be like, we made a sharp turn to the left, and were faced by the Mekong. Then, a quick right, and we road nearit but not along it most of the way to Vientiane. What was it like? Did it live up to the romantic notions we had? Well, we didn't see enough of it to decide.
Well after noon, but not late in the afternoon, we reached the eastern outskirts of Vientiane , and stopped at the bus company office/compound. Now we had to make a choice; find a hotel. Loney Planet listed two that had a swimming pool and we picked the one a bit out of town, hoping we would get more for our money by doing that. A phone call to them and we had a room; the hiring of a 3-wheel taxi and a short ride and we were at the hotel. It turned out to be a great choice: we loved the pool and breakfast by the pool.
After ten days of being poor tourists — we swam every other day and only went out on our rented bikes in the intermediate days — we decided to see more of Laos before our 30-day visas ran out. So we arranged with the hotel to have its car take us to the bus station and at 9:30 one morning said goodbye to Vientiane. The bus was like an old American school bus, but it was comfortable and apparently reliable, because in what seemed a short ride through lovely country we were at Vang Viang. Our LP had designated it as one of those places backpackers go to relax. We already had been doing plenty of relaxing, but Vang Viang proved another worthy place to relax: we had fun inner-tubing down the local river, walking five miles to a cave and exploring it, and just sitting on the hotel's patio after breakfast and drinking in the fabulous view across the river.
After five lovely days we moved on to Luang Phrabang . From there we took a six day trip to Phonsavane, in the period 1969-1971 the location of heavy fighting by and against the Pathet Laos , but chose by us as our base for seeing the ancient stone jars on the plain there.. Back in Luang Phrabang we spent four nights getting some luxury and then took a quiet charming trip up the Mekong to Thailand.
After time we went back in to see Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing.