Luang Prabang – 10 days – 305 metres above sea level

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We reached Luang-Prabang with a Toyota mini-van, privatised with air-con. We did a 7 hours journey with a basic comfort in spite of the roadworks. Indeed, the Chinese are investing in the Laotian mountains by building dams and railways meaning big works and parts of the road with many potholes and without asphalt. Luand Prabang has been built in the montainous area in the North of Laos, alongside the Mekong river. The city is  classified in the world heritage since 1995 for its exceptional architecture. Due to its history, there are several boudhist temples in the streets and buildings from the European colonial period.

Discovering these treasures were not in the plan for now. We walked in the streets to find the best scooter rental and hammock seller for our next adventures in the Laotian mountains. With the keys of scooters in our pockets, but without hammock, we met Marion and Jérémy in the Popolo bar. This French couple arrived two years ago in Laos. Their project is to travel from France to Mongolia with a Ural sidecar by crossing all the countries ending by “-stan”.

After a sweet night, we collected our scooters early in the morning in the rental shop. Before to leave, we checked our vehicles and asked them to change three tires. One of the employees went quickly to buy the  tyres in the shop next door. He came back a few minutes later with three items looking like hula-hoops. As there are many two-wheel vehicles on the Laotian roads, it’s very easy to find tyres anywhere. There are usually sold in moto repair shops and wrapped in a shiny and colourful paper. Our departure for Vang Vieng has been delayed of only twenty minutes. A slight delay letting us to go back on the road safely and to leave the dense traffic of urban area. Once crossed the Sandkalok village where we did a small lunch break, we continued our journey on a tougher track along the Mekong river for 80 kilometres. We crossed screes and fords while the zebus were watching us. We did a break and a nice woman came to offer us some bananas. We accepted with a lot of pleasure, but at the first bite we understood the fruits were not mature. We still enjoyed them and appreciated this goodwill gesture. At the end of the day, we arrived in the little city of Muang Nan. Nothing excited there, but after this dusty day, we were very happy to enjoy a warm shower and get some rest.

Our next journey led us to Kasi. On the way, we saw herds of three or four cows in total freedom in areas without any habitations. The scenery was glorious with a perfect relief drawn by a slight fog. The hill was going up over ten kilometres.

The hill revealed the differences of power on our scooters. In spite of my good position in the team at the beginning of the hill, my friends overtook me and said a little joke about my scooter. Finally, I made a team with Louis-Marie and managed to overtake him at the top of the hill. But in the slope, his racing skills helped him to go much faster and to overtake me again while I was breaking in each curve. We had rain and storms during all the night in Kasi. During the breakfast, we saw a nice show with all the schoolchildren on their bicycles. Little and big kids, siblings and friends, there were hundreds of young Laotians going towards their classrooms on their bicycles.  When we left the city, we passed by the entry of the school where the bicycles were well-organised but still in a messy way.

To reach Vang Vieng, the itinerary of the day used a humid road alongside the fields before to follow the valley of the Nam Song river going between the beautiful mountains until the next step. Vang Vieng is a famous city on the travel guides for its festive atmosphere and the several touristic activities. It’s also a scenery with chalky rocks between fields and mountains. Once arrived, we enjoyed a pineapple for the breakfast and decided to leave quickly the city full of travel agencies, to go exploring the surroundings. After crossing a bridge made of bamboo, we used a narrow street between the houses on stilts and took a path winding between the fields. We finally reached the forest. The satnav confirmed we needed to use the path going through the jungle to reach the Lusy caves.

At the bottom of the mountain, we paid a fee to visit the cave. We climbed up a ladder to reach the entry of the cave. The lights from our mobile phones and headlamps revealed the beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. No paths or signs in the cave, so we were like true potholers exploring the caves through hundreds of metres. After finding again the natural light, we went towards the entry of the Tham Chang cave. As it was quite late in the day, we were in front of a closed door. We opted for a swim in the pools just a few metres away. The water was coming from the depths of the earth. I enjoyed swimming in this fresh water accompanied by kids taking their shower. The older ones were soaping the younger ones before to play and dive.

The following day we went back towards Luang Prabang. The day started in Vang Vieng by crossing a narrow bridge made of bamboo, spanning the Nam Song river. Inspired by two young Laotians on scooters, each one of team went in single file on this narrow hanging bridge. A few kilometres further, we did a little break in Phatang, a small village lost in a canyon between two chalky mountains, to taste a whiskey infused with hornets in a small shop along the road.

On the last sixty kilometres, before Luang Prabang we went along the Nam Sana river irrigating the valley and the beautiful rice fields. At the Silalek village, we enjoyed a refreshing swim in the pools of the little Kacham waterfall. We focused on waterfalls at the end of the day. We visited the impressive ones of Kuang Si. Located thirty kimometres away from the Luang Prabang city, we reached by scooter a bucolic road. We paid the entry fee and discovered the Bear Rescue Center after crossing the gates. It’s a refuge protecting Asian black bears. Saved from poaching, they now enjoy spend their days in hammocks or play together with old balloons. We followed the 500-metre path leading to the main Tad Kuang Si waterfall. The river was weaving in and out, in the middle of the jungle, before to dive in the pools. We were going along the river and were impressed by the beautiful turquoise colour of the natural pools. We noticed a nice spot to swim in one of the pools. We couldn’t resist to dive in before to leave! It was the end of the afternoon, so all the mini-vans bringing the tourists already left, leaving us alone in this magic place.

The following day, we explored Luang Prabang. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, we decided to discover the numerous Buddhist temples. These pagodas, named here “Vat”, were beautifully decorated. After going through the huge wooden gates, the buzzing life of the city was forgotten to leave a peaceful atmosphere, perfect for the meditation. In the main room, behind the huge golden pillars, there was a massive seated Buddha surrounded by several gifts. Impressed by this Majesty, we were very quiet and we didn’t want to disturb him. We continued to discover the historic centre by visiting the ancient Royal Palace, built in 1904 under the French protectorate and replaced the previous palace which had a traditional architecture. In these gardens, we stopped a few minutes, impressed by the Majesty of the Haw Pha Bang temple, built in 2006. There was a golden Buddha of a 83-centimetre height giving his name to the city. A the end of the day, we enjoyed sailing on a wide boat on the cloudy water of the Mekong at the sunset.

During this 1-hour cruise, we enjoyed watching the sun going down until to be hidden by the vegetation of the surrounded mountains, leaving a beautiful orange colour in the sky. On the water, some fishermen were throwing their nets from their pirogues, while other boats were taking care of bringing passengers and vehicles from a side of the river to the other one. A scenery worthy of an impressionism artwork with the smooth music of Donny Hathaway in the background.

We woke up at 5am to see the alms-giving ceremony. Indeed, everyday the monks leave their temple early in the morning to walk in the streets of the city. Barefoot with only orange traditional outfits, they move forward and present ritually their bowls to receive gifts. In front of their house, the inhabitants wait the passage of the monks. Sat cross-legged on little stools, they mainly offer sticky rice, or cooked dishes, fruits and cakes. Once the gifts are collected, the monks share the food and pray for the loyal donors.

After Luang Prabang, we went back in a bus to go to Nong Khiaw, a village along the Nam Ou river, where we will have access to Muang Ngoy, a village reachable only by boat. The 4-hour journey was again epic due to the Laotian roads full of potholes and roadworks. We went to the “lost” village on the following day, accompanied by our guide, Nudo. From the Nong Khiaw pier, between colourful boats, we got on our “Sampan”, a traditional wooden boat with a long tail as its shape is long and fine. On board, we sat on car seats to go up the Nam Ou river until the Muang Ngoy village.

On the way, we firstly stopped in the “snail” village. We visited a shipyard were Sampan were being made from a massive trunk. In the village, Nudo showed us the local handicrafts including the weaving looms to sew the silk scarfs worn during the alms-giving ceremonies. At the other side of the village, people were taking care of the harvested tobacco which grows on small fields. On the water, there were boats of all sizes. Other Sampan boats were bringing inhabitants to Nong Khiaw, or fishing, while kids were diving in the water from the trees. Back on the water, we reached the Phanoi cave. Hidden in a cliff, this cave was used as a refuge for hundreds of people during the Indochina war. We went on the top of the cliff by a little path, until an observation post revealing a nice viewpoint over the city of Muang Ngoy. By going down, we crossed the Wat Okad Sayaram temple before to cross the small streets of the city and to go back on our boat. We went down the river and arrived to the Sop Keng village where live our guide. We had a lunch on the terrace of his house, with a curry-rice wrapped in a leaf of a banana tree. We walked in the rice fields during two kilometres to reach the Tad Mok waterfall where we enjoyed swimming. On the way back, we had a snack in a farm to enjoy a delicious Lao coffee or a traditional lemongrass tea, depending on the preferences of each one.

After spending the night in Nong Khiaw, we went to Luang Prabang by bus. For our last evening in Laos, we went on the top of the Phou Si mount, in the heart of the city, to enjoy one of the most famous sunset over the Mekong. The night was falling in Laos. Tomorrow, we will go exploring Vietnam (in spite of a few visa issues…).


OUR FAVOURITE PLACES

The Uralistan project of Marion & Jérémy

After living over two years in Laos, their new project is to discover Mongolia with a Ural sidecar. Their website www.uralistan.fr worths a visit. You will discover all the preparations and precious advice for all motorbike-travelers and nice road books presenting their previous travels.

Où manger ?

Mama Alex Restaurant
Ban Sop Houn village Nong Khiaw

A simple place where we can enjoy a delicious Laap Kai: a Laotian specialty made with chicken (there are alternatives with beef, fish or vegetarian) and served for special occasions.

Où boire un verre ? 

Bar le Popolo
102/3 Kounxoau Road, Luang Prabang

A nice atmosphere for this cosy bar with a great terrace to enjoy a beer or a cocktail at the end of the day. It’s not a traditional Laotian bar with the regular customers. But having some comfort in a warming atmosphere is quite nice !

Luang Namtha – 8 days – 547 metres above sea level

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After 56 hours of travelling, we arrived on the Asian continent after leaving Montevideo and the South-American continent, two days ago.

It was in Chiang Rai that we started our stay in South-Eastern Asia. We spent a few days in this city in the North of Thailand to get some rest and get used to the 10 hours of jet lag. Then, we will go towards Laos, border country located at 100kms further away, up North.

Chiang Rai is a historic city, built in 1262 by the King Mengrai. During our first day, we walked in the streets of the city. Its architecture was not extraordinary but we enjoyed discovering the first Buddhist temples. This atmosphere was very different to the ones we had a few days before, at the opposite of the world. On our way, we saw the massive memorial of the king who founded the city. A few streets away, we discovered the second landmark of the town-centre, the beautiful golden clock at the round-about whereby hundreds of scooters were going around. During the evening, we welcomed Brigitte and Louis-Marie, Julien’s parents ; with Ghislaine and Gilles, a couple of friends.

The following day, we visited the Wat Rong Khun, also named as the “White Temple”. It was our first visit of a Buddhist temple. Unlike our thoughts, this temple is not a monument of the traditional architecture. Built on the land of an ancient temple, it was the modern work of the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat (also creator of the clock mentioned above). The beginning of the construction was in 1997. The architect has a style easily identifiable, with a trend to exaggerate the traditional Thai style. Like its name, the temple highlights this colour giving a majestic style. To be even more sparkling, thousands of littles mirrors have been embedded on the edifice. To enter in the main building, we climbed up the main stairs to cross the hell (symbolised here by dead hands coming out from the ground) and to span a pond where a big fish was going back and forth. In the gardens, figurines were hung on trees to keep bad spirits away. There were characters from “culture pop” such as Wolverine, Ninja Turtles, Avatars’ characters, … Even the building of the public toilets were covered of gold, from the sinks to the toilets.

We spent the evening at the night market, one of the most emblematic places and full of life, at dusk. There were souvenir shops and food stands. It was possible to taste the local specialties with, on stage, a duo of young singers playing guitars on an “Asian-folk” tune.

During our last day in Chiang-Rai, we discovered the surroundings of the city by scooter. Back to ride, but on a two-wheel vehicle for this time. After leaving the traffic jam of the city, we enjoyed again the happiness of riding on the roads of the countryside. We saw the first rice fields at the bottom of the mountains. There were no terrace fields, but it was already beautiful. At the top of a hill, we crossed a first village with bamboo houses built on stilts. On the little main square, the playgrounds were drawn. Obviously, there was a football field, but also a few badminton fields. In this area, the inhabitants were growing small pineapples on the steep hills around the villages. When we were there, it was the harvesting season, at its peak. Many baskets made of bamboo were alongside the roads. When it was not a pineapple brining some colours in the scenery, it was a big ox with a ring in its nose and impressive horns on the head, grazing peacefully around.

Ealy in the afternoon, we arrived at the Huay Mae Sai waterfalls, lost at the end of a small path going in a forest. We indulged ourselves with a swim before the young Thai joined us and who, to our great surprise, jumped in the water from the rocks with all their clothes on. On the way back to Chiang Rai, we did a quick stop in front of the temple of Wat Huai Pla Kung. Its white Buddha of almost 50 metre heigh (roughly) was overlooking all the valley.

The following day, we went towards the Laotian border. To get our visa more easily, we stopped on the way to make ID photos in a small shop alongside the road. This basic shop had a photographic material from the latest generation. Once arrived at the customs office, we got our stamps out of Thailand and we crossed by bus the bridge spanning the Mekong. (This bridge has been inaugurated in 2013. This is the fourth cross-border edifice which has been built above this river, separating both countries. Each bridge has the same name, which is “the bridge of friendship”). This was the first time that we saw this massive and famous river, wide of over 400 metres at this point and already so impressive.

On the other side of the river, we got our Laotian visas for 30 days, after filling the administrative formalities and paying $31. We spent the evening on the left side of the Mekong, in the Huay Xai city. To wake our legs up, we climbed up to the old military fort of the city. Built by French people, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Carnot fort was now deserted and full of plants, giving a specific atmosphere. To enjoy a nice view over the Mekong and the surrounding mountains, there was nothing better than climbing up to the top of the old watchtower.  For this, we needed to disregard the cracks of the stairs and the wooden floor of which boards were missing or full of moths. We went back along the riverside to enjoy our first “Beerlao”, the local beer which was perfect with the sunset. A particular moment made by the humidity and the relief of the surrounding mountains – a poetic atmosphere. As we couldn’t find enough scooters for all the team in the Houei Xai city, we decided to reach the city of Luang Namtha. A four-hour journey in a bus full of people to reach the starting point of our adventure with two-wheel vehicles in the North of Laos.

After spending the evening to find scooters and looking the itinerary for the next few days, we left early in the morning with our bags hung on our scooters. We went towards Muand Sing, 10 kilometres away from the Chinese border, before to go along the Nam Ma river on a track to reach the small city of Muang Long. We crossed many villages including wooden houses built on stilts. There was a delicious smell of coriander in the streets.

Once arrived in Muang Long, we found quickly a hostel, named here “guesthouse”, with a basic but sufficient comfort at an interesting price. I went exploring around with the hope to find a nice spot for a swim in the Nam Ma river. Alongise the river, I used the hanging bridge made of bamboo, which links the village to the fields. A group of kids were playing with a lot of happiness. Surprised to see a tourist coming on their playground, they set themselves a challenge to get closer to me. Amused by this situation, I went smiley towards them without a doubt before to go backwards when one of them was on the bridge too. With this little game, crossing this bridge long of 20 metres will take quite a few minutes until one of them shook hands with me to say “hi”. I finished crossing the river while the smiley kids were going back to the village. However, there was no nice swimming spot in the river. So, I went back to meet the group for dinner with many memories but without having a fresh swim. Led by a teenager group helping us to find our way, we finally arrived at the night market located at the end of a dark little street. We had dinner on small tables in the middle of a courtyard. Noodles and meat skewers, without being sure of the ingredients we were eating. Not used to talk to English-speaking tourists, it was quite hard to understand the merchants. Except the offal skewers, we loved tasting the local specialities in a welcoming atmosphere.

Early in the morning, we went back on our two wheels to continue our adventure. The previous day, Julien and Gilles have noticed a path to cross the mountain to reach Luang Namtha. After 20 kilometres of ascent on a winding and stony road to reach Nambo. Upon our arrival in this village at the summit of the mountain, people were stopping their activities to watch us, like aliens. Chicken were going around the scooters and the kids stopped to run after their tires to play, just to look at us with eyes wide open. We have been welcomed by Tom-Thi in the building used as the city hall and the school. This young man of 30 years old was speaking English very-well. He was employed by the government to take care of education and economic development of the village. We talked to him about his life, the daily life of the inhabitants and the constraints due to their isolation.

We went back on the path on the mountainside. We crossed fords and sometimes made our way through a rocky field. The landscape and the mist were glorious. Gilles, good pilot with a lot of adventure experiences by scooter on the Asian paths, was leading us. He was going at a fast-paced, giving no respite to some of us who were beginners on a scooter. But we didn’t stop and were happy of going through this “path” crossing the mountains. Back on the asphalte, we indulged ourselves with an ice tea and some snacks in a shop, before to ride 60 kilometres on a nice winding road to reach Luang Namtha.

Our stay in the North of the country ended by a resting day with, as the only activity, a 6-kilometre hike to reach the Nam Dee waterfall. To reach it, we crossed the nice village of Lao Huay. Their speciality was the production of paper from bamboo fibres. Located 500 metres after the last house, the waterfall didn’t have a lot of flow during this dry season. It was not very magic but we enjoyed this fresh break with a swim in a nice and relaxing part of this jungle.

Upon our return, we enjoyed our last dinner at the night market in Luang Namtha, with Dominique and Ghislaine, travelling in a fully equipped 4×4 who left Europe 5 years ago. Tomorrow, we will go by bus to Luang Prabang, a 7-hour journey towards South.


OUR FAVOURITE PLACE
Where to have a drink?

Riverside Café

A nice covered terrace made of wood with a view over the Mekong. A quite place to enjoy a beer at the sunset.