13.08.2017 - 04.09.2017 28 °C
One fine sunny day in August we were driving along some winding roads when Isabella looked at the map and said: “Let’s take a right turn here!” Suddenly we found ourselves in Laos. – Who would have thought? Well to be honest it wasn’t that much of a surprise, as we had big plans there.
Laos is deliciously traditional and kind of squeezed in between its more developed neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. In recent years China has also taken an interest in Laos’ many natural resources and is investing heavily. Things are moving fast, as became clear when crossing the border. Michael remembered a little boat ride five years ago between the villages of Chang Kong on the Thai side and Huay Xai on the Lao side of the Mekong. Instead we found a huge border bridge in place about 15km away from the villages. Practical? Definitely. Charming? Nahh, not so much.
Getting from the bridge to the village proved difficult as well. The only transport around was a bunch of lazy tuk-tuk drivers who asked way to much KIP’s (Lao currency, or chicken in Dutch :D ) and didn’t seem open for negotiation. We know the game by now and bluffed by slowly walking to the road heading to Huay Xai. Usually one of the drivers, afraid of losing income, will come after you and make a better offer.
Not this time though. After 10 minutes of walking with the backpacks on it started to get hot. Then a car stopped at the roadside and we had our first experience with Lao hospitality. A nice lady travelling with her daughter asked us to hop in. We jumped in the back and happily practiced our first few words of Lao underway. She ended up dropping us right where we needed to be. +1 for the Lao people!
The main reason we are here in North Laos is to look for adventure. We have a date with unspoiled jungle, zip lines, singing monkeys and giant tree houses high above the ground. The Gibbon Experience https://www.gibbonexperience.org is legendary and takes people deep into the protected Bokeo jungle. Our spontaneous planning resulted in doing the classic tour on the last day before the whole operation closes two months for rainy season. In other words: Boots & gloves? – Check. Flashlight? – Check. Mosquito & leech repellant? – Check. Toilet paper? – Check. Willingness to suffer and get very very muddy? – Check!
With a group of eight + two guides we set off in a 4WD truck with the best off-road driver in Laos (honestly!), heading towards a remote village on the borders of the forest to start the trip. Despite epic driving through muddy trails up- and downhill, we didn’t make it to the starting point due to all the rain. So hiking it was… Through mud, a village, rice fields, more mud, across rivers and over hills. It was honestly the most challenging trek we have ever done. Instead of arriving around 2:00PM we got to our tree house just before sunset around 6:00PM. Fully exhausted we could keep our eyes open just long enough to see the incredible 360° view around the valley. Then the sun set and we fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle, 60m above the ground.
At around 5:00 in the morning we started hearing strange noises and poked our heads out of the mosquito net. Was it Isabella singing in the shower again? No can’t be… way to early for that. First the noises were far away but they quickly came closer, until we saw five black and brown shapes crashing through the trees down in the valley – Gibbons!!! Suddenly the whole tree house was awake and using binoculars we could follow the group climbing around, eating fruit and feeding their little baby. <3 However, most magical was their singing. Males and females sing a duet that goes faster and faster until it reaches a climax and then starts all over again. What a way to wake up!
The rain continued to fall over the next days and we started to get a bit worried about our hike back to the civilized world. But first up was enjoying ourselves. Between the tree houses is one of the largest zip line networks in the world where you can glide above treetops, across valleys and through the clouds. Sure beats hiking in this weather! When the rain got too bad we spent time relaxing in our tree house. Our two French travel companions had brought a card game named Tarot. Most funky is an extra card between the Jack and Queen called the “Chevalier”. No matter though, we were awesome at it and Michael won the first three games in a row.
The hike back was as tough as expected and we were incredibly happy to meet our driver about halfway, who had been fighting his way up the mud path. We slept very well that night and reported for duty the next morning at the boat docks. A “slow boat” (as they are called) was waiting to take us down the Mekong River for two days to Luang Prabang. With tired feet up on the bench, a cold beer in hand and a continuously changing view this was the perfect way to recover from the jungle.
A little adventure was included here as well when our boat’s engine stopped working. Suddenly we were drifting, which is quite scary because of the very strong current in the Mekong. Not to mention the many rocks that are visible or hidden just below the water. The crew got help from some small boats that were around and together they tried to get our boat to the side and tie it up. This failed the first time, ripping a tree completely out of the ground! The second time was more successful when crew and passengers managed to pull in a big tree with lots of leaves and could tie the boat to it. Unfortunately the tree was filled with a big nest of ants. *itch itch* Repairs then started and within an hour we were on the way again.
Luang Prabang is the spiritual center of Laos and there are more temples here then anywhere else in the country. Old French colonial streets are filled with monks dressed in orange robes and carrying umbrellas against sun (or rain). We took our time in this beautiful place and also visited the massive Kuang Si waterfalls just outside of town. After eating all the delicious food here we enrolled in a cooking class in Laotian cuisine to take some of these skills with us.
During our stay a big event took place because the rice-planting season had ended – a race on the river with dragon boats, each with around 50 rowers. These guys are really quick! The whole town was in party mood and came out to the sunny riverside to sit, drink and enjoy. Needless to say we joined in.
Next we moved our base of operations North to Nong Khiaw, a sleepy little village located at a river between limestone cliffs. Things got even more relaxed here in our riverside bungalow and the local swimming pool. Although a tough climb to a viewpoint on one of the limestone cliffs was also part of the program, before quickly running down again because a thunderstorm approached in the distance.
With upcoming plans in neighboring Vietnam we started to move East. The distance from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan is around 260km. To give you an idea of how the landscape and the streets look - this trip takes around eight hours. Quite different from the Autobahn! Phonsavan isn’t pretty and looks a lot like an old Soviet town with big ugly building blocks and tacky pornstar balconies.
We rented a scooter and whooshed around the area to the famous Plain of Jars. Entire fields are filled with ancient huge stone jars and no one really knows why or by who they were put there. Very strange and interesting to see! Everywhere on the Jar sites and around the town are big holes in the ground. We came to know why that is by visiting one of the restaurants close to our homestay one evening.
The owner showed us a documentary during dinner, called “the most secret place on earth”, about Laos in the time of the Vietnam War. This is a part of history that never made it into our history books at school but is definitely worth knowing about. The film is available on YouTube and we’ve included the link below, have a look. Teaser: Did you know that more bombs have been dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War then have been used in the ENTIRE SECOND WORLD WAR?
The most secret place on earth ---> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJ6STAGtfHI&t=171s
Our bags are packed and ready to head into a new chapter of our trip – the bus to Hanoi. Also known as “Nightmare Bus”, “Bus from Hell”, etc. Well you get the idea. Bye bye for now and see you on the other side in around 21 hours!
Michael & Isabella