There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Luang Prabang to Phonsavan: Part 13 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

Waking around six and hearing the gong that signals the monks barefoot walk through the streets, we pulled on some clothes and for once went to watch from street level instead of from our balcony. Most of the kneeling women (and they were all women) were placing small handfuls of cooked sticky rice in the monks' begging bowls.
Some younger monks receive their alms, dawn in Luang Prabang

I assume all this donated rice gets eaten, but although rice alone may have sustained monks - and most of the people - a hundred years ago, people today, monks included, expect a more varied diet with rather more protein. Where this comes from I have no idea.

The line of monks stretches into the distance, dawn in Luang Prabang
N and the driver arrived at 8.30 by which time we were, breakfasted, checked-out and ready for the long drive to Phonsavan.

South East Asia
We set off down Highway 13, heading south towards Vientiane on a two lane tarmac road, mostly in good condition. Not far out of Luang Prabang we started to climb into the mountains; there were few hairpins, but the road twisted and turned as it hugged the valley sides. Some dwellings clearly showed that northern Laos has more than its share of poverty, but there were a surprising number of satellite dishes on display.
Yet another satellite dish, Highway 13 south of Luang Prabang
Villages lined the roadside. Some were equipped with water pumps, clearly labelled as donations from the Singapore based charity World Vision. They were being put to good use; we saw several people washing themselves or their children under the pumps, while elsewhere villagers were carrying water home in buckets on carry-poles – sometimes with a child in a sling as well.

Two water buckets and a child in a sling, Highway 13 south of Luang Prabang
The driver put his foot down where he could in an endeavour to keep the long journey as short as possible, but the continuous breaking and accelerating, not to mention twisting one way and then the other left me feeling queasy. My request for a halt meant that we could walk through a village and take a nosy gawp at the houses and people, who seemed happy enough to wave and smile as we passed.

Roadside village, Highway 13 north of Phou Khoun, Laos
Approaching Phou Khoun we passed a convention centre.  Surrounded by a phalanx of heavily armed soldiers, groups of men in suits and senior army officers, their uniforms dripping with gold braid, were talking as they waited for their drivers.
The junction of Highway 13 and Highway 7, Phou Khoun

Phou Khoun is a small town on the junction where Highway 7 to Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars leaves the Luang Prabang to Vientiane road. In July 1964 Phou Khoun had been the objective of Operation Triangle, an attack carried out by the Royal Lao Army and allied Hmong militia, covertly financed, organised and ‘advised’ by the Americans. The intention was to remove the communist Pathet Lao from Phou Khoun and open up the road to the Plain of Jars. Three units with air support and a Thai artillery battalion converged on Phou Khoun, one from Vientiane, one following the route we had taken from Luang Prabang and the Hmong Militia approaching down Highway 7. The Operation was partly successful, Phou Khoun was taken but the Pathet Lao remained in control of the road to their stronghold on the Plain of Jars. A couple of days later the Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the pretext for the US to become more involved in Vietnam and they lost interest in the ground war in Laos.
Phou Khoun Market

Although we had been travelling slightly slower, or at least at a more even speed, we reached the town too early for lunch – at least by our standards; locals will eat any time after eleven – so we took a walk through the market, which was interesting, as all such markets are.
Taro in Phou Khoun market

We ate beef and noodles – not quite Vietnamese pho, but pretty good anyway - at a basic restaurant. Like Cambodians, the Lao tend to use fork and spoon for rice dishes, but chopsticks for noodles and except in European orientated restaurants a cache of chopsticks is available on every table.

Noodle soup, Phou Khoun
Several large cars with tinted windows rolled down the street, and gold braided soldiers walked past with their bodyguards, but there were also a few old men dressed in rarely-worn suits, a little crumpled and a size too large, but with a medal, sometimes two, pinned to their lapels. These, unlike the self-important men with gold braid and a chestful of medals, were the real heroes of the revolution.

A soldier sat on guard outside the restaurant, a Kalashnikov across his knees. I never like seeing people with guns, even if they are supposed to be on my side - if there is no danger why guard me? - but I assumed his presence was part of the heightened security for the convention rather than a reflection of the local situation generally. The man slouched beneath the shade of the restaurant's awning – we found his relaxed attitude reassuring.

Main street, Phou Khoun
After lunch we turned down Highway 7, which wound its way higher and higher into the mountains. Here many of the inhabitants were of the Hmong ethnic minority. We had met the Chinese Hmong in 2010 (here and preceding posts), and the Vietnamese Hmong in 2012, now we found ourselves among the Lao Hmong. 5 million Hmong live across Southeast Asia speaking a variety of related languages. To the outsider, ‘Hmong’ seems to cover a wide range of people without very much in common.

Dwellings beside Highway 7, east of Phou Khoun
Locally, Hmong houses are constructed with large eaves, some sweeping down the ground, they are usually thatched, and there is almost always a small house facing the main one used for storing rice. Some were very folksy and picturesque, unfortunately the only one I got a decent photograph of was constructed from more modern and prosaic materials.
Hmong dwelling beside Highway 7 east of Phou Khoun
We stopped at a village where a modern concrete bridge crosses the Nam Minh, a small river that comes bouncing along its stony bed from high in the mountains. Upstream children were playing in the water…..

Some get to play in the river.....
Nam Minh River
…while below us two girls squatted by the water’s edge washing up a small mountain of dishes, pots and pans. N pointed out the two sections to the village, one Lao the other Hmong. They live side by side, but keep largely within their own communities.

...while others have to work
Nam Minh River
Up to that point N had been of little use, indeed he had been asleep most of the day, occasionally opening his eyes to point out something of interest. On one occasion he woke up pointed to the roadside, said 'Cow,' and went back to sleep. I am not convinced I need to employ a guide to identify large ruminants for me.

We walked through the village and paused outside a shop where a man was barbecuing small fish and some attractive hunks of lean venison for a hungry customer. N pointed out the deer's head on the table by the barbecue. Poaching is illegal, he told us, but sometimes deer can be legally shot. He looked unconvinced about this one, but as the village police station was directly across the road it was obviously either legal or the local constable was the proud owner of a judiciously large slab of deer.

Barbecuing fish and venison by Highway 7
East of Phou Khoun
As we drove on Lynne was looking at the Rough Guide. 'Isn't this Highway 7?' she asked. I agreed it was. 'It says here,' she continued, 'that Highway 7 has been the scene of much bandit activity.' I had read the guide earlier, so I knew this. I also knew there had been no attacks for over a decade and the authorities believed the problem had been dealt with. 'Can you see any bandits?' I asked. 'No.' she replied. 'Neither can I.' I said, and indeed there were none.

In late afternoon we stopped climbing. We had reached Xieng Khouang Province, usually described as a plain surrounded by higher peaks. The word ‘plain’ is misleading, it is undulating rather than flat, more like a lowland area than the highland plateau it is. The area seems isolated, but it is rich agricultural land and has been a crossroads on the routes of trade and human migration for millennia. Xieng Khoung is home to the mysterious Plain of Jars, but more recently it was a stronghold of the Pathet Lao insurgents (they have been the government of Laos since 1975) and a staging post on the Ho Chi Minh trail. This recent history cost, and is still costing the inhabitants dearly (more next post).

We reach Xieng Khouang Province
Phonsavan, the new provincial capital with some 35,000 inhabitants is a long thin town strung out along the highway. If Luang Prabang exudes cutesy charm, Phonsavan is the epitome of workaday dullness. There are large houses at the entrance of the town, well built and elegant but they are set among builders' yards and workshops. ‘Location, location, location’ is not an idea that has reached Xieng Khoun yet.

Our hotel was up a side road from the main drag, a couple of hundred metres along an unmade road up a small rise. There was a central administration block with a restaurant and a couple of accommodation blocks in what had the potential to be an attractive garden. Our room looked out across the Plain of Jars to the distant hills and a group of trees climbing the skyline like a line of elephants holding each other's tails.

Looking across Phonsavan from our hotel balcony to the 'elephant-like' trees
Not fancying the unlit road in the dark, we decided to eat in the hotel, which we rarely do and is usually a mistake, but not on this occasion. Most of the other European guests made the same decision, though there were less than a dozen of us.

We started with a glass of pastis - a favourite of ours, but hard to find outside France and even harder at such a decent price. The menu was Franco-Lao; we both had pork, mine Lao-style with ginger, while Lynne had a pork chop and chips. It was good to see her eating properly for the first time for a week, and she thoroughly enjoyed her meal.

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