Monday, 4 August 2008

Monday 9th June Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day Three

Today I was supposed to touch down at Heathrow airport. Instead I'm looking out over the Nam Xam river in deepest darkest north eastern Laos where the farang are still a major curiosity. Perfect. The weather looks unpredictable which helps me decide that I will not ride to Phonsovan today. The journey (94km back on myself then 150k SW) is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the whole of Laos and I'd like to enjoy it rather than rue every single second of the journey due to heavy rain. Instead I will hop 30k's to Vieng Xay to explore some caves and attempt to resolve my slack motorbike chain issue. The problem is that everyone thinks they are a mechanic and Laotians, like Thais are not reknown for their tradesmanship. As it happens I found a small workshop and the lad there had a quick tinker and oiled the chain for free. I purchased a spanner so that in future I could do it myself. Maybe The Rear had a good thing going when all he used to take out with him on a mountain bike ride was one oversized spanner that didn't actually fit any nut on his bike. Ever the trend setter!

Vieng Xai
An early afternoon ride to Vieng Xay was a most pleasant one, a refreshing change after yesterdays's wash out. The journey is a mere 27km, a short climb out of Sam Neua then a long descent into the valley below. The town of Vieng Xay is surrounded by big chunks of limestone that I think are called karsts. On the outskirts of the town are numerous paddy fields being tended dilgently by teams of farm labourers who wade upto their knees in the mud pushing tiling machines, planting rice and hacking away at various ripened crops with knives and scythes.

I cruised around town, once again being stared at at every turn. Vieng Xay is a pretty little town with a rural feel. It is surrounded by huge chunks of limestone and also boasts a couple of lakes and a quaint market where people sell their wares to each other. Next to the market is a statue, the 'Victory Statue'. It depicts three Laotian figures, one woman and two men, with their arms held aloft thrusting a sickle, a gun and a hammer skywards celebrating their freedom. Rather poigniantly one of the figures' left leg is resting on a rocket shell marked 'USA'. The statue is a testament to those that endured the 20 years secret war in which the USA blasted the living daylights out of Laos in a failed attempt to crush communism in that part of the world. The spirit of the Laotians shone through those darkest days. Rarely have I seen a statue capture so much feeling. I had a lump in my throat when I saw it.

By now it was early evening and I had the option of heading back to Xam Neua, but I hadn't had chance to see the famous caves that are hidden in the huge limestone rocks. After much deliberation I decided I would stay the night in Vieng Xay and take the 9am cave tour the following morning.

As such I rocked up at the former government hotel known as the Thavisay Hotel and met the youngest hotel proprieter in the world. The young chap aged about ten years old was hotel-sitting for his parents. He duly took my money (40,000 kip) and showed me my room. It was adequate, hot shower, own loo, mosquito netting. The fan didn't work but it's coolish at night in Houa Phan province. The Thavisay Hotel once had delusions of grandeur I would say. It's a large concrete structure (unusual in these parts) that when built in the 1970's would no doubt have been a prestigious building and indeed would be the accommodation of choice for visiting governmental dignitaries from other Communist countries such as China , Vietnam, Cuba, Russia and so on. Three decades later and the old girl could do with a lick of paint and then some, it's looking dilapidated.

Happy with my decision I wandered across the bamboo bridge to the semi-adjoined bamboo restaurant which had the most beautiful views across the lake. I wondered how much this view would cost in Europe. I dined on a superb pork laap (minced pork infused with delicious herbs) and sticky rice and tucked into a Beer Laos. Here I met Tim, a Dutch lad who loved football more than life itself, and particularly PSV Eidhoven. Also present was an Aussie girl called Tracey who like many of her compatriats seemed to be going aat the beers with some enthusiasm. Finally there was an older Australian lady present who was helping to run the caves as a tourist attraction, supplying training and direction for the Laotian guides. We chatted the night away and at curfew time (Laos has an 11:30pm curfew after which time you should be in bed) our host, a smiley happy fella, put the Euro 2008 football on for us. The game was rubbish (France v Czech Republic) but the copious amounts of Beer Lao followed by liberal dashings of bamboo infused Lao Lao whiskey from a platic bottle meant we tottered into bed around 1am.

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