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Laos

Secrets of War and the Plain of Jars

Learning about Phonsvan's history.

So having unpacked our bags we went for a walk around the town and found that due to Phonsavan (pronounce Pon-sav-an) still evolving its tourism there wasn't much to see apart from a few restaurants. The main reason we went to Phonsavan was to see the Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars describes an area in the Xieng Khouang province of Laos that is scattered with thousands of so called megalithic stone jars and dates all the way back to the Iron Age.

We wanted first to arrange our trip before settling somewhere and spoke to a tour operator. Although he was very friendly and helpful we weren't able to afford the 735,000kip price it would cost to rent a car and guide and we didn't know anyone else to ask to try and bring the cost down so it was looking possible that we would have to motorbike ourselves or see what our guesthouse was offering. Earlier Kong, the owner of the guesthouse, recommeded that he would be having a meeting to discuss tours available at 6pm so we went back and were fortunate to find our that other people wanted to to go the next day and we would therefore be able to split the cost. We paid 110,000 kip each for the tour that included the Plain of Jars, a 'walk' to a waterfall and also the opportunity to visit the crater site and Hmong village that has seen villagers use old bomb shells to build with and produce metal for profit.

Thankful that was sorted we opted to follow Kongs advice and go and see the videos that were playing at his restaurant that would give us more detail on the 'The Secret War' that we were so interested having read about it and also having been given a bullet for a key fob.

Watching the videos which seemed to be made in the USA as documentaries we learned some horrific truths that has plagued this beautiful area of Laos. More than 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973 by the US Army. The main goal was to prevent pro-Vietnamese forces from gaining control over the area. It is estimated that approximately 30% of this ordnance did not detonate on impact. The result is that 80 million UXO contaminate the country. It has devastated the Laos people as it continues to injure and kill people every single day and it keeps people poor by preventing them from using the land in fear of losing their lives. Laos is a very poor country - about half of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. The land in Laos is actually very fertile and perfect for farming but many people have lost limbs or lives while working on their land.

Cluster bombs were mainly used and the 100s of bombs that came out of them are full of ballbearings that would obliterate you, unexploded ones of these are locally referred to as 'bombies'. Children often find bombies and as they are similar in size and shape to a tennis ball they mistake it for something to play with. Many children have lost their lives this way. This poverty has also created a dangerous trade in scrap metal from the bombs. This means that many people are digging for these bomb remnants so they can feed their families. It is possible to buy spoons and jewellery that are made out of this scrap metal. You might think that buying this as a souvenir helps the local community but Kong told us it encourages people to go and dig up more bombs despite the danger. He knows people who have become blind, maimed and even lost their lives trying to do this to make souvenirs for tourists.

We were astonished that more bombs were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973 than the US dropped on Japan and Germany during WWII, given that we knew nothing about it until we got to Laos. More than 350,000 people were killed but it was kept a secret to the rest of the world making it the most covert operation in US history, hence the name the 'Secret War'. According to the documentary the US were in Laos on the pretence of providing aid when they were moving weapons and creating an airbase in Laos to send bombing missions to Vietnam. When US bombers couldn't find their targets in Vietnam due to bad weather, they just dumped their load on the Laos countryside, as the airplanes couldn't land with the bombs on board. After the end of the bombing campaign against North Vietnam, the U.S. military decided to simply use its old bomb arsenal by dropping it on Laos instead of carrying it back home. The value of human lives, of the Laos people, was never taken into consideration and they are now left to deal with the aftermath.

As you can imagine learning these hard truths much like learning about the Khmer in Cambodia and Vietnam War it always makes you stop and think....WHY!!!!

We left the restaurant to head back to the guesthouse and it took sometime to readjust before the nights entertainment was to unfold, it was an experience to remember for sure. Essentially Kong's brother, who we learned had been drinking earlier in the day when he regaled us with the amount he had drunk, began to sing all kinds of songs that ranged from Wonderwall to Blow my Whistle' (which he kept eluding to the alternative meaning). It was a random but fun night and I even got a chance to sing a song as well which Kong's brother was pleased to see.

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The next morning we were up early to make our way on the tour. Kong's brother turned up as well and to our amazement was going to be our driver for the day, even after his heavy night (He was actually wasn't bad at all). The first stop was the market to pick up previsions for the day (chicken and sticky rice) and then the long trip to the craters was going to be our first experience of the carnage that the American bombs inflicted on the countryside.

The sheer size of the craters was unbelievable and you could not imagine anyone or anything surviving in the surrounding blast area mainly because it was not far along till another crater was etched in the landscape. We also had first experience of the potiental threat that the 'bombies' have on the area when we were shown a real live one in the ground that had been marked for disarmerment, which was pretty crazy. The fact that this area had been cleared several times and still bombies were surfacing after the rainy season highlights the constant danger and how long it will take to fix.

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We moved on from the Craters to visit the Waterfall and we were driven down what seemed like an impassable track which you wouldn't know was there unless you lived in the area. We rounded up supplies and started our walk, or what we thought would be a walk. The track we started on was relatively easy and descent down the hill was going well and we started to hear the river gushing below us. However, somehow one of the guys in our group got lost and we waited for at least 20 minutes before it was decided by our guides to move on. To be honest I felt as though I had to push them to sort it out because they didn't seem that bothered but one of the friends of the lost fella went with the guide to look for him and we carried on.

We got down to the bottom of the waterfall quite quickly and went passed another group who were having lunch from what seemed a break from a trek and we waited again for the two guys. The guide then just decided to carry on up the waterfall to where we were going to have lunch and somehow the guy who was lost was already there having had a dunk in the waterfall. At the time I thought he was a right knob because he had made us all panic, later he turned out to be alright but I wasn't impressed. Once we regrouped with the other guy the guides said we are having lunch at the top of waterfall so we thought 'oh ok, just up there' . That just ended up being a trek rather than a walk up the waterfall edge and across it at times making it a far more arduous task than we first thought but we made it no probs and were treated with lunch by the pools edge and some of us had a dip in it. It was freezing!!! Great fun!

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Leaving the waterfall was hard as it was a nice place but we had to move on to go see the Hmong Village and also the Plain of Jars which we had originally come here for!

The short walk back to the van and we drove back up the dodgy track and were dropped off by the village to have a stroll. The village was very pleasant and Kongs brother told us that the Hmong people who originate from the hills of China and Vietnam make up a large percentage of Laos ethnic tribes. What was interesting to see in this area was the way the villagers have used the remnants of war that ravaged their homes to build new stores for rice or troughs for animals almost reversing the negative effect these metal objects were originally made for. It wasn't as abundant in this part we visited as I thought it would be but it was still worth visiting especially having viewed 'The Secret War' documentary the night before.

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After the Hmong Village we made our way to the Plain of Jars site 1 which our guesthouse recommended was the best to see as it had the largest collection of jars. It was good advice in the end because although very interesting to see, after a while it does just become a site full of jars. Perhaps if we read more into its archeological facts it would have been a little different, however we did read that it was believed by the locals that the jars were used by the giants to prepare and store their own rice wine. Judging by the size of this one if those giants had a party then it would be probably be the best party in the world (sorry Carlsberg). The area had been disarmed by the Mine Advisory Group (M.A.G) meaning it could be walked so long as you stayed within the white markers. The site had its fair share of craters and it was probably likely that some of these ancient artefacts were destroyed by the mindless bombing, another job well done by the USA.

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Our guesthouse had included a buffet of food with our tour when we got back and we all cut into it as the sun went down and had another night of music around the fire (in a bomb!) before departing for bed.

The next day would see us tackle the roads to Luang Prabang renowned for being the windiest roads in Laos. Joy!!

Stay tuned for more tales...

Dan

Posted by doyledan 07:32 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Taking matters into our own hands.......

Travelling from Kong Lor to Paksan on our way to Phonsavan.

Knowing that we had made it from Tha Khek to Kong Lor on our own we were confident (almost) that we could get out of Kong Lor and make the same trip back but divert to Paksan where we would stay a night before heading to Phonsavan. Making it back in time to check out before midday after the cave we thought we would be able to start our journey immediately, however our guesthouse told us that we could not get a songthaew until 2pm so it was a waiting game for the next one. It transpired that because we were the only two people wanting to leave the driver was going to charge us 150,000kip just to travel 40km up the road to the bus stop for a songthaew to Ban Na Hin. Knowing that we paid only 50,000 kip together to do this journey before we were in a conundrum because we certainly didn't want to pay more but also we were ready to leave. We then talked ourselves into staying in Kong Lor another night as the early bus to Vientiene would leave the next morning and were just about to rebook a room when a local started talking in English and said that the driver had changed his mind and will charge us the standard rate for going up the road to the next bus stop.

We had to make a split second decision then and there because it wasn't a guarantee that we could go onward from there to Vieng Kham, but we went with our gut feeling and we jumped on. We were apprehensive because plans had changed again and it didn't help that the driver veered off road to the other houses and stopped to drop off cement bags (which I picked up for them trying to quicken the drop off). It could of been one of those annoying moments you retell to other travellers when you think you are getting something and it turns out you are being shafted!

Thankfully, the songthaew did take us to the bus stop in the nearby town of Ban Na Hin and I was able to do some gesturing/simple word questions to make sure that we definitely could get a transfer to Vieng Kham and the driver assured we could. Still we waited and things were a bit tense until 5 mins later the songthaew's started rolling in from both directions and then we heard the shouts of 'Vieng Kham', and within a flash we were onboard bags and all making our way the way we came! PHEW!.

The route was a pleasant one as the sun was shining and we got to see the incredible view for a split moment that takes in the spikey mountain range before continuing on along the winding roads for an hour or so before we were in Vieng Kham. Our driver and what appeared to be his wife helped us off and then asked 'where you go' and I think the man had better English because I had said we were heading to Paksan to the wife but she may not of heard me before as we were in the back of the songthaew when we spoke. Anyway, realising that we were going the same way as them they signalled for us to get bags back on and we were on the move again. The idea we sort of understood was that we could get to a place called Pakading and then transfer again to Paksan. Sounded relatively simple so we sat back and took in the view again. We had a short stop to unload a load of grass that a young girl was traveling with that filled the back of the songthaew and she had her little son on her back which I felt bad for because as she was getting out of the back she completely forgot he was on her back and bonked his head rather hard on the roof, he didn't bat an eyelid.

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The rest of the trip was uneventful until we got to Pakading. The driver and wife signalled it was the stop and we paid another 40,000kip each and felt uneasy as it was not really an official stop as far as we could see. However the driver was adamant that we could get to Paksan, well he didn't say those exact words, but he was nodding along to my question but you sort of instinctively know if someone is genuine or not and I was sure he was.
From that moment we were on our own on the outskirts of a town we didn't know and the sun was going down, a combination that would worry the best of parents. (sorry Mum :-) )

We waited........and waited.........and waited and still no sign of a songthaew or even a bus for over hour, things started to look grim. We were ready to make a move into the town to find a guesthouse in the dark when a big bus pulled up and up went our arms and it tooted and stopped and the door opened by the driver and I shouted 'Paksan!!'.......the driver nodded approval and the assistants jumped out grabbed our bags and we walked on to what we later realised was the VIP bus which was likely coming from the south.

We had to sit on tiny stalls in the aisle for about an hour before we got to Paksan and paid 40,000 kip for the pleasure, which in hindsight we probably ended up paying more than if we had just got the bus from Kong Lor to Vientienne....but hey that's the way the cookie crumbles sometimes, and even with the scares it was still an adventure in itself and also a lesson in having faith in your own decisions.

Paksan as a town hasn't really got anything to offer, it is really a thoroughfare between main cities with a border crossing to Thailand. This wasn't a problem as we were only here to transfer to Phonsvan. It was a short walk apparantly to the recommended guesthouse in the guidebook after we saw a sign on the main road. We had been dropped off further down the road than we would of liked mainly due to missing the opportunity to get the bus driver to stop. Walking down the road at night didn't help and it seemed that the guesthouse wasn't in the location the sign specified. So we started walking back and thankfully walked passed a Swiss couple who were staying at the guesthouse and told us we had been going in the right direction. Dopes!!

We booked in to what seemed to be the only guesthouse in town and the Swiss couple said don't bother looking for somewhere to go out because there isn't anywhere apart from a karaoke restaurant. We decided to go to the restaurant but then saw a BBQ type place on the main road and stopped there instead. Now we have been pretty good when it comes to local food mainly due to the fact that Lao food is scrumptious but when we ordered a pork barbecue we didn't expect to just get the fat without any meat! So disappointing when all you want is a good meal after a long day...after chucking that down with a beer we went to bed ready to get to the market in the morning for the bus to Phonsvan.

We were pleasantly surprised that the bus service in Paksan was easily sorted and we got ourself some bread and sticky rice for breakfast from the market and left for Phonsvan knowing that we had a 10 hour bus ride ahead. The bus trip was shorter than expected but I personally had a bad trip as it was quite hot and I got easily uncomfortable during the trip, but I have had some good bus rides as well so it was bound to balance out at some point.

Arriving in Phonsvan we found ourselves at the bus stop outside town again and was pleasantly helped by an elder man who spoke English and offered us onto a songthaew to our guesthouse which was recommended by our guidebook.

We checked out the rooms at Kong Keo and decided on the basic shed like room for 60,000 kip a night and were told by the owner Kong that there was a music night later and I should go up a play! Why Not!! ..he also gave us a real bullet as a key chain for our room revealing a terrible past that has scarred Phonsavan for many years..we had to learn more!

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Stay tuned for more tales.....

Dan

Posted by doyledan 01:17 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Into the dark depths of Kong Lor cave

We were up early not only because we wanted to get down to the cave hopefully before anyone else but also because the building work behind us started at dawn along with the cockerels so a lie in would have been impossible! The views were just as magnificent as the day before as we had breakfast and started the short walk to the national park. It was good to be up to see the village coming to life.

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The fact that you can navigate through Kong Lor cave to the other side was discovered in 16th century when villagers noticed after heavy rain that debris would go into the cave but then not come out again...maybe the Nam Hinboun River was travelling all the way through. Four brave men from the local villages were selected to check it out not knowing if they would make it through the cave or return home again. To help them find their way back they left a trail of rice husks behind them. They managed to boat through the mountain to the other side and discovered a village which they had previously been cut off from. Today local people travel through the cave each day on longboats taking supplies and goods to the other side and vice versa.

In the national park we made our way to the ticket office to organise a boat to take us through the cave. A boat with a driver and a spotter costs 100,000 kip and then an additional 5,000 kip per person. We also rented a headtorch as I had somehow broken mine and Dans was weak. If you go definitely bring a very strong light as there is no natural light once in the cave and if your torch is weak you won't see much!

Life jackets on we walked down to the river and the mouth of the cave which would take us through the impressive limestone mountain.

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As we walked into the cave we were hit by the hot humid air so much so that my glasses steeped up. A bit precarious trying to step over rocks in the decreasing light as we made our way into the cave to get into our longtail boat. Thinking it would be this hot throughout the journey we took off our jumpers but we should have kept them on as it soon got cold once we were further away into the depths of the cave.

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As we looked behind us the light from the mouth of the cave got smaller and smaller and soon there was only the impenetrable darkness in both directions. The beams of our head torches were the only light and the sound of the motorboat echoed through the cave. I could hardly see our spotter called Thom sitting in front of me when my torch was not on him. He was constantly moving his torch to highlight rocks for the driver to avoid and upcoming turns in the cave. Their ability to navigate through in the pitch black was very impressive and we knew we were in good hands.

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It would take us an hour to get through the eerie cave and out to the other side and the mind starts to play tricks on you, "what if our torches run out of battery?" "What happens if the boat breaks down?" "Was that something moving in the dark?" To be stuck in there with no light would be very creepy, this is exactly the kind of place I'd imagine Gollum living in. There are also meant to be spiders in the cave that span 25cm!! I definitely didn't want one of those dropping into the boat although I weirdly also wanted to see one at the same time. We did see some bats though on the ceiling.

It is hard to describe how vast this cave is! At points the ceiling must have been as tall as a skyscraper above us as we travelled through the mountain to the other side. In some places the light from our torches could not even reach the top! The flash on my camera was not good enough to pick a lot of things out but there was one section of the cave that has been artificially lit which you are not aware of until to get out on a sandbar in the cave and the guide flicks a switch...Ta daaa!

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Fortunately they had stuck away from the bright blue, green and purple lights we had seen in other caves on our trip which was great as it gave it more of a natural feel. We were the only people there too which was fantastic, like we were adventuers finding the cave for ourselves.

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At several points the water got so shallow that we had to get out the boat and help to drag it into deeper water. Definitely glad we wore shorts and sandals, at some points I was up to my knees in the cold water.

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The light streaming in when we reached the end of the tunnel after an hour in the dark was a welcome sight!

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And the views of the mountains as we came through to the other side were spectacular. It was an amazing experience coming out into a place that was so beautiful.

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Now on the other side we walked to Natane Village, it seemed almost deserted although a few faces looked out from the houses. maybe they were just getting up or had already gone out for the day.

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We were glad we were the first people to come through though as walking around with lots of other tourists would have felt a bit weird. On our own we could say hello and walk through the village quietly before returning back to start the journey back through the mountain. As we headed back we started to see some of the first other tourists of the day coming through.

This video shows us going back into the cave for the return journey...

We were back at our hostel by midday and then we had to work out how we were going to continue our journey north!

Sxx

Posted by doyledan 08:44 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

It's all part of the adventure

Travelling to Kong Lor Village

We didn't hang around when we got back from the homestay in the afternoon. We picked up our bags from the office, said our fond goodbyes to Champa and headed straight to the bus station in Savannakhet where we waited for our mini bus.

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Our next destination was the town of Tha Khek a couple of hours further along the Mekong. The bus journey was simple enough until we were dropped off seemingly in the middle of nowhere with no tuk tuks to be seen to take us into town. There were no other tourists on the bus so we were on our own but soon realised we were just down the road from the bus station and found a tuk tuk there. Phew! We had decided that it would be nice to treat ourselves to a night in a hotel and so headed to the Mekong River Hotel recommended in the guidebook but were very disappointed. It looked fancy from the outside but as they say "never judge a book by its cover"!The first room we were given the bed was broken and the second stank so much of stale smoke once you closed the door it was hard to breathe in there! Definitely not worth the money and completely soulless so we decided not to stay there which was the best decision as we found Ithira hotel near the square which was perfect and also really buzzing with other travellers in their bar and restaurant downstairs. It also had the most amazing hot rain shower in the room which after only having a bucket and a barrel of water at the homestay and cold showers in the other places we had stayed was incredible.

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Tha Khek is a small town on the Mekong and you can see Thailand on the other side. I think you can get boats from here to cross the border and it was odd to realise just how close we were to Thailand.

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Most people seem to come to Tha Khek to do "The Loop" which is a 4 day round trip exploring caves in the area by motorbike. We had debated doing this but it would be 8 hours a day on a bike and the roads were more challenging than those we had been on before. We were knackered just after our one day to Tad Lo, let alone 4 days! We were really only wanting to go and see the main highlight on the route of Kong Lor cave, where you can travel through the cave to a remote village on the other side by boat in pitch black for 7kms! So we just had to work out the best way to get there, do we travel ourselves or go with an organised tour?

After looking into it we realised that it was going to be quite difficult to get to Kong Lor on our own as there was no direct route or bus that goes there, but then on the other hand the day tours we had seen would have cost just over £100 for two of us! Baulking at this cost we decided to bite the bullet and have a go at making our own way to Kong Lor Village....only 185kms.

So to make it to Kong Lor we would just need to get a tuk tuk to the local market where we were advised that on asking around we would be able to find a songthaew to take us on the first leg of our trip the first 100kms to Vieng Kham. There we would need to flag down another songthaew to go to the village of Ban Na Him, which is now also known as Khoun Kham, before getting another songthaew the final 40kms to Kong Lor village itself...simples! It's all part of the adventure!

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We set off prepared for the days travel to be a hard slog after reading how much of a mission other people had found it so we were pleasantly surprised when our tuk tuk driver took the lead after realising we were heading to Kong Lor and took us straight to the right songthaew that was heading to Vieng Kham. he spoke to the driver and translated the cost for us, such a nice guy. We bundled in the back with a family travelling with their little boy who spent most of the trip hiding under his hat and a girl called La who was travelling home with her moped also in the back with us! It turns out that she had been taking a business course in Tha Khek and spoke some English and was happy to help us along the journey even teaching us some Laos. The following is phonetically so probably spelt wrong in Laos...

"Hoi bam lam cam bai Kong Lor" which means "I go to Kong Lor" which would help us find our way.

We stopped several times along the way to pick people up and at one point we had about 20 adults, a couple of kids, a moped and a plastic bag full of live chickens all crammed in the back. It was a pleasant atmosphere with plenty of smiles and I think they found it funny when we were trying to learn Laos.With the wind buffeting through the open sides of the songthaew it was not long before everyone was huddled down trying to get out of the wind and I was glad I had kept my fleece but was missing the body warmer I had got rid of in Vietnam! We were rewarded though with some glimpses of great views along the way.

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Fortunately La's village is down the road from Khoun Kham and so she would be taking the second songthaew with us too and so we knew when we needed to jump off and move our bags to the roof of the next songthaew. The mountain pass we were taking had many twists and turns and steep in places so we had to hold on to the side, which was not helped when we had to stop suddenly meeting logging trucks trying to go the other way. Several times the moped tied inside with us moved, once trapping my foot underneath so I was glad I had my walking boots on otherwise that would ve hurt.

We to a junction on the road not far out from Khoum Kham village and the driver pulled over and La told us this was where we needed to change again to get to Kong Lor. We were nearly there! Our final songthaew was the first time we had seen other tourists on our trip and along with a family of Japanese tourists who shared with us some rice cakes and an English couple and we made our way to the village. The scenery was simply spectacular as we came down from the mountain into the valley with blue sheer karst mountains surrounding us in the afternoon sun. It was a fantastic end to a great journey and we were glad we had made the effort to get there ourselves and the relative ease only demonstrates how friendly and helpful the Laos people are.

We found room at the Kong Lor Eco Lodge which is a 1km walk from the cave and having decided not to rush trying to fit in the cave in on the same day to explore the village and find some food instead. We would explore the cave in the morning.

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On the way to find some dinner, which turned out to be the largest bowl of soup ever, we were joined by a little boy who loved teaching Dan songs as we walked. So cute! Bing Bing!

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Kong Lor village has the most stunning backdrop with just one road running down the middle to the entrance of Phou Hin Bun national park and agriculture and houses on either side. It seems we have come at the right time as there are not many tourists here and it seems relatively unspoilt although from some of the building work we saw I imagine more guesthouses are coming and once more people know about this place and work out how to get here I'm sure this could change but I really hope it doesn't.

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Walking through the village we suddenly heard a rumbling behind us, only to find some of the village racing kids to chase after us on their bikes and with their push toys. Some of the little ones found it hard to keep up but they liked to have their photos taken and giggled and hid when they saw themselves on the screen before running back for another shot.

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Pleased that we made it we settled down for a beer lao as we watched the sun go down behind the mountains.

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Comparing costs for our adventure versus the day trip mentioned earlier (we ll tell you all about the cave and getting to Paksan in the next post)

Day trip Per person - 750,000 kip = £57

Our trip to Kong Lor:

tuk tuk - 20,000 kip
Songthaew to Vieng Kham - 30,000 kip
Songthaew to Khoun Kham - 25,000 kip
Songthaew to Kong Lor village - 25,000 kip
Guesthouse - 60,000 kip (2 nights)
Entrance to Phou Hin Bun national park - 2000 kip
Boat trip - 55,000 kip
Head torch - 5000 kip
Songthaew to Khoun Kham - 25,000
Songthaew to Pakading - 45,000
Bus to Paksan - 40,000

332,000 kip = £26..... Half the price and so much more adventure and fun! And time to take it all in Kong Lor is by far one of the most beautiful places I have been.

Who wouldn't want to wake up to this every morning!

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Sxx

Posted by doyledan 02:13 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Home-stay away from Home

Savannakhet

The next leg of our trip would see us travel to Savannakhet. We had read about an Eco tourism project set up with a local village that offered treks and home stays and thought it would be good opportunity to gain more insight into the lives of Laotian people. Before booking with the Eco tour guide company based in the city centre we had to contend with the usual travel aspects of getting from the outside of town bus stop to a guesthouse. We jumped on a tuk tuk and was taken into town however were dropped outside a random guesthouse we didn't know about and had no one at reception. We had to do a little reconnaissance of the area before picking our bags up and walking in the blistering heat to what we thought would be the right direction. Thankfully it didn't take long to see the sign for Leena guesthouse which was in our guidebook and we checked in with enough hours in the daytime to have a walk around the town.

Savannahket lies close to the Lao-Thai border and has the Mekong River as its backdrop but apart from that it is quiet a sleepy town with not much going on from what we saw. The old French colonial architecture was interetsting to see but I think without the eco-tourism we might have carried onto the next town. This sleepy atmosphere was perfectly presented when we saw how the local K9's spend their afternoons.

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Having found the Eco guide office we were fortunate to be able to speak directly to our guide Vong who was working in the office that day. He took us through the options and we decided the 2 day trekking experience with homestay would be the best due to the opportunity to be involved in giving alms to the monks as part of our homestay experience, something that is a integral part of Laotion culture.

The next morning we were picked up by Vong in a tuk tuk and driven out of town to Dong Natad conservation forest that neighboured the local village of Ban Phonsim, not before picking up our hunter guide who would teach us how the locals use the jungle to provide food and medicine.

Almost instantly walking the path into the jungle we realised that the trekking side of things was not going to be hard as the path was really a dirt track that in some places was as wide as a car so it didn't mean having to go through the dense jungle. That being said, at the exact same time the hunter guide started showing us plants and flowers that provided the local village with food and medicine and he would continue to do this for quite some time during the trek which was great because we really felt like we got to understand how traditional methods were still being used in day to day lives.

Some of the highlights included:

A plant that monkeys eat which was edible. It translated into 'Bald Head Fruit' seeing as what was left resembled the Karl Pilkington-esque shape of a bald head. The guide even joked it looked like a microphone before the edible part comes off.

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There was this flower which we tried, which would be used in cooking recipes.

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We would carry on walking and then the hunter would suddenly become animated and speak to Vong to translate and we learned about how they burned the trees to collect the sap as it was highly flammable, and used as lighter oil in the homes and when the hunters were in the jungle. We also saw how small pegs were hammered in all the way up to the top of the tall trees so they could collect whatever was at the top. You wouldn't catch us trying it that's for sure, very precarious.

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Another tree he showed us had red sap come out of it when cut and we found out that this was used to help new mothers produce milk but its taste was not very desirable as it made your mouth numb.

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Later the hunter guide would grab at tall plants to show us the insects that resided amongst them.

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This included cicadas that were just had left their shells. I knew it was on my shoulder!!

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Strange looking caterpillars that looked like fluff out of a pillow..

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Ladybugs with spikes....

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Red Ants that covered a pocket of leaves and would defend their eggs that are inside against anything, the strength of these little buggars was incredible. Our hunter even had a taste of them and squashed a few with his hands and asked us to sniff it. The potency of what we sniffed can not be described but it made Sarah joult back with disgust, it was so intense. Locals would crush and use these ants to help rouse someone who is unconscious much like smelling salts.

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We saw a load of termites as they marched along the path. There were hundreds of them stretching at least 5 metres back from where this photo was taken.

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And there was more.......

Twigs that had a course edge so that it could be used as a nail file!

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And a vine of a plant that when cut would be used as a cure for Malaria. You drink the juices from it over a week, if you have malaria it wont taste bitter so once you can taste the bitterness then you know you no longer have malaria anymore. We both found it very bitter, so good to know despite all the mosquito bites we don't have Malaria (our guide seemed to take great pleasure in getting us to taste and smell nasty things!). It is also used as a 'counter medicine' to being gay, not really sure how that would work! It was also used as a deterrent to babies who still fed from their mothers, as its taste was horribly bitter and would be place on the nibble of the mother for the child to associate the bad flavour and decide that they didn't want their mothers milk anymore.

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We took a short break at the Nong Lam lake which was a beautifully peaceful spot.

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We also learned that it was taboo for anyone to fish without a boat, however we weren't exactly sure why?

It was an interesting morning and we found the hunter guide to be really funny even though he didn't speak English. Sarah thought that he took a shining to me and I guess from this photo you could say it was true.

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Even though the trek was easy the heat was taking its toll and even with some short breaks in the shade we were glad to stop by a family home to have lunch. Vong showed us some of the locals food preparation and we were given long runner beans to chew which would later be used by the local woman to make a chilli based dish which to be honest was way beyond my threshold for spicy but we had a little bit. It was a nice lunch and we chatted with Vong about some differences with our cultures and that we had a different belief system to his, and for most Laotion people for that matter, which at first I thought we might have offended him but it turned out he just wanted to learn. He was a very nice friendly person and told us that he was a farmer but wanted to be a teacher. When he wasn't being a guide he would go to nightschool to learn English.

Our hunter guide came to join us to eat and he showed us how the welcoming Baci ceremony that would happen at our homestay later would work. It involves holding out your hand whilst white wristbands are rubbed away from you over the top of your wrist and a prayer is spoken to let out all the bad things in your life. Then you are offered food (it was an egg this time) that you hold in your hand whilst the bands are rubbed over the inside of your wrist and a prayer/blessing is spoken to allow the good things to come to into your life, and then the wristband is tied. Then the egg has to be eaten to ensure good luck. It was nice of the guide to explain this to us and I was thankful for the wristband I received from the demonstration.

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Once lunch was over we headed onwards taking in more of the jungle, which became more dense as we made our way through and path came narrower and in places seemingly non existent. We went through an open area which in the wet season would be at least a foot above our heads underwater but at that time it was bone dry which was insane to think how different the seasons were in terms of rainfall.

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As the day lingered on, it became apparent that Vong was becoming a little bit non-fussed about the information that our hunter guide was trying to explain and to our annoyance we had to keep asking 'what did he say?', which didn't help with my impression of him considering it had started out very well. During this time we were told to sit down in the shade whilst they both went and gathered something out of the bush. It wasn't till after that we found out, by asking, that they were collecting the seeds from a plant by burning them because the seeds are used to make a drink that would work as an aphrodisiac similar to Viagra, and would sell for a pretty price.

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Soon after we made it to the Ban Phonsim village and we said farewell to our hunter guide, it was quite sweet because he had gotten all the tourists he had guided to write their names and country they were from in his book, which we dutifully did. After which, Vong took us to meet our Homestay family. On the way he showed us into some other locals yards and porches to see how certain crafts such as weaving were done.

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We first met Mr Sonthong at the front of his home and he welcomed us in and talked to us about where we were from and he introduced his family to us, proudly showing us photos of his children and we learned that one of them had moved to USA which would explain how he had kept up his knowledge of English.

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The afternoon we were able to freshen up in what appeared to be the communal toilet/bathroom for more than one family in the street judging by the wall of toothbrushes. We were then introduced to Champa who was the local contact for the Eco Guide and was a charming older guy who would be looking after us whilst we stayed in the village.

As the evening went on the preparations for our traditional welcoming ceremony was in full flow and Sarah was able to help up with the preparation and I got to pick up a small crab! (There wasn't anything for me to do, plus in Lao the women do all the food preparation)

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It wasn't long before the ceremony was ready and we sat down on the floor with the family and 10 other elder members of the village around a symbolic centre piece made of flowers which held the wristbands and ceremonial food (we were told that larger ones are used at weddings). An elder man known as the fortune teller began singing prayers as we all held on to the centre piece. Then we both had to take a shot of rice whiskey and hold in our right hand food that was presented to us whilst the fortune teller blessed us first. Then the other elders all took turns to came over to tie wristbands and wish us good things in our life. It was very warming and I think Sarah got a little bit emotional at one point, although this may have been due to the rice whiskey. Once everyone had tied on the wristbands we had to eat an egg to ensure good luck. After that we all sat together to eat a delicious meal including the chicken that had been used in the ceremony and continued the evening with talking about our travels showing photos and the family in turn showed us theirs from their trip to Angkor.

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As we are not married the family wanted to make it clear we should sleep in separate beds which was fine with us, but I think they made doubley sure by sending Champa to sleep upstairs too despite his home being around the corner. It felt like we were being chaperoned and as we were trying to sleep Champa kept asking questions about our culture particulalry about why we are not married yet and when are we going to have children emphasising how much older we are than people in his culture. It was quite endearing really as he kept asking and apologising for asking at the same time, and we didn't mind at all.

Day 2

Today would be the opportunity for Sarah and I give alms to the monks and the night before we were told that it would be an early start at 6am. Unfortunately even though the sleeping arrangements were good I didn't get the best sleep because at 4am the drums from the temple started to be beaten and the cockerels joined in making a racket that meant the 6am wake up call wasn't what I was looking forward too. Before we left Sarah and I were kitted up in traditional garments and stocked up with rice, water and chocolate biscuits to present to the monks. We made the short walk to the temple and Somgtong joked with me about Sarahs age, "Why is she 28 if you re 27?", Champa had obviously been sharing our chat from last night. Champa showed us to the ceremony and gave us instructions how to sit in the temple and when to put each item in the containers for the monks, this included sticky rice, bananas and chocolate biscuits. We were not alone as other villagers joined us and one by one each member walked on their knees and gave alms as well so it was very real and authentic. Once everyone had prayed whilst the monks chanted we all poured small bottles of water into the bowls we had bought the alms in normally this would be done on the earth outside to represent giving water to grown plants and for sustenance in the next life.

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After the ceremony we made our way with Champa and Songtong to have coffee and tea which was quite nice as we got to see the morning rush of kids and women on their way to school or work which helped us witness life in the village. Other men from the village joined our table and spoke with us whilst the elder from the ceremony last night signed certificates for people who had donated to the school.

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After we went back to the home stay for breakfast and Champa told us about the how the village was made up of 700 homes, so calling it a village was not really true, and it had 3 schools covering primary to secondary which we would later visit. A scrumptious breakfast was ready for us back at home which consisted of a delicious rice soup and we were ready for our next trek with Champa and our new hunter guide. They would take us through the surrounding countryside towards the nearby Turtle Lake where we would have lunch before making our way to the famous stupa.

On the way out of the village we went passed the primary school and were allowed stick our heads in for a while and all the children would smile and say 'sa ba dee' in unison to us which was very cute. The people we had met were very proud of the schools that they had and it was great to see how they are supported and encouraged to learn by the community.

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We also stopped at a locals house to see them preparing rice whiskey which is a lot cheaper than beer and so Laotian people tend to drink this more often, it also gets you drunk quicker as its so strong! In this house they would be able to produce over 90 litres of it which would last a fair amount of time.

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Some of the other highlights of our morning trek included:

We stopped at area where they made charcoal using a furnace made out of mud.

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Champa told us about how the children at the schools were punished if they didn't do there homework. A shell that was on the floor had strong spikes on it and they would have to kneel on them as punishment, knowing this would happen all the children did their homework. I tried it out myself and it was painful to be fair.

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We took a few minutes to rest and Champa told us that we were sitting in a sacred area with a burial ground of an Abbot. He told us how the local people had learnt not to do anything bad in this place as once 4 men had stolen some sacred items from the tomb and a year later they all died and so it is believed that the strict spirit of the Abbot got them back and so he should not be disturbed.

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We stopped off to crack some almonds we had foraged and have a snack.

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But it wasn't long before we made it to Turtle Lake and enjoyed a hearty lunch with a nap. This are is being preserved but I believe there is also development for a better road guesthouses to be built around the lake to bring more income to the local people and keep the area as an attraction.

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After returning to the homestay to say our goodbyes we went to visit the Stupa on the way back to town. The That Phon Stupa we visited is a famous landmark in the Buddhist culture and one of the most important stupas in Laos. Many flock to this location once a year for the Boun Pha ceremony which Champa said was a great time as he gets to see his sons who live in Vientiane and Thailand. It also has a line of golden Buddhas surrounding the area which are donated by many different people and Champa liked to point our that even Europeans had donated to the stupa.

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The whole experience was fantastic and we really felt as though we had been shown a genuine life of Laos people which I think we will remember for a long time.

Stay tuned for more tales .

Dan.

Posted by doyledan 23:58 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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