Days on the road: 137
Kilometres covered: 28,417km
Countries visited: 14
Today’s special stats:
Quickest roadside repair: 5 minutes
Pairs of flip flops worn out: 5
Having made it across the border on the 19th, we trundled along the country roads to Luang Namtha city, about an hour from the border. Luang Namtha is the capital of the region by the same name, and the name literally means “area around the river Tha”. It’s a lovely little town near a National Protected Area (NPA), or a National Park to us Brits. Our first stop was very important: PIZZA. Will had been desperate for pizza since we found a closed pizzeria in Sainshand, Mongolia… So one month later, the sight of a stone baked pizza oven was more than welcome! We enjoyed our first taste of Beerlao – the nation’s favourite drink, with 90% of the country in agreement. And at £1 for a big bottle, we were pretty keen on it too! We took a stroll along the “high street” and popped our head in to Forest Retreat tours, who offered a tour leaving the next morning. Hopefully we weren’t too blunt in our reply: “absolutely not!” After 24 days of 5am-6am starts, we needed a rest. That night we found a pleasant enough guesthouse called Zuela, where we could park Caesar off the road and get a room for £7. We more than achieved our aim of getting some shut eye, sleeping from 8pm to 8am!
Will finds a dog to play with…
Rainy season by the way – not that we noticed! (ok… maybe we noticed…)
Will finds Lao pooch number two for cuddles and chin scratches
It poured with rain all night and most of the next day, thanks to a storm that was hitting northern Laos, so we were met with a very soggy town and Caesar in the morning! Will’s hopes of taking a dirt bike up to a local waterfall were dashed, and as the rain continued, the next day was written off as an admin day. Time to catch up on some blogging, news, emails and… Time to plan the dreaded permit to enter Thailand and shipping to get Caesar home! Wahhh! It’s still rather up in the air as to how we’ll manage Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Our initial plan is to cross Laos-Cambodia-Thailand, with around 40 days to cover Laos and Cambodia, however this could be tricky as we hear from the guys at Plodd Stop in Thailand that the officials at the only border of Laos-Cambodia don’t let international cars through without hefty and expensive paperwork… Investigations are ongoing!
We popped back to Forest Retreat and booked ourselves on to a two day hike and kayak tour through the jungle and along Nam Tha. The part of the river we chose was billed as “very challenging” especially given the crazy rain they’d had lately, so we were warned, warned some more and warned again about how challenging it would be. Will and I have both kayaked a lot in the past, so we classed ourselves as experienced and weren’t too worried initially about what was in store for us.
In the morning when we arrived ready for our tour, the guide and his manager both sat us down and checked and rechecked that we definitely knew how to kayak. By now, we were starting to question our own abilities! How bad could it be? Right? Our guide, Som, was a pretty cool guy and seemed at least a little bit to believe us when we said we’d white water kayaked before and knew more than just the basics.
On the way to the starting point for our trip we stopped off at the day market, admiring the fruit, veg, meats, ducklings, mushrooms… and… Hornet larvae… Which Som later told us they fry and eat! As delicious as that sounded we decided not to pick any up for our lunch!
The day market in Luang Namtha
Hornet Larvae (yum!)
Rice… but which rice to choose?
The first day of the trip was a 4 hour hike up into the primary forest, and on the way Som showed us natural Tiger Balm and cardamon, as well as picking some ferns, sugar cane and bamboo shoots for our dinner. He told us that the locals use tiger balm for sore joints, taking the wood and wrapping it in a banana leaf and putting it on a fire before applying it to the joint. After 30 minutes he said your joint would be healed. Sounds much better than the stuff we buy in a pot in England! We had a local village man join us for the morning, and his family provided our lunch of sticky rice, chicken, tofu and beans. All served on a banana leaf, and delicious! The second part of the trip was mostly some scaremongering from Som – he told us about the poisonous spiders in the jungle, like the tiger spider, and that if you’re lucky, you might also see a King Cobra or a Banana Snake, which can kill you in minutes – get bitten by one of those and you’re a goner. He showed us a poisonous fruit which can stay in the digestive system of squirrels and kill you too! Finally he told us about a centipede that can blind you. Jungles are cool!
Natural tiger balm
Delicious root, a bit like radish.
Spiky plant which, if you got past the pointy bits, was pretty tasty!
All but two of the log bridges had been swept away in the heavy rain, so the afternoon’s walk was longer and wetter than anticipated!
Rickety bridge – better than no bridge as we were soon to find out!
Farmer’s resting hut in the rice paddy
Cardamon drying out
As we approached the village we walked through their rice paddies and their corn plants. We saw a small bamboo box with some offerings inside, which Som explained would be to protect the soul of someone in the village. In this village live 250 people from the Khamu ethnic minority, and their lives remain relatively traditional, although thanks to companies like Forest Retreat, they now have taps in the village and hydroelectric systems to provide energy to light their homes. Their homes are built up on stilts to protect them from bad spirits, and the rice stores were also on stilts for spirits, rain and bugs! The roofs of the buildings are made mostly of leaves, although some villagers had progressed to corrugated metal roofs, which they then complained made the houses too hot in the sun and very loud in the rain. Those made of leaves had to replace them every three years, which was a big job, so you can see the motivation for moving to metal.
Rice store up on stilts
Fishing (no luck today)
Opening up cardamon
The village on stilts
The money from our stay could be given to the village in two ways: either we could have a home stay with a local family and they would directly receive all the money for whatever they wanted (healthcare, education, clothes, or just simply whisky!) or we could stay in the eco lodge and the money would go to the chief of the village who will hold quarterly meetings to decide how the money would best be spent for the good of the village. This meant that if someone was sick or pregnant, or a house or the school needed repair, there was a mutual fund to help. We decided this was the best way to ensure the money was responsibly spent in a way that was most beneficial for all the people. A local family cooked our ferns and bamboo shoots, and made us pomelo with garlic and chili, wild mushrooms from around the village, with sticky rice for dinner. We watched the locals play football, played with the puppies and met the chief of the village. We heard from Som that an older man in the village was very sick, (he was the man that the bamboo box with offerings had been made for) and in the next couple of days the villagers would sacrifice an animal for him and his spirit. We were glad we chose to stay in the Eco lodge after hearing that, as this money should then help pay for his healthcare or, as is sadly more likely in this area of the world, his end of life care.
Pomelo, garlic and chili
Preparing our snack
The villagers go to bed early – a necessity since, with the heavy rain, their hydroelectric systems were useless (they would just be washed away if they tried to use them). We ended up tucked up in our beds -bamboo mats on the floor- by 8:30pm! To be honest the early bedtime was welcome, we were both cream crackered from the walk and the heat. After 4 months of sitting down in the Landy we aren’t exactly in the same shape as before!
That night the heavens truly opened – it poured with rain for several hours and we barely slept; by morning time the river was rising again and Som reminded us that the river would be treacherous. Way to make us worried! We had breakfast with a local girl called Hom – noodles and sticky rice (they really, really like sticky rice here). We were joined at the table not only by Hom, but also by 4 dogs and several chickens, all of whom were obviously quite peckish! One of the chickens decided to hop up on the table while I was slyly palming off my overgenerous sticky rice portion on one of the village dogs, burying its head in the remaining sticky rice – causing quite a reaction and a laugh from Hom who was clearly used to this!
The chicken who came for tea…
After our carbs and carbs, the second guide finally arrived with the kayaks. Neither of us had ever been in a two man kayak on white water, so this was our primary concern. We had a little pep talk between us about the challenges, advantages and disadvantages of this kind of boat, and to be honest we both started to worry about what we had in store for us! Som had spoken at great length with his boss back at the office about us and whether we were inventing our kayaking experience, and concluded we should start in separate kayaks (one guide and one of us in each) to test our abilities. We obviously got off to a good start – after one set of rapids we were allowed to sit together. It was shortly after this that the guide I’d been sitting with was whipped off the back of their kayak by a stray vine that caught him around the neck! Well, I’d not seen Som move so fast to regain control of their boat and rescue the other guide! It was like a scene from James Bond!
Pre-Kayak – hiding “the fear” rather nicely!
If we are completely honest we were both a bit underwhelmed by the “super dangerous rapids” which we felt were pretty straight forward! We paddled onwards, and our biggest challenge in fact turned out to be bailing water out of the boat!!! Along the river we stopped off at two villages, one Khamu village, an offshoot of where we stayed over night, and one Lamet village, who had a really cool baby monkey they’d rescued after its mum had fled during a thunderstorm. We had a lot of fun playing with her, although it did culminate in her chewing on the end of my sunglasses!
What a beaut!
Look into my eyes, not around my eyes, into my eyes – you’re under.
We had lunch in the chief of the Lamet village’s home. Here we were shown how they weave cotton to make their clothes and the handicrafts they sell as souvenirs. The chiefs in these villages are voted in every three years, and this particular chief covered both this Lamet village, and the second Khamu village we visited that morning. He was new to the job and busied himself with laying down the law with Som about how things would work under his rule! Our lunch in his home was sticky rice (naturally), marrow and beans. As simple as the food might sound, it was really delicious! After a pudding of sugar cane, Som said we could leave our leftovers for the locals – by leaving the table while others were yet to eat, it was necessary for us to pick the table up and move it slightly, to keep the spirits away.
The chief discusses village business with his villager
Cotton weaving at the chief’s house
Lunch at the chief’s house
We had our last paddle down the river, joining on to a smaller, calmer river. The heavens opened once more just as we arrived at the car that would take us back to Luang Namtha. Som declared us the best tourists he’d ever seen kayak, which we figure was praise indeed from someone who clearly had little faith in us that morning!
We had a relaxed evening back at Zuela in Luang Namtha before heading down to Luang Prabang on the morning of Tuesday 23rd August. Although it was only 300km (a distance which paled into insignificance compared to our long days in China) to Luang Prabang, it was to take more than 6 hours to get there. The roads wind through the mountains, and trucks, bikes, locals and animals jump out of no where. Caesar took it steady, stopping at a hilltop restaurant (complete with two pet monkeys and some pet squirrels) for lunch. The owners were really friendly and were pretty impressed that two Brits had found their way there! After a brief look over the menu we were surprised to see Sautéed Morning Glory on offer! We decided to give that a miss… Stuffed again with egg and tomato soup, fried pork and, in unexpected news : steamed rice!!! we were fuelled and ready for the remaining kilometres. Luang Prabang was a really beautiful town. You can really feel the French influence here, with more signs in French, traditional French and Lao cuisine on offer, bakeries, boutique guesthouses, beautiful architecture, and…. WINE!!!!! I can tell you now, it didn’t matter that it was clearly a cheap bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. I was bloody happy to have my first taste of this sweet nectar since Russia! It’s simply not natural to go so long without it! We had dinner at Khaipheine, a restaurant that takes underprivileged youths off of the streets of Luang Prabang and teaches them English, hospitality skills and cookery. They have ‘students’ and ‘teachers’ who serve you, and the food is bloody good. All round a pretty feel-good evening!
Our hotel left a little to be desired, we managed to whittle the price down to £7 per night which clearly resulted in us being given the worst room in the place – with no natural light in our room, it was a little dank. We had an ok night’s sleep though, and headed out to Le Banneton for breakfast. Le Banneton was probably a top 3 highlight of the city, with delicious French pastries, English breakfast tea and coffee too! We gorged ourselves and waddled in the heat over to Wat Xieng Thong along the road from our hotel. This was probably the most stunning temple we’d seen, with sweeping roofs and beautiful intricate designs on the walls, pillars, doors and ceilings. I had to don a shawl and a skirt as I was not “appropriately dressed”, much to Will’s amusement!
Bakery!!!! Best brekkie for a long time
In my skirt and shawl at the Temple
Mosaic at the Temple
Tree of Life at the Temple
As Luang Prabang heated up to a steamy 41 degrees we decided to retreat to the aircon in the hotel to do some more planning for our Thai permit. We heard back from a tour guide in Cambodia that, without spending some $800 on a permission letter from Phnom Penh, going through the only Laos-Cambodia border would be nigh on impossible. So, it was time to hash together a new plan and hound the only two agents able to process permit applications until one of them agreed to do it quickly for us. Usually, given that we need exceptions to the permit regulations (to enter and exit through two different borders), we would need to allow 30 days for the permit application. That would be fine if our initial plan of going through Cambodia before Thailand was still possible, but as it wasn’t, we had to chivvy them along to avoid being in Laos for yonks. Eventually we heard back, and from what we can understand from the agent’s broken English, we’re pretty sure she can do it in 2-3 weeks. We’ll have to wait and see!
Everything you ever needed to know about Laos!
Back to visiting Luang Prabang after finishing off our paperwork, that afternoon we strolled along the Mekong, trundled around the markets picking up a very fetching wife beater (vest) for Will… had a couple of Beerlao (when in Laos…), and walked up Phu Si to watch the sun set. It was ridiculously hot but the view was really beautiful from up on this hill. We spent about half an hour just watching the sky change as the sun went down. For dinner that evening we went to Luang Prabang’s oldest family owned restaurant and had yellow noodles and Laos coconut and fish soup with rice noodles. We were replete to say the least after this, it was delicious!
Sunset from Phu Si
Luang Prabang Royal Palace
On Thursday 25th August we drove onward to Kuang Si waterfall. We were a little worried this place would be rammed full of westerners (given that every taxi driver in the city was trying to give us a lift there) but were pleasantly surprised to find it wasn’t too busy. The waterfall includes a moon and sun bear rescue centre, which was actually lovely to see. Generally speaking, we’re not the biggest fans of seeing animals in captivity, and the last moon bears we’d seen (at the Great Wall in Badaling) looked miserable as sin. These little guys, on the other hand, were full of energy, with the cubs playing together and the adults searching out the food that the keepers had hidden around their enclosure. They were all rescued from poachers or abusive owners, and brought here as releasing them back into the wild would only lead them to be poached again. Moon and sun bear bile is used in Chinese medicine, so these bears are often found in cages hardly big enough to turn around in, used for their bile and eventually killed when they get too old. It was fair to say that life in these enclosures playing around and snoozing in hammocks with their bear friends would be vastly better than life in a tiny cage.
The fall itself was pretty impressive – it’s the rainy season here so, of course, the water isn’t clear blue like it would be in the dry season, but it was stunning in any case. We both took a run across the bridge at the bottom of the waterfall to get a better view from the other side – soggy!
As we headed along to Vang Vieng that afternoon, we enjoyed being on winding country roads and rickety bridges again. Laos was like no country we’d ever seen before. The views from the road were outstanding, with rice paddies, karst landscape, water buffalo, temples and beautiful villages dotted along the drive.The water buffalo here, by the way, are the size of tanks. I wouldn’t want to pit Caesar against one as I’m pretty sure we’d lose! The roads were not without their challenges – with the recent downpours, landslides were plentiful and diggers were out in their dozens clearing the roads again. The roads were often falling away down the cliff sides or subsiding and creating almost a staircase effect in the road itself, so that kept us on our toes! That added to the 10-12% inclines and declines, Caesar was working hard! Nothing like the sound of a 200tdi in second gear at 40kph down a hill!
Lao tractor (basically a lawn mower on a stick)
Steep slopes ahead!
Digger moving a landslide out of the road
Roadside Temple complete with golden Buddha
About 40km from Vang Vieng, Caesar’s accelerator gave way, and although the engine was still very much running, we had no throttle! Will dived for the side of the road and I jumped out, placing a couple of logs in the road to warn others coming around the corner (standard practice in this neck of the woods as we’d learnt in China). Up went the bonnet, and Will was relieved to see that it was just a cotter pin that had parted ways with the pin holding the accelerator cable to the throttle on the engine. No need to run diagnostics on our non-existent ECU! We dug out the cotter pins from our spares box, popped in a new one, and within 5 minutes we were back on the road. You’ve got to love our old, simple Landy!
Straight in there with a cotter pin. My excellent spanner monkey!
What a nice spot for a stop off, thanks Caesar!
By the time we reached Vang Vieng, the heavens had truly opened (did we mention it’s rainy season?), and our hopes of camping had been dashed. Instead, we headed to Maylyn Guesthouse, run by an Irish guy called Joe and his Laos wife. To get there you had to cross the toll bridge – not exactly comparable to the Severn Bridge, it was £2 for a round trip and rickety as sin, but we are thankful to say it can just about handle a 3 tonne, 2.5m high Landy! Joe’s English friend from Norwich was visiting at the time, and so Caesar got a warm welcome and was privileged to be parked in Joe’s front yard, safely tucked off the road. They enjoyed hearing our travel tales and told us about when Joe had moved to Laos and his friend had moved to Thailand 15 years previous. They had a veritable zoo of cats and dogs so I was entertained while the boys talked bikes and bike accidents (one of Will’s favourite topics of conversation as his family stories always beat everyone else’s!). Joe told us the next day would be his 70th birthday, and he kindly invited us along to his party next door. As standard, plenty of Beerlao were consumed, and we had a really very pleasant evening.
The next day it transpired that the tubing place in town was closed (due to rain or otherwise we weren’t sure) so we followed Joe’s advice and did a loop around Vang Vieng of the two blue lagoons and a cave. The first blue lagoon was natural, so was brown if we’re honest, but good fun nonetheless, with rope swings, trees to jump off and the like. We explored the cave there before trotting along to the next blue lagoon. Well, this was the winner – it was manmade so the rain hadn’t turned it brown and it was beautiful! We grabbed a rubber ring and floated around, eventually finding a Brit and a Canadian who asked all about Caesar and our Roam.
Kids playing in the river outside our cabin in Vang Vieng
Blue Lagoon 3 – genuinely blue!
The walk up to the cave at Blue Lagoon
Inside the cave at Blue Lagoon
Caesar at Blue Lagoon 3, his little bit of paradise
Will the orangutan, swinging from the trees
Finally it was time to return to the guesthouse and celebrate Joe’s birthday. He’d laid on a feast and dozens of crates of Beerlao, along with a few bottles of whisky for good measure! We spent the evening chatting with a couple of Norwegians who were working in a guesthouse along the way, and Gary, from Gary’s Irish Pub. Perhaps (OK, definitely) a stupid statement, but I didn’t really realise that Irish people ran Irish pubs… The oldest two gents in the town then carried out the Laos ‘baci‘ for Joe, a traditional blessing for good luck, prosperity, health and wealth. This was quite impressive, including a roasted chicken and sticky rice which they used to break the fast together after the blessing. During the ceremony Will and I were invited to sit down with them and also joined in in breaking the fast, with the locals offering us cotton bracelets afterwards to wish us prosperity too. We asked that they include Caesar in this too… Shame they didn’t speak English!
Joe’s Lao “baci”
With our permit for Thailand looking like it might take at least a couple of weeks to be completed, meaning we couldn’t enter Thailand until roughly 15th September, we had more time to play with in Laos than we initially expected. So, what better thing to do than find a nice camping spot where we could put our feet up! For any other overlanders reading this, if you haven’t yet discovered the app iOverlander, you need to get on the AppStore/PlayStore right now and download it. This app is a treasure trove of good places to camp, hotels with secure parking, mechanics, tourist sights… The list goes on. Each place has a review and a GPS location, so you can easily find it. We’ve used it almost daily since leaving England in April, getting advice and adding to it ourselves. We’d spotted on there a place called Nirvana Resort, which two overlanders had camped at previously, right on the northern bank of the Nam Ngum lake. They had written that there was a bear and monkey rescue centre there – well, we could hardly say no to that could we!? It was only 20km south of Vang Vieng too, so nice and close by. We pootled down and arrived by midday, meeting the French owner, his French receptionist and bar man, and their American Bulldog – Asean. It says a lot about me as a person that the one name I retained from this place was the dog’s… We had a cold drink and were shown around the monkeys and the bear enclosure – all of which had been rescued from poachers. These were certainly feisty little monkeys, older and more troublesome than the little one we met in a village a few days previous. We were warned they like to nab anything they can get their little hands and feet on, so best to give them some space. Bouba, the bear, was absolutely gorgeous – she had been just 2 months old when she first came to the resort and at first had been able to roam around the bar as she’d been so small. When she got to 80kg she became a little less manageable and they moved her into her enclosure. Here she has a fan to keep her cool, a small bath and a larger swimming pool. She actually has the best pool in town – hers has fresh water from underground, meaning she gets a cool, mineral water dip every day, while the minion humans staying in the resort next door have a swimming pool filled with lake water – not refreshing at all. She seemed like a pretty happy bear and later when we returned we found her sat in her smaller bath playing with the water hose and pawing the water over herself. Cute. We helped to feed the monkeys and, despite 101 warnings, Will eventually lost his sunglasses to the little tinkers. As he leant forward to offer a banana to the most mischievous monkey, the little sod snatched the glasses off his head instead and started chewing on them straight away! The owner stepped in and a fun game of Bribe a Monkey commenced. Needless to say, monkeys are clever little things and don’t fall for bribery as quickly as you might hope. Eventually this monkey gave in and dropped the sunnies in exchange for a banana, only for them to be snatched up by another larger monkey before the owner could get a hand in to grab them. Bugger. By now, the 6 or 7 monkeys in the cage were going totally crazy, obviously knowing that they had something us idiot humans wanted! The dog was barking and the bear was looking on in awe at our idiocy. Eventually the larger monkey gave in to the temptation of a banana and returned the (now very muddy and chewed) glasses to the resort’s owner. We were amazed to see that they hadn’t managed to break the glass with their spiky teeth, so it was nothing a few baby wipes couldn’t fix! The owner was clearly a bit worried when he realised they were Prada… And relieved to hear that they were Mongolian Prada – not exactly genuine… Lesson learnt for Will? Probably not…
Caesar’s spot by the lake
A view over Nam Ngun
Bouba the bear having a bath!
Not as cute as they look
This was the little sod that stole Will’s glasses
Got off lightly me thinks!
That evening a couple of French guys, Nathalie and Rémi, from the resort next door came over to join us for some beers and cocktails at Nirvana. They are working in Vientiane so we’re likely to see them again when we’re exploring the capital over the next few days. A pleasant evening was had by all.