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Monday, October 31, 2011

25 Days of Laos (Part 9)

This is a journal of our 25-day trip around Laos on a rented Honda FTR that we fondly called Mustafa. It starts with a long bus ride from Hanoi to Laos and ends with a longer bus ride back to Hanoi.

Day 10: Vieng Xai to Sam Neua
The day began with a visit to the Vieng Xai caves, a network of caves in limestone mountains which were used as shelter by the Pathet Laos and 23,000 people during the Indochina War in the 1960's.  Hidden in the caves are hospitals, schools, meeting rooms, military barracks, a theater and a radio station. 

During the 1960's, in order to stop the spread of communism, the United States bombed this area in order to get rid of the Pathet Laos. Their original hide out was in the nearby area of Xieng Khouang but after their base had been bombed, they moved their base to the limestone caves of Vieng Xai. After that, Vieng Xai was heavily and regularly bombed by the Americans. More bombs were dropped in that area than any country in Europe during World War II -- Around 2,000,000 bombs were dropped in this very small area. The people of Vieng Xai had to stay in these impenetrable caves and do their farming and gathering in the evening once the bombing has stopped.

Despite the tremendous amount of ordinance that were dropped in this area, the Americans managed to keep this war a secret. And, for some time, even the Laos government kept this secret. It was only around 2 years ago that this place was opened to the public. 

Since we were late for the morning tour, we had to pay for a private tour (around 120,000 kip) along with an entrance fee of 40,000 kip which included an audio guide that was narrated by John Hurt and contained some accounts of people who lived during the war. We were very lucky that four other tourists arrived and we split the fee for the private tour.

The tour included the caves inhabited by the key leaders of the Pathet Laos. These are: Kaysone Phomivhane who was the leader of the Laos People's Revolutionary Party, Nouhak Phoumsavan who was the Minister of Finance during the Second War, Prince Souphannouvong who was the first president of Laos PDR and Khamtay Siphandone who was the supreme army commander of the Secret War. We also got to see the hospital, the school, the theater and the barracks.

A Meeting Room (found in Kaysone's Cave)

Wash Room


A Contraption Used For Pumping Air

Air Holes

Nouhak's House By The Cave

Bomb Crater

Memorial Stupa For Souphanouvong

Hospital Cave

Really Old Medicine Bottles

After the tour, we headed to the restaurant where we had drinks yesterday. This time, they were serving food. Unfortunately, I found some maggots wriggling in my fish laap. After my unsatisfactory lunch, we packed our bags and head to Sam Neua where I finally got to eat my lunch at the Dao Nao Muang Xam Restaurant very near the guest house we stayed at. Not only did I enjoy eating the fried rice that I ordered, I also enjoyed the company of the two French girls that we shared the Vieng Xai tour with. It's quite funny that we ran into them there.

Sam Neua

Quick Travel Tips:
Watch The Most Secret Place On Earth to know more about the Secret War before coming to
Vieng Xai.

The place we stayed at cost us around 80,000 kip and is around one building away from the Dau Nau Muang Xam Restaurant. There, we got our own en suite bathroom, a TV, A/C and a shared terrace.

The Journey Continues:

Friday, October 28, 2011

25 Days of Laos (Part 8)

This is a journal of our 25-day trip around Laos on a rented Honda FTR that we fondly called Mustafa. It starts with a long bus ride from Hanoi to Laos and ends with a longer bus ride back to Hanoi.

Day 9: Vieng Thong to Vieng Xai
Since we didn't have to travel far, we decided to have a bit of a lie in. We also changed our plans and headed for Vieng Xai instead of Sam Neua. On our way to Vieng Xai, we decided to stop by Sua Hin, the Laos version of Stonehenge. 

The Mountains We Passed Along The Way

Where are the tigers?

All I see are water buffalos!

Nominated as a world heritage site, Sua Hin (stone garden) is also known as Sao Hin Tang  (Standing Stone Pillars) or the Hintang Archaeological Park. It's got an arrangement of stone pillars that are 2 meters high and some large discs. These structures are around 2,000 years old and no one really knows why they were built. What's interesting is that the stones these megaliths were made of are somewhat similar to the materials used for the jars in the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan. Some people say that the discs used to be on top of the megaliths and they were supposed to serve as a table for the sky spirit, Jahn Hahn. Some believe that this used to be a burial ground as there are tunnel-like trenches under some of the pillars.

These stones were discovered and excavated Madeleine Colani in 1931. She found some funerary urns, ceremonial stone objects, bronze brazelets and ceramic hanging pendants which lead her to believe that these were built for the purpose of honoring and giving offerings to the dead. These could've been built by the ancestors of the people who built the jars in Phonsavan before they had the tools or abilities to make jars since the grave offerings and the lids used to cover the jars and the graves in the stone gardens were quite similar.

Sua Hin Tang
Local legend, however, say that this was an unfinished city that would've been greater than Luang Prabang.

"In ancient times Lao was inhabited by the Kha Yeui. Their chief, Ba Hat was a great giant possessing amazing powers, to whom the gods also gave three magical objects : a double-headed drum - one face struck to make enemies disappear and the other to call help from the gods ; an enormous awl which pierced the stoniest ground and made water gush out ; and an axe which could cut hard rock like wood.

Ba Hat fell himself no less strong than the Luang Prabang Kingdom, thanks to these marvelous instruments, so he decided the were no longer subjects of the king, who soon declared war. But the victory went to Ba Hat. Later believing the enemy king intended to return, Ba Hat called on the help of the gods. The chief of the gods descended in person and on seeing no enemies anywhere he flew into a rage and seized back the magical drum.

Ba Hat still had the other tools given him by the gods. With the magical axe, he set his people out to cut blocks of stone along Nam Peun, and bear them to the top of San Ang ridge to build the new city of Kong Phanh. This aroused the king of Luang Prabang’s fears and he decided a ruse to keep that city from ever beeing founded. He succeeded in marrying his son to Ba Hat’s daughter. Misplacing their confidence in the prince, the Kha Yuei were induced to lay the magical awl and axe onto a white-hot brazier. The two instruments immediately lost all magic power.

So the Kha Yuei had to abandon their project and they just left the stones where they had been raised along the crest. These later on became the menhir fields of San Kong Phanh and the neighbouring countryside."

(Article based on a text of the Department of Museums and Archaeology, Laos PDR Ministry of Information and Culture).

A Hole Under The Pillar

What we had to go through to get here!
We arrived in Sam Neua in the afternoon and we grabbed some snacks before heading to Vieng Xai which is around 68 kilometers away. 

Vieng Xai is a very beautiful and serene location. It's quite hard to imagine that it was bombarded by bombs during the Secret War. Because of the tons of bombs that were dropped in the area, the people had to stay in these caves to protect themselves. And, we planned on visiting these caves the next day -- The Secret City of Vieng Xai.

We found a guest house by the lake. After putting our things in the room, we decided to explore the town and found a restaurant by the lake. Since they weren't serving food at that time, we decided to have some cold drinks and chill. While we were there, the landscape was enhanced by the double rainbows in the sky.

That night, we had dinner in our guest house while looking at the beautiful view outside until it became too dark to see. I loved the fish with sweet and sour sauce. The beef was a bit tough but it tasted good.  

The Guest House Where We Stayed In

The View Opposite The Guest House

Kids Playing In The Lake

The View From The Place We Had Some Drinks

Double Rainbows

The View Outside The Guest House

Quick Travel Tips

How To Get To Sua Hin
Sua Hin is around 55 kilometers from Sam Neua. You'll see a sign on the road. And, from there, you'll have to hike around 6 kilometers. In our case, we had to ride our motorbike up an uphill, muddy road. GPS Coordinates: N20 07.388 E103 53.737

The Guest House In Vieng Xai
I can't really recall the name of the guest house we stayed in but I remember that it had a Vietnamese name. Since Vieng Xai is a city that's near the border of Laos and Vietnam, it's no wonder that there are some Vietnamese people living here. Our dinner was actually disturbed by the loud chatter of the other guests. We knew that they  were Vietnamese because we could understand a bit since we've been living in Vietnam for some time. 

The guest house is on the lake and has a U shape. The bedrooms located on each side of the U and the dining area is located in the middle. This is the reason why I could take a picture of one side of the guest house while having dinner. We paid around 60,000 kip for this place.

The Journey Continues:

Thursday, October 27, 2011

25 Days of Laos (Part 7)

This is a journal of our 25-day trip around Laos on a rented Honda FTR that we fondly called Mustafa. It starts with a long bus ride from Hanoi to Laos and ends with a longer bus ride back to Hanoi.

Day 8: Nong Khiaw to Vieng Thong
After having breakfast and grabbing some sandwiches from Delilah's, we left for another long bike ride with hopes of reaching Sam Neua before night fall. The weather wasn't in our favor that day. While we were having a stopover in Vieng Thong, we ended up getting stranded because of some heavy showers. Seeing that it was impossible to get Sam Neua before dark and that it would be difficult to find any accommodations on the way, we decided to stay in Vieng Thong for the evening.

Beautiful Blue Mountains

The Road

Although the lights were out in the guest house we were staying at, we were both very happy to explore a new place that's not available to most tourists. Our guest house had a list of sites to visit in Vieng Thong and even though the directions were difficult to follow, we found ourselves in the hot springs the town is apparently known for. It was beautiful. With the mist moving up from the gurgling spring, we were awed by the magical setting.

Near The Guest House

The Rice Field Outside The Guest House

Bathe here!

After that, we decided to explore an uphill road and ended up staying in a family-owned cafe overlooking beautiful green fields and blue mountains.

That night, after a meal of sticky rice and Laos beef steak that had the texture of beef jerky, we slept amidst lit candles, enduring the heat as the electricity was still out.

Quick Travel Tips:

The road from Nong Khiaw to Sam Neua has only one big town where you can stay the night, Vieng Thong. So, in case you feel that you can't get to Sam Neua before dark, you should stay in Vieng Thong. Otherwise, make sure that you've got a tent with you.

Hot Springs. They're located 1 kilometer north of town. Take the Ban San Tai Road. 

The Journey Continues: