So, Joyce and I decided to get off the beaten track for a while, leaving behind (hopefully only temporarily) the friends we had made on the Gibbon Experience and Slow Boat. This adventure would take us off the southern path through Laos and across to the Vietnamese border. A town called Vieng Xai.
It all started off probably less well then we would have liked. I woke in the morning still battling a fever and headache. With a temperature that would make the sun jealous combined with the feeling my eyes were soon going to exit my head a 13 hour bus journey was not looking too fun. On top of this, Joyce’s we ‘shouldn’t go eyes’ were also looking at me. But we had paid our £30 (travel in Laos is quite expensive)… So by jove we were going!
Getting to the bus station and on the bus was uneventful but this was were the first of our 3 characterful bus journeys started. This bus became nicknamed the ‘Party bus’ on account of the excruciating loud Lao music that gave us tinnitus, the constant shouting that slightly deafened us and general other rowdy behaviour and atmosphere… It was cramped, we got crushed and have the bruises to prove it; I had my head patted and elbowed; I had my sandal stolen right off my foot; laughed at for not understanding Lao (oh well); starred at (not very discreetly); Joyce was ogled (not very discreetly); we ran out of food and the bus didn’t stop so we were very hungry!
So when we finally arrived in our destination (Sam Neua) 15 hours after departure it was nearly 11pm. We were now deep in the mountains the temperature had plummeted (we were cold) and it was raining. We did however managed to jump in a tuk tuk, find a guesthouse, wake its owner and get a room. We were asleep pretty soon after!
So the next morning (early start) we had to find our way to Vieng Xai (our destination). After the usual antics of finding the right bus… You know, walking to the wrong bus station, taking a tuk tuk across town to the right bus station, that kind of thing, we are told the bus will leave at 9.30… 1.5 hours to kill. Okay. After twiddling our thumbs for over an hour one of the bus staff, who spoke incredible English, approached us and now informed us that the 9.30 bus was no longer coming. He pointed to another bus and said, “you can get this one. It will drop you on the main road. You can walk from there.” To which I resignedly replied, “okay”.
This brings me to characterful bus number 2… Or the ‘Comedy bus’! This bus was also cramped… The aisles were stacked high with bags and veg from the local market and it was an obstacle course just getting to the seat. But the truly amazing thing about this bus was the Lao gentleman behind me who held court in the bus, telling – what shouted like – hilarious Lao joke after hilarious Lao joke. The whole bus was in uproar. I sat with a polite, quintessential British smile on my face, not wanting to spoil the mood, but wondering… Are these jokes about me? Joyce read.
The bus dropped us as promised and we found Vieng Xai. We also managed to find and get on the tour of the caves – that the Laos revolutionary army used as a base during the Vietnam war – what this entire trip had been about. A bit of history…
Laos is the most bombed country in the world. During the 9 years of the Vietnam war (that inflicted Laos as well) more bombs were dropped in Laos than all those dropped throughout World War II. This amounts to over 2000 tonnes of bombs being dropped for each person in Laos. The country is still suffering from the impact of this today with soil affected by chemicals and unexploded ordinance scattering the countryside, ruining lives everyday.
The Lao people survived and won the war against the American bombings by starting a revolutionary government that coordinated, lived, worked and fought from these caves. The amazing thing is that this government started to form before the war (Laos wanted its independence from America and France), governed during the war and is still the government in power today.
The caves themselves are remarkable. In all their are 430 of them scattered across beautiful, if war torn, countryside. During the war each cave had a function. For example, there was the hospital cave, women’s union cave, youth cave, theatre cave, bakery cave, bank cave, tank cave, garage cave…
The place is truly remarkable, and walking through the caves make the history palpable. It was an eye opening experience. Unbelievably, this special area of Laos gets less than 3000 visitors a year. Funnily the part of the Vietnam war that inflicted so much damaged on Laos has become known as the Secret War… I hope the story of the war and this area does not remain secret. Come and visit.
Now before I finish I need to capture our third characterful bus experience. Our journey from Sam Nuea to Phonsavan took place on what we called the ‘Porn and Delivery bus’… Yep that’s right! On this bus not only did local people keep stopping to buy veg to then drop off to other people on the way, or to drop off envelopes, clothes, etc (it was just like UPS, but without the logistics jingle) but there were also some ‘Lao lads’ who had brought a laptop and were watching, and sharing with the bus, porn. Well, I didn’t expect that and I’m guessing you didn’t either)!