27.08.2009 - 03.09.2009 35 °C
You'd never think that Vientiane is a capital city. It's very small, relaxed and easygoing. After saying good-bye to Tom, the Lao-American who gave me a ride from Ka Taek, I found a relatively cheap hostel (accommodation is quite expensive in Vientiane) and then spent 4 hours uploading pictures and writing blog entries in an Internet café. I had not gone online since Phnom Penh!
I stayed two nights in Vientiane before continuing north along the Mekong, still having no luck in finding a boat. Here are some pictures of the city:
This is the main road leading From the Victory Gate to the Presidential Palace. As you can see there are no skyscrapers or tall buildings at all in Vientiane.
The Victory Gate, copied from the Arc De Triomphe in Paris.
The roof under the Victory Gate.
The information board about the Victory Gate. The sincerity is touching.
From Vientiane I took the bus north to Vang Vieng, which is a little town set in a wonderful landscape and overrun by backpackers whose main occupation (appart from consuming the usual substances) is to drift down the Mekong floating on the inner tubes of truck tires. The whole town consists nearly exclusively of Guest Houses, bars and restaurants. Here's a picture of the main road:
All the yellow signs are restaurants and/or Guest Houses. But it's actually a very beautiful place with little islands in the Mekong.
Fortunately the town was mostly empty because Monsoon season is low seaon. At this point I have to say that I have found traveling in this area during monsoon a very pleasant experience. There's usually a refreshing short shower in late afternoon and then some more rain during the night. The sun shines during the rest of the day.
North of Vang Vieng the road passes some small hills. I have taken the next picture during one of the bus stops on the way to Luang Prabang. It shows very well the deforestation that takes place everywhere I have been in Northern Laos. In every forest you can see patches of grass and on many hills there are only small patches of forest left. Note the erosion that results when it rains (brown patches).
Luang Prabang is the main town in Northern Laos. There remains a strong French influence and it is one of the most pleasant towns I have visited in Laos. Here are some pictures:
In Luang Prabang I finally FINALLY found a boat that would travel north towards Nong Khiaw. We followed the Mekong for a while and then drove the Nam Ou River upstream for maybe 6 hours until we arrived. Not the week-long journey I had imagined, but better than nothing. Here are some pictures:
This is the (rather narrow) boat that took us to Nong Kiaw (the two Lao people and four tourists).
This boat is a petrol station where other boats come for repair and refuel.
This is Vilma, a Lithuanian girl with whom I traveled in Northern Laos. You probably have noticed a change for the better in the quality of some of the recent pictures. This is because she carries a very good camera and shared her pictures with me.
The boat ride was quite something. Definitely worth three times the bus ticket price. The jungle left and right is incredibly dense and lush. There are locals paddling by on their little barges and near villages the banks of the river are full of playing (and usually naked) children jumping in the water. People seem to live a very happy life around here.
Nong Khiaw is a little village lost between some large hills on both banks of the Nam Ou. We stayed here for a couple days to relax a bit. There's an Indian guy from Pondicherry who runs an Indian restaurant there, and I think I spent more money on masala chai than on food.
The (probably Chinese built) bridge on the Nam Ou linking the two village halves together.
The first picture shows the village center. The second is of a truck that must have been left behind by the British after WW2. And it's still working! Although it's an environmental catastrophe, you should see the cloud that follows that truck around...
These are pictures taken in the local primary school. Based on what we have seen on the walls, they learn basic math, some language skills, and some more basic things like Health Care, child abuse, and UXO (unexploded ordonance = leftover unexploded (american) mines and bombs from the Viet Nam war. The country is full of it) handling.
For all you mountain climbers out there: This is a good area for you. It's beautiful, the rock is quite solid and there are a lot of walls. Just don't expect any prepared routes...
After Nong Kiaw we took the bus to Udomxai in the north where I parted ways with Vilma and crossed into China.