|The following morning the bags were reloaded, the bike refueled and we were re-energised for the 206km journey north east to Phonsovan. Having become accustomed to entire days without seeing other foreigners in Cambodia, we enjoyed being on road seeing nothing but nature and passing villages along the way.
At regular intervals along the route are villages of various sizes and wealth. Some homes are made from concrete, other communities have houses made from wooden planks or woven split bamboo. Some tribes prefer to build their structures on stilts, others on solid foundations. Roofs are typically thatch or corrugated iron for the wealthier families. Village sizes range from a single home perched on the edge of the bend, the back of the house facing the sheer drop to the valley floor; or sizeable towns of a few thousand.
"Watch out! Goat!"
"Watch out! Chicken!"
"Watch out! Pig!"
"Watch out! Dog!"
"Watch out! Snake!"
"Watch out! Hill-tribe baby!"
These are the dangers of traveling on the roads in Laos, as there aren't that many vehicles on the roads here. The odd bus or moto, even more seldom a 4 wheel drive; more frequently a truck loaded with tree trunks winding their way past us. The destruction of logging is evident along the way with entire hill sides lying bare.
Our major concern was ensuring we return the waves and salutes of the children and adults! But most often the only traffic is the people walking or cycling from their homes to their newly created farms. The practice of slash and burn became more visible as we continued east. At times the entire mountain face in front of us was in a crackling blaze of fire. Everything lying in the path of the flames perishes and the sky is consumed by thick black smoke initially, the burning vegetation hissing in protest. Ash floated down around the bike even when you could see no evidence of the flames. The terrain is left tarnished, the blackened stumps of trees intermittently rising from the soil. It was exactly like the photographs I remember from geography books!
And after an entire day spent stopping off in little villages for water - or puncture repair (just a flat tyre, but we had to drive on it for about 5km to the nearest village where they had a pump and were helped by a very nice old woman. We paid her with Tony's last 4 cigerettes and 2,000 kip (20cent) and she was delighted. We bought patches and a pump as soon as we reached a large enough town!) we suddenly arrived in the town of Phonsovan. This is the new capital of the most bombed province in the most bombed country in history. Ariel photographs bare testimony to this claim to fame, the pot marked landscape a stark reminder of the violent history of Laos. Drawn into the Vietnam War, a secret bombing campaign began which still kills and maims farmers and children today. Bomb craters display a little blue sign simply announcing the gaping hole to be, "Bomb crater during war, 1960-1970." Bomb shells are used as flower pots or mere decoration - in more remote places they hold up houses, are used as troughs or made into bowls, knives and jewelry.
Today Phonovan is more renowned for its proximity to the mysterious Plain of Jars. Thought to be 2000 years old, these jars were carved out of solid stone boulders, explaining the vast array of sizes and shapes. They contain no organic matter so the actual age cannot be verified and their function remains illusive. There are 14 such sites scattered around the Northern provinces. Archaeological investigations have been hampered by the UXO remains. Paths have been cleared to which you must stick!
Feeling adventurous we thought we'd head to the old capital, Muang Khun. Meeting a fellow 'falang' coming towards us we asked if he had come from this town. He wished he had, he told us, but it's restricted. Thinking we'd continue despite these words and prepared to turn back if necessary, we thanked him and headed off along the scenic route. It was a relaxing drive passing only the small villages and waving at the children.
Rounding a bend we arrived on the outskirts of Muang Khun and slowed to a stop at the red and white striped pole that lay across the road. Two men sat in a thatched room to the side of the road. They simply smiled and waved us through. So we proceed along the road that gets progressively busier until we approach a junction. To the left was the town, shops and businesses crammed along the street. To the right lay an asphalt road lined with vegetation. As we neared the fork, a military police man steps out onto the road, stretches his right arm out in front of him, his palm facing towards us. He lifts his left arm to his mouth and gives a shrill blow on his whistle.
We stop the bike.
"Where are you going?"
We explain that we are mere idle tourists out sight-seeing.
"Have you identification?
We produce my passport and a photocopy of Tony's along with the bike receipt.
Immediately the police man's face transforms from stern military man to friendly Laotian.
"Welcome to my country! Only little English. She your girlfriend? Oh! You very good man!"
And with a jolly laugh he indicated the road to our right. He recommended we take that road if we wanted "beautiful" and assured us that we could return to Phonsovan that way. Taking him at his word we began what was to be a long and winding road with spectacular scenery and isolated villages but increasingly deteriorating road surface.
When, 2 hours into our journey, we had no idea where we were and the road had unexpectedly turned to a few inches of sand, we decided it was time to return home the way we had come. We still have no idea where we were - if our map was correct (but the maps aren't great) the road would have split at one stage. The left road would lead around the mountain and finally emerge in Phonsovan but the journey would take longer than a day. The right road leads into the heart of the Restricted Area where no entry is allowed. We don't know if the guy was trying to be funny or helpful!
Feeling tired from our travels we decided to splash out and treat ourselves to a $10 room - definitely the nicest place we have stayed to date. The shower was powerful and hot, the bed comfy with a soft duvet. A bit too comfortable, in fact. Still in bed at 9 the morning we were to leave, the door to the room opens and in walks three women carrying basins of water. They pass us by, heading straight for the bathroom where they leave the water. Then they calmly leave the room, waving to us in the beds. Privacy is not a priority in Asia!