thomas m wilson

Laos, The Road North

December 13th, 2014




Got scooter but don’t want to drive it 12 hours north?  Not a problem.  We’ll get a couple of the guys from out back. Laotian ingenuity and cheerful disregard for health and safety are soon on display (why is that girl standing under the scooter?!).


Vang Vieng is the first stop on the main road north out of the capital.  Its a scruffy gold-rush-town esque place, full of hastily put together back-packer shop fronts. Its not a beautiful town, but the backdrop of towering karst peaks on the other side of a wide and fast flowing river does redeem it.







On a morning’s caving expedition I and a friend walked through the Laotian countryside, through a small village redolent of cow dung, enlivened by chicken cackle and errant toddlers, and further, through a winding path over the valley floor. The bird song and the gentle sunshine put us at our ease. The peaks towered above us, and we both agreed that the serenity of this green and fertile place was worth the trip so far. 

When we approached our last cave of the day there was a river flowing out of the mountain side and we entered by floating in wearing only our boardshorts and a headtorch. Minutes later there we were, floating in the gloom, with humid air flowing over our skin, and cool water flowing over our legs. The light from head torches bounced and glanced off the dark ceiling of stone above us. Voices echoed down the tunnel. Humans are land-based mammals, and here we were floating in the fast flowing waters hundreds of metres underneath a mountain. We were, essentially, in an alternate reality. Our brains were not accustomed to such surroundings and there was the delicious pleasure of the unfamilar in the experience. After paddling in the dimness for a while I parked my black rubber tube, and continued on foot down a passageway by myself. I turned the light off. The passageway had branched back towards the river. I stopped, sat down and listened to the faint hiss and bubble of the stream further down the black passage.  I clambered on all fours over the stones through a small hole and back into the main river tunnel. Floating back out I realized that this was one of the most enjoyable bits of ‘paleo’-style fitness I’d ever done.

Later that day we took canoes 20kms up the river and came down to Vang Vieng through some light rapids. The towering limestone crags encrusted in fecund vegetation, the evening light like mercury floating beneath us on the powerful current of the Nam Song, the gentle warm air on the skin, the effortless forward flow of our little procession… the whole experience let me imagine what it would have been like to be in central south-east Asia centuries ago and go on a pilgrimage or adventure through the world, it was travel in a way I had not experienced before. The experience was addictive with its immensity of calm and beauty. We stopped at one point in a nook of the river, where it cut in slightly and there was a small wooden bungalow surrounded by tall groves of bamboo, coverd in thatch, backlight by the evening sun and a sillouetted horizon of jagged and painterly peaks. This was truly the world of the Mountains and Rivers school of ancient Chinese poetry. Here it would not be out of place for Han Shan to wander with a staff, perhaps settling himself comfortably on a boulder besides the waters to compose one of his masterful short nature poems.

Anyway, back to the road North.





Village life en route to Luang Prabang…

The road was virtually empty of vehicles. It traversed through the centre of several small villages, complete with a menagerie of chickens, chicks, pigs and piglets, babies and children, axes and firewood, chilli and rice drying in the sun, thatched huts and bicycles.




And finally, a bum-numbing day later, we arrived at Laos’ ancient northern capital.




Immediately the colonial heritage of the French was evident in the tropical-French architecture from the nineteenth century, white and shuttered two storied houses cheek by jowl on elegantly laid out streets. Many of them these days inhabited by sophisticated restos and galleries. We sat in a river-side outdoors cafe  and a quick Beer Lao was ordered as the sun set over the Mekong to our left.  The mighty and muddy waters of this artery of Asia rolled swiftly along, with twilight gilding the water surface and jungle-clad hills lying distant on the opposite bank. Clearly one of the nicer towns in Asia.





This sounds like a boringly touristy kind of thing to do, but we took a cooking class at The Bamboo Tree, a great place to eat on the river in the old quarter.






Linda (above) introduced us to the essentials of the national cuisine.  I recommend the class – they’ve only been opened six months and it was excellent.  I’m going to start cooking with more fresh ginger, galagal, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, lime, fish sauce, oyster sauces, kaffir lime leaves, tamarind sauce and chilli when I return to Perth, that’s for sure.




Of course we spent a morning watching the monk’s collect alms at sunrise.  We were staying a bit out of town so there were no other camera clicking tourists to detract from the experience.  As the monks processed in a line in the morning’s silence, the sibilant swish and slide of a dozen bare feet passing over the ground was all you could hear.  Sorry, no photos, but here’s a shot of the monks fixing up the temple.