There isn’t a huge number of restaurant options in Vieng Thong, and so during the roughly 40 hours we spent there (since we decided we deserved a rest day) we actually ate in the same place for 5 consecutive meals, which is a trip record. To begin with we thought it was going to be difficult to entertain ourselves in what was quite clearly a no horse town. We had however spent much of yesterday cycle through one of northern Lao’s national parks, and one thing that was mentioned in the Lonely Planet’s (very brief) entry on the town was that it contained the visitor centre and head quarters of said park.
While at the visitor centre we were lucky enough to bump into an American (Troy) who is tasked with managing the park, and was in town for a meeting with the local park rangers who are supposed to protect the animals (primarily the tigers, over which the park prides itself) and deter poachers. We had a fascinating conversation with Troy, as he highlighted some of the difficulties of trying to protect an animal that the carcass of which can easily make the owner $10,000, even when sold simply at the local market.
By the end we were keeping Troy from his meeting (not something we have had to worry about for sometime) and so we headed off on what we were promised was a very short and very easy hike. It was indeed both short and easy, and was made easier by the fact that the local school maintains the forest as part of an environmental education project, and they had even cut steps into the side of the hill in any of the bits that showed any threat of being in the least bit steep.
At the top of the hill there were some trenches used by varying sides during (what is called here) The America War, and these provided the only evidence we saw to the fact that apparently the whole town was flattened by the Americans during the 60s.
We had been warned by a local man in the visitor centre that we had to be careful when we finished the walk, because if we went the wrong way we would arrive at the back of some hot springs, and therefore wouldn’t have to pay to enter them… We did go the wrong way, and so ended up at the back of the hot springs, and when we went to the desk to try and pay it was a real job trying to get the man at the desk to accept any money. He finally did, but only after filling us a personal hot water plunge pool (then filling us another one because Jess kicked up mud on the bottom of the first). We chilled out in the delightfully hot water for a while, and then on the way out were invited to sit down with the man while he (and his entire family who had also turned up) enjoyed their lunch. We sat down for the moment, but the food they were eating was spicy enough to cause heart palpations, and so we made our excuses and headed back to town.
We bumped into Troy, and a fellow conservationist, at breakfast the next morning (our 5th and final meal at the aforementioned restaurant) and they were able to give us a bit of valuable insight into the potential accommodation options of the upcoming towns.
Yet again the day started with a monster climb (about 15k). We quickly broke out of the clouds, and they formed a carpet below us, stretching across the valley. The climb continued, and we finally stopped for lunch (another sticky rice and fish picnic), although this time a friendly Loatian man saw us sitting by the side of the road and decided to sit with us. To begin with we thought it was a bit strange him sitting by us, chatting away in a language that we couldn’t understand three words of, but he didn’t seem any more interested in sharing our food than we were in sharing his cigarettes, and by the end of our lunch it was a shame to say good bye (not that he understood that either of course).
The people of Northern Laos obviously felt that they had something to celebrate, and every town we passed through seemed to be full of drunken revilers stumbling around. Weird plinky plonky music was coming from at least one house in every one, and people were sat out drinking horrible somethings through long straws out of terracotta urns. Our stop was no exception to this rule, and the karaoke was playing lowdly as we entered the delightful junction town of Poulao.
We cycled toward the centre of the town and were lucky in as much as the first place we asked turned out to be the town guesthouse. As we got off our bikes a man so drunk that he could barely stand stumbled up to us, and (having to use most of his energies simply to focus both eyes on us) half collapsed onto Jess’s bike. Worried that he was going to be sick in our general direction the woman in charge of the guesthouse run out to shoe him away, but not before getting a beer from the fridge which she gave him as he staggered away up the road.
Sam negotiated a room rate, being shown our delightful suit, decorated in the customary corporate calendar wall paper what is all the rage these days in Northern Laos. This place even had an indoor toilet, although the woman made it extremely clear (with all the necessary gestures) that this was not to be used in any circumstances, and instead the out door facilities (which were far to close to the edge of the cliff for Jess’s liking) was the only place one was to relieve ones self.
Jess’s concerns about our current watering hole were heightened further when she realised that in the small plastic tub next to which we had left our bikes were a large number of recently deceased rats, slowly drying in the sun. Sadly, of all the potential food allergies listed in the Lonely Planet phrase book rat was not included, and so there was a real fear that one of these poor critters was going to be on the menu. Fortunately we didn’t have to worry, and the local delicacy of a packet of instant noodles floating forlornly in the middle of a large bowl of boiling water was served up instead. (Half way through our meal a man turned up, staggered into the room where we were eating, and collected the tub of rats, much to the amusement of the other locals there getting drunk.)
When we had gone down to dinner (that makes it sound a lot posher than it was) there was already a group of four local teenagers sitting in the… lets call it the restaurant… trying in vain to focus on a karaoke video that the landlady (who we swear was the only person in town not completely trollied) had sat them down in front of. Sam’s best attempts at asking where dinner could be found failed to solicit even an acknowledgement of his existence from the group. However half way through dinner they all decided that enough was enough, the karaoke video went off, and they all got on their mopeds and drove off.
We would have already been kept awake buy the noise of the distant karaoke penetrating the wafer thin walls of our guesthouse, had it not even been for the reappearance of these teenagers at about midnight. They mopeded up the building, two of them copulated for a short while in the room next to us (separated only by a wall that would have been better suited to the job of kitchen towel it was so thin) and then they mopeded away again… the landlady them came up to change their sheets and (thank god for small mercies) that was the last we heard of them.
Most of the other towns we have cycled through had not had a permanent electricity supply, the town of Poulao however was lucky enough to be part of a “Northern Province Rural Electrification Project”. This means that in this fortunate town the karaoke never stops, and the light in the bedroom never goes out…
The sun eventually rose, and the karaoke was still going on. We scrounged together some breakfast, found someone to buy some sticky rise from and were very keen to get out of this town as quickly as we could, passing on our way the building from which the music was emanating… apparently deserted…
All that mattered to us was to get out of Poulao, and we hadn’t even given that much thought to where we were going. Sam Neua (the relatively large provincial capital) was still 91km away, over seriously mountainous terrain and so getting that far seemed like an insurmountable challenge. We had been told by the Americans in Vieng Thong that there was a town near some standing stones where the locals had been “trained in guest house”… and then a local in Poulao had confidently slerde that there was somewhere to sleep in a town called (something like) celery… somewhere along the road. We were however so tired after the toxic combination of hills and karaoke that Jess was beginning to canvas hard for the notion of getting a lift. For the moment though we simply pushed on and decided to see how far we could get.
The road wiggled through a mess of hills and hidden valleys, dropping down along rivers, winding through Shangri La style towns and then climbing back up again. Progress to begin with was very slow, and by midday we had barely done more than 30k. Things were looking pretty bleak, and although Sam was seriously unkeen on flagging a lift, even he was beginning to admit that it looked like we might not have an option.
There was however a bit of a let up after this, and the road settled down, sinking into a river valley where it seemed content to stay for a while. We started to speed up and it was only 13:30 when we reached the town of Sallery about 50k in. There was indeed a sign here proclaiming that this town had a homestay, and for a while we ummed and ard about whether to stay here or to push on and try our luck for Sam Neua, slowly we were begging to think might be possible. You can say what you like about self belief, and the confidence we had in our selves at being about to push on the rest of the way, but what it really boiled down to was the soul destroying thought of another night eating instant noodles in a cardboard room with karaoke ringing in out ears that finally convinced us to continue on.
The challenge was not over yet, we went through one more valley based town (where every single house had hanging outside it a number of dead squirrels, hoisted up by a bit of string from a post… we didn’t stop) and then it was back into the hills. Starting with one or two rollers, then hitting us with some really sharp climbs. Another ten k and we were excited to see not only another waterfall (our first for a while), but next to it a proper, fully fledged restaurant! Conclusive proof that were were getting back in “civilisation”. We had already wolfed down our sticky rice and fish, so didn’t spot, but it was still nice to see.
By early evening the up and down had solidified into one long up and we climbed for a long time going right up onto a huge semicircular ridge. The ridge and road swung round to the right giving up a brilliant view back over the mountain range through which we had just picked our way. By this time we knew we had done it, as it was down hill all the way. The sun was clipping the mountain tops as we rolled our way into the town, having completed what was far and away the toughest day, having climb (according to the GPS) a sum total of 2500m.
One reason we had been so keen to get to Sam Neua was because the Lonely Planet promised us it had an India restaurant. This was of course a lie, and so we ended up having rise in (what appeared to be) the only restaurant in town with the surprisingly large number of other tourists that seemed to have found there way here…
Day 1 – Vieng Thong to Poulao
Day 1 – Poulao to Sam Neua