Excerpt: Back from Plain of Jars, my journey goes down route 13, toward Vang Vieng, Nam Ngum reservoir and Vientiane (illustrated with old and new pictures). Then, I bid farewell to Laos and cross to Thailand over the Friendship bridge to Nong Khai. Fourth part of a Laos trip report (1). Back to Nong Khai See also: Part 1 - Crossing the border : An Easy Road to Laos - 1 Crosing the border Part 2 – The Road to Luang-Prabang : An Easy Road to Laos - 2 The Road to Luang Prabang Part 3 – Plain of Jars : An Easy Road to Laos - 3 Plain of Jars The complete photo story can be found at : Picasa Web Albums - Jurgen Chopard - LAOS May 2010... and vintage pictures at: Picasa Web Albums - Jurgen Chopard - Vientiane vin... Vang Vieng When I meet the Mekong river, or when I drive on roads such as route 13, it is like and encounter with an old friend, a reunion with a fellow, somewhere on a journey far from home. My loop to “Plain of Jars” was enjoyable (http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/threads/33573-An-Easy-Road-to-Laos-3-Plain-of-Jars ) but I was enticed to glide further down Laos, from Phou Khoun to the promising Vang Vieng. I have traveled the northern part of route 13 and found it one of the nicest track in the region. Therefore, I was happy to cruise it again. This national highway is the backbone of Laos and far from the agitation that this would mean in a developed country. I followed his meanders, through hills and mountains, passing picturesque villages, secluded markets and delighting in the cheerful laugher of people. Further down the road, the landscape is more and more shaped by karst limestone, drawing a rugged scenery, the forerunner of the fabulous Vang Vieng backdrop. The “Nam Song” gently irrigates the neighborhoods of Vang Vieng and her calm blue waters contrast with a background of dark and irregular limestones. My first exploring stop was on the shore of that river, one of the touristic highlights of the region. A small bridge led me to the west bank were I intended to scout the area near to the karst mountains. As the rainy season was not totally over, and I found the trails too challenging on my ER6. I went back to the city side and rambled around small streets, enjoying the dimming of the lights over Vang Vieng's amazing panorama. The evening in the local hangouts was less exciting. There was no large backpacker crowd during that season, but the image given by the tourists was not always appropriate. Feet were flying high, whilst mini skirts and spaghetti strap tops left nothing open to the imagination of the locals. Laying flat in front of TV screens and drinking what ever available seemed to be the main attraction of the night. I had checked in to “Le Jardin Botanique” guesthouse, a nice slightly remote place, unfortunately without a river view. The 3 beds bungalows have TV (international chains), warm water and a place to park the motorcycle, just in front of the room, everything for 120'000 kips (480 THB) A deafening thunder, reverberated by the surrounding mountains, woke me up in the middle of the night. The rumbling sound was followed by the heavy drumming of a tropical downpour. My Thoughts went to my companion, standing in front of the house, on an uneven gravel ground. I imagined the soil being washed away under her feet. That nightmare drove me into the shower to check the situation and to put a big stone under the motorcycle's kickstand. When I woke up again, early in the morning, everything was in place and I started my journey toward Vientiane, as the remaining morning fog opened to a clear sky. The traffic on route 13 was scarce and the itinerary nicely winding on a good pavement. In Tha Huea, a village famous for timber products and dry fishes, I stopped to get a first glance of Nam Ngum reservoir (Ang Nam Ngum) . Then the road takes his distance from the lake and crosses over Nam Lik river in Hin Hoeup. Nam Ngum lake (route 10) In Phon Hong, I stopped for a drink and left route 13 for the side-road 10 toward Thalat. The small village, whose name translates as “market”, sells a variety of local products, but I did not spot any meat from endangered animals. Maybe I did not look hard enough. Route 10 is a pleasant link with a smooth pavement and many opportunities to take landscape pictures. A short side-loop, in Ban Na Keun, leads to the shore of the Nam Ngum reservoir, the largest artificial lake in Laos. Lodging accommodations are available near the rim of the water, and I liked Long Ngum View Resort (www.longngumview.com) a nice place to unwind. I only stopped for food but made a note to come back and, maybe, spend a day to cruise the lake's islands. As it was a Buddhist holiday, there were no underwater logging activities. On other days, precious timber is harvested from the flooded forest. Fishing is another important occupation for locals. Back to route 10, the journey runs through a couple of hills, then straight through flatland, sometimes following the Nam Ngeun and finally crossing it before entering “Capital City”. Vientiane My first visit to Vientiane was in July 1991 and my last trip was in 1997. I was prepared for some changes but did not expect huge developments or modifications in the overall aspect of the "City of Sandalwood". I found things generally cleaner and dressed in brighter colors. There were more hotels, hangouts and modern cars. Many places were under construction and the Mekong seemed to have taken his distances from the city (particularly in front on Lane Xang hotel). Coming from the North, I met “Patu Xai” as the first landmark and recollected a description in the book “Air America”: “Possibly the most symbolic structure in Vientiane was the Monument aux Morts (now the Patuxai), the Laotian's answer to the Arc de Triomphe. It was erected partly because the Laotians felt they had not built themselves a monument for a long time, partly in the forlorn hope that it would be nice for their victorious army to march through when they won the war, but mostly because the United States had provided a large quantity of cement with the specific purpose of extending the airport runway. It stood in the center of town, a monstrosity, but not without its own charm” (2) When I compare my pictures taken in 1991, with views of the existing building, the differences are mostly in a cleaner and fresher appearance. An with a musical fountain mirroring the arch structure, everything is done to make the place a tourist's must. The traffic had also changed with more vehicles, different in type and colors, running faster on an improved pavement. My second visit was for Pha That Luang, the most revered religious edifice in Laos and a national symbol. The majestic temple has not always been so gilded and shiny. Since my visit in 1991 it has been carefully recolored. A French legacy in Laos is bread, a treat locally called khào ji. In 1991 it was amazing to find loads of baguettes, sold directly along the streets, when in other Asian countries a slice of toast was still a rarity. The facade of Lane Xang hotel has not change a lot. When I was staying there, during my former trips, the choices were limited in the business category. Nowadays various accommodations are available for all type of visitors. I had scheduled a limited time for Vientiane, knowing that I would need a couple of days to really rediscover it and come back for another trip. In addition to the main landmarks, I wanted to return to a romantic neighborhood, a small road somewhere near to the Mekong. My memory had faded out and time has changed the places. I rambled for a while, South of Luang Prabang road, not sure to be in the right corner. Anou cabaret was the only hangout I patronized in 1991, nothing wild at that time. The road leading to the hotel was animated but the traffic different from today's bustling activity. Ekalat hotel (a GTR recommended place) already existed back in 1991. During my previous visits, life near the river had been an attractive backdrop for pictures. Despite construction sites and a low water level, I was keen to approach the river again. There, I bid farewell to the charming Lao people and to the left shore of the Mekong. About twenty kilometers outside Vientiane, the 1174 meter long “Saphan Mittaphab” (Friendship Bridge) took me back to Thailand and to Nong Khai's Muttmee guesthouse, for a laid back evening. I had double checked, at the custom's office, the possibility to enter Laos on my bike. A chat with several officers first harvested a positive answer. As I reiterated my demand, someone finally confirmed that a “Farang” could do it, but not on a Thai registered bike. It seemed that not everyone was well informed, but probably the one putting the stamp would know (situation May 2010).