Excerpt: Vieng Xai’s caves, the former Pathet Lao hide, were my Sam Nuea’s loop apex.
After my visit, I took the mountainous way back, over Vieng Thong, Nong Khiew and Luang Namtha. A great ride for forest and curves lovers.
Northeast Laos – Sam Nuea loop
Part 2 – Sam Nuea and a Winding Drive Back
First part – Luang Prabang and mountain roads:
My other trip reports about Laos (see note 8.)
1. Sam Nuea and Vieng Xai
My only information about Sam Nuea (1), came from Lonely Planet’s last edition. Viewed from the sky, the city might not have changed a lot in two years, but for the traveler's daily life, some recommendations in the guide were no longer accurate.
The good news is the availability of an ATM machine, accepting foreign cards. On the negative side, my quest for “Salabeer Anny” ended nowhere and the highly recommended “Indian Restaurant” had disappeared. I took solace in “Chittavanh” place for a coffee and switched for dinner to “Danaomuang”, a simple “box type” hangout, patronized by a handful of customers; it became my main eatery in town, as it also provides rustic breakfasts with coffee.
After dinner, as others headed to “Happy Nightclub”, I constrained my exploratory mood and returned to “Sam Nuea Hotel”, enjoying wifi and unwinding from the eight hours meandering roads from Ponsavanh.
(Sam Nuea Hotel - 150’000 kip per night without breakfast - has no restaurant, but wifi connections in the rooms)
A seasonal veil of haze draped the morning landscape, and I took a short walk to my breakfast place at “Danaomuang”. After gobbling some fried eggs, I was set to climb the east hill, on Route 6.
Vieng Xai was my Laos loop’s enthralling apex, and I was looking forward to arrive in the former Pathet Lao hide. I did not expect administrative harassment, as the caves are now widely promoted as a tourist attraction but still remembered, Christopher Kremmer’s words in his book, “Stalking the Elephant Kings”(7):
“... Colin had been to Viengsai the previous day, but was unable to get into any of the caves for obscure bureaucratic reasons. … The week before, the representative of a well-established travel guide had been turned away as well, this time by officials, who refused to show him the caves. Earlier, a British backpacker who'd made his own way to Viengsai had been arrested and held for a week after trying to enter an unmarked cave …”
Kremmer wrote this in 1997, and I pondered that Laos’ tourism is now on strong trails and even “solo bikers” would no longer be considered with suspicion.
Whilst climbing the mountain road, the meteorology became my immediate concern. After dull and cold winter days, I expected dry weather, leaving my waterproof gear in the hotel. When the fog changed into drizzle, my only choice was to drive on to destination. Fortunately, the rain remained moderate and my inner clothing was still dry upon arrival.
Despite the poor weather conditions, the landscape en route to Vieng Xai is stunning. Karst limestones punctuate a cultivated valley, cut by a well paved trail. A couple of villages, a branchout toward Sop Bao - a feared district - and the destination is reached in forty minutes.
At eight thirty, I arrived at the “Caves Visitors Centre”, intending to join the nine o’clock guided morning tour. First, I seemed out of luck. The Vice Prime Minister, after inaugurating a temple in Sam Nuea the day before, had announced his call to the compound. If ever, my own visit could only start in the afternoon, leaving a bleak perspective of many hours to hang around. I looked disappointed, and the officials found a way to let me start my peregrination, with the usual local guide’s company (fees 60'000 kip).
The caves circuit is too long for a convenient walk. Visitors without transportation can rent bicycles, but with my own wheels, I was all set. My mentor jumped on a “Honda” showing me the way. I also began to listen to the audio system provided by the “Visitor Centre”, which plays recorded tour comments. I was pleased with the balanced historical descriptions, despite the grave tone used to quote crude and often harsh facts (audio samples are available online )
My first stop was at Kaysone Phomvihane's cave. Leader of the struggle, he established the Pathet Lao headquarters in Viengxay and became LPDR’s first Prime Minister. His hideout hosted the meeting room for the Politburo. Pictures of the 7 members are displayed at their former places, around the table.
Lined up like white skeletons, the garden was filled with naked dok champa trees (frangipani), Laos' national flower (leelawadee in Thailand). In blooming season this changes to a colourful and fragrant show.
Bombing over Vieng Xai started on 17 may 1964 [my anniversary day ]. A nine years’ period of heavy metallic downpour followed, permanently shacking this picturesque limestone landscape.
Across the road is Nouhak Phoumsavan's cave, he became President between 1992 and 1998. His garden is punctuated by a large crater carpeted by grass.
“Under constant bombardment” - a panel reminds about General LeMay’s infamous intentions:
"they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age” (3)
The next compound on the guided tour is Prince Souphannouvon's (the Red Prince) place. During the war, opponents assassinated his son who's remains are kept under a small stupa.
Prince Souphannouvong became the country's first President when the PDR was established. He remained in post until he died in 1995.
This is how Christopher Kremmer described his visit in « Bamboo Palace »(4) :
“The first thing we saw at the cave site was a large cream and lemon-coloured villa built for the prince after the Paris peace accords ended US bombing in 1973. The building, and a garden of poinsettias and pomelo trees, had been laid out around a former bomb crater … revealed a stupa Souphanouvong had build to entomb the ashes of his eldest son, Arya, who'd been assassinated in1973”
Protected by a concrete wall, the cave's entrance is perched ten meters above the ground. It also host a emergency bunker with metal doors and an electric pump.
An open balcony overlooking the ravine hosts the kitchen catering for the Prince's large family.
General Khamtay Siphandone 's was the military commander and his cave is a large complex of interconnected military hidings.
Abrupt stairs give access to the artillery cave. Its panoramic view provides an ideal location for FLAK batteries defending the region.
Suddenly I heard an helicopter’s « thump-thump » noise that seemed real and did not come out of my audio system; the Vice Prime Minister had arrived, not to visit the caves but for a wedding lunch.
Xanglot is a large natural cave, big enough to shelter important venues, entertainments (theatre, movies), wedding parties and large meetings. The theatre setup could accept 500 people.
Vieng Xai's historic significance gives a particular aura to its grottos. In these hollows, 20'000 people took shelter during nearly a decade, spending most of the days in hiding and cultivating their fields during the nights. The recorded audio comments are informative, without exaggerated propaganda and my guide for the visit was friendly and communicative. He was only thirty years old and from a generation born after the bombings.
A small artificial lake mirrors impressive karst boulders; on his shore, a restaurant was the venue for the official wedding party, off limit to me. As the dull overcast did not provide the best light for landscape pictures, I went on, looking for other subjects to put in my box.
At the periphery of the city I found a small Hmong settlement with joyous kids playing. It was an amusing moment, leaving me with a sense of hope before my departure from the region.
More limestones, amazing natural sculptures, undulating landscapes, mature rice fields, despite the light’s greyness, the return trip on Route 6 was agreeable.
The Lao Tourism Administration is fostering Vieng Xai’s promotion, placing it on the level of the Cù Chi tunnels. Sam Nuea, however, is not Saigon. Few flights connect the Houa Phan capital to Vientiane and they are usually full. As for the road link, the long, uncertain and backbreaking journey from Luang Prabang holds many tourists away. On the other hand, the happy few visiting the region might appreciate it even more.
For dinner, I patronized a restaurant west of the Sam Keo Lak monument. The grilled chicken was so chewy that I rapidly gave up the chore to swallow it. Then, I headed back to my usual “Danaomuang” restaurant were I enjoyed another beer and some French fries.
It was another dull and overcast morning, but I had reserved the day to discover Sam Nuea and did not care so much about the weather.
Walking around the morning market and the central guest house road, I tried to sense how the city might have changed in recent times. In her book, published in the year 2000, Dervla Murphy makes the following comment (5):
“Despite forewarning about Houaphanh's reputation – 'Laos's most beautiful but least friendly province' – I was slightly taken aback, on that first day, by some of the local's reactions. Often my greetings evoked only hard, suspicious stares – or were ignored.”
A decade later I did not get the same impression. People were as communicative as possible. It is true, however, that in some cases they babble only four English words: “ I do not know”; for the rest, such folks usually speak Vietnamese.
The region is well known for quality weavings and I assumed that a handicraft centre would showcase people working on looms and a textile collection. The information from the tourism office was evasive and, eventually, after calling at various places, I found a friendly family working at home. Mrs Mi, a twenty-one years old Khmu girl, living alone with her mother, spent time to show me her craft.
Hills boarding the city are good locations to shot panoramic views, and I went up and down a couple of times. One small mount, crowned by a big building, on the east city’s outskirts, seemed particularly promising. Passing an arch I began to climb the road when a furious and well armed guard shouted at me: What you here! Turn right! I got the message and remembered that some places are off limits, but frankly, not more than anywhere else. Few countries would allow unauthorized bikers to just drive through a military compound.
Christoph Kremmer, in “Bamboo Palace” (4), describes Houa Phan’s religious environment:
“If you are tired of seeing monks in Laos, go to Xam Nua. I hadn't encountered a bonze since arriving, although the drab street would have benefited from their dazzling orange robes.”
This remains true, even so Buddhism was never banned in communist Laos, but rather integrated in the political system. Funding religious buildings and support to the monks community were, nevertheless, discouraged and restraint.
With temples built and renovated, even in small villages, religion is now gaining ground again. For many years, the only temple in the city was Wat Phoxaysanalam. The day before my visit, the Vice Prime Minister inaugurated a place of worship on a hill commanding a panoramic view over the valley.
On the main road, in direction of Phonsavan, the traffic has to turn around a curious “Jewel Monument” (Keo Lak Meung) commemorating the revolutionary people’s determination. The colorful bus station is located further up the hill. It is another vantage point for a panoramic view of the city.
As the afternoon ends, children of all ages animate the streets, hurrying back from school.
It was time for me to call it a day and to relax in my favorite eatery cum “Beer Lao”. Exchanging information and stories with other travellers, or people on assignment in the region, is the most valuable evening entertainment in Sam Nuea. There is always something to learn from others’ life experiences.
It is monotonous to repeat bleak meteorological comments every morning, but, despite some light shades, dense fog covered again the valley. There would be few stops on my day’s itinerary and I filled my stomach with some toasts, omelettes and Lao coffee.
Shortly before seven o’clock, I was on my way, climbing Route 6 toward the South. A last glimpse back, the smile of Hmong girls walking to school and I left Sam Nuea with no plan to be back soon; something different, however, was secretly maturing in my travel dreams.
Slowly I poked through the curtain of mist to a fairy tale scenery. Under an overcast sky, vaporous silver clouds were hanging on the mountain’s flank, hiding the valley under an Ocean of cotton. I stopped several times, unable however to properly capture this delicate atmosphere on my camera's sensor.
Progressively the Anamite Chain became darker, the fog thicker and I struggled for visibility to circle potholes and to watch out for lorries cutting the hairpin bends. Local buses often horn in curves, but trucks appropriate the entire tarmac, leaving at best a narrow gravel stretch for bikers. Fortunately the traffic was low and encounters infrequent.
Drizzle began to darken the asphalt and when the downpour became persistent, I had to use my waterproof gears and put my box into hiding.
When I reached Phou Lao intersection, the rain had stopped but fog still hindered the visibility. Driving toward the North, I took Route 1C, the link to Nong Khiew through Vieng Thong. Contrasting with the drab mist, a Mexican sunflowers’ ribbon gave a festive mood to this trail.
Mountain roads in Laos cut trough many villages and, along this itinerary, most are populated with Hmong or Khmu people. The cheering kids of these folks are keen to "high five" with foreigners on bikes.
A large bridge crosses the Neun river (Nam Neun), this is a good place to stop for a panoramic view, and to observe people ambling along the road.
When I pass the lovely hamlets punctuating the way, I am always tempted to stop, to meet the people and to take pictures. With the number of settlements along this road, my breaks are only random, or triggered by cheering kids running toward me, as in „Home Phan“ village.
My progression toward Vieng Thong was at a good pace and I had enough time to dawdle. My next stop was in “Hong” village, a Khmu settlement with colorful painted houses and lovely people flocking the street.
“We are proud to have tigers” this statement is written on a panel, at Xieng Kouang province’s border. The same evening, in Vieng Thong, I met a foreigner on a three month assignment to study Nam Et Protected Area’s feline population. He confirmed the existence of some of the last big cats of Laos.
This place also marked Vieng Thong district’s beginning, and a road stone indicated "Oudom Xai, 300 kilometers”.
After a last picture stop in a Hmong hamlet, I reached my day's destination.
Vieng Thong's lodging scene is limited. Four guest houses partake of the meagre visitors’ population, but three belong to the same owner. I checked in to Souksakhone III (former Dok Khoun Thong Guesthouse) slightly set back from the main road. It affords a panoramic view over a rice field patchwork, irrigated by the Khan river.
Electricity was down in the village and the perspective of a shower was chilling. My host advised me to head to the hot springs, where I could enjoy a free dip. I found a dilapidated pond covered with tiny bubbles and evanescent fumes, nothing engaging for a swim.
My arrival had disturbed a group of kids running for their clothes and rushing away. I was sorry to trouble their collective soaking, as I did not use the open air shower pipes.
In the town’s centre, a dry market is flanked by a morning fresh market. Basic commodities are traded there, mixing brands from China, Vietnam and Thailand. As the clientele is sparse, the mood is relaxed and sales people have time to attend to their offspring.
Less than a kilometre away, in the next village, Khmu people sell fresh gathering on the pavement, in a makeshift afternoon market.
On my way back I enjoyed the sight of the young generation pedalling back from school. Their nonchalant displacement, the girls’ colourful umbrella undulations and a joyous mood brings life to an usually empty main street.
Only “Tontavahn eatery” apparently offers food for dinner; and the alternative to patronize it or starve was an easy choice. Most visitors do the same and the evenings are spent exchanging travel stories. Frequent “horror” sagas relate bus reliability. After long waiting times for reparation and hours of delay, peoples arrive exhausted, in the middle of the night, and in remote bus stations without access to lodgings.
The distance from Sam Nuea to Vieng Thong is 147 km (I covered it in 5 hours)
Winding roads to Nong Kiew
During this season and at this altitude, mornings are cold. After a nourishing breakfast of fried eggs, sticky rice and Nescafé, I covered my mesh gear with a nylon layer and savored an early departure on Route 1C, toward Nong Khiew.
Mist lingered around the way but blue patches also poked out of the grey cover; it was a fresh and agreeable environment for a ride. Progressively, however, the fog became thicker and finally rain surprised me again. With my camera in hiding, I progressed through mountains covered with pristine forests, rolling up and down winding curves, jumping from valley to valley, from river to river.
No cars or lorries were on this road during my trip’s first 45 kilometres. I only crossed kids, racing downhill on bicycles, to rush to school; a hazard as they do not expect to share the slope with other users and are dangerously zigzagging on gravel pavements.
Despite the low traffic, this Route is not deserted; domestic animals amble to and fro whilst people in hamlets run errands or use the pavement for all type of activities.
Averting to scratch poultry and small black pigs is sheer luck; and luck also protected a roster who only left his tail feathers under my tires.
In Nong Khiew, the high season was nearing its peak and tourists already flocked the place, filling most guesthouses. I was lucky to find a rustic bungalow, charging half of my usual shack; an adequate choice just for a night sleep.
In an impressive dark limestone theatre, the placid Ou river meanders along simple villages, linked by an imposing bridge. Despite similarities with Vang Vieng, this region has none of its nuisances.
From the friendly CT restaurant’s terrace, I admired a spectacular sunset. When cloud banks curtain the horizon, they reflect the light’s full shades, stretching the dawn over hours.
It was a lazy evening, with dinner, Lao Beer and the now ubiquitous wifi connections.
“Lock in please when you sleep”, this warning had recently been handwritten on the door. Apparently, a “Falang” got a burglar’s visit in his bungalow whilst he was asleep. The other information, on the same panel, are also to be taken seriously … and I tried to respect the “regulation for acting austene”.
The distance from Vieng Thong to Nong Kiew is 162 km.
CT restaurant opens early for breakfast, and I left Nong Khiew at seven o'clock, poking through a veil of mist. Blue strips, however, were illuminating the horizon, promising signs of a beautiful day.
A half an hour trip, and I had covered the smooth thirty kilometres to Pak Mong and to the intersection with Route 13.
The following hours, on a mostly destroyed pavement, were less pleasant. I pushed my Versys harder and was satisfied with her ability to digest the crap, as long as I circled around the steepest potholes.
When I passed the Hmong village “Ban Lakhasip”, it was full of playing children, an opportunity to call for a chat and pictures. The kids should be at school, but the classrooms are far away and no teachers were available these days.
Elder people rejoiced to see my bike's Chiangmai matriculation, saying that many Hmongs leave there. This hamlet has 20 houses and 147 habitants whose main occupation is to cultivate dry mountain rice and vegetables.
Route 13 goes on - as do the destructions on the pavement - for another fifty kilometres. The total journey, from Nong Khiew, takes about three hours for 110 kilometres. When I eventually reached Oudom Xai's centre, I washed down the road’s dust in my throat with a second breakfast at “Siso Bakery” (a GT-Rider recommendation).
After Oudom Xai, the renovated Route 13 deserves a special appreciation. It is spotless and particularly enjoyable when compared with the erratic jumps on the way up from Pak Mong.
Two pictures, taken on the same sector in 2010, show the improvements’ level on this trail.
When I spotted young girls playing with elastics along the road, I said: “jump”! This triggered an hilarious game of bouncing dolls.
Further down the way, I shortly stopped in another Hmong village, taking again some kids’ pictures.
Suddenly, down below the road’s side, I spotted two boys capturing a strange animal. It was a bamboo rat, as described in Dervla Murphy’s book, “One Foot in Laos”(6):
“… a fat, dark grey, coarse-coated animal about eighteen inches long hanging from a vine snare around the neck. Desperately it struggled, its four paws with strong claws kicking in the air. It had a blunt nose, small ears, a shortish tail, rodent teeth.”
Their parents were having lunch at the same place, and the answer was enthusiastic and positive when I suggested that the beast would soon end up in a pot!
Route 13, after Oudom Xai, is now a bikers' treat till its last stretch, Na Theuy's intersection with Route 13B. Only antic and unreadable tombstones reminded about the old trail (in the meantime they are also gone, replaced with shiny new markers).
There was another spectacular lorry accident on route 13B, they seem frequent on the link between China and Thailand.
In Luang Namtha, I checked in again to “Manychan Restaurant and Guesthouse”.
3 Luang Namtha and back home
Leaving « Manychan » without breakfast is impossible; foreign style meals are gorgeous and the coffee makes me fit for the whole day. Dark morning fog was an additional reason to delay my departure.
When I began to climb the mountain toward Nam Ha Natioanl Park, the mist still lingered on the road. Luang Namtha had been the coldest place along my entire Northeast Laos itinerary.
“Ban Sing” is a friendly Khmu village where I stopped to join people congregated around small fires, on a central place. I chatted and laughed with them, taking pictures and absorbing the burning wood’s and genuine welcome’s warmness.
This gratifying moment strengthened my intention to be on this road again, as soon as possible.
For his first 120 kilometres, Route 3 has an excellent asphalt pavement.
The last segment has undergone heavy reparations in the last years. During this trip some sectors were still bumpy and dusty, but the whole itinerary is now totally renovated.
Noon is not an ideal arrival time to cross the border in Houei Xai. Custom officers tend to go out for lunch, and the ferry is waiting for a complete vehicles’ load.
It was the 11th November 2011, at 11:11 and many people were watching TV to follow the official opening of the third Friendship Bridge over the Mekong, from Nakhon Phanom to Thakhek. That day, I needed about three hours to start the cruise toward Chiang Khong.
Chilling down in Tammila guest house, I bid farewell to Laos with the firm commitment to drive back very soon and to meet these friendly people again.
Total roundtrip from Chiangmai, 2555 kilometers
Comprehensive pictures location:
(1) « Sam Nuea »: usually I use the transliteration found in the GT-Rider maps, as many readers are familiar with these documents. For Sam Nuea, I made an exception as this new writing frequently replaces the French origin’s “X” (Xam Nuea).
(3) Evidence of LeMay's thinking is that in his 1965 autobiography, co-written with MacKinlay Kantor, LeMay is quoted as saying his response to North Vietnam would be to demand that "they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age. And we would shove them back into the Stone Age with Air power or Naval power—not with ground forces." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curtis_LeMay
(4) Bamboo Palace
Silkworm Books, 2003
(5) Ant Egg Soup
Natacha du Pont de Bie
Holder and stoughton, 2004
(6) One Foot in Laos
(7) Stalking the Elephant Kings
Alan & Unwin 1997
(8.) References to my other Laos trip reports. All suitable for road bikes and “solo” driving:
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Next Northeast Laos trip report: Part 3 - Epilogue
The complete trip report: Northeast Laos – Sam Nuea loop
Part 1 – Luang Prabang and mountain roads
11 From Nan to Oudomxai…
12 Royal Luang Prabang
13 Mountain roads to Sam Nuea
Part 2 – Sam Nuea and a winding drive back
21 Sam Nuea and Vieng Xai
22 Winding roads to Nong Kiew
23 Luang Namtha and back home