Laos ADV Pt II, Vieng Thong/Vieng Xai/Xam Neua

Apr 18, 2007
Day 2 Vieng Thong to Vieng Xai


Vieng Thong to Vieng Xai on the map it looked an easy 180kms on the map, but along with atrocious weather
and narrow switchback roads this proved to be a tough going day.
Woken up a few minutes before 6am by tannoy from the local gendarmerie broadcasting the news to all & sundry.
Further sleep was not possible, but I rolled over and dozed stuffing a pillow over my head.
Outside a steady rain was falling.


Dad finally got me up at 0730 – later than planned.
Thongkhoun had got our bikes out and oiled our chains – what a great guy!


We returned to the fly-blown restaurant again – but grilled frogs or insects didn’t appeal.
Dad & I had sticky rice, cookies – coffee for Dad – and M-150 for me!

Bought a waterproof blue poncho that was designed for riding scooters as you could put it over the headlight.

Dad demanded they find another as he wasn’t going to wear baby pink, muttering something about mythical GT Rider,
Tropical Johno.
They found a purple one – Dad still muttering something about gear styled by Tropical Johno!

0845 set off after filling up – my bike using two litres of fuel more than Dad’s over the last few kilometres.

Rain falling steadily but unlike my fellow bikers, I thought it would soon lift and left without putting the poncho on.
Within 5 minutes I was soaked and I had to admit to Dad that he was right. GRRRR!
We cut the ponchos down to a midi waist-size.

Road to join the Route 6 was better but with the incessant rain and the shale covered tarmac made riding very tricky.
Corners and descent had to be in low gear as the rain grew the bike would step out on corners where the shale was thick.

Helmet misting up and as the cloud closed in making visibility a real issues – down to 20metres at times.
I soon found that following the back wheel of our guide was the answer, mirroring his actions.
The rain runoff was foaming white down the side drainage ditches.
Those clouds we had seen yesterday afternoon, were the beginnings of a cyclone blowing through northern Laos from Vietnam.
We were fortunate as we rode around the periphery of its fury.
Elsewhere villages were flooded.

We had acquired another rider from Vieng Thong who was going to Xam Neua to sell his bike, where he would get a better price.
Riding in a sodden jacket, with a plastic bucket of a helmet and flip-flop sandals he made us feel horribly over-dressed.
His tyres were bald and yet he was keeping up with us in the twisties.
Dad was keeping up today having cast aside his Bavarian Bus riding style and was having to work the Baja’s revvy little gearbox.
When we reached Rout 6 we turned south for respite in the coffee houses of Nam Neun.


Thongkhoun ordered turtle soup we had freshly grilled Moo and boiled eggs – DELICIOUS! And another M-150.
On the wall was a 3D menu board with bugs and turtles stuck to it.

Not very appetising for farangs.
Meanwhile the rain had returned.

It was just after twelve, when we topped up with fuel and rolled out North.
The rain had eased off again; but we soon regained the cloud base when we reached the mountain ridge crest.

At the 75km post to Xam Neua the twisties began again, hairpin switchbacks
with 200 metre drop-offs with no hard shoulder for a safety margin.
This required concentration – Dad was quite short with me
when I asked if I he minded my using my iPOD to keep alert.


I Want My iPOD!
The road though relatively quiet still had pick-ups, trucks and busses not to mention a smattering of scooters.
Butterfly strikes were an explosion of powdered colour,
leaving their imprint on my visor like a paintball splat.

The rain had dampened our enthusiasm for visiting the standing stones,
which were off the main road some 6kms down a rocky muddy road.
By now my boots had gained a deep end of water and my toes were doing fin-kicks to stay afloat.

We rolled into Xam Neua at 2.45pm, a large town nestling in the green hills.

The Hammer & Sickle upside down - a sign of distress?
In town, set back on the wide boulevards were hideous examples of soviet architecture a visual scar on a fast growing town.

Once in Xam Neua I discovered an awesome bridge that could be used as a small ramp for “small jumps”.
I got some AIR!


A quick coffee[Another M-150 for me] break before we rode the last 30kms to Vieng Xai,

The weather had changed for the better and so had the scenery.
Having crossed the mountain range we had descended to a beautiful landscape of intense fluorescent green paddyfields
punctuated with dramatic rocky karsks.

In this stunningly beautiful setting the Pathet Lao had held out against persistent B52 airstrikes
hidden in their bunkers dug deep into the large karsk rocky outcrops around.
Now the town is a haven of tranquility, that has become a museum to the Laoation communists' struggle against
the US backed kingdom.
Outside the main graffiti covered auditorium is a gold painted statue extolling the courageous victories of the soldiers,
farmers & peasants stamping on a bomb marked USA.


We rode out to the Thavisay Hotel nestling at the foot of one of the most striking mountain karsks beside a beautiful lake.
This was one of the last places the Lao King & Queen were seen alive in 1975.

A seminar was taking place and the reception staff, were only able to offer us two rooms.
I went to look at them with Dad, and it was clear that the hotel was running purely on the business from
its owners – the Laos Government.

The beds looked barely made, the plumbing was run through open holes in the floor, windows were boarded up
and doors partially repaired with plywood.
Dad muttered something about being worse than a Marseilles flop-house – whatever that might mean?
It was not a very enticing option for what we originally had planned as a two night stay.

We ended up at the Naxay GH Resort a newly built operation of individual cabins opposite the caves' Visitor Centre.

Something about interior décor by TJ – who is this guy?

Dinner at a Chinese owned restaurant the Xailomyen GH by one of the many man-made lakes,
which also has a flourishing fish farm.

Great location, but not a culinary experience that I could recommend.
Afterwards Dad I watched the end of Die Hard 4 and then bed.

KMs today Vieng Thong 67, Nam Neun 62, 45, Xam Neua 22 Vieng Xai - Total 196

Lessons Learned
Ride within visibility & weather conditions
Wear appropriate gear
Don’t ride through water-filled potholes
– they are deeper than you think!
Apr 18, 2007
Day 3 Vieng Xai & Xam Neua

We awoke to sunshine – though our boots were still soggy from the day before.

There was no rush today.
A leisurely start so we rode gently through town

– we were the only vehicles - over to have breakfast at the lakeside restaurant beside the Thavisay Hotel.

Again the location and the view over the lake was stunning.

But it was sobering thought to think that Vieng Xai’s numerous landscaped lakes were dug
from the enforced efforts of political prisoners.

We were given a menu, but only omelette was available.
Thongkhoun had fried crickets, or “singers in the ground” as he called them.

“What are they like?”
“Like worms.”
“What are worms like?”
“Like crickets.”

We had found the zenith of Laos cuisine.

Nearby an army officer and local apparatchiks were quaffing Beer Lao.
It was not quite 9am.

Passing by the District Office a Lao UXO demining team were checking the ground beneath
the municipal windows.

A drainage pipe needed to be laid and the ground needed to be rechecked.

After breakfast we joined our guide who took us to the caves.
Vieng Xai was the cradle of Laos independence.
Having been forced from the Plain of Jars the Pathet Lao dug in at Vieng Xai and sat out years
of bombing nestled in tunnels burrowed into the striking karsk formations

Here was the underground command centre of the Pathet Laos.
Whatever political view you may hold it is hard not to be impressed by the determination and
industry that went into creating such labyrinthine underground fortresses.

Each politburo member had his own cave system with outside residence.

These were for sleeping in during the night and then
underground during the day safely hidden from the B-52 Rolling Thunder strikes.

In 1973 with the ceasefire the Pathet Lao emerged like moles, from their deep dugouts and began turning
their wartime capital into a people’s paradise – albeit for only the party’s chosen people.
The leaders’ houses were later extensively remodelled after the 1973 moratorium on bombing.

I have just finished studying the Vietnam War at college.
But Laos had hardly featured in the text books.
So it was staggering to read in my western published guidebook, that Laos was hit by 580,000 B52 sorties
– each aircraft capable of discharging one hundred 500lb bombs.

Both Vietnamese and the US signed a 1962 Geneva Accord, prohibiting military activity in Laos.
Both sides broke this agreement: the Vietnamese by building the Ho Chi Minh trail through Laos
and the US by trying to bomb it out of existence.

More bombs were dropped on Laos, than on Germany & Japan combined during WWII.
It is said anywhere between 300,000-800,000 died.
Some ten to twenty-five percent of the population.
These are not figures from our guide but those I found out myself.

Anyway our guide was pleasant and open as he could be, with his limited English.
So after sitting through a Laos video depicting the struggle, using old contemporary newsreels
in which the various action scenes
were repeated on a loop, whilst Dad gave a running English voice over.
We finally stopped it, as both the film and Dad were getting rather repetitive,
and headed out to the caves.

The first one we visited was President Kaysone’s cave.
The entrance was well concealed in a crack in the rock face behind extensive foliage.
You would not have known it was there until a few metres away.

A more modern but now empty, concrete two-story house has been built beside it.
This was built after the 1973 ceasefire.

Inside the cave little remained of what once must have been an austere but busy headquarters.


On the wall a wartime map showing offensives
taking place on a number of battle fronts throughout Laos.

A few pieces of furniture remain, beds, a chair, a bust of Lenin and some books by Lenin,
Marx & Ho Chi Minh.


Cavemen's Light Reading

In his bedroom was a coat-stand with a trench coat and a military blouse
that we were initially told were the president own clothes

After I did, the guide quickly changed his story saying they were now replicas,
as if my capitalist hands had made these threads now unworthy of the former leader.
Next to the Prez’s chambers was the emergency room complete with an intervening airlock double steel blast doors.
Inside was a hand-cranked air pump with filter in case of chemical or gas attack.

In a hollowed out chamber nearby a squat toilet took care of emergency needs during bombing raids.

At the entrance to the “Red Prince’s” cave

behind what could have been a country estate with a modern house were beautiful laid out gardens,
resplendent with flame coloured foliage and pomelo trees.

Prince Souvanouvong was the son of the Queen of Luang Prabang who had joined the Pathet Lao ……..
His half-brother Prince Souvanaphouma was the Prime Minister and the war was a family affair.
At liberation he became the first president, but now his roll due to his privileged birth,
has seen his position diminish in favour of Kaysone.

His upbringing showed in the style and layout of his quarters with a bomb crater turned into a swimming pool
and a special cave garage for his automobile.

A poignant shrine to his assassinated son stands within the gardens killed either by the CIA [our guide],
or, by internal Pathet Lao factions [western books].

This conundrum of truth also hides the origin of the beautiful man-made lakes dotted around Vieng Xai.
Our guide was unable to offer an explanation; whilst western sources say they were made from the forced labour
of political prisoners who laboriously dug them out whilst undergoing ten years or more
of political re-education.

The last cave we visited was the largest, an auditorium where fraternal Vietminh dancing troupes
would entertain party cadres

– our guide did not know if “Hanoi Jane” made it this far west.
Prince Sihanouk is said to have had a house built for him,
whilst he was cosying up to he Khmer Rouge.

Outside Thongkhoun & I helped some workers cut a tree.
Dad was bellowing words of encouragement
"Come on now comrades for the Revolution!
For the Party! ....
For a socialist paradise!"
The old boy was in fits, which only encouraged Dad further.

After a cold drink back at the Chinese owned Xailomyen GH,
we declined to eat there again after last night’s poor fare.

Before leaving Vieng Xai we filled up & headed back in bright hot sunlight to Xam Neua.
Dad not very subtly tried to sneak a shot of the only photogenic person in Vieng Xai!
Though barely 30kms away it is a stunning ride Xam Neua with the karsks and paddies.

As we entered Xam Neua we passed a large new Vietnamese complex under construction.

This road is an important trade artery for Vietnam.
Nearby a workshop looks as though it is still being run by the Vietnamese military.

Back in town we checked in to the flaming pink soviet style Lao Hung Hotel.

On the roof the Hammer & Sickle flag was still flying upside down – such a distress call clearly came from the kitchen.
We ate BBQ Moo fresh from the market.
Just the ticket after a long day!

KMs today Vieng Xai 30 Xam Neua 17 Total 47

Lessons Learned
Laos people are incredibly resilient - they have to be just for their diet!
Laos cuisine leaves much to be desired
Communism Sucks!