©Dan White. No repro without permission.
Until the final years of the last century Northern Laos was hard to travel around. Roads were bad or nonexistent and the political situation was unpredictable. The area is part of a chain of wild and mountainous country stretching from the Shan Plateau in Burma, across northern Thailand and on to northern Vietnam. Swathes of dramatic scenery dotted with outcrops of limestone rearing from valley floors is dissected by rivers, sometimes torrid and sometimes tranquil. It is home to hill tribes of varying ethnicity and dress, to enigmatic remnants of the ebb and flow of empire and vast tracts of wild lands of immense ecological value. At the heart of all this is the old royal capital of northern Laos – Luang Prabang. Set by the banks of the upper reaches of the Mekong and surrounded by mountains, it is the jewel of Indochina.
250 km to the south of Lunag Prabang is Vang Vieng. The stretch of road that connects the two is a section of Route 13. This unlucky sounding designation hides the fact that as sections of highway go, this one offers a journey through scenes of unmatched natural splendour. Sharp jagged mountain peaks, rolling hills, contorted limestone karst and dense forest is alternately clothed in mist, grilled by vivid sunshine and pounded by intense monsoon rains. Although one can do this journey by bus or by car it has become a legend for those who prefer to negotiate their bends on two wheels rather than endure the inevitable stomach-lurching and heaving that comes with four. The 250km is easily negotiated in one glorious day on a motorcycle. To do it on a bicycle takes two or three days and you also need to be very fit.
Vang Vieng lies on the banks of the Nam Song River. The mountain ranges start on the other bank and the views are spectacular. The area is famous for caving, kayaking, rock climbing, and trekking.
Setting out in the early morning on Route 13 one follows the River Valley as it cuts through the karst. Then the road climbs and the limestone outcrops get bigger. Once past the town of Kasi they are simply huge. Jungled walls rear vertically from the valley like a giant tidal wave of solid rock. Until not long ago this spectacular scenery hid man-made danger. Vehicles were ambushed until as recently as 2003 as bandits staged hit and run attacks. Public buses carried armed guards on the roof. Thankfully things have moved on quickly and those days are definitively over and the road is now very safe.
After passing through Kasi, one negotiates steep hairpin bend after steep hairpin bend. As one ascends the bends are punctuated with small villages clinging to the ridges and slopes.
Turning to look behind you, a dramatic panorama comes into view. It is a fanciful scene that could have come straight from the imagination of JR Tolkien – a vast emerald and russet vista of natural peaks, abrupt precipices, and sharp ridges wreathed with wisps of cloud and lit by intense sunshine. Dominating the natural canvas is the vast, jagged triangle of Phu Pha Mountain. It is sacred to the Hmong people and the other animist hill-tribes. It is said to be the abode of spirits and deities and it is not hard to see how that belief came into being. Eerie and majestic, it is not only impressive, it is also otherworldly and odd. A place made for hobbits and wizards as much as for people.
As one approaches Poukhoun near the top of the first major ridge of the journey, the road flattens out and the villages become more numerous. The seemingly never-ending visual drama shudders to a less than dramatic halt in the town itself – a dusty and uninviting truck stop that brings one down to earth with a bump. It has long been a strategically vital place. The French had a small garrison here in the times of colonial rule and during the Indochina wars of the 60s and 70s it was heavily fought over. These days a couple of shabby guest houses and a market selling the usual mixture of cheap Chinese imports, machine parts, vegetables and raw meat mark where Highway 13 branches off to Highway 7 leading to the Plain of Jars.
Once past Poukhoun the mountain scenery starts to change. Sharp and jagged limestone gives way to huge, rounded mountains stretching far into the distance. The whole route is lined with small villages of varying ethnicity. Crowds of ragged, smiling children engage in the ‘waving manically’ ritual – something you are free to reciprocate if it feels safe. These villages are made up of Hmong and Khmu. The Khmu were the original inhabitants of this region, whilst the Hmong migrated from Southern China in the mid 19th Century. The Khmu were hunter-gatherers, living on the mountain slopes. The Hmong are ‘slash and burn’ farmers, living by a mixture of subsistence farming, hunting and opium cultivation. In times past, both the Hmong and the Khmu often mounted rebellions against their Thai, Lao or French rulers.
During Colonial rule, the French authorities largely left the hill people alone although they actively encouraged them to produce opium. A French monopoly on the opium trade was declared in 1899. During the Indo China wars the CIA recruited an army of about 30,000 Hmong to fight against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese. When the Americans left remnants of this force (with their families), remained stranded in the jungle running, hiding and fighting for decades.
Now ridge after ridge of smoothly rounded mountains ripple into view as the road winds along valleys, crosses narrow bridges and crests the high ground. In the rainy season one can see the menace of the storm clouds as they gather, before they sweep up the valleys and break in a deluge on the mountaintops. The road descends again and one reaches another dusty truck stop – Kiu Kacham. After ascending again to Kio Maknao Neung one can see the final descent into the Mekong river valley as the hills start to recede like vast, green ocean breakers. It is simply spectacular. The road meanders down in gentle hairpin bends until, finally one hits the Nam Ming river valley and for the first time since morning you are driving on the flat along the wooded riverbank until the road veers left to Luang Prabang.
A jewel in the hills at the end of a magical journey, the town itself is an exquisite combination of some of the most beautiful Buddhist temples in the region and intimate, ochre, French colonial streets. It was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995 so mercifully development has been fiercely regulated. Add into this mix of perfect architectural yin and yang, the fact that the town is not crowded with traffic because buses and lorries are not allowed. One can wander at will, admiring temple after temple of shimmering gold leaf, muted red paint and dark wood and then drop down to the banks of the Mekong to enjoy an aperitif as the sun sets on the opposite bank and one ponders in which of the many glorious Lao and French restaurants one might have dinner – a perfect ending to one of the world’s greatest journeys.