PLAIN OF JARS, CLIFFSIDE CAVE HIDEOUTS AND OTHER PLACES IN NORTHERN LAOS

NORTHERN LAOS

NORTHERN LAOS is a region of green mountains, limestone karst topography, misty jungles, fertile valleys, brown rivers, colorful hill tribes, and temperatures that are cooler than the plains around Vientiane. Hill tribes that live in the region include the Hmong, Akha, Yao, Mien, tribal Thai and Khamu. Most of these tribes migrated to Laos in the last couple hundred years.

The northwest part of northern Laos lies in the Golden Triangle, once one of the world's major opium growing areas (opium is still grown here but less than in the past). In recent years, the hill tribes that have traditionally grown opium as a cash crop here have been encouraged to switch to crops and opium production has fallen. The area near the border of Vietnam, was heaving bombed during the "Secret War". It included part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Plain of Jars is also located here.

The best time to visit is in the early months of the dry season from November to January. In the later part of the dry season from February to May the air is very smokey and hazy as a result of slash-and-burn agricultural fires. The air clears when the rainy season arrives in late May or June.

Some parts of northern Laos have frontier, Wild West atmosphere. Until fairly recently insurgents and bandits were active and people carried around guns for protection. One American traveler wrote in the Washington Post that after no one welcomed him at a small hotel, his guide shouted, "This is a terrible place! The manager is sleeping with his girlfriend. He won't bother to help us." The guide then fired his pistol into the air, and the manager appeared. As the guide put his pistol away he said, "Sometimes you have to show who's boss." [Source: Julia Wilkinson, Washington Post]

North Laos embraces the provinces of Bokeo, Luang Namtha, Oudomxay, Xiangkhouang and Phongsaly The region is home to more than thirty ethnic groups, representing a colorful mix of Tibeto-Burman, Mon-Khmer, Yao-Mien and Tai-Lao origins. Handmade products made by ethnic minorities include mulberry bark and bamboo paper, Khmu basketry, and Hmong embroidery. The region’s colorful festivals include the Hmong New Year festival held in December/January.

Northern Laos is located in the heart of Southeast Asia surrounded by China, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Dominated by mountains that rise to over 2,000 meters, the region is the country’s most popular trekking area and offers a range of trails through green jungle to remote ethnic minority villages. The region’s broad expanse of forest habitats supports a range of globally and regionally endangered wildlife species, including gibbons in the Nam ha National Protected Area (NPA) and Bokeo Nature Reserve and tigers in Phou Den Din NPA. The river network offers scenic journeys to remote locations by a longboat and challenging rapids for rafting and kayaking enthusiasts. Major rivers are the Mekong, Nam Ou, Nam Seuang, Nam Tha and Nam Fa.

Transportation in Northern Laos: National Route 13 is now paved all the way from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and is more or less completely paved between Luang Prabang and Luang Nam Tham. As of 2003 about the section between Luang Nam Tha and the Chinese was about half paved and lots of construction crew were bust trying complete the rest. See Facts, Transportation.

In northern Laos. trucks called thaeksii or sangthaew (literally ‘two rows’) are the workhorses of the transportation system. They have a pair of benches set up in the back, running along the sides. People sit on the benches. Cargo and bags are jammed between the passengers. Sometimes people hang on the outside. These vehicles can be very uncomfortable on long trips. They are usually caught at the same stops and stations as buses. If you get the chance to take a regular bus or a minibus jump at it as they are much more comfortable.

The Chinese are planning to operate tourist ships and commercial vessels along the Mekong River between Jinghing in China and Luang Prabang. See the Mekong River.

XIANGKHOUANG PROVINCE

XIANGKHOUANG PROVINCE (along the Vietnam border east of Luang Prabang) begins about 400 kilometers northeast of the Vientiane and 200 kilometers east of Luang Prabang. It cover an area of 15,880 square kilometers and has only 230,000 people. Its eight districts are: Paek, Phaxay, Phoukoot, Kham, Nong Hét, Khoun, Thathom and Mokmai. The capital is Phonsavanh.

Xiangkhouang Province is 30 percent Hmong and the home of Phuan-speaking peoples and a number of Vietnamese. It has been a base of the Hmong insurgency and has been the site of violence involving Hmong rebels. It was heavily bombed in the Secret War and contains a lot of unexploded ordnance and caves where people lived and escaped the bombs. From the plane you can see bomb crater ponds and areas where Agent Orange is still active making it hard for plants to grow. The average elevation of the province is 1,200 meters. This means that weather is pretty nice year round, the year, although winters can be surprisingly cold. Kham district is a low-laying basin set at around 600 meters above sea level. Hmong Insurgency. See Facts.

Xieng Khouang enjoys a remarkable geographical location, surrounded by mountain ranges, with Phu Bia (2700 meters),l the highest peak in Lao PDR. The province sits at the crossroads of traffic from central Vietnam and northeast Thailand. Historically, these two powerful neighbours – Siam and Vietnam – have vied for control of it.

Xiangkhouang Province shares borders with Huaphan, Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Xaisomboun and Bolikhamxai provinces, as well as an international border with Vietnam’s Nghe An province. Xieng Khouang has a long and rich history and is home to numerous ethnic groups, including Thai Phuan, Hmong, Khmu and Tai Dam. Xieng Khouang is home to the Plain of Jars, the prehistoric stone megaliths which attract thousands of tourists to the province each year. The area is of significant archaeological importance on account also of the standing stones in nearby Huaphan province.

Five highlights in Xieng Khouang Province: 1) Climb 1,000 stairs to a secret wartime hilltop tunnel; 2) explore centuries-old religious sites around the ancient Phuan Kingdom capital of Muang Khoun; 3) investigate the famous Plain of Jars; 4) visit a village that makes spoons from scraps of crashed warplanes; and 5) uncover the efforts of the Mines Action Group (MAG) in clearing the province’s live unexploded ordinance (UXOs), some more than 45 years old.

A total of 63 tourist sites were recorded in Xieng Khouang in 2010, consisting of 32 natural sites, 18 cultural sites and 13 historical sites (2010 Statistical Report on Tourism in Laos, published by the LNTA, the Lao National Tourism Administration). The same publication reports that visitors to the province increased from 5,062 in 2003 to 21,631 in 2010 and that the total number of hotels, guesthouses, resorts, restaurants and entertainment establishments in the province grew from 98 in 2009 to 140 in 2010.

XIENG KHOUANG HISTORY

Xieng Khouang and the enigmatic Plain of Jars make up one of the most important sites for studying the late prehistory of mainland Southeast Asia. While the ancient civilization that constructed the jars was flourishing, advances in agricultural production, the manufacturing of metals, and the organization of long-distance overland trade between India and China were also rapidly transforming local society and setting the stage for urbanization across the region. Mortuary practices associated with the jars consisting of both cremation and secondary burial suggest a highly-evolved local tradition of ritual, symbolism and metaphysics which persisted through to the kingdoms of the Angkor Period, long after the arrival of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies into Southeast Asia.

Prehistoric material found at the Plain of Jars is still under study, and apparently spans a considerable period of time, with some dating from as early as 2000 BC. The bulk of the archaeological material, however, as well as the jars themselves appeared much later, dating to the early Iron Age between 500 BC and 500-800 AD. The closet archaeological parallels to the finds at the Plain of Jars appear to be Bronze and Iron Age materials from Dong Son in Viet Nam, Samrong Sen in Cambodia, and the Khorat Plateau in northeast Thailand. There are also similarities with the present-day city of Danang, as well as with sites in the North Cachar Hills of northeastern India where megalithic jar North exist. All of these similar sites date to approximately the same period-roughly 500 BC - 500 AD. Together they form a mosaic picture of a large area of upland Southeast Asia criss-crossed by traders, with the Xieng Khouang Plateau at its centre.

Although little is known about the people that constructed the megalithic stone jars, an account of the area's history as it relates to the Tai Puan and the lands they settled in Xieng Khouang is recorded in the Pongsawadan Meuang Puan or the Muang Puan Chronicles. The Tai Puan are a Buddhist Tai-Lao ethnic group that migrated from what is today southern China and by the 13th century had formed an independent principality at the Plain of Jars that prospered from the overland trade in metals and forest products. In the mid-14th century, Muang Puan was incorporated into the Lan Xang Kingdom under Fa Ngum, though the Phuan were able to retain a high degree of autonomy. After Siam (Thailand) extended control to Lao territories east of the Mekong in the 1770's, Muang Puan became a Siamese vassal state and also maintained tributary relations with Dai Viet (Viet Nam). To exert greater control of the lands and people of Muang Phuan, the Siamese launched three separate campaigns (1777-1779, 1834-1836, 1875-1876) to resettle large parts of the Phuan population to the south to regions under firm Siamese control.

Subsequent invasions by Chinese marauders called "Haw" plundered Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang, and the Franco-Siamese treaties of the 1890's placed Xieng Khouang under colonial rule as part of French Indochina until briefly after World War II. During the Vietnam War that raged in Laos during the 1960s and early 1970s Xieng Khouang suffered heavy aerial bombardment and intense ground battles due to its strategic importance. This conflict has left a deadly legacy of unexploded ordnance (UXO) which is still being cleared today. Since Laos gained full independence in 1975, Xiengkhouang and the Plain of Jars are enjoying peace and tranquility after centuries of conflict.

The original capital city, Muong Khoun, was almost totally obliterated by US bombing and consequently, the capital was moved to nearby Phonsavanh. Of several Muong Khoun Buddhist temples built between the 16th and 19th century, only ruins remain. Vat Pia Vat, however, survived the bombing and can be visited.

PHONSAVAN

PHONSAVAN (about 100 kilometers miles west of Vietnamese border) is provincial capital of Xiangkhouang Province. It is located in Paek district and caters to increasing numbers of tourists eager to experience Xieng Khouang’s natural, historical and archaeological attractions. The new airport in Phonsavan is served by regular flights from Vientiane and Luang Prabang by Lao Airlines.

Phonsavan is dusty little town, where most visitors stay when visiting the Plain of Jars. On market day, members of ethic minorities come to the Phonsawan from the surrounding hills. Hmong women sell opium. Other tribe members sell gongs made from bomb casings.

Most visitors arrive by air in Chinese prop planes at an airport with a terminal that looks like a horse shed. The town has grown quite a bit in recent years. In 1990 the only hotel in town was a mosquito-infested plywood structure known as December 2nd Revolution Hotel. Now there are more than a dozen hotels and guesthouses.

The Plain of Jars is also assessable by bus from Hua Phanh, where there are some hotels. Hua Phanh and Phonwsvan can be reached by road. The journey is rough and marked by delays. There isn’t much public transportation. The situation is improving. Other sights in the Phonsavan area include mineral springs and caves where guerillas and villages escaped American bombing.

Tourist Information: The Xiangkhouang Provincial Tourist Information center is located 2.5 kilometers from Phonsavan town centre, next to Talat Nam Ngum (Nam Ngum Market). The office is open daily from 08.00 to 16.00 and the English-speaking staff can be contacted on +856 (0)61 312 217 or +856 (0)20 2234 0201. Email: xkgtourism@yahoo.com (http://xiengkhuang.wordpress.com; www.tourismlaos.org).

Near Phonsavan: Scale more than 1.000 steps to reach a secret passageway slicing through the summit of the Phu Kheng Jar Quarry Site that played a strategic role for Pathet Lao forces during the Indochina War (1964-1973). The hardly climb passes an odd mix of bomb craters and unfinished or broken jars destined for Jar Site 1. The steps get steeper, but the reward is a magnificent view of the valley around Phonsavanh and the hidden entrance to a narrow 70 meter long, 1.6 meter-high tunnel chiseled through rock that winds past reinforced concrete bunkers and sleeping quarters before exiting to a panorama of the Phoukoud Valley.

Explore ruins dating to the 14th century that crown the hills around the ancient Phuan Kingdom capital, Muang Khoun, which was leveled during the Indochina War. A 30 kilometers drive southeast of Phonsavanh passes a stone wall with brick archways, leftovers of France’s colonial presence. The giant Buddha at Vat Piawat, first built in 1564, still sits erect overlooking Muang Khoun, though only the temple’s pillars and short wall section remain. Once buried in the forest, the 450 year old That Foun Stupa stands tall next to a road outside town, and though bombing raids mostly destroyed Vat Si Phom, enough remains to envision its glory when constructed in 1390.

Ban Napia (35 kilometers south of Phonsavanh) is an ethnic Phuan village where mounds spoons and other tableware is made from war scrap. One day in the 1980s, eight families brainstormed over what to do with all the aluminum bits from downed aircraft. One person noted a lack spoons in the market and noodle shops, so they made wooden mounds, coated them in ash, and poured in the melted junk. And according to the ladle lady, they have an unending supply of debris. You can bookend your spoon tour with stops at nearby Lang Waterfall and Jar Site 3.

In Ban Namkha you can see a Swiss NGO Helvetas-supported renewable energy system project. An easy-to--moderate 1.5-hour trek leads to Ban Napia, Visitors can stroll down the village path to watch the “War Spoon” demonstration. Since the late 1980s, the villagers have produced spoons from aluminium UXO (unexploded bombs) scrap from the Second Indochina War, and will show you the process and sell you the finished products along with bracelets, hand-woven textiles and tastes of homemade Lao Lao whiskey.

MAGnificent Mine Busters: The UK-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has embarked on the almost impossible mission of clearing hundreds of thousands of unexploded ordinances (UXOs) from Xieng Khouang. The MAG Visitor Information center in Phonsavanh provides in-depth history into the intense bombing campaign, the legacy it left behind as the most densely bombed area per capita on earth, facts on the injuries and deaths UXOs continue to cause, diagrams of how cluster bombs work, and even a few diffused shells, the highlight, a one-hour unbiased documentary detailing the bombing’s background, appeals to an audience ranging from people born before the war, those who grew up during the era, and veterans who fought.

Muang Khoun (near the Plain of Jars) used to be provincial capital of Xieng Khouang Province. Formally known as Xieng Khouang town, it was used by the French until after World War II. The town was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War period. All that remains are the foundations of Buddhist temples and destroyed French colonial mansions. Among the few ruinous colonial public buildings that remain are the governor’s residence, church and French school.

Tham Piu Cave (near the Plain of Jars) is where 300 villagers were killed when a cliffside shelter took a direct rocket hit from a Lao air force or U.S. plane. You can see the small bones of a children on the floor. There also some Hmong villages in the mountains.

PLAIN OF JARS

PLAIN OF JARS (near Phonsavan in Xieng Khoung Province in northeast, central Laos) is one the most unique places in Southeast Asia. Surrounded by dense tropical forests and limestone peaks, this windy, grassy plateau is home to hundreds of one-meter to three-meter urns. The vast majority are carved from sandstone and limestone. A few have been chiseled from red granite. The oldest ones are believed to be 1,500 to 2,000 years old. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, Natural History, August 1995]

Thus far 300 jar fields have been discovered, with a total of 3,000 jars. Some of the ones below ground were discovered using sateliite imagery. More site are being found all the time. There may be more than 10,000 of them out there, many hidden in the jungle.

The sites, archeologists say, were cemeteries and the jars were funerary urn to store corpses until they decomposed and the bones were ready for burial or cremation (a practice common the Bronze Age and still done on parts of Laos today) . No skeletons have been found inside the urns but human remains have been found in a few and skeletons have been unearthed nearby. Most of the sites are on grassy knolls, many with impressive views of the surrounding countryside. Sometimes cows graze among the urns.

Nobody is quite sure of what the jars were used for. According to one legend they were built by giants to store grain and make alcohol. Many Laotians believe they were built by a 6th century chief, Khun Jeuam, to make wine for a huge celebration to mark the the victory over an evil king. They say the jars were originally made of sand, sugar came and buffalo skin.

On average, the jars are ten feet high, nine feet wide and weigh between 1,300 and 2,000 pounds. The largest one, known as Jeuam;s “Victory Cup,” weighs seven tons, has a 26-foot circumference and is eight feet tall. The smallest ones are about three feet tall. Many are covered in lichens. At one time it is believed they all had lids but most have been pilfered. Some of the remaining lids are adorned with concentric rings.

The Plain of Jars is located on the XiengKhouang Plateau in north-central Laos. Due to its strategic location, the Plain of Jars played a pivotal role in the Vietnam War and was the site of many ground battles and intense aerial bombardment. Based on the Plain of Jars' extraordinary heritage, the Lao Government has applied to make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Plain of Jars via Phonsavan is accessible by air from Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Overland travel is possible from northern and central Laos and north-central Vietnam.

It is a short trip from Phonsavanh to Jar Site 1. A new visitor center greets you with local handicrafts refreshments, and information panels. A marked trail, well away from the UXOs still littering the 25-hectare grounds, leads to the 334 jars spread across a field. A 2.5 meters x 2.5 meters jar tops the others, most of which are half the size, with just one decorated in carved bas relief.

Plain of Jars Tourism: Only three sites are open to tourists: Thong Hai Hin (15 kilometers southwest of Phonsavan), with 250 jars; Hai Hin Phu Salato (25 kilometers southwest of Phonsavan), wth 90 jars spread out over two adjacent hill sides; and Hai Hin Lat Khai (10 kilometers southwest of Hai Hin Phu Salato), with 150 jars near some scenic villlages. Other sites are off limits because of the danger of unexploded bombs. Most have 40 jars are less. Only a few thousand travelers visit the site evey year. Sometimes they are abusive, climbing on the jars and even picking away at the stone.

ARCHEOLOGY AND THE PLAIN OF JARS

The Plain of Jars was first brought to the attention of the West in 1909 by a French customs official. They were first described in detail by French archeologist Henri Parmentier in 1923 and first excavated by French archeologist Madelaine Colani in 1935. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, Natural History, August 1995]

Colani wrote a 600-page monograph entitled The Megaliths of Upper Laos and concluded the jars were funerary urns carved by a Bronze Age people for cremated remains. She theorized the remains were cremated because some urns were located near a cave with chimney, where she dug up remains she thought were funerary vases in which corpses were burned. She also found some iron tools, carnelian beads and a bronze figure but these have since been lost.

A lot of research still needs to be done. It is still not clear how old the jars are and how they were transported many kilometers from the quarries where they were carved. Archeologist have no idea of the ethnicity or linguistic base of the people who created the urns. A half dozen quarries with broken jars have been discovered in the mountains. Many believe the urns were dragged to the jar sites by elephants. Some think they lie on a an ancient road that connect the Red River valley in Vietnam with India.

During the Vietnam War, the Plain of Jars and the area around it was heavily bombed by U.S. planes and even today it is pockmarked with hundreds of bomb craters, many of which are now fish ponds. Fortunately, few of the urns were damaged by the bombing. But excavations and surveys in the area are done very carefully so as not to disturb unexplosed bombs, mortars and grenades.

BAN ANG PLAIN OF JARS SITE

(1.5 kilometers northeast of Phomsavan) is the principal jar site. Here there are more than 250 urns scattered over an area of 60 acres. Fifty or so jars, including the largest ones, are on a ridge on the northeast side of the site. Some archaeologists have speculated that these urns once contained the remains of chiefs. Bomb craters lie on the edge of the site but no urns have been damaged. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, Natural History, August 1995]

Describing the jars at the Ban Ang site, Colani wrote: "They are disposed without regularity, some of them pressing one against another, others quite isolated. Each one is fashioned from a separate block of stone, and a small number of them are built are very well, executed, as though turned on a lathe, bespeaking the hand of a true artist."

Parmenteir described three types of urns: squat-shaped ones, slender ones and others that were "almost sections of squared or rectangular prisms, with well rounded corners." He was able to figure out that most of jars probably contained one or two black pots, one or two hand axes, "a bizarre object which we called a lamp," and often spindle weights of iron, glass beads, drilled carnelian beads, earrings of stone or glass, bronze bells and frequently the remains of human bones.

Excavations done by Japanese archeologist in 1994, revealed an urn with a carving of a human figure and burial pits with human bones and two-foot jars with pieces of bone and teeth inside. None of the human remains were burned, which refutes Colani's theory.

THONG HAI HIN (JAR SITE 1)

THONG HAI HIN (15 kilometers southwest of Phonsavan) features dozens of stone urns on a grassy knoll and 200 more are scattered in a field below. Some are cracked and shattered but most are in good condition. One has a stone lid. Pieces of lids lie next to others. Some jars have water in them. Others have shrubs and plant growing in them. Tourists are free to climb around on them.

The Plain of Jars Site 1, also known as Thong Hai Hin covers an area of 25 hectares and is covered with tall brown grass with a few trees dotting the undulating landscape. According to the notice board, there are 334 jars found here, with the biggest having a diameter of 2.5 meters and a height of 2.57 meters. A huge signboard by Mines Advisory Group (MAG) states that they have performed Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) clearance of this site between 26 Jul and 29 Oct 2004, 127 pieces of UXO was removed as well as 31,814 pieces of scrap. [Source: Lao Heritage Tour]

Site 1 has two sections, with the closest to the gate located on a small hillock. There are man made stone steps leading up the hill where a big collection of stone jars. The size of jars here are among of the biggest. From the top of the hill, there is a zigzags path down to the next section, about 500 meters away, where there is another group of stone jars. Most of the jars here are smaller than the ones on the hill. An unusual jar with a stone lid can be seen here.

Jar Site 1 was of strategic military importance during the Vietnam War Indochina War, as seen by the trenches and foxholes, anti-aircraft positions and a tank ruins on top of the site’s cave. Several bomb craters are juxtaposed over the historic jars. The entrance fee to the Jar Site 1 goes to the management of the jar site. For more information: Visit the Tourism Information Office in Phonsavan Town, Xiengkhouang.

BAN PHAKEO PLAIN OF JARS TREK

BAN PHAKEO PLAIN OF JARS TREK is a two-day trek to a remote Hmong village and one of the country’s most serene Plain of Jars jar sites. Day 1) Travel 45 kilometers from Phonsavan to the Hmong village of Ban Thalin (less than one hour) for a visit to the market to buy lunch. A Ban Thalin village guide leads trekkers on an easy-to-moderate five-hour trek along an ancient route, up hills and across streams to the Ban Phakeo jar sites. The Ban Phakeo jar site features nearly 400 jars and many rare stone discs with animal sculptures, and is the only jar site with lids. There is also evidence of people using the jars as grinding-whetstones for sharpening knives. Beautiful orchids often bloom in the jars.

Trekker stay in Ban Phakeo village. Ban Phakeo villagers cook dinner such as duck soup with rice or chicken. In the evening, village women meet at new freshwater taps to do laundry and discuss village news. Trekkers sleep at the basic village lodge (mats on a wood emporium, pillows, blankets and mosquito nets are provided). Be sure to take some warm clothes for the night as the mountains can get cool.

Day 2) After an early breakfast with villagers, trekkers hike four hours to Thad Kha Waterfall for lunch prepared by Ban Phakeo villagers. Relax at a jungle waterfall, sit on a giant tree over the cascade, and swim in one of the ponds. In the afternoon trekkers continue to Ban Tajok, a Hmong village famous for its War Architecture. Return to Phonsavan at around 16.30 on public or pre-arranged transport. Part of your tour fee contributes to maintaining Ban Phakeo’s water system and solar lamps. For more information: Visit the Tourism Information Office in Phonsavan town.

Other Plain of Jar Sites: In a site called La Sen (6 miles south of Ban Ang or an hour by car on a terrible road) urns are arrayed on the tops of two steep hills, which are separated by a gully. A third more distant site, called Ban Sousa, is in the middle of rice fields at the foot of a wooded ridge. A few of the 155 jars found here have been damaged by bombs.

HOUAPHANH PROVINCE

HOUAPHANH PROVINCE is a mountainous province in the northeastern Laos. While in the past it was difficult to navigate the province’s dramatic terrain, road upgrades now make travel easier and more enjoyable. Scenery along the roads into Houaphanh is stunning and you may even witness the Houaphanh Province is the birthplace of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. As yet, it is one of the least visited provinces in the country and offers an authentic and varied experience for visitors. Enjoy a pristine natural environment of mountains, rivers, waterfalls and forests, visit the caves at Viengxay for a unique insight into the history of the country, and discover the mysterious standing stones of Hintang Archaeological Park which date back more than 2000 years

Houaphanh Province covers 16,500 square kilometers. Enclosed by Vietnam to the north, and southeast, Xieng Khouang to the southwest and Luang Prabang to the west, Houaphanh Province has a population of 280,000 people. The capital is Xamneua. The eight districts in the province are: Xamneua, Xiengkhor, Viengthong, Viengxay, Huameuang, Xamtay, Sopbao and Add.

Houaphanh is one of the most ethnically diverse provinces in Laos. There are 28 ethnic groups in the province including Khmu, Mien-Yao, Hmong and Tai Daeng. Ethnic minority villages dot the roads in the province. At the market in Xam Neua and other district towns, they can be seen selling their home-grown fruits and vegetables along with traditional clothes. Houaphanh, and particularly Xamtai District, is renowned for producing high quality silk and cotton goods. Visitors can observe the process of making natural dyes and hand weaving complex traditional designs, which are unique to the province.

The two best known among the province’s numerous waterfalls are Namnoua, located just off the road between Xam Neua and Viengxay, and Phonxay-Saleuy on the road from Phonesavanh to Xam Neua. Phonxay-Saleuy Waterfall is a popular picnic spot for local people, especially during the Lao New Year. A trail alongside the falls takes the adventurous to the top.

Suan Hin (Houaphanh Province) is a group of mysterious megaliths sometimes called Laos’s Stonehenge. Discovered by archeologist Madelaine Colani, the same women who described the Plain of Jars, the site contains rough-hewn two-meter-high stones, large stone discs, and tunnel-like ditches below some of the stones. The site has been linked with the Plain of Jars.

Nam Xam National Protected Area (Houaphanh Province) is home to several endangered species and offers spectacular views of the meandering Nam Xam River. The park covers 1,734 square kilometers,. Among the animals found there are: Tiger, muntjac and guar. Numerous gibbon species, small elephant population, marbled cat, high densities of grey peacock pheasant, Blyth’s kingfisher, and beautiful nuthatch. Two bird species not recorded in any other NPA are brown-throated tree-creeper and yellow-bellied weasel.

Habitat: Steep hills ranging from 350 meters - 1809 meters close to the Vietnamese border, comprising much of the upper catchments of the Nam Xam and the Nam Niam Rivers. Some 40 percent of the area is above 1,000 meters and several summits exceed 1,500 meters.Forest is mainly mixed deciduous to semi-evergreen in character, but valley bottoms and lower hills are dominated by permanent and shifting cultivation, and there are large secondary growth areas of scrub and bamboo. Getting There: Difficult access is on a rudimentary track from the Viengxai-Vietnamese border road.

HIDDEN CITY OF VIENGXAY

HIDDEN CITY OF VIENGXAY (northeastern Houaphanh Province) is a network of caves used by the Pathet Lao (Lao revolutionary movement) as their military headquarters during the Indochina war. The caves sheltered over 20,000 people, including its leaders, for an important, but little known episode in world history. In addition to the caves used by Central Committee members, there were caves housing foreign embassies, hospitals, factories, markets, schools and more. Viengxay is now referred to as the “Birthplace of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic”. An 18-stop guided audio tour and a one-day guided walking tour tell the story

Vieng Xai is an area with 100 limestones caves at the closets point to Hanoi in Laos. In terrain that was virtually impregnable to bombs and attacks from land and air, the Pathet Lao sought refuge from the bombing here and staged raids on enemy positions. The first bombing was staged here in February 1964. The area was opened to tourists in 1997. More than a dozen caves are open to the public. The are spectacularly set inside a cliff-lined valley around the town of Vieng Xai,

Than Than Souphanaouvoung was the home of the “Red Prince” Souphanaouvoung. Than Than Kaysone was the office and residence of the Pathet Lao chief Kaysone Phomvihane and future Prime Minister Khamtay Siphandone. It extends 140 meters into a cliff that was scaled by rope before steps were added. The cave includes a library, meeting room and reception room. A bust of Kaysone sits inside the entry, and images of Lenin and Che Guevara--gifts from Russia and Cuba--adorn the political party centre. The cave's other rooms include a bedroom and an emergency room containing an oxygen generater in case gas was ever dropped in the area. Meals were prepared in the kitchen here with gas donated by Russia, and local villagers provided the food. The rear of the cave opens onto a clearing that was used as an outdoor meeting place and kitchen. Kaysone's handsome two-storey house sits out the front.

NAM ET-PHOU LOUEY NATIONAL PROTECTED AREA

NAM ET-PHOU LOUEY NATIONAL PROTECTED AREA (Houaphan Province) is the largest National Protected Area (NPA) in Laos. It is best known for harboring one of the most important tiger populations remaining in Indochina. The NPA’s outstanding biodiversity includes over 30 species of large mammals and 300 species of birds making it exceptionally suitable for ecotourism. Information regarding Ecotourism activities such as the Nam Nern River Trip, and ongoing wildlife monitoring and protection efforts can be obtained at the NPA’s visitor center in Viengthong.

Getting There: Most conveniently accessed by an all- weather road from Phonsavanh on Route 7 and Route 1 to MeuangHiam. The northern area can be approached from XamNeua on a rough seasonal road, which traverses Nam Et NBCA in an east-west direction, Difficult access from Xieng Tong district.

Nam Et - Phou Louey (pronounced “naam et poo loo-ee”) National Protected Area covers 5,959 square kilometers in seven districts and three provinces (Houaphan, Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang provinces) with 1,915 square kilometers in Houaphan Province and 1,465 square kilometers in Xieng Khouang Province. Among the animals found there are: Clouded leopard, tiger, and leopard. All large cats endemic to Indochina are reported to exist in this NPA. Habitat: The entire area is comprised of rugged hills, usually well above 1,000 meters with the highest peak at 2,052 meters. Vegetation is mainly mixed deciduous and evergreen forest with bamboo groves. Drainage is primarily southwest into the Nam Khan and Nam Xuang Rivers. Much bamboo and grassland is found in the NPA, probably the result of past shifting cultivation.

The NPA is mostly hilly or mountainous and is the source of many rivers. It is named after its two main features, the Nam Et River and Phou Louey Mountain (“Forever Mountain”). The area has primary forest remaining in many areas, a high level of biodiversity, and a number of endangered species including tiger, gaur, Sambar deer, and white-cheeked gibbon.

Nam Et-Phou Louey NPA is located between latitudes of 19.85-20.05 degrees N and longitudes 103.20-103.85 degrees E. The terrain is mountainous with altitude ranging between 336 and 2257 meters above sea level. The highest point is the peak of Phou Louey and the lowest the Nam Et river valley. The topography of the area is steep and the land suitable for agriculture is limited. Nam Et Phou Louey is the source of many major rivers including Nam Nern, Nam Khan, Nam Et, Nam Seuang, and Nam Seng. In addition there are many tributaries, which contribute significantly to the livelihoods of local people. The main importance of rivers to villagers relate to transportation, fishing, household water supply and irrigation amongst others. [Source: http://www.namet.org/Home.html]

Nam Et-Phou Louey NPA generally has a high upland climate with two seasons, dry and rainy. The rainy season runs between April and September and the dry season between October and March. The average annual rainfall in Nam Et-Phou Louey is 1350 millimeters. In general rainfall is unevenly distributed throughout the year with peak rainfall occurring between June and August, and July having the highest number of rainy days with 21. The annual open pan evaporation is 900 millimeters, effectively limiting cultivation to the rainy season.

Based on satellite image interpretation in 1997 only 0.1 percent of the NPA is undisturbed primary forest and 23.2 percent is partially disturbed/open forest, indicating long-standing encroachment. The main part of the NPA is covered by shrub land (63.9 percent), comprising bushes mixed with tall grasses. This vegetation type has resulted from repeated use by shifting cultivators and is difficult to rehabilitate to forest. There have been no detailed botanical surveys in the NPA excepting the Phou Louey Noy area, which indicated the presence of 314 plant species, 243 genera and 106 families. There are many plant species with known economic value: 18 are of use in construction, 26 for medicinal purposes, 39 as fuelwood, 46 for house decoration, 92 for consumption and 5 as poison. The uses, if any of the remaining 88 species are unknown.

Villagers living in the Nam Et-Phou Louey NPA comprise many ethnic groups including Tai Dam, Tai Daeng, Tai Kao, Tai Puan, Tai Lue, Tai Yuan, Khmu, Hmong Kao, Hmong Lai, and Yao. The population of the villages within and surrounding Nam Et-Phou Louey is 91,500 and there are 13,600 households and 283 villages. The ethnic split is Lao Loum 32 percent, Lao Teung 51 percent, and Lao Soung 17 percent. Within the NPA, where there are fewer villages are located, there are 23,000 inhabitants.

The livelihoods of the villagers in the area are very much associated with the natural environment by way of agricultural production and shifting cultivation. There are few sources of alternative employment and settlement are highly scattered and often in remote and inaccessible areas. The traditions of the villagers in the area mainly stem from animist beliefs, with New Year celebrated in January and villagers following the lunar calendar. However, the 12 rules and 14 principles from Buddhism are commonly followed (heep sip song, khong sip sii). The religious beliefs of the different groups and their trappings, e.g. spirit forest, cemetaries and animal veneration, have an important bearing on conservation due to the restrictions they impose. Other beliefs may have negative impacts, e.g. burning of vegetation to improve land productivity and hunting prospects, prolonged celebrations and belief in the healing powers of spirits to the exclusion of modern medicine.

The economies of the majority of villages in Nam Et-Phou Louey NPA are primarily based on agriculture and the natural environment. A small number of villages also manufacture handicrafts and have simple services. The main staples are rice and corn. Upland cultivation (also known as shifting cultivation) accounts for more than 80 percent of cultivation, which is evident by many cleared hillsides along roads in the village use zone. The most common cash crops grown by villagers are soya beans, mak deuai, sesame and chili. The most common livestock are cattle, pigs, goats, and poultry. Non-timber forest products (NTFPs) such as cardamom, sugar palm, rattan, mulberry fibre, chewing bark, bamboo shoots and edible shoots and roots are another income source that is estimated at 22 percent of total of all income. The villages in the area are traditionally involved in revenue generating activities such as weaving, distilling, pottery and bamboo/rattan weaving. They also commonly manufacture brick and furniture for domestic use and, occasionally, sale. Trading and services are not yet well developed in the area although there are small shops providing goods for domestic consumption. According to the 2001 Poverty Assessment, the three main districts in Nam Et-Phou Louey, Houameuang, Viengkham, and Viengthong, fall into the second highest poverty bracket with poor villages making up more than 90 percent of the total (the poorest districts have 100 percent poor villages).

Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area and Ban Son Koua villagers are now offering a two-day Night Safari program with an evening boat ride along the Nam Nern River to catch a glimpse of animal nightlife. [Source: http://www.namet.org/Home.html

PHONGSALY PROVINCE

PHONGSALY PROVINCE is one of the remotest of the Lao PDR Provinces, and is dominated by rugged, mountainous terrain and an abundance of thick forests and fast-flowing rivers. Most of the land is between 500 and 1,500 meters elevation, which moderates the heat of the surrounding areas of Southeast Asia and makes the climate more suitable for trekking and other physical activities. The forests contain an abundance of animal, bird, insect and plant life.

Phongsali is the northernmost province in Laos. It shares borders with Yunnan (China) and Dien Bien (Vietnam). Most of Phongsali province lies at a high altitude. Its capital, Phongsali town, is the highest city in Laos PDR at 1400 meters above sea level. Up there the climate is pleasant and refreshing covering the endless mountains down to the canyon of the Nam Ou river, biggest tributary of the Mekong. The population is made up of officially 28 different ethnic groups, of which the majority being Khmu, Phounoy, different Akha, Tai Lue and Hor. Several trekking tours have been established by the Provincial Tourism Office Phongsali.

Phongsali Province covers 16,270 square kilometers and has a population of only 174,000 people. Its seven districts are: Phongsaly, May, Khua, Samphanh, Boon-Neua, Boon-Tai and Gnot-Ou. The Capital of the province is Phongsaly town. Most visitors of Phongsali province get a feeling of “no longer being in Laos, not yet having reached China”. Between China and Laos the territory of north-western Phongsali and southern Yunnan once was the independent Tai Lue kingdom of Sipsongpanna. In 1895 the French colonialists drew new boundaries along the watersheds of the Nam Ou river, claiming Sipsongpanna’s eastern part to Phongsali incorporating it into French Indochina. Its bigger part went into Yunnan Province, China.

Although a bit off the main tourist circuit, visitors can spend plenty of time in Phongsali province trekking to remote villages around the provincial, Boun Neua, Muang Khoua at the Nam Ou River and in Boun Tai district’s “Nam Lan Conservation Area”. In the northern most district of the country, Gnot Ou, visit Vat Luang, a magnificent Tai Lue style Buddhist monastery dating back to 1445 AD. In the future “Phu Den Din National Protected Area” along the border with Vietnam will be opened for boat trips. Wild animals like monkeys, elephants and tigers still claim it their territory !

The province offers a delicious variety of Lao and Yunnanese cuisine that consists of wild forest ingredients such as fragrant herbs, bamboo and rattan shoots.After dinner try a shot of the local Lao Lao, smooth, strong and tinted green ! During the final stage of the distillation process this rice whisky is running over fresh picked raspberry leaves absorbing the green color. Chinese-style green tea of Phongsali receives worldwide recognition for its highest quality and superb taste. Tea leaves are picked by Phounoy minority women from up to 400 year old tea trees, standing 6 meters high with a stem up to 30 centimeters in diameter. These precious tea leaves are compressed in bamboo cylinders and sold in cigar-shaped tubes. In this wild tea grove fertilizers and chemicals have never been used. Drinking a daily cup keeps the body in good health, reduces fat and preserves a clear mind.

Phongsaly Town (in the middle of Phongsali Province) is nestled under the thickly forested Phoufa Hill. Situated at an elevation of 1,400 meters, the town has a pleasant climate and has developed around an old market center with cobbled streets and picturesque wooden buildings, including a very old Chinese quarter. Climb the jeep track up the Phoufa Hill (1,650 meters) and enjoy a spectacular view over the town and the surrounding mountainous terrain. The hike takes 45 minutes and there is a stupa at the top. The high ridge line which forms the horizon to the west is part of the Jurassic escarpment.

Phongsali’s old quarter features Yunnanese wooden architecture now rare to find in Yunnan itself. Most of the people living here belong to the Chinese-speaking Hor ethnic group. Until the 1970s there was a Chinese consulate in Phongsali town. Now the building is occupied by the “Phu Fa Hotel”. In the “Museum of Ethnic Groups in Phongsali Province” you can admire various local cloths, artifacts and handicrafts of the province’s ethnic groups.

Phongsaly is good base for trekking. There are easy treks along the ridge lines to the Northeast and Southeast, or more vigourous treks along the Jurassic escarpment (about 30 kilometers to the west of Phongsaly on the Boun Neua road), or along the foot of the escarpment (km 37, take off to the south through forest and paddy fields on the new Nam Bo road).

NATURE AREAS PHONGSALY PROVINCE

Nam Ou is a river that stretches from near the Chinese border in Phongsali Province to Luang Prabang. Most people paddle the Ou just above Luang Prabang but its upper reaches near the Chinese border are more pristine, cutting through the undisturbed Phou Den Din NPA in which there are few villages. This is the longest inbound river in all of Laos is well known for its spectacular karsts formations and natural scenery.

The large and very remote Phou Den Din NBCA is accessible most easily by small boat up the Nam Ou river. The trip only for most adventurous: You must be well prepared, and take food, light camping equipement and a guide which can be arranged from PhongsalyTown. You are in the remotest part of Southeast Asia in the most undisturbed areas of forest.

Phou Daen Din National Protected Area (Pongsali Province) covers 2,220 square kilometers Among the animals found there are: elephants, gibbons and a high density of lesser fish eagles. Habitat: Predominantly dry evergreen and semi-evergreen. Mosaic of swidden land and forest at various stages of regeneration. Large tracts of contiguous old-growth forest survive towards the Vietnamese border and along the Nam Ou, upstream from the Nam Khang confluence. Getting There: Access is difficult, but can be accomplished by boat along the Nam Ou and Nam Khang or by foot. From Phongsali, the NPA can be reached by a short drive to Ban Hatxa and a then a half-day boat journey or 2-day walk.

Nam Lan Conservation Area (NLCA) (Pongsali Province) covers 22,000 hectares of mostly densely forested, very steep terrain, at between 600 meters and 1,850 meters elevation. Picturesque villages, mostly growing lowland irrigated paddy flank part of the northern and eastern boundaries of the area. Ecotourism lodges are being set up in five of these villages. The attractive little town of Boun Tai is a good base for visiting the NLCA.

The Nam Lan Conservation Area can be explored on a two- or three-day trek that stops at several ethnic communities on the way towards the Chinese border. Hire a local guide at the District Tourism Office in Boun Tai district for this 2-3 day trek that starts in Na Mak Village. On the way to Na Mak, visit an old Tai Lue style temple in Na Vai Village. It is also possible to spend the night in the Na Vai village guesthouse, a traditional Lue style home. From Na Mak, the walk continues down the Nam Lan River Valley to Na Taen village, a Tai Yang community in which every family has a large stone mortar to hand-mill rice. Village guides can take visitors to the hot springs nearby.

After spending the night in Na Taen's traditional lodge, a 5-hour walk leads to the Akha village, Chakkham Daeng, high in the mountains overlooking the Lao border with Yunnan, China. Spend the night in Chakkham Daeng before descending to the road at Lak 78, where a vehicle returns trekkers to Boun Tai or further to Phongsali. Booking: To arrange a trek in the Nam Lan Conservation Area, visit the Guide Service Unit located at the District Tourism Office in Boun Tai district, Phongsali Province. Advance bookings are not necessary.

OUDOMXAY PROVINCE

OUDOMXAY PROVINCE (194 kilometers from Luang Prabang) is a mountainous Northern Province is wedged between Luang Prabang in the east, Phongsaly in the north east, Sayabouly in the south and China sharing a small northern border. Oudomxay is populated by some 23 ethnic minorities mainly Hmong, Ekor (Akha) and Khamu. Highlights of Oudomxay Province include northern Laos's largest cave system, which acted as a wartime hideout, and treks and cultural excursions in Muang La.

Oudomxay Province covers 15,370 square kilometers and is home to 250,000 people. There are seven districts: Xay, La, Namor, Nga, Beng, Hoon and Pakbeng. The capital of the province: Xay. Oudomxay Contact: Provincial Tourism Department, Muang Xay, Oudomxay, Laos, ptd@oudomxay.info ; Tel: 856 (0)81 212483, http://www.oudomxay.info/

Oudomxai (five hours from Luang Prabang) is a major transportation hub for northern Laos. There isn’t that much to do or see here but many travelers are forced to stop here for the night as they make their way from one place to another, for example, between Luang Prabang and Muang Sing. There is a stupa on a hill. Near it are some guest houses used by foreign travelers and some descent restaurants. Some tribal villages are in the area.

Oudomxai is also known as Muang Xay or Xay town and spelled Udomxai or Oudomxay. It is the capital of Oudomxay Province. It is situated in the Nam ko basin and surrounded by scenic mountains. The town was formed by small villages at an important point of intersection in northern Laos with relatively close proximity to China, Vietnam and Thailand. Located in the North of Oudomxay province the town is home to around 30,000 inhabitants. Among the trekking destinations are a Hmong village, the market of Phuu Khiew, Phou Toa cave and the ethnic school of Oudomxay province in Ban Viengsa.

Getting to Oudomxay: By Plane: Oudomxay Airport (ODY) is served by Lao Airlines, which offers regular flights from and to Vientiane. The airport on Oudomxay is located about 5 minutes by Tuktuk from the city center. At Vientiane airport please go to the terminal for domestic flights. Flights can be booked directly at the airport office or at Litthavixay Guesthouse. Flight services to Oudomxay are run by MA6-planes. A) Vientiane to Oudomxay (Weekday, Departure, Arrival, Flight, No):, Tuesday, 14:30, 15:20, QV501; Thursday, 14:30, 15:20, QV501; Saturday, 14:30, 15:20, QV501; B), Oudomxay, to, Vientiane, (Weekday, Departure, Arrival, Flight, No):, Tuesday, 16:00, 16:50, QV502; Thursday, 16:00, 16:50, QV502; Saturday, 16:00, 16:50, QV502.

By Bus : Interprovincial buses as well as the bus to and from Pak Beng arrive at and depart from Oudomxay Bus station (map no.6/E3). We advise you to buy your bus tickets 1 hour before departure time. For inner-provincial to the districts (except Pak Beng) buses please contact the tourist information. Bus Station Tel: 081 212 218 / 217

Traveling, to, Oudomxay, (Departure, from: kilometers, Price, Bus, a, day, Departure, Arrival): A) , Boten, (Border): 82, 28.000, 1, 09:10, 12:00; B) Luang Namtha: 115, 32.000, 3, 08:30, 12:00, 14:30, 12:00, 16:00, 18:30; C) Luang Prabang: 194, 45.000, 3, 09:30, 12:30, 15:00, 14:00, 16:00, 19:30, Muang Beng, 64, 14.000, 2, 10.00, 15.00, 11.30, 16.30; D) Muang Houn: 92, 20.000, 3, 08:30, 10:00, 12:00, 11:30, 13:00, 15:00; E) Pakbeng: 144, 30.000, 2, 09:00, 12:30, 12:30, 16:00; F) Muang Khao: 105, 28.000, 3, 09:00, 13:00, 15:30, 12:00, 16:00, 18.30; G) , Nong Kiew: 114, 30.000, 1, 08:30, 12:00; H) Pak Mong: 82, 20.000, 1, 09.00, 12.00; I) Phong Saly: 236, 60.000, 1, 08:30, 19:00; J) Vientiane: VIP, 1, VIP, 2, 583, 110.000, 155.000, 130.000, 4, 6:45, 13:45, 16:00, 17:00, 21:45, 04:45, 07:00, 09:00; K) Huay, Xay, (BoKeo): 310, 80.000, 2, 08:00, 12:00, 16:00, 20:00; L) To, China, Bohan, Muang Laa, 102, 162, 35.000, 50.000, 1, 09.00, 08.00, 12.00, 12.00.

Departing, from, Oudomxay, (Destination, kilometers, Price, Bus, a, day, Departure, Arrival): A) Boten, (Border): 82, 28.000, 1, 8:00, 12:00; B) Luang Namtha: 115, 32.000, 3, 8:00, 11:00, 15:00, 12:30, 14:30, 19:30; C) Luang Prabang: 194, 45.000, 3, 9:00, 12:00, 15:00, 13:30, 15:30, 19:30; D) Muang Beng, 64, 14.000, 5, 14.00, 16.00, 15.30, 17.30; E) Muang Houn: 92, 20.000, 5, 12:00, 14:00, 16:00, 15:00, 7:00, 19:00; F) Pakbeng: 144, 30.000, 2, 8:00, 10:00, 12:30, 14:00; G) Muang Khao: 105, 28.000, 3, 8:30, 11:30, 15.00, 11:30, 14:30, 17.30; H) Nong Kiew: 114, 30.000, 1, 9:00, 13:00; I) Pak Mong: 82, 20.000, 3, 14.00, 16.00, 17.00, 19.00; J) Phong, Saly: 236, 60.000, 1, 8:00, 18:30; K) Vientiane: VIP, 1, VIP, 2, 583, 110.000, 155.000, 130.000, 4, 11:00, 2:00, 16:00, 18:00, 3:00, 5:00, 8:00, 10:00; L) Huay, Xay, (BoKeo): 310, 80.000, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, /, Per, week, 12:00, 20:00; M) To, China, Bohan, Muang Laa, 102, 162, 35.000, 50.000, 1, 7.30, 7.30, 12.00, 14.00.

ETHNIC TOWNS AND VILLAGES IN OUDOMXAY PROVINCE

Muang La (28 kilometers from Oudomxay Town) is a center for visits ethnic villages and Singkham Temple with its 400 years-old Buddha images, hot springs, Nam Kai Waterfall, and Phachao Singkham Buddha Cave. Day tours head to Phavi Village and a Khmu ethnic experience before trekking to Houay Kai Waterfall, and Aa No Village to uncover the ethnic Akha’s way of life. A two-night, community-based tour focuses on the ethnic Khmu with overnight stays in two villages and treks to Phachao Singkham Buddha Cave and Houay Kai Waterfall. Muang La has been recommended a nice place to visit , just 28 kilometers from Oudomxay town and a favorite destination of Lonely Planet author, Joe Cummins.

Ban Phavi is located in Muang La district. The Khamu village consists of 26 families with 150 members. The peoples' economic activity is subsistence farming. They raise their income by handicraft production such as bags, baskets and souvenirs. Ban Phavi, together with Ban Tanongpo, was selected to be eco tourism destinations. The objective was to provide additional income and development to the village from services provided to tourists. These services are accomodation, food and local guiding or the sell of handicraft.

Ban Yor (57 kilometers south of Oudomxay) is a town know for its handicrafts inhabited by ethnic Tai Lue and Khmu. Yor. A hands-on pottery workshop shows you where villagers find the clay, how they gather and prepare it, and how to distinguish various types of clay and the different styles of pottery and bowls. The course culminates in throwing and decorating your own pot. Those curious about cotton can participate in three separate workshops, where eager weavers learn to yearn, dye, and weave cotton. The end result is a piece of handmade cotton cloth you can call your own.

CAVES AND WATERFALLS IN OUDOMXAY PROVINCE

Chom Ong Cave (45 kilometers from Oudomxay) is an extensive cave system where spelunkers can investigate 13.5 kilometers of the roomy underground maze with overlaying halls, which run along a 4 kilometers long mountain ridge. Several side corridors remain unexplored, though one that was rediscovered ends in an 18 meter drop to the Nam Kaang River, which flows through the lower areas of the cave system. An hour-plus hike leads to the stream inlet in the north, and a full exploration with equipment can take eight hours before exiting at the river’s southern end. Some rooms have high domes of up to 35 meters high. The cave also holds some very impressive formations of stalactites and stalagmites. The lower part with the small river running through it is very humid with big stalactites. Parts of the system overlays each other and several times end 10 to 15 meters above the river.

Ban Chom Ong (45 kilometers from Oudomxay, near The Chom Ong Cave) is a Khmu village with 114 households with over 800 people. Tourists and trekkers often stop on a visit to Chom Ong Cave system. The village is very poor and tourism is an important source of income for the villagers. Visitors can visit the caves and do a homestay in the village.

Khamtan Buddha Cave visited as a half-day tour or in combination with half-day trekking making it a one-day tour. Long time ago the local people from the area used to go to the forest to collect food and firewood for their livelihood. During one of these sometimes extended trips one group from Ban Pak Ngeuy found the cave. However, in order to protect their discovery from being over-exploited they did not communicate it to people from outside. For them the cave provided guano from bats for sale (e.g. for gunpowder production) and as a fertilizer for their gardens.

During the Indochina Wars the wrap was taken off and the cave became a shelter from bombings for everyone in the area. From people in the cave many prayers were sent to the Buddha to ask for protection from the falling bombs by putting a shield over the area that would send off the bombs. It was during these hard times that the cave was given its Name “Phachao Khamtan” or “Khamtan Buddha” Cave. “Phachao” stands for Buddha and “Khamtan” stands for Valuable Protective Shield. In this combined word “tan” is the word for shield, in this case for blocking the bombs and “kham” the word for something very valuable.

Nam Kat Waterfall (reached on a high or low path from Ban Faen village, east of Oudomxay Town) is buried in old-growth jungle in the limestone outcrops. Massive boulders surround Nam Kat’s 20 meter cascade, and create a series of smaller cataracts. The easier 13 kilometers path follows the stream, along which you can see a large variety of colourful small fish. The rough 13.5 kilometers route, with a 500 meter ascent over Phou Pha Daeng Mountain, presents far-reaching views before descending to the falls and a dip in its pool.

Pakbeng (114 kilometers from Oudomxay) is situated on the narrow banks between the Mekong and Beng river, in the south west of Oudomxay province. Pak Beng, which means “mouth of Beng river” offers a variety of tourism services including numerous hotels, guesthouses and restaurants. It is a popular location for taking a rest after a long boat cruise on the Mekong. During your stay you can visit the colorful market and the temples in town. As an important doorway to Oudomxay province you can continue your journey from Pakbeng by traveling via Xay and La District to Muang Koua, Nong Khiew, Phongsaly, Oudomxay town, Vietnam and China. There is a tourist office 50 meters form the boat landing.

Things to do in Pakbeng: 1) visit the nearby Phachao Khamtan Cave (Buddha Cave) on a half-day trip or in combination with a one-day trekking tour; 2) Visit Sichomcheng and Kotkor Temple; 3) enjoy the wonderful panorama over the Mekong river bank; 4) take part in a guided bike tour from Pakbeng Lodge); 4) Enjoy restaurants with a view on the Mekong; 5) enjoy a sauna and massage; 6) stop at Khmu villages on the way like in Muang Hounl and 7) visit Phou Lang Cave or Phou Ngeum Cave and the pristine forests around them.

Pak Beng is a key transport link between Luang Prabang and Thailand, served by slow and speed boats. A regular bus service connects Pak Beng with Oudomxay city. From Houysay, the border town to Thailand, there are connections to Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Bangkok. are available. Boat time table (Destination, Boat, Time, Price): A) Houay Say, Slow Boat: 8:30-18:00, 110,000 Kip; Speed Boat, 4 hours, 150.000 Kip. B) Luang Prabang: Slow Boat, 8:30-17:30, 95.000 Kip; Speed Boat, 4 hours, 150.000 Kip,

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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