Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Sam Neua, Laos

Posted on May 11th, 2005

Another mountain view taken from a high speed bus.

The scenery on the one lane, inconceivably, steep, accident-waiting-to-happen road from Phonsavan to Sam Neua was just different enough to keep one’s mind off of their critically imperiled well-being. I happened to get the co-pilot seat on the pigmy bus that delivered us from opium country to the most remote provincial capitol in Laos, a place so far off the Laos beaten path that the national electric utility couldn’t summon the enthusiasm to wire them up, so they had to get a line run over the border from Vietnam. There were the usual fantastic mountain vistas, the mysterious roadside settlements featuring grimy, pantsless kids running wild, radiating dirt like they bathed in charcoal, but there was new weirdness to contemplate, including the groups of pretty young girls on the side of the road, miles from anywhere, in the harsh surroundings of this mountain frontier, yet beautifully groomed and scrubbed clean in every way. Hair washed and done up, shirts and dresses immaculate and wearing actual shoes. How these girls were maintaining such airs in this challenging place where most people can’t even find the occasion to wash their faces more than once a week I couldn’t fathom. Additionally, one particularly far-flung village must have gotten their hands on some incriminating pictures of an important government official, because there was a good stretch of road where every shack, hut, outhouse and lean-to had it’s very own, shiny new solar panel. It was one of the most incongruous sights I’ve seen in all of SE Asia.

Though the actual ride was far less violent than my three previous bus experiences - not a single puker! - I was still more than a little miserable. Partially because my neighbor, a mouth-breathing yokel who was sitting between me and the driver on the hump over the engine block, spent the entire time in a spasm of fidgeting which repeatedly invaded my personal space. When he wasn’t obsessively smearing copious amounts of Tiger Balm on every patch of exposed skin, he was digging and scratching at his groin with a passion that made me concerned for my personal safety. I imagined that anything that could inflame a man that much could probably travel the 12 inches that was between us under its own power and find a new home in my shorts. I crossed my legs and hugged the wall.

As unpleasant as that was, it paled in comparison to my overall mental condition. In a nut, I was trashed. I’ve been complaining about mental fatigue since before Myanmar, but at this stage it was starting to go beyond simple griping and entering the realm of grave health concern. The few bad nights of sleep per week that I was suffering three months ago on Borneo had slowly progressed to several nights a week in Bangkok (the first time) and had finally come to rest at full-on insomnia in the previous two weeks. If I may indulge in a little self-serving back story (this is my journal after all, feel free to skim straight to the less introspective, obsessive self-analysis parts), it must be mentioned that even at the best of times, I’m not a gifted sleeper. My brain has a mind of it’s own, if you will, and frequently refuses to shut down at night. Back when I had a boring, uneventful life, sleeping in a heavenly, comfortable bed, in the familiar surroundings of my tomb-quiet house, I still usually needed a good 30 to 45 minutes to drift off. When traveling, sleeping in uncomfortable cots in loud, strange hostels, barring the occasional drunk or fit of exhaustion, finding slumber becomes even worse. Add in the stress of high speed, tense travel through an unpredictable country on perilous roads and the distraction of researching and organizing free flights and accommodations on puttering, costly Internet connections for back-to-back magazine assignments - with only disturbingly limited success a mere week before take-off now - the act of falling asleep before 2:00AM and staying asleep versus waking up at 3:00, 3:45, 4:25 and 5:10, only to wake up for good at 5:30 with the roosters becomes hopelessly defeating.

My last serious bout with insomnia was during the excruciating emancipation from my sham marriage with The Grifter, at which point a pitying therapist prescribed something for me with a little more zap than usual to put my brain down. Nearly four years later, I still have that bottle, though it is dangerously close to empty, and I started dipping into it in Phonsavan. It didn’t take on the first night for some reason (when does this stuff expire?), but on the second night I got seven of the deepest, uninterrupted hours of sleep I’ve had since I was in Bario in Malaysian Borneo. Though this was an excellent first step, it certainly wasn’t enough to keep me chipper for the 10 hour ride to Sam Neua.

Overcoming this sleep predicament was a large reason why I was going to put the brakes on the travel and work pace for my last week in Laos, making an easy loop back to Luang Prabang – but this is Laos we’re talking about, so by “easy loop” I mean of course a 16 hour bus ride, over the worst roads in northern Laos - and right onto a plane that would swiftly and painlessly whistle me back to Bangkok rather than submitting myself to two and a half days on various buses. My original plan to tempt fate on two domestic Laos flights, something even Lonely Planet advised against, in order to get in several days in beautiful Si Phan Don in the deep south of Laos was not only a foolish memory, but it turns out, completely out of the question even if I had been in top form. Apparently, one too many planes attempting the steep, cloudy, heart stopping landing at Sam Neau had failed to find the runway and Sam Neau’s airport had been permanently closed. The only way out of town was the way I came, on another god forsaken bus.

So, with the last 500 words in mind, it will come as no surprise that I wasn’t all too gassed about seeing the famous Pathet Lao Caves, where Laos’ Pathet Communist party leaders and soldiers lived and hid out from bombing raids for nearly 10 years until their victory in 1975. I tried my best to get my cave-swerve on, but it just wasn’t happening. All I could think about was that I should have been on a beach somewhere with half-naked Scandinavians and cheap cocktails, but I was in the remote mountains of northeastern Laos, with a polluted river, laughably over-dressed locals and the nearest bottle of wine over being over 10 hours drive away. As I walked down the wide, dusty streets of Sam Neua to my guesthouse, I concluded, and I think you’ll agree, that is the least effective setting to work out comfort and exhaustion issues.

And since I’m complaining, my intolerance of the Laotian tendency to wallow in bodily fluids and excretions was hitting an all-time high. The pantsless kids running around leaving piss and shit bacteria on everything they touch aside, the Laotians seem to have a saliva disorder, in that they can’t seem to swallow it, ever. The free-for-all of spitting in Laos is spectacular. Not in that it crosses all boundaries of age, sex and social hierarchy, but also in the zeal with which it is performed. In addition to the average Laotian ejecting some kind of loogie from their mouths every two minutes, no matter where they are, they typically prepare for this act with a thorough, shamelessly vocal clearing of the pipes all the way down to the colon. And for people with delicate gag reflexes like myself, it’s a monumental test of nausea control. The whole contradictory nature of their personal habits is bizarre; they daintily cover their mouths with one hand to pick their teeth with a toothpick so as not to gross out their meal companions, but in the next instant, still sitting at the diner table, they will lean over, gargle up and discharge a wobbling ball of phlegm large enough to smite dead a small animal. Clearly I had to get out of Laos, or at least rural Laos, on the next water buffalo out of town. But since I was already in Sam Neua, I figured I might as well see those damn Commie caves.

Early the next morning I joined an English guy staying at my guest house on the 9:00AM sawngthaew – a converted pickup truck, with two wooden benches down each side and a canopy – for the one hour ride to Vieng Xai, where the Pathet Lao Caves are located. Vieng Xai is even further east than extreme-northeast Sam Neua, meaning that by the time you rattle into town, the Vietnam border is temptingly close. You can virtually throw a rock from Vieng Xai and hit something in Vietnam and the urge to just step over the border was great, but I only had the standard single-entry visa for both Vietnam and Laos. Not only would a few hours over the border in Vietnam waste a perfectly good US$60 visa, but I wouldn’t be able to return to Laos to collect my bags. No, I was going to have to wait until late June to see the view from the other side of that dotted line.

Downtown Vieng Xai. Just kidding, this is actually two blocks outside downtown.

Some of the limestone cliffs that house various caves

After a one kilometer hike from the drop-off point to the tourist office and a congenial round of tea with the two people manning the oversized, deserted building, we were introduced to our guide Somkhip, who we quickly learned had only been studying English for one year. Another American joined our little group and we were on our way. The first cave we toured, Tham Than Kaysone, belonged to my man Kaysone Phomvihan. The cave was man made, using dynamite and took about four months to complete. It’s surprisingly roomy, with multiple bedrooms, still containing original furniture, an office, an emergency room, a bust of Lenin, a painting of Che Guevara and a vault-like attack shelter with a Russian-made steel door and a hand cranked, oxygen machine.

Entrance to Tham Than Kaysone

View from Tham Than Kaysone cave.


Russian air machine

That's the bust of Lenin and the painting of Che on the shelf.

Meeting roon, with assigned seats

Next we walk another kilometer to Tham Than Souphanouvong cave, which was much less impressive inside, containing only a handful of bedrooms, a meeting room and yet another Russian fortified inner shelter, but it had a huge, empty ying-shaped swimming pool out front, or so we thought until we were told it was a crater from a 500 pound bomb that they had decided to cement over for preservation. There was also an unassuming house constructed out in front of the cave, which I assume was built after the war ended and a second smaller cave which served as a garage.

Ying pool, formerly a 500lb. bomg crater.

The final cave, Tham Than Khamtay, was massive. Half naturally formed and half dynamited, it not only played home to Laos’ current prime minister, but down a set of steps through blasted out rock a giant cavern as big as an airport served as barracks for up to 3,000 people at a time, featuring such amenities as a cave stream which was manipulated into an aqueduct, a 100 yard tunnel which connected to yet more living areas and a second gaping cavern that had been converted into a theater where the Pathets watched films during those long nights of bombing. It’s now used to host parties and wedding receptions. There’s a simple, two story house outside this cave as well, which is said to belong to the current prime minister’s son. Upon inspection, we all agreed it would make an excellent party house.

Tham Than Khamtay

Dried up aqueduct

Available for your next party!

Many of these caves had grottos inside and garden areas just outside their fortified doors which could be used and enjoyed when cluster bombs weren’t hailing down, making it seem as if that the Pathet weren’t roughing it all that much while they were holed up strategizing against the imperialist weasels. After lavishly tipping Somkhip we relaxed with tasty Lao coffees while waiting for the next sawngthaew back to Sam Neua to fill up enough to make the driver want to leave.

Even without my prevailing pessimism at the time, Sam Neua was really a pit, worse than Phonsavan. Palatable food options were scarce and the lone Internet office was a kilometer down the road, outrageously priced and out of commission for all but a few hours while I was there. An American English teacher that had ridden into town with us was committed to staying in Sam Neua to teach for two months and she looked distinctly envious as we made hasty plans to leave at the crack of dawn the next morning. Perhaps this remote, strange, aesthetically challenged locale would have been a bit easier to swallow back during my fresher days in January, but now it was simply an objectionable burg whose appeal directly corresponded with how quickly you could distance yourself from it.

Mental exhaustion and the expected side effect of travel apathy was making me desperate for some lazy, comfortable relief. If the airport hadn’t been closed I would have probably been driven to board any form of pine wood, hobby kit aircraft with landing gear consisting of a wagon wheel nailed onto a two-by-four if it meant a swifter exit from Sam Neua and deliverance in the form of a clean room, a soft bed and a bottle of drinkable wine on the bedside table, but alas I was relegated to the bus. Egged on by my likeminded British companion of the previous 24 hours, who was also hitting his wall of uncomfortable travel tolerance, I made the snap decision to go for broke and push past my intended stop in Nong Khiaw, a village offering arresting views, superior trekking and, the deal breaker, US$1.50 a night ratty guesthouses with cells for rooms and mattresses on the floor, in favor of cannonballing the full 16 hours all the way back to Luang Prabang in one ball-busting go. Once there, I would check into an extravagant guesthouse, gorge on slightly less offensive food, take advantage of cheap, speedy Internet to bag urgent work and stay comatose on cheap wine for several days before my flight back to Bangkok. Sorted.

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©Leif Pettersen 2012