Cycling northern Laos: Luang Prabang – Phonsavan

260 kms, very scenic, very mountainous, 4 days.
After 5 relaxing days in LP we got on our machines again. Our plan was to go south, with a second stop in Phu Khun. There we had a choice about which we were very much in doubt: either continue southward or turn left and head east towards Phonsavan and the Plain of the Jars and the region of the secret war. We would like to go there, but until now we hadn’t been able to find out if there was accommodation on the last stretch of 130 kms, being too far for one day, especially on a mountain road. In the guest house after the first day we met a vet (he had done his PHD in a 15 year study in Kazachstan). He assured us that there was a guest house between Phu Khun and Phonsavan and this was just the information that we needed. Even more, he informed us on the condition of the road and told us that it would be easier than from LP to Phu Khun. So we decided to do it.
Day 1: Luang Prabang (309 alt) to Kioukacham (1400 alt). 78 kms, two mountains, total vertical mtrs 1872. Heavy, but beautiful. Good and very quiet road. The guest house (same as jan 2006) is just after the top of the last mountain. Very basic, clean enough, a shared toilet and a pan of water to wash, good food, baguette in the morning. In the evening we got a charcoal stove at our table, as temperatures dropped to 12 C or so.
Day 2: to Phu Khun (1350 alt). 50 kms, 936 vertical meters. Same road, similar beautiful environment. Together with a German boy, who took a bus to Phonsavan the same afternoon, soon after our arrival. Saipavong guesthouse (same again, new and younger management) is similar to the former one, maybe a little bit cleaner. It had done some improvements the last few years, that was obvious. Not strange, since about noon every day the tourist buses on their way between Vientiane or Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang (or v.v.) make a stop at this junction and the house gets a lot of clients.
Day 3: to Nong Tang (alt. 1130). 87 kms, 1374 vertical meters. A heavier stage than we  had expected after the information we had received. Very scenic, quiet and good road. In the beginning rather cold and in the mist. Nong Tang Guesthouse is situated at the side of a small lake on the right side of the road, right after a sharp left turn. You can’t miss it. If nobody’s there (we suppose this is mostly the case), inquire in the restaurant 50 meters further. Both the restaurant and the guesthouse are very basic. There is no electricity. The restaurant has a generator.
Day 4: to Phonsavan (alt. 1130). 50 kms, 304 vertical meters). Beautiful, flatter because on the plain. Different landscape and vegetation, even pine trees. Wide open views. Lots of space. Infertile soil, nothing agricultural seems to grow there. Phonsavan is a town stretched out over a large surface. We stayed in KongKeo guesthouse. Nice and cosy bungalows, amicable atmosphere, nice staff of which some speak good English. The owner is an ex foster child and has even studied in Europe. A man of strong opinions. F.i. on the NGOs that he has experience with. To summarize: nothing positive to be said about them, and this is put mildly.
The region around Phonsavan is full or war scrap: old bombs, granades and military material are everywhere. People use it to decorate offices, houses, gardens, restaurants etc. with. Every year between 30 and 60 people get killed by UXO (unexploded ordnance). These are the leftovers of the secret war that raged in Laos between 1964 and 1973 and the USA-bombing of North Vietnam until 1975. In this part of Lao it was royalists against communists. The Americans supported the first – of course – and had a secret airbase south of the town. They only left in 1975, after being driven out of Vietnam. The airbase was also meant of course to be the base of the operations against the Ho Chi Min trail, that crossed Laos in the south. Over 2 million tons of ammunition (most of which cluster bombs) has been dropped on Laos, of which one third did not explode on impact. Good quality! A British lead organisation (MAG) is still busy clearing the Lao soil. Victims every year still, much land can still not be used. In the prehistoric sites of the plain of the jars you can only walk between marked stones, going beyond them is dangerous. Bomb craters everywhere.

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