Monks, jars and dinosaur bones in Laos – A trip from north to south

The slow boat collided softly with the tyres bound to the ferry port at Luang Prabang, and the tourist horde disembarked, stretching and yawning. Caramel waves chased each other down the Mekong like energetic children playing tag. It was nice to have finally arrived.

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Luang Prabang, a very pretty city

Luang Prabang old town was pretty, neat, orderly, and traditional. Quaint guesthouses and corner stores were washed in creamy, faded yellow paint, proudly exhibiting small green gardens, urns of tiny fish and lacquered wooden signposts.

The clean, empty streets were conspicuously quiet, with bursting palm trees vaulting from sidewalks, and narrow cobbled alleyways that invited us to explore.

I was immobilized by a bout of gastro for a day, and spent the first day in bed eating noodle soup.

Soon, I felt well enough to wander the city. Cindy and I walked around the many colourful monasteries, with their tall pointed roofs and monks on laundry duty hanging up fluoro orange robes to dry in the heat.

Streets packed with restaurants baked under the sun by day, and blossomed with Hmong tribal night markets after dark. The markets are lively and fun, with plenty of food, and souvenirs for sale.

On the final morning, we ate sticky mango rice for breakfast. The riverfront boasted tree-shaded cafes, with timber balconies lined up along the Mekong.

Dreary, dull Phonsavan…

Arriving well before dawn, we wandering the streets of Phonsavan and came across more monks making their morning collections. Monks streamed single file (oldest to youngest, the little kid monks bringing up the rear) from their monasteries.

Devout locals and sleepy, curious tourists alike waited roadside to give food, placing rice balls and cookies in the monk’s jars. As quickly as they appeared, the silent donation was done, and the monks were gone.

Phonsavan was not an attractive city by any stretch of the imagination. Straight, broad streets were framed by angular, Soviet-era hotels and shuttered shop fronts barred with lattice iron gates.

Locals on motorbikes shielded themselves awkwardly from the weather with umbrellas, passing the slow makeshift tractor-engined carts. Cold, dismal rain fell silently and filled the gravelly streets with puddles of brown mud. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived, but we didn’t come for the sullen grey view. We were here to see the enigmatic Plain of Jars.

The plain of jars

Rain continued to fall into the next morning, but nevertheless we were excited, so we braved the freezing rain to find the jars. We rented a motorbike, an old red Honda.

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Site 1

Riding a motorbike with proper wet weather gear may protect from the rain, but my raincoat was ten years old, and was letting plenty of water up my sleeves as we arrived at site 1. We waited undercover until the rain slowed to a drizzle, and walked to the plain.

They differed in size, some waist height, others to the shoulders, some lopsided and lumpy, but all similar in shape. The jars were cup-shaped blocks of solid stone, mysterious hollowed out boulders, smudged with flecks of lichen and collecting rainwater in stagnant puddles.

Nobody knew who created them or for what purpose, though theories range from food storage urns, even for human burial. The prehistoric jars clustered in their dozens on the grassy field, weathering the rain with more patience than Cindy and I, so we moved on.

Site 2

Site 2 was a mission to reach. Unluckily, the rain started coming down in torrential sheets, and the road of rocky road of gravel quickly transformed into a sloppy soup of mud and water.

I swore loudly as I rode through a muddy puddle and my shoes filled up with orange mud. I decided to put that behind me though, and once I accepted that I was wet and muddy, and didn’t fight it. I was free to enjoy the challenging ride, and smiled into the rain. Cindy, riding pillion, was less convinced that the ride was fun, and hung on.

At the site 2 gate, we got off the bike. I shook a cup of rainwater from each sleeve, wringed my shirt, and warmed my iced knuckles over a steaming-hot noodle soup. I was a drowned rat, cold to the bone. Cindy, who had used me as the shield, was less wet.

Site 3

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The next plain of jars was tough on the old bike. She spluttered and wobbled up a hill of deep red mud that coated the tyres like glue. Sometimes, we’d have to get off and use a stick to unclog the tyre guards.

Inches of mud stuck to our shoes as we walked, and the bike’s tyres and undercarriage were so clogged with thick muck, that I began to use my hands. But once we arrived, we found that the jars had been waiting patiently for our arrival at the top of the hill, amidst the trees, collecting rain falling heavily from the branches above.

We stopped at one example, that had split open like a nut. Clearly, what had once been a seed into a stone pot had grown so large, over such a long time, that the tree was now the master. Amazing.

Vientiane, a place for croissants

Vientiane, Laos’ unpretentious capital, served brooding grey skies and occasional spitting rain. I had been hoping for a bustling city, maybe a Saigon or a Bangkok, with shops, sights and a cinema to watch the new Batman movie, but besides a few interesting temples, there was not much to do.

A strip of trendy French cafes alleviated boredom and satisfied hunger in the backpacker district, and we spent our time chatting with a group of tourists who had been on the slow boat with us, doing the same itinerary.

Interestingly, we found a sculpture park just outside of the city, packed with immense stone sculptures of Buddha, faces, and stupas.

a face sculpture in buddha park vientiane
Inside the mouth of one of the sculptures in Buddha Park, Vientiane

Savannakhet, and the T-rex bone

Moving south, we chanced upon slightly eerie Savannakhet. Crumbling walls and boarded-up windows, no people, few vehicles, deserted streets; this town was Zombieland.

There was an interesting dinosaur museum in Savannakhet. It was tiny, with incompletely skeletons attached to the walls, posters and glowing fairy lights. The whole museum was in either French or Laotian, so no information was passed on to me.

But, just as we were about to leave, I was offered a chance to hold a real T-rex bone. I knew that the oils from my hands would probably be corroding it, but this museum clearly had no care for this. Still – what a cool treat!

a man with a blue shirt holding a dinosaur bone
Holding a real t-rex bone, in the terrible dinosaur museum in Savannakhet

Staying only one night was an easy choice, and at the bus station we met a throng of other travellers who also could only stand one night.

By the time we reached Pakse, our patience with tortoise-slow Laos was running on fumes. Hopping from place to place, we failed to find another town as pretty or interesting as Luang Prabang. We were fed up with droll, raining towns, hotels lacking character or charm, consistently late, filthy buses, and ATMs that never worked. One more bus, this time to Cambodia. Late. Patience…


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