Out of China into Laos. A world completely different. Now we arrive at the Banana Pancake Trail which got its name from the countless backpackers trying to go native in South-East Asia.
Mohan, 9th October
A last breakfast in our room in Dali – as usual an old foam mattress called bread. Add coffee and that’s it. A last glimpse on the old town. Early morning still quiet.
And we’re again on the way to new adventures. Next stop is Weishan, just 100km from Dali.
The very last old town we plan to visit in Yunnan, and the last town on the Tea Horse Trail. This time quite an authentic old town. Slightly restored only. Thus very few Chinese tourists. We take the opportunity to walk along the Main Road with all kind of shops and enter some narrow alleys on the side.
Then we have to move on. Just 3 days left in China and still more than 800km to drive on small roads.
Today we want to reach Lincang some 250km from Weishan. The road is definitely narrow, winding along rivers and hills. No problem, just the traffic is slightly disturbing. 1000s of trucks, still many Chinese tourists on their New Year holiday. So speed reduces to 40 – 50 km/h.
Late afternoon we finally arrive in Lincang. The town a local admin. center. We have the impression it got completely rebuilt in the last 5 years. Nothing to see, just a place to stay overnight.
The next morning we start quite early. 400km to Jinghong at the Mekong River. We drive the whole day. The road remains narrow in this mountainous region and along tributaries of the Mekong. With a lot of slow traffic; on some parts again construction sites. Only the last 100km on a newly built highway.
In Jinghong we arrive again at dawn. A quite modern town on the banks of Mekong River. By now we feel that we have reached South-East Asia. The 1st indicator is the climate: over 30° and absolutely humid. Then the way of the constructions: all buildings remind us to Thai temples. Finally the way of eating: by now on the night market along Mekong River.
A stroll along the river. A beer on the street side; observing all kind of activities of the locals. And finally dinner at the night market: Different braaid monsters from the river and the pastures.
The next morning plenty of time. We just have to drive 200km to Mohan – the border to Laos. So we take the opportunity for a last shopping splurge. We discover a huge supermarket called Walmart. A giant selection of whatever Chinese may require. For us it looks slightly more difficult: all product labels in Chinese, not a single brand we know. Then we find the imported stuff, Dove soap and Nivea products. Add some mineral water and that´s it.
A visit to Jinghong’s Golden Pagoda …
… and we’re on the road again for the last km of road to Laos. The road a construction site with the hell a lot of trucks. They’re currently building the highway to the border. So it takes more than 4h to arrive in Mohan. Time to take the decision that should we pass thru China again we’ll definitely take the highway wherever possible.
In Mohan we find a reasonable accommodation. The town offers no other attraction than the border post so we use the opportunity to simply do nothing.
At least in the evening a last fat Chinese meal with watery Chinese beer – we never found anything with more than 2.5%.
Luang Namtha, 12th October
We get up early. Today we’ll cross into Laos. Of course before that we have to persuade 2 border posts that we’re just dull tourists; therefore no risk for whatever they might imagine in the respective country.
At 8h30am we drive to the Chinese post. Our guide informs us that all paperwork to get Prado out of the country has already been done. Only 1 single stamp from the customs, which we’ll get only once the car is visibly out of China, is missing. Of course THIS STAMP is the solely property of an authority 5 levels higher than any person you may imagine. As usual with such important persons we have to wait a little. But not a long time, then we get informed that the authority – or maybe THE STAMP only – has arrived. Quickly we pass immigration. Then we drive the car out of China (it’s just a few meters). The guide gets its document with THE STAMP. We say goodbye to Sumon and get our freedom back.
We drive some 100m to the Laos border post in Boten. Pay for disinfection of our car, buy our visa, have quite a discussion because the immigration officer insists to stamp our Carnet. Finally he does it wrongly. So a 2nd page has to be used to correct that. Fortunately, he only puts some stamps on the page without taking his receipt. But he stamps in that Prado has to leave Laos within 1 month. We drive on – messy. Some km further the Laos customs. They want the Carnet, ignore all the stamps of the immigration guy and stamp the 3rd page. By now without date of exit. So, now we’re really in.
Laos looks quite different. No more modern buildings; the road rather potholed and narrow. Winding too. It largely reminds us of Africa – maybe of a rural part of Mocambique or West Africa’s coastal areas with lush jungle on both sides of the road. Maybe the elephant just walked out of the zoo – there´s no connection to Africa.
A few km further we find a few offices handling border procedures for trucks. We inquire for an insurance for Prado. We think it might be a good idea to have 1, because Swiss insurances are not very open-minded to vehicles driving abroad; for these companies the world ends just a little bit outside the Swiss border. Whatever. Finally we found a guy willing to effect an insurance for 20$ a month.
We drive the 60km from the border to Luang Namtha. We take a bungalow with a lot of space, a veranda and a garden. Exactly what we need to recover from China, to get everything cleaned’n’rearranged and to get ourselves organised.
And now, after the Silk Road and the Tea Horse Trail we have reached the Banana Pancake Trail . This is not a very clearly defined route, it’s rather 1 with a lot of loose ends, circles going forward’n’backward. It’s also not an old, dignified route were traders have sneaked along for centuries. It’s rather a collection of trails used by backpackers in South East Asia since the Hippy Trail to Afghanistan’n’Nepal has closed down due to continued Cold War and Jiddhi activities in Afghanistan.
Its name makes reference to a very significant degradation of food quality along this trail: western backpackers wanted to be different from the all-inclusive mass tourist buddy booking his adventure package in Pattaya, Thailand without his beloved wife. This effort to be different also included food. Of course for the backpackers only local food was acceptable. There was only 1 small problem: all these curries, soups, meats and veggies were so dammed spicy’n’hot.
And there it started: the banana backpackers politely asked for food less spicy, less hot; often without spices and most important with no chillies – but still all local to help them going native. Consequently, the cooks started to prepare special original local food for this new clientele. Of course, they were preferred guests because they always paid the local prize without knowing it and they even accepted absolutely tasteless food without any complaints.
Then the next problem to be solved: often the backpackers had to eat local fried rice or local noodle soup for breakfast. Understandably, they were not too amused about this situation. Fried eggs’n’bacon was also not their favourite – not local enough as imported from imperialistic America. Finally, the compromise was found: banana pancakes. Surely nobody wants to take responsibility for this new stuff on the menu list. Nevertheless, it was introduced – and it spreads in next to no time to all South East Asian countries. And the Banana Pancake Trail was born.
Well, the whole situation is not as hopeless as it seemed to be for a certain time. There was a 2nd generation of banana pancakers. They were convinced that going native was still the all important thing for a genuine backpacker. But what’s wrong about it if everything is produced’n’made locally and if the result is a pizza or a hamburger (e.g. the 1 you surely know from a famous fast food chain). So burgers’n’pizza intruded the local menu. Typically as buffalo-burger and lao-bamboo-fed-chicken-vegan pizza. As many pancakers were no longer happy with this no-tasties for dinner, the situation developed further. What may be wrong with the Italian executive cook in the restaurant – as long as his employees are local and some of the ingredients of the pizza are local? Other ingredients may be imported, of course. A new generation of Banana-Pancakies, the 3rd 1, was born – and that’s where we currently are.
Well, in Laos we had to get used to this situation. Many tourists everywhere. If you arrive with a car they think the man from the Mars has finally arrived.
In all these banana pancake centres it’s nowadays pretty difficult to find some acceptable local food. Well, Laos has excellent food if you’re away from the trail and some of the worst we ever had once you’re on it.
Back from the Banana-Backpackers to us. We need a few days to get organised. The 1st evening it’s important to get used to the Beerlao. Not too difficult, quite feasible – and less watery than the Chinese one.
Then our decision to adapt to the latest generation of Banana-Pancakies. Also feasible, even if the pizza reminded us slightly to the 2nd Generation – the mozzarella was definitely not imported from Italy.
And, most important to send all kind of information to a travel agent in Thailand that he can apply for Prado’s permit to enter this strange country. This bureaucratic monster we have to apply for very quickly as Thailand plans not to allow foreign cars without a guide’n’escort car in the near future. Nice perspectives for overlanders. Thanx crazy guys.
Phongsaly, 14th October
After 3 days we are again used to travel without a guide/watchdog on the backseat of Prado. So we take the risk to leave Luang Namtha and to move on to Oudomxay. A small, non-descript town 60km to the east.
The next day on to Phongsaly, with 1400m the highest town in Laos. The area is inhabited by a great number of different tribes. Apart from the endlessly winding road and the drive thru the jungle and many Chinese owned rubber tree plantations, these villages are the main attraction for the few tourists heading for Phongsaly.
230km, 8h drive. Not really much to see: plantations and some jungle on the left, the same on the right, a small’n’narrow road in front, some oncoming vehicles in the middle of the road, especially around bends, and a few villages with hill tribes.
Some Akha women in the market – probably the most famous tribe in this area.
We pass thru Boun Neua. A very strange village not far from the Chinese border. Already from far we see the place is different. Huge buildings, many shops, many construction sites, etc. Indeed, when passing thru it gets very visible the place is more or less Chinese owned. And this within Laos.
In the afternoon we arrive in Phongsaly – slightly knocked out by the 10 000 bends of the road.
In the evening a walk to Phongsaly’s small lake. There’s Blackman´s. Well, it’s an ordinary bar, but with the best food we have had in Laos so far. Fiery hot – even prepared this way for foreigners. Now we’re sure in this town we’re out of the Banana Pancake Trail.
Nong Khiaw, 17th October
… later just a long’n’winding road.
Shortly before Nong Khiaw we approach the karst landscape the area is famous for.
We find a bungalow right above the Nam Ou River.
The next day we drive the short distance to the Pha Tok cave. Fantastic landscape.
The cave during the 2nd Indochina War in the70ties was a refuge for the Pathet Lao Governemt to escape American bombing. Still difficult to imagine the strenuous conditions governing a province from this dark hole in the middle of nowhere and at the same time resisting the continuous bombing.
The next day a boat trip on Nam Ou River. To Muang Ngoy. This village is well known in the Pancaker Scene as especially remote and authentic; a place where you may enjoy real Laotian village life unchanged for the last 10 000 years; completely unspoilt from the devastating influence of the rest of the world.
About 2 hours upstream. Awesome landscape and some village life on the water, …
Many kids want to have taken their photo – and of course then see themselves on the camera screen. A kind of selfie someone else takes for you.
We enter the village. At least everything is clearly signposted. Could it be there were already a few other tourists here before?
We learn that the whole village was completely destroyed by American bombs during the war. Nowadays the remains of this conflict mainly serve as an attraction to visitors.
Later we cannot resist all these offers for the tourists. We order lunch in a nice restaurant. A huge menu. By chance only fried rice or fried noodles are available. But those at least at the price of a full menu. By the way, this was 1 of the most uneatable lunches we had so far. But now we know we’re in a real center of the Banana Pancake Trail.
Back on the idyllic Nam Ou River. In the evening awaits us the 1st day of Awk Phansaa Festival. It marks the end of the three-month Buddhist Lent. Now monks are permitted to leave the temple and are presented with gifts. On the eve of Awk Phansaa people gather at the nearest body of water to release dozens of small banana-leaf boats decorated with candles, incense and small flowers. Of course an opportunity not to be missed.
Luang Prabang, 20th October
We take the road to Luang Prabang. The road is quite ok, most of it brand new – but still winding and pretty narrow.
On the way a visit to the Pak Ou Cave with its 1000s of Buddhas. The lower cave easy to access, …
… the higher 1 requires a little bit more effort: quite some steep stairs at a temperature of 35° and at least 200% humidity.
Finally we arrive in Luang Prabang. We find a nice GH at the Mekong River. The town is still characterized by a strong French influence. Nowadays an UNESCO World Heritage Site, it seems that it increasingly converts into a test plot for a 4th generation Banana Pancake Trail backpackers. Many Pancakers get older, their backpacks convert into suitcases. Local guesthouses transform into boutique hotels and eating like the locals can as well be celebrated at gourmet eateries serving selected local dishes fully adapted to westerner’s taste and hygienic standards.
Nevertheless, this old town remains idyllic, still has a certain atmosphere of the old world and remains far from Yunnan´s kitsch.
Before admiring all this, we have to organise our journey to Myanmar. As there the same watchdog requirements prevail as in China we will convert from overlanders to backpackers. Thus we need a decent parking for Prado. Finally we find a place with a former colleague of Martin. 1st issue solved. Then: booking flights. Air Asia offers what we need – with a night in Bangkok. Ok.
And then finally a visit to Luang Prabang’s famous Vat Xieng Thong.
For sunset of course a steep climb up to Mount Phousi. A beautiful view down to the town und the Mekong. Nevertheless, you’re not alone – and shortly before sunset many visitors develop a kind of pretty aggressive mass hysteria to secure their best place to see the spectacle. No idea why the guys in the 2nd to 267th row cannot watch the cellphone screen of the guy in front of them.
After that definitely time for a late sundowner …
… and to prepare for the 2nd day of the Awk Phansaa Festival. As Luang Prabang is a rather big town, this day really has to be special. A parade of the banana-leaf boats takes place in the old town before they’re left to the gods on Mekong River.
Phonsavan, 22nd October
Phonsavan definitely not the place you must have seen. But not far from the famous Plain of the Jars – where tourists admire 100s of mysterious stones with holes, called jars lying around in the landscape.
The town and the Plain had been target of very intense bombing during the 2nd Indochina war. The Americans thought by plowing the whole area with their bombs they would stop the Viet Cong from further advancement to South Vietnam. Today this historic heritage still remains visible: a big office of the Mine Advisory Group (MAG) is still busy to defuse cluster bombs and other relicts in the area.
Many restaurants try to attract visitor by using this war-related stuff as decoration.
Still it´s unclear where all these jars are coming from and what they were used for. While some renowned archeologists presume they were used as burial sites, Martin still can imagine them as containers to produce excellent rotten grape juice. Whatever.
In the afternoon we drive some 30km to Muang Khoun to visit the Buddha at Vat Piawat.
So far our adventures in Laos. Next post from Myanmar. Without Prado; us now as backpackers. But no longer on the Banana Pancake Trail.