It is a 350 km drive south east from almost the most northern part of Lao near the Chinese border to Nong Khiaw on the Nong Ou River, which we will follow downstream to where it flows into the Mekong near the Vietnam border. Much of the road is under construction. There are occasions when the road is closed for an hour or so to enable work to be completed. This will range from gangs of men & women picking through rocks or shovelling shingle to huge lorries tipping mountains of hardcore for tag teams of Mad Max road rollers to crunch & grind it to flatbed fitness. At times the lines heavy traffic have to negotiate its way through the work gangs & machines, winding between tippers & rollers & landslips & root banks. Inevitably progress can be painfully slow. It is such a good spectator sport for the locals when this road show reaches town. The plastic chairs come out, groups assemble outside homes with refreshments and families giggle & laugh & point & smile as these gigantic beasts pound their new high street and tiny tourists buses try to get around them in an attempt to make up lost time. Yep, this is our road through town. Fun & games!
Arrival in Nong Khiaw is compensation for the trials of the journey. In the evening dullness stilted cabins can be seen from the bridge, gazing out over the river & town through the mist & drizzle.
Underneath my mosquito net, just before dawn, the sounds of the day starting penetrate my sleep & I go with it: a cockerel in the far distance faintly begins a progressing chorous that gradually gets closer until the cacophony hits, dies down & then is started up again, probably by the same darn cockerel; a couple of dogs reenact duelling banjos for a while before returning to silence; cicadas constantly rub their back legs chirpily; a longtail engine splutters & splurges into life & potters up the river, any silencer long expired; a motor bike croans across the bridge; the sound of metal pots being scrapped across ranges adds an extra touch of humanity to the dawning of a new day. Then the darkness lightens and from the gloom of dawn, rooves, limestone hills & foliage appear from the low shroud of cloud & swirling mist. The sound of longtail boats becomes more frequent – a paddle monotonously dragging the surface, a light engine whirring its propeller, larger engines gunning their power to hit the downstream current. A radio comes to life with a broadcast of language & military music. Dawn has broken & the day begins.
We board our boats on the Nam Ou and roar out of town towards the Mekong. Halfway there were have to leave the river at the recently constructed dam and travel by bus to the Pak Ou Caves on the Mekong. Sacred Buddhist shrines are housed in two caves in the limestone cliffs and thousands of Buddhist images are crammed onto loads of rock shelves.