With all the planning, spreadsheets and lists in the world it is impossible to always climatically be in the right place at the right time. We found ourselves in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos for the onset of the monsoon; a time of heat, humidity and torrential downpours. However, we overlanders are/should be predisposed to enduring the elements and despite the climatic and logistical challenges presented by monsoon travel we found enormous benefits to touring during this season.
Temperatures were a sweltering +40°C in the lead up to the start of the monsoon but once the rains actually arrived, showers reduced the temperature often by 10°C. Humidity was high but the accompanying monsoon breeze made the stickiness bearable and by 8pm the temperature had fallen to below 30°C, which was the crucial difference between a good and a sweaty, restless night’s sleep in the roof tent.
Rain itself presents obvious challenges when you are overlanding in a 4x4 and live outdoors. We learned to read the skies and approaching cloud formations when deciding if we had the necessary 45 minutes dry period necessary to rustle up and eat a stir fry for dinner. Our awning has attachable sides which are perfect if the rain is not accompanied by strong winds, in which situation the awning is more hassle than it is worth with sides flapping towards the stove and water being blasted by gale-force winds through the many gaps. On this occasion we take comfort that our fridge still delivered our beers at a refreshing 3°C and that SE Asian countries sell an amazing array of beer snacks- dried squid and pea crisps for tea-time in a steamed-up, front of the car, substituted dinner on more than one occasion.
An unavoidable downside to monsoon conditions is the surge in blood-sucking critters, particularly mosquitoes (everywhere) and leeches in the jungle. It’s never a pleasure to have to smear thick, pungent insect repellent on when your skin is already sticky with sweat and covered in sand and salt but it does work. Camping away from swamps and long grass reduced the numbers dramatically.
The last thing you want to do when the day eventually cools off slightly is to put clothing layers on, but this is when the worst aerial assault begins. Generally long sleeves and trousers kept the biters at bay. A small price to pay when watching the evening illuminated dance displays of emerging fireflies, which also increase in numbers during this season and gracefully light up the night sky.
Persistent precipitation leaves clothing, blankets and towels damp for days but the sun does eventually come out and then everything is dry within an hour. Rainfall is typically short and sweet and only lasts for a few hours of each day.
There is something beautifully wild and romantic about sitting on a deserted beach with waves crashing on the shore and dark storm clouds swirling in the sky. We witnessed some incredible lightning storms from the (relative) safety of our roof tent and the gentle pitter-patter of early morning raindrops can be as soothing as a lullaby when there is no work to get out of bed for.
We adventured through Cambodia and South Thailand in June, described by travel guides as the ‘low season when visitors melt’. The plus side of visiting at this time is that most tourists are far more sensible than us and follow this advice, leading to an empty Ta Prohm temple at Angkor Wat early in the morning. The surrounding beaches of Krabi and Phuket region, with sands crawling with tourists in the high season of November to February, were abandoned. We could wild camp undisturbed and wander endless stretches of empty sand gazing at an uninterrupted horizon of waves and karst limestone rock islands.
National Parks were deserted so we could enjoy wildlife trails all to ourselves, with numerous sightings of normally crowd-shy animals and birds. Camp sites were uninhabited and in many we were the only occupants, with the exception of sharing the site with wild deer and the shower block with the odd water monitor lizard. Paradise. Most chalet and beach-hut resorts are closed but now and again they let us camp there for free and use the facilities. On one occasion we were invited to join the builders for sundowner beers and fresh crab and shrimps after a day of cabana restoration preparing for the next season. If it’s peace and not parties you’re after, off-peak travel in Thailand is bliss.
The first thing that hits you when you wander into one of Laos markets is the smell; the pungent aroma of fish sauce, for me, will forever be synonymous with Southeast Asian bazaars. Added to this, an olfactory fusion of garlic, frying shrimp paste, spices, chilli, mango, coconut, honey and fresh herbs and your senses are overwhelmed.
Meat and fish form a large part of Laotians diet, in the market your dinner couldn’t get much fresher (if a tad unhappy) with cages full of ducks and chickens. Plastic sinks and concrete tanks writhe with Catfish and Tilapia, traders dipping nets in and trying to contain the flapping, protesting catch on archaic weighing scales before tipping the ill-fated fish into a plastic bag. Breathing purchases are not just limited to everyday livestock; frogs, lizards, crickets, cicadas and even some very unlucky rodents are lined up in boxes for the more exotic Lao tea-times. No part of an animal is wasted in Laos, women meticulously pick the meat from a pig’s ribcage while the trotters and snouts are piled high. Piles of tripe are folded carefully for sale alongside severed buffalo hooves and entire pig’s heads. A woman cuts slices from a huge plastic bowl containing bright red congealed blood, as always the butchers section is not for those with weak stomachs!
Colourful canopies of overlapping parasols and awnings shade the piles of fruit and vegetables from the strong Laos sunshine, creating a rainbow of light over an already vibrant display of lychees, passion fruit, strawberries, cherries, oranges and apples. The midday heat starts to hit the stall holders busy since dawn and women doze head-down on piles of cabbages or snooze stretched-out on loungers next to their flapping fish stand.
The Laos snack-of-choice, fried pigskin, is portioned in bags sitting alongside rows of mystery powders, dried plants, obscure berries and roots and clear bottles of unidentified liquids and oils.
The market is not just a practical place for supply purchase, it’s the pulsating hub of the community, a place where livelihoods are made and the rewards of hard work are earnt. Families work together and friends catch up over coffee and noodles, children run between the stalls and young people meet on scooters.
If all the browsing makes you hungry, every market has snack stalls serving endless portions of the ubiquitous noodle soup- a steaming bowl of clear chicken broth into which additions are ladled from plastic containers under the bench; fish balls, shredded chicken, spring onions, bean-sprouts, rice noodles, cabbage, fried garlic, chilli and fish sauce. It takes some skill to work the small ladle/chopstick combo but once mastered this dish is a delicious shop-stop and a healthy fast-food bargain at less than £1 a bowl.
We spent most of our time in Laos driving the small mountain roads, particularly in the north of the country. Remote and rural, at times we found ourselves bumping along pot-holed surfaces or driving in billowing clouds of dust on half-finished tracks. The scenery was magnificent and often the roads followed the routes of Laos’ many rivers, climbing high into the hilltops, then dropping down through lush jungle fringing the watercourse. One of the highlights of taking such minor roads was the chance to experience life in the hill tribe villages. At times it was like driving through a National Geographic article; men in traditional tribal dress, women weaving bright patterned cloth on ancestral wooden looms, timber houses balanced on carved stilts and children chasing chickens and piglets.
Old ladies gossip under the shade of Hibiscus trees while men in woven bamboo hats herd lumbering black water buffalo uphill along the road. Hammocks swing in the stifling midday summer heat, gently swaying snoozing occupants in the shade under wooden stilted houses.
Self-sufficiency is vital, villagers trek back to the village from the surrounding fields, straps round their foreheads balancing bamboo-woven baskets piled high with vegetables and green leaves on their backs. Small, terraced paddy fields fringe the valleys, bare-footed rice collectors paddling through the bright green swathes.
Freshwater fish is the Laotians main source of protein and fine nets are thrown from dug-out canoes on the rivers, while youngsters wait patiently with handmade rod and lines. Small fish are neatly tied in lines on sticks, fried and sold from small roadside stalls, while live catfish and snakehead fish squirm in buckets hours away from a spicy sauce and sticky rice.
A menagerie of livestock pecks, waddles and lounges beneath the timber homes; ducks, chickens, geese, boar, buffalo, cows and goats wander through every village. Without mains water, families gather around communal taps, women modestly washing under sarongs while children scream naked, splashing each other.
Sadly, it’s not all romantic crafts and cute kids, the villagers face very real threats from logging operations in the surrounding hills- deforestation is a massive problem and on a few occasions while driving the road was filled with acrid smoke from ‘slash and burn’ land clearance as entire hillsides smouldered. The US bombing campaign in the 60’s and 70’s has left an ugly legacy with unexploded ordnance still a risk to villages, particularly children who find the deadly, small cluster bombs. Water shortages are frequent and water quality is often poor, access to education and health care is also a problem in the smaller, more remote villages.
Despite the poverty and struggles of a rural existence, the villages have a warm and welcoming atmosphere; betel-stained mouths smile and wave as you drive into each settlement, people filled with both curiosity and warm hospitality.
The ‘Secret War’ in Laos was a covert proxy war, fought in the shadows of the Vietnam War and was fuelled by the belligerent global Cold War superpowers. The war was fought between the Communist Pathet Lao which was effectively organised, equipped and led by the Army of North Vietnam under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (which emerged under the Marxist/Leninist model of communism) and the Royal Lao Government backed (secretly) by the U.S. who wanted to quell communist strength across South-East Asia.
The wars in Laos and Vietnam were so intertwined that the CIA trained a guerrilla militia force of about 30,000 Laos tribesmen to disrupt operations along the Hồ Chí Minh trail, that was feeding communist forces in Southern Vietnam, without having any accountable direct military involvement.
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. indiscriminately dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance over Laos in 580,000 bombing missions; the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. Many bombs were haphazardly dropped, killing thousands of innocent people, simply to get rid of them following cancelled missions over Vietnam.
Due to the U.S.’s relentless bombardment of Laos, the Pathet Lao were forced to operate from an extensive network of caves at Viengxay in the Houaphanh Province in the northeast. Four hundred and eighty caves were used in total during the 9-year period housing a hospital, a school, offices, bakeries, shops, printing presses and even a theatre.
The secret location was home to 23,000 people: locals say that farmers had to farm at night to avoid bombing raids!
The Pathet Lao leaders lived and directed the war from the caves. In 1973 when the U.S’s aerial onslaught finished the leadership built houses outside their various caves from where they commanded their troops in the concluding stages of the war against the Royalist Hmong forces.
For many years the Laos government denied any existence of the cave network; however, since 2009 some of the caves have been opened to the public and have become a valuable tourist attraction in the province. Most of the caves are named after the Pathet Lao leaders who lived there. To visit them you must take a knowledgeable guide from the Viengxay Caves Visitor Centre.
Our sobering tour visited 5 of the major caves starting with the large cave of Kaysone Phomvihane, leader of the Lao Communist movement from its formation in 1955, he remained unchallenged as head of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic from its inception in 1975 until his death in 1992.
Phomvihane’s cave has multiple exits, an office, meeting rooms and sleeping quarters. Each cave also featured a re-enforced concrete emergency chamber, behind a hefty metal submarine-style door, in case of direct bombing and chemical-weapons attacks. The chambers still housed the working Soviet oxygen filters.
The cave of the Red Prince Souphanouvong was one of the most fascinating. Our audio tour informed us that the prince was allegedly the first person to gain contacts, and ultimately aid and help, the Viet Minh Communist forces in Vietnam. His wife was Vietnamese and he started working in Vietnam after he graduated from a French university.
The house outside the Prince’s cave was somewhat more stylish and well designed than any of the other houses. His taste may well have been influenced by his time spent in France.
The other cave of great interest is Xanglot Cave (AKA The Theatre Cave), a massive natural cave in the karst limestone rock which housed a stage and hall where political rallies, meetings and even weddings were held. Festivals, theatre performances and music & dance performances by visiting artists from China, Russia and Vietnam also took place here. The cave housed more than 2,000 soldiers in a huge army barracks and was the headquarters of the Pathet Lao military effort.
The Laotion Civil War, as it is officially known, like most other wars, was a complex melee of politics. Unlike the Vietnam War, it wasn’t fought under the gaze of the world’s media which resulted in a near futile, senseless and often unheeded outcome. As a consequence Laos remains, per capita, the most heavily bombed country on earth, a fact I was ignorantly unaware of before visiting. Decades later, unexploded ordinance (UXO) literally litters the entire country and has killed more than 20,000 people since the war ended in 1975! Today over 80 million live cluster bomblets still scatter the country.
Cleaning up the unexploded ordnance is agonizingly slow, thankfully organisations like MAG do incredible work in clearing UXO’s and helping the Laos population to reclaim their land.
In 2014 The U.S. Congress approved a $12 million grant for UXO clearance and related aid in Laos, bringing the total up to $82 million. To put that into context the U.S. spent a relative $18 million a day, for nine years, bombing the country; that’s approximately $60 billion.
Considering the current population of Laos is just under 7 million, the U.S. could have paid the entire population approximately $9,000 each not to be communists! Unfortunately war doesn’t work like that!
Sadly the daily lives of millions are still affected by the senseless bombing. Long-term development of the country has also been disturbed; farmers can’t work the land and construction of schools, hospitals and factories are constantly delayed.
Our visit to Laos was eye opening and often heart wrenching, unfortunately history proves that we don’t learn from our mistakes. Considering the phenomenal amount of money the U.S. spent pointlessly destroying a country, most have never heard of, they (politicians and the war machine in the “developed” world) continue to invest ridiculous amounts of money developing new technologies to eradicate people in fields on the other side of the world, with sickening effect.