Houaphan - Things to See and Do

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Houaphan - Things to See and Do.

Houaphanh with its capital Xam Neua is located in the north-east of Laos and borders Vietnam on the north, east and south and Luang Prabang province on the west and Xiengkhouang province on the south. It covers an area of 16,500 square kilometers and has a population of over 295,000 people (2007). There are some twenty-seven different ethnic groups including Tai Kao, Tai Daeng, Tai Meuay, Tai Neua, Phu Noi, Hmong, Khmu and Mien-Yao. It has 8 Districts: Xamneua, Xiengkhor, Viengthong, Viengxay, Huameuang, Xamtay, Sopbao and Add (Et) A new district is being established with the Xamtai District being split with the southern part to become Kwan/Kouan District.


Map of Houaphan and its location in Laos

In ancient times, the province was home of the Bon Man kingdom (around the 14th century). Following a Vietnamese invasion in 1478, it became Tran Ninh province of Dai Viet kingdom with the capital at Sam Chau (present-day Sam Nuea). It remained a Vietnamese outpost territory until the 19th century when ownership was switched to Laos during the French Colonial period.
Houaphan is a very rural and traditional province and has abundant natural resources and a rugged landscape.

During the Indo-China war the Lao Patriotic Front - also known as the Pathet Lao - selected the area around Viengxay as the site for its Headquarters. For nine years, from 1964 to 1973, more than 20,000 people lived in a "Hidden City" they built inside the caves and caverns in limestone peaks all around the area to try to survive daily aircraft bombing raids (No. 1 on the map).

Houaphan Province is famous for its intricate Lao silk and cotton weavings. For those interested in learning about weaving and purchasing high quality products at reasonable prices directly from the producers themselves, Houaphan and in particular Xam Neua and Xam Tai is well worth the visit (No. 9 and 10 on the map). Evidence of the area's ancient history can be seen in sites of standing stones (Hintang or Suan Hin - No. 8 on the map).

The climate is cool and fresh and it can be quite cold during the winter months. For those interested in nature and wildlife, the province has two national protected areas (NPA): Nam Et/Phou Louei NPA (No. 2 on the map) and the Nam Xam NPA (No. 3 on the map). If you’re looking to catch a glimpse of rare wildlife, you can make a two-day trip up the Nam Nern River in the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area. This not-for-profit tour led by local Khmu ethic guides places has you travel during the evening on a long-tail boat ride with spotlights to peek at the nightlife of sambar deer, otters, barking deer, civets, slow loris, porcupines and owls. Adding to this authentic experience, the guides show what it takes to survive in this rugged terrain. A portion of the tour fee is directed towards protecting endangered tigers. For information on this tour see: http://www.namet.org/namnern.html

In addition there are quite a few waterfalls, hot springs and various other tourist attractions like a Buddha cave, etc.

Useful Contacts and Information

Xam Neua
The Provincial Tourism Department, located on Pathi Road in the center of Xam Neua, operates a Tourism Information Centre and can advise on transportation options and available tours. They are open from Monday to Friday, 08.30-12.00 and 13.00-16.00. Tel: 064-312567, Email: hp_pto@yahoo.com.

Viengxay
The Viengxay Caves Visitor Centre is open daily from 08.00-12.00 and 13.00-16.00. Tel: 064 314321, email: info@visit-viengxay.com, website: http://www.visit-viengxay.com. A guided Audio Tour of the caves and a one-day trek including caves, culture and nature are available, as is a bicycle rental service.

Viengthong
The Nam Et-Phou Louey Visitor Center, located in Viengthong Town between the main road and the hot springs, is open from Monday to Friday, 08.00-11.30 and 13.30-16.30. Tel: 064-810008, email: info@namet.org, website: http://www.namet.org
Currency exchange and credit card advances (Master Card and Visa) can be arranged at a number of banks in Xam Neua. The BCEL has an ATM (dispensing Lao Kip) that accepts foreign bank and credit cards.

Viengxay - The Hidden City (No. 1 on the map)
Viengxay is remote and quite poor – it’s one of the poorest districts in Laos. The basic existence of the multi-ethnic population in this stunning and fertile setting provides a wondrous contrast to many lives in the west.


Viengxai in 1973 - Source: Viengxay Master Plan Final Report.pdf


Mountainous area around Viengxai and present-day Viengxay seen from the karst mountains nearby

This contrast becomes even more fascinating when considered alongside the region’s untold history. As the United States of America stepped up its efforts to halt the spread of communism across Indochina, Laos became caught up in a secret war that remains largely ignored in world history (see Roger Warner’s award winning book “Shooting at the Moon: the story of the CIA’s clandestine war in Laos” for a compelling and detailed account of the US offensive). In 1962 events forced the Lao Communist party – the Pathet Lao – to flee from the capital in Vientiane across the Plain of Jars and, in 1964, to take shelter and refuge in the limestone caves and inaccessibility of Viengxay.

For more than nine years (1964-1973) the quiet tranquility of Viengxay’s humble existence was totally and brutally interrupted on a devastating scale as it became one of the key targets for the might of the US Air-force, which unleashed a phenomenal and sustained bombardment. To escape from this onslaught some 23,000 people took to Viengxay’s 486 caves.

Different caves were selected as the family homes and offices of the key leaders of the Pathet Lao and other natural caves were enlarged, tunnels developed and artificial roofs built to keep water from dripping on people, clothes, tables, books and paper work. Airtight evacuation chambers with manual filter mechanisms to guard against gas attacks were constructed, along with five-feet thick blast walls to cover cave entrances and prevent rockets and guided missiles from entering.


Thick blast walls in front of the Cave Entrances


Left chamber of the Market Cave (not yet open for the public)

The responsibilities of a government in exile were divided and ministries set up in individual caves in separate locations.



Printing presses, a fuel depot and light industry caves were established to support the war effort. A cave hospital complex was built to take care of the injured, children had to go to school and an underground theatre constructed to entertain soldiers and keep the compatriots happy.


The Theater Cave


The School Cave

In this underground existence the leaders worked and planned with their Vietnamese counterparts to resist the colonial imperialists. In 1973, when the "Paris Peace Accords" were finally signed, the leaders emerged from their hideouts to build houses in the fresh air immediately outside their caves – close enough to retreat underground should the peace talks stall.


Kaysone Phomvihane House and Cave


Prince Souphannavong House and Cave

Nowadays some of the caves can be visited (audio guided tours) and/or you can tour the surroundings to get a feel of how things might have been some 40 years ago (See Useful Contacts).



Caves on the bike trail south-east of the Hidden City


Caves east of the Hidden City on the road No. 6 to Vietnam (Nam Soi/Nameo border Crossing)

Suan Hin / Hintang
Suan Hin or the "Stone Garden" is located off road 6 between Phou Laos (junction of Rd 6 with Rd 1C). At N20.15886 E103.89122 head south along a rough unpaved road till you reach San Kong Phan, Hintang’s most visited Bronze Age “Standing Stones” probably marking ancient burial chambers more than 1,500 years old (No. 2 on the map).



Menhirs – long, narrow blades of cut schist placed upright in groupings, with the tallest in the middle – are interspersed among burial chambers drilled deep in the bedrock, with access through chimneys via ladders, and covered with massive stone disks. So far, over 1,500 stones have been identified in over 70 groups scattered along a 12 kilometer long mountain ridge, which can be explored on foot.

The origin of these ancient remains are unknown, but a few artifacts from a 1931 expedition by Madeleine Colani uncovered ceramic urns and crude bronze bracelets in what are thought to be burial chambers (Mégalithes du Haut-Laos, Hua Pan, Tran Ninh par Madeleine Colani - http://laos.efeo.fr/spip.php?article28&lang=en). The history of the standing stones are still a mystery although there are several stories/legends doing the rounds.

The Legend of the Kha Yeui (version 1).
In ancient times, Laos was inhabited by the Kha Yeui. Their Chief, Ba Hat, was a great giant possessing amazing powers, to whom the gods also gave three magical objects; a double-headed drum – one face struck to make enemies disappear and the other to call help from the gods; an enormous awl which pierced the stoniest ground and made water gush out; and an axe which could cut hard rock like wood.

Ba Hat felt himself no less strong than the Luang Prabang Kingdom, thanks to these marvelous instruments, so he decided the Kha Yeui were no longer subjects of the King, who soon declared war. But the victory went to Ba Hat. Later, believing the enemy kind intended to return. Ba Hat called on the help of the gods. The chief of the gods descended in person and on seeing no enemies anywhere, he flew into a rage and seized back the magical drum.

Ba Hat still had the two other tools given him by the gods. With the magical axe, he set his people out to cut blocks of stone along Nam Peun, and bear them to the top of San Ang ridge to build the new city of Kong Phanh. This aroused the King of Luang Prabang’s fears and he decided upon a ruse to keep the city from ever being founded. He succeeded in marrying his son to Ba Hat’s daughter. Misplacing their confidence in the Prince, the Kha Yeui were induced to lay the magical awl and axe onto a white-hot brazier. The two instruments immediately lost all magic power.

So the Kha Yeui had to abandon their project and they just left the stones where they had been raised up along the crest. These later on became the menhir fields of San Kong Panh and the neighboring countryside.​

The Legend of the Kha Yeui (version 2).​
According to local lore, Ba Hat, the chief of the Kha Yeui, had amazing powers and magical tools including an iron axe that could cut rock as easily as wood and water spurted wherever he hit the ground with his iron staff. Ba Hat and his people used these tools to start building a stone city on a ridge.

However, the Luang Prabang King, felt threatened, as Hintang would be bigger, so he sent a spy to infiltrate the growing city. He earned Ba Hat’s confidence through hard work, and Ba Hat gave the spy his sister’s hand in marriage. The deceiver then convinced Ba Hat to build a tower from which, he claimed, people could see Luang Prabang. Many ascended the tower, including Ba Hat’s sister, and the spy then burned it down, killing all the climbers. Ba Hat took his magic tools and moved to build a new city in Pha Te. Upon arriving, he sat on a stone, and struck it with his staff. This opened a rift into which Ba Hat fell. Others dove in after him and also died, except the last women jumper who survived. She clambered from the hole, walked to Luang Prabang and told the story to the French, who recorded it​




For more info see http://www.visit-viengxay.com/maps/Brochure-Houaphanh.pdf and/or http://www.megajarslaos.com/Menhirs.html

Waterfalls and Hot Springs
There are numerous waterfalls in Houaphan Province - some of the best well known are:
Tad Saleuy Waterfall on Rd 6 (N20.22904 E104.00528) just a bit north-east of Ban Saleuy (No. 6 on the map).

Nam Nouan Waterfall on Rd 6 just before the turnoff to Viengxai on the north side of the road just before the bridge head north along the river (N20.454250 E104.185066 – No. 4 on the map)



The same waterfall during the rainy season

In the Nakout/Nakhang area near Viengthong there is another hot spring and a waterfall which takes quite some effort to go


The hot spring is located north (No. 7 on the map) of Viengthong on the way to Muang Per (on the border with Vietnam). The water is very hot so don’t jump in before you have tested it. During the colder months, you might have to wait for your turn. The local villagers bathe there as well while doing the laundry at the same time and sometimes queues last for hours into the evening and night. The Tad Lom Waterfall is a bit northeast of the old airstrip LS 36
See alsohttp://www.namet.org/visit_files/Biking and Walking Around Viengthong.pdf for a map of the area and description of the area.



During the war the airstrip handled quite a bit of air traffic and at the end of the war a lot of old metal drums were left behind. The people from Ban Nakout used these metal drum for all kind of purposes and you can see many a roof in the village including the Buddhist Wat covered completely with metal sheets from these drums and locally the village is also knows as the "Tin Drum Village".

The Wat in Ban Nakout with its metal roof

North of Ban Namuang (N20.30941 E104.00444 ) on Rd 6 (turn south west at N20.32336 E104.01600 at Ban Ham) there seems to be another hot spring (Namuang Hot Spring – No. 5 on the map) while further to the west the Houaphan tourism department mentions the Houaiyad Waterfall. However, there is very little information on the exact location of this waterfall. Near the waterfall there is a small village where people make belts from recycled aluminum (crashed aircraft parts from the war and softdrink cans) but again very little information is available.

Xam Neua and its surroundings
In Xam Neua there are also quite a few things to see: In the center of town at the main junction opposite the Provincial Administrative Offices you will find the Souan Keo Lak Meuang Monument. Don't know what it represents (presumably the city pillar) but the Tourism Department describes it as follows: The monument consists of a four-pronged city pillar topped with a round representative “gemstone”. It's interesting, modern art design gives visitors good reason to pause and to inspect the city landmark.

City View and Souan Keo Lak Meuang Monument

Besides this landmark, there are to the north two ancient stupas which survived the war although the wat nearby was completely destroyed. Further to the north there is Wat Ong Teu (Wat Phoxay Sanalam) with a big buddha statue (weighing 3,850 kg.) which dates back to 1565. On the east of this Wat you will find a lot of weaving activities going on (silk and cotton). Continuing past the Wat further to the north-west the road becomes unpaved but if you follow the road you will find near Ban Tham a Buddha Cave and an ancient stupa and further to the north-west there are waterfalls. Best is to bring a guide as they seem to be difficult to find.



The same road leads to Ban Houayma which is just a bit south of a once secret American Radar site on top of a mountain also known as Phou Phathi or LS 85. In the end this secret site was overrun by the Vietnamese with a lot of lives lost (America civilians, Lao/Hmong and Thai people who were operating and guarding the site). This area is off-limits to foreigners - don't even try it as the Lao Military is not in favor of this and you can expect a lengthy interrogation at best or locked up for some time or made to pay a heavy fine.

From Ban Houayma it will be possible to head further west (the road is being upgraded at the moment) and this road will link with road 3204 which runs from Viengthong to Muang Per at the Vietnam Border and sometime next year you will be able to make a loop from Viengthong to Xam Neua instead of having to retreat your steps.
 

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Extracted from: http://www.rideasia.net/motorcycle-forum/general-information/1967-houaphan-things-see-do.html#post14773

===========================
The same road leads to Ban Houayma which is just a bit south of a once secret American Radar site on top of a mountain also known as Phou Phathi or LS 85. In the end this secret site was overrun by the Vietnamese with a lot of lives lost (America civilians, Lao/Hmong and Thai people who were operating and guarding the site). This area is off-limits to foreigners - don't even try it as the Lao Military is not in favor of this and you can expect a lengthy interrogation at best or locked up for some time or made to pay a heavy fine.
===========================

Below is a video of a "fly-by" of the Phou Phati Area as well as showing other/additional information. Guess the video was provided by the University of Texas - Eugene McDermott Library, Special Collections, P.O. Box 830643, Richardson, Texas 75083-0643

 
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