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Pha An and Pak Ou

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In a dingy bar off the Khao San Road we got our first substantial piece of the puzzle. We’d heard a whisper already – the Hot Rock climbers said they’d heard of a great cliff in Laos, and planned to go there and find it. On this drunken night, our first in Thailand, we learned more. Near the famous and holy Pak Ou Cave, 25km from Luang Prabang, a massive red limestone cliff rises sheer from the river. It’s accessible only by boat, but on the thriving waterways of the Nam Ou and Mekong, boatmen can always be had, for a price.

Over the next couple of weeks, we gathered more snippets. These were not always consistent, and sometimes downright contradictory. To climb in Laos was cheap, or very expensive. Villagers would be happy to guide any climber who turned up for a small fee, or expensive permits were required. It sounded like there might be more than one way to skin this cat.

We decided to play it straight, and emailed Wildside, the only climbing company in Laos. We were quoted $10 a day each to include transport, guides, food and permits – affordable enough for us. On our first morning in Luang Prabang, we set off for the Wildside office to organise our trip. After a fruitless search, we checked our email to find their address, and to our dismay discovered that they were located in a completely different town. Having heard about only one climbing area in Laos, we had assumed that that’s where Wildside would be. Our disappointment, not to mention irritation at our stupidity, was tempered by the fact that we now knew of a second place to climb.

Our initial contact with Wildside had been made several weeks before, and in the intervening period we had forgotten the whole permit issue. After all, the Lonely Planet said anyone could climb at Pha-An – surely the travellers’ bible could not be wrong? We arranged transport and set off the next morning.

As the tuk-tuk rounded a bend on the road, we got our first glimpse. The red rock soared high and our excitement built higher. We reached Ban Pak Ou village, where we were directed to the last of the riverside restaurants. It was a simple thatch-and-plastic-chairs establishment, like all the village lunch spots. We told the proprietor, the village headman, that we wanted to climb Pha-An. He indicated that we should sit.

We waited a few moments and he came to join us. The formality of the situation gave us a sense of foreboding, and all the rumours about the complexity of climbing in Laos came flooding back. Sure enough, when our host joined us at the table it was to explain courteously but firmly that without permits from the provincial office in Luang Prabang, he could not allow us to climb. With a permit, which he was sure we could obtain that very afternoon, there would be absolutely no problem. Today, we would not be climbing.

Resigned to the inevitable, we did what virtually everyone who comes to Luang Prabang does - we visited the Pak Ou caves. The must-see sight seen, we persuaded our boatman to take a detour over to the Pha-An cliff. If we couldn’t climb there, at least we could check the place out. From the river, we could spot only a couple of routes, and they looked far tougher than we’d bargained for. The cliff rose directly from the river at these points, with deep undercuts at the water level. We couldn’t even figure out how to start. We felt a sneaky sense of relief that we weren’t allowed to climb there – we didn’t think we’d have been able. To the left was a slightly less daunting area. We couldn’t spot any of the routes, but at least they started on dry ground.

Satisfied enough with our reconnaissance, we headed back to town. The Provincial Office was located just up the road from our guesthouse and I nipped out to get the details. At the gate I was directed to the Tourist Office. I was the only tourist there, and when I eventually got to talk to someone it became clear that this was because there was precious little help or information available for tourists here.

The official informed me that I couldn’t climb at Pha-An without a permit, but that he wouldn’t issue me one. Nor would he tell me anything about the cost, conditions or process. His office didn’t deal with individuals; I would have to go through a travel agent. After much prodding, he mentioned the name of a travel agent. After further urging, he told me where the travel agent was located. I left with a feeling that boot would not be meeting rock the next day either.

At the Inter-Lao Tourism office I waited as two lads made enquiries. I couldn’t hear the exchange, but it didn’t inspire optimism. Whatever it was they wanted, the travel agent had no interest whatsoever in providing it. My turn came.

- I’m looking for information on climbing permits for Pha-An. The government office said I should come here.

- (Mutual miming of climbing motions to establish we’re talking about the same thing)

- How many of you are there?

- Two

- No, sorry we can’t help you

- How big a group do we need?

- No, it’s not possible to climb there

- The government office told me that it was possible, but that we need to obtain our permits through a travel agent. They recommended you.

- No, not possible

Further attempts along these lines yielded nothing. I might have believed him if he hadn’t started by asking how many of us there were. I could only assume the profits to be gained from two climbers didn’t justify the work he would have to do. From the taste I had just got of Lao bureaucracy, I couldn’t entirely blame him.

Downcast, I popped into the Internet shop just next door and did a search for “climbing in Laos”. Reading the various articles, I realised that we were not the first bunch of climbers to have had this experience. In fact, compared to some we’d got off lightly.

One had gone to the trouble and expense of getting a climbing permit from the government office in the capital, Vientiane, only for it to be rejected by the village headman - as far as he was concerned, only permits issued in Luang Prabang would do. Another group had gone through the whole rigmarole, through travel agent, provincial office, central government office and who knows what else. The labyrinthine process had used up precious days of their vacation, but they were determined. In the end, they paid over $200 and got only three days climbing in. Of course others had managed to bypass the village completely, taking a boat direct from Luang Prabang and getting in a great day’s climbing with no problems at all, but risking being thrown into a Laos jail.

We consoled ourselves with the fact that our next destination was Vang Vieng. All had been arranged with Wildside. Surely nothing could go wrong?

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of Pak Ou Cave Lunag Prabang Laos travelogues
Pak Ou Cave

Buddhas and offerings in the cave

Picture of the boat to Pak Ou Caves Lunag Prabang Laos travelogues
Photograph of Wat  in Lunag Prabang Laos travelogues
Caelen on boat

One of many Luang Prabang wats

Picture of an altar in Pak Ou caves Lunag Prabang Laos travelogues
Photograph of Pha An Cliffs Lunag Prabang Laos travelogues
Cave altar
Pha An cliff