The View: Phou Phra, the Sacred Mountain

Phou Phra in Laos

There is this view. As views go it’s a pretty special one and I have been dreaming of photographing it for a long, long time…

During the early noughties I worked as a Tour Leader in South East Asia, taking groups mostly through Laos and Thailand. The 7 hour journey from Luang Prabang (center of the Laotian tourism industry) to Vang Vieng (a beautiful area of karst scenery and overnight stopping point on the way to the capital Vientiane) is very scenic, but there is one stretch of road that is truly breathtaking in an otherworldly way. ‘The View’ regularly elicited such exclamations as ‘incredible’ or ‘awesome’ from my groups and on one occasion ‘like Mordor’(!?!), but for the landscape photographer in me the wonder of seeing that sublime vista was always tempered by the niggling irritation that we were inevitably there at midday when the light was at its worst.  I vowed to return at dawn or dusk, although at the time had no idea when, or how, that would be.

Fast forward 10 years to 2012 when Rich and I left the UK on an open-ended journey through South Asia. That trip of course is another story which you can follow in my previous travel blog entries; suffice to say that we finally came to rest in Cambodia after 9 months on the road.

Now being based in South East Asia ‘The View’ once again came to haunt my mind. This was the perfect opportunity to capture it once and for all but there were … issues.

Firstly, the area is, or was, notorious for H’mong bandits. During my tour leading days our bus driver would throw packets of cigarettes to groups of dodgy looking – and often armed – 'gentlemen' loitering on the road, presumably to distract them from taking a pot shot at us as we drove by! I did some research though and the area was now considered safe.

Laos, being one of the most heavily bombed countries in the world, is littered with UXO. Even along the country’s main road, and especially in the area I was heading to, there is a huge amount of the stuff. Getting to the best vantage point often involves hoping and skipping through vegetation, however on this trip that would be strictly off limits and I would have to stick to the road.

The last hurdle to overcome was finding somewhere to stay. In the tropics sunrise is between 5:30 – 6:30am. Now unless I planned to bivvy by the side of the road (not an attractive option) then I would need to find a place to crash that was not too far from the object of my photographic desire. Fate was on my side in this instance; there is now a ‘hotel’ in Phou Khoun village, just minutes from the best view point on the whole road.

My first attempt to photograph Phou Phra (lit. sacred mountain) was scheduled for late April 2014. With flight and guest house booked the last question was: how to get there? Although foreigners in Laos are not officially allowed to take motorbikes outside Luang Prabang I found a rental company who would let me do this, so with no little trepidation one morning I set off on the 130km ride to Phou Khoun. A puncture 10kms outside Luang Prabang notwithstanding, I arrived in Phou Khoun mid afternoon after a bum-numbing 5 hour drive along mountain roads and through charming villages.

Sadly, although I had researched many of the practicalities of the trip thoroughly I had neglected to take note of the fact that visibility in Northern Loas in April is really very, very bad. A combination of crop burning and general atmospheric dust from the preceding 6 months of dry season meant that I couldn't even see the mountain, let alone photograph it. With a heavy heart, and some gnashing of teeth I headed back to Luang Prabang without exposing a single shot. It was a major setback but not all out defeat...

Returning in August during the middle of the rainy season was a gamble, and the weather was indeed mixed, but during the momentary dry spells visibility was awesome and following another 10 hours on a Honda Click I finally accomplished my long held objective.
This entry was posted in Holly's Travel Blog.