BootsnAll Travel Network

Riverside Towns of Laos

Andreas and I headed to the bus station early to try to get on a bus to Savannakhet. At the ticket window, we bought tickets for the next bus at 8:00 am. While we waited, we observed that there weren’t many people waiting to get on the bus. The bus employees must have noticed this as well and decided that the 8:00 am bus should become the 9:00 am bus and finally the 9:45 am bus before it left. We managed to get seats in the very front and were reveling in the leg room until a motorcyle was pushed right in front of us for transport. The long trip was pretty much like the rest I have taken. Small villages, big towns, and basically the bus stopping at everyone’s home along the way. At least we had karaoke videos to keep us entertained. The story lines in the videos all seemed to follow a similar pattern.

1. Boy/girl finds current fling cheating on them.
2. Boy/girl runs to new friend for comforting somehow getting wet in the process (perhaps from an off course monsoon, or a drive by gangland watergun assault) making their clothes stick to them.
3. Boy/girl cries a lot to new friend who towels boy/girl dry.
4. A montage scene begins with boy/girl and new friend running through fields, eating ice cream, and petting puppies.
5. New friend meets some sort of horrible accident or death. (car crash, suicide, errant meteor or coconut, tapeworm, flesh eating bacteria, etc.)
6. Boy/girl sits in hospital waiting room for news of new friend. Out comes hunky/hunkette doctor/doctorette. Boy/girl sees hunky/hunkette doctor/doctorette and the story appears to begin again.

Maybe I exaggerate a bit but in four sequential videos I saw two car crashes, a drowning, and an attempted suicide by hanging where new friend had to pull girl down before toweling her dry. When you pair these videos up with sleepy Lao pop it makes for an invigorating afternoon.

We arrived in Savannakhet and found a guesthouse to stay in. After checking into our rooms on the second floor, the owner informed us that we must walk softly upstairs as the wooden floors make lots of noise below. We spent the last few hours of daylight walking along the river front and looking at the old, crumbling French colonial buildings that are one of the highlights of the town.

The next morning Andreas was still sleeping so I decided to head out to do some exploring on my own. Most of the businesses were closing at it was Chinese New Year’s Eve so it took me a while to find a place to eat breakfast. After eating, my first stop out was a large Catholic church in town. This was the largest Christian structure that I have seen since entering Southeast Asia. It was very simple inside compared to the very ornate wats nearby. Then in my meanderings I came across a small dinosaur museum. It contained fossils from a 90’s, French dig in Central Laos. Most of the cases contained various large bones from various parts of the body. The explanations on the cases as well as the story of the first digs by French paleontologists were suitably enough in Lao and French. Fortunately ,my French reading level allowed me to get the general idea about what was being described. I did tend to get lost when the passages delved too deeply into the realms of science. In the backroom of the two room museum I was showed around by a Lao scientist who had worked on some digs. Leaving the museum, I then went to a wat on the river. This wat contained a Buddha manufacturing workshop. I watched various craftsmen use concrete and molds to chisel out and carve the Buddhas which were then painted gold. A man working nearby on a much smaller Buddha spoke English very well. He told me that he was a nurse and he came to the wat on his days off to make the Buddhas as he found it very relaxing. He said that the Buddha he was working on took about 8 days to make. It was being sold to another wat for the princely sum of $6. In the afternoon, I met back up with Andreas who had also been out and about. We spent the afternoon mostly around the guesthouse.

We headed back to the bus station the next morning to go to Tha Khaek. We bought tickets and sat down to wait for the bus. I noticed a German lady nearby and asked her where she was heading. She turned and began to squint hard at me and stare until I felt like a bug under a microscope (to use a cliche. Don’t groan. You know you use them too.) Finally finding her toungue, she basically spat out at me “What” and then “I know you”. I replied “Okay”. After this odd initial outburst she explained that we had been in the same minivan from Ban Lung. Only then did she get around to answering my initial question before wandering off. The bus left on time this time and it took us about three hours to get to Tha Khaek.

Upon arrival we checked into a hotel that Andreas had stayed at on his 2001 Lao trip. The price had now doubled though. Unlike Savannakhet, which according to Andreas, has exploded since 2001, Tha Khaek was pretty much unchanged. The town was very sleepy with little traffic. There were also many French colonial buildings in this town. Our main reason for coming here was to see about taking local transport to a cave (Tham Kong Lo) in the village of Ban Kong Lo about 180 km away. Lonely Planet hinted that this might be a possibility. The only other option would have been to go further north and then back track to the cave. We went to the tourist office to see if anyone knew anything. At the tourist office set in a small wooden building, we saw a schedule showing trucks going to various villlages, but there were no times listed for Kong Lo. We asked the girl manning the desk if she knew the times but she was unsure. Leaving the tourist office, we went next door to look at an old ferris wheel that stood nearby. For some odd reason, small abandoned ferris wheels seem to dot the landscape in Laos, but I have yet to find one in operation. We ate supper that evening first at a riverside shop where a lady was preparing dishes of a noodle salad with peppers and lemons for $0.50. Still feeling hungry, we then managed to find a man selling dumplings stuffed with pork for $0.20 each. I managed to put away five.

Andreas and I got up at 5:00 am to go to the market where trucks left for villages in the interior of the province. We still weren’t sure if there was actually anything to take us to the village. (Before going further I should explain what I mean by trucks. Once off the main roads, transport in Laos is provided by pickup trucks. The beds of the trucks have been modified to carry passengers. A roof has been put over the top and two benches run down either side of the bed.) As soon as we got off the tuk tuk that took us to the market, someone asked us if we were going to Kong Lo. We replied in the affirmative and were shown a truck. No one seemed to know exactly when it would leave though. It finally left about 1/2 hour later at around 6:30. We first drove around town for a while looking for more passengers. We then stopped at a small outlying village where we stopped for about 15 minutes while two passengers decided that they needed to fix a broken electrical line. We also picked up an old lady that could have done with a good scrubbing. She was apparently a fan of betel nut. This a narcotic nut that is chewed and produces red saliva. She must have had some on her hands as she stained my shorts where she touched them as I helped her into the back of the truck. Andreas and I had to switch to a new truck heading east in the town of Na Thone. While switching trucks, I noticed the driver of the previous truck trying to tell me something. It took me a minute to come to the realization that I actually understood what he was saying as he was speaking to me in French. (I always need a moment to make my brain switch languages.). He was telling me how much to pay. After flicking the switch in my brain to French mode, I was able to ask if the new truck was indeed the correct one as we currently hadn’t the foggiest idea where we were. The new truck took us to another village called Na Hin. The road passed through some spectacular karst scenery (dimmed somewhat by the perpetual haze that is in the air here). The wind was quite cold as we gained altitude. In Na Hin, we had to get on a third truck before finally arriving in Kong Lo passing by a hydroelectric plant in the process.

Kong Lo lies at the end of a very long dirt road. It is in a valley that is surrounded by limestone cliffs which are full of caves. The village itself consists of thatch and wooden houses set on stilts along a dirt path by a small river. The tribe that lives in the village are the Busi. The village like the ones in Don Det are overflowing with various farm animals running around and a never ending supply of dogs and puppies. The main farming crop here looks like tobacco though I am not sure thats what it is. One can do homestays in the village which are just what the name implies. You sleep in the home of one of the village resident and they feed you for a fee (in this case 50,000 kip for supper, sleeping, and breakfast) as no guesthouses exist. The main draw to this area is Tham Kong Lo. This is a 7km long cave through which the river flows. One can hire boats to take you through the cave to the other side.

On the truck with us to Kong Lo were four other foreigners (two women and two men). The six of us, after arriving in the village and dropping off our bags to be delivered to whatever house was to put us up, set off for the boat landing for the cave. We found that three people could go in a boat, so we paid for two boats. We had to walk into the mouth of the cave which was at the end of a small clear lake before actually getting into the boats. Along with us in each boat was a villager running the motor in the back and another villager in the front with a paddle. Stupid me forgot my headlamp in my bag, but fotunately the two drivers had lights bright enough to see by. We had to stop at various points in the cave and wade through the water as points where it was too shallow for the boats to make it through with us inside. We took a side trip up a slanted wall of the cave to look at some limestone formations. The cave roof was quite high in some places often disappearing into the darkness. The river emerged from the cave at the base of a high cliff. We pulled on the side of the river and disembarked for a while before heading back.

After finishing with the cave we walked back to the village. We ate sticky rice and pork at a small restaurant (a hut with a table) while we waited to be shown where we were sleeping. By the time someone arrived to show us where to go, we were (the three other men and me)involved in a soccer game with the kids in the village so the girls went off to see where they were to be sleeping. At first I thought the game was just a bunch of kids running around kicking and screaming at the ball, but soon learned that the game actually had rules. They could be seen discussing quite intently whenever the ball went out of bounds. I only managed to almost score a goal. During the process of giving the ball a good hard kick, I somehow managed to make my big toe start bleeding from under the nail into my shoe (sandals). I left the game to try to locate my bag to dress the wound as I am a bit paranoid about open wounds in places with lots of livestock running around. I had to wander through this large village making sleeping motions at various residents while my toe kept bleeing more and more into my sandel. This went on for quite a while as no one seemed to know where I would be sleeping. Someone finally did manage to show me my bag. At this point the toe had stopped bleeding and I was just left with the job of wiping out my shoe.

After cleaning my foot, I left with another man who wanted to go collect everyone to show us where to sleep. Once we were all gathered there were some misunderstandings to sort out. They kept trying to tell us something about two people. At first we thought all six of us would sleep in the same house (English was spoken here only in fits and starts). Then someone told us that only two people could do a homestay in the village. It was finally figured out that only two people could sleep per house. This followed by discussion amongst the villages about (I think) who would get who. Andreas and I was placed in a wooden house on stilts in which lived a family with six children and one dog. The house itself had a sleeping room, a kitchen, and a large porch where we would be sleeping. An outhouse and chicken house were in the yard. The family had put up a sheet cordoning off a section of the porch. Behind it was a mosquito net and some mats for us to sleep on. We were pretty much ignored until the wife had finished cooking supper. We were given some bowls containing noodles, cooked eggs, and sticky rice. While we ate she breast fed her very young baby. After eating, I had a small conversation with the husband (I learned their names, but it would be hopeless for me to even begin to try to spell them) up to the limits allowed by the small phrase section in my guidebook. The weather was turning quite cold that night, so we also had a conversation about the weather involving lots of shivering and other cold weather motions. (Ever since the bad snowstorms in China, the weather here is almost cold enough for a fleece) Our hosts went to bed quite early, so I went to look around the village at night. I found the two other guys (James – English and Sebastian – German) sitting in a small thatch store with their host family. Andreas and I were invited to join them. They were being shown how to make a thatch roof. Their host spoke a little English. We sat and visited with the family and other people that wandered by. The two girls (English) soon joined us as well. The main attraction appeared to be the arm and leg hair on the men (like in China the Lao are pretty much hairless).

In the morning, I heard the family start milling around the kitchen at around 5:00 am. Andreas and I got up around 6:00 am and were served a breakfast of some very spicy eggs and more sticky rice. While we ate, the family tied white strings on our wrist in a small Busi welcome ceremony. Sitting on the porch, I watched the family begin to go about their chores. The chicken house was on stilts and the bottom was surrounded by a wooden fence. One of the kids threw some rice under the hen house. This caused a flurry of ducks and chickens to come running from all directions and either go under, or hop over the fence to get the rice. Unfortunately for them not long after, the family dog decided he wanted rice too and over the fence he went. This caused lots of quacks and squawks from dismayed fowl as they tried to make a hasty exit through the fence. I noticed that a fire had been built behind the house where James and Sebastian were staying. I went over to warm my hands. At some point another betel nut chewing elderly lady came up. She started looking at my hands turning them over to inspect them. She then started screaming at them and then wandered off (???????). Her behavior appeared quite normal after this oddly enough. I think it had something to do with my short nails. Many Asian men have long nails and short nails are a sign of field work. I guess many people might wonder how I react in these situations. By now, I have seen many odd things (like the dog milking the cows in Bikaner India – another story) and usually just end up shrugging and going back to whatever I was doing previously.

The six of us took a series of trucks back to the village of Na Thone which sits on a main highway (I believe Route 13, but I am not positive). There we were told we could flag down a bus to go wherever we wanted to go. The girls were heading south and the remainder of us were going north toward Vientiane (national capital). Andreas and I were splitting up now as he was only going as far north as Paksan. After about an hour wait at a roadside restaurant, a bus stopped and asked where we were going. After telling them we were told to get on.

Sebastian, James, and I arrived at the outskirts of the capital at the southern bus station. From there we found someone to take us to an area of guesthouses on the Mekong River. We managed to only find one room as everythigng was full. Fortunately, it had three beds. The river front at night was lined with vendors barbecuing chicken, pork ribs, and fish. After having eaten very little besides rices and eggs for two days, I was very happy to split a whole chicken with James. We found a place doing Lao massages for $3 per hour and decided to give it a try. We were shown into a communal room for our massages. Massages are very different affairs in Asia than in the west. In the west, one goes into a room with candles lit and Gregorian Chants playing in the background. Here it is a very public affair. Our three masseuses talked with each other the whole time and at one point my girl was talking into her cell phone with one had and working on my back with the other. She even went so far as to shoosh me as she couldn’t hear because I was talking to one of the other guys. She also seemed fascinated by my chest hair (yanking it a few times as if to assure herself that it was firmly attached). We ended the evening bar hopping trying to find some live music. The first place had a foreign band with big afro wigs singing seventies disco. We then moved on to a place that had a Lao band doing a mixture of slow English and Lao songs. The singer was good, but appeared to have some trouble with some of the English words.

The next day the three of us set about to do some sightseeing. Vientiane is very small as national capitals goes. The city has a population of about 250,000 people. There is a seven story height limit on buildings. There are many broad streets. The buildings are a mixture of French colonial, modern Asian, and boring Communist cubes. As with capital cities, there are plenty of monuments and big temples to see. We first stopped at That Dam which is a very old stone stupa looking quite out of place besides all the modern buildings. It is about 500 years old and was supposed to be once covered in gold. The gold was carted off to Thailand when the Thais ransacked the city in 1828. We then stopped at Patuxai which looks somewhat like the Arc de Triumphe in Paris except this structure has four openings. It was built from cement donated by the US for use in building an airport runway. It is full of Lao carvings and one can climb to the top for good city views. There is a plaque on the side of the structure written in both Lao and English saying “From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete”. . One the way to the next site, we passed an abandoned amusement park. A young American couple from Georgia were inside and were playing with the swing ride. (the one where swings are attached to a central pedestal that spins via an electrical motor) They had discovered they could make it spin by grabbing the swings and running around the pedestal and then jumping in a swing. They wanted us to help them make it go faster. We spent a while pulling the swings and hopping on and off again taking pictures. Leaving the park, we then went to one of the main holy site in Laos, Pha That Luang. The stupa is painted a gold color and consists of a central spire with a traingular top surrounded by smaller triangles. It looks somewhat like a missle cluster. In the evening, I joined James at a bar that he noticed would be showing rugby and soccer. Sebastian went to an Internet Cafe. It was interesting to be in the Laotian capital city surrounded by lots of Irish people screaming at a soccer match.

Today I spent the morning at the Lao National Museum. The exhibits are arranged in 16 rooms and are arranged in chronological order taking you through Lao history. The first rooms containing dinosaur and first Lao/western contact was really well done. The remaining sections that covered the French Colonial period to modern day were a bit over the top. It was full of paintings of French soldiers ripping babies from mothers arms sitting next to picture of Communist officials planting corn and rice, and building schools. I have never seen the term Impieralist America used so much in such a small space in all my life. After the French Colonial period, there was a battle against the French waged by a coalition of monarchist and communists. The monarchist finally signed a peace agreement with the French setting up the a constitutional monarchy in Laos. The Communist battled on. The rooms were full of photographs and signs saying that the French had duped the monarchist into a peace agreement and then more scenes of Communist officials petting puppies and planting rice. The French and the Americans did do many bad things in Laos. The country is still cleaning up all the unexploded American bombs. The museum, though, appeared to leave out what happened to all the anti Communists in Laos once they took over.

Tomorrow I am heading to Phonsovan to look at the Plain of Jars.

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One Response to “Riverside Towns of Laos”

  1. Dad and Mom Says:

    Happy Valentines Day!
    We love you 🙂
    Dad, Mom, Jon, Kellie, Eva, and Tessa

  2. Posted from United States United States

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