Week 31- Thakhek to Pakse

After 2 weeks in Ban Yangkheua, everybody was looking forward to a proper bed, a hot shower, and a meal that didn’t involve sticky rice! We had a long journey south from the village to Thakhek, catching the local bus from the ‘bus station’ at Thabak which was essentially a bench by the side of the main road. The bus was absolutely rammed full of stuff that was being transported from Vientiane, so every seat had a parcel underneath it and there was next to no leg space. It was definitely our least comfortable journey so far, but it was amazingly cheap for a 6 hour drive and I, for one, enjoyed travelling like a local for a while.

On arrival in Thakhek we walked along the Mekong where we could see several ornate temples across the river on the Thai side, feeling very reminiscent of Nongkhai. We tried a couple of hotels before finding a guesthouse that we liked in the building of the old colonial police station. It certainly had character, but we weren’t certain whether the padding on the walls was left over from the old days or simply the owner’s taste in interior design! We managed to find a great restaurant serving Western food, and for once felt no qualms at all about ordering burgers and pizza after 2 weeks of local food including frogs, snails and insects. We had earned it! The hot shower was blissful and we were all appreciative of a proper bed, despite the rock hard Asian mattresses not being much more comfortable than the floor in the village guesthouse.

The following day we managed to hire a car which we were going to use for the next 3 days to tackle ‘the loop’, a circular route usually tackled by motorbike with fabulous scenery and lots of caves and swimming holes to visit. With that sorted, we were able to spend the rest of the day uploading our very overdue blog posts, continuing work on www.smallworldbigchange.co.uk, and taking it in turns to have a bit of one-to-one time in one of the lovely cafes, eating cake and playing cards. The antidote to all that time in a remote village!

We set off early on Monday morning to begin the loop, with Ben successfully managing to drive on the crazy Laos roads in a left hand drive car for the first time on our travels. Our first stop was a small cave just outside of Thakhek, 12km down the main road with enormous karst towering above us either side of the road. We were greeted at the entrance to Tham Pha Nya In by a blind, old man who turned on the lights inside the cave for us, in return for a small donation. We climbed up a staircase to the entrance at the base of one of the cliffs; inside we could look down to a very small pool of water that would have come further into the cave in wet season but which was fairly unremarkable at the beginning of May. We ventured around the upper level past some incredible rock formations, into the inner sanctum where we found a Buddhist shrine and many resident bats. It was quiet and peaceful in there, and made a really nice first stop on our journey. We had hoped to head on to Tha Falang, a nearby swimming hole, but we were told that it wouldn’t be passable in our little car. This created much resentment from the children who thought we ought to risk it anyway, and unfortunately at 3km off the road we didn’t think we were going to have time to walk there and back. It took a few hours, but eventually they started speaking to us again when we reached the next cave, Tham Nang Aen, the biggest cave we had ever seen with a roof as high as a cathedral, fabulous stone staircases heading off into the distance and amazing rock formations, all lit up with coloured lights; after exploring this enormous cavern, we came to a small underground lake which we were able to explore by boat, our guides paddling us into the long tunnel until we reached daylight once more at the other end. Getting out here, we were able to explore the stalactites and stalagmites, the natural statues, the holy water well with resident linga and noni and the enormous pile of bat guano before heading back to our starting point. Having never seen anything as big as this before, we were all impressed with the enormous size and scale of the cave, and although many people might dislike the way it has been lit up for tourists, I loved it all. There was a large picnic area here where we could relax over lunch and a game of cards before continuing on with our drive in the afternoon.

On the next leg of the journey we wound our way up into the mountains, on steep roads with sharp bends, rewarding us with wonderful views first of jungle, and later of the flooded valley. This is the site of the Nam Theun 2 Dam, a hydroelectric plant built as a collaboration between Laos, Thailand and France, which has resulted in 16 villages and large swathes of jungle being flooded to create the reservoir necessary to make electricity. We stopped at the visitor centre which was suitably impressive about how positive the whole venture has been, particularly for the relocated villagers who now have electricity, clean drinking water, schools and health clinics. It is clear that there are also many negative effects as well, such as removing their ability to earn money as rice farmers, and expecting them to become fishermen instead. How many fish there actually are in the new reservoir is uncertain, but despite the propaganda I still left feeling that the benefits of such a project outweigh the negatives, and it is clear that we need as much renewable energy as possible in the world today. Continuing on with our journey, the devastation caused by the flooding became very apparent as we saw mile after mile of dead trees, drowned by the raised water level. It felt strangely apocalyptic but beautiful in its own way too. Shortly before reaching the town of Tha lang, we saw a sign to a weaving project in the village of Ban Sobia. Hoping to buy presents for family members, we turned off here to see what they were creating but despite the presence of many looms, none of the women were at work and nobody had anything to sell. We were not sure if this is a failed project, or if they are commissioned to make handicrafts for a larger organisation rather than selling locally, but either way we didn’t stay for long before driving the final few miles to Sabaidee guesthouse, our accommodation for the night. Sabaidee is supposedly ‘the’ backpacker hangout for the first night on the loop, and we really enjoyed a relaxing barbeque at shared tables, next to the fire pit, chatting to the other travellers for a change. I haven’t felt quite so old in a long time though, as it dawned on me that the others were all closer in age to Jago than to me and Ben! It gave a glimpse of how different travelling might be as a couple, rather than as a family, and although it was fun for a night I was very appreciative that we could retreat to our comfortable private rooms rather than hostel accommodation (still very cheap at less than 10 pounds per night) and enjoy the constant companionship of our little group.

The following morning, we decided to spend a couple of hours fishing on the reservoir before heading on with our journey. After reading the propaganda about how many fish there now are, providing a good income for the displaced villagers, I was hopeful about our chances of a good haul. However half of the time the lines caught on the dead trees that were all around us, and we really couldn’t see any fish in the water anywhere; despite everyone showing great determination and resilience we returned empty handed just before lunchtime. It was a pleasant morning nonetheless in the company of the guesthouse owner who had come from Vientiane to Thalang for work building the dam, and liked it so much that he decided to stay on after work was completed. He felt that despite the loss of agricultural opportunities life had improved for the local villagers with the arrival of electricity and sanitation, and he too was positive about the impact of the hydroelectric plant on the local community. We could easily have spent more time here, but we were keen to get to a swimming hole today after yesterday’s disappointment and we had a long drive ahead, so we decided to press on with our journey. As we drove, the kids were entertained by playing ‘do you want some weetos?’, a game they find absolutely hilarious which just involves shouting that out of the window at pedestrians or motorbike riders. They managed to adapt it slightly to ‘yo, yo, buffalo’ for the locals which for some reason they thought would be more polite. Each to their own, and it certainly distracts them for long stretches of time! We arrived at the cool water pool for a late lunch and had a fantastic couple of hours here in the freezing cold but beautiful green water, the kids enjoying jumping off the rocks into the deep pool below. There were so many butterflies here, it was magical seeing Ben surrounded by them, looking like he was under a tree shedding its blossom in the wind. As we get closer to our return to the UK, I can’t help but wonder how we will cope with the cooler temperatures as even Jago, who was contentedly swimming in glacial lakes in New Zealand at the start of this adventure, struggled to get into this (very much warmer) pool! We have definitely got used to the warmer climate here and I’m sure we’re going to miss it. Our final drive of the day took us all the way to Ban Kong Lor, where once again we were in a corridor of karst towering up on either side of the road. The scenery was breathtaking and well worth the roadtrip. We managed only to stop a couple of times for photos, otherwise we would never have made it to our destination, but I can see why some people end up taking 4 or 5 days to cover the same distance, in order to really appreciate it properly. Stunning. The eco-lodge we stopped at in Ban Kong Lor provided yet more comfortable and incredibly cheap accommodation, so much so that we were able to splash out on 2 rooms and a bed each for the night- luxury!

On Wednesday morning we headed straight to Tham Kong Lor, the highlight of this trip. It is a truly massive cave with a river running through it, extending over 7km through the enormous limestone cliffs. We read about how the villagers in Ban Kong Lor had thought that the emerald coloured water at the mouth of the cave was a sacred pool originating in the mountain, until first a duck appeared out of the mouth of the cave, then a buffalo yoke, and finally a tied-up bundle of rice, which aroused their suspicion that it might lead somewhere and that there might be other people at the opposite end. They embarked on an exploration mission which took them 3 days in the pitch black with just a wooden torch to light the way, until they finally emerged out the other side. Having been through it ourselves, I cannot imagine how brave they must have been! Just entering the mouth of the cave, we could already feel the scale of this natural wonder as we were dwarfed by the size of the opening. We climbed into our boats and headed off into the eerie darkness with only the narrow beam from our guide’s headtorch to light the way. Looking up from time to time, it was clear that the roof of the cavern was a long way up, apparently as high as 300ft in some parts, but the water wasn’t deep and the river wound its way from side to side, initially creating the same kind of excitement as a pitch black rollercoaster, hoping we weren’t going to hit anything as we navigated our way around the bends. Eventually our eyes started to adjust to the darkness and the initial thrill wore off but the cave just kept on going and going for miles on end- I had never imagined that such a thing might exist apart from in the realms of imagination. At times we had to get out and walk as our guides navigated the boats up sections of rapids. At the first stop, we found ourselves on a long path with enormous stalagmite and stalactite formations lit up along the way. It is impossible to imagine the timescale required for such enormous structures to form, well beyond the capacity of my tiny mind! I found it an awesome reminder of how ancient the earth is, and how insignificant human lifespan is in comparison. I felt so small inside, both physically and metaphorically! As we emerged into the sunshine at the other end I felt quite exhilarated, and the rest of the journey down the river to the nearest village, looking back at the enormous mountains that we had just passed through, was beautiful. Reaching the village near the cave exit, we found bicycles for hire which were small enough for Jago and Cara, but sadly too big for Piran. Whilst Pip and I retreated to one of the stalls where we could sit and play cards, the others headed off for a bike ride around the nearby villages for an hour. The locals were extremely impressed with Piran’s Lao language ability, asking for a drink, saying please and thank you, and understanding the price all in Lao. Being able to communicate in their own language, no matter how limited, really helped to build a connection and felt very satisfying. I can’t work out whether it is a blessing, or a shame, that we have been able to speak English and be understood everywhere else that we have travelled to! Whilst it has certainly made travelling very easy, I do feel we have missed out on some cultural immersion by getting by in our native language throughout our journey. Having not spoken another language myself, for so many years, it has really made me want to learn French again and put it into practice once we return home. Yet another addition to my growing ‘to do’ list on return to the UK! Cycling trip complete, we made our way back into the darkness and enjoyed reliving the excitement of the cave again as we travelled back to our starting point. It had been a great morning, and I understand why this is the highlight of a trip to Laos for many people. What an awesome sight!

The heat of the sun motivated us to find somewhere we could swim to cool down after our cave exploration, and the Lonely Planet recommended a nearby resort on a clean river where we should have been able to get lunch and splash about, so we headed there for our next stop. The place was absolutely beautiful with bungalows set in a tropical garden and the food was absolutely awesome, but sadly the hospitality was somewhat lacking as the owner informed 3 very disappointed children that only residents are allowed to access the river from the resort. Clearly it is a public river, and there weren’t even any other guests at the resort- I couldn’t believe it! In nearly 8 months of travelling I think this is the first time that we have encountered such rigid behaviour, and I was so surprised that it happened to be in Laos which has been so friendly and laid back elsewhere. Needless to say, we didn’t sit around spending money on drinks which we would have done if the kids had been playing happily, and instead we walked down the public path to the river after lunch and Jago and Cara enjoyed a short time splashing about before we had to continue with our journey back to Thakek for the night. It was on the next leg of the journey that we had our near-death experience that I am sure none of us will ever forget. Winding our way out of the ‘limestone forest’ in the mountains, the roads had many steep sharp bends and lots of lorries travelling from Vietnam border over towards Thailand. As we climbed up one particularly steep bend behind a lorry that was so slow it was almost rolling backwards down the hill, the lorry indicated for us to overtake. Despite being unable to see round the bend, we assumed that the driver had a better view than us or wouldn’t have indicated that we could go, so Ben pulled out and started accelerating around him. As he did so, a songthaew appeared round the bend coming straight towards us down the hill. In his wisdom, rather than dropping back into the hole he had left, Ben decided to accelerate forwards into the ever diminishing gap between the enormous lorry on our right and the songthaew in front of us. I honestly thought we were going to die, and I am not proud of the expletives that would have been my final words if we hadn’t made it! The songthaew managed to get right over the edge of the road, and we made it through by a whisker, amazed not to have sustained even a scratch on the car. Wow! I have never felt so grateful to be alive! The kids were equally shaken, and we were all content to travel at 5 mph after that rather than risk any more crazy overtaking, and when we stopped for our final selfie overlooking the limestone peaks and back out over the valley below before returning to Thakek, our huge smiles were the genuine smiles of people very relieved to still be standing! I am never going to let Ben forget this if he ever criticises my driving again in the future! Despite our close shave, the loop had been a great way to spend 3 days, with interesting and fantastic scenery, lovely caves and pools and nice cheap places to stay.

Having made it back to Thakek, we now had the challenge of getting to Siem Reap as quickly as possible for our final week abroad. We really wanted to maximise our time there so that we could explore lots of temples without it becoming too draining for the kids, so we decided to travel straight there without breaking up the journey in 4000 islands as we had previously planned. Logisitically, getting to Siem Reap seemed to be a bit of a nightmare with much of the travel information on the internet about night buses not being up-to-date, and the stated journey times varying wildly, with the same leg supposedly taking anywhere from 4 to 8 hours depending on which source you look at. We finally concluded that the only sane way to get there was to get a bus from Thakek to Pakse on Thursday followed by a mammoth 12 hour journey by minibus from Pakse to Siem Reap on Friday. So it was, that we found ourselves at Thakek bus station at 8.45 on Thursday morning, planning to get the air-conditioned bus at 9.00, only to find out that it had gone at 8.30! We spent a long time debating whether to get the next (local) bus which would be leaving at 10.30, or to wait for the next air-con bus at 12.00; eventually we agreed that the sooner we got there the better as we didn’t have any accommodation booked in advance, and that we would rough it with the locals for one final journey. As it was, we didn’t have anything to worry about; apart from the cracked door and windscreen and the leaking roof, the local bus was perfectly comfortable and the torrential rain during our journey meant we didn’t miss the aircon at all. In fact, the kids and I got absolutely soaked to the bone as we had got off for a toilet break and to stock up with sticky rice, only to find that the heavens opened before we had time to return to the bus. The 30 second sprint back was enough to drench us, and none of us were worried about being too hot for the rest of the journey! The bus made regular stops for local food-sellers to board and offer their food, mostly chicken on a stick and various other unrecognisable snacks that I wasn’t willing to risk at this stage of our travels. There were also stops for everyone else to use the toilet- rather than paying for a western loo as we had, they just used a field by the side of the road, the women just holding up a sarong around themselves as the whole bus squatted around various bushes. There are some aspects of Laos life that I’m just not quite ready to fully embrace just yet! We made good time to Pakse and found a big, comfortable family room in a nice guesthouse not far from the bus stop, opposite a genuine Indian restaurant. There was much excitement at the thought of a good curry for our final night in Laos and we had a delicious meal out to conclude our long stay in this wonderful country. After a lot of travel-fatigue in Malaysia and Thailand, Laos had been just what we needed to regain a sense of purpose, to genuinely feel like we were getting to know a different culture, to get back in touch with nature and to enjoy working together as a team, bringing us closer to each other again. I truly loved our time in Laos and have found it to be the most interesting and rewarding part of our time abroad. 6 weeks here was enough to really experience the country properly and as we departed, I felt ready to return to ‘sight-seeing’ mode for our final week in Asia. Walking between the borders of Laos and Cambodia in the midday sun on Friday, I was content to bid farewell to this fabulous country for now, drawn on by the excitement of Angkor Wat to come.

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