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Round the World

Vientiane to Savannakhet

Other than getting my Cambodian visa and having a look around the markets I didn’t do much in Vientiane. The city didn’t appeal to me, the nightlife was non-existent, the cheap restaurants crap and the more expensive ones little better. Although there were supposed to be a couple of large nightclubs there didn’t appear to be anyone out on the town warming up for them. More importantly for the traveller is that it only has one second hand bookshop and one for new books and both are dreadful. If you have a limited time in Laos spend more of it in Laung Prabang than in the capital. Having said all that its not a really bad city, just disappointing after the delights of Luang.

Travelled by bus down to Tha Khaek as it appeared to be a good starting point for Kong Lo caves. Something has gone wrong in this town as the most highly recommended hotel has closed and another big one being built was abandoned after 80% of the work has been done. In addition most of the restaurants in the town square had also disappeared.

Over dinner I met up with Marco & Willeke, a Dutch couple, who were also looking to head to the Kong Lo caves. It was a 6 o’clock alarm to get up, packed and onto the 7 o’clock bus that would take us the first section of the journey. Although the roads were good, the repeated stops meant it took around 3 hours. We then hired a jumbo (a large tuk-tuk) to take us to a guesthouse within reach of the caves. At first the unsealed dirt road was OK, having been graded, but before long it was a bumpy dirt track with us taking all sorts of diversions to avoid the really deep mud. A jumbo only has 3 wheels and is really meant for town use, not this off road malarky. Got to the Guesthouse just before 1pm, checked in and had some lunch.

The jumbo driver volunteered to take us on the over 1 hour drive to the village where we could catch a boat through the caves. Seemed fair enough, but the road if possible was even worse. At points it crossed the dry paddy fields with the remains of dykes and irrigation canals sending my head into the roof. Having got there we arranged a boat for the 3 hour ride to the other side of the caves and back.

Boat for the Kong Lo caves, Laos

It has to be said the caves and the boat journey were both spectacular. The boat was a long-tail river boat and being near the end of the dry season the water levels were low. It meant we regularly had to abandon ship and wade through to deeper water, sometimes helping to haul the boat up a water fall. The caves themselves are 4 km long and generally about 50m wide and 30m high, though at points both dimensions double. On the other side is a valley with a village whose only access to the outside world is via the caves. Talk about a lost world. We come across one of their boats paddling through the caves loaded with supplies, mainly Beer Lao. It really was a remarkable place and worth the effort of getting here.

After 3 hours on the boat it was back to the jumbo for the one and a bit hour long bumpy journey back to the guesthouse. All the children we passed were waving and shouting sabadee (hello/goodbye) as is often the case in Laos; it really is a friendly country. Sore but satisfied we headed for the showers to find the hot water had run out. Dinner was accompanied by a few Beer Lao and the fact that the electricity went off at 9pm wasn’t a problem; we were exhaused and ready for bed anyway.

The next morning we caught the 7am bus back to the main road. The bus was a pick-up truck with a roof and 2 rows of seats along the sides added to the back. As is typical with Lao transport they seem to fill it with twice as many people as a westerner thinks possible, plus all their worldly goods. 2.5 bottom aching hours of bumpy dirt road later we were back at the main road and jumped into a similar vehicle bound for Tha Khaek.

We again picked up enough people to populate a small village, everything they owned plus a small herd of livestock in the shape of 4 goats. Initially 3 of them were on the roof but when one decided to take a piss which then cascaded down over the passengers the driver had other ideas. The goats were all hog-tied and then tied to the railing platform at the back of the truck. We set off and 20 yards on one of the goats has squeezed itself out the side and is now in danger of being hanged. Its retied in place, but more securely, and we set off again. Another 20 yards and the goat on the opposite side has partially slipped its bonds and is now hanging upside down off the back of the platform. The driver had another go at retying 3 goats securely to the platform and putting the smallest on the roof (where it would later take a piss over the drivers assistant). For the rest of the journey the goats were secure despite repeated attempts to escape and making their fright and displeasure very well know. A scared goat has a horrible cry. Laos is not a place to come if you have strong animal welfare concerns.

Just to properly seal this as a journey through hell I lost the torch my brother gave me. It was in a fastened pocket but somehow when I was sitting cross legged on top of some sacks of rice the pocket had come undone. As I went to fasten it the torch fell out and bumped along the road. I didn’t react quickly enough to stop the bus and that was that. You get a bond with the stuff you brought from home, and in particular with any presents so I was really depressed by the turn of events.

We arrived in Tha Khaek but as it was early afternoon I had the opportunity to make it to Savannakhet. I didn’t like the idea of another night here so jumped in the 3rd converted truck of the day for the 2 hour journey, arriving in Savannakhet at 5pm. This one had a hog-tied pig fastened to the back of the truck for part of the trip, though the pig seemed much less upset when secured than the goats had been. Totally shredded I checked into a hotel and went in search of dinner and a beer.

Savannakhet doesn’t have a lot to offer. The local provincial museum has a few war relics outside, but inside has only 108 photos, 98% of Mr Kaysone who was president from 1975 until his death in 1992 (don’t forget the full name of this country is the Lao People’s Democratic Republic!!). Still it had a bank where I could change cash and laundry facilities.

A US tank parked not in the museum, but in the hospital grounds nearby, Savannakhet, Laos

The plan for tomorrow is to head to Pakse, on a proper bus please.

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