Friday 31 October – Tuesday 4 November 2008 Pakse to Vientiane via Savannakhet Tha Khaek Kong Lo Cave & Paksan
Once we headed north the first province we hit was Savannakhet and we spent for our first night in the town of that name which is the province's capital. We travelled up on highway 13 (the roads were very good all the way) and detoured off to Savannakhet mainly to see the dinosaur museum which is there. Though it was still within opening times it was very much closed by the time we reached there on Friday afternoon and perhaps surprisingly for the town's one tourist attraction it was shut for the weekend!
Never mind we managed to see a concrete dinosaur on the roundabout and anyway Savannakhet was still a nice little town to visit set on the Mekong looking across the water to Thailand. The tourist information centre there was amongst the best we've seen. The Manager Mr. Thongsavath spoke very good English and had gone to an incredible amount of trouble producing information sheets. They are hoping to increased eco- tourism in the area and organize jungle treks including stays with indigenous people. This looked really interesting but we didn't really have the time and Andrew is still under doctor's orders to take it easy. The site www.ecotourismlaos.com gives much more information about this region so have a look if trekking in this very un-spoilt and beautiful area appeals.
Due to its proximity to Thailand and direct road to Vietnam the town was important to the French as a trade centre and is full of lovely old French buildings next to the traditional wooden Lao homes, giving it a nice ambience. Apparently as they are a reminder of the colonial past a decision has been made not to restore the French buildings which seems a shame. We camped by the river first asking the security guards at the nearby offices (it's common in Asia for all sorts of buildings to have all night security the cheapness of labour I guess) if it was ok. They gave us the Ok but we had a disturbed night as the police came and moved us. Once they understood they said we could stay but we had to move the car 100 metres down the road! Not clear why I think it was a control thing but Andrew drove the short distance whilst I stayed in bed and we slept on!
Next day we headed on driving the road parallel to the Mekong to the Khammouan province. Its capital town Tha Khaek again looking across at Thailand was really like Savannakhet having a square with some beautiful old French buildings. We wandered into the Sabaidee Café and met Ralph from the USA an ex-navy man who'd had a sea change and moved to Laos to start the café. We whiled away a pleasant few hours with him and bought up the majority of his 2nd hand books and DVDs as we're at the end of both supplies!
Next destination was the Tham Lot Kong Lo or Kong Lo caves. The roads now started to get more interesting. In minutes we changed from a flat landscape to one of dramatic mountains and limestone karst formations. As we drove on we came upon a huge hydro electric project which was a focus of activity with workers and huge earth movers everywhere. It stretched for over 30 kms and involved damming the mountain rivers to create hydro electric power. The website relating to the project is www.namtheun2.com if anyone is interested. We stopped to camp the night at a little town up in the hills called Nakai. There are no guest houses here so just as well we brought own home with us!
Once you are off the beaten track in Asia it is often noodles or noodles for dinner but incredibly we found the Houaphou restaurant run by a Belgian man and his wife and had a wonderful meal. We ordered 2 dishes and shared so we had laab - a Laos's specialty of minced beef chili and lime - and Belgian pork sausages with mustard sauce and mashed potato very international and delicious. The owner's brother was visiting and as an excellent speaker of English he helped us out as we had to get permission from the village elders to camp there. This was given and we settled down for a peaceful night only disturbed by passing goats (quite a lot of these!) and cattle.
Next morning the drive on to the caves was one of the most spectacular of our entire trip. The road passes through forest mountains and karst scenery interspersed by native villages and people getting on with their lives as they have for many years - herding goats, fishing in streams, sleeping in hammocks. We stopped for lunch in the town of Lak Sao. As the maps around this area are very sketchy in detail to put it mildly, we later discovered we had driven 580km out of our way on a loop road to reach the caves!! It was an absolutely amazing drive affording stunning views around every corner as the road wound around the mountains and we were glad we'd got it wrong!
Once we reached the caves we found the one local homestay and arranged to camp there. The owner's son spoke very good English. There were 2 ladies from New Zealand staying there as well as a lot of workers from Vientiane, the latter were employed to rig up the caves we were to visit the next day with electric lights. We ate in the family's traditional long house and had an early night before heading to the caves first thing.
The caves haven't long been open to the public but now their potential as a tourist attraction has been seen hence the government investing so much to get the lighting done and putting in a good tarred road (43km at a cost of $2 million USD). They have also appointed "The Boat Committee" who issue tickets from a wooden platform there seemed to be over 20 of them there on the day we visited..obviously an important role!
The caves consist of 7km of limestone through which the River (or Nam) Hin Bun flows. You make the journey through by motorized wooden canoe and it was absolutely awesome. The cave tunnel is immense - 100m wide in some places and hung with stalactites everywhere. The guides lead us up to see the thaat or natural stupas inside.
This was as near to caving as I'm likely to get and I was a bit outside my comfort zone. I have a developmental problem with my feet which means I find it hard to balance at the best of times so scrambling up slippery cave walls was a bit of a challenge to say the least!
It was incredible though and we really enjoyed the canoe trip. It took over 2 hours with a short stop at the other side of the mountain where we met up with some indigenous young men armed to the teeth with guns and knives as they were on a hunting trip! . The caves are stunning and must surely be one of the natural wonders of Asia.
From there we drove on - more dramatic scenery we're getting quite blasé about it now! - to stop at Paksan. Due to our unexpected scenic detour we were a bit strapped for cash, as we had spent all we had on petrol. It isn't possible to pay by visa in many places here and much of this area has no banks or atms - it is still uncommon in Laos to have a bank account. We got to Paksan at 3.20pm and got to the bank before it shut at 3.30pm so we were able to eat that night!
We had a look around and couldn't see anywhere suitable to park so once again we played the "Wat card" and stayed at a riverside Wat. The monks were very friendly in fact a bit overpoweringly so, and we had to go to bed to get rid of them! It was a colourful beautifully decorated Wat and though there were prayers and chanting at 4am it was very soothing and quite peaceful so we both largely slept through it. The next day we had breakfast at a riverside café. They were setting out a groaning table of food for the lunchtime traffic by the time we left ..a few delicacies you don't see at home ..deep fried crickets or buffalo's hooves anyone?!
So we drove the final stretch on to Vientiane, thankfully the roads were good as the rain was torrential. On Tuesday 4 November we arrived in Laos's capital City of Vientiane.