Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Vientiane – Thakhek – Pakse!

The route from Vientiane to Pakse, via Thakhek following the Mekong river

We’ve travelled a long way since our last blog entry, 672km along the roads and 316km further south. 672km doesn’t sound that far, but roads in Laos are not what they are in the developed world. The main Highway 13 that we travelled along equates to a country lane in the UK, it’s wide enough for two vehicles to pass, but it’s got many twists and turns, the road surface is not even and there are occasional pot holes and some road works where improvements are being made, thus the average speed is only about 50km/h.

Hophrakeo temple in Vientiane where the Emerald Buddha used to be kept, before if was shipped to Bangkok after Thailands General Taksin took the city in 1779 and stole it, still a source of irritation to Laos today
This is a Hang Hod, used to pour perfumed water on to monks heads
To follow on from the end of Jackie’s last entry, the pizza she was so looking forward to didn’t happen, the Viavia restaurant that had the proper pizza oven and queues outside on the previous night was closed for the night – you should have seen her face! We had a reasonable Indian dinner instead, but it just wasn’t what she wanted!

Night by the Mekong, looking over to Thailand
I had high hopes for the next leg of our journey, Thakhek (or Tha Khaek depending on which book you look at). It’s halfway down Laos on the Mekong, the Lonely Planet describing nearby attractions in glowing terms, the Kong Lor cave is apparently spectacular, but a bit remote and ‘the loop’ is a 3 or 4 day 450km motorcycle ride through spectacular river, waterfall, caves and limestone karst scenery. If you don’t want to do it on a motorcycle it’s possible to do it by bus the book says and Thakhek seems to be the best base. Additionally Jackie had found a big bolted rock climbing area 12km outside Thakhek, where you can hire climbing gear, so it all looked good. Well, it didn’t turn out that way!

Thakhek showing 'The Loop' in blue. Going east from Thakhek is to caves and the climbing area. Kong Lor cave is well to the left of point 1E in the wilderness and point AH15 shows where the loop rejoins Highway 13, the main north-south busy road
the Inthara Thakhek hotel (with renovation work going on!)
On closer inspection on the internet many people reported the Kong Lor cave to be overrated, wondering if Lonely Planet were getting backhanders for pushing people to go there. It’s apparently so big that once inside (you have to go in by boat) you can see nothing unless you have an immensely powerful torch. Additionally in the dry season (now) you often have to get out of the boat and walk. 
Towards Thailand over the Mekong, before the smog obliterated the sun!
It’s also very remote, difficult to organise lifts there and accommodation is scarce and cannot be booked in advance. All in all we decided not to bother. The loop motorcycle ride is not recommended for inexperienced riders, like ourselves, as the road is so poor and the places to stop off for the night didn’t read very well, so we decided a number of remote bus journeys over poor roads to unexciting destinations wasn’t worth it for the odd good views through the probably dirty bus windows. After booking our bus ticket to Thakhek we met a couple we saw in Vang Vieng and again in Vientiane who told us they had booked a bus directly to Kong Lor cave, should we have done that? Too late now!

The bald inner tyre on the two wheeled rear axle
The underinflated outer of the two tyres
No problem, we’ll just go to Thakhek and maybe go climbing. Well, that didn’t work out either! The climbing gear hire was 220,000kip ($27.50/£20.00) per day, the guide book purchase was 120,000kip (£10) and we had to get there. Expensive, but possible, we thought we’d see when we got there. After leaving our hotel in Vientiane at 12:00 we arrived in Thakhek at 18:30 (339km), after a tuk-tuk ride to the bus station and then a VIP bus, which was reasonably comfortable. The sun had set, but we had our hotel booking arranged at the very nice, reasonably expensive and central Inthira Thakhek, who also had a very good reasonably priced restaurant, so beer and spicy red curry was in order! As we got off our tuk-tuk at the hotel the last remaining passenger was going onto the climbing area, having booked a difficult to get room at the place, but his tuk-tuk charge out there was 125,000kip (£10.40) one way, so add that to the gear hire and guidebook it’s now very expensive to go climbing!

The bus driver (in blue) is talking to his mate about it, but that's all he did!
At last in Pakse, Jackie finds a kitten! Everything's OK now!
No problem we thought, we could rent bicycles and cycle 12km there and back, or rent a motorcycle, it’s a flat, good road there apparently. Unfortunately not, there were no bicycles, motorbikes or scooters to be had anywhere in Thakhek, all the bikes are booked out by people doing ‘the loop’. We arrived at a shop hiring bicycles to see a French couple riding out on the last two, nothing else available that day. Thakhek as a town is nice, but there is nothing much to do! A day trip to Kong Lor cave, $75 per person and even the local caves are too far to walk, as well as being too hot, so we had a walk round town, stopped for cold drinks at cafes at the edge of the Mekong with great views over to Thailand on the opposite bank and bought our bus tickets on to Pakse for the next day, another 7 or 8 hour journey and 330km. 

The yellow building is our very nice Pakse Hotel, with its rooftop panorama bar and restaurant
The view from the rooftop bar
Back at the Inthara hotel, chilling out in the bar/restaurant which opens directly onto the street we got talking to some people who had been climbing, one of them had a guidebook. Looking through it looked a fabulous climbing area, natural limestone, with massive features and grades of all standards from 5 to 8a, plenty available in our grades and looking good too. 

Awaiting the arrival of beer and sunset on the rooftop bar.
Another experienced climber rated it as the best crag in SE Asia. Should we have stayed an extra day, tried to book a motorbike and gone out there, if not to climb on hired gear (with uncertain history!), just to look and decide whether it’s worth planning a future climbing trip. With three known sites in Thailand (Krabi, north of Bangkok and Chiang Mai) plus Vang Vieng and Thakhek in Laos and Halong Bay in Vietnam, plus others no doubt, a decent climbing holiday could be had. Too late, we’d booked the bus tickets! To make it worse, we arrived in Pakse, where we are now, at a very nice (and quite expensive for us) hotel, only to bump into the couple from Vang Vieng and Vientiane who had gone on to the Kong Lor caves. Absolutely fabulous he said it was, one of his highlights of Laos! Oh well, you can’t win them all, but the whole trip to Thakhek turned into one big frustration.

And here comes sunset over the Mekong
Some old French colonial buildings in Pakse
The bus to Pakse was a bit of an ordeal as well. The best way of getting here is to take the overnight bus from Vientiane, but as we’d stopped off at Thakhek we had to get a local bus from there. Another tuk-tuk ride to the bus station that picked us up at 07:40 from the hotel and a very old bus with no air-con that stopped off everywhere en-route awaited us. We were there in time for me to walk round the bus before we got on, which doesn’t add to my reassurance, there were two tyres on each side of the back axle of the bus, on one side they were OK, but on the other the inner tyre was completely devoid of any tread and not far from the inner canvas, the outer tyre was very underinflated, presumably to reduce its working radius to the same as the bald inner tyre and equalise the load. Underinflated tyres can get very hot and blow – as can totally worn out tyres! I took photos and called the driver over, pointing out to low pressure and bald inner and he made some motions with his arms and said something in Lao to indicate he was happy, but I did note that he discussed it with someone else before we left, but did nothing to the tyres!

A Buddha temple in Pakse
The cracked windscreen across his field of vision and the broken rear light completed my worry and, when we got onboard things were pretty much the same, but at least Jackie managed to claim two of the few unripped seats, but the whole bus was grubby and, as we headed off into the midday sun with only a little fan above us we gently glowed all the way. The fan was like having a warm hairdryer blowing on a hot day – nice!

The Hero Monument to the revolution in Pakse
Anyway, we got here about 15:30, which was sooner than we thought, ‘Pakse’ the driver shouted in English as the bus pulled to the side of the road, so all eight of us Europeans got off, in the middle of nowhere, with one tuk-tuk standing by. 20,000kip per person he told us (£1.80). I was happy with that but the French said they weren’t paying that, it was too much and started walking. The tuk-tuk driver hung around and eventually they got onboard after he said it was 6km to the centre. It turns out (or so we decided) that the bus driver must have had an arrangement with the tuk-tuk driver to drop us there so he could get a fare, as we passed others from the bus, much further on walking into town, presumably after the bus had stopped again and dropped them off much closer. Lesson to be learned there! Still, it was very hot and I was glad to be dropped off at our very nice Pakse Hotel.

A French colonial catholic church in Pakse
So what is there to do in Pakse, Loas’ third largest city and about the size of our village Alvechurch back home? Not a lot! It’s on the Mekong river, it’s very pleasant and there are a few wats, temples and old French colonial buildings dotted about, but not much else. You can book trips to an elephant sanctuary, a high plateau wine growing area and a national park for jungle hiking, but they are a long way and very expensive. We’re here for two nights, we’re in a lovely hotel we were up early before it got too hot for a coolish walk round town to see what sights there are and now we’re chilling out in the afternoon sun at the hotel.

Chilling out at the Pakse Hotel. You've seen all Pakse has to offer now
Tomorrow we go to our last destination in Laos, 4000 islands, so named because of the many (maybe 4000?) islands in the Mekong river, at a very flat point, where it just spreads out and takes may courses, creating all those islands. It’s possible to see the Irrawady dolphin apparently, a critically endangered fresh water dolphin that inhabits the Mekong at this point. At the last count there were only 60 odd left. Will we see any? Other than that it’s a chilling out place with little else to do – there’s a change! Fortunately it’s only a 2.5 hour minibus journey plus boat ride. If this whole entry sounds a bit flat it’s because we do both feel a bit ‘flat’. After Nong Khiaw and Vang Vieng we had high hopes of Laos, it is very beautiful and the people are so laid back and nice, but after leaving the north there doesn’t seem to be that much to do. Having our own transport (proper off road 4x4) would help, but that’s not an option.

Saturday, 24 January 2015


One of the cats that took a liking to Jackie

Hmm the capital, not sure what to think really, it’s OK, but really nothing special, still we will have had three nights here, but that’s just because everywhere south of here sounds a little dire!

Anyway, another good sunset in Vang Vieng before we left, with Olia (always introduces herself as Olga, but prefers to be called Olia). She had decided to stay another day in VV, wish we had really, but hey! 4 hours on quite a decent minibus, with one stop where there were two lovely young cats who just wanted to be fussed, so I was happy! I also found another mad cat lady – younger than me, but with a bag of cat biscuits secreted about her person!

The Presidential Palace, at one time the Kings Palace before the communist revolution in November 1975
The wide boulevard leading from the Presidential Palace to the Patuxay monument
Arrived at our Guesthouse which was pretty much as described, but our dark room, with no windows was a bit depressing! Glad we only booked one night as it means we’ve moved to the Mixay Paradise where Lyle, the Ozzie from the hotel in VV, who was on our bus, is staying before he heads off to Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia for a ten day break, although the room is miniscule it’s cheaper, it does have a window, breakfast is included, and I don’t feel I have to change the duvet cover as I did in the last one!

The Patuxay monument, said to resemble the Arc de Triomphe in Paris
Nice view from the top back to the Presidential Palace
We had quite a busy day yesterday, going to the Patuxay monument, looks a bit like the Arc de Triomphe, except it was never really finished so is a bit of a grey concrete monstrosity! Good views from the top though. Then on to the ThatLuang Stupa which apparently has a piece of Buddha’s breastbone in not that you can see it, but the gold covered building is very impressive, as are the other buildings on the complex. 

And the view the other way
The That Luang Stupa
Back to the hotel via the COPE centre, one step on from the UXO centre in Luang Prabang, this one told you a bit about un-exploded ordnance but then also explained about the rehabilitation that is going on with provision of false legs, not just for UXO victims but also those who were born with club feet, or that have suffered motorbike accidents for example. Much more positive, but not as shocking as the information centre in LP, well worth a visit though. All in all we walked a long way, in the heat, oh yes, remember what it’s like to be warm now, never happy are we!

The superb temple on the That Luang Stupa complex
Inside the temple
Met up with Olia in the evening, we rescued her from her prison cell of a room, also with no windows, we thought we were going to book her in with us, but she was too self sufficient and sorted herself out! Had a lovely meal, very moist fish cooked in salt, and chicken noodles and morning glory, doesn’t sound exciting, but all absolutely delicious. We’d looked at the huge night market the previous evening so toddled off home to bed.

Reclining Buddha on the same site
The Stupa
Bumped into Olia this morning so we all went off to the museum together, she’s heading off tonight on the 24 hour bus journey to Hanoi, and we are thinking we could have gone to Tha Khek today at 12 noon rather than tomorrow, but too late for that. Still I’m looking forward to a highly recommended pizza tonight!

The Revolution Monument, situated opposite the Communist Party building. Installed after the revolution of November 1975 with Vietnamese backing. The King abdicated on 2nd December 1975, ending 650 years of the monarchy, causing an exit of royalists and educated elite to Thailand, setting the country back a generation. The party is still in power, but now calls itself a Socialist Republic and its market reforms along with its massive hydro-electric dam power generation programme, along with tourism are gradually improving the economy
Prosthetic limbs on display in the COPE centre showing, along with the searching and removal of UXO, the great work they are doing there
Model showing how a cluster bomb works. The complete bomb is dropped from the aircraft, small charges blow the casing into halves (you can see the two halves near the top of the picture), releasing 200 or so small bombs that explode over a huge area, giving the term carpet bombing. Over 580,000 bombing missions were carried out over Laos over 9 years, with an unknown quantity of bombs dropped on each occasion with 200 or so small bombs in each one, of which 30% failed to explode. Each small bomb fits into a hand, making them easy to pick up by children, where they often explode. The people are watching a graphic video. The ironic conclusion of US involvement in SE Asia to prevent the spread of communism was that it caused the spread to Laos and Cambodia, without which it may have not have occurred. Their involvement caused the very thing they were intent on preventing.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Vang Vieng

Our tuk-tuk guesthouse to bus station transfer in Luang Prabang

The bus journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng was through some of the most stunningly beautiful landscapes we have seen anywhere. It is a fabulously sublime mountain landscape of towering, jagged limestone spires, massive mountains, endlessly deep valleys, all covered with lush tropical jungle and the most surreal skyline of a jumble of spires and craggy tops in high, remote mountains. The road is relatively well maintained with potholes and rough surfaces not that common, but it is a fairly narrow road twisting tightly as it hugs the sides of mountains with steep drop offs, making passing other trucks and busses a slow affair. Other than the road, overhead power cables alongside the road and the occasional village it looked relatively untouched, inaccessible as it is.

Journey break on a high mountain col. That big bus was ours
What is this? It looks like bear paw wine!
Why this journey isn't noted as a major scenic drive I don't know. Its true that quite a few people on the bus were throwing up, not because of bad driving, quite the contrary, our driver was very good, it was just the twisting road as it weaved its improbable course through the terrain, up and over high cols and all the way back down again, but we were OK. If we'd have known how good it was going to be we may have hired a private vehicle so we could stop at will for photos, as it was we had to take photos through the window of a moving vehicle and, of course they never come out well.

Scenery captured through the bus window on the move
More journey photos
We had 6 hours on the VIP bus, which was a 56 seater coach with air con, reclining seats with plenty of legroom, a world away from the cramped conditions of the minibus, and not that much more expensive (150000 kip each - £12.50), oh and the luggage didn't have to go on the roof either - bonus!

Off on our bike trip to the Blue Lagoon
Olga and Jackie
We arrived in Vang Vieng at 4:30pm, having booked the Jammee Guesthouse for £11 per night, full of trepidation over the towns reputation of being a 20 something drug taking, beer swilling, noisy party town, but we were pleasantly surprised. Two years ago they undertook a big clean up operation and it seems to have worked, there's now a full age range represented here and its really very pleasant. We booked our guesthouse because it is in the quieter end of town, easily within walking distance and looking out on the continuing fabulously towering limestone landscape. We’re rapidly coming to the conclusion that Laos is one of the most beautiful countries in SE Asia.

Views on the way
The quad bike/go cart convoys
The guesthouse has an outdoor chill area with comfy cushions on a raised deck with low tables overlooking the now familiar landscape, so we're sitting here on a hot afternoon doing just that!
After arriving and chilling out back we wandered into town, found a really nice local restaurant serving Lao food and had a spicy and full flavour Lao red curry, wow!

Hand weavers in road side shops
Jackie finds a kitten at the volunteering place
Wandering along the road we bumped into Olga a lady of Ukranian relatives but born in northern Britain. She's about our age and on a 4 month trip on her own, with one month to go, and she seemed in need of company. As it happens she is staying at our guesthouse, so joined us for breakfast on the terrace next morning. We had met her briefly the previous day in Luang Prabang at breakfast as she hurried to catch her mini bus to VV, so we had something in common and, since then we have done most things together.

Jackie, Brian and Olga
The Blue Lagoon
At breakfast we got chatting to the retired Aussie guy who lives here and helps out at the guesthouse in return for free board and lodgings. This is his home now he tells us and who can blame him! It’s easy to understand why this is a very popular area, limestone mountains, as well as being very scenic, often have huge caves within, there’s a wide, lazy river running through and it has become an outdoor pursuits location, of high adrenalin and relaxed laid back adventure: tubing, where you lie in an inflated inner tube and glide down river, the 20 somethings stopping at every bar on the way!

The sun bathing area

Poukham Cave
“So what do we do today?” we asked our Aussie host as he collected the breakfast things, and we ended up with a big list of low cost things that sounded great and too much for the two nights we had booked here so, after changing rooms (the first one had a definite damp smell to it, even though Jackie couldn’t smell it due to the tail end of her cold), we then booked an extra night.

So, with Olga we set off into town to hire proper mountain bikes (20000kip - £1.66 each for the day until 7:00pm) and to tackle a 7km dirt track to the Blue Lagoon and Poukham Cave. We were in no rush so peddled along stopping frequently to take photos and stopping to look at the small houses weaving and selling beautiful cotton and silk scarves, all set in amongst this stunning scenery (some of those mountains looked so climbable on that beautifully sculptured limestone, what a pity we haven’t got our gear or a guide book – if there even is one, they look very inaccessible). A slight distraction were the quad bikes come go carts that sped past us in convoy on occasions, kicking up huge amounts of dust, interspersed with tuk-tuks taking full loads of people, presumably to where we were going, but in between it was quite pleasant and great fun. A brief stop at the cafĂ©, which was also a volunteering place had Olga in excitement. Victoria Wood (not that Victoria Wood) has been there for 4 months and sees herself there for years. It costs about £7 per day for a mattress on the floor of a dorm, three meals a day and volunteering work which includes organic farming, teaching English and doing various jobs around the very large compound in this isolated and scenic place. Very chilled out!

Arrival at the Blue Lagoon was a bit of a shock, it was full! The Blue Lagoon was fairly small, but deep and very blue with many, mainly young people swimming, splashing and leaping off low and high branches of a large tree that overhung and swinging out on a rope swing to drop into the water. It was properly organised with people in attendance, so it didn’t feel rowdy, but a lot of fun! Over the bridge was a pick grassed flat area with mats with people sunbathing, surrounded by raised platforms with roofs for chilling out in, many open air cafes dotted around, all surrounded by forested huge mountains. The cave was up a couple of hundred steps, high in one of the mountains, which also gave access to the zip lines that seemed to crisscross through the trees, stopping at platforms on the way, with the odd rope abseil descent. In short a full on action place, lots of fun and relaxation and things to do. The notices said “do not smoke weed” and we found it non-threatening, lots of fun friendly people and a good mix of ages – a great place! We went up to the cave and had a good walk/crawl around with the one headtorch we now have between us (I lost mine!), Olga came up with us and entered the large opening but was clearly uncomfortable of going into the smaller, darker areas, so she went down and we met her at the bottom.

Olga and Jackie sunbathing
One of the scarf shops
We grabbed a mat on the grass and decided to have a swim in the lagoon, leaving Olga to look after our things and take some photos. No jumping off high branches for us, we have nothing to prove, unlike the 20 somethings! Thought about trying out an inner tube float, but instead opted for a sunbathe and a watch of all the happenings all around us. Quite high those people on the zip lines from down here, but there was a hell of a queue of mainly Chinese and it would probably be expensive, so we were happy with what we’d done and headed off back down the track. Olga had promised she would buy some scarves on the way back and the six or seven little shops all expected her to buy, so she did, spending a lot of money. They ranged between 40000 and 80000kip (£3.33 to £6.66) each depending on size and fabric, but it mounted up. Even Jackie bought one!

In the chill out bar waiting for sunset
The final rays of the day
Finally back into town and Olga took us to the chill out bars alongside the river to watch sunset. Fabulously laid back places and awesome views! Gin and Tonics, followed by beer and then dinner (yes, another Lao Red Curry!) and then hurried to drop the bikes off before 7:00pm, no lights, a bit tiddly and weaving through traffic in a laid back Lao way! No problem!

Just after a hot air balloon came gliding by
The walk out to the Tham Chang cave today

Today, laid back breakfast on the terrace and then a walk to Tham Chang cave, just down from our guesthouse and set high up in another limestone karst. Over the bridge, past the food sellers, boiled peanuts in shells (interesting, soft but quite nice) and coconut cakes (also interesting, quite nice but wouldn’t bother again), a little walk around the edge of the limestone towers to look at the ice blue and perfectly clear small rivers pouring out of caves and under little bridges (they should be made of bamboo Olga insisted) and then up the hundred or so steps to the cave. 
Crystal blue mountain waters
No-one else wanted to run up for fitness as I did halfway until the need for breathing overtook the need to keep running. This cave was fully lit with a concrete walkway, but was still absolutely fabulous, big and wide with small bits off that Jackie had to squeeze through (that’s Jackie!), bottomless holes and hugely picturesque with all its limestone stalactites, mites and flowstone. Very worthwhile.

Saw this moth in one of the caves, isn't it fabulous!
The steps up to the cave
Afternoon, chill on the terrace, write the blog, gaze at the scenery and get ready for another (only 3.5 hours apparently) bus ride in the morning to the capital city of Lao, Vientiane. Most write ups don’t give it a very good reputation, which is a bit of a shame, so we’ve booked 1 night, but may stay two depending on what we think, before heading south to central Laos. It’s getting warmer as we go, a bit warm here, but OK, now we need to be ready for the heat!

There must be some climbing up thee surely

In Tham Chang Cave

The chill out terrace at our guesthouse

There's a lot of hot air in there, and its not coming from me!

Another night and another sunset!

Pancakes on the way home from a street food stall