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.


  1. Sorry to read your travel frustrations over the last 2 blog entries. But more serious than that.....jackie's pizza! Sort it out Brian xx

  2. Thank-you Helen, I'm in danger of fading away here! xx