Road Trip in Laos:
Vientiane to Pakse
June 9, 2014
I love traveling with Jim. Whether we're paddling the kayak away from Tenaya or heading out of a hotel room in a big city, he's excited about what we might see and learn that day. He doesn't worry that we might miss a meal or get rained on, he just grabs his water bottle and camera and heads out ready for a new adventure.
But he's also the voice of reason, the one to make sure my proposed sailing route can be done safely. The one to have all our financial ducks in a row. The one to calmly suggest a course of action when I can see so many options that I start to spin out.
Organizing flights and land travel has been my job since we moved away from the US 14 years ago. But we left Thailand in a hurry and I needed help. Photos had to be sorted and stories told before I moved on to new excursions or my OCD would send me into orbit. Jim volunteered to book our flights to Laos, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Istanbul, and the rental car in Laos.
He now has a far greater appreciation of Paula, Elisabeth, Gerta, Anouk and anyone else who booked international flights for him. But after he'd done some research, it was the rental car that really got to him. Why did I want that? And why did I plan to start in Vientiane, halfway down the country, and go south from there? Everyone else goes north to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.
Nobody travels by car in Laos. Google it or go on a travel forum, you'll see. It seems people backpacking around the country travel by bus with maybe a slow boat down the Mekong for a couple of days, a motorbike ride to a waterfall or cave, and a float tube drinking fest thrown in. Brave ones hop in sawngthaews, covered pick-up trucks. That was my plan before I met Vincent and his girlfriend in Borneo. They are Dutch. The Dutch go everywhere. Nothing fazes them.
We met them one evening in the Danum Valley as we waited for the flying squirrels to leap. Vincent said they'd just come from Laos and Cambodia. I told them my plans and they said they'd rented a car and had a great time. Rent a sport ute from Avis in Vientiane, they said, and go south to Kong Lor Cave, then leave the car in Pakse.
So that is what we did.
One night was enough in Vientiane but I wished we'd known about the market where a multitude of fried bugs are sold as snacks. They're an excellent source of protein and, really, how often do you get the opportunity to pop a crispy critter into your mouth? We had to settle for cafe au lait and french pastries for breakfast before hitting the road and baguettes for snacks.
The Mekong river serves as the border between Thailand and Laos. It's not a wide body of water and often Highway 13 skirts the shore and we'd get a glimpse of people fishing and small boats plying the water.
After an hour of driving, the buildings and traffic of the capital city were behind us. The countryside is flat with shrubby trees covering what earth has not been sectioned into rice paddies. Mountains rise in the east and form the border with Vietnam. I couldn't help but compare the ride of the spacious Ford Everest to Mr. Vuth's tuk tuk in Cambodia. The air was chilled, the bumps softened, the sounds stifled and the smells of the surroundings blocked. An insect exploded on the windshield and startled me. I'd forgotten they do that in the spring. I don't drive often.
We passed through small villages with wooden stalls strung with items for sale, usually baskets and the local specialty. In one town dried fish dangles on string. In another white corn is bagged six ears each, some cooked, some raw. In other towns only bananas or pineapples or things we didn't recognize were sold.
About four hours into our first day we reached Highway 8. It twists and turns through the mountains to the Vietnamese border. We followed it to the turn-off for Kong Lor Cave. The narrow road was paved but had washed out in a few places. We went around but don't think driving through the riverbeds will work once the rainy season is in full force.
Limestone cliffs, pinnacles and towering karsts rise from the dense bush as far as the eye can see. We thought a permanent looking sign saying 'Accident Ahead' was odd until we rounded the bend and there was indeed a bus stalled in the road. Women and children sat in the shade against a steep stone wall as men squatted and crawled around and under the dilapidated behemoth. That was the first of several old broken down buses and sawngthaews we saw during our 1200 kilometer journey. We saw all kinds of other things on the road as well. Things with two wheels, three wheels, four wheels and four legs. Many had horns.
We pulled into the small town of Kong Lor in the late afternoon. It was deserted except for a handful of backpackers wandering around and a few villagers coming home from the fields. The road ends at the entrance to the park where the cave begins. There were several signs for lodging but all the places looked empty so we doubled back to the first one we saw, the one with the big red bus in front, Chantha House. The room was simple but comfortable with screens that kept out the largest of the flying insects.
"How did you find out about this place?" the guide for the backpackers asked me. "It's not in the Lonely Planet."
"No, it's not in the Rough Guide either," I said. And then I told him about the tip from the Dutch travelers.
In the middle of the night the wind kicked up, slammed the wooden shutters against the building and threatened to buckle the screens. In no time rain was blasting into our room. We closed up the windward side and cranked the fans to keep the air circulating. It was hot and humid. Heavy lingering clouds and pools in the paddies made for some pretty pictures once the sun came up.
The Kong Lor Cave is spectacular. A river runs through the entire 7.5 km length and into a valley on the other side. We climbed into a longtail boat, just our guide, Jim and me, and sputtered off into the abyss. I was happy the park supplies waterproof headlamps so we didn't need to use ours.
The cavern seemed to expand and contract. Some rooms are more than 30 meters tall with nearly vertical walls. In other places sandy beaches give way to gently sloping walls whose contours ebb and flow like the water that shaped them. Here and there stalactites and stalagmites are illuminated with spotlights. Three times we had to disembark so our guide could pull our boat upstream through the rocks. More than an hour later the boat puttered into daylight and we found ourselves in a lush valley surrounded by verdant peaks.
We stopped at a place where people from a nearby village sell things but the tables made from bush material were all empty. We were here during the low season. The couple in the boat ahead of us were the only other people there.
Because we were going downstream on the way back, we didn't have to get out. We took the tiny descents with pleasure and encouraged the guide to steer us through the sections of dripping water instead of avoiding them. The entire adventure lasted three hours.
As we walked out of the cave Jim pointed out a sign that said 'swimming beach'. That's all I needed. You can see the entrance of the cave behind me in the second photo.
The small village of Kong Lor has a nice feel so we stayed another night. People go about their day mostly tending the fields or working in their shops. We watched a steady stream of customers come and go from the welding shop across the street from a restaurant.
Most of the fields have water buffalo grazing and wallowing about but they didn't appear to be used to pull machinery. Instead, long handled engines are used with two bladed tractor wheels. These can be unhitched and tires attached to make the contraption work on streets. We saw quite a few trundling down the roads.
Kong Lor Cave is a one of the motorbike destinations. People begin a 3-5 day loop in Thakhet and head east out Highway 12 and then north on Highway 16 to Highway 8 and down Highway 13. Our map showed these were all paved so I was game to go. Jim, being cautious and reasonable, mentioned the multiple posts on travel blogs about the difficult, muddy section. He was worried and asked the bus guide and the hotel manager for their thoughts. Both said it wasn't a good idea as part of the road had washed out two years earlier. Neither seemed to know if it had been fixed. So we went back out to the main highway the same way we came.
We stopped in Thakhet for lunch. After scoping out all the choices, we decided on this grilled chicken and cold sticky rice. The chicken was delicious! It was held in place by a piece of bamboo split in two and tied at the end. Sticky rice is a staple here in Laos. Sometimes it's served piping hot, other times cold. But always in a basket with a lid. It's polite to put the lid on when you're finished. And it's fine to eat with your fingers. The locals do.
Thakhet is a quaint town that still has some buildings from the French colonial days. It is the closest town to a friendship bridge with Thailand. The city of Nakhon Panom is just across the border and Khun Aun's family has a guesthouse there. We would have liked to have visited but because of the coup d'etat, we decided to avoid that part of Thailand.
We kept driving down Highway 13 to Savannakhet. The guidebook made that town sound nice but we didn't see anything that interested us. Maybe we were tired. We couldn't find any of the recommended hotels which seemed to be in rundown areas so we splurged for a night in a fancy Chinese resort. That was a mistake. The door to the patio (we were on the ground floor, our only choice) would not lock, the wifi sucked, and the pool was full of screaming kids. In it's favor, the restaurant served a delicious Lao dinner to me and a welcomed cheeseburger to Jim. The sunset across the Mekong was beautiful that night.
The next day we continued south. Between two small towns a policeman pulled us over and told Jim to get out of the car. He motioned to two men sitting in the shade of a tree. He'd been caught speeding and his fine was the equivalent of $7.50. We approached Pakse in time to make a detour up to the Bolevan Plateau. The temperatures are cooler here and it's the country's coffee growing region.
An hour south of Pakse is the charming town of Champasak. We stayed at the Inthira Hotel and highly recommend it. Our narrow, two storied room was modern, clean and had good wifi. The rustic restaurant opened out to the narrow road and we could see the Mekong between the buildings. I was sure Jim would order pizza but he went with local fare for dinner too. As I surfed the internet a man holding a rope came into sight. Then the three water buffalo he was leading.
Ancient Khmer temples are not only found in Cambodia, but in Thailand and Laos as well. Wat Phou, in Champasak, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The original temple dates back to the 6th century but it was rebuilt, using stones from the first, in the 12th century. The remains stand at the base of Phou Kao Mountain, a place the early Hindus and Buddhists believed was sacred because of the natural linga, phallic symbol, on the summit.
Compared to the popular temples Angkor Wat, Wat Phou was deserted. The largest group, including two monks, was from a town in Thailand 2.5 hours away. We spoke with with the coordinator, a university professor who had spent time in California. This was his first visit to What Phou.
It would be fun to stay longer in Laos but we are pressed for time and want to visit Corinne and Eric in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.