Published: September 1st 2007August 24th 2007
This fella spent best part of an hour lapping up the salt on my watch and excreting fluid.
Satisfied with the touch of quaint, small city hospitality afforded to us by Vientiane, we hopped on a tuk-tuk to the Southern Bus Station for the 7am bus towards Lak Sao but alighted at the market in the small and simple village of Ban Na Hin, SE of Vientiane. This 1 road town is an ease to navigate and we walked back along the road amongst Buffalo, Cows, Chickens, Goats and Pigs to one of the two available guest houses - XokXai Guesthouse
is a comfortable, clean yet basic abode a little out of town run by a local family - we got a sizable double for 40,000kip (4USD). Desipite San's onset of a pretty serious dogdy tum, we chose to make the 2 hour walk through the rain forest to Tamsanam waterfall (5000kip entry payable at the TInfo hut on the main rd). Given the rainy season, the path was full of butterflies landing on the mud to lick up precious salt. After about an hour of walking we arrived at the waterfall or rather a cascade of waterfalls, each with its own pool, one sheltered from the next. We found the perfect spot where you could sit on a
smooth rock and put your feet up to push back into the main jet of cool, clean bubbling water - the perfect shoulder massage and jaccuzzi in one. For the hour plus we spent there we only saw a few locals leaving after their bath just as we were arrriving and that was it - Ahhh solitude to enjoy what became our own private waterfall. En route there was a need to pass a couple of above ankle deep streams. Richy was caught in the dilemma of not wanting to get his boots wet and not wanting to take them off either and for the first time in her life (and last!), 50kg wife piggy-backed 85kg husband precariously over the last stream. Dedication to your man or what (brownie points will be claimed later)!
Even with this show of strength, San's tum developed into a pretty bad case of the squits and she needed to rest the whole of the next day, plus it was still raining after a night of thunder and lightning. A few weird looks by the family were thrown when San spent most of the day clad in a t-shirt and towel lying on the
patio floor, every now and then, rushing to the toilet. So went another night at XokXai. The squits took priority and the trip to Tham Lot Kong Lo
was postponed. Out came the drugs from the first aid kit and after consuming half of it, the following morning we took the long travel to one of the natural wonders of Laos. Getting there still isn't easy (and its expensive) especially in the rainy season. It required a swang thaew (jeep with seats in the back) to Phon Nyaeng and then a bum busting 3 hour boat ride to Khong Lo village. Waiting for the sawngthaew
to leave, we hurried to one of two restaurants in the village (DK's) for a basic fried rice and veg after the rain gave way to a gentler drizzle. Before we could make our way proper, there was one of those quick stops at the Shell station to refuel and for containers to be filled with petrol. With eyes nearly popping out of our heads, we watched a few of the other passengers casually light up for their nicotine fix. The world's next incident of the Darwin awards we thought, proudly sponsored by Shell -
"and the nominees are, in Laos ....". After we put our eyeballs back in our heads and miraculously no explosion tok place, we made our way through paddy fields to the few shacks congregated at the end of the road that constituted Phon Nyaeng. At this point, we were gleefully led to a board that listed some facts and prices in English "500,000 kip (50$) return Phon Nyaeng-Khong Lo - 3 hours one way". We visably winced and started the customary negotation with the knowledge from our guest house owner that they would most likely accept 400,000kip as it was off-season. Ah, the joy when you do get a lower price and all parties are left happy. "Wobble on board and sit tight!" a very rocky narrow boat with classic tiller engine was taking us to our destination.
With all the rain that had fallen over the past few days, particularly the previous night, the river was so swollen that trees normally on the banks were inundated by about an addition of 10+ feet of the river. Stoically, like they have been there and done that before, they fought to stay erect against the raging current. Surrounded by water,
Misty jungle scapes..
The moisture laddened air caused beautiful mists to form amongst the trees...
all you had to do was look up and gape at the shear, mist covered karst limestone cliffs. The rain bug continued to plague us at this leg of the journey and the the dark rain clouds on the horizon quickly let out its load - "When you gotta go, you gotta go' San emphatised. We weren't that impressed however when this public dumping became one mama downpour that lasted 40 minutes. Rich & his pack huddled under his plastic poncho and as San wondered why her hair was getting wet under her freebie Hush Puppy brolly. Aiyoh! Brolly was leaking, the tiny thing was not designed for heavy rain! The experience of sitting in a low, narrow boat without moving (so as not to destabilise the thing) for 3 and a half hours is similar to sitting on a house of fire ants as they chomped away on your cute little derriere. With stiff backs, legs and no longer in possession of any feeling in the bum, we finally clambered out into a very muddy Khong Lo village which was at that very day celebrating an old man's funeral with copious amounts of lao-lao and dancing to techno laos
An old uncle asked us if we needed accommodation in pigeon English and led us up the steps of his wooden stilted open plan house and introduced us to his family. A whole evening was spent playing with the kids, relaxing and holding rudamentary conversation with the family. We had a meal of rice, instant noodles and whole mushy river tiddlers and read for a while before closing in early under our mozzy net errected over our mattresses on the woodern 'lounge' floor. We fell asleep to jungle sounds, the goats barring below the floor and the distant beat of laos techno music that was still emenating from the nearby party, complete with shouting MC - a much nicer way to say goodbye to someone who pops their clogs we reckon.
Awaking at 6am, we chomped down brekky (same menu as for dinner) and prepared to go for the boat trip to and through the cave. The Khong Lo cave is a kilometer further up stream. As we approached, we could see a mass of rapid, bubbling water gushing out of the cave mouth, seemingly being brought out from an unsettling darkness. The cave mouth yawned at
us in suspicion. Just before the gurgling watermouth, the boat docks on the side by some trees and we clambered onto some steps that led us to the otherside of the rapids, this area opened up into an enormous greyed out cavern that continued into jet blackness. Liang, the son of the old uncle, was the boatman and with him was a young cousin, the bowman. Together, and with a familiar dexterity, they removed the tiller engine from the boat and reinstalled it on another boat that was moored at the mouth of the cave entrance. Richy's HSE head came on and was flashing red at the absence of lifejackets and the fast current but as many a time on this trip, we lay our trust on our guides who knew the insides of this area like they knew the back of their hand. Soon we were ripping off into the darkness against the 20km/hr flow, guided by the boat driving skills of Liang aided by his motorbike battery powered head torch. Nervous as hell initially and thoughts centred on "what to do in case of boat capsizing":
1) Richy to jetison the camera, make a bubble out of his
poncho as a floating device
2) San to unhook camera pouch and fill up lungs to float
3) Kick on one's back in the complete darkness to reach the side
4) Kick on one's back and wait for the current to carry a body out of the darkness
It was not easy trying to enjoy the views of the caverns, stalactites and mites at the same time but we managed as calm eventually replaced the pounding hearts. Slowly, after a few sharp turns and deft manouveres to avoid the ceiling gushes as water drained through the limestone from far above, a speck of light emerged from the distance. Before long daylight was burning our eyes and we squinted at the rain washed green leaves towering over our heads. A short stop ashore helped to remind us what solid ground felt like and at the back of our heads, we knew we had to return to the inside of some monster that was suffering from a case of bad indigestion. The only difference this time was we had the current with us, meaning having to travel even faster to achieve the same boat manouverabilty. This is one heck of
a ride on top of experiencing the vastness. It's better than any scary ride that disney or Warner brothers can come up with. This is being right in the thick of what nature can throw at you. If any of you want to share the same experience, go during the wet season where the tourist numbers are down and the rain gauge angled right up (July to September).
It just all happened so quick that before we knew it, we were on the boat headed back to Ban Na Hin. Thankful for the dry and shorter bum numbing return journey (only 2 hours back) and to be back in relative luxury again.
Onward we moved again. This time to cross the border into Vietnam. The bus to Lak Sao
- the last Laos town before the Vietnam boarder - can be flagged down right in front of the guesthouse. In Lak Sao there is a great set lunch meal to be had at the corner of the bus station towards the main road. We stuffed ourselves chocka on fish, pork, veg and a soup for only USD4. To order, just point at one of the tables already piled
with lunch and nod. Somehow, we struck up a conversation with someone convincing us that we can be taken to Vinh
for USD10 each and for the ease of the matter, we agreed. This Vietnamese passenger cum cargo bus had just delivered a consignment of cement and the crew were looking to cover their costs going back. The bus looked a little dubious having had half the seats ripped out to make more space for cargo and for a while we were also wondering why we were the only passengers. 10km into the journey the bus driver stopped at one of the many warehouses and before we knew it, we were part of a crew dealing with dodgey goods consisting of Red Bull, rice cookers and washing machines to Vietnam. Box after box of Red Bull flew into the windows to be stacked overhead and in other hidden compartments and soon enough we joined in on the stacking and packing. For our efforts, we received a reward of a can of the golden nectar each and felt zingy from all the adrenaline mixing in with the caffiene and vitamin B. The insides, the back, the top (including where there was
once an airconditioning unit which had since been ripped out for additional consignment room) of the bus, the cargo holds and the back seats were completely stacked with Red Bull cartons, somewhat inconspicously hidden by the bananas and cargo of slippers they had also picked up along the way. We reckoned that in the hour or so of loading they must have boarded 100,000 cans! What really should have been a 45min journey turned out to last about 3 hours. What the heck, it was our first day at being smugglers without classic eye patch and swashbuckling swords! At the border San did get some hassle as her passport didn't have an exit Malaysia stamp (since when has another country's immigration chop become the Vietnam government's problem, we couldn't figure out). Some serious amount of gesticulating and "beep-bop" sound effects to describe the computerised system for Malaysians that did away with stamps was required before the bored official waved us through.
After waiting around for another hour or so for a bunch of other people to fill the bus (finally) to the drivers satisfaction, we made the long descent down the valley to a town called Tay Son. All
throughout San craddled one foot from the passenger sat behind who stuck her foot onto the armrest and on the other side she was another lady's big pillow as she fell asleep plastered to San's left body. Comfy ride for some *cough*.
At Tay Son
the bus driver told us the truth and said that we needed to take another bus to Vinh. Great! Just what we needed after overpaying and being on the longest short distance journey ever. Despite our protests it was clear that he had been economical with the truth, not the price, and was going no further. So, in the end, we forked out another USD10 per person to take the bus to Hanoi. Even though this meant another 7 hours on a bus and a 2am arrival in Hanoi. This leg gave new meaning to "get to the point will you?!" Finally, finally, finally, after 3 buses and accumalative 15 hours we arrived in a sleepy Hanoi
with the equivalent of 5USD in Vietnamese dong to our name, we attempted to take a taxi into the Old Quarter
. At 2am, we were told it would be USD10 per person. A disdainful look was thrown
The rapids at the entrance to the underground river as we approached...
The picture does not do the speed of the water justice unfortunately...
in the direction of the person who dared let such a ludricous sum spew from his alcohol tainted mouth. This motorbike taxi man was standing in to translate english for his taxi driver friend. Help unappreciated. We were dirty, smelly, tired and somewhat dazed but we still don't have "stupid" plastered on our foreheads - do we? Sure enough, the amount reduced until an equivalent of USD6 for 2. Still above the only amount of dong we had.
"We don't have enough Dong ok?" waggling all we had in front of the driver's nose while trying to shove the eager alcohol fuelled translator away.
"Just stick it on the meter will you and stop at some ATM so that we can get some money out?". This exasperated reply was met with acquiesence.
Our first early morning welcome to Hanoi, Vietnam, Land of Charms
which was not so charming at that moment.
There are more photos below