#4 Laos, Feb. 6, 2007

Dear Everybody,

In Vientiane, I made a little excursion one day to see the Buddha Park which is 24 km south of the city. I went to the Morning Market to get a local bus, but in that sea of old buses, all with only Lao writing as to their destinations, I couldn’t tell which bus to board. I approached a young woman, showing her the Lao script in my guidebook for this place. She gave me the ‘follow me’ wave and she walked for quite a ways, taking my hand to carefully cross a busy street. Finally she pointed to a small rickety bus for me to board. I pulled out a small bill with which to tip her and saw instantly that I had offended her. She said, “Thank you” in English four times and pushed the bill away. So I thanked her and got on the bus. She walked around to my window and, in Lao, discussed my destination with the woman sitting next to me, presumably asking her to help me get off at the right place. I find the Lao people unusually helpful, kind, and gracious, which is what I had heard from others. Two different women on this bus offered to share some food on which they were snacking.

The Buddha Park was an amazing place. A yogi-priest-shaman who merged Buddhist and Hindu philosophy built this acre of scores of concrete statues in 1958. They represent every deity imaginable including a three-headed elephant, a huge lying-down Buddha, a serpent with tentacles and figures in every pose and concept, some up to 40 feet tall. It was ‘bizarre but compelling’ as the guidebook promised.

There was also an open air restaurant on the grounds next to the Mekong River where I ate my lunch while contemplating the gods and the river, then back on the road to wait for (and hope for) a bus to take me back to town—yes, within 10 minutes one came. Some of the women passengers were bringing a half dozen bags of fruit, greens and other food to town. The bus ride was as much fun as the Park.

On day I had a delightful lunch at a darling little restaurant in Vientiane run by an Australian NGO which trains street-teens to be waiters and cooks. What a good idea! The boys were so enthusiastic, clearly relishing their opportunity and the food was top notch.

On my morning walks, in addition to visiting many Buddhist wats, I stopped in to see a Muslim mosque and a Catholic church—so everybody’s here! Before going out of town I stopped at an ATM and got $100 worth of kip, the local currency. It was delivered all in 10,000 kip denominations which are worth $1.04 each, giving me nearly 100 bills. I was hoping for 20,000’s which I had gotten last time ($2). Where do you put that big a wad? In several places.

Early one morning I got a jumbo to take me nine km to the South Bus Terminal to get a local bus to Tha Kaek, 330 km south of Vientiane. I was the only Falang (western foreigner) on the bus. After about two hours, the bus stopped and most of us got off to pee in the bushes—the men went left and the women went right; the bushes weren’t very bushy, either, but, oh well.

The second time we stopped in a village where vendors were selling lunch—little four legged animals, barbequed on skewers with head and tail intact. No, I didn’t, and no, I don’t know.

After six hours I arrived in Tha Kaek and got a communal jumbo for the ride to the town center. Tha Kaek is a provincial capital with about 75,000 people.

A hotel that was mentioned in the Lonely Planet had obviously been upgraded and redeveloped. When I asked the price of a large, very nice room, it was difficult to understand the clerk and I thought she said $100. So I looked for a guesthouse and got a very nice room for $9. As I thought about it later, I wondered if I had misunderstood. I checked back the next day and yes, I had—it really cost $10.

After a piak breakfast one morning I stopped for Lao coffee. She made it by putting about 1/4 cup of ground coffee into a cloth strainer, pouring a ladle of boiling water through and pushing some of the finely ground coffee through too. A dab of sweetened condensed milk and voila!—the strongest coffee on earth. It was served with a (very good) tea chaser. I enjoyed both and they really put a spring in my step during my walkabout. Lao coffee is awfully good—it’s rather chocolaty tasting.

I met two other travelers and asked them if they had found out any info regarding an excursion to a long cave with a river running through it. They hadn’t although they had heard about it, too. Finally at the end of the day after all three of us had made several trips to the Tourist Information Center (they weren’t open), we finally found out about a three day excursion to the Konglor Cave. We made arrangements to go together.

The next morning I was picked up at my guesthouse at 7:00 as promised, by Sikhan, our guide, on a bright red motorbike. I got on and we drove the three km (without helmets—that makes me nervous) to the bus terminal.

Soon Tim (45, from Alaska) and Jacob (31 from Denmark) showed up in a tuk tuk. After drinking Lao coffee and eating a baguette sandwich we boarded the bus for the three hour ride to the village of Na Hin. The afternoon was spent on a trek to a waterfall (3 km) that became more and more difficult for me, climbing over, under, around and through the jungle, sometimes needing a pull from my fellow travelers. After two km I told them to go ahead—I would wait on the trail for them to return. The guide was reluctant to leave me as he said he didn’t know “what might happen” (!) but I convinced him to leave me. Well, nothing happened until they returned an hour later and they reported only a trickle of water was falling—it’s the dry season, after all.

The next day was what we all really came for—the Konglor Cave. We took another pick up truck and drove through three hours of dust until we arrived at Konglor, a charming village and our ‘homestay’—somebody’s house. It was made of wood, was set on stilts, had a big open, but roofed, verandah and three smaller rooms, one being the
kitchen.

After lunch we walked down to the river and boarded a motorized canoe—the shallowest canoe I’ve ever seen, riding only inches above the water. Of course water spilled over the gunwales a lot.

The Konglor cave is four km long, has huge caverns, 100 feet tall, and has a river running through it. We entered the cave through a beautiful ‘mouth’ with stalactites and stalagmites and immediately had to disembarque to allow the guide and boat driver to pull the canoe up some rapids against the current. We boarded again until, this being the dry season, we scraped bottom and had to get out and walk in ankle deep water.

It was totally dark in the cave except for the headlamps of the guide and driver and I had a small one too. After they pulled the boat over the shallow part, we again boarded. This scenario was repeated a number of times until we came to a huge cavern where we got out to explore the cave. We climbed around some bizarre rock formations and more stalactites and mites, and after this flash photo op, we reboarded.

We wound along against the current until at the end of two hours we glimpsed the other mouth of the cave and daylight—a gorgeous sight.

We exited and continued about a km up the river until we arrived at a park and disembarqued. Wonderfully tall trees, a drink/snack stand, a beautiful local woman carrying a huge machete, a pit stop, and then back on board.

Going back through the dark cave was faster, going with the current, and after several disembarquings in the shallows, we again arrived at the beginning mouth. This must be one of the largest (longest) caves in the world. I think it was fun to see it now before they install electric lights as I suppose they will do.

Dinner at the ‘home stay’ consisted of tiny, very ‘fishy’ fish, crickets and some greens in a broth, in which we could dip our fingerfulls of sticky rice. It was very spicy (just as well) and not my favorite Lao dish, although very common. I think in times past the Lao were pitifully poor and acquired a taste for almost anything they could lay their hands on including crickets. I don’t think they’re quite that poor now, but the taste was acquired.

We slept under mosquito netting in the main (open) room of the house, although there didn’t seem to be mosquitoes now in the dry season. I think it was our host’s way of offering us some privacy. The toilet was outside, about 20 meters from the house—the Eastern variety, flushed with a bucket of water. Navigating the 10 steps down to ground level, then the way to the toilet in the middle of the night was not so difficult because of a gorgeous full moon. At 2 AM I did manage to awaken a dog who barked furiously for 10 minutes—maybe waking up my two comrades. If he didn’t, the roosters crowing off and on all night did.

The next morning a ‘baci’ ceremony was held for us around a low table on which was placed a cooked chicken including head and feet still attached. We three were loaned beautiful multicolored sashes to put
on, then a handful of sticky rice to hold. A shaman gave the blessing (good luck on our journey, etc.,) and the hosts tied several white strings around our wrists. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the chicken was cut into bite sized pieces and served in broth with sticky rice for our breakfast.

The ceremony apparently worked as I arrived safely back in Tha Kaek that afternoon.

This morning (Tuesday) I took a bus to Savannakhet, about 100 km south of Tha Kaek. I’ll go exploring today—stay tuned.

Carol

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