Margo McCreary

The Thakhek Loop #2

We have taken the access road to Konglor Cave, and for as much of an amazing tourist attraction this is, wonder about how bad the road is, and why it doesn’t get fixed. There are no big tour buses making the trek; it appears to be us “loopers” on our motorbikes, and the occasional van load of people. So we meet two road friends for breakfast and will go to the cave with them. We buy tickets to get a guide and a boat to go through the cave, and we put a deposit down on headlamps. So this is a cave with a 7.5 km river running through it, and we are about to travel through in the dark! Our guide helps us into a flat-bottomed wooden boat. The motor has an eight-foot extension going out the back of the boat with the propellers on it for shallow water. Many boats wait for riders in the dusky entrance, and we set out into the darkness. The skill of our guide is apparent right away as he searches out the landmarks with his high-powered head lamp. He is scanning constantly left and right to set his course, and I am sure he has it choreographed as well from many journeys. Meanwhile the caverns we are going through are very high, and we can scan the heights with our lamps. The motors of our boat and all the other boats traveling in both directīons are a big presence in the cave. There are some narrow spots to maneuver, and boats from both directions must take turns. As riders, we are the recipients of this intricate dance. There is even a set of rapids to navigate. At one point, we come around a bend and in our light see the low ceiling of an outcropping we travel under reflected below us, and for a moment it is like we are suspended in mid-air. We are flying!! It is magic. At another point where our guides have to drag the boats upstream for a bit, we get out and hike through a beautifully lit part of the cave, and then come back to the boats waiting for us at another spot. This is completely unique in my experience and I feel so lucky to be here. Both Adel and I are moved to tears by the wonder of this experience.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, and a little village of weavers who hope to sell their weaving to us adventurers. Communication is still a problem in Laos. There is much less English spoken than in Thailand, and the best way to get a price is to write it down or in this case use a stick to draw it in the sand. I am getting this intricate weaving for a very low price….40,000 Kip, but when I try to pay, the woman is insisting something, and it turns out she wants 140,000 Kip which is quite a lot more, and not what I was wanting to pay, but I am shy about backing out at this point, so I pay it, and later realize that it is about 18 dollars for a weaving that took a long time, I am sure. The economy is so strange in Southeast Asia, and things are too cheap, I think. I do not know how people make it. Later at a quasi restaurant, I showed the weaving I had bought to the Laotian woman who made us some lunch. She indicated that she wanted to know what I paid for it, and when I told her, she acted disgusted, like I had paid too much. At least that is what I thought, but really who knows, maybe she thought I paid too little!

While we toured the cave, we left our bags at the guesthouse we had stayed at. It is amazingly easy to arrange that, and it seems like a safe thing to do as far as our stuff is concerned. I kept my money and passport with me, but my cellphone was with my bags. People seem trustworthy in Laos. The guesthouse rules that were posted on the wall in our room has this sentiment: “Please check your anything all before check out. If anything lost we don’t responsible. But we will be looking for you.” And just an aside…. here was one of the prohibitions, and we saw this in more than one guesthouse: “ Don’t move or make anything in the room. As stick naked pictures on the walls or other places around the guesthouse without any permission.” There was another prohibition against certain games, sex, illegal trade, drugs, or political activity as it is extremely prohibited.

Time to leave Konglor, so the moment of decision has come. How will we get back to the town of Thakhek? We will either retrace our steps, which is the long way, or we could take the busy highway which is about a three hour trek with buses, trucks, vans, motorbikes. My first choice was a helicopter evacuation, or loading our bike into a truck, but now we must decide, and we go for retracing our path. I take the first stint over the horrible roads that I talked about in the last installment, but I keep the image of those young ones bouncing along on their motorbikes like it is some kind of a lark. It feels freeing. The bridges with the planks are still daunting because some of the planks have wheel width gaps that freak me out. Adel takes over at that point, thank you, thank you! She is still driving when we come to a particularly steep and windy climb into the ridges. The traffic is sparse at that point, and what I was dreading seems much easier. I am starting to feel more comfortable on that dang motorbike, and this is such an improvement. But now we have a challenge because we are not finding a place to stay and darkness is approaching. We did not plan to go all the way into Laksao, but that seems the only alternative. I am the driver at this point and I lay on the throttle with a strong sense of purpose. I do not want to be driving in the dark. This road is up and down, and there are large trucks on it, but coming around a curve and down an incline, I notice a major break in the pavement that goes all the way across the road. In the USA there would be a warning sign with flashing lights, but in Laos, a driver watches the road and navigates all the possible hazards without complaint….it just is. I quickly slow down, bump over it and go on. I was driving when we came to that same spot going the other way, and I thought it was a miracle that I spotted it that time too! I’m grateful!

Well, it is dark, but just as we come into Laksao, we find a place to stay, and another bowl of noodle soup at a market where this father is eating with his kids. We ask if they are serving food, and the dad agrees to make us some soup. Since it is a market, we get some potato chips too. We get to watch some melodramatic Laos soap opera that gets the little girls giggling since it’s kissy-face. Bed feels good that night!

Coffee is our first goal this morning, and we are not finding a good spot. I see a woman who is running a roadside cart, and I ask her about coffee; in fact behind her cart are all these brown paper sacks that say coffee on them! She pulls out a red plastic stool which she sets out, and indicates I am to sit there, and gets a blue one for Adel, and then she pulls out a plastic table, and the cafe is open for business! Yet another surprising makeshift moment in Laos. I love this place. She strains coffee in a cloth bag, and adds some of that sweetened condensed milk, and then she fills up a plastic bag with ice, pours the coffee mixture in, rubber-bands the bag, cuts a little opening in the bag, puts a straw in, and then puts the portable bag-o-coffee into the brown paper sack. She made my day. We hung out with her for a while making small attempts to communicate, and then headed out with heartfelt “kawpchai” which just means thank you. We got some fruit at a fruit stand and then had a picnic at a temple on the way out of town.

How pleasant it is to feel so much more comfortable on the bike, and I will qualify that by saying emotionally because our butts really hurt, and trading off driving functions as relief. We even bought a pillow this morning….that was another priority along with the coffee. The road is good, the scenery is beautiful, and we are going past many rural Lao villages that we were so enthralled with the first time. Travel is so intriguing in Laos because I see stories in motion. I have a photo to post because this was so sweet. There are these tractor vehicles that probably go around 10 miles an hour at the most. We saw this lovely scene on some curving climbing roads. It is definitely moving day, and the woman was even watering the plant as they traveled.

We have a lazy lunch overlooking the dam-created lake in Thalang. The restaurant has a large deck, and the music is Laotian, and I am so happy to hear some local music. The waitress is surprised when I say so. This leg of the journey feels like the beginning of the end, and Adel and I have agreed to stop at some of the natural attractions that we skipped on our first day out. So there is a turnoff for a waterfall that we take and travel on a gravel road about 2 km. This is a local attraction for sure, with little thatched platforms for picnics, and bamboo hut/snack bar. I do wonder about the people who sit all day at these businesses. Again, I do think that people live at their businesses, and there seems to be a small settlement here. The ticket booth, however, is not a home, and I feel for the young woman who collects the fee for a visit to the waterfall and fee for parking our bike there. On our ticket for the bike, it said if we lost the ticket we would have to wait until all the bikes were gone before we could take ours. Yikes. The waterfall was pretty mild, but we did have a refreshing swim, and played a game of cards on a platform. Then we rode on, and started looking for a place to stay in the small villages we were passing through. Our map search on our phones was coming up short, and we were not sure what to do. Then along came Pao!!!! Out of nowhere a young woman on a motorbike stopped along side of us and asked if she could help. We told her we needed a place to stay, and she assured us there was guesthouse on the right side of the road some distance ahead. She couldn’t say how far, but assured us it was coming, then she asked us if we were on Facebook and took my name. She truly wants to connect, learn English! When I “friended” her I found she had over 3500 friends. Think of the people she has met by the side of the road and helped. We have communicated, and I have enjoyed the funny and smart videos she has posted. She has a degree in business and agriculture, and is a global citizen. She is proud of Laos, that is clear, and shares pictures of her family and friends as well as these edgy videos.

So one day left of our travels, and true to our word we decide to go to another cave. This is also a cave with a river in it. When we drive into the site, as usual, there are people set up to sell food, items, and even a little plant nursery. I realize this one woman is cooking a variation of sweet potatoes, so having not had breakfast yet, I bought some of them for me and Adel to share. This feels like a real Lao tourist site set up for large crowds who might hold a party there because there is a big pavilion with heavy tables and chairs, leftover decorations, a stage area. I’m only guessing! We pay for a guide who leads us to a little row boat deeper in the cave. This one is dramatically lit with colored lights and even a set of those laser lights that make patterns of green and red squares that expand, swirl and contract.

This is pretty high tech. Our guide sits on the front of the boat and paddles an odd circular stroke that pulls the nose of the boat. He has to work pretty hard. It is very pretty, but not nearly as spectacular as a Konglor Cave. But this cave has a spiritual aspect that is lost on this Farang. There are Buddhist shrines in some of the grottos with offerings placed, but at the entrance of the cave there are thousands of little cairns or pebbles that have been placed all over. I imagine that visitors leave these with prayers for loved ones, or prayers for good fortune. Everywhere there are places to leave blessings, to be aware of the other realms; spirit temples outside of every home and business, on the car mirror, the prow of the boats, around trees. These places are kept up-to-date with fresh flowers, food, incense, candles, figurines of dancers, supplicants, elephants, Buddhas, horses, and roosters.

We take our last motorbike leg of the journey, and arrive back at the Travel Lodge and Pokémon Go Motorbike rental place. The woman there who rented us the bikes is glad to see us, and celebrates with us a bit. We go to sit at the lodge, drink a Beer Lao, write in the travel log, and have some lunch. My plan is to lay low and rest on our laurels; Adel’s is to keep moving and rest on the bus. I see her logic, so it is time to retrieve our stored bags from the locked room where they have sifted to the bottom of a mountain of backpacks, hire a tuktuk and head to the bus station where we will catch a bus to Nakhon Phanom, which is across the border back into Thailand!

Goodbye Laos, what an extraordinary adventure we have had, and a distinct look into a much simpler way of life. And I remember a parting image here of the cows on and alongside of the roads (cows everywhere on the road, which I forgot to mention) and the evening image of a man herding them gently down the busy road on motorbike. And then there are the cows on the playground!