Around The Traps In S.E. Asia – Part 19
The high season in Phuket brings the best weather of the year. Between December and early February the days are less humid and the morning’s cooler, from the predominant North East trade winds. As opposed to October the ocean is flat and calm, and the beaches fill with crowds who’ve jetted in from all over the world to work on their tan. Patong is a location which I have a love hate relationship with. During the low season I’ll hit the beach there, simply because the tourist numbers are far less and it’s closer to where I live. In the high season it’s a crowded circus (predominantly with Russians) which I happily avoid by riding directly through to the next beach south, Karon. Even so, there are large sections of Karon Beach which are packed with the Russian contingent getting their yearly dose of sun and sea. They seem to be a fairly hard-nosed lot. Some of the women are seriously attractive but smiling doesn’t seem to be something they do too often.
My normal routine is ride over to Karon every second day, around mid-afternoon, do a walk along the beach, have a swim, and enjoy a Thai meal as the sun sets. After that I’ll ride back through Patong and get a massage along Nanai Road, at one of those full service places, before heading back to the ranch. I don’t drink anymore so stopping at a bar hasn’t been an option for a long time. There’s a cluster of full service massage places on Nanai Road where you can get an all in service for 1000 THB. And that suits me fine. The days of throwing 3k – 5k THB at some underperforming go-go princess are long gone. Why guys would continue to do that leaves me a bit perplexed these days. Is a piece of Thai ass (one that’s selling itself every night) really worth that much? The two-week millionaires might think it is but most long-termers here don’t think so. And yeah, I know it’s probably got a lot to do with one’s financial situation but having said that, I know a couple of cashed up guys in Patong and they won’t pay a girl any more the 1500 THB. Because the fact is, that’s all it’s really worth when you consider relativity. The average day’s pay in Thailand is around 300 – 500 THB. Most motorbike taxi drivers charge somewhere between 20 – 50 THB for a ride in Bangkok, Phuket, or Pattaya. So in all honesty, why would you give some drunk go-go dancer 3k – 5k THB for an hour of half-assed sex? They’re just not worth it.
By the 2nd week of January the ribs were well on the mend and with the high season crowds beginning to grate, it was time to head back Laos. I booked an Air Asia double hop from Phuket to Nakhom Phanom, with a three-hour layover at Don Meuang. The flight out of Phuket departed at 0645 AM and even allowing for the longish layover in Don Meuang, I was in Thakhek by 2 PM. I’ve done the border crossing a number of times so know the routine like the back of my hand. From Nakhon Phanom Airport, take a minibus to the bus terminal, then take the Thakhek bound bus across Friendship Bridge # 3, and in to Laos.
My primary reason for being in Thakhek this time was to do a motorbike tour (known as the Thakhek Loop) through Khammouane Province. The loop begins and ends in Thakhek, is approx. 450 km in distance, and takes in the renowned Kong Lor Cave. I’ve completed the loop on two previous occasions, but there was an additional section I wanted to check out which ran through a really remote area, from the backside of Kong Lor Cave. It was 56 km of rough dirt road and to do it I’d need to take my motorbike through the cave. I’d also learnt my lesson regarding motorbikes on bad roads and instead of hiring a scooter, I paid the extra and got a proper off road bike – a Yamaha XT 150 CC. The price was approx. double for a scooter but for a ten-day hire it was still ridiculously inexpensive at just US 10 per day.
I had one night in Thakhek and then set off on an epic adventure which included visitations to a number of caves, approx. 200 km of off road biking, some trekking, and a bit of rock climbing. For a full trip report go to: https://www.megaworldasia.com/en/laos/the-thakhek-loop-trip/
THE NAKHAI PLATEAU:
The tour passes through some truly spectacular landscapes, most of which is jungle-clad karst terrain. On the eastern side of the loop there’s an area called the Nakhai Plateau. This is an elevated region which, some years previously, was flooded when the Nam Thuen Dam was built. As one rides along, man-made lakes fill the landscape, with forests of whitened, dead trees protruding through the surface of the water. A highlight of being on the Nakhai Plateau is an overnight stop at Thalang and taking the sunrise boat tour across the largest section of the lake.
Thalang sunrise tour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CqEAbtCnGI&t=4s
THE ROCK VIEWPOINT:
A new adventure offering on the loop tour is the ROCK VIEWPOINT zip-line circuit. This is located at the top of the loop and has been developed by GREEN DISCOVERY LAOS, a local eco and adventure tour company which specialises in zip-lines. The circuit includes five zip-lines, a swing bridge, and a net bridge, and spans some very impressive karst terrain. They also have an excellent café providing fantastic sunset views over the surrounding landscape.
YouTube Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3qPJpVBO_o (The Rock)
KONG LOR CAVE:
From the Rock zip-line circuit its approx. 50 km to Kong Lor Cave, one of the biggest traversable river caves in the world. The cave is probably the high point of the loop trip. The majority of people going there will normally spend one or two nights at the nearby village (Kong Lor Village) and do the cave tour, before continuing the loop. The tour is done in flat bottomed, long tail boats (similar to the Thai Long tails) and the round trip usually takes around 2.5 hours. The cave is like a massive tunnel through a mountain, and is 7.5 km in length. At its highest point the ceiling is some 50 meters above the surface of the river. The highlight of the tour is a stop at the formations plateau, where sightseers can alight and walk a 300 meter trail through the illuminated stalactites and stalagmites.
The normal routine for a trip through the cave is to return to the start point and continue the loop by way of the sealed roads. The majority of “loopers” tend to stick to this standard tour because they’re on rented scooters which are unsuitable for the 56 km of rough road on the backside of kong Lor Cave. For the more intrepid (and those with a dirt bike) the option of taking the bike through the cave, and riding out on the back road, is a more realistic proposition. The following YouTube video shows what’s involved in taking a motorbike through Kong Lor Cave: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4YUx2IfS3I (kong Lor with motorbike)
The ride from the backside (upstream entrance) of Kong Lor Cave out to the highway on the Nakhai Plateau will take 2 – 3 hours, allowing for stops on the way. The road is not too bad for the first 40 km but the final section (approx. 16 km) snakes its way up a steep terrain as you ascend on to the Plateau. This is the roughest part of the trip and if you’re not on a dirt bike, it’s guaranteed you’ll have a tough time getting to the top.
THE VIETNAM BORDER AREA:
After completing the 56 km of dirt road back to highway 1E I had the option of riding back to Thakhek, or heading out to the border area near Vietnam. If you’re in Thakhek you can get to the border of Vietnam in roughly 3 – 4 hours. Highway 12 runs due east from Thakhek, to the border, and at just on 148 km this is the narrowest part of Laos. It was also a significant location during the Vietnam War. The MU GIA PASS, which runs between two low mountain ranges on the border, was the re-entry point for the HO CHI MINH TRAIL into Southern Vietnam. The only resort/motel in the area ( ) has a couple of cluster bomb casings on display next to the parking area.
The whole area still has a swathe of UXO (mainly cluster bomblets) and the day I was there I saw the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) doing some work in a cordoned off area. If you’re in the area, the bottom line is stick to the designated roads and trails to stay in one piece. My primary reason for being in there was to check out a hiking trail, with a number of small caves, in a location called Thong Xam. Unfortunately I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up riding for miles along a jungle track, to a dead end. The value of getting a local guide in remote areas such as this, cannot be underestimated.
After coming to terms with the fact I’d taken a wrong turn, and wasted a significant amount of time, I flagged the idea of looking for the caves and got back on the road to a provincial town called Bualapha. This is the nearest town to the impressive Xebangfai Cave and getting there involves taking a raft ride across a fairly decent-sized river.
Bualapha is a provincial town in a remote corner of Khammouane province. It’s the last town on the road to the Xebangfai Cave, currently listed as the world’s largest river cave. The town used to have a thriving wood economy with large amounts of jungle hard-wood being milled for Vietnam and China. Around eight years ago the newly appointed Lao president put a stop to all logging operations throughout the country, following which many of the guesthouses, restaurants, and bars in these bustling little towns shutdown. These days Bualapha is a sleepy little town where not much happens. And during the height of the dry season it can be dry, dusty, and hot. The road from Bualapha to Xebangfai Cave, while being just 12 km, is one of the roughest I’ve ever ridden over. In a four wheel drive vehicle, or on a dirt bike, it will take a minimum of one hour to negotiate. As I sat at a restaurant tucking into a bowl of noodle soup I considered my options for going out to the cave.
The 12 km road was one deterrent, but the fact I’d just recently been there was also weighing on my mind. I wanted get a few shots of an area approx. 1 km inside the cave entrance but I was flying solo and wouldn’t have anyone I could use to create a sense of scale. I tried using local village guides before but the language barrier made it a real ball ache to get them to position correctly for a shot. Being able to speak a bit of Thai is helpful in the bigger provincial towns as most Lao in places such as Thakhek, speak Isarn and Thai. In the remote areas of Laos, especially near the Vietnam border, it’s a different scenario. They have their own dialects which are laced with Vietnamese language. The cost of hiring a local guide and canoe, and paying the park entry fee was also something to consider if the photo session wasn’t going to be an overwhelming success. There were too many cons, and not enough pros. I finished my soup, fired up my bike, and rode back to Thakhek.
After two days relaxing in Thakhek, I caught the bus to Vientiane. The 290 km trip is advertised as a six hour journey but can take up to eight, depending on the state of the road and the number of locals hopping on and off. Highway 13 is the main artery along the Mekong to Vientiane, and sees a high flow of articulated trucks coming from, and returning to, Vietnam. It also happened to be the stretch of road where I had my motorbike accident and as the bus whizzed past the spot where it happened, I reflected on the fact that I was probably lucky to still be walking around.
By 2:30 we were pulling into the Southern Bus terminal of Vientiane and then the usual shit fight of organising a ride on a songthaew to one’s hotel began. The way these drivers operate is no different to being in Thailand. They start with an overinflated price (normally double the proper rate) and you work your way down from there. Everyone squashes in like sardines in a can and just when you think it’s full, they’ll squeeze someone else in. Another neat trick they have is to go miles out of the way to satisfy a local’s need to go to the market on the way home. This happened to me the last time I caught a bus from the Southern Bus Terminal. A local lady decided she needed to go to a meat market, before dropping in to see her relatives. While she spent 30 minutes sorting out her meat order, a bus load of tourists/travellers were getting rather peeved with what they saw as an unnecessary delay. Having seen it all before I remained stoic and told them there’s no point getting worked up about because there’s nothing they can do about it. Save getting off the bus and trying to find another mode of transport in the scorching afternoon heat. Eventually the local lady came back with her bundle of meat and gave us one of those stupid grins (with a nodding head), the type you often see in Thailand when a Thai has created an inconvenience, which is supposed to make everything okay. One just takes a deep breath, smiles, and considers it to be all part of the journey in South East Asia.
By the time I’d checked into the Mixok Guesthouse the sun already getting low on the horizon so after a quick coffee, I grabbed my camera and tripod and headed for the PATUXAI. The Patuxai is probably the number one tourist attraction in Vientiane and gets hordes of sightseers during the day. Once the sun goes down the crowds disperse to leave the site relatively empty. At dusk the lights come on to create a splendid setting for a bit of long exposure photography. The site has an interesting history. The monument, known as the “victory gate” was built to commemorate those who died in the fight for independence against their French colonisers. It’s a similar design to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but smaller in size, and bares Lao art work such as the Kinnari (mythological Lao figurine). The build was quite long (1957 – 1968) and suffered delays due to a shortage of funds and building materials. Cement (paid for by the US Government), originally intended for a new airfield, was redirected into completing the monument. Thus the local nickname of the “vertical runway.”
After getting a few good shots I made my way back to the traveller’s area on the river front. Since my first visit in 2012 this area has undergone significant development. Where there was once a few sleepy French cafés and outdoor restaurants, there’s now a swag of bars, pubs, and western restaurants. There’s an ambiance about the place which is rather enjoyable. Laid back, slightly developed, the new frontier, and not yet fully in to mainstream tourism sums it up quite well. If you’re a monger, Vientiane will probably be a bit too quiet. Although there does seem to be the odd freelancer floating around the riverfront area later in the evening.
Speaking of the riverfront, there’s a new restaurant/market development along the foreshore. Well it’s actually not so new, it’s been there for around five years. It skirts the concourse area along the river front and is positioned along the high water mark of the river. According to a buddy of mine currently living in Vientiane, the said new development got submerged when the Mekong rose beyond that level during a heavy monsoon in 2017. Perhaps it won’t suffer that fate again because a program of dam building upstream, by the Chinese, is reducing the Mekong’s flow significantly.
Vientiane is still comparatively undeveloped compared to most other capitals in the region. There are very few high rise building punching in to the sky-line, although the word on the street is major Chinese investment is filtering in. For the most part it still has that Wild West feel about it, and a mood that resembles Thailand 30 years ago. Development is occurring but not at a pace which is about to turn it into a mainstream tourist hub. The street side bars and cafés still seem to be the domain of the independent traveller/backpacker/hippie crowd. And that for me is food for thought for a place to reside in the coming years.
After two enjoyable days in Vientiane, it was time to head back to Phuket.
TBC in PT 20…………..
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