There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Heading South from Vientiane: Part 5 of Thailand and Laos

Breakfast was enlivened by the presence of a huge black butterfly, not on the breakfast buffet – though stranger things are eaten in Laos – but fluttering round the room. I would tentatively identify it as a (fairly common) Great Mormon.

If you have to drive through a capital city in the rush hour, Pyongyang in North Korea is the easiest – there is no traffic. Vientiane presents a few more problems but it is small and relatively uncongested, so by half past nine we were free of the city and bowling southwards along Route 13, a road that will feature heavily in the coming week.

Overtaking manoeuvre  on Route 13 south of Vientiane
The two tiny (out of focus) stupas on the dashboard are supposed to keep us safe

In the fields rice was being harvested. ‘In the old days it was done by hand,’ Phim remarked, ‘but now they use machines.’ Ten kilometres of flashing sickles later we decided this must still be the old days.
Our day's journey from the city of Vientiane to the hamlet of Sala Hin Boun

After an hour we reached Wat Phabat Phonsan (spelling varies). Having moved his capital to Vientiane from Luang Prabang in 1560 King Setthathirath needed to establish his authority in the south. Temple building was part of this process and he constructed Wat Phabat Phonsan on an existing sacred site.

Wat Phabat Phonsan
 There is no evidence the Buddha ever visited Laos but devout Buddhists have managed to find his footprints all over the country and the Sim behind the unusual square stupa stands over such a footprint.

Sim, Wat Phabat Phonsan
To Lynne’s intense irritation entry was forbidden to women, so I showed my solidarity by abandoning her at the door. As far as I know the Buddha was a man of normal size, so I was mildly surprised to see that, should his footprint be filled with water, you could take a bath in it. The footprint has been mistreated over the years including being concreted over by the French, but when Phim’s grandparents were young, he told us, there really was a large ‘footprint’ here. The Lonely Planet suggests it was a depression formed by millennia of Mekong flood water, Phim suggested it might have been a fossilised dinosaur footprint.

Buddha's footprint, Wat Phabat Phonsan
The ‘footprint’ whatever it was, may have been destroyed by over-reverence, but the temple is redeemed by the paintings of the life of the Buddha covering the walls.

Painted interior, Wat Phabat Phonsan
 We continued south parallel to and sometimes beside the Mekong, frequently crossing tributaries of varying sizes.

A tributary on its way  to the Mekong
 Villages announced themselves with a line of identical stalls selling identical produce; by the river they sold dried fish, elsewhere sugar cane.
A line of dried fish stalls along Route 13
 Our eye was caught by a small temple with an outsize Naga Buddha. This popular image commemorates a time when the Buddha was meditating beneath a tree and a storm blew up. Mucalinda the seven-headed king of the serpents came up from the roots of the tree to shield him from the rain.
Small temple, large statue beside Route 13
Around coffee time, we reached a town and I suggested a stop. We left the main road, circumnavigated a large block and found nowhere appropriate. Returning to the highway we found we had turned off right beside a coffee shop, though it had been hidden by parked cars.
Coffee shop, Paksan, now hiding behind our minibus
Coffee was made in the traditional Lao style - filtered through a muslin bag and made thick and sweet by the addition of a liquid we thought was condensed milk, but later learned was an emulsion of palm sugar, coconut cream and various other ingredients sold in tins for this very purpose. You could stand the spoon in the resulting brew, but it was not unpalatable. Oddly to the western mind, they served a glass of green tea with the coffee, it worked well as a palate cleanser.

A cup of coffee and a glass of tea, Paksan
 We asked Phim where we were. ‘Bolikhamxai,’ he said. My map has a province of that name, but not a town.  I think we were in Paksan, Bolikhamxai’s small capital – not to be confused with the much larger Pakse 450km further south.

Back on the road we passed more rice fields and plantations of teak, rubber and palm oil trees. There were occasional stands of eucalyptus, but the demand for palm oil has out-stripped that for eucalyptus oil, so they are progressively being replaced.

We stopped at Ban Ton Na Mae market. Run by members of the Hmong ethnic minority, it was hardly busy, but one o’clock is late in the day for food markets.
Ban Na Ton Mae
The stalls were interesting…..

Ban Na Ton Market
…and shoppers included a Buddhist monk.
Monk buying his groceries, Ban Ton Na Mae

By the exit a girl was selling grubs. I suspect they were the same grubs we had tasted in Vientiane’s night market yesterday, but they looked less exotic (do I mean, alarming?) when cooked and presented on a saucer covered with cling film. They had been pleasant enough, but did not taste of much.
Grubs for sale, Ban Ton Non Mae
A few minutes down the road is the junction with Route 8, which winds its way east over the Annamite Mountains to Vietnam. We ate lunch in a basic roadside restaurant by the junction.
Roadside eatery, Junction of Route 13 and Route 8
It might have been simple but the beef and noodle soup was excellent.

Good noodle soup - and a chilli to nibble
Well fed, we followed Route 8 into the mountains pausing after 40 minutes where a wooden viewing platform had been constructed beside the road. The views were spectacular, to the south was a jumble of jagged mountains….

Jagged mountain to the south
….and by turning a little to the east we could look down onto a roughly circular plateau surrounded by cliffs with an opening at the far end. Sala Hin Boun, our destination for the day, was just through that gap.

To the east a plateau surrounded by cliffs
We descended towards Na Hin, the gateway to the plateau and a village with a small dam on the Hin Boun River and a large hydroelectric plant. A golf course nestled incongruously between the switchgear and the electricity company offices.

We could have started across the plateau, but it was only three o’clock and Phim had something he wanted to show us first. I was not sure what it was, but it sounded like ‘bombotes’.

We drove over the next ridge and descended to where a modern bridge crossed the Kadding River, one of the Mekong’s main tributaries in Laos. The driver pulled up just over the bridge and Phim led us down the bank to the water’s edge.  Suddenly all was clear, we had heard bombotes correctly enough, but had never imagined there were such things as bomb boats.

Bomb boats on the Kadding River
Eighteen months before in Phonsavan we had seen the damage caused by unexploded ordnance, American cluster bombs dropped in their millions during a war that was never declared and was hidden from Congress for half a decade. Forty years after hostilities ended these ‘bombies’, as the locals call them, are still killing and maiming. Here people had found a way of beating swords into ploughshares, and you have to applaud that - though why it persuaded me to take up a Doctor Strangelove position I have no idea.

My Dr Strangelove moment by the Kadding River
We scrambled back up the bank to a dwelling above. The men were sleeping, the woman of the house was sitting at her loom in her underwear. Swiftly pulling on a top, she showed us how the pattern was dyed into the cloth before weaving, so she had to maintain a constant tension or the pattern in the finished article would drift out of focus. We bought a scarf, it seemed expected of us and it is a fair way of transferring money from the richer corners of the world to the poorer.

Weaving beside the Kadding River
We returned to Na Hin and turned onto the plateau. We drove beside the canalised Hin Boun River through a village filled with guesthouses, though we could not quite see why.

 The plateau beyond is a land of low intensity agriculture, mainly rice and cassava. The few dwellings dotted about never quite made up a village and the fields were surrounded by scrub. We approached the gap at the far end, slipped through and found more of the same.

Across the plateau to Sala Hin Boun
The entrance to the Auberge Sala Hin Boun was a little way beyond the gap. At the end of a short drive was a selection of wooden buildings on stilts, not all in the best condition, sitting among trees and unkempt grass. The place had an air of dereliction.

The owners were friendly though and showed us to a room in one of the wooden buildings. It was clean and comfortable enough, no fridge or air-conditioning but we are happy with a ceiling fan, particularly at night.
Lynne walks to our room, Sala Hin Boun
We had a balcony overlooking the Hin Boun River – which flows through the gap – and up to the cliffs behind.

The Hin Boun River from our balcony
As we were the only guests they asked us to order dinner immediately and we chose fried pork with vegetables and chicken in coconut milk. There was a drinks menu which suggested they had a full bar, but for the moment beer was what we wanted.
Beer on arrival, Sala Hin Boun
We drank our beer, settled in and had a stroll round. Later we thought we might have a pastis before dinner, but the request was met by a smile and a shake of the head. I gestured at the drinks menu and asked what they did have. ‘Beer,’ was the one word answer. We were beginning to realise the auberge had been set up with great ambition, but in this out of the way place the guests and the money had not come flooding in, and there was nothing left for further investment.

The beer was cold and the food was all right, but all chillies had been withheld - the received wisdom being that Europeans do not like chillies – so it was rather bland.

All chillies removed, Auberge Sala Hin Boun
After dinner we sat on the veranda outside our room and had a glass of ‘premium’ Lao Whisky, not a bad drink once you have banished all thoughts of scotch. There was nothing else to do except read, and that was hampered by the intermittent electricity supply.
Premium Lao Whisky, Sala Hin Boun
With or without electricity there was minimal light pollution and no cloud cover so taking a torch we strolled down the drive to where the trees stopped, switched off the light and looked up at the stars. It is a rare privilege to see a sky like that; millions upon millions of brightly twinkling stars and the Milky Way smeared across the sky like a spillage in the celestial dairy.

It is easy to understand how unimportant you are in the great expanse of the universe. It also made me think of the ancient Greeks sitting round the embers of their fires with too much wine inside them, telling each other stories of the constellations and placing their heroes among the heavens.


  1. ...and a Laosy time was had by all...

  2. but, Mark

    There was a young lady from Laos
    Who said 'I just can not allow
    You to say us like lice,
    That's really not nice,
    Our country should rhyme with Slough.'

    The French put the 's' on the end to distinguish Laos the country from Lao the people. Like most French terminal esses it is silent.

  3. I believe the "grubs" pictured are wasp larvae. Bland and served cold...