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…..

Saturday, 14 November 2015

South Past Savannakhet and East to Tad Lo: Part 8 of Thailand and Laos

Breakfast of tea, fruit juice, bacon, eggs, toast and jam at a pavement café was the ideal start to the day.

Having failed on our own yesterday, we enlisted the help of Phim to get our postcards sent. It was still not an easy job; the advice of several passers-by had to be sought and several blocks had to be driven round before he announced that he had found the post office, probably. We could not see it, but he took the cards wandered uncertainly into a courtyard and returned without them claiming success [and ten days later they reached their intended recipients.]

We found our way back to Route 13, the main north-south highway, and left Thakhek, heading towards Savannakhet, Laos’ second largest city.
South past Savannakhet and East to Tad Lo

On the way we passed a truck load of monks....

About to pass a truck load of monks, heading south on Route 13
....and fifteen minutes later we noticed the roadside stalls were no longer selling dried fish or sugar cane, but blue plastic sacks of salt.

Roadside stall selling plastic sacks of salt, near Savannakhet
We were in an area of natural salt water springs and soon turned into the Natuay Salt Factory, opened beside such a spring in 1995 by a Mr Soundara, a local entrepreneur who already owned a plastics factory and a drinking water company.
Welcome to the Natuay Salt Factory, near Savannakhet

It was Saturday so there were few workers around, but everybody seemed happy for as to wander where we pleased. In England you cannot visit a place of work without presenting yourself at reception, signing in, having a ‘visitor’ badge hung round your neck and being escorted everywhere, all in the name of ‘security’ (an industry whose main object is to make people worried about their security, thus persuading them they need more security). In Laos people smile at you, and once you have smiled back you are taken on trust.

Worker at the Natuay Salt Factory, near Savannakhet

As the sign says, salt can be extracted by boiling the brine in large vats…..

Steaming brine, Natuay Salt Factory near Savannakhet
…or letting the water evaporate from shallow pools. Although it was neither rainy, nor cloudy - nor likely to be for some time - the pools were, for the moment, not in use.

Shallow pools for evaporating brine, Natuay Salt Factory, Savannakhet
Salt lay around in heaps, looking strangely like snow, with the grimy edges snow acquires from lying too long by the roadside. I half expected the heat to be melting it into puddles.

Salt piled up like snow, Natuay Salt Factory, near Savannnakhet
Savannakhet lies on a bend in the river and although it's the country's second city, Route 13 cuts off the bend and misses it. In 2005 the city was renamed Kaysone Phomvihane after the Savannakhet born revolutionary leader who became Chairman of the People’s Revolutionary Party in1955. From 1975 to 1991 he was the first Prime Minister of independent Laos, became President in 1991 and died in office a year later aged 71. I am not sure the new name has caught on, Savannakhet is shorter, simpler and such a pleasing word. Perhaps Mr Phomvihane should be satisfied by having his face on all the bank notes from 2,000Kip up

Kaysone Phomvihane on the 2,000Kip note, worth a little less than 20p
 A little to the east of the city we detoured to That Ing Hang, a much-revered 16th century stupa (though locals claim it is much older) allegedly enshrining part of the Buddha’s back bone.

It’s a disappointingly grubby monument and crumbling in places…

That Ing Hang, Savannakhet
… though it does have some amusing carvings. I particularly liked this little demon.

Demon, That Ing Hang, Savannakhet
Lynne was again irritated to find that she was not considered properly dressed until she had put on a local style skirt and even then was not permitted into the stupa’s enclosure…

Boldly going where no woman has gone before can go, That Ing Hang, Savannakhet
…she did not miss much except a close up look at the offerings.

Offerings, That Ing Hang, Savannakhet
The stupa is surrounded by a well-manicured courtyard and cloister, with the appropriate quantity of Buddha images.

Buddha images, That Ing Hang, Savannakhet
While we sat in the shade Phim told us a couple of folk tales, which are worth retelling. A male bird and a female bird met and fell in love and vowed to always be together. Inevitably there were chicks and while the mother tended the nest, the father flew off to find food. One evening he stayed out later than usual. He entered a lotus flower and as dusk fell, the flower closed around him and he was trapped inside. In the night a fire swept through the forest killing his family. In the morning when the lotus opened he flew home, discovered what had happened and remembering his vow flew straight into the fire and died so that he could be with her in the next life. What a happy tale!

More Buddha Images, That Ing Hang, Savannakhet
There was once a girl who never spoke and whatever her family and friends said or did she remained resolutely silent. When she reached marriageable age her father despaired of finding her a husband, and the village elder decreed that she would marry the first man she spoke to. She was a beautiful girl and many suitors came with hope  and many suitors left disappointed. Eventually a poor man arrived and begged for a chance to make her speak. This was not the catch her father had hoped for, but he was desperate and so he agreed. The poor man told her the tale of the two birds, but said that the female went hunting and become trapped in the lotus flower. ‘That’s wrong,’ said the girl, and so she found her husband.
I like this story, it works on several levels – even if all of them are sexist!

Leaving That Ing Hang we continued south along Route 13 and then turned east on smaller roads heading up onto the Bolaven Plateau. We ate at a simple roadside restaurant, with offerings spatchcocked ready for the barbecue laid out beneath a fan to keep the flies off.

The 'menu' roadside restaurant south east of Savannakhet
We chose the usual scrawny chicken and, at Phim’s suggestion, sticky rice and a spicy bean salad. Too late we realised that beyond the chickens were a couple of rats. Paddy field rats are not the sewer rats we are used to and are considered good eating, but even so, there is a psychological problem for westerners to overcome before tucking into rat. We felt we ought to take the opportunity while it was there, but we had already ordered. Perhaps we used that as an excuse, quite literally, to chicken out.

Barbecued chicken, spicy bean salad and sticky rice - but no rat.
When we finished, the woman in charge offered me a glass of rice whisky. She was, I think, motivated partly by hospitality, but few Lao can resist the opportunity to reduce a rich westerner to a spluttering red-faced heap. ‘What about me?’ Lynne asked, feeling she had already endured enough sexism for one day. Ironically the request for equal treatment was only taken seriously when it came through me. Lao women do not drink, a least not in public, so there was a minor taboo to be broken.

When she has finished making the salad she will offer me a rice whisky!

 I had somehow acquired a small audience as I sniffed at the brown liquid in the shot glass and took a small sip. It was not strongly flavoured or very alcoholic, around 30% I thought, so I downed the rest in one, to murmurs of approval from the watchers and maybe just a little disappointment. Lynne drank hers in a steady and more ladylike manner.

We drove on through sugar plantations, and past stands of cassava, banana, rubber and teak. The ascent to the Bolaven Plateau was so gradual we hardly noticed it. 600m above river level, it is a cooler land of rice and coffee plantations with greener trees and fewer palms.

On the Bolaven Plateau
After a long day’s driving we reached Tad Lo around 3 o’clock. Tad Lo is a waterfall (‘lo’ is Lao for ‘waterfall’), but there is also a hamlet and a tourist lodge where we checked in and said goodbye to Phim and his driver who were returning to Vientiane. We took a walk round the extensive grounds to view the waterfall above the lodge….

Tad Lo
 ….the rapids below….
The rapids below the lodge, Tad Lo

…and for me to stand in a stupid position given my recent history.

I don't know why I chose to stand here, but at least I did not fall in this time
 We returned to our bungalow and had a cup of tea on the veranda….

On the verandah of our bungalow
….but were soon lured away to join the small crowd watching one of the two hotel elephants take its evening bath. The mahout had an impressive sense of balance as he gave his charge a good scrub….

The elephant takes a bath, Tad Lo
 ….and then hopped off to let it enjoy the water.

The elephant bathing
When time was up he gave a single command and the huge beast lumbered obediently onto the bank.
Lumbering obediently onto the bank, Tad Lo
We walked up to the main lodge for a beer and were able to watch the second elephant bathing from the comfort of the bar.

The second elephant bathing
Although all the land we could see was owned by the hotel, this being Laos locals wandered in when the mood took them. Below us one man was taking his bath…

A local man takes his bath, Tad Lo
 ….while as dusk fell a group of monks arrived for their evening ablutions.

Monks gather as dusk falls, Tad Lo
We returned to our bungalow for a shower and heard the disturbing news that 128 people had been killed in random attacks in Paris.

On the plateau the evening was cool and for the first time since leaving Bangkok I put on a pair of long trousers. Back in the main lodge we enjoyed a glass of pastis before dining on fish with lemon sauce and chips (Lynne) and pork with lemongrass and garlic (me).


  1. Rat and Rice Whisky - almost worth booking the flight for!