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…..

Friday, 13 November 2015

Thakhek, a French Colonial Delight: Part 7 of Thailand and Laos

I did not sleep well, though I was kept awake less by the injuries from yesterday's fall than by my bruised ribs, the victims of an over-enthusiastic Vientiane masseuse.

On the plus side being woken by what we christened the tele-tubby bird would bring a smile to anybody’s lips. Sitting In a tree above us, or maybe on our roof, this creature let out three or four staccato eh-ohs followed by a long drawn out aaaah like a very human sigh of disappointment. The other good news was that all my cuts looked clean.

The rock wall round the plateau, Sala Hin Boun
 After a breakfast of water melon followed by scrambled egg we discussed the day with Phim. Our itinerary said we would take a boat through the gorge of the Hin Boun, lunch in an unspecified village and somehow end up in Thakhek. Having followed the Hin Boun through the karst country from the hydroelectric station at Na Hin to the far end of the 7km Kong Lor Cave we were not sure where the gorge might be. Neither was Phim. 'We drive to Thakhek,' he said, looking baffled.  For the third day of the last four we discovered our written itinerary had elements of fiction, fortunately this was not to continue.

Sala Hin Boun to Thakhek

We drove back through the gap in the jagged hills and across the plateau of scrub, cassava and harvested rice to the hydroelectric station at Na Hin where we rejoined Route 8 and retraced our steps towards the Mekong.
Across the baking plateau to Na Hin

Near the river we hit Route 13, the main north-south road, and turned south towards Thakhek. Sala Hin Boun to Thakhek took the best part of three hours and it was a pleasant drive though we saw nothing worth stopping for.

Nearing Thakhek we left the river to visit Tham Pha cave. Only discovered in 2004 by a farmer hunting bats (the Lao do not turn up their noses at any good supply of protein) the cave contains a stash of ancient palm-leaf documents and 229 bronze Buddha images hidden during the Thai sacking of Vientiane.

The cave is in the karst hills several kilometres off the highway. We drove along a dirt road through land that is swampy even during the dry season – so swampy in fact we had to abandon our first choice of route for a less direct approach.
The road to Tham Pha cave
Allegedly, when the original discoverer climbed into the cave and saw Buddhas rather than bats he gave in to temptation and tried to make off with some of the choicer items. His arrival at the cave mouth was greeted with thunder and lightning and a storm that only abated when he returned the images. Realising that the heavens were telling him to be honest he reported his discovery to the authorities. The authorities' attempt to move some of the images had the same remarkable consequence, so they left everything where it was and the cave has become a place of pilgrimage.

Karst mountains and swampy ground, Tham Pha cave
Lynne was irritated to discover that her trousers did not conform to the local view of appropriate wear and they insisted on providing a local style wrap-around skirt. My shorts were apparently fine.

Lynne 'more appropriately' dressed, Tham Pha cave 
 A concrete staircase led up to a slit in the rocks, where we folded ourselves up and half stooped, half crouched into the cave before descending another staircase to two 'rooms' one squarish, the other with a rock shelf. The shelf and every other available surface were covered with Buddha images of various sizes and a 'corridor' of stalactites and stalagmites led off to a further area of statues.

Concrete stairs up to Tham Pha cave
It was not the most startling Buddha cave we have seen – it was no match for Pindaya in Myanmar - but it was a serious place of pilgrimage. It even enticed the driver out of his car and he and Phim both took the opportunity to offer prayers. Sadly there were ‘no photographing’ signs everywhere; to ignore them would have caused offence, not to mention a reprimand from the vigilant cave guardians, so I have no pictures.

On the stairs outside were a couple of gongs. Everyone knows that gongs, unlike cats, respond well to being hit. Cats, of course, respond to being stroked and so, we were surprised to discover, do gongs. Lynne managed to get the resonance going by working hard with the flats of her hands on the central boss. Then Phim showed us how it should be done, conjuring up a resounding booming noise that filled the valley - a far louder sound than could be made by merely striking it.

Lynne strokes a gong, Tham Pha cave
We drove into Thakhek (sometimes Tha Kaek), the capital of Khammouane Province. According to the latest census this pleasant, relaxed riverside town has a population of 85,000, but the French colonial centre has a small town feel, and I suspect much of the population lives in the straggle of outlying villages.

Phim chose a restaurant for our late lunch. I enjoyed my slices of marinated duck with rice and broccoli and Lynne commended her pork with noodles and vegetables. Phim started off with pork, broccoli and rice, but half way though decided he needed a big bowl of noodle soup as well.

Well fed, we headed for the town centre and checked into our hotel. Right in the colonial centre, it described itself as 'Thakhek's first boutique hotel'. I cannot say our room was the largest or best designed we have stayed in, and I am unconvinced that a window opening onto the stairwell was a brilliant idea, but otherwise it was very pleasant with a large open bar/restaurant in dark wood occupying most of the ground floor.

Thakhek's first 'boutique hotel'.
Lynne finished writing the postcards we had bought in Vientiane and we took some advice on where to post them. The streets were quiet as we waded through the heat of the afternoon, but despite following our instructions as best we could we found neither the post office nor anything resembling a post box.

I had been wearing trainers all day; they were the only alternative I had to the sandals I destroyed falling in the river yesterday, and I needed to buy more appropriate footwear.

We had no difficulty finding a shop that sold shoes, we had passed a row of three in our fruitless search for a post office – though they were clearly shops that sold shoes rather than shoe shops. The problem was finding a pair the right size.

Shops in Thakhek selling just about anything - including shoes 
The first had a plentiful supply of cheap slip-ons, but none came close to fitting. My feet are a relatively dainty size 10 (in UK, Ireland and Australia, 44 in the rest of Europe, 10½ in North America, 28.5 in Japan and anybody’s guess in Laos) but either my toes would not squeeze in the front or my heels hung over the back. The second shop had a pair that almost fitted, and I hesitated, but ‘almost’ is not good enough with shoes. The third had one lonely jumbo sized pair, though not perhaps in a design I would have chosen. Beggars cannot be choosers, but being a (relatively) rich man I had options; take them or leave them. I took them. Made in Taiwan, they cost me 55,000 Kip - about £5 - and I suspected they might fall apart in a few days, but at that price....

Lynne decided to rest until the heat abated, but I needed to road test my new shoes, so I went for a stroll. The Rough Guide told me there should a line of small restaurants on the riverside road, just round the corner from the square. And so there were. With tables across the road on the river bank, here some three or four metres above the water, they looked ideal for our evening meal.
Line of restaurants on the riverside road, Thakhek

There was also an ad hoc restaurant setting up in the main square.

Restaurant setting up in Thakhek's main square

Night fall, which in those latitudes happens with a rapidity which always surprises me, is aperitif time, and our hotel offered pastis at a very reasonable price. Sitting at an outside table on a town square sipping pastis was just like being in France, except for the heat and the darkness of the tropical night. It was a surreal experience but one we enjoyed; indeed we enjoyed it so much we had a second glass.

Then we walked round the corner to the line of restaurants. There were no other customers, which is always worrying, but undaunted we selected a riverside table and sat down. A menu was transported across the road and by the time we had made a decision four or five tables had been occupied, largely by the town's small tourist contingent, as though our arrival had been some sort of signal. Lynne went for the noodle soup option, while I had pork laab, a salad of minced pork with onion, holy basil - and the inevitable bowl of rice.

Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, across the Mekong
Twinkling across the water was the Thai town of Nakhon Phanom. When the French were here Thakhek had a casino and ferries from Nakhon Phanom brought the punters to the bright lights of sophisticated Thakhek. Now it is Thakhek’s turn to be the quiet country town while the lights of Nakhon Phanom appeared to shine much brighter.

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