One unforgettable excursion or two...

Vientiane Travel Blog

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River Hinboun
Thursday 12/10/06

After an early start on Thursday morning, we hopped on a bus at Vientiane bus station, Laos, with Na Hin as our destination. Bru and I were accompanied by Mr. Phao (part of the Timeless Times team who we'd arranged our trip with) who assisted with translation and was an endless source of information about the cultural differences we were to encounter on our trip. After finally getting settled in our seats, we were disturbed by women who strolled up and down the bus aisle trying to sell us food. At one point a woman actually forced some loaves of bread onto Bru’s lap, despite the fact we didn’t want any; they really don’t take “no” for an answer here! Eventually we set off, only to stop again within minutes to check the engine.
It seemed that the driver couldn’t get the bus into gear! This caused a lot of commotion; another man opened up the engine and fiddled about with it whilst the driver continuously attempted to ram the gear stick into gear. Finally he managed it, and we carried on, swerving past motorbikes and schoolchildren on the side of the road. Our bus fare cost 50000 kip each, which was to cover the driver’s expenses: his fuel and lunch. The journey seemed rather disjointed, there were a lot of stops so that more people could come on to sell food (dried meat, drinks and biscuits this time) and the toilet-stop consisted of the bus pulling up on a remote stretch of road and letting everyone out to find a bush to hide behind.
As we approached Na Hin, the scenery became more and more astonishing.
Kids on rocks in river
The trees were amazingly tall and, as Bru observed, they looked like something out of ‘Jurassic Park’! There were huge, dark, jagged mountains too, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. We rattled over rather precarious-looking wooden bridges and swung around hairpin bends. Phao admitted later on that he was worried about brake failure when we were travelling down the steep roads and round the sharp bends…well, if the gears don’t work, who’s to say the brakes won’t either?! Thankfully, we survived the journey and arrived at our destination, safe and sound. We were staying at ‘Mi Thuna’ guest house which is currently under construction; however there was a room prepared for myself and Bru to stay in. After being presented with a refreshing glass of cool water and dropping off our bags, we took a walk into Khounkham market, which was a 15 minute walk down the road from the guesthouse.
boat on bank
On our way to the market Bru and I were astounded by the breath-taking scenery; the mountains and lush surrounding forest (which constantly rings with the sounds of crickets) are so picturesque and make for an ideal location in which to relax and recuperate. Once in the market, it was clear that Phao has a lot of acquaintances here, a result of his working in the area for 18 months last year. Everyone greeted him with a friendly face and a smile and, although we were the only tourists in sight, we felt very welcome and accepted. Feeling rather ravenous, we sat down for lunch at a noodle shop. We avoided the chilli sauce which Phao poured into his bowl of noodle soup! We then had a mosey around the market. It was mainly a food market selling fruit, vegetables and dried meat, however there were also stalls selling sticky rice pots and bags and clothes.
climbing back up from the 'guan'
A whole pigs head and calves’ hooves were also on offer!
Phao stopped at his friend, Kham’s, stall and they chatted away as Bru and I soaked up the sun. I’ve noticed how everyone here is so welcoming and generous; Kham instantly brought us each a chair and a glass of cool water, and then nipped across to the shop opposite us to get some packets of crisps to share around. Everyone is so warm and friendly and appear to take real pride in being a good host to their guests.
As we walked up towards the power station Phao taught us a bit of Lao and explained the complexities involved: some words have multiple meanings and therefore it is easy to get confused, especially to an untrained ear! We did manage to pick up a few essential phrases though and also learnt the word ‘falang’ which is a term for foreigners like ourselves.
view into the 'guan'

On the way back to the guesthouse we stopped for a rest on a bench on the side of the road and Phao began to chat to a man in the field nearby. He then came over to us and produced 3 sticks of sugar cane which Phao stripped and chopped up with the man’s machete. It was very sweet in taste but incredibly fibrous and impossible to digest. Bru and I both had a go at trying to chop it up into pieces but soon discovered that it requires quite a skill! Phao definitely made it look easy!
On arrival back at ‘Mi Thuna’, Mon (the owner, Ralph’s wife) asked us what we would like for supper. The restaurant does Lao and Western food so we opted for steak and chips which was absolutely delicious. I would definitely recommend it if you ever decide to pay a visit!

Friday 13/10/06

We woke up to what sounded like tribal drumming and singing. Phao informed us that this was the sound of the villagers taking their boats down to the river for the festival at the weekend; it requires quite a ceremony. We had a breakfast of fried eggs, toast and tea, and then set off towards the Tatmouang waterfall which was 1000m off the main road. Whilst walking, we saw a van full of live and mangy dogs heading towards Vietnam; they are imported from Thailand and then sold in Vietnam as food. We also passed a temple where a bell was tolling. Phao told us that this was to tell the monks that it was time for food (11am) as they cannot eat again after midday for the rest of the day. Phao actually used to be a monk himself but decided to discontinue in order to study and also because he didn’t like the strict regime that you have to adhere to.
The sun was beating down as we clambered into the forest in the search of the waterfall. Before long we found a stream in which we had a cooling dip, and then followed the trail through the forest towards the waterfall. Trees were marked along the way with their specific names: ‘Mangitera indica’ was the name of a mango tree. Soon enough the trail ended and we made our way over rocks and through the water. There had been no rain for 3 days when we arrived at Na Hin and therefore the water was not very high so there were no cascading torrents to get past. The scenery was gorgeous though and I felt like we were in a little oasis in the middle of nowhere!
On the way back down we found a decomposing snake with ants and bugs all over it. I was only glad that it was dead and hoped that we would not come across a live one! We seemed to get a bit lost on the way back down as we were trying to follow a short cut, however, we somehow ended up at the army camp on the side of the road!! After getting our bearings we decided to retreat back to the market to have some lunch. We found a little restaurant and all had some egg fried rice and then had a look around the market again. Once back at ‘Mi Thuna’ Phao took Bru and me out separately on a motorbike ride down a little off-road track where the scenery was amazing; there were caves and mountains all around and yet the sky was bright blue without a cloud in sight! Once on the track, Phao let me try to ride the bike whilst talking me through the procedure. It was so much fun…once I got the hang of it! Phao ran along beside me shouting out when to change gear and how to control speed and then he hopped on the back and I drove us home along the main road. Apparently when Bru had gone out with him earlier a herd of buffalo started walking out in front of her so she had to screech to a halt to avoid hitting them!
In the evening, Phao’s friend Sy came to pick us up and took us to the boat festival. The racing started the following day, so we just took advantage of the festivities leading up to it. We won several bottles of beerlao on one of the stalls and then made our way back to Mr. Peng’s house where we had a supper of sticky rice, and several traditional Lao dishes. They also had a pot of rice which is fermented to make alcohol and is very sweet. You have to suck it up through a rod, however, this time the alcohol was quite bitter…Phao said it can make ‘falang’ quite ill if they over-indulge on it, so I just had a tiny sip. After dinner we all went down to where the celebrations were occurring and enjoyed the live music whilst eating and drinking more and more. Kham taught Bru and I the traditional Lao dancing which involves a lot of elegant hand movements. Phao persuaded us to get up on the dance floor and show our moves so we all went up: Phao, Bru and I, Sy, Kham and Peng, and tried our hand at a bit of Lao dancing. Although we were quite embarrassed, the guy on stage reassured us with a cry of “Falang can dance” through the microphone!

Saturday 14/10/06

This morning we jumped on a tuk-tuk to Mr. Peng’s to get the boat to Kong Lo. Mr. Peng’s boat was a motorised canoe, constructed from wood and aluminium, and was to be our mode of transport for the next few days. The journey was really pleasant; we meandered along the river, taking in all the sights and sounds of our surroundings. We passed many buffalo bathing in the water, and received many a cry of “sabai dee” (“hello”) from the village children on the banks of the river. Red butterflies fluttered about us and there were fish that skidded on the surface of the water.
As we passed Ban Kong Lo, we signed the guestbook which would enable us to stay at one of the homes in the village that evening. We continued to the cave and had lunch on the sandy bank. The river water below was such a bright turquoise in colour. Mon had prepared us a picnic which seemed to be her version of a roast dinner! There were pork chops, little roast potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and some kind of spicy gravy. She had told Phao that the ‘falang’ would like it!! It turns out the word for potato is ‘man falang’; another example of how the Lao language can cause misunderstandings!
After our lunch we hopped in the canoe which would be taking us through the cave. Kong Lo is a huge cave over the river; it takes about an hour to pass through it. There were two men who took us on the boat; one had a torch around his head which lit the way, the other navigated the shallow areas of water with an oar. When we approached a shallow area we all had to climb out of the boat and walk to a bank so the boat could be dragged over the gravel. It was difficult to see where we were going and, if it hadn’t been for the torch, we would’ve been in complete darkness. At one point, the man with the headlamp took us up one of the sandy banks and showed us all the stalactites and stalagmites and rock formations in the cave. There was one patch of sparkly rock which twinkled in the torch-light. It was evident that villagers had taken pieces off the stalagmites, as some of them were broken off. We eventually reached the opening on the other side…I’ve never been happier to see daylight! It was short-lived, however, as you have to return back through the cave to get back to the other side again. It seemed to go more quickly on the return journey, maybe it’s because I felt more reassured that our guides could navigate us through in one piece! Mr. Peng was waiting patiently on the other side and we all hopped back in his trusty aluminium canoe to the village of Ban Kong Lo.
When we arrived at the village it seemed deserted; this was because everyone was in the fields harvesting the rice. There were lots of children, however, who took an active interest in our arrival and waved at us as we walked by. We got taken to a big wooden house which was where we were staying for the night. All the houses are on stilts here as the land tends to flood in the rainy season. Phao told us that about 14 people live in this house and all the children just sleep in one big room. There seems to be no privacy in these villages; everyone is free to roam each others houses as they please. We went for a bath in the river and then returned to the house for dinner. The home-stay idea was set up by the district and 30 houses in the village take it in turns to accommodate tourists who have visited Kong Lo cave. It is an opportunity to experience Kahleung ethnic culture first-hand. As our beds were being set up (we slept on a hard mattress on the floor covered by a mosquito net), Bru and I took a trip to the toilet which was in a field of buffalo! There was also a scorpion on the wall of the toilet shed which was rather unnerving! We somehow fell asleep through the sounds of village life.

Sunday 15/10/06
We were awoken early with the cries of children and animals. A breakfast of plain rice, morning glory and omelettes (with whole chillies in!) was served up to us before we packed up Peng’s boat once more and headed towards Ban Thonglom. Again, the journey consisted of lots of lovely scenery with a limestone gorge and jagged, gothic mountains on either side. This time we were staying at what Murray refers to as ‘Dragon’s Eye Resort’, which is basically another village, smaller than Ban Kong Lo, which is overlooked by the Dragon’s Eye: a cave in the mountain which goes the whole way through so you can see out of either end. We spent the afternoon observing village life; watching the children play with their skipping ropes, washing in the river and learning about how the village life operates. It seems like these people are constantly busy with their daily errands. The farm animals roam freely about the village, wandering into homes and through the fences into the rice fields. Some of the piglets had sticks fitted around their necks so as to prevent them getting through the fence.
In the evening, Murray arrived to join us at Nom’s house. We had dinner (we provided Nom with lots of food from Khamkhoun market, and Murray brought even more) and Murray told us of his plans for the day ahead. He planned to explore one of about 26 ‘gwans’ in the surrounding area. A ‘gwan’ is a sinkhole which could potentially be a ‘lost world’ containing vast amounts of biodiversity. He wanted us to explore one of the nearby ones: “I’ve brought ropes and ladders”! Slightly disconcerting...

Monday 16/10/06

We set off, after a substantial breakfast, with 4 other people from the village: Nom’s son who was about 13 years old, a man wearing camouflage and carrying a huge gun, a friendly chap in a red t-shirt, and an older man. Our walk began mildly, walking on a dirt track out of the village and crossing a log running over a stream below. We then walked through rice fields and saw the extent of the mountain we were planning to climb! I started to have second thoughts about whether I could tackle such a thing. The ladder was put up for the first part of the climb and we had to ascend up it to get on the rocks. We then clambered and scrambled over rocks and through forest for what seemed like hours. Eventually we reached the top of the mountain, however, the sigh of relief was cut short when we realised how far down we had to climb. We stumbled across rocks with sheer drops beneath them and got tangled up with vines and lianas. It was an incredibly exhausting task. In due course we reached the bottom of the ‘gwan’ where a stream was running through. Murray and the boys went off to explore the cave where the stream ran to, whilst Bru and I had a well-deserved rest and got started on lunch. The men from the village hadn’t even got down this far before, so Murray honestly believes we could be the first people to have ventured down to the bottom. We then went on a hunt for new species of life: we caught a couple of crabs, some tiny striped frogs, and lots of snail shells. I spotted a small snake on the way down too, but we were unable to catch it as it was under a rock and unfortunately we didn’t see another. Murray also saw some lizards but they were too nimble to be caught. We didn’t want to set off any later than 3pm as we wanted to get home before it got dark, so we began the climb back up the mountain. By this point I felt absolutely knackered, so Mr. Peng gave me a lot of help by offering his hand for every steep rock I had to climb up. Bru and I both felt a huge sense of achievement when we reached the top; it seemed to go quicker than it had on the way down! All we had left to accomplish was the crawl back down the other side again which seemed to be rather taxing…especially when you have flies relentlessly flying into your eyelashes and up your nose. I spent quite a lot of it going down on my bum so as to not fall head-first! We got rather battered and bruised but eventually reached the ladder at the bottom and felt incredibly proud of ourselves. It’s not every day you climb up and down a mountain…and then up it and down it again!
We were out 10 hours before returning to the village. By the time we reached Nom’s our legs felt like jelly. Murray paid the village men 50000kip ($5) for having accompanied us on our venture. We went for a wash in the river and then had dinner, before settling down to sleep. This was made difficult, however, by the sound of the crabs fighting each other to the death in the bottle right beside our mattress!

Tuesday 17/10/06

We set off early in the morning in Mr. Peng’s canoe; this time with a slightly heavier load as we had Murray and his 2 ladders on board too! We arrived back at the Ban Pakthuk where Murray had parked his car and said our goodbyes to Mr. Peng.
The whole experience was one I’ll never forget; there was so much to take in at each different place we went to and I learnt so much about the customs and culture in each of these places. I would certainly suggest that you should take Mr. Phao in your suitcase because, as well as being fantastically informative, he was so much fun to have around. The trip was an exhausting one, but jam-packed with new and interesting things to do, see and experience, and it was completely worthwhile. For anyone who wants to have their own unique experience in either Asia or Africa I suggest you take a look on the website...

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River Hinboun
River Hinboun
Kids on rocks in river
Kids on rocks in river
boat on bank
boat on bank
climbing back up from the guan
climbing back up from the 'guan'
view into the guan
view into the 'guan'
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photo by: skydiver