I can't actually believe how far behind I'm falling with this blog! I apologise for the lack of updates but the sun just keeps on calling my name! Just so you know, we're actually in Vietnam in the moment, due to leave for Cambodia on Sunday morning, but in blog world we're still in Laos, lovely, lovely Laos! (I'm actually now in Cambodia!!! It's impossible to find internet cafe's here and so I'm having to write this blog in pieces!)
Time seems to be flying. When you're planning your trip 5 months sounds like a lifetime, in reality, it is not. Unfortunately time is slipping rapidly away and each day we're faced with a choice between two towns. For Laos, it was a choice between Vang Vieng, the party town where tubing is infamous, or Thakhek, the starting point for the loop, a five day motorbike tour around the rural countryside. Not an easy choice. For most people Vang Vieng is a given. It's the reason they come to Laos. For me it came down to deciding what I really wanted to get out my trip and to think about the reasons I came away in the first place. Had I always dreamed of spending 5/6 months drunk/hungover on a booze cruise around Asia? or had I dreamt or travelling to these exotic countries to learn their culture, become submersed in daily life and understand their people. Of course it was the latter and with this in mind we decided to skip Vang Vieng and head straight to Thakhek. Best decision we've made by far!
I'm starting to learn that no bus trip in Laos is without weirdness. We've had men carrying chickens in handbags, buses that are so old they are literally snapping in half, we've seen motorbikes/people/dogs and other such objects squashed into the baggage holdall. Luckily this one was great and without weirdness but of course ten minutes in we were greeted with a soundtrack of hideous Laotian music that lasted the whole journey. Dan is now quite the fan. Anyway, a smoother trip than usual. We arrived into Thakhaek, hired ourselves a bike and with a pathetic hand drawn map from Mr Ku (the bike man) we were on our way.
So what is the loop? It's a 475km tour that most people do by motorbike, around the countryside of central Laos. Sounds easy enough doesn't it? Some people do the trip in two days but we had decided to allow for 4 or 5 so that we could go at our own pace ...
We set off from the travellers lodge at about 8am. Of course we couldn't take our huge bags with us, so we had left those with the hostel and packed our day bags to take with us. We still looked overloaded and we seemed to have stuff everywhere. Dan of course was blaming me for having packed too much, but I packed pretty lightly, I don't think a boy can begrudge a girl for wanting to take enough clean underwear for the amount of days now can he? We eventually set off and wobbled our way down the driveway and onto the highway. Mr Ku had given us a rough itinerary, suggesting on the first day that we visit a mixture of temples, caves and lakes.
We first stopped at the Buddha cave. I hadn't realised the caves were actually temples so turned up in my levi's and a t-shirt. Not suitable attire for a temple. Luckily, a sweet lady was on hand to lend me a wrap around skirt to cover up with. I looked quite the dream (what a shame you'll all have to wait for the pictures!) We climbed up a bamboo ladder to the cave and it seemed to lead us to a wall, a dead end. After standing there dumb struck for a few minutes, one of the locals pointed to a tiny hole that we were supposed to climb through. It was unbelievable. It opened up into a huge cave, filled with Buddha statues, our guide advised us there were 229 Buddha's all believed to be aroud 300 years old. It was stunning.
Back on the bike and we headed to the lake. Dan went for a swim but I opted out. Pretty sure that the lake was full of leaches and other scary things so I left him to it. We had the whole place to ourselves though which was really great. We chilled out here for about an hour before hopping back on the bike and continuing on our way. Our final stop for the day before finding somewhere to rest for the night was another cave. I must say, it was one of the most incredible places I have ever visited. We drove down a 100m dirt track to what looked like a phenomenal tourist attraction. The car park was built to accomodate hundreds, there was a restaurant the size of a shopping centre to feed the masses and yet there was absolutely no body there. It was completely abandoned apart from the two local boys who seemed to be running the joint. It was incredibly eerie, but there was something fascinating about this cave, that must have once been a great tourist attraction now being left to decay. We bought our tickets and climbed the stairs to the entrance, not expecting the cave to be anything to write home about. How wrong we were. It was amazing! I think partly this was due to the fact we had the place to ourselves. It was half river, half cave and wholly stuning. Turquoise water streamed from the cave's opening and without torches we started to make our way inside. At points the ceiling of the cave must be nearly 30m high so it was quite daunting wandering around in the dark. We pushed through and luckily the locals thought it would be an idea to turn some lights on for us. It was unbelievable, we both kept thinking it was like a set from a film. Gigantic, crumbling staircases winding all throughout the cave. It was fantastic, one of the highlights of the loop for me I think. Tired and hungry, we decided to push on to find somewhere to stay for the evening.
We soon found our room in the Sabaidee (hello) Guesthouse in Thalong Village. The room was small and it had a hole in the wall that let mosquitoes in at a pace hinted at some mosquito convention I didn't know about! The owner of the place was so comical. During the day he had built himself a 'sunset viewing point' which was simply a few pieces of cardboard and a blanket on top of a chicken coop. Not the safest or most relaxing of places to chill out but he was so proud of himself we had to sit there for a few hours to please him! Unfortunately, we begun to be attacked by these horrific insects. They're about the same size as cockroaches but they fly through the air and are so stupid they constantly fly into you getting tangled in your hair or hitting you in the face. It was so disgusting. I have managed to overcome my fear of bugs but these were too much for me. We, that being Dan and I and two girls we had met who were also doing the loop, had sat down to a BBQ dinner but I could not for the life of me relax because of these insects. The locals of course found it hilarious, it seems they like to catch these bugs and fry them for breakfast. With tired eyes, and extremely sore bums we decided to call it a night ...
Day two .
On the second day we took our motorbikes on what would be the most trying day for our patience and our backsides! After leaving Thalong, we discovered the Theun Power Station 2, but didn't think much of it. 30km later, we saw the damage done by this "wonder" of infrastructure. The backed-up water had created an enormous flood plain that has killed an entire section of forest. The drive is more than eery as one side of the road is flushed with greenery, while the other displays enormous dead sticks rising out of a black placid lake.
The first 70km of "road" was a dirt path that happened to have the brush cleared. While the scenery was enjoyable, finally finding a paved road was akin to finding a tall glass of water in the middle of the Sahara. The drive was unbelievably difficult, especially for Dan. Three and a half hours of gruelling dirt track road. We had a minor accident, when the bike bottomed out and we got caught in some gravel which sent us both flying sideways. Luckily, we sustained no injuries, although Minnie the motorbike got a little damaged. We were worried Mr Ku would charge us for the repairs, but luckily we got away scot free! Onward we travelled down the dirt track, through the forest. It really was phenomenal and I felt very proud of P for how well he rode the bike. It was amazing and one of my favourite days we've had on this trip. Due to the nature of the ride we had originally planned to spend a night in Lak Sao but when we arrived it was such a dump that we decided to push on to the next village and find ourselves a place to get some rest.
Day Three ...
Up early for a short 40k ride to the village of Kong Lor. The road this time was tarmac and like heaven. Who knew I'd be getting excited by roads!!? How I've changed!! It was bliss and all along the way we were greeted by village children who were high fiving me and waving at Dan and I the whole way down. It was fantastic. The children here are amazing and so so friendly, they definitely make my day!
Kong Lor village is quite the tourist attraction as it is home to the Kong Lor cave. During our first day here we decided to take the bike down to the lagoon and take a swim. It was so beautiful, we spent the afternoon chilling out, watching the strange Asian teenagers go swimming in what looked like their best clothes! They do have some odd habits I must say! We decided to tackle the cave the next day before heading back to Thakhek!
The cave itself is 7.5 in length and unlike anything I have ever seen before. You take a tour of the cave by boat so there was Dan and I and two locals. As you enter the cave you descend into darkness. Luckily, we had rented a torch and the driver had brought one along too. It was spectacular. At points the ceiling reaches cathedral heights of 100m and it's incredibly spooky. After about 2km, we pulled to the shore in a large section with lights illuminating a particularly impressive series of stalactites and stalagmites. Surrounded by strange shapes in a dusty grey moon-like landscape, it was like something out of a film. We were thrown out of the boats and made to wade through the water quite a few times due to the water levels being too low for the boat to pass. It was an adventure. Finally, we exited the cave into the most spectacular forest of lush green. We pulled over at a small river village for a quick stop and then jumped back in the boat to head back through. It really was fantastic and I can see why tourists flock to the caves.
Rather than stay another night in Kong Lor we decided to get back on the bike and drive 148km back to Thakhek. It was exhausting. Poor Dan was shattered. I think it took us around 3 hours, not too long really. But it was roasting hot and we were so sore after days of sitting on the bike!
Eventually we made it back to the travellers lodge and spent the evening sat around the fire with a group of travellers who had also just finished the loop. Beers galore and the best nights sleep we've had so far!