Vern: Vientiane, capital city of Lao PDR, is a ridiculously small capital: We didn't come across a full-size grocery store, I recall only two sets of traffic lights, zero cross-walks, and the Presidential Palace was boarded up. Green sheets of plastic were patched across the front gate, between the national flag and the communist flag (yellow sickle on red). These flags were paired together throughout the city and throughout the whole country. Despite the nation being named Lao Peoples Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), the country is run by a single party, the Communists.
The palace was just closed for renovations I think, but imagine The White House with two-by-fours in the windows (actually given the US's national debt, and proposed further tax cuts, this may not be far off). The skyline does feature a couple of Wats, and an Asian-style Arc de Triomph called Patuxai, which was built with US donated concrete intended for a new airport and thus is nicknamed the vertical runway, but other than what we saw out of the bus window, we weren't there to tick off sights. We'd stopped here only to plan our route through the southern part of the country.
After dusk, the riverside stalls unfolded into a hive of activity under the full moon. We've grown quite numb to markets because 90% of the trinkets and t-shirts are mass-produced and available anywhere. Sometimes, when we have the patience to browse the remaining 10%, we find a unique artwork, a beguiling fabric or at least a hand-crafted conversation piece which would look great in our (so far, fictional) house but does not fit in our backpacks. So even when we strike gold, we're disappointed. The Vientiane Night Market however bore fruit, and Andrea bought a simple aluminium bracelet from a Village Project which moulds jewellery and chopsticks out of scrap metal from the wrecks of war-machines and bombs which scatter northern Laos after the Secret War and channels the profits to worthwhile local causes.
Tough History Lesson: During the Vietnam war, the USA dropped over 260 million bombs in Northeastern Laos to disrupt Vietnamese supply lines. A plane load of bombs was dropped every eight minutes, making Laos the most bombed country in the world. Around 78 million bombs did not detonate rendering a large part of the country useless and very dangerous. Unexploded ordnances (UXOs) have claimed over 12000 lives since the war was over.
Interestingly (and completely unrelated to that sombre fact bite), pottery painting was a very popular activity amongst the Vientiane locals. At three busy stalls children, teenagers and adults sat on plastic stools carefully painting ceramic moulds of Hello Kitty and Toadstools among other things.
The only other thing we bought in Vientiane was toothpaste, and while Oral Hygiene is also a worthy cause, this purchase came with a dose of buyer's remorse. Andrea stood in a little convenience stall at the personal hygiene shelf and considered three options. All labled 'Colgate Squiggly-line Squiggly-line' (excuse my cultural insensitivity but the Laos alphabet is certainly hard to crack). One looked herbal - yuk, another was for sensitive teeth - we're okay, and the third had little crystals on the box which Andrea deduced to mean 'whitening'. That was the one which was in the shopping bag when she joined me at the café for breakfast. I curiously dug in the bag, retrieved the shiny silver box and spun it around to the side in English in roman characters.
"What, there's English on the other side?"
For the rest of our trip, first thing every morning and last thing every night, our tastebuds are treated to the bewildering flavour sensation of a fizzing tic-tac in a shot of soy sauce. Jim Carrey would be out of work if Hollywood producers could record the rubber-facing going on at guesthouse sinks throughout Asia.
At the bus station, on the day we rolled out of the capital, we boarded a bus bound for Ban Kong Lor which was unnervingly empty. This is seldom a good sign, but six hours later (and one conversation with the conductor where I asked why the bus hadn't taken a well signed turn-off to our destination, and he told me to relax and to go and sit down) we were delivered to the little village of Ban Kong Lor.
What a spot for a subsistence village, some tourist accommodation and a cave! Surrounded by a crown of blue mountains, the little wooden buildings sit on stilts amongst acres of flat farmland. The terrain reminds me of the Stellenbosch wine region in South Africa, but unfortunately there aren't any vineyards here. On one side of the dirt road, tobacco--the dry season crop--was being planted by farmers in faded clothes and conical hats. On the other side, dead yellow rice plants, the wet season crop, were being cleared by another team.
Our guesthouse was a barn-like wooden building which apparently was run by teenagers. Our room was furnished with a bed on the floor, an Ikea wardrobe, and a waving-cat nightlight for good luck.
We went for an evening stroll past the little village and down the dusty track to the cave mouth. Most of the village children (who, like everywhere else in Laos outnumbered adults 4 to 1) waved and excitedly shouted, "Sabaidee!" with big grins. "Hello!" Roosters, piglets and small dogs ran amongst the children, circling small smouldering piles of waste vegetation piled up and lit to cook the evening pot of rice.
'Children, puppies and communism' is how I'll remember Laos because of the abundance of all three. Really, it's like Never Never Land, where even the political system won't grow up!
That night as we lay in bed, the quaint little homestead turned out to be inconceivably loud. A full brass band was clashing away somewhere, the teenagers downstairs were watching soaps and gossiping and the roosters started work nine hours prematurely!
We had a few issues with transcending the language barrier at breakfast the next morning: We ordered only omelettes (noticing that the set breakfast--omelettes with buttered toast--was three times the price of just omelettes). First the young waitress brought a set breakfast.
"Omelettes yes, toast no. Don't want," I explained and sent it back. Next came a plate with ONLY toast piled on it. Four slices now.
"No, no, not the toast. The other half of the plate. Bring the omelette back without the toast," I sent her away again, but this time her facial expressions had us convinced that the penny had dropped. Alas, our hopes were shattered when she didn't come straight back out with the omelettes. Instead we could hear the stove firing up again. Finally, she brought out two set breakfasts with scrambled eggs instead of omelettes. Toast on the side! We were running too late to argue further and so just just gave in, ate it and paid up for a set breakfast. Guesthouse: 1, Vern & Andrea: 0.
We hurriedly retraced our steps to the mouth of the Kong Lor Cave where we'd agreed to meet a Spaniard with whom we'd split the cost of a long-boat to explore the cave's interior. The cave entrance appears like a whale's open wide mouth swallowing up an emerald green river. Into it we walked, along the slither of river bank, and out of the daylight. For millions of years the determined river has been boring its way through the mountain's base, and now it successfully flows 7km into the range's limestone bowels.
Once aboard the skinny wooden craft, its captain pull-started a two-stroke engine while a boatman slid us off the bank and set us on our course. Leaving a semi circle of sunlight behind, the coffee walls and the green water were sapped of colour and faded abruptly to black. The trapped air was still warm and humid at the beginning, but cooled as we spluttered further into the void.
We strapped on headlamps and fired up their beams, waiting a while for our pupils to calibrate to the available glow, then straining to make out the cavern's chaotic facade. Our spot light beams crissed and crossed like the sky above a Hollywood awards ceremony, stopping on stalactites, outcrops from the wall and further branches of the cave system which lead to imagined worlds. The ceiling was like a freeze-frame of a stormy sea, inverted and hanging down over us. Our lights bounced off of its ripples and frozen frothy waves, a breached whale fin stretched down toward us.
At one point the driver pointed the boat toward the wall, and pulled up to where a stone terrace rose out of the water. We climbed out of our vessel and into a surreal arena which felt like a ballroom inside of a storm cloud. Droplets fell from melted chandeliers, pillars of dripped candle-wax stretched to the ceiling from a floor which rose and dipped in mounds, like we were walking on caramel ice-cream.
I heard a switch click and buckets of blue and orange paint were hurled over the blank canvas of the cloud world. Cleverly installed under-lighting breathed life into water's sculptures, exaggerating the recesses in the cavern walls and pronouncing the stalactites and stalagmites protruding from the cave's limestone jaws.
We joined the boat again and continued toward the centre of the earth. After the full 7 kilometres we puttered out into a sunlit mangrove where, after a brief stop on an island, we turned around and reversed our expedition. The Spaniard was as impressed as we were, "The guidebook is wrong. The guidebook is wrong! Why is this not on the front cover of the 'Laos' book? It hardly even features in the book. It's all temples, temples, temples. But this, this is Nature's Temple!"
Conveniently, soon after we were home and dry, we found a minibus headed back toward civilisation and a few hours later we were at a bus station in Tha Khaek. At 4pm we boarded a local bus to Pakse, our stop-over for the night, which we were told should take six hours. Luggage was piled high on the bus roof and inside it was filled to double it's capacity, with the aisles rammed with people on plastic stools. Every few minutes the driver found a reason to stop, if not to cram in a few more souls, it was a food break or a toilet stop. Eventually at 2:30am, we were ordered to get out of the bus on the side of the road in a city we were told was Pakse. The conductor had already unloaded a backpack, which he'd simply assumed looked like a foreigner's bag. "That isn't ours, put it back and find ours please." He did and the bus sped off.
We ambled down a quiet street past a lot of closed up stores and hotels, finding only a police station (a potential last resort). Luckily, excessive fairy lights led us down another street and into the open gate of a guesthouse where we woke the proprietor who was sleeping in front of a TV in the courtyard. He showed us to a room, which we took without hesitation. We collapsed exhausted onto a large bed dressed in bright new Winnie the Pooh sheets.