We had enjoyed our few days in Luang Prabang but in this game ya gotta keep movin'. We had bought our bus tickets for the journey south to the capital Vientiane. I've looked in the Lao dictionary. I can't find the word for organised. Time is something that happens not something you work to. It has a certain charm but not always. If you are about to do something you will enjoy you will be told it lasts twice as long as it does. If it is something unpleasant like a bus journey you will be told it's quicker than it is.
We had bought tickets for the VIP bus. The man in the tour office told us 'You have three choices. Public bus, Express bus or VIP'. The difference allegedly is that the public bus is old and dirty; the express bus is quick but no air con or toilet, while the VIP is a proper coach with both. He also said it would take ten hours. Starter for ten no conferring. Which bit of the above was untrue? Ok it was a coach with an upper deck. It also had proudly sign written on the windscreen 'King of Bus'.
It didn't take long to work out the aircon wasn't working followed shortly by the toilet. So we all sat cross legged until we stopped in a village with a row of toilets all charging to use them. Surprised?
It was therefore no surprise when the ten hours became twelve. Oh the ticket also included a meal. Assuming of course your idea of food is boiled rice with boiled morning glory and boiled fish. The locals eat it like they'll never get fed again. Jill and I had brought two ham baguettes with us.
We arrived at our hotel after a slightly chaotic scene with the tuk tuks at the bus station. Vientiane is not a very big place but it caters well for tourists. Lots of ATM's, lots of tour operators and lots of bars. The hotel was nice and we soon had a cold beer to wash away the journey.
Next day we went for a little bimble. It was very hot so we started at the river. When we arrived the previous evening a live band was playing by the town fountain. Down by the river there were a couple more stages. It seemed that the next day was a public holiday and a boat racing festival was scheduled. s*** that meant a lot of things would be closed and we needed to arrange our bus out. We went to a travel office close to the hotel. We were planning to head south again to Nah Bah Hin (also known as Khouk Bun Han) to visit Konglor caves.
'Bus leave at ten, tuk tuk pick you up at nine. Take you to bus station' the young lady told us. Ok. We have our tickets out, now we need a place to stay. We searched the internet but there was little on there. Konglor is a small village and most of the accommodation is 'homestays' where you bunk down with a local family. In the end we found a place just outside of Nah Bah Hin which had bungalows. It also offered moped hire to visit the caves. Jill spoke with them on the phone. I only heard one side of the conversation. She spoke to three different people with varying levels of English. When she put the phone down she said 'I think I've just booked a room for two nights but I can't be sure'. Oh well, it is meant to be an adventure.
Back to exploring Vientiane. We walked around the city and visited the main market before heading to a monument styled on the Arc de Triomphe. It was after all a French colony. We got trapped there for half an hour when the skies opened. That evening we went in search of a curry and found one. The best meal we had had in ages.
Day two and we decided to go and check out the boat race festival. It was all very much like England. The river was lined with food stalls and other traders. There was a small fair with dodgems and someone shouting over a loudspeaker trying to get everyone excited. Only thing missing was a boat race. We hung around a while but in the end got fed up and moved on. There were lots of people around most carrying umbrellas to shield them from the sun. It was quite an effort not to get your eye poked out every few minutes.
We left the throng and went to look at a big temple. The car park was empty (all at the boat race I guess) so we wandered around taking pictures.
Next day and we were due to leave. Breakfast at the hotel has been a constant and consistent source of amusement. Our ten year old waiter and the cook could never get the orders correct. It was nothing personal everyone got treated the same. This morning was no exception. Still no rush the tuk tuk is picking us up at nine.
Nine o'clock and we are in reception, fools that we are. Nine fifteen still no tuk tuk. I walked to the office where we had booked the bus. She made a call. 'It's ok, he be there at nine thirty, very busy today'. In fairness the traffic was bad. Vientiane is hosting the Asia/Euro summit so they had shut lots of roads and changed routes. Which when you realise they don't have a word for organised is guaranteed to cause chaos.
The tuk tuk arrived at nine fifty. It's five kilometres to the bus station through rush hour chaos. We are not going to be there for ten.
No worries this is Laos why would we ever think the ten o'clock bus would leave at ten? We arrived at ten fifteen to see them still hauling someone's moped on to the roof of the bus. We had been told the journey would take four hours. Yeah right. Six hours later we got off the bus at what they call the bus station. It's a shed on a patch of dirt. This is rural Laos.
The hotel had said they would come and collect us so I rang them. 'Hello' said the voice. 'Oh hello is that the Sumanahair hotel?' I asked. 'Yes' she replied. 'Ok we have a room booked. We are at the bus station and you said you would collect us' I said. 'Where you now?' she asked. 'At the bus station' I replied. She then said a few unintelligible things and I think she said 'twenty minutes'. I handed the phone to Jill who is better at this stuff than me. She hung up and said 'Nope, no idea'. We agreed we would give it twenty minutes and then get a tuk tuk. Ten minutes later and a lady turned up and we were conveyed to the hotel. It's rather nice with bamboo bungalows and a river frontage.
That evening over dinner the owner came and spoke to us. We are actually the only two guests. He speaks good English as well as Spanish and obviously Lao. Show off. There are more people arriving tomorrow he tells us. We agree to hire one of his two mopeds for the next day to ride the one hour to the caves. He also says he will drop us back to the bus station for the bus out.
Next day we have brekkie then head off on the moped to the caves. The brakes are not exactly great but it's a dead straight road for forty kms with only an occasional languid cow to deal with. It takes about one hour to reach the caves through some lovely countryside. Rural Laos is all about farming and it's green fields bordered by huge limestone cliffs. If this was Europe these caves would have a massive car park, a million pound visitor centre and a gift shop like Harrods. Here there was a shed for the ticket seller, a table for the head torch renter and a bench for the boatmen. So it was buy a ticket, rent a torch and meet your boatman. Five pounds each the lot. Off we set. First to a canoe full of water to do a short trip to the other bank and the cave entrance. Bailing implement of choice is a cut away water bottle. Paddle of choice was his flip flop.
We were soon at the cave entrance. It was large and in a beautiful setting. We climbed in the canoe and our chaps fired the engine. One steered while the other used a head torch to light the way. We slipped the mooring and headed into the cave network. There are seven kms of river running through the caves. The passages run in pitch dark save the torch and enter into cathedral sized caverns. It is eerie and spectacular. It took an hour to reach daylight where we stopped for a cold drink. Then it was back in the boat for the return journey. My pictures can't do it justice. It is so dark in the caves that the flash is gobbled up by the darkness.
Once out we rode back to the hotel. Back there we sat on the terrace overlooking the river enjoying a cold beer.
We had discussed our route out with our host. Our plan was to take a bus from Nah Bah Hin to Thakese then change for Pakse. He said we should catch a bus for one hour to Road 13 junction then flag down a bus to Pakse. It all sounded a little hit and miss for Mr and Mrs Organised. We decided to go with our plan.
Next morning our host took us to the bus station (shed) in his little bus. As we arrived there was a large coach he jumped out spoke excitedly in Lao to the crew. Next thing is our bags are in the hold we are bundled on board and it seems we are following his plan. It was a nervous hour to the road 13 junction. Our guide book suggested the first bus past wouldn't be until early afternoon. It was now 8.30am.
Our bus arrived at the junction and we were again bundled off the bus. Our luggage was pushed into our arms and we were excitedly pointed at a bus on the opposite side of the road. Pakse Pakse everyone was shouting. We went over the road and pushed our rukkies into a full hold and got on board. f*** knows where we were going but it is meant to be an adventure.
We found two seats. Mine was reclined. Not through choice it was just like half the seats, knackered. We sat down, settled back and braced ourselves for an eleven hour ride in a crowded sweat box. Laos's buses are described as being made of wet cardboard. How true. One of the large windows was missing and had been replaced by cardboard. Where we were sat the side panel to the outside was missing and had also been replaced by cardboard and sticky tape. Each time we went over a bump and believe me there were a lot it was like a set of bellows. A big cloud of dust billowed into the cab. Sheer joy.
Now we've been on a few interesting buses. All sorts of things have shared the ride mostly livestock. Today was a first. We stopped by the roadside and a young lad got on accompanied by his moped. No, not on the roof. Don't be silly. He brought it inside. It was wheeled backwards up the foot aisle and strapped to two seats. Right next to me as it happened. I'm now laying at 45 degrees staring at a moped.
Strangely enough the journey was ok. We stopped regularly which is a relief. Nothing worse than being dehydrated, but s*** scared to drink in case they don't do a toilet stop.
We eventually arrived in Pakse. Trust me it ain't great. Our hotel is impressive. It used to be a large, elegant government building. Our room is huge. The town is small and not very pretty. Our plan is to spend a couple of days here and visit Champanak Temple. Plans eh?
We visited a recommended tour office. He offered a day trip to the temple and also a bus/flight deal to Bangkok leaving at 7am. He duly checked and said 'No seats on flight for 6th November, you go 7th?' We said we wanted to leave on the 6th. We then said if we can get an onward bus from the border can we still go on the bus? 'Oh yes, no seats on plane, lots on bus' he said with a smile. We went back to the hotel to consider our options. We checked the airline site and there were lots of seats on the flight. Strange but we booked two anyway. We had asked the man in the office what time he opened until. '8pm' he said.
Back to the tour office. It was shut. It eventually opened again later in the day. 'Ok' we said. We've booked a flight and now we want two seats on the 7am bus. 'No no only go on bus if taking flight' he said. 'Yes but you said' I didn't get to finish. 'I not say that' he interrupted. 'You f***ing did' I thought. We now had flights booked and the only available bus wouldn't get us there in time.
Only option is we've had to leave Pakse a day early and not go to the temple to ensure we get to Ubon to catch our flight. We are getting fed up with people lying to us about pretty much everything. It means everything you do you hold your breath and hope.
We've now booked two seats on the morning bus to Ubon across the Thai border. We are assured they are booked but have nothing to prove it. Mind you we haven't paid for it either so fingers crossed. Hopefully it's next stop Thailand then on to Bangkok. We are now relaxing with a glass of red and don't much care about anything.