On the road to Thakhek… Long Weekend, Sat 29 April – Mon 1 May.
As I’m buying my ticket (30,000 kip – $5 AUD), a man a grabs it and points me to a bus. I ask if I have time for a cigarette – he ignores me and so I climb aboard, find a seat, and just as I was getting a smoke out of my bag, the bus takes off. With two local people running after it and waving it down. So it was a quick getaway. As usual, bus stops to pick up people on the way – I used to be mystified by this but I now know there is a telephone number on the side of the bus and it is prearranged (for those who speak Lao). One stop included a motorbike to be packed on the roof of the bus so while a couple of them heave it up, I get to have my smoke.
Now stopped at a bus station, around ten women board the bus as soon as it stops, hawking whole bbq chickens on a stick, various chicken innards on sticks, 5 eggs on a stick, luke warm soft drinks, water and green papaya. Half hour later, still sitting here with engines and aircon rumbling along.
There’s a driver and 3 helpers – who tout potential customers along the way, and load luggage – bags of rice, fertiliser, live chickens, gardening equipment – anything you can think of. One little tough nut looks about 10 years old – he collects the money and has no English so stands there with his receipt book demanding – well something, because I nor the other English speaker had any idea. So I had to ‘explain’ – “Driver … ticket …” gesturing – finally seemed to get through and haven’t been bothered since. (Unfortunately I later discovered I did have my ticket in my wallet – sometimes it’s just not worth trying to argue with a foreigner.)
A bit of a story of Laos that epitomizes my (self made) experiences here.
Got off bus in Thakhek at main bus station that I knew was only a few kilometres out of town. For once, no harassing tuk tuk drivers so I could get my bearings and chill a little. Walked over to where the tuk tuks were gathered – not a lot of action going on but saw a group of locals heading for a tuk tuk and thought I’d try my luck in joining them. Well no, they waved me off and another driver pointed to a tuk tuk with 3 guys hanging around it, one lounging in a hammock hooked up in the back. “Where you go?
“Town Centre” Ok they say… Thou dai? (how much – never get into a tuk tuk without setting your price first!) He holds up a finger and says ‘one’. I say, incredulously, one what? One hundred thousand he said. I couldn’t believe it – AUD $16! I’d never heard such thing! No Joke! They came down to 50k, I said 10. They said ‘kin keow’ – we can’t even get a meal for that! I think my jaw hit the ground. Ok, 50k …. 40k…. 30k ….Then the other guy who had waved me towards them said 20k and that was the clincher! So they got nothing.
In the centre of Thakhek, which is a lovely tree lined square leading to the river, I found my hotel, Inthira Hotel Error no.1 –book at least your first night online – they’re better deals and you can see what else is available after you’ve settled in. So I paid the asking price $35 (forgot I was thinking in AUD, it was USD). And cut my losses with my visa card (+ the usual 3% fee). Had read online that rooms were good but better to go ‘deluxe’ for the advantage of a balcony overlooking the centre of town – so right! Ended up in a really delightful room, well decorated, lots of added clever touches, really comfortable bed, compact shower and wc, and perfect balcony. What more could I want?
Checked the tour prices for a day at my intended destination – Kong Lor caves – around $ USD121- – that is not really in my league. Decided later to rent a bike for 2 days – the Thakhek Loop (or Tha Khaek) is a more hefty 3-4 day trek – and stick to local sites. Good deal, only 60,000 kip per day ($10AUD – WangWang‘s – just across the road from hotel/night market), booked in for the morning. (It is not Mr Wang, it is named after his young son, WangWang.) And took myself off for a walk with camera ready.
Bought a delightful passionfruit drink with ice (served in a plastic bag with a straw for less than $1AUD). And walked towards the river. Saw a seat. Sat down. Woman approaches, ‘madam?’ I say I just want to sit (not buy anything) she says no. So I walked on and didn’t dare sit on any of the other plastic seats by the riverside. Found myself a convenient (but dirty) kerb in shade, sat down there, and thought shit, I don’t like this place.
This is where the self-made stuff comes in. Annabelle, get over it, go for a walk and who knows what’s around the corner! Shift the attitude cos that one’s gonna get you nowhere…
Walked further along the river, passed by a group of people having a happy drink and food at little stall. One of them, Khamone, invited me to join them. Hey, why not! Glass of beer with ice placed before me, women seeming to be talking very aggressively, chastising the men, all in Lao, child crying at the sight of me, I wondered if I should just go on my way. An hour or two later, numerous beers, I’d made myself a number of great new friends, been in the middle of a whole lot of suggestive banter, and been very happy that I still wear my mother’s wedding ring on my ring finger. And that I know enough Lao to say b’dai – cannot, boh – no, leo – enough, luk saow, luk sai – son and daughter, and la gon – I’m going now!
The women were clearly unsure about me, and the men were being rather close and suggestive. Khamone who invited me to join him, managed to communicate to me that he was a teacher, that he lived at the nearby hospital alone, and could I come with him tonight? Well we ended up all being friends (including the women who did warm to me) and me going on my way – alone. To the sounds of the women telling the men to pull their heads in. That’s it in a nutshell, I couldn’t have these experiences in a bad frame of mind worrying about the consequences or feeling insecure about where I was and what I was doing (alone). I still love Laos!
Ended up meeting a fascinating young German in the hotel, and spending the rest of the evening drinking beer with him on my balcony. If you’re feeling open to meeting people, it will happen!
Sunday Errors in Thakhek
So many errors today. Rented bike from Wang Wangs and set off to explore around Thakhek. Spent the first few kms in first gear – thought I had an automatic and gears weren’t kicking in. Semi auto, 4 gears. Along route 12, looking for signs to turn off to explore caves, swimming holes, various sights I’d read about. First stop was about 5 kms out of town I’d been told, Buddha Cave, but realised that the speedometer/odometer did not actually work.
Found a turnoff that looked promising, ended up riding towards the spectacular mountains and stopping at a little shop to buy water, park my bide and take a walk. Decided to tackle View Point sala (according to the sign) and started the climb – after some difficulty (the gate was locked) and the kind shopkeeper (an elderly woman chatting away in Lao, saying something about her top and my top and … ???) who showed me how to climb in under the gate. OK. So I climb. And I climb. And I sweat. I rest, I climb some more. And then some more. It felt like hours. I was exhausted. I was climbing up rickety ladders, steps, piles of stones. I stopped and looked up – no sign of any end to it, in fact it just looked like it was getting harder … and steeper. One good call for the day, took a photo of the view and decided to go back down again. By this time my legs were so weak and shaking I could hardly stand, let alone climb. Managed to get back down and headed up the road to Tham Xang – Elephant cave. Nice place, good rest, no one around to collect entrance fees. Good view from inside the cave and some interesting figures inside.
Headed off to Buddha Cave – fascinating back story, only recently discovered and become a tourist destination. This was weird. No photos inside, around ten locals sitting around with their various offerings for sale. Kind man asked me to sit by his fan – yes I was still sweating bucket-loads. A group of kids had been following me – we all sat together, had a laugh, practised some English, and sang nursery rhymes. Great meal there too.
Back on the road, I decided I really wanted that swim. Stopped at a place where locals and their kids were swimming and having lots of fun, but decided no, I’ll go on to the swimming hole which in my imagination was deliriously cool, clear water, beer lao, cool off at the end of the day.
- It’s called Pha Falang – what could I expect?
- Was told earlier not to take bike in because of thieves – local or foreigners I asked? That led to a conversation about the gangs and the drugs amongst young people in Thakhek at this time.
- Saw the sign hanging upside down as I was passing – this is not a good indication!
- Went down the dirt road across from the sign, big mud puddles on the track. Felt wary, went back to ask if it was ok.
- Stopped at shop and asked where Pha Falang is – he said oh, you pay, you pay pay pay … But yes, it’s that way if you want to swim.
- Stopped at a big muddied puddle that filled the whole road. Barbed wire on the side, fence on the other, no dry trek through- ANNABELLE YOU SHOULD HAVE STOPPED THERE AND THEN!
- There was a truck parked on the other side of the mud and a guy came and offered to ride my bike through. OK (No, no, you should never have done that!) So he rode it through and I followed on foot. Slippery mud – I fell, I slipped, slid, fell again. Both shoes came off because of the suction of the mud. What a mess. They were all laughing at me and my kind host came and gave me a hand.
- On the other side was an open gate and another guy came over and said come, come, come in here. I looked at the others in the truck and said, can I swim here? Yes yes you come here said the guy (with a strong whiff of alcohol about him). No, no said the others, no swim here, you go that way. Huh? (instincts – get out of there now, go back the way you came!)
- Follow the track on, see some water, go on further – more puddles, more mud, sun starting to go down. Turned around – not an easy feat – to head back. Stopped by some water to wash the mud off my feet. Not looking good – I knew I had to cross back over that hogwash on the road back.
- Met a group of people walking on to swimming hole – they’d (sensibly) left their bikes on the other side and walked the rest of the way. Got back to puddle, parked bike, and sat on the side of the road to contemplate my options. Watched a guy ride through, skidding and sliding, but persistent, got through. Saw another couple of girls coming through then they got stuck but managed eventually – one had socks and thongs on her feet – oooh, muddy. And they weren’t going to help me. A truck came past with about 9 drunken guys in the back. Nope, no help there.
- Realised shit, I’ve just got to do it, slowly slowly. Fell off 3 times. Smashed the bike mirror. Got ‘helped’ (harassed?) by a mysterious local guy who appeared, stinking of beer (maybe the one from earlier, by that time I was beyond noticing). He helped me get the bike out of the mud but he couldn’t start the bike. I got it started and then, he climbs on behind me! No no! Managed to get him off and head towards the road, getting darker by the minute, no time to clean off the mud that I was caked with.
- Realised I’d completely lost my bearings. Which way back to Thakhek, which way to Vietnam? Three tries later, I got directions from a disinterested shopkeeper and headed off, slowly. It was dark. Route 12 has many trucks going between Laos and Vietnam – big trucks, complete darkness, middle of nowhere. I was nervous, putting along slowly, freaking out about trucks running me down so I stuck to the side of the road. A bit too far.
Shit. Bang, went off the edge of the road, tipped to my left and head hit the road (thank god for that helmet), skidded down an embankment. Glass smashing, glasses come off. Lying down a ditch on the side of the road, in the dark, on my own. Can’t work out what is mud, what is blood. Switch off the bike. I’m ok. I am ok. Sat there. What to do? Am I ok? I feel blood in my mouth and various scrapes, but hard to determine in the dark, and through the caked-on mud. Found my phone, and a torch in my bag. Called the motorbike rental company (Wang Wangs, thank you so much!). The woman who answered the phone got the message and said she’d try to find some help. However, being down a ditch by the side of a road, in the dark, with a constant procession of trucks and other vehicles passing by, I knew no-one could see me and I had to get up and walk – at least to the side of the road. Easier said than done.
I was covered in slimy mud, had to try to find my shoes first. Inching my way on my bum through the gravel (I couldn’t stand up at that point) I finally managed to get my slimy mud covered shoes on and find a way to the roadside. Bare feet or slimy feet? Fell back down a few more times, but finally managed to get to the road. I started trudging back towards the last roadside store I’d stopped at. Stopped at a mileage stone – 10km from Thakhet and Wang Wang’s called me again. Waited there and my life savers appeared! Noy and his assistant managed to get the bike out, start it up, and she rode it back while I went in the car. He dropped me at the hospital, and well, that’s another story!
Cleaned up now, back home. Scratched, sore and sorry for myself. And wiser for all of the foolish mistakes that I made along the way.
- If there’s a big muddy puddle and no way around it, change your plans.
- If things seem not to be going right – trust your instincts and avoid trouble.
- Don’t ride at night!
- You can fit a lot into a day – get somewhere safe when it’s getting dark.
- Trust your instincts.
But most importantly, when I went back to WangWang’s today and saw a group of young tourists renting bikes, clearly with little to no experience, and wearing thongs, shorts, skimpy tops and no helmets I realise that at least I followed the basics – helmet and good footwear… plus the previous advice to self (next time, I promise you kids…)
The truth is, I was pretty much in shock at this stage. I was alone, I was scared, in a foreign country with severely inadequate medical care. But I had to keep going, be strong, tough, all of that stuff. Nobody was going to come and help me unless I asked for it. I knew I’d made some dumb decisions that day, and as I limped back to the hotel from the hospital, in the dark, later that night, I knew I had to just get through it. On the way back to Savannakhet the next day in the bus, I called a friend and asked if he could please come and pick me up. It was only at that moment that I felt overwhelmed by what had happened, and how much more serious it could have been. You have to stay tough, but you can only keep doing that to a point… So I’ll start again in the morning.