Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Back along the Mekong

VIENTIANE: The little red vespa gleamed in the hot tropical sun. I kept walking on by but just knew that I would have to come back. With the "Jules Classic Rentals" sign hanging above it was just too much of a temptation. How much would cost to fulfill a dream was what I needed answering.

The next day the classic 1967 Italian beauty was still there and so was Jules. $10 for the day Jules told me in a heavy French accent (I guess he is one of those "lotus eaters", that the old French colonialist called the foreigners who stayed on in Laos). And half a day? Enough time for me to cruise with my girl around the streets of Vientiane. Only $5. Sold.

Saddled up and we cruised Vientiane until lunch. Much like our trip through Laos it was at a leisurely pace and (mostly) with a grin. And like learning how to handle the old girl and its quirks (clutch and gears on the left handlebar) our Lao adventure didn't kick off that great. A bit of a stalled start.

Vespa Dream
Living the dream

The nine hour bus trip from Hue to Savannakhet in Laos was quite hellish. Once again the bus was completely packed. But at least we managed to get a proper seat and not like the Japanese tourists who had to sit on the small red plastic seats in the aisle. The major problem for me was that I felt quite nauseous at the end. This was later compounded – although I am unsure if linked – by getting a dose of the ol' gastro in Savannaket. Instead of two nights there originally planned we spent an extra one due to one completely lost to no sleep and rushing to the bucket and scoop toilet. Fun.

Savannakhet itself was a bit a tad boring or "quiet" - it is after all a commercial centre and that's it really - so it was good to keep heading north. We found Tha Khaek, our next stop, was a good place to chill and check out the brilliant karst peak countryside. A day of exploring was required to see some of the very cool caves dotted around in them.

There was an amazing story of how, not far from Tha Khaek, a villager was chasing bats into a cave – a local delicacy apparently – 15 metres up the side of a cliff and as he crawled through the small opening he looked down into a cavern below him he was shocked to see a large Buddha statue inside.

As the villager went to inspect he discovered that there were more than 200 bronze Buddhas littering the cavern floor, varying in size from quite large to small, seated amongst the stalagmites. He didn't breathe a word of his discovery for a few days before finally informing the rest of the village and taking back some others.

It so happens that the Buddhas are believed to have been left untouched in the cave for over 600 years. What is more remarkable is that this amazing discovery by the villager only happened four years ago. I had to see this. Who left them behind I wanted to know and why?

Well my questions are still unanswered, but I have climbed through the small opening and into the cavern. The Buddhas are all still there but of course the locals have turned it into a small tourist attraction. They are at least very reverent in their approach to looking after the site.

Rob was required to don a traditional Lao skirt before entering. We had to remove hats and shoes and adhere to a whole host of other regulations including "no gambling inside". There is now a concrete staircase all the way to the cave entrance and once inside, the cavern has been divided into two with the Buddhas displayed in one half and mats for sitting on in the other. Some old caretakers were there looking after the objects and eager to give us a blessing and tie another coloured string to our wrists.

Under the Buddha cave
The pool underneath the Buddha cave

We ventured into other caves, some also devoted to Buddha and some not, before cruising along up the Mekong to the capital where we are now. Vientiane it turns out is one of the most laid back cities I have ever been too. Not much happens quickly here, which is a shock after being in Vietnam for a while. Whereas things start happening before six in the neighbouring country, you are lucky to see cafes with "all day breakfas" signs open up until after 8 in Laos.

So all this means we are loving Laos. Laid back is for us. Though like my vespa ride it will have to come to end some stage but at least that wont be for another few weeks. There are adventures to be had in the north yet.

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