Friday, 2 November 2012

"The Loop" Laos.

Hands down the best thing Jenny and I did in Laos was ride motorbikes. I had never ridden a motorbike prior to visiting this country and I jumped in at the deep end. Well, I shouldn't get too carried away, we rode 125cc semi manual motorbikes (known to some as scooters - but that doesn't seem nearly manly enough), but the trip we took went on some pretty hairy roads. So I guess "deep end" is a bit over the top.

The route we took is known as "The Loop" a vague name, but an appropriate one nonetheless. It's starts in Tha Khaek, a town on the eastern bank of the Mekong which looks over towards Thailand. There's not a great deal going on in the town. A lot of people seem to pass through here and stay over night while heading north from Si Phan Don (4000 Islands).

Tha Khaek:

We stayed at the Tha Khaek Travel Lodge. It's a hostel/guesthouse, not a hotel and you certainly wouldn't find Alan Partridge staying there. It's a common place for people to come and stay prior to doing the loop. The place was practically empty when we rolled up, but surely enough a group of 3 filthy European men turned up really late having just finished their adventure. They were still buzzing with excitement and gave us a good lowdown on the roads. One thing was for certain, some of it was going to be pretty shitty. The Travel Lodge is a good place to meet other people who are planning on heading the same way and this is where we added the finishing touches to our crew.


The bikes for rent at the Travel Lodge were very overpriced and we'd been given a heads up to mosey on down by the river to Wang Wang rentals. They were incredibly cheap, but the bikes were pretty decent. We checked them to see if they were up to the job and got them to fix anything that thought needed attention.


This is our fully assembled crew(from L to R): me, Kevin, Jenny and David - oh and some Asian baby that David acquired. And in case you were wondering, David does know what that gesture means in Britain.

We met Kevin on the local bus from Pakse to Tha Khaek. It was a wonderful glimpse into Lao life, a great way to experience a part of the culture (untimeliness and general chaos) which was fun at first but which turned out to be pretty horrific. I'll talk about that in another post, because there are way to many details for this. So we bonded through misery and discomfort and decided to ride the Loop together. We met David in the Travel Lodge the next day. He had hired a bike down in Pakse, sped around the Bolaven Plateau and made his way up to Tha Khaek. David seemed very reserved and calm, perhaps a little shy. This was soon to change.


This was my bike. At the time of snapping this picture I had never ridden a motorbike of any sort. I was a little bit nervous to say the least. In fact I thought I probably wouldn't make it out of town without an incident. I was wobbly as hell at first, but once we got out of the city the roads were quiet enough for me to get comfortable. Pretty soon I was zooming along the highway grinning ear to ear. Actually I think my mouth just hung open most of the time because my tongue went completely dry. It felt like I'd been drinking dust.


There are so many things to see on The Loop: caves, waterfalls, hot springs and other such marvels. In the beginning we were really excited to stop and look at them all, but after a while our enthusiasm waned as we weren't making much progress and we really just wanted to be riding our bikes.

The first cave we stopped at involved wading across a river. Below you can enjoy the spectacle of my milky white thighs tackling the currents. Nasty. I know.
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The cave was full of buddhist statues. Really badly made ones at that. I love this cross eyed blue guy saluting (forgive my ignorance). They look like something from an Anti Hero Skateboards ad.
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The views from the cave did little to distract from the pungent stench of bat shit. We got out of there sharp.

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Sweat! The worst thing about getting off the bikes was the heat. As long as you keep riding you feel cool. The moment you stop you start to overheat and you start to feel like a wet rag.
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A super sketchy foot bridge. There was no need to cross it, but why not?
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The first day of driving was mostly flat on smooth tarmac. We were penned in all around by these huge karst mountains. It was difficult to keep my eyes on the road. It's slow progress when you keep stopping to take photos as well.

Lunch. A glorious but late lunch. "Noodle Soup" was ordered all round and we cranked up the spice. The thing about riding bikes is that it's so much fun you forget about eating. Four days later we would be sick of noodle soup. It's pretty much one of the only dishes we were capable of asking for. That and Laap.
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Poncho time! Polka dot poncho!
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In the late afternoon the roads headed up towards the sky. After a long time ascending I expected to reach a pass and be presented with a view down into another mountain valley but instead we reached a plateau with an enormous lake.
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Goodbye tarmac roads. Hello dirt.
When I said the roads headed up to the sky I meant it. These gargantuan storm clouds loomed above us.  The sun blasted out from behind them forming these strange rainbow edges. It was celestial! I've never seen anything like it before and doubt I will again. These photos do not do it any justice.
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A model healthy village.

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At the end of the day we rolled in to Tha Lang Village and stayed at the Sabadee Guesthouse on the edge of the lake. It was run by the cheeriest of proprietors, Thoun Thoun. There was a bunch of locals getting rowdy on the karaoke machine when we got there. They got us involved, so we butchered a few songs before heading outside and playing pétanque.

If you stay at the Sabadee Guesthouse you must get up and watch the sunrise over the lake. it's not just the sunrise that you get to see, but you can hear the village spring to life as more and more longboats start their journeys.
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Day Two: Tha Lang to Laksao

The roads deteriorate severely after Tha Lang. It's about 60km or more of dirt, mud and rocks and parts of it are really steep. Don't expect to clock a fast time on this stretch. We were lucky as the previous day had been blisteringly hot so a lot of the huge puddles had dried out a little. They still posed an obstacle.
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Just after posing for this stupid photo, I took quite a tumble. It was so dumb. I was taking a photo of Jenny (see below) and wheeled my bike backwards so I could get a better shot. I hadn't a clue how close I was to the edge of the road and I wheeled it backwards just a tad too far and rolled off down into a thorn bush in a ditch. Smashing work Alasdair.
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Approaching Laksao was like riding into a frontier town. It felt like the Wild West...
...except full of Asians. Let's call it the Wild East.

We didn't want to eat any more noodle soup. It was the only thing that we seemed to be eating, so we decided to be more adventurous. We hit up a restaurant on the main street. Nobody spoke English, we didn't speak Lao, so we had a look at all the dishes on offer and tried a few of them out. Some of them were pretty good. There was one dish, which consisted of boiled eggs in a sweet cinnamon sauce that was up there on my top Asian dishes, but soon to follow were two of the worst dishes ever.

The first was a frog dish. Frog meat is fine, but diced frog meat is a pain in the arse to eat, all shards of tiny bones, pitiful scraps of meat and miniature frog hands poking out. You just have to try and crunch through it. It was cold too. I don't have a problem with cold meat, but when it is soggy it's no fun at all. However the worst factor was the overpowering fish paste. There was so much of the stuff I could taste little else.

But the pièce de resistance was this mystery dish below. It looked harmless. It looked inviting. Look at all those fresh herbs! Don't be fooled. It's a trap. What you are looking at is possibly the worst piece of cuisine I have ever consumed. It makes Korean hongeo (홍어) seem delightful. I'm not sure if it was the meat or the sauce or what that made it so bad, but it definitely smelled and tasted like something we are all very familiar with: feces. That's right. Shit. This dish tasted like shit. I know in Laos they use bile in cooking to add a bitter taste, but this was beyond bitter.  I've eaten a lot of organs and intestines in my time but none resembled this. It was repulsive to the core. It left my fingers smelling like dirty dental floss. About a week later at a rest stop on the way north I looked at a menu in English that might offer a clue as to what we may have eaten. It read "Deer Meat salad with liquid feces from the intestine". I rest my case.
Barf! But the restaurant did have a pretty kitsch calendar clock to keep us entertained.
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We took a few scenic detours for fun.
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David failed to capture the goat.
Looking into the valley towards Ban Khoun Kham.
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We took a detour up a mountain road and found this closed down mine, or is it the Dharma Initiative Laos Branch?
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I couldn't resist taking this photo. I'd been watching these dogs copulating for while. They'd been taking it in turns. It's actually two female dogs and one male. The male is the white one in the middle. He'd been poking it around both of them but I'm guessing he was young because he didn't seem to know what the hell he was doing. He'd just be humping away but not really getting anywhere. I think the older female was getting a bit annoyed as he seemed to prefer the younger bitch. Perhaps that's why she's trying wreck his mojo. Lucky Pierre!

Cows everywhere in Laos. They're more dangerous than the road vehicles and potholes combined.

Namsanam Waterfalls:

At Ban Khoun Kham we hired a guide to take us up to Namsanam Waterfalls. We wanted to do it alone but we were promptly told that wouldn't be possible. That turned out to be true. It's a 3km hike up to the waterfall and about 2km of that is dense jungle and it would be easy to get lost. The best thing about having a guide was having him clear the massive cobwebs on front of us. I HATE SPIDERS. He missed this one though...
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I'm not sure how big you might think this looks, but I can I assure you that it is the stuff nightmares are made from. This was the size of my outstretched hand. It was easily the biggest spider I've ever seen and it was dangling inches above our heads as slumped down and edged our way past it.

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Our guide. I've totally forgotten his name
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David zooms off towards Kong Lor past the rusty bridge and the Great Nipple Mountain.

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Kong Lor Caves:
We stayed at Chantha House, the first place we found as we rolled into the village after dusk. It's a really nice, clean guesthouse with some good communal areas for eating, drinking and sharing stories. It's just a couple of minutes ride from the caves.

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A little morning bromance.

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"Oh, my bum bag and life jacket match? Whoops"

See that cave right there? That's where we were heading. The Kong Lor cave is 7.5 km long and is pitch black except for one small section where you get out of the boats to view a room full of stalactites and stalagmites. They hire headlamps there, but they are pretty old and dull. Jenny used a little LED headlamp of her own and it was much more powerful. I forgot to bring mine. Bah!

They had a wide array of engines to choose from. I'm not sure how many of them actually work.

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Compare the headlamps and the dunces that sport them.
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The engine failed in the boat that Kevin and David rode in. That might explain the pile of engines at the mouth of the cave!
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The Kong Lor caves were spectacular. I loved every second of it. The river keeps winding through the mountain and we only saw one other boat with tourists on. The rest of them were locals who use the cave as a transport route through the mountain.

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After the caves we headed back to Tha Khaek. The landscape was amazing and the rounds twisted for some time, but eventually we had to hit highway 13 that runs the length of the country.

If you're in Laos, do this trip. You will not regret it.

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