SABAIDEE!

All the days and cities are starting to blur together. I just spent 5 minutes trying to remember what the name of the city I was in for the past two days was called. But I remembered. Thakaek. So I took the bus from Pakse early in the morning. I talked with a few backpackers that had just arrived for a few minutes then chatted with a guy originally from Laos but who fled when the communists took over and lives in Texas now. He was just visiting. So then it was onto the bus toward a town called Thakaek. It was a pretty uneventful, although beautiful, bus ride except for when the bus almost caught on fire. We smelled smoke and they stopped the bus and ran to the cargo container and pulled out a smoking blanket with a big burning hole in it. From what I gather, they left the cargo light on and the heat burned a hole in the blanket.

“Okay, okay! No problem, we have diesel petrol. No explosion. Back in the bus!”

Who knew?

So I arrived in Thakaek on time and there was a whole lot of nothing to do there but walk around. Their claim to fame is a huge limestone mountain range and caves in the jungle so my plan was to rent a motorbike the next day and check it out. I spent the evening observing the people in the town, got invited to an old man’s son’s wedding (which I didn’t have the clothes for and so I didn’t go) and spent the rest of the evening having dinner and beer with an English couple and talked about our experiences in SE Asia. The next morning, I got up, rented a motorbike (a tiny little moped, actually) and set off into the jungle. I had a handwritten photocopied map of the area and it was quite a challenge to navigate as the map had a tendency to change scale from 1 inch = 100 meters to 1 inch = 10 kilometers without warning. There were also no road signs. So I just took every path that looked like it was well ridden and did a bit of trekking and then ended up where I wanted to go. According to my map, there was a cave at the end of this long road past a few villages, but a guy I spoke with told me it was too far. But I had nothing better to do, so I went. I had to cross a river (on my little motorbike), navigate through the jungle (on my little motorbike), ride over a 15k sand road (pushing my little motorbike) and I eventually saw people after about an hour. Some guys, in the middle of nowhere, were doing some sort of construction. So I got out and showed them the map. One of them spoke a few words of English and told me they were building a school. The first village was a few kilometers down the road. I kept going and eventually arrived. There wasn’t much to this village except a bunch of huts and kids playing around (oh yeah, and a village well) and so I cruised right through, waving to all the little kids. “SABAIDEE!” (hello!) they yelled. “SABAIDEE!” I yelled right back. The kids here are awesome. So I drove through that village and after another 30 mins, arrived at the next. Same thing. When I got to the last village, I asked some people sitting around about the cave and they pointed at the mountain. Apparently I had to stay on the road and it would curve around. When I got into the village, I came across about 40 people sitting around watching some guys build something with wood in the road. Seeing as they were blocking the road, I had to stop too.

Everyone stared at me.

“SABAIDEE! Pachon cave?” I asked.

An old man just stared at me. Then pointed. So off I went. That was awkward…

I eventually found the cave after parking my motorbike in the middle of a dried out rice field (noting carefully where so I would lose it). What a beautiful area this was. Take a look at the pics, I’m sure you’ll agree. Limestone mountains tower above you in huge layered lumps and the mountain sides are dotted with caves. Dried out rice paddies (which I assume they only use in the wet season) stretch out as far as you can see and little grass roof houses filled with hay dot the landscape. The cool breezes from hidden caves provide natural air conditioning as the mountain cooled and musty cave-air sweeps over the your body on its way out. It was an incredible hike.

So I finished with that, and then it was time to navigate back to the main road, a good 30 miles back. The road is murderously unmaintained a too much of it leads to an incredibly sore ass. The bike wasn’t powerful in the slightest and as such, I had to help it the majority of the way. I’m surprised I didn’t get even a single flat tire. Shoot, I’m surprised the motorbike didn’t explode!

On the way back, all the little kids in the all the villages knew I had to come back on that road and so they all waited for me in the city. As I drove by, in huge groups, they all waved and smiled, ran after me and yelled “SABAIDEE!!” Even the old ladies waved. It was really cool. The next 30 miles back were filled with impressive views of the limestone valleys, rivers and streams with women bathing and naked little kids playing in them, rice fields, water buffalo and cows with babies and, of course, dust. Lots of it. It was interesting to see that these little villages had electricity. There was a lone wire leading out to them along side the dirt road (yes, just one wire, like a long extension cord). No Internet either. Jesus.

Back on the main road, I visited a few more caves, snapped a few pics of the area as the sun set (it gets really red and beautiful) and then headed back to the town. I went and visited Ahe, a guy my age who runs a restaurant and we chatted for a while about Laos and his pet rooster (which he takes to work with him). He liked to fight it and cock fighting is an incredibly popular thing here. You see what people are reduced to when they have no Internet?? There was actually no Internet in the whole town and I asked Ahe about that. He said they used to have it, but no one used it and there aren’t many tourists in the town so they closed it. Fair enough.

I spent the evening reading my book from my hammock which I tied to two trees at the hotel (I carry around my own hammock) and then went to bed early. This morning I caught the bus to Vientienne and now here I am. There’s not much to do here, even though it’s a capital city so I think I’ll move on tomorrow to Vang Vien.

Laos is a really interesting place. It is communist, and you see commie flags everywhere but like all “communist” countries here, it’s not really. It’s democracy-less capitalism with a dictatorship. It’s funny how all these counties tried to whole “communist” revolution thing and realized that it just didn’t work and quietly adopted capitalism again.

Another thing about Laos is that everyone has a fire going somewhere. Whether it be the side of the street, the forest, the backyard, or the restaurant, someone’s always burning something. I’ve seen this quite a bit in SE Asia, but it’s particularly common here. There also aren’t as any stray dogs as I thought there would be. South America was filled with them. They were everywhere – and even the capital cities were plagued with them! Here I see hardly any and I wonder what the difference is. The few that you do see look like they are about ready to die of starvation. It’s quite sad.

So anyways, not much more to report.

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