Saturday, January 3, 2015

And thus into Laos--from Stung Treng to Savannakhet

Written from Savannakhet, Laos on the 3rd of January 2015.  Weather today on the road from Pakse (the first city in Laos northbound) was fine and warm to hot by mid day (cool to start, but that's fine). There were clouds in the south behind us and a few puffy white things ahead.  A quarrelsome head or side wind kept the bike on edge all day but didn't really bother us much.

Crossing from Cambodia to Laos at their only land border gate has changed.  I came that way my first time through the two countries. . .what. . .six years ago.  Then you had to have your Lao visa in hand (bought it in Phnom Penh that time) and the two frontier offices were two wooden shacks a hundred yards apart, with a dirt road between.  It was a sunday so I paid a little for overtime at both shacks, but not much, and romped on to the north.  Now. . .how things have changed.  The Cambodians are within weeks of finishing a very pretty, very showy, almost pagoda-like structure to complement the "toll booths" they presently operate from.  It will totally overshadow the Lao side when it's finished, but the Lao side too is a good sized office building, nicely done, and well organized.  Altogether, it was a pleasant crossing, though I'm pretty sure the Cambodian officers overcharged me. . .including a $10 customs clearance for the little horse, though she hadn't cleared customs inbound.  The youngster (it said "trainee" on his name tag) assured me the Lao side would send me back to get it if I didn't have it when  I got there.  So. . .anyway, close to $45 poorer, I rode out into Laos, but with all the paperwork perfectly in place.  I'm prepared to argue with any policeman I meet.  However, after today, when all the gentleman asked was where I was going. . ."Hanoi on that bike???" and how much I'd paid for it. . .then we shook hands and I rode off into the north.  Not much as checkpoints go!  His English was American Midwest good. . .who knows??

Speaking of pagodas, I stopped at two today, both small and out in the country in small towns, but still quite nice.  The Lao pagodas are different in several ways from the Khmer.  Most notably, the actual praying part of the compound seems to usually be a small (if very ornamental) building, often locked closed when not in use.  For Khmer pagodas I normally just take off my shoes and walk right in.  When you can get inside, it seems the Lao pagodas have a much more austere interior, without the wall to wall (and ceiling included) murals of the life of Buddha. . .rather a demure band of paintings and photographs around the perimeter.  Certainly I've not made a study of the matter, but that's my impression.  Both Khmer and Lao pagodas are well guarded by fierce dragons (the Khmer by "nagas" actually, a snake-dragon with a whole bunch of cobra heads.  The Lao might use either a multi-headed naga or a very similar creature with a single fearsome dragon head..  I have to find someone to explain to me the relationship of ferocious dragons with a saint like the Buddha.  It escapes me.

But back to border crossings. . .on the Cambodian side, the road was brand new, basically unused and the countryside was empty for the 60 km north from Stung Treng.  In fact, that trip, the road across the big bridge over the Kong Kong river was blocked with a barrier pole chained at both ends.  Local folks had taken the matter in hand and blocked one end of it up so that a typical Honda Dream could be scootched under if you got off or leaned way over.  I was riding an old Minsk that trip and had to get off and lay the bike almost entirely on her side to get her under.  But we got under and went.  The world is changed.  cars, trucks and motorbikes are back and forth across the bridge all the time, running out into the hinterlands north of the bridge, where communes and villages have sprouted up and all manner of homes and farmsteads are settled in.  It's a dry upland setting (okay, I've only ever been here in the dry season, so what do I know?)  but it's not anywhere you'd try to go rice.  There are any number of other crops though, and you can herd cattle among the scrubby woods.  People are making a life anyway.  There's essentially no industry in the area but I did visit a little home-done pre-cast concrete plant where they were busy making lots of big water jars. . .really big, as in 3' tall and nearly that wide.  Everybody has a couple parked under a downspout to catch roof water when it does rain.  Demand must be steady, they were making them in batches.

The road though, brand new six years ago, is in pretty tough shape.  This is an example of why we have inspection on construction projects.  It looks as though the spec called for 1.5" of asphalt, whatever that is in cm . .2.54 x 1.5  call it a 4 cm specification.  That's not a lot of asphalt even over a really well compacted base, but if your base is a couple of cm high here and there that only leaves a thin skin of black paving, and it can't last.  It didn't.  Sigh.  So the folks along there eat a lot of dust and people on little motor bikes slow down.  It's not the dirt and stone that slows you down, it's the impact when you come to what's left of the 4cm pavement. . .like a 4cm tall rim rock above a softer cliff face. . .hard on tires and springs when you hit it very hard.

That's the Cambodian side.  On the Lao side they're showing off.  There's not a ripple or a tear in that road surface forever, it seems. . .not until you get to Pakse.

But before you get to Pakse you must stop at the falls!!  Be alert after you get through the border crossing and loose into Laos, it's only a few kilometers north to the turnoff--on your left, of course, the river is on your left, and will be for a long time now, though rarely in view. Here I go again.  When last I saw the falls. . .I know, six years ago, and things change. . .you just rode your bike up to the little restaurant and parking area and overlook structure, got off, took your photos, said hi to anybody who spoke English, got on your bike and left.  Sigh.  It's still worth seeing mind you, unless you just don't care for majestic natural spectacles, but now you stop and pay 55,000 kip (about $8) per head to get in.  Guards, docents, cashiers, parking lot attendants, huge families from Thailand and Japan, kids selling photos (good photos actually) of high water events or large flocks of birds or. . .that sort of thing.  One real benefit (not worth the 55,000 kip mind you, bu still) one real benefit, as I was saying, is somebody has built a pretty good table top model that lets you take in the situation at a glance.  What you're looking at is just one of several channels the river has been forced into by the solid mass of rock that blocks its course.  So, that volume of water, impressive as it is, isn't really the whole river. . .you'd need a helicopter to see it all at once, or buy the DVD no doubt.  then on to Pakse before dark. . .easy, but don't stall too long.

What to say about Pakse??  It just isn't a place I've learned to like yet, so I don't hang around, and oddly enough, having moved on I don't find anything to like.  The biggest problem with Pakse (that I know of) is that the highway has been torn up all along the edge of town (the town center is off to your left as you come in from the south. . .down toward the river).  It's been torn up a full year I know of personally, but it had been torn up before I got there last year and it's still torn up today.  It's getting a lot closer now, they may finish in another six months or so. . .but my gosh it's a mess and hard to get through. Besides the torn up highway, which will no doubt be lovely bye and bye, the town seems to turn its back on the river.  It has a nice convenient bridge to get across on, so doesn't need a ferry landing any more, and with the highway and the trucks and cars, no need for river freight, and the banks are really high and steep (probably a really good thing when the river rises), so they aren't inviting for a walk along the bank, and anyway, property development has taken the whole thing.  I managed this trip to get a look at the river by pretending I was interested in a room in a luxury resort. . ."Paradise du Mekhong", spelled that way.  French I think, though I didn't know they put the h in Mekong.  Actually, you DO say it that way, slightly aspirated. . .It was a lovely view up and down the river, which is a very impressive sight, even bereft of ferries and freighters.  At $85 for a private balcony vip room with river view. . .I didn't stay.  Anyway, Pakse has a busy and modern (sort of) down town center where I was able to get all the help I needed to get my fancy new smartphone talking to the internet again (access changes every time you cross a border),

The room  in Pakse (this might be something to like actually) was a pretty nice place in a funny sort of way.  It was larger than many more expensive rooms and sparkling clean (you for darn sure want to remember to take your shoes off when you go inside in Laos, it's really bad manners to forget).  The toilet room was fair sized and included hot water and it was a nice mattress and pillow. . .but the "window" was just 4 squares of obscure glass block let into the wall high up.  That was it.  But. . .it was cool in the late afternoon  when the parking lot outside was baking.  You stepped inside, closed the door, turned up the lights and fan and. . .it was really a nice, quiet nest.  There was a serious wedding going on just down the block, with the requisite heavy duty sound system and a karaoke machine (or were those professional singers and a keyboard player??) Anyway, it was loud outside and quiet inside. . .all for $10.  Oh, and supper was on a street corner nearby, including conversation in Vietnamese.  Fun.  The only people more amazed to find a white guy speaking Vietnamese in Viet Nam are Vietnamese expats in Laos or Cambodia. . .they're always blown away, even with my limited vocabulary.

Aside from the guest house and the phone card and sim, I didn't bother the locals much the evening I got here, that seemed like enough.  This morning though I needed to find a gas station and a mechanic to change the oil (we just went through 5000 km for the trip so far. . .and at least 2000 to go in the next two weeks.  I need to keep moving).   We still got away pretty reasonably, just before 0900 full of gas and fresh oil and an intriguing breakfast.  The Lao people eat sticky rice.  I knew that, but it's still something to get used to for a while.  You roll a bit into a ball between your right hand fingers and maybe dip it in some sort of hot or salty or hot and salty sauce and pop it in your mouth and chew and chew and finally get it down.  Couple that with a chicken wing or a few baked stirred eggs. . .and coffee.  They do coffee here like I remember it from Bien Hoa in 1971. . .boiling water in a pot with a cotton "sock" full of coffee grounds.  The coffee in the sock gets changed, the boiling water gets poured in with the new coffee and the whole batch just blends with whatever was left in the pot a minute ago.  Works well, and a lot faster than the Vietnamese torture-by-delay style drip coffee makers that guarantee cold coffee. . eventually.  Mind you, I love Vietnamese Cafe Fin, but. . .sometimes you just want to get on the road.  This morning there was no delay on account of the coffee.  Chewing the sticky rice. . .another matter entirely.

The road northbound from Pakse to Savannakhet is pleasant.  It's not spectacular (other than the fact that it is totally flawless, without blemish or scar) and there are no mountains or waterfalls to delight the eye.  Rather, it's a prosperous countryside full of interesting homes and villages.  For a while I was convinced the Lao people from about 100 km north of the border on were getting their houses down out of the air and off their stilts.  It must have been just a local thing though, as the day wore on today I continued to see lots of "khmer" style homes on stilts (for no apparent reason, unless the local giraffes are man eaters).  There was a lovely lunch to be eaten somewhere about halfway between the two places and a not unreasonable amount of giggling between the mom and grown daughter as they pretended to be flumgusted by the foreigner. . .very pleasant people and good food.  Sticky rice again (get used to it, that's the future for the next week or so) and. . .another chicken leg and a bottle of something called "Double Black" which is a sweetened (white) soy milk that's nowhere as sweet as say Mexican Horchata, but otherwise similar.  So why "Double Black"??  Don't know.

 I did stop to watch a gang of people load a very reluctant cow into the back of a small truck.  She had long since decided she wasn't going to participate.  She lay down and stopped and stayed put.  Eventually they rounded up enough people to bodily pick her up and put her in the truck.  She rolled herself upright then and looked around, still unwilling to go along with it all but she didn't bolt.  She had several scrapes showing a bit of blood on her tan hide, but she'll be fine in her new place I'm sure.  She was a breeding age heifer in good condition, so I think nobody meant her any harm, she just got bought.

And thus, after a year's absence, into Savannakhet, which is one of my favorite places along this trail.  It's a Mekong town too, but it lines its rive bank with outdoor eating and drinking spots, all bright colors and friendly people and lovely smells from the charcoal.  There's actually a dock and real boats (big, ugly steel canoes really, with big long tail motors) real boats though, tie up and look for customers.  The town parallels the river for quite a ways and kind of spreads randomly out into the countryside on a few different arterials.  It has too many one way streets, but they don't shoot you if you miss one (the signage is good, some people are just a little stupid or preoccupied or whatever and it WAS a 2-way street up to then. . .).   But other than that. . .several comfortable guest houses, of which I've formed a favorite the past two trips. . .but there are good guest houses all over.  So what else. . .racing canoes in the pagodas (I measured them all last trip and won't again, but I note that one of the pagodas has one up for major repairs. . .will have a look at that.) and there are several pagodas to choose from, so a good fleet.  There is one of the best massage facilities on the whole route.  I always have a sore back by this point in the trip, so that's a wonderful thing!  And finally, there's the night street of takeaway food!!  That's enough to make the place famous all of itself.  It takes up a whole block of double-wide sidewalk. . .20 or 30 women and 2 or 3 men. . .cooking and selling all sorts of things for about  sixty two and a half cents a serving (except for the grilled and bbq meat. . .more like $1.25 per serving).  Sticky rice of course, and perfectly acceptable che (Vietnamese dessert).  You carry your prizes away in separate little plastic bags closed with an amazing knot in a rubber band (how do they do that so fast and tight??)  and carry it back to your hotel (mine is carefully chosen to be close by) and borrow a bowl and spoon the hotel has waiting for just such a need. . .and have a wonderful dinner.  Yes.  That's a good enough reason to come to Savannakhet, especially if you're passing through anyway.  Oh, if you get the stuffed cabbage, be aware that this is not Polish style stuffed cabbage.  For one thing, the meat is coarsely chopped not ground, and came from a chewy part of the pig.  But that's minor. There's no tomato sauce, but that's okay too.  The main point is the hot.  Hot hot.  Be ready.  These are not your grandmother's cabbage rolls.  But they sure are good.

The bridge headed north to the border is wide open now, though six years ago you had to lay your bike on its side to get under the barrier poles.  

The take-apart interior mold for making big water jars.  The outer shape is obtained with a single thin cut-out that is rotated around and around the form as you add mortar.  Very interesting.

The finished jars.  Every home has a couple at least, under downspouts.

A small part of the Mekong going over the falls.  The French built a railway to carry freight between the Cambodian and Lao segments of the river.  

Downstream from the falls

He who dies with the most Bougainvillea

A pair of Nagas guarding the steps to a Pagoda (I drove up the access road, had enough stairs for now).  This blows my theory about single-versus many-headed dragons.  The Lao are beset by both kinds!

In witness whereof, here's another from the same pagoda.  Both in Laos.

A Lao pagoda, though still ornate, is much more austere than the Khmer pagodas with their all-walls and the whole ceiling in murals.  Here, at most, a band of  murals (and photos sometimes) around the walls.

I vote for the savior that pulls you out of the crocodile infested sea while your boat sinks.  Not bad.

I'm sure I've missed similar representations, but this is the first I recall seeing of mermaids guarding a pagoda.

He'll no doubt turn out all sorts of green and red and gold before he's finished, but I really like a gray dragon. . .

This architecture is still basically an elevated home on stilts, but the downstairs has been closed in and the evolution toward a ground-based house is well along.. . . .a porch, for example.  

I stopped to visit with the carpenters erecting column forms on concrete footings a couple of feet down in the ground.  The mixed-on-site concrete is scary soupy. . .and the columns are small.  I hope it's not a tall house.

God bless all tire repair shops.

A very typical Lao style temple. . .of the small sort.  They are normally locked and I've never been inside one.

The little horse waiting patiently in the sun while I make up my mind.  Settled on the chicken leg and sticky rice.  Excellent!

And this is a very ordinary roadside restaurant kitchen, complete with cook.  Her young daughter disappeared when the camera came out.  Sigh.

A purely ground-based house, no history of stilts here!  And they are totally unafraid of color!

A young cow who did not want to make the big move.  It took a real crew to get her in the truck!

Southern Lao rice paddy in the dry season. . .Mekong river bottom land, seems to be a very productive region.

Good night fron Savannakhet, sun setting into Thailand across the Mekong.