Savannakhet is across the Mekong from the economic powerhouse that is Thailand, and on its banks every night you can drink delicious Beer-lao, one of the finest beers in the region, while looking across to the wealth of Thailand. It’s a stark contrast, perhaps the equivalent of staring from Albania across to the lights of Italy.
One of the many reasons for the disparate wealth between Thailand and Laos has to be the fact that between 1962 and 1970 the United States waged a secret war in Laos, dropping over two million bombs on a country they never officially went to war with. Laos still has one of the highest levels of mines and unexploded ordinance of any country in the world. All along the roads (if you could call them that – there are about 3 or 4 paved roads in the whole of the country!) there are grisly skull and cross bones signs warning of the dangers of going exploring – just as in neighbouring Cambodia, many people are still injured by explosions 30 years after the war that officially never happened.
Near Savannakhet, the town of Thakkek provides a hinterland of fascinating caves – hollows in impressive Karst mountains. These series of caves have served throughout Laotian history as places of Buddhist and Hindu worship, with strange shrines inside. For a couple of dollars a smiling daredevil tuk-tuk driver takes us on a day trip to see all the caves in the neighbourhood.
The first, Tham En, is huge, with stalactites and stalagmites, a cement staircase complete with a Cinderella balustrade and neon tube lighting in green, red, and white, which notwithstanding my partner Francesca’s Italian origins we find slightly tacky. It’s like a Disneyland disco in the halls of the mountain kings, and is a popular outing for partying locals.
Tha Falang is a beautiful spot by the river, with not a cave in sight, and apparently a place much favoured by the French colonialists (who according to Lewis viewed Laos as a decadent shangri-la retreat) – hence the name Falang very loosely translated as pale faced devils, meaning us.
Tham Pha In feels more remote, and is a shrine to the Hindu God Indra, whose reflection can apparently be seen in the rock pools inside the cave. It has a serene, magical, mystical air to it. I’m in the process of re-evaluating city life, consumerism, and the woes of the world, when Francesca’s voice calls me back, without explanation, and just the slightest hint of panic. Taking a breath, preparing to grumble, I step back just in time to catch a glimpse of a very, very large snake indeed, high above our heads but still above! It wriggles away sharpish, instinctively detecting my Irish origins (St Patrick was Welsh though, Francesca points out, stickler for historical accuracy).
Reptile cameos and unexploded ordinance put a slight dampener on our enthusiasm to explore hidden nooks and crannies, but the final cave on the tour is superb. Than Ban Tham is just outside a small village where children run up shouting Sabaidee [Hello], bursting with giggles and curiosity. The cave is huge, h
ousing bats and buddhas aplenty, along with the odd Hindu deity. These caves were used both by the Pathet-Lao [Laos’s communist insurgents who eventually siezed power in 1974, thanks in no small part to the savage bombing of the country by the American forces], and local townspeople as a refuge from bombing.
Normally arriving in the capital or largest city of any country isan anxious moment, having to deal with traffic, chaos, large population etc. Vientiane, pronounced by the locals as the distinctinctly un-french Viang Chan, is the size of a small market town (Population est. 140,000), if even. There’s a main square with a fountain, which gets switched on randomly for an hour or two every day. There are one or two roads with guesthouses and restauraunts, none of which would qualify for bustling or busy – the rest is unpaved dusty roads, small houses and the odd big temple. In fact the temples are the defining thing about Vientiane. On our road alone there were four main Buddhist Wats. These were like compounds including the main temple, highly decorated with statues of the Buddha in every concievable position, and the barracks for the monks and minor chapels and stupas – bell shaped structures containing ashes of the patrons or meritable. Buddhism is strong in Laos: most young men join a monastery for a stage, and most of them seem to want to practice their English. We sit for a half an hour in the sunshine with Lai, a novice of about 15 years of age. He’s charming and a delight to talk to. He’s much amused by our western ways. The fact that we travel together and aren’t married is curious to him – contact between the sexes in Laos is well regulated, and monks can’t have any bodily contact with a woman, let alone go gallivanting around with one! He speaks to us about his classes in school and mentions ethics – we realise only later that he means Marxist-Leninism classes. The communist Government tried to close down the temples but met such popular opposition that it relented but demanded that all monks study Das Kapital. He tells us we only need love, not money, for all the world like a spotty teenage buddha. He would say that, mind you, seeing as he depends on the community for all his meals (only two a day, no food after 12 o’clock – only liquid, “sometimes I drink Pepsi” he guiltily admits). He seems terribly young for such a spartan existence – he giggles a lot, which seems to be a constant with most of the novice monks we meet – and seems happy with his lot. The spartan existence provides him with a roof over his head and an education which in Laos terms isn’t bad at all.
Vang Vieng is a phenomena. A tiny village, where the backpackers outnumber the locals by 3 to 1. It’s pretty, and its location beside a river and with similar Karst mountains to Thakkek make it even more beautiful – but in many ways this town now has more infrastructure and facilities than the capital. Imagine a tiny town in the middle of your own country that suddenly gets the thumbs up from backpackers around the world, the word spreads and the town is innundated with tourists – a bonanza occurs. Here there are palatial guest houses, numerous restauraunts, internet cafes and bars blasting out western music (alright, truth be told they only had one Doors album repeatedly played over) in the middle of nowhere! It’s hedonistic fun, true, but impact free tourism it’s not, and it’s the only place in the whole of Laos where we meet hustle from the local people, competing to be the biggest, bestest guest house or restauraunt. On the periphery of the bars on the river furtive looking men whisper about marijuana and opium, and for a second it looks like the Garden of Eden, after the apple.