Tuesday, January 25, 2011


After our short stay in Vientiane, we headed south to a town called Thakhek. On the bus ride down, the bus got a flat tire, which delayed us for quite awhile. However, that flat tire ended up making our trip to Thakhek incredibly awesome. While we were waiting around for the bus to get fixed, a local girl who was on the bus came and talked with us for awhile. She was really friendly and offered to help us find a place to stay in Thakhek. Even better, she knew a German guy living in Thakhek who explores caves in the countryside and who could take us to some places outside the main tourist routes. Needless to say, we were very interested, so we agreed to meet up again the next day.

Rather Garish Bus with a Flat Tire

After a breakfast of noodle soup, we met up with Soy (the Laotian girl) and DC (the German guy). We chatted with them about some potential trips to do in the area. Most people come to Thakhek for "the Loop," which is a 3-4 day motorbike trip around the countryside. We were originally planning to do the Loop as well, but after talking with DC, we decided to skip the loop and have him take us to some more interesting places.

We rented some motorbikes for the trip and prepared to set off. Phil and I both didn't have much experience riding motorbikes, so we decided to do an easier stretch of riding for the first day. We thought it was pretty funny that they let us rent the bikes with a mere $7.50 deposit and an ID card, when we were clearly inexperienced and a little out of control when we pulled away from the bike shop. However, we got the hang of things quickly and the bikes were pretty easy to ride.

That first day we checked out a few of the nearby caves. The first was the Buddha Cave, which was the only touristy cave we went to and was by far the least exciting. After that, we trusted DC's advice that most of the tourist caves were relatively uninteresting, whereas the ones he knew about were really cool and less visited.

Pool near Entrance of Cave 

 Soy, Our Trusty Laotian Friend

DC and Soy near Cave Entrance

The insides of the caves were pretty impressive. Some of the caves DC knew about were only discovered recently, so we were pretty lucky to see them. Several would have some Buddhist sculptures nearby or just inside the entrances, but deeper inside the caves it would be completely untouched and pitch black. Some of the caves had interesting rock formations that you could go and see up close. One of the caves was extremely deep and even DC didn't know how far into the mountain it went. We probably walked in a mile or so through some huge caverns and narrow passages before turning back. 

Buddhist Sculptures near Cave Entrance

Buddhist Sculptures Inside Cave

 Phil Inside Cave

Wes with Butt Cheeks Rock Formation

Besides the caves, riding around the countryside on motorbikes was spectacular. It was a lot of fun to drive through the rural areas, where friendly kids would shout "Sa Bai Dee" or hello as you passed by. The rice paddies, green fields, and mountains were really impressive and it was great to just sit back and cruise through the beautiful landscapes.

Rice Paddies

Countryside around Thakhek

Rocky Mountains

Karst Mountains like Yangshuo in China

Driving Around Countryside

Cruising through a Village

Hitting the Open Road

At the end of the first day, we caught a great sunset along the Mekong River from the main street in Thakhek. The street has some great places to relax after a hard day, grab a drink and some food, and then just kick back and enjoy the sunset.

Sunset over Mekong

The next day, we headed out again with DC and Soy to some caves further away in an area called Mahaxai. Since it was the rainy season, heavy rains during the night made the dirt roads really muddy, but that just made riding a motorbike through the countryside more fun. There were some pretty rough patches, but our bikes were pretty small and light, so we could get through them by going around through the trees or just gunning it through. 

Wes and the Mean Hog with a Basket on Front

Water Buffalo Cooling Off in Our Path

 Wes Demonstrating the Aftermath of Superior Driving Skills

Village Pit Stop

Local Kids Jumping Into River

The caves we went to the second day were equally as cool as the first day. We were really lucky to have met Soy on that bus ride so we could go with DC to some of these caves that no one else seemed to know about. As DC often mentioned, these caves weren't tourist caves with parts lit up inside and a set path through the cave. All we had was our headlamps and DC to guide us through. 

Practicing Meditation

Terraced Pools Inside Cave

Big Spider Inside Cave

After being hot and sweaty all day, we had dust stuck to our entire bodies from riding on the dirt roads, in addition to the filth from biking in the mud all day. We decided to go to a little waterfall to clean ourselves up a bit and cool off. Lacking any swimming suits, we had to strip down to our underwear, resulting in the graphic picture of me below.

 Phil, DC, and Wes

Phil, Soy, and Wes

Wes Swinging on Vine

After finishing up at the waterfall, we headed back to Thakhek. We had quite a ways to go and it started getting dark on our way back. There were some spectacular views with the sun going down on the drive back, but a storm was starting to roll in and we were worried about getting back safely, so unfortunately we had to go straight back without stopping. It was really too bad, because they really were some of the best views on the trip.

That night was our final night in Thakhek and with the properly named "DC Adventure Tours," so we met up with Soy and DC for a Laos-style hotpot dinner to celebrate the fun days we had. 

Laos Hot Pot with Meat Cooking on Hot Center and Soup on Sides 

The Crew

Thakhek was one of my favorite places on the trip. Sometimes you have to get lucky and meet some locals to have the best experience. We really appreciate Soy's friendliness and help during our time there. Hopefully someday I can repay all the kindness I've received during my travels.

On that note, here are two final random pictures from Thakhek:

Totaled Buses from Reckless Driving in Laos

Typical Laos Toilet: No flushing, just fill up a small bucket of water from a basin nearby and pour in toilet.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


After a bit of a break in the blog to finish up some school applications and a trip back to the US for Christmas, I'm back on the blog to try to finish up some posts about my trip to Southeast Asia (which finished about five months ago, not that I'm behind or a slow writer or anything).

Next up was Vientiane, the capitol of Laos. Vientiane was the only city we visited in Laos that was a more typical modern and relatively developed city. As such, there wasn't as much to do there and it was more of a midway point for us between northern and southern Laos.  There are a few interesting sites in the city, though, and it's a good place to recharge between treks.

The city is relatively walkable and you can see most of the sites in a day. One of the main things to see is Patuxai, which is somewhat of an unfinished knockoff of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It's pretty cool to check out and has one of the best views of the city from the top.

Wes at Patuxai 

Patuxai with Reflecting Pool 

View of Presidential Palace from Patuxai 

View of Vientiane from Patuxai

View of Vientiane from Patuxai

The main site in Vientiane is Pha That Luang, a Buddhist temple that is the Laos national symbol. It's basically a big, gold-colored temple, and is definitely impressive to see.

 Pha That Luang Courtyard

 Entrance to Pha That Luang

 Pha That Luang

Pha That Luang

On our route from the north part of Laos to the south, we kept running into the same people over and over again who were on the same route. We might do a trek or two with a group, go our separate ways, and then randomly see those people again in another city. Since most of the cities in Laos are one street towns it normally wasn't too surprising, but since Vientiane is a pretty big city, it was a surprise when we ran into several people we had met in places like Nong Khiaw and Vang Viang.

Bowling is a popular thing to do in Vientiane for some reason, so we decided to hit the lanes that night with some of the people we had met earlier in our trip. Even though the lanes and computers at the bowling alley seemed like they were several decades old, it was a lot of fun to mix things up and do something completely different than most of the other activities we were doing in Laos.

Bowling Laos-Style 

Make Benefit Glorious Laos Happy Bowling

Later that night as we were walking around the city, we happened upon a big public square where they were playing a World Cup game. During our whole trip it was surprising to see how interested Laotians were in the World Cup, even though they didn't have a team playing. They seemed to follow it pretty passionately and when the games were on, nearly every shop, restaurant, house, etc. would have the game playing. It was pretty cool to watch the game with the locals in the public square and eat some local food while doing so.

Watching World Cup

The next day, we checked out a morning market and walked around the city a bit before heading off to the next city on our trip. We had considered doing a cooking class to learn how to cook some of the basic Laos dishes, but it didn't work out. Cooking classes eluded us the entire trip somehow and we never did get to do one.

Interesting Dirty and Cramped Market 

Black Stupa

Local Transportation

While the stay in Vientiane was short, it was still pretty interesting and it's always good to see the capitol city of a country. Stay tuned as I finish up my posts about Laos and then on to Cambodia.