After four days on Don Khon, we are thoroughly chilled out. Before we leave, the owner of our hotel gives us yellow bracelets for good luck in our travels. We need it, as the guidebook is full of doom and gloom about Laotian buses.
Our destination is Tha Khaek, because the guidebook describes it as the perfect base for visiting the Kong Lor Cave. This turns out to be something of an exaggeration. Anyway, the yellow bracelets work their magic and we arrive in Tha Khaek three hours early, which is practically unheard of.
Tha Khaek turns out to be 200km away from Kong Lor. Our hotel offers transport in the form of a minivan for one million kip. Even before I do the conversion in my head, this sounds an awful lot. So, flushed with success from are smooth journey from Don Khon, we decide to get there by local bus instead. It looks like it’s going to be a bit of a mission, requiring three buses and then hopefully being able to locate a tuk-tuk to take us the last 20km or so.
The first bus is the easy bit as we just go to the bus station and get the next bus heading towards Vientiane. It’s pretty busy and in addition to all the main seats being filled, they squeeze in a further 24 people sitting on little plastic stools and another 10 standing. Mr Beet and I are on plastic stools near some monks. The monks are a bonus, as I think their presence means we are spared the usual in-bus entertainment of videos of girls dancing in hotpants with lots of close-ups of their crotches.
After two hours we get off at the junction we need. The aisle of the bus is full of people on plastic stools and nobody gets off to let us out, so we just have to climb over everybody. Barging skills learned on the Beijing tube come in handy here.
We are apprehensive about how long we will have to wait before we can pick up a bus heading East, but we need not have worried as as soon as we step off the bus a sawng thaew (pick-up truck) driver asks where we are heading. We give the name of the village that marks the next stage in our journey and he tells us to hop in. To our eyes, the sawng thaew looks full, but we are learning that the concept of “full” on Laotian transport is a very elastic one, if it exists at all, so on we squeeze.
Indeed, after five minutes or so we pick up even more passengers. One old man takes a shine to Mr Beet and does not let the language barrier stop him trying to have a conversation. Initially, one of the other passengers translates his questions. We tell him where we come from, but he looks confused and asks, through his interpreter, “same country?” as he points at my tanned leg and Mr Beet’s pale one.
After this point, our interpreter excuses himself from further participation in the conversation, explaining that the old man has had a lot of rice wine. The old man does not let this discourage him and he continues to interrogate Mr Beet using the “English Person Abroad” method of speaking increasingly slowly and loudly. Mr Beet stubbornly refuses to spontaneously understand Laotian however, and given some of the gestures from the old man and the embarrassed expressions of the other passengers, I’m glad we can’t understand what’s going on. Just like the women on the boat in Kratie he seems fascinated by Mr Beet’s legs and keeps stroking his knee.
After an hour or so we arrive and the village of Ban Na Hin. We are expecting to hitch a ride on another sawng thaew from here, but there’s a tourist minibus just about to head off which takes us straight to Kong Lor.
Bus – 60,000 kip
Sawng thaew – 50,000 kip
Minibus – 50,000 kip
Yellow bracelets – priceless