Stray - Thakek to Xe ChamphoneSeptember 13, 2015 in Laos
The puddles from the overnight rain reflected our early departure from Thakek. On the roads there was a noticeable military presence (men in camouflage jackets, chain smoking by the roadside or riding scooters with AK47s slung over their backs) due to a governmental conference but otherwise life appeared to carry on as normal.
Once at Xe Champhone we ate lunch at a small restaurant run by a tall poker-faced ladyboy. From the road there was nothing to distinguish it from an ordinary home but inside we ate large flavoursome stir-fries and soups. It was the sustenance we would need, as in Keo's words we would be going 'off the beaten track' for the afternoon. This meant once again taking a bone-shattering ride in the back of a tuk tuk along rain scarred dirt roads to explore the local wetlands.
Our first stop was at Turtle Lake, which holds soft-shelled turtles revered as sacred by the locals. Walking out along a wooden pier, we beckoned them across the water to feed on small pieces of bread held out on wooden sticks. The turtles craned their necks upward and clamped down with their powerful jaws to pull the bread away. We also managed to get one to climb up onto the bank to feed and witness the full extent of its shell.
Before leaving the lake our driver sought to repair his tuk tuk, it's engine and chassis complaining from the beating dealt by the road. After some heavy hammering and Lao swearing under the engine block we were on our way.
We next stopped at the ruins of Wat Taleow, a temple bombed during the 'Secret War', where its golden Buddha somehow survived the blasts that decimated much of the structure. Scars from flying shrapnel still splattered the decaying walls and the ground was pock-marked with black craters, where unexploded ordinances had been detonated by the clearance teams we had learnt about at the COPE Centre in Vientiane. This area was close to the Ho Chi Minh trail so experienced particularly high levels of bombing. Keo explained how it became too dangerous for the locals to be outside or cook on fires during the day. When planes were heard overheard everyone ran into the jungle for cover.
We then stopped at the 200-year old Hotay Pidok Buddhist library, a wooden stilt structure high above a waterbed, which houses ancient Sanskrit scriptures. Kim and the other females of our group having to dress in silk sarongs due to reverence of the site. Small aged Lao women smiling and complimenting their 'Farlang' beauty as they assist them into their attire.
We ducked into the library's small confines, accompanied by a novice monk who quietly observed us with thoughtful eyes on a broad face, his saffron robes draped around him. The musty smells of ageing wood and fabric hung in the air as dust swirled on beams of sunlight shooting through the roof.
Our final stop was at 'Monkey Forest', where along a sandy track between tall trees we found a family of wild rhesus macaque monkeys. We hand-fed them bananas, which we had purchased at a road-side market that morning. With lightening speed they took individual bananas, peeled back and dropped the skin to blitz the fruit into their mouths, all the while maintaining a wide eyed awareness of their immediate surroundings.
After hours of having our bodies rattled, jolted and smashed, it was with grim determination that we hung onto the tuk tuk's rusting metal caging on our way back to the hostel. It's wheels kicking up a red mist off the road whilst the sun cast long shadows amongst the waving lines of the rice paddies. Once returned we had just enough energy to get some dinner and shower the road off us before falling gratefully into bed.Read more