Saturday, May 9, 2009

From Vientiane to Pakse, Southern Laos

Pakse is 700+ km away from Vinetiane. Although we could reach Pakse, capital of Campasak Province, in a day, we decided to break our journey either in Tha Khaek or Savannakhet, depending on traffic condition and what we could do along the way.

We had an early breakfast and left Day Inn Hotel around 8 am. Although we filled up the tank at Nong Khai, we noticed that there were less petrol stations in Laos than Thailand. We used GPS to locate nearest petrol station with familiar names like Shell, Caltax, Esso.. Shell station was the fist that came our way. We asked the pump attendant which pump was 95. Obviously we had a problem as we asked in English and she responded in Laos. There were only two types of pumps at the station, black and the other red. The black was for diesel and the red one said “regular”. We figured out that if “regular” was of lower octane value, we could add additive to boost it. So, we decided to fill up our tank and to monitor the performance of the car.

Highway 13 linked Vientiane to the south. Traffic going out of Vientiane was heavy due to widening of Highway 13 to two lanes in each direction. This was a positive sign that the economy of Laos is growing. Once we got out of the city, traffic to the south was light. Even though it was single lane, we could over take with ease.

However, since our car is right-hand drive, the driver could not see the oncoming traffic unless the car vie out against the traffic. Therefore, the co-driver played an important role here. We developed a SOP (standard operation procedure) that the co-driver must be equally alert and not allowed to nap so that he would be able to call out the oncoming traffic condition. Only when the call was “clear” or “go” would the driver overtake. In general, I was impressed with the condition of Highway 13 and it was fun and easy to travel as the traffic wasn't heavy outside of Vientiane.

When we were About 80 Km out of Vientiane, we saw many temporary tents scattered in a open field. There was a stage with rows of chairs neatly laid out, something like our Pasar Malam night market or “Wayang” outing where food, games and clothes stalls gathered at one location. We decided to take a break and made contribution to the local economy. We wondered through the stalls. I took a picture of a child whose parents had a stall. sing our portable setup, we made a print and gave it to him. The mom asked him to give Neo Chian and I a flying kiss and he did. He made our day! We left the bazaar with a sense of achievement. . Neo Chian wanted to go for durian at Nong Khai but we could not find the stall we saw. However there was a fruit stall selling durians. We debated on what would be a good durian. I was told irregular shape is better than round. So, we selected one and it was 28,000 Kips (SGD 6). The stall owner was surprised when we requested him to open the durian on the spot. He obliged. Using his “parang”, he chopped it open. I thought durian sellers in Singapore have a more efficient way of opening durian, We forgot this was Thai durian and that it should be kept for a couple of days. The durian was dry (unripe) and we did not enjoy it.

We decided to stop at Tha Khaek for lunch. Tha Khaek is a border crossing town along Mekong river to Thailand by boat. Boats traveled in both directions regularly. You could cross the Mekong and clear immigration after the boat landings, We drove to the river front near Fountain Square. After we parked the car, we walked along the river looking for food. We saw a restaurant at the corner of Central Square and decided to try our luck. The people at the next table had some kind of curry. With sign language, we pointed to that. The lady boss understood us immediately. She flipped open the covers of couple of pots and showed us a few. Neo Chian was happy when he saw egg and pork cooked in soy sauce. We knew we were not in for any surprise. We ordered egg and pork, salted vegetable with pork, Bean curd with vegetable soup and steamed sticky rice. The sticky rice was in a bamboo container. This container sat on top of a pot with boiling water. The steam from the pot rose through the rice and kept it warmed. We even captured the steam in our picture. We ordered two portions of sticky rice. The boss's wife held two bamboo in one hand. She used a pair of chopstick in the other hand to scoop up the rice into the bamboo containers. She was so skilful that one scoop filled one container. This was all over in less than five seconds. Knowing that we were not locals, the boss came over and offered something in a plate. On second look, I realized that it was some kind of insect. Out of courtesy, I picked up one piece and ate it. It was crispy like eating small deep fried shrimp with its shell intact. The boss smiled and walked away. Would I take it again? I don’t mind it but would not ask for it.

We pressed on to Savannakhet. By then, we had traveled about 340 Km. Neo Chian asked “where would be good location for nice hotel?” While we were looking for the hotel in Lonely Planet, I drove into a one-way street in the wrong direction, Luckily there was no policeman and secondly, the traffic was light. No one signaled us that we were in wrong direction. We turned off
quickly into the next street. We saw this beautiful, new resort and spa hotel. We figured it was low season and negotiated a good deal, USD50 for a twin room with River view, with breakfast
and one hour foot massage included. We watched sunset in the swimming pool. Sunset was so beautiful. I took a picture of the guardhouse at the hotel entrance. It was made with solid wood and looked very stylish.

For dinner, we went to river boat at Mekong river. On the recommendation of our friendly hotel supervisor, we ordered Spicy Papaya Salad, Fried Chicken and omelette. Spicy Papaya was spicy. It had strong taste of chinchalok. It came with a plate of vegetable. Neo Chian and I could not figure how to eat the vegetable. Finally, the waitress told us to take a piece of leaf and wrap the papaya or put both together in the mouth.

Next morning, we decided to have some fun and went fishing at Mekong river. AsNeo Chian showed me his Qi Gong and I showed him how to cast the rod. We spent one hour and caught no fish. The big achievement was “We fished at Mekong river!”. We left at 10 am. and continued on Highway 13 to Pakse..

At lunch time, we passed through a small town that had so many stalls selling grilled chicken. We went into one shop, ordered two bowls of beef noodles and a grilled chicken. It looked like the chicken has been pre-cook somewhere else. When customer makes order, the hawker then heats the chicken over a slow charcoal fire.

We arrived Pakse in late afternoon. After some negotiation, we managed to secure a twin room for USD48, from the usual price of USD58. After checking in, we did our SOP by having a beer at the rooftop bar garden where we were welcomed by a charming waitress.

After a beer, we took a walk to the town center opposite the hotel.

The market place was crowded with vegetable, fruits, pork sellers. We could not find this kind of market in Singapore anymore.

Guess what she was selling? This could be the Singapore Pools equivalent in Laos in couple of years. She was selling 4D! The piece of paper on the table captured the 4D number bet placed by customer. Then she wrote a ticket and gave it to the customer.

Again, we took a short walk to the Mekong river and captured a couple sof unset pictures at Pakse.

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