Almost before we staggered up the last steps, three little girls held out bundles containing incense sticks, a flower and candle to make an offering at the Kwan Yin Buddha altar at the entrance to the cave. Though cute, they were very pushy, trying to push the packages into our hands. We had to say a few firm “bo, khawp jai”s (no thank you) before they gave up and let us pass. Inside, it became very evident why we had to pay so much more to enter this cave. Electric lights illuminated every corner and passage. Lots of well formed paths, steps complete with handrails, as well as a few bridges made walking around and exploring easy. The cave itself had a few nice limestone formations. One path lead deep inside around various interesting pillars and formations and then ended at what looked like a cave in. Another path lead around and through to the other side of the karst to another opening. The view from up here afforded an even broader aspect of the surrounding countryside with patchwork rice paddies and distant rolling hills.
Back at the gate at the bottom of the stairway, there was another little temple with a large bronze Buddha statue. Far from being ancient, this looked only a few years old, with modern tiled floor and plaster clad walls. Smoking sticks of incense were placed at the offering table. Unlike the jungle shrine, this little temple was visited frequently and recently. Having already made my offering back up at the cave, I just walked by with a quick closing of hands, clearing of thoughts, and bow of my head.
Retracing our steps, we walked quickly back towards town. By now, it was approaching midday, and that burning Laos sun was really stinging my bare skin. Not to mention we’d finished the last of the water when we came down those stairs. We zigzagged along, finding every overhanging tree or structure casting any shadow to escape the sun. It didn’t feel so far on the way out as it did now on the way back. We were hot, tired, not to mention parched, and hunger was getting into the mix. When we came to ‘The Elephant Crossing’ hotel, we took one look at each other, and without saying a word, we simultaneously headed directly to the restaurant with renewed energy. Actually, we nearly booked this hotel when I was researching staying in Vang Vieng. But I had too many good recommendations on TripAdvisor for the Vansana, and now seeing, it I was happy with our choice. Not that it didn’t look nice, which it did, but the car park and restaurant were between the hotel rooms and the river and I didn’t notice any balconies.
We headed off, now almost an hour after J and I were first picked up. A few kilometres out of town, we picked up a local older lady, with a younger girl and guy. They happily squeezed into the back seat. And now we were on our way. The road wasn’t too bad to start with, just few pot holes and bumps. But as we kept going, it got worse and worse. Ah well, at least it wasn’t windy. We stopped at a roadhouse for a toilet break, and many passengers bought drinks and snacks. I stayed on board while J had a cigarette, chatting with the backpackers and having some water. What I’d failed to notice was that I’d set down my water bottle without the cap being totally secured. So when poor J came back, his seat was completely wet from my carelessness. With a laugh, I told him that I’d cooled down his seat for him. The guy behind us had a good old laugh, seeing what had happened. So I did the right thing and offered to swap seats. But J, being so lovely, said not to worry and sat down in the sodden seat. Apparently, it was nice and cool, for the first five minutes... Thanks J :)
The trip to Vientiane was meant to take three or three and half hours. After our initial delays, and the bad state of the road, it took over four and a half hours for our trip. Over bad, bone jarring road, in an uncomfortable, crowded minivan, we did not find it a pleasant trip. I would go so far as to recommend catching the larger VIP busses – those big tyres were sure to offer better suspension and cushioning over the appalling road. By the time the bus finally stopped in the city, our backsides were numb, legs cramped from not being able to stretch out, and bodies ached from all the bouncing and jostling.
Looking around, we had no idea where we were. There was a sports field across the road, and nothing much around to help us orient ourselves and try to figure out the way. Once all the bags were unloaded, I tried to show the driver a note I’d printed with the address of where we were staying, which also had a little map. He said it was too far to walk. A few tuk-tuks had seen us all disembark from the mini bus with our luggage and had approached hoping to get a fare. Seeing us try to get directions from the bus driver, a tuk-tuk driver quickly yelled out, “I know, I know”, and lead us to his vehicle. Leaving J to haul the luggage into the back, I asked the driver how much it would be. 50,000 kip. No way. I was expecting it to be 20,000-30,000. So I told him 20, and we settled on 25. It felt bad haggling over what is only a few cents in Australia, but it was the principal, and I usually give a small tip - provided they were a good and safe driver. Turns out, our driver had us there in barely two minutes – it was that close – and he helped us get our luggage to the gate of the guesthouse as well as gave us a little map of the area. So I gave him 30,000 kip, and he gave us his card offering to take us anywhere in Vientiane; “Special rate for you”.
Auberge Sala Impeng guesthouse was a tiny property with 4 little chalets set in a tropical garden. It was just off the busy main road that ran along the river, but this little oasis made me feel like we were miles away in a jungle or something. Surrounding the guesthouse were local, suburban houses on a quiet little street. Instantly, I was happy I picked it. A lady from reception lead us to our chalet, the superior cottage, which was set apart from the others. A few steep, high stairs lead us into a darkened room, with a comfy big bed, air conditioning, and modern bathroom. Perfect. A quick change of clothes, splash of cool water on my face, and I was ready to explore this new city. With our little map in hand, we set off in search of beer, and to get our bearings, as the sun cast its last golden rays over the Mekong river. - k