Thakaek, I never really got a good vibe from this city. It has a lot of potential along the riverside and the old architecture suggests it may once have been a grand location but it now seems as though not many people are interested in it. The town is usually used as a staging area for those wanting to ride “The Loop” – a few hundred kilometre loop heading up and over a plateau and through some of the most beautiful natural scenery Laos has to offer. Parts of the road aren’t paved yet which only adds to the adventure! Other than that it seems there’s not much more to Thakaek from a traveller’s point of view.
After spending some time chatting to the very well informed Vientiane tourist office we found out there was in fact a direct bus from Vientiane to the little town of Kong Lor and hence the Konglor Cave. The bus leaves the Southern Terminal in Vientiane at 10am everyday.
Our bus made a few informal stops along the way sometimes to pick up passengers, other times let some ladies on the bus selling boiled sweetcorn or green papaya sticks with dipping spices. Or simply just to let everyone out (ladies included) to pee in the bushes next to the road. As you do on long bus journeys in Laos.
We arrived in Kong Lor just as the sun was setting behind the limestone mountains that cut across the landscape in which we found ourselves between 2 of these un-scalable fortress walls. The bus drops you off outside a clean cheap guest-house in town (which is tiny by the way). We’d read that there are local families that offer homestays in the town of Kong Lor but with all the new looking guest-houses along the road we weren’t too sure of finding one nearby and after the long journey we decided to take the easy route and check in to the guest-house.
Making our way down to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, we weren’t quite sure what to expect but with a population of only around 240,000 people it has a very easy going vibe that we were happily drawn to. We also figured that while we were there we’d apply for longer tourist visa for Thailand that could only be done outside of Thailand. This gave us a couple days to explore this quiet capital and enjoy some chill time along the beautiful riverside promenade.
We visited the COPE visitor centre in Vientiane with a very brief understanding of what it was about but after spending a couple hours in the exhibits and movie rooms I walked out of there with deep sense of sadness for what happened in Laos all those years ago.
So I did a little more research to try find out a bit more about why Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history!
A brief description of their organisation as taken from the COPE website;
“Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, otherwise known as COPE, is a locally run non-profit organisation working with the Centre of Medical Rehabilitation (CMR), Lao Ministry of Health and four provincial rehabilitation centres in an innovative partnership to provide comprehensive rehabilitation services for Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) survivors and other people with disabilities across Lao PDR.
COPE and CMR together are currently the only provider of prosthetic, orthotic and rehabilitation services in Laos.”
When they mention Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) they mean the little bombs or sub-munitions (bombies) that are packed together into larger bombs that make up Cluster Bombs. UXOs also include unexploded large bombs, rockets, grenades, artillery munitions, mortars and land-mines but it’s the bombies that are the real problem. Roughly 30% of the bombies in every cluster bomb don’t explode on impact and embed themselves into the ground which, years later, can still explode if someone stands on it, knocks it or lights a fire near to it.
After spending a month in Thailand then heading into Laos we knew we would be going back to stay in Thailand for more than a couple months so we figured it’ll be best to apply for a longer visa than the regular “30 days on arrival” you usually get when entering the country.
This meant applying for a Double Entry 60-day Tourist Visa. This visa can only be obtained outside of Thailand and, for us, the easiest place to get it was in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
LP has become one of the must see destinations in Laos for its ancient traditions, beautiful riverside location and UNESCO protected old colonial style housing in and around some glittering temples. This together with the colourful markets and beautiful natural countryside makes the critics absolutely right!
One of the main “Attractions” that Luang Prabang has become famous for is the Tak Bat or Morning Alms giving ceremony. This takes place every morning as the local Laotian people wake up before sunrise to prepare food for the Monks. Around 6am, just as the sun comes up, the saffron-robed monks come out from their temples in single file, from oldest to youngest, to walk along the streets where the locals then give them food (mostly sticky rice) and other gifts, such as incense. This is a sacred and important part of the Buddhist lifestyle and national culture of Theravada Buddhist states such as Laos and Thailand.
By preparing food for the monks, the lay people seek spiritual blessing by way of the monk’s acceptance of their offering. The whole ritual is done in silence as the monks walk in a meditative state and the alms givers respect this by not disturbing the monk’s meditation.
There are 33 temples in and around the old town and nearly 80 altogether in Luang Prabang so this makes for a lot of monks walking around.
Unfortunately, in Luang Prabang this sacred ritual has become a bit a circus!