24th - 27th January 2012
As previously mentioned, the Vietnam new year or Tết, means I have to wait until the 30th before I can get a visa allowing entry into their country. With this unavoidable obstacle in my way, I therefore had a week burning a hole in my pocket and after weighing up my options, decided to make tracks down south to investigate the riverside city of Savannakhet for a few days. Savannakhet is actually the second largest city in Laos after Vientiane, although you would hardly know it from the quiet often deserted streets which connect this sleepy city together. The way of life here is extremely laid back and an amusing sign summed the city's and indeed the country's outlook towards life perfectly - 'remember this is Lao P.D.R. (People Democratic Republic) - Please Don't Rush - no one else is.' On the overnight sleeper bus down from Vientiane I got chatting to a Finnish couple whose names were Ilari and Hanna and subsequently we have spent the past few days exploring this peaceful city together. Hanna is in the middle of a SIX year psychology course - the normal length of a degree in Finland apparently - and Ilari has just finished his mandatory sentence in the Finnish army, now returning to his studies which had been halted by this national law. On one of the days spent in this lazy riverside town, we hired some bicycles with the intention of going to visit a monkey forest that was on the 'things to do in Savannakhet' poster, which had been plastered to the wall outside the small tourism office in the central square. After being told that it would be a MILLION! kip to hire a tuk tuk for the return journey - as it was too far away to cycle - we made new plans to follow a cycle route which looped out into the countryside north of the city passing by the Dong Natad forest, That Ing Hang temple and Bungva lake before returning to town from the east. With the route mapped out and supplies for the journey purchased, we set off at about midday under the glare of an oppressive sun which raged fiercely over our heads. The road was mercifully flat and we barelled along on the main highway out of town and after cycling for about 45 minutes reached the police box which we had been told to take a right turn at. After a few more kilometres we saw the sign for Dong Natad and turned off into the forest. As concrete gave way to dirt, we approached an archway of trees that welcomed us into the shade, which came as a great relief, as during the last hour the sun had grown in intensity. Entering the protected area we cycled along narrow paths littered with fallen leaves and tree roots which had broken through the forest floor. The sun, although restricted from entering this peaceful sanctuary, still sent ribbons of light through the trees which were refracted endlessly by vibrantly green leaves. We cycled along these dusty paths for about 20mins before reaching a break in the trees which revealed the Nong Lom lake that nestled at it's center. Thousands of reeds jutted through the surface of this tranquil lake and we stopped by the waters edge to cool down and rest, enjoying the total silence which muted the area. Only the chirping of birds and the gentle whistle of the wind through the leaves broke the serenity of this most peaceful setting.
Turning back, as we wanted to fit in all the sights along the route before sundown, we returned to the main road and cycled on until we reached That Ing Hang; stopping awhile to enjoy a cold Beer Lao in the park which spread across the road from the temple. By this time, the late afternoon hours were dragging the sun from it's lofty throne in the sky; diminishing it's strength minute by minute, so we quickly set off again in the hope of being able to watch sundown from the shore of Bungva lake. Sipping on my beer, I approached a congregation of ladies who were selling their BBQ'd chicken snacks by the side of the road in order to ask directions for the lake, as the simplified map that had been given to us back at the tourist office was very basic. With the correct road signaled by a wave of hands, I returned to my bike, smiling to myself as I heard 'farang' being cackled behind me in gossip - a tell-tale sign that they were making some light hearted joke about the silly red headed foreigner on a pink bike. Setting off in what we hoped was the right direction and with my bike failing to keep it's chain on the back sprocket - requiring continuous reattachment - we finally came to a sign for Bungva lake and so headed off down the dusty path which led to the shoreline. Cycling through the village which lay before the lake, crowds of ecstatic children ran out from their houses to enthusiastically greet us, yelling 'SABAI DI!!!!' at the top of their voices; while their elders simply smiled and waved from wooden porches. Nearing the water, to our surprise we were greeted by a restuarant bar which had set up shop on the bank of this vast lake. It consisted of a series of about twenty thatch roofed huts which lined the shoreline. The lady who was working there, greeted us with a broad welcoming smile and rolled out some groundmats in the hut we chose down by the water. A tray containing three Beer Laos and a bucket of ice was then delivered to our hut and I spent the next hour or so enjoying the setting with my new found Finnish friends under the orange glow of a fading sun. While in Vietnam, Ilari and purchased a Chinese set and sitting back in our hut he attempted to teach me the rules which I struggled with greatly. The game differs from actual chess in that a river runs down the middle of the board which certain pieces can't cross. In addition a castle area exists on either side from which the King cannot leave. The hardest thing about the game is learning the functions of each piece, as they are only differentiated by the Chinese symbols that mark them which to my untrained eyes all look very similar. Following my swift defeat, I went and sat on a log by the waters edge where my fascination with sunsets was once again indulged, as the golden time piece in the sky performed yet another fantastic closing ceremony in an explosion of colour, using the lake as its final resting place. A fisherman collected his net from the water in front of our hut which was by this point, bathed in the glorious orange glow of a dying sun. Birds swarmed over the lake, while dragon flies danced on it's surface bewitched by the colours it emitted from it's dark depths. Finishing our beers as the sun sank from view; the day ended and the journey back into town was made in almost total darkness. Luckily Ilari had a head torch which lit the potholed roads as we glided back towards Savannakhet; eventually to be greeted by street lights that welcomed us back after a long day in the countryside.
|French colonial rule is reflected in the architecture of the old quarter. Many of the buildings are now unfortunately in a bad state of disrepair.|
|The location of Savannakhet.|
|I'm going to start putting up photographs of things that just catch my eye and have no real meaning. Thought this fence was pretty cool, not sure why.|
|Some boats moored down by the Mekong.|
|The sunset on my first night in Savannakhet.|
|Cycling through the Dong Natad forest.|
|Nong Lom lake.|
|That Ing Hang. Been awhile since I've seen a temple......oh wait, scratch that, I can see one out of the window of this internet cafe! They're bloody everywhere!|
|The huts which dotted Bungva lake.|
|Hanna, Ilari and Me.|
|The baffling Chinese chess board.|
|The sunset over Bungva.|