Lak Sao: Road to nowhere

If the world was flat, this town would surely be at the very edge of it. A tumbleweed or two blowing past wouldn’t be out of place, while a bar with wagon wheels adorning the facade would fit right in. It’s dusty and blisteringly hot; it’s full of ancient trucks, noisy tuktuks and disabled buses; the folorn thatched shops skirting the main square sell meagre odds and ends; and there’s a kid spraying a chicken to death with insect repellant right under my nose. This is Lak Sao. We console ourselves with the impressive limestone mountains in the distance.

‘Lak Sao is very beautiful!’ a Luang Prabang resident had told us. ‘Oh, you must visit Lak Sao,’ the men we met in Pakxane had insisted.

We’d heard only intriguing snippets about Laos’s Lak Sao, located in eastern Bolikhamsai province. Our guidebook describes it as being the ‘development’ project of a company called Phattanakhet Phu Doi, headed by a Lao general. The company is meant to have transformed Lak Sao from a sleepy village into a thriving metropolis (for Laos!) of 24 000 people. The guidebook also writes that the market is renowned for the sale of wildlife, some of it endangered.

Christopher Kremmer, in his travelogue Stalking the Elephant Kings, mentions Lak Sao when discussing the growing power of the army in Laos. A company based there and headed by General Chang Sayavong, he writes, employs a large number of the town’s population in ‘agriculture, forestry, building, infrastructure, handicrafts processing, tourism and, allegedly, cattle smuggling’. Kremmer writes that the General was meant to have started a zoo staffed by foreign experts, ‘constantly replenished with wild animals fleeing his company’s own logging activities’.

As if that wasn’t enough to make us curious, George Negus covered Lak Sao for Foreign Correspdondent! We had to see for ourselves.

Arriving at Tha Khaek’s outer bus station in the liquid-gold light of morning, the colours of the hand-painted Isuzu truck-buses are intensified, and the produce and wares for sale in the sprawling market next door take on magical hues. The bus to Lak Sao leaves at eight, but we’ve long since learned that in Laos you need to be on the bus in your seat at least an hour before it leaves to be sure of getting a seat at all.

With time to spare, we take a seat at a stall for a cup of kafeh thong, freshly brewed Lao coffee. As the stallholder stokes the fire, we watch the madness escalate. Rooves are loaded, tuk-tuks skidding to a halt spew forth scarve-cladded women clutching babies, whole families zip by on motor scooters and people queue to buy baguettes stuffed with meat, cucumber and chilli sauce. A steamed bun vendor pushes his bike past, tooting his horn loudly.

Armed with water and baguettes, we find our bus and claim seats with legroom more suited to Western infants than adults. Space is further reduced when a few boxes of fish sauce are shoved under our feet. The roof is being piled high with everything from baskets of live chickens and electric fans—we count fifteen boxes on their way up—to saucepans and sun-dried tobacco.

The rope tying all the cargo groans and creaks so ominously as we depart that at first I think it’s the roof caving in. We stop every hundred metres or so out of town to collect more people and soon we’re sitting six to rows meant for four. We don’t panic, however, as it’s only 90 kilometres to Nam Thone, the turn off to Lak Sao. Then, according to the very name Lak Sao which means ‘Kilometre Twenty’, we have just another twenty kilometres to go.

We pick up more people at the turnoff, and the bus becomes crowded, even for Laos. An hour passes. And another. An old woman two seats in front is spitting betel nut juice out the window, and great flecks of it are flying back on to my face and arm. There’s a sudden muffled thump followed by squawking; a basket of chickens has of course fallen off the roof. We back up, throw it back onto the roof and continue on our way.

The road is quite good, we pass numerous trucks hauling logs each at least the girth of a fat man’s waist, and still we push on. Then it dawns on my partner: the Kilometre Twenty Lak Sao derives its name from must refer to its location twenty kilometres from the Vietnamese border, not twenty kilometres from the Nam Thone turnoff.

Another few hours pass, during which if I hold my breath, crank my neck and stick my head out the window, the scenery is really quite lovely, with spectacular jagged mountains covered in primary-growth forest punctuating the distance. Finally, when I’m very close to throwing the boxes of fish sauce out the window after shifting my legs around them for seven continuous hours, we rumble into Lak Sao.

We carefully unfold our limbs and gingerly crawl out of the bus to wait for our luggage. The chickens are first off the roof, the fallen basket containing some rather stiff bodies. This is where the curious kid with a can of insect repellant takes particular notice of one chicken clearly struggling for breath. He sprays its head and it immediately keels over in possibly a kinder death than it was otherwise facing.

A tuk tuk takes us to Lak Sao’s sole hotel, the Phu Doi, located two kilometres from the bus station and market area. If you could get further from the middle of nowhere than where we had just been, then this would be it. It’s a spectacular example of bad architceture, but for a reasonable 10 000 kip we have a room with a fan, complimentary water and soap, and a share bathroom.

Twilight arrives early in Lak Sao, with the mountains to the west eating the sun by 5pm. Narrowly avoiding scores of flying bugs, we eventually make our way to the thatched reception hut where we ask the attendant about the possibility of hiring motorcycles. ‘Baw dai!—It’s not possible!’ he replies, and he knows nothing about a zoo, either. I flick the menacing cockroach crawling across his collar off in a gesture of goodwill before leaving anyway.

We’re the only patrons in the hotel’s restaurant for dinner until a tour group of eight destined for Vietnam arrives a little later. The English menu features ‘baked scaly anteater’, ‘sour lionsnake soup’ and ‘wild bleeding boar’ along with French champagne, Italian red wine or Australian Swan Beer. While wondering if I should take my feminism as far as ‘male cooked in hot ash’, the local Lao guide leading the group saunters over to say hello.

‘Have you come from Vietnam?’ he inquires.

‘No,’ we reply.

‘Oh, so you’re heading there tomorrow!’ he says.

‘No, we’ve just come to see Lak Sao.’ He’s speechless, so we explain about wanting to see the general’s operations, the zoo and the market. The penny drops and he shakes his head.

‘Oh! The General has been de-posted!’ he exclaims. ‘I think perhaps he cut down too many trees!’ He explains that the zoo has been closed, and the government has largely taken over other operations. He offers us a ride back to Nam Thone in his otherwise empty airconditioned mini-bus tomorrow. We accept, incredulous at such luck.

The following morning we’re up with the sun to take a walk to the market and around town. After fortifying ourselves with karfeh thong and stuffed baguettes, we wander through the open-air aisles, taken aback by the array of vegetables for sale, and the especially fine colours of the women’s pha nungs, or embroidered skirts. A baby monkey in a thatched cage chatters when we stop for a peek, and some lizards lie out on display. That’s apparently it for the wildlife, unless you’re in the know, we presume. As the market appears to be town, we retire back to our hotel.

Heading back to Nam Thone by minibus later in the day, we actually get a chance to see all the amazing scenery we missed on the way up. It’s spectacular, and we’re viewing it in air conditioned comfort—but somehow we find ourselves missing the squawking chickens, the scent of dried chillies and tobacco, and the wind in our faces.

Information
Currency: US$1=2500 kip. Baht is also usually accepted.
Visas: Are available from Laotian embassies for 30 days.
Getting There: Thai Airways flies daily to Vientiane from Bangkok for 6745 baht return. Several buses leave Vientiane and pass through Tha Khaek daily. The bus to Lak Sao leaves from Tha Khaek at eight am. The ride costs 6000 kip.
When to go: The Laos is pleasant to visit during the dry period from November to May. Although days are hot, temperatures can drop to 15 degrees Celsius at night, so do take warm clothing.

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