Tha Khaek: Throw away your guidebook

While the guidebook says it’s called Sikhot Hotel, the sign out the front says it’s Soksoomboon Guesthouse. While the guidebook says it’s housed in a former police station from the French era, the guesthouse manager insists the building was formerly used by petty government officials. We’ve just arrived in Tha Khaek, the capital of Laos’s Khammuan Province – and we’re throwing away our guidebook.

Shown to our room in the cheaper, motel-style section of the guesthouse, we settle comfortably into our socialist version of art deco splendour: functional wooden furniture, fluorescent lights, luscious red terry towelling bedspread, and the piece de resistance: a naked blue light bulb over the bed. For 15 000 kip a night (US$6) it will do fine.

We escape the luxury for an afternoon wander around Tha Khaek’s centre, and are surprised by the peaceful, somnolent atmosphere. In fact, it’s laid back to the point of being almost ghost-townish, with a dry fountain forming the focal point of the square where only a handful of people roam aimlessly. In the cool of the green canopy of trees lining several of the criss-crossed main streets, the odd tuk tuk putters past, motorcycles zip efficiently along and bicycles glide by, riders turning their heads in curiosity. Few falangs, or westerners, stop here.

The eclectic mix of architecture we observe is due to the influences of various cultures over the decades. Although once an outpost of the Funan empire, the town was largely constructed during the French colonial period. Along with the stuccoed buildings, the French have left behind a substantial Christian population. It’s a surprise to see the cross of a Christian church among the town’s Buddhist wats.

Before the Pathet Lao took over in 1975, the population of the town was, some estimates claim, up to 85 per cent Vietnamese. They mingled with Thais from across the Mekong who frequented the town to gamble and trade—and with economic reform in full swing, the Thais are now returning in larger numbers than ever before.

With so many traders passing through Tha Khaek these days, it’s a shame they have such an arduous task at hand when it’s time for dinner—even if you can ask for your favourite dishes in Lao, there aren’t too many places to oblige you. The Kulaap Daeng (Red Rose) Restaurant has a menu in English of Lao, Thai and Chinese food, and although the MSG doses here can be especially generous, the selection is good. On the other hand, if you’re keen for noodle soup, there are a variety of stalls along the Mekong, while the fresh produce market has an excellent selection of tropical fruit.

Following a night spent listening to the cover band playing in the night club next door to our guesthouse, we ask a tuk tuk driver to take us to the collection of caves within limestone outcrops to the east of town. We settle on a price of 15 000 kip (US$6) and begin the bumpy 18 kilometre ride to the farthest of the caves, Tham Nang Aen. We only have to get out of the tuk tuk a few times to push it.

Despite still being early morning, the humidity is becoming stifling, so it’s a great relief to get to the first cave. It features a cool breeze flowing from within, justifying its popularity as a weekend destination for Laotians who just can’t take anymore of the heat. A wooden resthouse is currently being constructed at the entrance, and there’s a 2000k entrance fee. Inside the impressively-sized cave staircases with odd twists and turns take trippers to the more interesting formations. Green, pink, yellow and blue fluorescent lights tucked away in corners throw the limestone into funky relief, and a smoke machine wouldn’t be too out of place.

On our way out, the driver points out an array of cages to the left of the cave entrance. Inside are a number of deer, an intelligent monkey who poses obligingly for the camera, and a slumbering porcupine—all part of the entertainment for weekend-tripping Laos? There doesn’t seem to be any other explanation. We hope that some of the entrance fee is going towards improving the animal’s conditions.

Our next stop is at Tham Pha Xang, a large cave leading on to an open-air turquoise pond and further, inaccessible caves. A multitude of small bats roost on the cool roof, squealing ominously but keeping their distance. There’s also a small Buddha shrine: our tuk tuk driver lights candles, perhaps we irreverently think, requesting that his tuk tuk make it all the way back to town.

A surprise destination follows. The tuk tuk breaks down again and our driver waves us along the road ahead. We discover a small, emerald-green river, and can’t work out where the cave we’re expecting is. Are we meant to swim across? The driver catches up to us and explains that we’re at Tha Falang, or French Pier, a spot the French colonialists used to come to relax at. We strip off our money belts and dive in wearing our Lao swimmers—that is, our clothes. Our driver plunges in after us.

By the time we walk the 30 metres back to the tuk tuk, we’re literally steaming in the heat. Back on the road, we dodge dopey-looking cows and seesawing goats. Finally, we stop at Tham Pha Ban Tham, more of an overhang than a cave, where a Buddha shrine is located. It’s surrounded by prayer flags, burnt joss sticks and browning banana-leaf and flower arrangements, probably leftovers from Lao New Year celebrated a fortnight before our visit.

We’re hot, thirsty and hallucinating about an afternoon sipping Bia Lao, or Lao Beer, by the river, but our driver offers to also take us to Wat Pha That Si Khotabong, eight kilometres over the other side of town. We accept. One of the more important wats in the country—hard to pick from the overgrown grass surrounding it—the nineteenth century sim is supposed to feature a revered Buddha. As the sim is firmly locked when we arrive, we have to be satisfied with walking around the perimeter and examining the unusual thaat, also highly revered, which features a gilded lotus catching the glare of the afternoon sun.

Back in town, there’s not too much left to do besides make our hallucinations a reality, and while away the afternoon watching the boats amble by.

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