Monsoon forests, secret caves, and turquoise pools

Trip Start May 01, 2010
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Trip End Apr 30, 2011


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Where I stayed
Phu Hin Bun National Park

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Khammouan,
Thursday, December 9, 2010

From Vang Vieng we travelled south to Vientiane, probably the world’s most laid back capital. Idling along the banks of the Mekong with wide tree lined boulevards and lots of glittering Wats, it’s a nice place to wander around. We only had one day here though before moving on to Tha Khaek further south, our base for a two day trek into the Phu Hin Bun National Park.

We arrived at Tha Khaek in the early evening after travelling on a bus with ‘King of Bus’ written in large letters on the front! We checked into Phoukhanna Guesthouse only later realising it had a karaoke bar attached so we spent the next two nights being lulled (or not) to sleep by Thai tourists thinking they were the next pop idol! Tha Khaek itself is a quiet, dusty place where not much seems to happen. We had one day here before our trek and wandered down to the Mekong where we had a great lunch of barbecued fish and papaya salad from a street vendor.

The next morning we were met by our guide, a friendly twenty year old lad called Phet who spoke good English. We took a tuk-tuk for one hour into the National Park and stopped at a small village where we met our other guide, also a young lad from the village. Together we walked through a gorgeous landscape of craggy limestone hills, fields and monsoon forest containing plenty of large hardwood trees such as teak and large stands of bamboo. Protected since 1993 and covering 1580 square kilometres, Phu Hin Bun is home to endangered langurs, elephants, deer and a handful of tigers. We explored a couple of caves in the morning, turning our torchlight off when we were deep inside to experience the blackest black you will ever see. It’s amazing how quiet it is inside caves and you get a sense of the ancientness of the rocks around you and the great spans of time it must have taken for the geology to form.

For our lunch stop we stopped by another cave which had a deep turquoise river running out of its wide mouth. This beautiful place is actually a resurgence, the water springing up from out of the floor inside the cave. Readers will know by now that we are rather keen on immersing ourselves whenever there is a suitable body of water, so within minutes of arriving we had stripped off into our swimming gear and spent the next hour swimming down the river and into the cave itself which was a novel and wonderful experience. When we got out we found that lunch was ready and feasted on grilled fish, sticky rice and bamboo salad. Mmmm mmmmmmmmm!

In the afternoon, we crossed a dry landscape with small trees that resembled African savannah, which is apparently completely underwater in the rainy season. Then we entered another cave. This one was a vast tunnel of a few hundred metres, open at both ends with a dark river flowing through it. We paddled in the river and clambered over large boulders to reach the other end where there was a large gold Buddha. Out the other end, we looked back and saw we had passed under a large limestone hill. From there we continued for a few more hours until we reached a small village of wood and bamboo houses, with the usual collection of pigs, cows, dogs, cats and chickens wandering freely around. This was to be our home for the night.

We were staying in a simple building specially built for trekkers with a wooden veranda where we sat as the sun went down. After a good dinner of rice and veggies, some of the villagers gathered around on our veranda and welcomed us to their village with a Buddhist Baci ceremony. This involves a Pha Kwan, which is an arrangement consisting of a bowl from the top of which sprouts a cone of banana leaves, flowers and cotton threads. Around the base are bananas, sticky rice and biscuits. The villagers took it in turns to tie the cotton threads around our wrists while wishing us happiness, long life and good health. After each thread was tied we ate some of the food and drank a shot of potent Lao Lao. We felt very honoured and touched to be given such a warm genuine welcome.

The next day we set off early and walked through monsoon forest and then rice paddies to another village where we stopped for lunch. Then we jumped on the back of a unique form of transport that we have seen all over Laos and also in Burma; a tractor engine pulling a wooden cart. We bumped along a track soon arriving at a swimming spot whose beauty even surpassed the previous day's. Known as Khoun Kong Leng, it is a small lake as turquoize as is possible, surrounded by thick greenery. A sacred Buddhist spot, it too is a resurgence or spring. As with everywhere on this trek, we had this beautiful, tranquil place all to ourselves. After thirty minutes or so we reluctantly left and continued our journey by tractor engine. We walked the final two kilometres to our tuk tuk pick up point and felt sad as we left the park boundaries and whizzed back to Tha Khaek.
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