You see many signs of the 25th Sea Games in Vientiane, quite confusing, as Laos is a land-locked country - until I realized that SEA stands for South East Asian. Outside the capital are the various venues, in fact quite attractive stadiums, not too big for this country – built by the Chinese for the 2009 tournament, in return of who knows what, probably another logging concession or land rights.
Further Chinese initiatives include a Bullit train from Kunming in Yunan via Vientiane to Bangkok. The marketing slogan is “turning Laos from land-locked to land-linked” (a euphemism, according to one of our friends here, for super highway). I wonder how Francois Garnier would have reacted to this plan. Garnier was the driving force behind a French expedition in the 1860s, which set out from Phnom Penh trying to prove the economic potential of the Mekong as major trade route in and out of China, and thus the strategic importance of Laos for France. The expedition makes for interesting reading, but quite quickly proved that the trading concept was a non-starter, due to the many rapids and the highly variable water level of the river with the seasons in general, and the falls near the Cambodian-Laotian border in particular. Despite the expedition’s failure the French incorporated Laos anyhow, in their Indochina empire, for the colony never to return a profit.
We left Vientiane around lunch time, and arrived in Tha Kaek at the end of the afternoon, just in time for the sunset over the Mekong. The trip was not particularly interesting, passing through quite boring, dry and dusty landscape – this is what happens in the dry season, when the rice paddies are empty -, but certainly comfortable, with our friends in an air-conditioned four-wheel drive. Tha Kaek is a small town, right across from Thailand, and it shows, in the activity level in town, in the attitude of the people, and in the availability of smuggled goods in the shops. As so many towns here, it was built by the French in the early 1900s, and the architecture, in the main square and along the streets, reflects this. The most pleasant place is the boulevard along the river, where terraces serve soft drinks and Beer Lao, but also Thai whisky – not that much better than its Lao variant. Regrettably, no gin and tonic…
(1, 2) French colonial architecture at the central square in Tha Kaek
(3) and the terraces along the Mekong, with limited choice only, (4) OK, they serve roasted crickets, but how are you going to swallow that without G&T?
Next day, after a short stroll through town, we departed for Champasak, further south along the Mekong, once again a fairly boring but comfortable drive, with a lunch stop in Savannakhet. This is Lao’s second biggest town, after Vientiane, but apart from the occasional French colonial building, and an excellent French restaurant, there is not much character here. So, on to Champasak, which is on the east side of the Mekong, involving transfer by a small ferry boat that requires a leap of faith, especially when it gets dark at night. We survived the crossing, and soon after arrived in our hotel, where, thanks to a sharp purchasing policy implemented immediately after the Tha Kaek experience, we were now entirely self-sufficient when it came to the gin and tonics.
(5) The ferry across the mighty Mekong River…..
(6) Mighty it is.