Jewel in the dust

So far we’ve avoided renting motorbikes. For one thing, we’ve been simply afraid and for another, worried we don’t have a motorbike license. Which, in fact, doesn’t amount to much in Asia. In Laos, without your own means of transportation, some interesting places can be difficult (read: expensive) to get to. The Laotians are calm and the roads empty. It was now or never. So, we gather our courage and walk across the yard of the guesthouse, to the rental agency. We make sure about the driver’s license: “In Lao no problem.” Marcin gets the hang of things (the trick is to trust the automatic clutch and NOT give throttle from the start) and off we go. I can finally feel the wind on my face, while the helmet, instead of a hat, is shielding me from the sun.

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Most visitors are drawn to the caves in the surrounding area but we’re after the country and the scenery. Dwarfed shrubbery, empty riverbeds and red dust everywhere are sure signs of the dry season. We take in the hairy mountains as we pass by herds of cattle. The animals in Laos seem to look after themselves. Small herds of cows, buffalo, goats and pigs roam around the villages and along the roads without human guidance.

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We visit two caves: one is uninspiring, with kitschy lights and concrete walkways, but the other is darker and wilder. We traverse over rocks and wade through water almost losing a shoe but making it to the other side. High walls and lush greenery surround us. There’s a pool in the middle and butterflies skitter in the air. A group of young folks made the area their own. Maybe they have a tent nearby and now they’re climbing the rocks. Looking at them – sunbathing, swimming, eating and taking turns at the rock-face, we feel envy. After four months of journey we thought we were pretty relaxed but now we’re faced with a new level of mastery. The atmosphere is incredible. A profound connection with nature, deep peace and freedom.

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After the cave, we head to a French landing by a nearby river. The guy from whom we rented the motos instructed us to leave them in the village, so now we’re walking. The heat is overwhelming and several times we’re on the verge of turning back. When we get there, the view makes the tiresome walk worthwhile. People are picnicking, fishing, or just laying about on the rocks. Asian meals are a social affair, with great atmosphere, and I always enjoy watching them. Right away I want to picnic as well but all we have are some tangerines and sweet tamarind. On the way back, a friendly Chinese working in Laos gives us a lift, saving us from the 40 degrees of heat. He also recommends we visit a beautiful lake nearby, Khoun Kong Leng.

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The next day we don’t feel like moving our bruised buttocks off the bed, but the motorbike and the lake are waiting. Marcin doesn’t let me check out the pictures of the lake on the internet. He says I’ll see it soon enough. He’s right. Off we go again. The landscape along the highway is monotonous, only after taking a dirt road things get more interesting. The few vehicles that pass us by leave a lenghty plume of red dust behind. The water buffalo, much abundant in Laos, managed to find the only wet spot in the area. As soon as we approach, they are ready to flee. I love cows (!), but these timid, sweet creatures, with their weary looks and sad faces flattened on the ground really melt my heart. And if that wasn’t enough, they’re called bubalus bubalis.

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The road is decent, apart from one steep approach with deep ruts. Here, I get off the bike and make the climb on foot. A truck carrying gravel can’t go up. The worker unloads some cargo and the driver tries again.  We both make it.

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We’re riding pretty fast in the dust and heat, and soon we start to wonder if we haven’t lost our way. Suddenly, in the middle of this dusty nowhere, we see a mirage – an edge of blue lake, intensely orange flowers and green trees.

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We get off the motorbike and try to understand. I’m speechless. A rowdy group of teenagers finishes their swim. They take the last few selfies and ride away. I’m very happy that I didn’t look at the internet pictures because never in my life would I expect something so beautiful to exist in these barren surroundings. A surprise supreme. The lake is considered sacred by the villagers, so swimming is only allowed in a fenced off section, in an outgoing stream. I follow the Laotian etiquette and get into water in my clothes. The dust, sweat and tiredness are cleansed off me. It feels divine.

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Describing happiness without falling into banality is the most difficult task. I can only focus on details. The blossoms smell so powerfully, I feel faint. The lake has a deep blue hue we doggedly attempt to reproduce on camera. The water is so clear, I can see fish and my own body. The swim is the perfect remedy for the heat. Black butterflies flutter their wings. The mountains surround us. The buffalo graze. It’s quiet.

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