16th November, 2012

Coffee (as usual), caves and curious lights:

Cloudy morning dullness discouraged efforts to rise early, though I was still up by 7.30 for a hefty banana pancake and a pot of tea.

Dtoy didn’t have any knowledge about the light I observed traversing the hills above Laos last night. It still wasn’t identified, so it remained a UFO – but more probably a helicopter, and quite possibly monitoring local, Laotian activities.

Kettel appeared, pacing around. He had lost his Lonely Planet and asked if I had spotted it. Alien abduction? Every being needs a guide.

At Tantawan for mid-morning caffeine and to give their WiFi another shot, but network gremlins were still active. Laotian mobile phone signals sometimes, spookily, confused my Thai mobile; maybe similar was happening with the WWW.

Sangkhom cafe

After coffee, I checked out the regular, daily market (as opposed to the twice-weekly market of yesterday), but there was little activity by then. Instead, I enjoyed a soup lunch at a corner restaurant, with complimentary serve of cabbage, fresh basil and mint. Delish and cheap. Earthy.

Back at the guesthouse, Dtoy’s grandniece followed me along the dirt path on her pushbike, friendly at first then shy. Later, Mr Dtoy pronounced “I love her”, that he sung to her when she was young; that she had paralysed fingers she tried to hide (I noticed she had an amputated finger: she covered it with her good hand).

He had his stroke when he was forty two. He thought doctors at Khon Kaen were crazy. He thought he might end up with Alzheimer’s. Was he doing exercises? I wanted to know. They understood more about strokes these days (though, I mentioned this before I knew his was ten years ago).

Dtoy said he did exercises. She often spoke on his behalf, correcting him if he misremembered events. I had returned to the restaurant because I found blankets and a pillow on my bungalow doorstep. Dtoy said, “husband forget”, and berated him affectionately. As we talked, she groomed him, removing a loose thread from his shirt.

The subject turned to the farmer next door. I told them about one I met on the bus from Khon Kaen who boasted: “Not buy, only sell.” Mr Dtoy chuckled at the familiarity of that. Dtoy said their neighbour was the same; “Maybe buy some meat, but that’s all”.

Mekong Motorcycle Diaries Day 6

I finally managed to get a message through to Sam in Nong Khai, via his contact, Mr Noui, and extend the motorbike hire for a day. With extra time available I joined Kettel, who had rented one of Dtoy’s motorbikes, and was venturing to some caves, returning via Wat Pha Tak Sua, the hilltop temple overlooking Sangkhom.

By now he had found the Lonely Planet – it was where he left it last night, propping up a portable fan on his bungalow verandah floor.

I had previously ruled out visiting the caves, but another message from a friend in Khon Kaen saying they were worth seeing, convinced me to trust her judgement. I visited Wat Pha Tak Sua on Day 2, so was familiar with that part of the route – the caves are about 20 ‘k further on.

Mekong Motorcycle Diaries day 6

As we neared, signs in English indicating them petered out, but one pointing to a temple proved the right hunch to follow – religion and geographical features often wai a greeting to each other in Thailand (and in this case, accompanied by a legend about a monk from Laos and a serpent).

Mekong Motorcycle Diaries day 6

There’s no official entrance, at least not one in English, but after some wandering we eventually found it – a narrow hole in the rock, and not the large, open cavern I was expecting.

Nearby, a girl that spoke English said we had to remove our shoes because we’d be walking in water. Then she added that we needed a guide, and pointed to the only one left. Apparently it took an hour and we paid by donation, at which she indicated a large Buddha statue on a rise to her left.

Mekong Motorcycle Diaries day 6

Before we entered the cave, we were asked to light three candles and offer them to a smaller Buddha shrine behind her for safe passage.

Mekong Motorcycle Diaries day 6

This was all more worrying than anticipated, and more involved. An hour was also pushing it time-wise. Self-conscious offering and prayers requesting safe passage and a fine sunset made, we entered the cave and, discovering how narrow the passage was, I wondered if we would be inside forever.

It was immediately evident we weren’t properly dressed – and having camera bags or daypacks were additional burdens.

Mekong Motorcycle Diaries day 6

And not great terrain for dodgy knees. The photos don’t give a complete impression, because where it was most narrow I wasn’t thinking about photography (and some pics were poor quality).

Kettel seem to fare even worse than me.

Mekong Motorcycle Diaries day 6

The guide, meanwhile, was half our size, familiar with the route, and skipped on ahead.

He stopped at small shrines along the way to explain their purpose, but by now we realised he only spoke Thai. I could pick up some words, though not enough to piece together.

Mekong Motorcycle Diaries day 6

He must have taken pity on us, or a short cut, because within half an hour we were exiting from a hole we had passed when trying to find the entrance.

Mekong Motorcycle Diaries day 6

I have to admit to enjoying the scramble, though, cumbersome burdens and dodgy knee aside. I’d just be better prepared next time, if another opportunity eventuated.

Then came the donation. At the foot of the large Buddha statue was a dish, but we didn’t like the idea of leaving money there exposed to the elements. Inside the pavilion there were several donation boxes but no way of knowing what each one represented. The English-speaking woman had left. A Thai with a bung eye said we should give the guide a 100 baht, but that defeated the purpose of a donation. The end result of putting it in the bowl would’ve amounted to them getting it anyway, so in the absence of clarification I gave him the money.

At the food-stall area, I asked a woman from Khorat (who owns a restaurant called Dr Pizza) about payment procedure, but she didn’t understand, didn’t know or was reluctant to answer, and said she’d ask the fellow driving their car. I said not to worry about it, didn’t matter in the end.

After sequences of turning left instead of right, and going straight ahead when we should’ve turned, and a time I had to stop chasing Kettel to tell him about a detour because he kept accelerating away thinking I was increasing the pace, we made it back to the Wat Pha Tak Sua turn-off.

The clouds had cleared, which meant a good sunset view over the Mekong. Offerings answered? Human signals?

Mekong Motorcycle Diaries day 6

I was merrily snapping photos in this bell tower oblivious to a monk and a novice waiting to access it.

Mekong Motorcycle Diaries day 6

When I exited, the monk addressed me in Thai, and I understood some of it. He asked where I was from, and pointed to a mountain across the river in Laos saying something like “Khao Phu”.

Mekong Motorcycle Diaries day 6

The novice stepped into the tower and proceeded to hit the bell with a piece of wood. Kettel thought it was to herald the setting sun.

A dog began howling in response.

Mekong Motorcycle Diaries day 6

Mekong Motorcycle Diaries day 6

We left in darkness. Apart from my headlights flickering on and off for part of the descent we made it without incident to the main road. Then Kettel’s taillight stopped working. I moved up closer to highlight him for following traffic. Thankfully he didn’t accelerate away …until I detoured for fuel and my acknowledging toot was lost in the slipstream.

We caught up at Bouy and had a beer then ventured ‘downtown’ to eat. It was quiet – except at the bbq restaurants where you cooked your own food – they require a night of settling-in to properly enjoy them. We decided on Tantawan. The food was very good – at least my meal was – Kettel said he’d had better crepes (western food can sometimes be lost in Thai translation).

On the way back, Kettel entered a shop to buy beer, I thought, but, he eventually emerged with a packet of custard cakes. I felt a little guilty, unnecessarily, about eating out and wanted to return Dtoy some custom so waited till we arrived back at the guesthouses for my purchase, but found the restaurant clothed in darkness and the main door locked. I was about to return to the shop when Kettel gave me his mobile phone ‘torch’ and suggested I could enter from the outdoor dining area on the other side.

Dtoy had previously said it was okay to access the fridge contents, though I still felt like a thief in the night. I recorded the big Chang in my bungalow note book and asked Kettel if he wanted one, but he said he’d share mine, so I grabbed two glasses as well.

We sat at the table in front of his bungalow, consuming my beer with his custard cakes – not as bad a mix as you’d imagine. Again, the light in Laos I’d observed the previous night reappeared. We eventually concluded it was a helicopter, but didn’t have clues to what it was doing – surveillance was the only activity that came to mind.

Kettel reckoned there were six metre fish in the Mekong, which I doubted. He rechecked Lonely Planet – it claimed they grew to 2.4 metres. Still big enough to be worth a small fortune by the time they reached Bangkok and were divided into fillets.

We called it a night at about 10.30pm, which is late for these parts, though I sat on my veranda for awhile watching the Mekong under the night sky, being pleasantly mesmerised by its eddy and flow as others had been for thousands of years.

A gecko ‘eck-oed’ from its lofty perch in a bungalow thatched roof, having its own conversation, oblivious to human contemplation.