Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Road to Savannakhet

Priscilla, Queen of the Mekong
Room for eight?
It’s our last day in Vientiane, the day we leave on the overland route to Savannakhet.  There are eight of us, and with our luggage we didn’t think we’d fit in the small van we’d been using for touring, at least not comfortably.  Nou said we could get a slightly larger van for today’s journey.  I guess “slightly larger” has a different connotation in Lao than it does in English.  We walk out of our hotel into the parking area and beheld a behemoth that we quickly dub “Priscilla, Queen of the Mekong.”  This beauty can seat at least 45 
people, and with the air conditioner blasting away, it’s like a meat locker when we board.  At 8am, we rumble off through Vientiane and to the east on the main road.  This road is a two-lane affair, not badly surfaced, but interrupted from time to time with washboard sections.  Priscilla rolls over these like a mattress on wheels.  The road runs in long straight sections through a flat valley bottom for the first couple of hours.  There isn’t very much traffic – lots of motorbikes and scooters, some minivans (smaller than what we see in the US), similarly miniature pick-up trucks.  There’s a mountain range off to the northeast, and the Mekong is some distance away to the west. 
Buddha's Footprint
Every few kilometers we come into a small village, where storefronts, repair shops and houses sit close to the roadway.  There are fields, though they don’t seem to be under cultivation now, perhaps because it’s the dry season.  Occasionally, a rubber tree juts up from the open fields.  Elsewhere there are stands of deciduous trees.  In the villages and on their outskirts we see buff-colored cows and darker water buffalo roaming.

After about two hours, we come upon one village where, on one side of the street on a large field are set up hundreds of tents.  There’s a gate through which we can see a temple and a stupa.  Nou tells us that this is the site of the Buddha Footprint, a formation in the rock that Buddhists believe is an impression left by the historical Buddha’s foot.  We walk in through the gate and down a shaded lane to a small plaza.  On the left is a gate the arched top of which holds a replica of a temple and through which are the festival grounds.  To either side of the archway is a long table under an awning where offerings can be purchased.  For 1000 kip (about ten cents) we buy small bundles of flowers, incense sticks and candles.  We turn and walk back towards the large stupa and beyond to the temple that houses the Buddha’s footprint.  Inside the temple there is an extremely ornate case, about four feet tall and measuring perhaps ten by fifteen feet.  Inside, on the ground, is the footprint.  Lamps inside the case illuminate it and it glows a pinkish color.   All around the sides of the case are trays to hold the offering candles, and here and there are pots for holding the incense sticks and flowers.  We kneel, light our candles, and melt some wax into the tray.  With a little help from Nou, we set the candles.  Next, we light the incense sticks.  I notice that Nou is praying.  He holds the bundle of small flowers and incense sticks between his hands and bows.  I take a minute or two to clear my mind a little, to step away from a voyeur’s perspective and into some kind of communion with the aura around me.  I can only manage a glimpse, but it’s very much worth the time. On the way we pick up some sticky rice wrapped and cooked in bamboo shoots.  Nou shows us how to peel back the outer husk of the bamboo shoots and get at the rice, which is contained by the thin inner membrane of the bamboo.  Sticky rice is a staple of the Lao diet.  It’s very good.  Back on the bus we get comfortable.  After a while of rolling along, with the sun coming in through the windows, we spread out and some of us nod off for a nap.  I open my computer and I’m soon lost in writing.  Then, suddenly, something feels odd.

I glance up from my computer and it takes a second to register that the bus is full of smoke.  I turn to look back to where Darla is sitting in the furthest back seats, and I can’t see past a couple of rows.  The smoke is billowing towards the front of the bus, and no one notices it at first.  I jump up and call to Darla – for a second I’m afraid that she’s been overcome – but she wakes up from dozing and shrieks.  I run back for her and grab her hand to pull her out.  I push her past me towards Ben, who is just behind me, and I bring up the rear as we run out of the bus.  I jump down the steps, wondering if flames are licking at my heels.

But a look around is both reassuring and a little disconcerting.  I realize that the smoke is white – more like water vapor - and doesn’t smell oily or acrid, and it seems to be blowing out from the engine compartment.  It’s likely that Priscilla is just overheated.  But I look around, and we’re in the middle of nowhere.  The brush on either side of the road is thick and prickly and dry, and stands slightly more than head-high.  In the sun it’s hot.  Traffic comes by from time to time but only slows for a look before rolling on.  I know that we can’t be more than a mile from the Mekong but it seems a lot farther.  Then I realize that there’s cell service all over, and sure enough, the driver is already on the phone to the office back in Vientiane.   He leaves the engine idling with the air conditioning turned off, and after a time the smoke clears and all seems normal again.  Rather than wait three hours for another van to come, we decide to keep going on this bus without the air conditioning, as it is comfortable today and we can open the driver’s window and the two rear windows to get some airflow.  So, quite calmly, we re-board and start talking about where we’re going to get lunch.  Ben even sits in the last row where the best breezes are.  Darla, on the other hand, plants herself in the front row, closest to the door, with her passport and bag right next to her, ready to jump.  Soon we’re rolling alongside the river again, past carefully kept vegetable garden plots and small villages and every so often, a cell tower.

While we get lunch at a roadside restaurant, I see the driver with a toolbox and a long fan belt.  In twenty minutes or so, he’s got Priscilla’s back end buttoned up again, and we’re off to Savannakhet. 

Please pass the salt
Just after we arrive in Savannakhet we take a turn down a dusty dirt road that goes into what looks like scrub.  In the oddest part of the trip so far, Nou is taking us to see a salt mine.  I have no idea what to expect – a lot of guys with hardhats and headlamps?  A dark tunnel deep into the ground?  Well, not quite.  The operation is pretty ramshackle and pretty automatic, too.  A small, grumpy-looking man – I mean about four feet tall – in a military uniform comes out to see what we’re up to, and after Nou puts him on the phone with the tour office, he warms up and tells us about the operation (Nou translating).  They pump water into a salt deposit under the ground and flush the salt water to the top.  It goes into large drying ponds where it crystallizes in the sun.  They scrape it up and bag it.  That’s about it.  Enlightened and amazed, we get back on the bus and in a few minutes we’re at our hotel.

We have to say goodbye to Priscilla, which we kind of hate to do.  She’s going back to Vientianne tomorrow and we’re getting a slightly smaller van.  Priscilla’s so big and beautiful and comfortable and . . . orange.  A fiery redhead?

 We end the day on a nice note.  It’s Patti and Rob’s 39th anniversary, and Jeannie had Nou call ahead and arrange a cake and champagne at the hotel.  They’re surprised and pleased and we sit around the lobby and eat cake and drink the bubbly, which isn’t bad at all.  The staff gets some cake, too.  Tomorrow we go the rest of the way to the Laos/Vietnam border at Lao Bao, then on to Hue.

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