13.03.2017 - 13.03.2017
Bueng Kan province in the North East of Thailand also known as Isan was the newest and latest among all the provinces in Thailand. It was carved out from the Nong Khai province, which was most well known among foreign travellers as a border crossing point between Thailand and Laos. On the Laos side, travellers will be connected to the capital of Lao PDR, Vientiane from Nong Khai in Thailand. One of the most popular travel option to get from Thailand to Vientiane is through the train ride to Nong Khai. From Nong Khai, there are few other travel options to get to Vientiane through minivans and international bus. I have crossed on several Thailand and Laos borders overland including Chong Mek and Vangtao (Ubon Ratchathani/Pakse), Mukdahan to Savannakhet and Nakhon Phanom to Thakhek. Not many foreigner travellers have informations about Bueng Kan province and this is still not a popular travel destination among the tourists. One of the prized travel product in Bueng Kan is the Wat Phu Thok, which is a very distinctive temple located on a cave on top of the hill. To reach the peak of the hill, a hike would be required through the wooden walkways constructed on the edge of the hill. On the peak of the hill of Wat Phu Thok, the view from here were magnificent and marvellous overlooking the countryside of Bueng Kan province. My trip to Bueng Kan was to cross the border from Thailand over to Paksan in Laos continuing the journey to Xiengkhouang province or more well known as Phonsavanh. The most well known things to do in Xiengkhouang province in Laos is to visit the Plains of Jars, one of the many mysteries and wonders of the world which many answers to their existence still unanswered to date. Nevertheless, due to lack of time, the initial plan to include Wat Phu Thok into the itinerary did not materialised. But then again, there is always some other time, so I was not too concerned about it.
BUENG KAN BUS TERMINAL & SAWADEE ESAN BUS
THE BUENG KAN BORDER IMMIGRATION CROSSING, THE MEKONG RIVER & THE BOAT CRUISE TO PAKSAN, LAOS
The bus from Bangkok to Bueng Kan with Sawadee Esan Co. which offers a double decker 32 seaters bus service with ticket costing THB 540 on a single trip took approximately 11 hours journey. The bus left Mor Chit station at about 9 pm and reached Bueng Kan at 8 am. The Bueng Kan bus terminal should be quite recently completed based on the structure and paints on the terminal buildings and the road pavements within the terminal. Its location is not too far away from Tesco Lotus and most contemporary hotel in Bueng Kan known as The One. From Bueng Kan bus terminal, there are many tuk-tuks available for onwards travel to other destinations including to the border crossing. It cost me THB 100 to get from the bus terminal to the border crossing.
ARRIVAL ON THE PAKSAN BORDER IMMIGRATION FROM BUENG KAN
PAKSAN BORDER IMMIGRATION CROSSING & THE BOAT PIER
Over here in Bueng Kan, there is yet to be a Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos. So,one of the interesting thing to note is the boat crossing through the Mekong River between the two countries. The immigration border crossing building in Bueng Kan is also noted to be a newly constructed building perhaps on the same site as the old building. Perhaps, the Thai immigration has renovated the old office building, so, the building appeared to be new but not the surroundings. It was a small one storey building but just decent enough to accommodate the sizeable number of people who crossed at this international border transit. Most of the people who get in and out between Thailand and Laos here in Bueng Kan seemed to be Laotians who are immigrant workers in Thailand in various industries as well as goods transportation from Thailand to Laos. The motorised boat from Bueng Kan to Paksan cost THB 60 on single trip. The journey was a short one taking approximately 10 minutes in total. On reaching the Lao PDR side, there will be a Laos immigration official on the pier to check on the passports and border crossing pass. From the pier, I walked up to the Paksan immigration border office for a stamped into Laos. The Paksan immigration office was a very old one storey buildings which appeared to be a structure constructed either in the 70s or 80s. So, it really may brought one back into the past once stepping into the immigration office. Just like Thailand, immigration arrival and departure card need to be filled up before the passport stamping. There appear to be some fees required to be paid here of 16,000 kip before passport can be collected after the stamping. The Laos immigration officer was very much in welcoming & jovial mode here in Paksan but after learning that I have to pay the fees, now I understand better. I have not encountered many friendly immigration officer, so I should cherish the moments such as this. I thought why not since I was being welcome to a foreign country.
WAITING FOR THE MINIVAN TO XIENGKHOUANG AND THE MINIVAN FROM PAKSAN TO XIENGKHOUANG
After checking out from Paksan Immigration office, I head out thinking there will be some tuk-tuk or songtheaw available to get to downtown or the bus station. The information I had was that there was only one bus trip from Paksan to Phonsavanh which the bus leave Paksan at 7.30 am. It was already way past 7.30 am when I reached Paksan about 9.30 am. I was not sure if I will need to put up a night in Paksan for the next morning trip to Phonsavanh or there may be some other transport options available. After a short walk from the immigration office, I saw some samlor taxis (similar to tuk tuk) on the edge of some shops opposite the immigration office. I asked one of the man on the samlor if he provides transportation to the bus station, he pointed to somewhere in front that there would be some good Samaritan who may provide a lift to the bus station. So, I walked further away and saw a woman in a pick-up truck with her child inside. I asked if she could provide a lift to the bus station and she was kind enough to reply that it should not be a problem at all. But she mentioned she was waiting for her husband who was about to cross from Bueng Kan to Paksan where upon his arrival then we will be able to proceed to the bus station. When the husband arrived with his friend (both of them were Thais), I greeted them and explained on my intention to get to the bus station. The husband, just like his wife was just as welcoming enough to offer his help to get me there, though he appeared not quite sure where that was. I then hopped into the rear of the pick-up with the husband's friend. We had a short chat and just before we knew it, the pick-up reached at the market. Because the husband and wife were not sure where the bus from Paksan to Phonsavanh could be boarded, they politely dropped me at the market and said I should asked the people around there. Left without any option, I jumped off the pick-up, thanking them and with much uncertainties, I had to continue my tasks to continue seeking for answers. That was when I came to know that people here in Paksan refers Phonsavanh to Xiengkhouang instead of the former.
THE ROAD CONDITION & LANDSCAPES FROM PAKSAN TO XIENGKHOUANG
Phonsavanh was indeed the capital city of Xiengkhouang province but surprisingly, the people would not know where Phonsavanh was if you mentioned that name to them. As I was asking, then a young man told me that I need to walk to the main road from the market to flag down the minivan that came from Vientiane direction to get to Xiengkhouang province. After some 300 metres of walk, I then continue to ask a woman in a shop to be sure if that information provided was correct and she confirmed that it was accurate. After about another 200 metres of walk, I reached the junction of the main road and encountered a middle aged woman who sells various beverages such as coconut, sugar cane, coffees and carbonated drinks on a street stall. I was relieved that she confidently confirmed that there were regular minivans to Xiengkhouang province. Later, I learnt that the main road was just a straight walk up from the Paksan immigration office. Anxiously waiting for the minivan, a short chat with the beverage vendor provide some time killing opportunity while learning the dark and sad story that painted the life behind this enterprising woman. Its been a tough life for her making a small savings from the handful profits she made at the end of every month while struggling to pay for rental of the small piece of land just behind her pushcart stall. She set up a small cottage where she used as her home. But one thing for sure and deserved much admiration and life learning experience was that, despite her struggle and hard life, she never gave up but continue to work hard to earn a living so that she could continue with a normal living.
ARRIVAL AT NEW XIENGKHOUANG BUS STATION, THE SAMLOR TO PHONSAVANH & FROM BUS STATION TO PHONSAVANH
At about 11 am, the minivan from Vientiane finally arrived and that was a huge relieved as now I was rather sure that I could reach Phonsavanh on the day itself without having to put up a night in Paksan. When flagged down, the minivan was already full of passengers and there was barely any seats available. There were 2 other passengers other than myself. Luckily for us, there were some on board who were about to disembark further down the road, so, all of us who boarded from Paksan managed to get a seat for ourselves. The minivan fare from Paksan to Xiengkhouang cost 100,000 kip. From Paksan, the minivan soon left for Phonsavanh. Along the way, there were some of the passengers who disembark while some new ones boarded. The driver also picked up some goods from individuals and shops for a fee to be sent to Xiengkhouang. The road condition from Paksan to Xiengkhouang can be summed up as between 30% to 40% on unpaved dirt sandy road, some which were semi paved, some were good paved road while remaining were sort of rocky and dusty. There was a main bridge which was partly damaged and was under repair, so a temporary bridge was built further down the under repair bridge. It was built narrowly barely passable by the minivan and just above the stream and if water level rises, I could not think of how big vehicles such as the minivan could pass through. The minivan stopped for lunch at one of the big restaurant and appeared to be the only one with that size at about 1 pm. One thing I learnt here was that, the locals love their noodle soup with pork or chicken which also comes with a side of generous mix of vegetables. The noodles also came on a jumbo size. Other that noodles, the other favourite would be the "larb moo" or spicy & sour minced pork with either steamed rice or sticky rice. Continuing the journey after lunch, the minivan was now heading upwards the hill. Some information available mentioned that Xiengkhuoang province was located on the highest peak within Laos of some 2700 metres above sea level. You could just imagine how strenuous and dangerous the road condition could be heading up the peak to Phonsavanh with that level of highness. There were no rail guards on the sharp corners and the pathways can get very narrow on some points which made the journey somewhat challenging. As the minivans reached near to our ultimate destination, the weather began to changed 360 degrees where it got cooler and misty. Approximately at 5.30 pm, the minivan arrived at the bus station. There were actually 2 bus stations just outside Phonsavanh which were adjacent to each other but the one the minivan stopped at was a newer one. From what I gathered, the bus station served different bus companies that provide services to several other destinations within Laos as well as to Vietnam. There were samlor or tuk-tuk available at the bus station to get into Phonsavanh from the bus station for 20,000 kip. I was not sure where exactly I would be dropped down but there was another man who was headed downtown and soon I learnt that was the main street in Phonsavanh. Phonsavanh main commercial spot was concentrated on one main long stretch of straight road dotted with mostly 2 storey shops which operate as restaurants, guesthouse, hotels, convenience stores, cafes, hardware, motorbike shops and other miscellaneous stores.
PLACES OF INTERESTS ON XIENGKHOUANG MAP IN DOWNTOWN PHONSAVANH
On arrival at Phonsavanh, I walked around in search of a place to stay. I first came across a Xiengkhouang map which describes on the places of interests within the province. After a short study on the map, I got some ideas on where else to go apart from the Plains of Jars. Initially, I thought I would only be visiting the Plains of Jars due to the limited time but then after studying the map, it may be a good idea to include the Ancient City also known as Muang Khoun as a side tour. As I was walking around town, I came into the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) Visitors Information Centre on the opposite direction of where the map information was located. I thought of checking out what this centre will able to provide in terms of the history of Xiengkhouang. Information that I have was that Xiengkhouang was filled with tonnes of unexploded missiles, bombs, mines and rockets. Walking into the centre, I took a short tour around. (More of this later). There was a man that occupied the information counter at the entrance to MAG Centre. Since I need some information on where to stay and thought he may know better as a local to Xiengkhouang, so I asked if he knows where I could put up for the day as well as the tour information to the Plains of Jars. He introduced himself as Yee Yang who was of Hmong hilltribes descendent. Soon I learnt that there was indeed a very large Hmong community in Xiengkhouang due it its huge mountainous landscape which was of the Hmong hill tribes origin. Yee Yang told me that NamChai Hotel was one of the better choice since its located off the main road, which is less noisy. He also mentioned that he offered a bike tour to the Plains of Jars for 400,000 kip. Asked further if he could include Muang Khoun as a side trip, he gladly said yes but additional of 100,000 kip shall be added into the 400,000 kip.
THE LONG WINDING ROAD IN DOWNTOWN PHONSAVANH
As the day has got late and dark, I told Yee Yang I would be back again later because I need to check into the place he recommended at NamChai Hotel. NamChai Hotel was situated off the main road of Phonsavanh and not difficult to locate. A check on the hotel, I found that it was a decent hotel with few rooms on a single storey building while on the rear of this building was a multi storey building appeared to be quite recently completed. A double bed non air-con room cost 80,000 kip a night which was a a good bargain with free coffee, day and night. So, I decided to check in to NamChai Hotel and settled down with my backpack. As dark falls, I walked out again to check out the Plains of Jars tour option and found out that the agents around town charged 600,000 kip for single person tour on a minivan and a further 200,000 kip to Muang Khoun side tour. And with that, I thought Yee Yang offers was reasonable, so I went back to MAG Centre and finally booked the Plains of Jars tour with him. He mentioned that the tour will starts at 8.30 am the next day and shall be back to the hotel within 6 hours. And the next morning, as promised, Yee Yang came sharp at 8.30 am and our Plains of Jars journey began.