Hidden Treasures Deep in Thakhek

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Buddha Cave Copyright Michael Bencik 2014

Times are really getting tough for Mr. Boun Nong. He has a family to feed, a hut he needs to pay off, and nothing seems to be going his way. It’s gotten so bad, that Boun is climbing cliffs and chasing bats that he hopes to feed the family with. The bats flew into the vines above a large cave entrance with a river coming out of it. Grabbing a vine, Boun pulls himself up over the cave entrance, dangling like a monkey in the tree tops. Thrusting his hand through the vines, hoping for a hand hold. He only grabs empty space. Clawing madly as he slips back, he ends up pulling half the vine off, revealing a second cave above the main entrance. Dangling by one arm, he heaves himself into the cavity.  Breathing heavily, he slowly gains a few feet. It’s only a few feet high, but there is a strong draft here.  It’s pitch dark, Boun can feel the cave goes much further back. Lighting a bit of bamboo with a match, hundreds of eyes stare back at Boun. Dropping the torch in fear, he practically falls back out of the cave into the river. By the feeble light, the eyes shine back blankly. On closer inspection, they turn out to be 100’s of Buddha statues, hidden in the cave and forgotten long ago. Why hell, this is better than bats for dinner, this is the mother load.

Sadly Boun Nong did not live to enjoy the success of his unsuccessful bat hunt, but his village did. Because of this very rare find, fame came to his village, Ban Nakhang Xang. Which is now a must see for the tourists coming here, as well as a sacred spot for all the locals. There are 294 Buddha statues there over 300 years old that were hidden in the cave and forgotten about.

Yvonne and I drove a rented scooter out to see the cave, and though it was only discovered in 2004, it’s become a major landmark. When we arrived they were building a concrete stairway to the entrance, and plenty of handy craft stores. We got there about 5 minutes before closing, but all the guards/monks/keepers were very generous in letting us stay longer. The cave is full of stalagmites and stalactites, with a large flat area in front with some rugs thrown down. Incense fills the air, and electric lighting illuminates not only the Buddha’s but also the caves features in a beautiful and peaceful way. Photography was not allowed, but with some hand signals I was allowed to start a sketch, with the understanding that five minutes was all I was given. Well, everyone knows I am the slowest artist in the world, but they were so excited to see my drawing, that they allowed me to stay longer to finish it. A rough drawing, but a great one. They all circled around me comparing it to the real thing, and complementing me on it. Moments like this capture so much more than a photograph ever could. A photograph flattens out a scene, while a good half hour sketch allows the artist as well as the viewer to dig deeper into it. Catching things that would otherwise be missed. This was just one of many hidden gems that we would discover in in and around Thakhek.

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Buddha Cave Copyright Michael Bencik 2014

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Buddha Cave Copyright Michael Bencik 2014

SONY DSC

Buddha Cave Copyright Michael Bencik 2014

But our first night in Thakhek was not so pleasant, more of a nightmare. The hotel we found late night seemed ok at first. Once we settled in and laid on the bed, we discovered it was more like a bed of concrete. I don’t believe I have ever felt a harder surface. It was like a rock, jagged and crippling. The water damage was nothing compared to it. I woke up the next day miserable and in pain, jagged bolts screeching down my back.

No way in hell we were staying here another night, so I headed out in search of something in this dusty little town. From the bus ride to hell to get here and the first night of pain, I was not really loving this last few days. I went to numerous hotels, and then decided to check out one that was top on the list, out of our price range, but at least we could get a comparable. I stepped into Inthira’s pleasant restaurant, and automatically felt more at peace. SO what if it was more then we could afford, I could tell we needed it. So I booked the room right away, not caring anymore if it cost us what we would pay for three days.  Our room was beautifully designed, with a separate shower on one side, and toilets on other. There were natural materials used through out, stones along the shower back wall, lots of bamboo, and it was spotless. The beds were plush and felt like a cloud. We both jumped in and were instantly asleep for hours. Screw this roughing it. That day was spent relaxing, reading, watching t.v., and enjoying Mango smoothies. Why can’t we get mango smoothies this good in America?

The town of Thakhet is the halfway point through Laos, along the mighty Mekong. There is really not too much going on there, except being the start of the Loop, Laos famous motorcycle/scooter trail. The Buddha cave is the first leg of this trip, and then Kong Lor Cave is the third part. We did both those sections, but skipped the middle section. Riding scooters through town, you realize the deadliest thing on the road is chickens, dogs, and pigs that you are constantly avoiding. Along the way you will see some gorgeous villages, farms, and countryside. This is really just a great trip to see the real Laos, with real people and very few other tourists.

The other thing that is great here is rock-climbing and outdoor sports. There are climbing camps made specifically for the hard-core climbers; giving all the luxuries they need right under massive walls. But for us, we just wanted to relax, nothing crazy.

Over the next few days we wandered the town, hit up its awesome street market, filled with delicacies from all over Laos; deep-fried frogs, roaches, and baby birds. Mmm, trust me, it seems gross, but a lot of it can be really tasty. The chicken off the grill is to die for.

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Thakhek Copyright Michael Bencik 2014

The people in this town are really who make it great. I was in the middle of my Thirty Day Challenge, so it was necessary for me to draw from life, every day. So we spent a lot of time relaxing, just hanging out and observing people, doing whatever it is day by day. No worries, no stresses. Just enjoying life. We hung out in the Bocci ball courts, which is really big out here, and enjoyed bbq and beers while the competition got heated up. Then we went to a night club with insanely loud music blaring. I ended up doing sketches on napkins of people dancing, drinking, and talking. There was one club that was a barge on the river, but after scaling down the side of the banks 100 feet of stairs, dancing on plywood floors that smelled of urine was just not our cup of tea.

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Thakhek Copyright Michael Bencik 2014

On the way back from the club some college kids hanging out in front of a store yelled at us to come on over. So we headed over as they offered us beers and joked around with us. Jack Invg spoke excellent English, and soon had us cracking up as we shared drinks. He was going to college in another city, but was back for the holidays catching up with old friends. We hung out quite late with them pounding beers and making new friends.

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Thakhek Copyright Michael Bencik 2014

 

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