Bolikhamxay isn’t on many people’s bucket list, yet it sits right next door to Vientiane. I first tapped into the province in 1999, and only a few people I knew had investigated this easy-to-access destination. Many who had hiked in the Phou Khao Khouay National Protected Area (PKK) thought they were in Vientiane, and didn’t realize they were really in the tip Bolikhamxay’s green iceberg.
Breakfast in Lak Xao
When the Bolikhamxay Provincial Tourism Department (PTD) invited me to explore its new sites and facilities, I was ready to rock. We met in Lak Xao, in the northeast corner of “The Khammouane Loop” near the Vietnamese border.
The PTD got the ball rolling by convincing a dinner restaurant to open for breakfast. Greeting us at the door stood eight giant glass jars brimming with lao khao rice alcohol saturating a choice of eggs, tubers, herbs, and starfish.
Four shot glasses met my simple query into the booze aquarium: egg for my bones, the starfish from Vietnam for strength, a tuber for back pain, and the herb mix…I forgot, though I remember chasing the morning shots with a hot glass of Lao coffee with a good centimetre of cream at the bottom. The meal, basically dinner dishes, included fried frogs. I love this place.
Discovery No. 1: Found Buddhas
After visiting the hot springs on Route 8, we returned to Lak Xao and headed north on a bumpy road to the Nam Yeung Dam. After about 5 km, we reached Sop Kham Village and a house holding a birthday baci ceremony. An older man greeted us with the key to one of Bolikhamxay’s latest discoveries…39 Buddha statuettes found under a Nam Yeung River rock in January 2012 by a man named Sai.
The gatekeeper opened a small wooden shed in the corner of his yard. Inside stood a wooden cabinet that he unlocked with a second key. And there they were, standing on shelves covered with an elegant white cloth. After admiring the find and giving time to the PTD team for praying, the doors closed, I asked if any foreign tourists had seen these yet. “No,” he said, only locals have come.
Discovery No. 2: Bombshell Boats
We continued along the rough dirt road following the Nam Yeung River, as it wound between steep mountaintops. The road ended at a noodle shop overlooking an impromptu landing for canoes and longboats used for fishing in the dam’s reservoir. A few boat captains sat in a shelter drinking lao khao.
“Here we go again,” I winced, while gazing at boats made from military aircraft fuel tanks that were dumped in the area during Laos’ war for independence. They looked like giant bombshells cut in half. Some were ferrying folks to and from the mountain-peaks-turned-islands in a flooded valley. Even dirt roads disappeared into the lake.
After getting roped in by the boat captains for another lao khao pop, it was time to paddle onto the calm lake. The glass-like surface cried for water skiers, or at least some bombshell fishing tours. “We don’t get tourists yet,” said the captain. “The people here just sell their fish to get money for rice.”
Discovery No. 3: Endless Rapids
After breakfast the next morning, we rumbled along a dirt road in PKK for 15 minutes, until we reached the next target, Yang Kheua Village and the Yong Rapids, where the PTD had built a lodge and developed a trek and boat ride.
A small dog appeared as we piled into a tractor cart, and he followed us on the shakiest 7-km ride of my life to the Nam Lok River and a path. Rock slabs covered the wide river bed, and the dry season water level allowed us to easily traverse the flow as it calmly dropped from stone step to stone step. We inspected the symmetrical craters housing tiny fish in some of the slabs, and washed our faces in the endless rapids.
We finally reached a broad set of falls and natural pool, but the low water level had put the boat cruise on seasonal hold. So, we returned, dog in tow, but our crew wasn’t leaving without leaves. We stopped at various leafy shrubs and trees, from which they snapped off branches. I learned while leaf munching during lunch that the foliage aided the liver, kidneys, bladder, and everything else. Maybe this was to balance the side effects from the medicinal lao khao.
Discovery No. 4: More Found Buddhas
Also during lunch, I learned about another recent discovery, and a short drive north on Route 13 to Ban Thoua unveiled it. On 9 March 2012, Mr Mai was looking for a fishing hole along the Huap Pa Fa River. He claims a crow landed near a riverside cave, and he walked to that spot, where he noticed a small Buddha image protruding from under a stone slab.
Mr Mai returned to his village, and told six friends, who helped him move the rocky lid. Bingo! More than 30 old Buddha images, including three made of gold. They brought them to Mr Siengsy, who oversees Vat Thoua Beng in Ban Thoua, so locals can make merit to this religious windfall.
Elaborately decorated shelves displayed the Buddhas at one end of the temple. Mr Siengsy said he thinks the discovery is important for the village, as it brought happiness, and could bestow good luck. Then he invited me to spin the temple’s Wheel of Fortune. He pondered the symbol on which I landed, and then revealed my future. I would be rich and powerful like a king.
I figured if Lao experiences like this counted as money, my bank account looked pretty good. As for powerful, I guess it’s time to start lifting weights.