And here we were again, in the lush green hills of Laos with the occasional bamboo hut village and the even more occasional red dirt road leading off from the main road that took us towards Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang has kept the charm as former capital of the French protectorate and is probably Laos’ most beautiful town (which isn’t really a challenge).
Sitting above the Mekong the old part of town has kept many of its colonial style houses, French street names and even bi-lingual schools and is well worth a stroll despite the many western and Chinese tourists. By accident we ran into Heather & Beckett, an American couple we already met in Getu, and as we all wanted to reach Thakek in the next few days they decided to travel with us, very much to Mutlu’s pleasure who had someone to cuddle and lick all night. South of Luang Prabang we crossed through breathtaking mountainous scenery and soon thereafter we stopped at our first climbing spot near Pha Tang, a wonderful, rarely frequented cliff that we reached by crossing through rice paddies and over bamboo bridges. Further south we passed
through Vang Vieng - the backpacker Mecca full of tourists eager for some adventurous activity like tubing, zip-lining or climbing, typically combined with lots of alcohol. We avoided the town and the capital Vientiane and followed the Mekong south until we reached Thakek, a small border town on the shores of the Mekong. From there it was only 12km east to our destination Greenclimbershome, the German run camp at the center of the new climbing hotspot in Southeast Asia (see also our Climbing Section for more details). At that time we didn’t know yet that we were going to stay there for more than two months. Once in Thakek our rhythm changed quite dramatically. In order to catch the best climbing conditions we got up early and went to the cliff before 08:00, we rested in the early afternoon and climbed again for two, three hours until 18:00 when it got dark. We enjoyed the camp life, met dozens of climbers from all over the world, shared stories and had lots of fun. After two weeks of intense climbing - we kept a 2/1 rhythm, meaning 2 days of climbing followed by one rest day - Lisa and Martin joined us, quickly adapting the same rhythm.
The camp got fuller as we approached Christmas and we decided to do most cooking by ourselves. The local market in Thakek supplied us with fresh vegetables, mangos, bananas and all sorts of other food and of course with Lao whiskey - strong and cheap. We spent Christmas and New Year next to Rouletout and climbed and climbed while Mutlu chased herds of cows and goats that tried passing through the camp. Every 30 days we had to do a visa run, Laos only knows a 30 day tourist visa, which means that you have to leave the country and come back on a new visa that most countries (not Turkey) get on arrival at the border.
Luckily the Thai border is not far and we always took the occasion to stock up on food from “the other side” that is not available in Thakek, mostly western style foods like noodles, cheese and chocolate. Through an arrangement with the customs director we were also able to extend the custom exemption for our Rouletout without leaving the country or even showing up at the border by just obtaining a new form and paying the usual fee. Of course as with many things in Laos, the fee you pay is higher than the amount shown on the receipt… After six weeks of climbing we decided to take a longer break and we took our motorbike on “the loop” - a popular 1 to 3 days excursion through the hinterland of Thakek with its many caves, mountains, lakes and small villages. While we drove north not far from the Vietnamese border we saw a road sign to Konglor cave, one of the caves we wanted to visit. Road signs are rare in Laos so we decided to jump on
the brand new dirt road for the next 56km. It lead us through jungles and grassland and after a while we arrived at the cave - it was only then that we realised that we were at the other end of the cave. The option was obvious, sleep in the small village and drive back on the next day. We decided to drink something as a guy showed up who offered us to take our bike on his boat through the cave. We were a little sceptical when looking at the boat but why not. A short negotiation later we were sitting on the boat with two guides and our bike lying between us. Handle bar in the water we entered the 7.5km long and very impressive cave. There were two rapids
where we had to go off the boat, the boat was sent down with just one of the guides in it while the other tried to light us the way through the water and after a long time we saw light at the end of the cave. With a lot of pushing and pulling we made it out of the cave and up some stairs and were one experience richer that we had to digest with the help of some Lao beer in our guesthouse. Back in Thakek the climbing-routine was back and it was time to prepare for our next China adventure. We had sent our respective passports to Vienna and Istanbul to obtain the required Chinese visa and were waiting for our passports to arrive as this time the consul in Istanbul decided that he wanted to see Berna in person before issuing the visa. After some back and forth it was clear, we would not be able to visit China again as we were not willing to travel that far for a visa. This meant changing plans - maybe it was a bad omen that my climbing project at that time was called Changing Plans Direct - but after a few days it was clear, we were again bound for Thailand and we even had found a shipping company that was able to get our Rouletout from Laem Chabang (Bangkok) to Masan in Korea at the end of February.
Our days in Thakek came to an end as we had to drive north to Vientiane to again get Thai visa and of course there were tons of paperwork in front of us. Not only did we have the shipment to prepare but we also had to get Mutlu ready for his first flight and for entering Korea and of course we had to make plans for the two weeks without Rouletout - a brand new experience but more on that in our next blog entry.