The sun rises over Vientiane in Laos and a few straggling Krathong float past down the Mekong. It’s a beautiful cool and still morning, probably the best time of day before the searing heat of the sun forces all but the brave into air-conditioned refuge. Except this is Tha-Bo and nobody here seems to be bothered about air-conditioning so I guess I’ll just have to burn.
I buy breakfast from a stall. My favourite dish in Thailand but it’s a local delicacy that only seems to be available along the borders with Laos. It’s a broth with roughly chopped meat, thick noodles and chunks of crispy pork that you eat with small deep fried donuts. It’s called ’kow-pia’ and for the very first time I find myself adding extra chilli. Maybe my mouth has become cauterised from the volcanic heat of the local food, but there is something weirdly comforting about eating very spicy food beneath a very hot sun.
I’ve been loaned a Honda Click to ride during my stay here. I’ve no idea who it actually belongs too but it’s an awful lot slower than it sounds. 125cc of noise and very little else. Along with the Honda comes a pair of sexy little crash helmets to wear. They’ll keep the police off my back but I doubt that they’d be much good in an accident as they seem to be made from rice paper. Wisa refuses to wear her crash helmet, perhaps on the basis that it’ll ruin her hair, so I suggest that she’d better get used to walking. No helmet no ride.
Riding North out of Tha-Bo we visit local temples where we ‘make merit‘ and ramshackled roadside eateries where we stuff our faces for pennies. Fried rice with shrimp, spicy meat with basil and gallons of iced tea. In Bangkok it would be ‘Beef with Basil’, but off the beaten track along the Thai - Laos border they don’t identify exactly what kind of meat and it’s probably best not to ask. Sitting at one such ’Restaurant’, a stream of shiny new BMW R1200 GS Adventures race past on the road. I suspect that it’s a tour group from ’Odyssey Motorcycle Tours’ and my silent advice to them is to slow down. They’re travelling from point to point too quickly and missing all the really good stuff.
Way past the city of Loei, when the sun has reached it’s peak and the air all around is burning, we arrive at Arawan Caves. It’s 200 gruelling steps up to the golden statue of Buddha and the ancient caves that hide behind it. It’s a long hard climb, but I’m told that it will be worth it. Behind the statue, the caves drop deep into the mountain where the air is refreshingly cool. As we walk down and down and down, my eyes gradually become accustomed to the darkness and the unusually large and interestingly shaped stalagmite comes into view. The shape reminds me of something, but I just can’t think what …… mai pen rai