Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Savannakhet

Serpico in Laos

There’s nothing like a person being proud of what they do, even when it comes to driving a tuk-tuk or songthaew for a living. And to show that pride, not to mention showing off to your friends, a little help from Serpico a.k.a. Al Pacino wouldn’t hurt.

Back in 2010, Aon, Jeremy Aaron and I went shopping in this big market in Savannakhet and when it came time to leave we needed to take a tuk-tuk. There are dozens of tuk-tuks outside the market and as soon as I saw this one, I figured if the driver was hip enough to know who Serpico/Al Pacino was then this was the one we were going to take. 

When Dinosaurs Roamed Laos

There’s much to see and do in Laos-whether you visit historic and charming Luang Prabang in the north, enjoy eco-tourism in Vang Vieng, marvel at the Plain of Jars, or behold the Khmer beauty of Wat Phou in the south. In between, there’s plenty of sightseeing from historic temples and museums to vestiges of colonial French Indochina in Savannakhet, Thakek, and Vientiane.

However, there is one interesting attraction that might surprise you among all the cool and neat things you can see and visit while traveling in Laos: The Dinosaur Museum in Savannakhet.

That’s right, a dinosaur museum in Laos.

Located just down the street from the Thai Embassy (that gets a lot of business from farang on visa runs from Thailand), the Dinosaur Museum is one of Savannakhet’s more interesting places to visit and worthy of a visit.

Housed in a colonial-style building, the museum, which opened in 2000, features a modest collection of dinosaur bones and information on the four kinds of dinosaurs—found at five sites in Laos—that once roamed this part of the world: Saurpodes/Sauropoda (a well-known genera; this classification includes the genus formerly known as Brontosaurus), Theropode/Theropoda (a genus that includes the mother of all dinosaurs and the star of stage and screen—T-Rex), Iguanodon (which means, Iguana Tooth and was noted for a spike on its thumb), and  Psittacosaurus (Greek for “parrot lizard” and is notable because it is the most species rich dinosaur genus—at least 10 extinct species have been recognized from fossils found).

The museum’s humble beginnings can be traced back to 1936, when French geologist Josué Heilman Hoffet, while researching a geological map of lower Laos, discovered deposits of fossilized bones in the region of Ban Tangvai, 120 kilometers east of Savannakhet, including a large femur and a small spinal vertebra of a dinosaur. Before his untimely death in WWII, he had collected numerous dinosaur bones from the same area. It wouldn’t be until the 1990’s though, when a joint Lao-French palaeontological team rediscovered Hoffet’s original dinosaur site as well as uncovered substantial new dinosaur remains in the area. Further joint field research the following year and again in 1992 revealed the well-preserved remains of the bones now on display in the museum.

Now before this becomes a paleontology lesson and all this specific dinosaur information is lost on you, the museum is really cool to check out, whether you are a dinosaur buff or not. And as the Laos Lonely Planet guidebook points out, “the curators’ unfailing enthusiasm is infectious and they’re willing to use their limited English or French on you.” The guidebook got that right; as soon as I started pointing out some of the fossils to Jeremy Aaron, one of the curators, sensing my obvious interest, gave us a VIP tour of the museum. If there are not too many visitors, one of the curators might even sit you down in front of a computer (like one did with Jeremy Aaron and I) and have you watch a video on one of the expeditions to recover dinosaur bones.

And if you do go, make a small donation (besides the modest entrance fee of 5000 Kip); it would be nice to see this museum expand their exhibit of dinosaur bones as well as fund more research.

The museum is open daily from 8 – 12 and 1 – 4.

On the streets of Savannakhet — Lao Chaleun Movie Theater

I wonder what this movie theater in Savannakhet must have been like in its heydey?

Built during the French colonial period, “Chaleun” is Lao for “prosperity”. Note the facade, which is in the Art Deco style that flourished around the world between 1910-1930. The theater is one of the main attractions on a walking tour of Old Savannakhet.

Interestingly, and not to mention sadly, there are no movie theaters in Laos these days not even in the capital, Vientiane.

Serpico in Laos

I’ve seen a lot of Tuk-tuk drivers detail their Tuk-tuks with some awesome colors and artwork in Laos–like this one, outside a busy market in Savannakhet that caught my eye the day Aon and I were there shopping.

Yep, that’s Al Pacino as Frank Serpico.

What’s a Korean bus doing in Savannakhet?

Korean bus in SavannakhetAt least, what’s a bus that was probably once used by a bus company in Korea now being used by a bus company in Laos? 

That is what I thought last summer when I noticed the Hangul lettering cha-dongmun or main entrance written on the door of the bus that On and I took from Savannakhet to Mukdahan, Thailand.

The only thing that I could think of at the time is that some bus company sold these buses to a bus company in Laos.

It’s the only thing that makes sense with the Korean lettering still visible on the bus door.  

Well, I noticed the same Korean lettering for “main entrance” on the bus On and I took from Vientiane to Paksong this time. Obviously some company in Korea sold a lot of used buses to a bus company in Laos. 

And then, I noticed more Korean lettering on the bus we took from Luang Prabang back to Vientiane as well as other buses at the Nanluang Bus Terminal (in fact, one bus still had the name of the bus company in Hangul written on the outside of the bus).

I am surprised that a lot of the Korean lettering and signs have not been removed inside of the buses or for the lettering on the sides of the buses painted over.

Eleven hours to Savannakhet and then on to Paksong

That’s how long it took On and I to get from Vientiane to her village—Paksong—about two hours south of Savannakhet. 

We left Vientiane at 12:30 on the Vientiane-Pakse bound bus and didn’t get to Paksong until after midnight. It only cost On and I 80,000 Kip each for our tickets (about 300 Baht or $10.00), which is pretty darn cheap when you consider that it cost us 150 Baht for the tuk-tuk to the bus station. 

It was a long, slow journey with the bus stopping many times to pick up or let off passengers. At one point, the bus stopped for passengers to take a pee break along side of the road. Along the way the bus also stopped periodically for passengers to get something to eat from roadside stands selling the usual road food fare, including, but not limited to a quarter grilled chicken on a stick, green mangoes, sticky rice, roasted sweet corn, and for the first two food pit stops, loaves of French baguettes (only 4,000 Kip, about 50 cents). 

Usually for a long bus journey a video or two are shown on the bus’s TV, but on this journey there would be no movie or video. However, when the bus stopped at the Tha Khaek bus terminal, one of the bus attendants (these two guys that help with the luggage and sell tickets) popped in this karaoke video of Thai pop favorites. Fair enough, but perhaps a little risqué for the majority of the passengers because this video featured scantily-clad and big-bosomed Thai ladies in some very provocative poses in sports cars, on horses, and what cracked me up riding an ultra-light kind of aircraft (minus the wings) with her breasts bouncing up and down. I guess a few other passengers on the bus caught the humor of it all and also started to laugh. 

On said that it should take around 10 hours to get to Paksong, but not this trip. We didn’t get to Savannakhet until after 10:30 and then we had to change buses. On told me that when a bus is not full, the bus company sometimes has the passengers get off and get on another half-full bus to save money. Unfortunately for us, we would be the ones getting off the bus and getting another bus: there was another Vientiane-Pakse bound bus waiting for us when the bus we were on arrived in Savannakhet. Kind of a drag having to get on another bus.

South of Savannakhet

By the time we get to On’s village it is around noon. I am so tired all I want to do is take a shower and crash for a few hours. When I wake up a few hours later, On has prepared me a late lunch—Tom Khaw Gai (spicy chicken soup in a coconut/lemongrass base) Moo Phad Grathiam (fried pork with pepper and garlic) and Moo Phad Pak (fried pork with vegetables). Aroy mak mak (very delicious).

On wants to show me around her village and introduce me to the rest of her family and some of her friends, so after another quick shower we are off down a quiet two-lane blacktop road to the village.

If you were headed south on this highway you would have Cambodia in front of you, Thailand on the right and Vietnam on the left. Tomorrow morning we will be traveling down this same road to Pakxe and then onto Wat Phou.

Lofty, fluffy whitish-gray clouds skirt across the horizon as far as the eye can see. It almost feels as though I could be back home in the Midwest. You just don’t see these kinds of clouds every day in Korea. It is still quite hot, but in the distance the appearance of darker cloud formations moving in from the north portend an evening shower or thunderstorm.

I have only been in Laos for half a day and I have already fallen in love with the country. Yeah, I probably could live here if I had the chance (and the way On and I have been talking about what we would like to do in the future, it is definitely something worth considering).



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