If you’re traveling down the main highway from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, you have the option of taking a scenic route. This comes in the form of an abrupt left-hand turn at the dusty little town of Ponhong. We originally planned to stay in Ponhong for one night, and so we drove to a guesthouse at the end of a dirty road. The owner looked us up and down and said, “For sleep?” implying, with a odd look in his eye, that hourly rentals were also indeed possible. We left the guesthouse, and then left Ponhong altogether. It was a dusty, dirty, concrete town with no natural beauty as for as we could see. We guessed (correctly) that we would be able to find a place to stay that was little more appealing.
That place was Thalat, a town that is barely even listed on Google maps. There were a few guesthouses and hotels around, but strangely they were all full. At first we wondered why because we were certainly not on any tourist path, but soon we began to see Laotian people wandering about in small groups in neat business attire (for women that meant a blouse and a sarong, for men it’s the same as everywhere else – shirt and pants) carrying little coloured portfolios. We had stumbled into the middle of some sort of conference, likely white collar workers from Vientiane on a working field trip (which included late-night karaoke), and they’d taken up almost all the accommodation. We did, however, manage to find one room that was available. It was nice enough – dingy, not much natural light, springy mattress – but roomy and with a hot shower. We spent two nights there, and during our full day we took a short drive to the Nam Ngum hydroelectric dam, which we had no idea existed and found entirely by accident.
The $97 million US dollar dam construction started in 1968 and took twelve years to complete. It was built as way to cover the countries ever increasing power needs, so much so that it now sells 80% of its generated electricity to Thailand. In fact, it’s a big earner for Laos, generating gross annual revenues of $36 million USD. The newly created reservoir (which has now taken the crown as the largest body of water in the country) was once forest, valleys, and hills. Now the valleys are underwater trenches, and the peaks of the hills have become islands. There are some sobering reports regarding negative effects on the downstream biodiversity, but it’s hard to deny the beauty of the man-made lake.
The locals have capitalised on the attraction, and the area contains a resort as well as several companies that offer boat rides out to the islands. It seemed that the only way to get to the area itself there was to have your own transport, although it may be possible to book a tour package from Vientiane (the words ‘tour’ and ‘package’ together scare me so much that I can’t say for sure). To hire a boat with about 20 seats costs 100,000 kip for one hour – about $12 USD, including a stop off for a swim at one of the islands.
Since there was nobody else around to hire a boat with, we decided to take one all to ourselves. In a big group it would a very cheap cruise, and there is also the option of ordering meals and drinks to take aboard.