If you have visited That Ing Hang (see seperate tip) the chances are you will head straight back to the main road but I would urge you to do otherwise and carry on along the unpaved road past the That. There are two reasons for this, one is Turtle Lake and the other, the small village of Phonsim. I say small, and it is by my standards, but this is, in fact the largest village in the area and indeed used to be the Povincial town. It seems hard to credit it now, when you observe the sleepy pace of life here now.
Legend has it that Phonsim was founded in 1577 during the reign of Fa Ngum, the leader who united the Lane Xang empire. The original ihabitants are said to have migrated from what is now Northern Vietnam. The village derives it's oroginal name (Meuang Luang Phonsim) from the leader at the time Luang, and his good lady wife, Sim. I suppose it is as good a way as any to name a new town.
There are supposed to be a few ruins of the original place but I could not find them, and they do not appear to be signposted. I suspect they don't get many foreigners here as, when I took a slow ride round the "backstreets", I was met with looks of complete amazement most times. The youngsters playing petanque were a little less reticent and we had the obligatory non-verbalised joking session with my 10 words of Lao and their equivalent English.
In great measure, I travel not so much to see sights, intersting as that can be but rather to see how ordinary people go about their lives. I really am a great one for people watching. This village was just another opportunity, without prying, to have a little glimpse of what life is like for a rural Lao villager.
Follow the unpaved road away from That Ing Hang (away from the Highway) and it is about three miles down that road.
This tip is about Phonsim Turlte Lake, so readers of my tips knowing the way my mind works, will already have divined that it is completely devoid of turtles. Not a one. What it does have are a host of fishermen, a few grazing beasts and a lot of wonderful views. It is a man-made construction, instituted for the purpose of irrigating the surrounding rice paddies. The local Tourist Board leaflet states, "It is still not frequented by visitors" and I can entirely believe that from the looks of the locals.
Whilst it does not look like it at times, it is possible to completely circumnavigate the lake on a scooter or bicycle, although I would not recommend it for a novice motorcyclist as there are a few tricky patches. Another word of caution. The tourist leaflet I mentioned indicates that there is another road back into Phonsim village. I followed the natural route and ended up on diminishing and less defined tracks until I decided to turn back. Whilst it was great fun and provided for some wonderful photo opportunities, it probably isn't that advisable. If you combine this with Boungva Lake, That Ing Hang and Phonsim village at a sedate pace it makes for a lovely day out in what is stunning countryside.
The very pleasant and tranquil Bungva (Boungva) Lake lies a mere few kilometres from Savannakhet and yet it seems a million mles away. This is truly rural Central Lao and is remarkably beautiful. Water buffalo quietly graze the lake floor, pigs rummage about on the shore and the only sound was the rather incongruous and slightly eerie sound of an unusually slow pop song drifting across the water from I know not where. I was half-expecting the Asian equivalent of an arm clothed in white samite to appear bearing a Lao version of Excalibur. There is not actually anything to do here except appreciate the natural beauty, altough further down the lakeshore I saw three rather aged pedaloes with no indication as to how they might be rented.
Local legend has it that about 1800, people from Palai and Phonsoung villages migrated in search of better land and stopped here. However, as they did so, the Gods took exception and an almighty storm began, which only abated on production of offerings and candles made of beeswax. Beautiful as it is, the lake itself is not the result of Mother Nature alone but assisted a little by man who enclosed it in 1976, upgrading the work in 2006.
If you are on your way to the nearby That Ing Hang (see seperate tip) this makes a very pleasant place to stop off. I visited on a scooter although it would be an easy cycle or you could even walk it if you felt like it.
Follow the signposted road towards That Ing Heng (towards Xeno) and it is beside the village of Ban Boungva.
Had a great day out around Savannakhet with a guide from the ecoguides unit (at the Provincial Tourism Office). We set out by ‘tuk-tuk’ and went first to a salt-factory, where huge salty pools evaporated slowly from shallow concrete vats. The concentrated residue was then shovelled into great iron pans with constant fires beneath, and finally, the dried salt was iodised and packed for sale. They were missing a trick here – I’d happily have bought a small pack (and paid way over the odds) to take home as a reminder of the vast snowy heaps of fresh salt and the smiles of the women who patiently showed us their work, no doubt astonished by our interest in something so ordinary to them.
After the salt-works we headed on foot into the Dong Na Tad forest reserve, threading along a narrow trail, stopping occasionally while a guide from the nearby village explained how trees and other plants were used. We ate a picnic of snacks from the local market and, while we raced the ants to the food, our guides related how the forest and its central lake were named: it involved a tragic tale of unfulfilled love between two young people.
We left the forest by a different route and stopped at a roadside stall for some young coconut juice - my favourite tropical drink. A short walk further was the That Ing Hang temple, one of the holiest sites in Laos because of its 9th century stupa. Coach-loads of Thai pilgrims from across the border descend here to pray and rows of seated, gold-painted Buddha statues testify to supplicants who have donated money. We wore borrowed sarongs from the gate-house and wandered respectfully round the temple grounds.
We returned to Savannakhet by tuk-tuk. A lot of thought has gone into setting this trip up and it's well worth doing to get a look at the countryside and how people live.