Riding the Southern Swing: The Search for the Ancient Stone


We were packed up and heading out of Paksong when we saw the sign. Just 13km down a dirt road there was, it said, a large waterfall, a “Thousand Year Old Rose”, and –this is what hooked us– an “Ancient Stone”.

The painting on the sign showed a rock formation that looked roughly like a duck sitting on top of a rock column. We stopped in front of the sign and looked at each other, knowing that decision was already made.

“Wow, they have an ancient stone! Not like all these new-fangled, modern stones…”

“Wow, they have an ancient stone,” I enthused. “Not like all these new-fangled modern stones that everyone else is touting. We just have to go.”

Neither Stu nor Christina could argue with my logic, so we turned and headed south, riding slowly on the potholed, washboard path. The 13km went by quickly, which was a good thing — we were supposed to be getting an early start for Attapeu, 125km away.

Breakfast at the market, then stopping for coffee and wifi had already eaten away at our schedule. We thought we’d just zip in, see the stone and waterfall (and whatever the hell a thousand-year-old rose was), then hop back on the road. We were wrong.

After riding the 13km, we found not an ancient stone, but a raised road barrier in the middle of a small village and a sign that said “Waterfall 3km. Entrance 10,000 kip”. An old woman limped out of one of the huts and waived us on with a smile — another slow season perk, I thought. Unfortunately, the road from here on degenerated rapidly into a series of deep mud holes and steep rocky hills — I think she was just too embarrassed to charge us.

Riding the Southern Swing: The Search for the Ancient Stone

We soon came to what I named “The Hill of Death”. (I have a tendency to add “of Death” to the name of anything remotely sketchy — bridges, trails, squirrels…) Photos never quite capture how steep and hazardous a hill like this is, but let me assure you, it fully deserved its name.

Christina had joined us on this ride, admitting that she had “very little riding experience”, and I could tell she was less-than-thrilled about going further. Stu had already headed down, bouncing over rocks and occasionally planting a foot to keep from falling over. I turned to Christina and said “We’ll just walk ’em down,” and started downhill with my feet on the ground, straddling the bike and squeezing the front brake hard to keep it under control.

Only after I was twenty feet down the hill –and fully committed– did I realize that she had thought I’d said “We’ll just walk down,” hence her reply of “Damn straight. I’m not riding down that!” But she did — in second gear, no less, and wearing flip-flops. We’ll make a biker out of her yet.

I think it took us longer to cover those three kilometers –fishtailing much of the way– than it did the previous thirteen but we finally made it to a grassy parking area in front of a large granite overhang. Beneath the cliff were several large Buddha statues on a wooden platform. No one else was around.

Riding the Southern Swing: The Search for the Ancient Stone

“So, where’s the Ancient Stone?” I asked. I was promised an ancient stone and, by God, I wanted to see it. Instead, we found an battered wooden sign that pointed into the jungle — it was written in squiggly Lao and promised that something lay 800 meters down a steep, overgrown trail. Another sign pointed to some stairs that climbed up the side of the cliff face.

I was concerned about losing too much time on the trail, but Stu was determined to see a waterfall so he charged in to scout things out. Christina and I climbed the steps and found ourselves on top of a huge, gently-curving granite dome –a batholith, I believe– and wandered towards a high hill where we thought there might be a good view.

Instead, we found two men having lunch under a canvas tarp, where they were putting the final touches on a five-foot-tall concrete Buddha sculpture. One of them was far friendlier than the other and showed us a small hole in the Buddha’s shoulder blade where you could slip in an offering. We both donated to the cause, but I think Christina got all the karma, as I had to bum a 1,000 kip ($.12 US) note off of her, being too cheap to use the 10,000 bill I had on me.

Riding the Southern Swing: The Search for the Ancient Rock

The ever-present rainclouds finally decide to cut loose and we spent ten minutes hanging out under the tarp and making sign-language chit chat with the guys while they ate their rice and vegetables. It was about this time that we realized we’d all left our packs on the bikes, without any protection from the rain. We both had our SLRs on hand and not a scrap of rain gear between us. Another well-planned adventure…

Our new buddy pointed to a wall of trees in the distance, saying “waterfall” and we headed that way after the rain let up. The trail was –of course– steep and muddy, but was in good repair and we kept following it further down, enticed by the growing sounds of the falls. It ended at a large flat clearing right on the side of the Plateau that was filled with tall grass, vines and brier. A dilapidated wooden hut sat off to one side and that’s where we took shelter when the rains started again.

The rain let up eventually and we climbed out to explore. Thick, tall trees surrounded the clearing but I could get glimpses of the distant plain a thousand feet below. “Ya know, the view would be spectacular if someone would just cut down all these damned trees,” I quipped. She ignored me.

We found the falls eventually, but the only spot with a view was right at the top — we could see the river rolling by and curving over the edge, but couldn’t see the falls themselves. Poking around the thick trees and bushes at the edge convinced me that the only view I’d get would be a brief one, as I plummeted to the rocky bottom 100 feet below. Christina’s examination of a muddy spot to my right was fruitless as well, but she did find a leech between her toes afterward — a consolation prize, I suppose.

Riding the Southern Swing: The Search for the Ancient Rock

The climb out wasn’t too strenuous, but we were both soaked by the time we reached the top, now hidden in thick cloud. Another rain squall hit as we reached the Buddha statue and we spent more time with our new friends under the blue tarp. “I don’t think we’re going to make it to Attapeu today,” said Christina and I had to agree.

Finally making our way back to the bikes, we found Stu sitting under the overhang next to our damp bags, which I had been convinced would be soaked with rain. “Oh, cool! Thanks for moving the bags, mate,” I offered.

“I thought you moved them,” he replied. “They were here when I came back up the trail.”

Christina and I looked at each other. “Buddha moved our bags!” we both exclaimed. “Damn. I shoulda slipped him a tenner,” I added. “Maybe he would have moved them before they got wet.”

“Buddha moved our bags!” we both exclaimed.

Stu hadn’t found the falls either — he got close enough to hear them, but balked at a near-vertical portion of the trail that would have required him to wallow in the mud to climb to the top.

We never found the stone or the rose either, so –technically– the trip was a failure but we all had huge grins on our faces, so it wasn’t.

But the fun wasn’t over, as we still had to ride through 16km of muddy road that had been further soaked by three rain storms. The muck was thicker and the puddles deeper as we slipped and slid our way forward, feet sinking in deep mud holes that threatened to pull the sandals from our feet. I caught my foot under a root while powering out of a thick patch and managed to pull it free just in time — a split-second later and I would have broken my foot.

I watched Christina muscle her way through one patch of mud and then another without fear or complaint, in flip-flops and painted toes. “I think you’re a biker now!” I yelled. We reached the Hill and she charged her way to the top without a problem and stopped to shout back “That was a lot easier than last time. I think I’m getting the hang of this.”

Fifty feet later, she hit a slick spot and dropped her bike. “Okay, you’re definitely a biker now,” I said with a grin.

As we approached the barrier at the village, a large crowd was hanging out by a truck on the side of the road, digging through a vendor’s goods. I got the feeling that a bunch of farangs were just about the last thing they expected to see riding up that stretch of road. We were tired, splattered with mud, and soaked with both sweat and rain, but the smiles and grudging nods of respect made it all worthwhile.

After renting rooms at the hotel for another night in Paksong and showering, we stopped back at the coffee shop to use the only wifi in town. The rather odd Dutchman who owned the place asked us about our adventures and laughed when we complained about not finding the Ancient Stone. “The whole thing is the Ancient Stone,” he explained. It wasn’t a rock formation, it was the entire mountain — we’d been standing on the damned thing the whole time.

Later that night, we visited the karaoke brothel and then turned in early. It’d been a long day.

And I still don’t know what a thousand-year-old rose looks like.

Next: A Town Called Bullshit

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

ayngelina October 4, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Those roads look insane, you are crazy!
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..Who is the world’s best salsa dancer =-.


wes November 6, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Hee hee — it’s been said before ;)


Christy - Ordinary Traveler October 5, 2010 at 4:44 am

This totally reminds me of our search for a “blue lagoon” in Laos! Except we regrettably rented beach cruisers instead of motorbikes and it was definitely an adventure to remember. I love stories like this, where things don’t pan out the way you expected, but you enjoy the journey regardless. It seems Laos is full of surprises! :)
.-= Christy – Ordinary Traveler´s last blog ..An Island Fit For Kings – Koh Phangan 2 =-.


Nomadic Chick October 5, 2010 at 6:21 am

Fist pumps to Christina. So wish it was me muddy and sweaty with a shit eating grin.
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Worst Washroom of the Week =-.


wes November 6, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Agreed. She rocks.


Brooks October 5, 2010 at 7:38 am

Reminds me of a circuit I did on Ometepe a few years ago. Loved it. So much muddy fun!


wes October 5, 2010 at 9:37 am

Good, clean fun! Okay, maybe not clean…


Jenny October 5, 2010 at 11:20 pm

I love adventures like this! It may be miserable (and difficult) at the time sometimes, but afterward well worth the story you get to tell, but most of all the feeling that encompasses you.
.-= Jenny´s last blog ..Dog Dilemma Resolved- Kibu and Zulu have a new home =-.


Pirate63 October 7, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Great adventure Wes,we love it when it pans out like that,so much better than being on the usual tourist merry go rounds!


Theodora (Travels with a Nine Year Old) October 8, 2010 at 5:47 pm

I thought it was just me that walked dirt roads like a, well, a big bloody girl! Clearly it’s a chick thing… That and having the nipper on the back, I guess.
.-= Theodora (Travels with a Nine Year Old)´s last blog ..One Man and His Dog- Death of a Serial Killer =-.


wes October 9, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Well, it is the *sensible* thing to do :)


Matt October 9, 2010 at 12:33 am

Wes, you definitely have a talent for story telling. You captivated me from start to finish with this one. I love that at the end you find out that you were on the ancient stone the whole time. What a great adventure!
.-= Matt´s last blog ..How Our Kids Got Dual Citizenship =-.


wes October 9, 2010 at 8:27 am

Thanks, Matt — very kind of ya :)