Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Life's good? Or not?

If only life could be so good: Beer Lao & Hot Spring

The best known hot spring of Xieng Khouang province, Lao, is that of Baw Njai (Bo Nyai) which translates as big hot spring. It's also known for it's more advanced stage of development: no more just a spring, it is a real resort, with separate bathing facilities.

LP (Things to do in Xieng Khuang) describes it as follows:
'A hot mineral spring can be visited near Muang Kham. Baw Nyai is large and lies 18km east of Muang Kham, 51km from Phonsavan. The spring source is in a heavily wooded area where several bamboo pipes have been rigged so that you can bathe nearby, although the experience is a little disappointing owing to the muddy texture of the water'.
The LP Laos guidebook adds that it was originally built by Kaysone's wife (Kaysone was a leader of the Lao revolution) as a way of treating and entertaining foreign politicians.

My guiding info comes from A Guide to Xieng Khouang Mountain Province in Northern Laos [1] which I also used on my other Lao hot spring visit (to Baw Noi), another 15+ kms away in the direction of Muang Kham.

The spring(s)
Having visited Baw Noi previously and now expecting a major improvement in bathing facilities we were off on our way. The first advantage over the smaller spring was the entry fee (5,000 kip; 0,60 $US): the entry fee collector was on a break, possibly long term. Though the entry fees seem negligible, our driver believes we are having a really good lucky day, all smiles.

The entrance is about 2 km from road to Nong Het. Passing the entrance, one glides into an expansive compound with about 10 large bungalows. On the side of the road is a path which indicates the direction of the hot spring.

This tree lined dirt track goes through a forested area to a fenced-in pond. The pond is about 20m in circumference and one can walk around. On the far side one can observe the water springing and steam slowly rises above the pond.

Mukarin has a photo when there was proof of more forest in the immediate vicinity. A sign of the times?

From this pond, one can also walk to a smaller pond. This track is less wide and ends in a marsh-like pond (see photo below) which contains hot water, but not really hot.

We return back to the resort proper and having decided earlier that we were in need of a soak, head for the restaurant which doubles up as ticket sales point for soakers. Behind this restaurant are a number of small, stinky, damp and dark cubicles with small tubs. Though the soak would cost just 5,000 kip, for the sack of sanity we skip this part.

It always surprises me how such 'developed' sites have little or no idea what a soaker would like. Me quick thinking: take away most of the walls (so one has a nice view of the surrounding) forest, expand the tubs, add a shower and a resting/relaxing corner and you really have something tourists will go out of their way to experience. Now Baw Njai only produces disappointed potential soakers.


I'm not the only one disliking the soaking facilities. ordinary lishtar :
'I’m abysmally disappointed by the hot springs I was sure I was going to experience. The hot spring was there – green and pristine, but to try it out, I would have to go into a small room, equipped with a bathtub and toilet where the hot spring water was connected to. That’s it? I couldn’t believe it. I don’t want to try it out!'
ignatris blogs on Baw Nyai:
'a hot spring that looks like a development project gone wrong, even though the water is really hot'.
Some are more fortunate by opting to stay the night in a bungalow. At least here the bathrooms seem do-able, but not necessarily an exciting prospect. Achikochi Takema has an expansive blog entry on Baw Njai as well as on Baw Noi. His Baw Njai experience describes staying overnight and having a private bath. Drawing the bath though takes more than 5 minutes, just for the hot water to arrive. He also speculates that the spring appeared after a bomb fell at this place, thus explaining the existence of the pond. The fence would have been constructed to protect the spring from the free roaming water buffalo. He also pic's the bathing rooms in the guest bungalows, describing them as a more hygienic way of soaking.

The right way
In a way, it's quite disturbing this lack of insight in tourists (perceived) needs. In this one should take the example of New Zealand. Well-known for it's mountains and geothermal activity, not often do these two combine. So in response there are innovative projects which are not / can not using natural springs but copying the soaking experiences.

See for instance
Onsen Hot Pools of Queenstown
'TripAdvisor members have voted Onsen Hot Pools the best of 74 Queenstown activities for over two years!',
Omarama Hot Tubs
'You have an amazing place there, absolutely beautiful'
Glacier Hot Pools (Overall Winner West Coast Southern Alps Tourism Awards 2010).

The above are just proof of how easy it is to attract tourists if one adjusts to their demands. It needn't be so difficult.

On the positive side, some redeveloping of Baw Njai was in the process (bungalows), though I have my doubts whether it will result in better soaking facilities. If only i were manager ...

More info (mostly photo's) from the recently discovered Japanese language blog site by yoshidanoharuo. He/she has traveled extensively across the world looking for hot soaks. He/she ranks Baw Noi higher than Baw Nyai, three stars versus two on a scale of just 3.

Getting there: From Phonsavan, Xieng Khouang's provincial capital, head north east to Muang Kham and continue 20 km beyond Muang Kham in the direction of Nong Het. The turn off is well signposted. The resort itself is about 2 km's from the main highway.

Soaking experience: Only for the blind and gullible?

Overall impression: The impression we left with was that of a missed opportunity. How difficult can it be to get it wrong? If I compare with other hot spring haunts in Southeast Asia it's certainly a common theme in the developing of such soaks. Development = not good.

[1] Creutz, S., J. Van Den Bergh (2009) A Guide to Xieng Khouang Mountain Province in Northern Laos. Lao National Tourism Authority, Vientiane, Laos.

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