Published: February 24th 2008January 27th 2008
Our bus from Tha Khek to Savannakhet
had 2 motorbikes on its roof and was full to bursting. I have to admit it wasn't the most comfortable journey we've made, consisting of 5 hours on a plastic stool in the aisle with no backrest. But the locals don't even think twice about travelling like this (we noticed most buses were second-hand from South Korea and Japan, with the adverts still on!). Older locals tend to snack on fruit and even just leaves, whereas the younger ones are already converted to crisps.
On the bus, we met Ellen and Trevor (from U.S.A. and Oz respectively) and booked a Two-Day Forest Trek and Homestay to Ban Phonsim Village
tour together with them at the more-than-helpful Savannakhet Tourist Office. We booked a day later than we had planned because the guide apologised that he was otherwise engaged the following day attending a friend's wedding (he insisted on showing us his invitation so that we wouldn't think he was making it up!).
Many of Savannakhet's crumbling colonial-style buildings, painted in various pastel shades but in need of a new coat, are a strong reminder of French presence here until 1953
, but the
Wat Rattanalangsi, Savannakhet
architecture makes for a charming town. Situated on the Mekong river, in its heyday it was Laos' most important trading port after Vientiane. The Catholic church still dominates one side of the open square that I could imagine was the main market and centre of hustle and bustle in years gone by.
Sunset was impressive over the river on Saturday but even as day turned to night there weren't a huge number of people around and thus no 'Saturday night' feeling. Alongside the Mekong were outside restaurants with simple plastic chairs and little clothed tables; an upright glass case up front showed ingredients for the dishes available to be BBQ-ed on the fire raring up alongside and some places had a pile of green coconuts at the ready for fresh juice. The riverfront has potential, in fact there was already one tasteful floating restaurant (and a poster advertising perhaps a not-so-tasteful casino-to-be).
For food, we hunted high and low for a guidebook-recommended restaurant claiming fondue, spicy soups and sukiyaki
(Japanese dish where ingredients flavoured with sugar and soy sauce) all under one roof and on our search when asking a local man, he replied "Je ne le connais
pas (I don't know it)" ( French was the predominant foreign language in schools during occupation; (falang
means "French" but has come to be the generic term for "foreigner.") No luck with the restaurant - yet another example of leaving the guidebook behind, throwing caution to the wind and seeing what turns up. We eventually ate simple but tasty grub at "Au Rendezvous", two big BeerLaos, meat and fish dishes with rice for GBP2.65 the lot. (Boy we are going to get a shock when we get home...) Later on we followed the noise (to find a lively place) and found a private party (i.e. one we couldn't crash) happening with its tables spilling out onto the pavement. The proud chef called us over to see that he was roasting a buffalo
on a spit for the guests and he gave us some to taste.
On a walking tour the next day we gave the Dinosaur Museum a miss and headed for the two other sights of interest: Wat Sainyaphum
, rebuilt last century (i.e. not that long ago!) in typically bright colours inside and out of the main buildings: a sim
(ordination hall) and sermon hall. Of most interest
was the Buddha workshop
where a guy in jeans and a T-shirt dutifully put together a new Buddha statue, several others lining up patiently outside at different stages of completion: some already with a coat of gold paint; in a pot beside others was a pot of concrete curls of hair yet to be attached.
At Wat Rattanalangsi
, a monk kindly opened the room housing an impressive 15-metre long reclining Buddha. We gave him a small donation as we left which he at first declined but then said he would use it to buy some food for the cat!
collected us and we drove to the start of the Dong Natad forest
walking trail. Dong Natad is considered a sacred forest, named after a king's servant who took care of the princess there away from trouble in the city. Our excellent English-speaking guide, Thippako, translated the words of our even-more-local guide about the features of the area, first of which was an oil-producing tree
where a chunk is cut from the trunk and the hole is burned and left for 5 days and then the oil is collected for use in lamps. Rather than suffer from
Nick in the sacred forest
Dong Natad forest, Savannaket
this treatment, the tree seems to thrive on it! Food & Drink
*We ate young leaves which tasted like sour apple
*We saw edible flowers that are filled with pork and steamed
*We drank from water vines which often hung down in our path; our guide cut one into pieces and sure enough water dripped out - full of vitamins, apparently!
As expected, we came across many forms of Natural Medicine
*At one point I felt very hot and queasy in the humid forest but a folded up leaf came to the rescue as I was told to tuck it inside my waistband for a few minutes. Somehow it did the trick!
*Red ants are crushed and the aroma smelt to cure nausea; when still alive they can be placed around a snake bite to eat out the poison - fortunately we didn't have to test that one!
*Bitter-tasting sap from another tree is used to make (anti-malarial) quinine - it certainly tasted like sucking a chalk tablet. Wildlife
*When we passed a big spider in his spaghetti junction-like intricate web, our fearless guide promptly fetched it down with a long stick to give us a closer
Finger-length lizard in Dong Natad forest, Savannakhet
*What was coolest was a small lizard best described as a mini dinosaur, whose tiny teeth our guide clipped to his earlobe so it looked like an earring!
We took a walk around the village of Ban Phonsim
(population 3500, but most probably double that if you include animals). It was like stepping back in time to what England may have been like a few hundred years ago: dirt roads, families in wooden stilt houses with livestock living on the ground underneath. Adult and baby animals (chickens, dogs, cattle and buffalo) wandering around taking priority in the streets; the dog at our homestay rounded up the cows by himself when it was their bedtime. The chickens the family eat themselves or send to market. Nick thought it was funny that our homestay family's toilet brand was NATO
The villagers said "sabaidee"
to us almost constantly during our 5-minute stroll around the block, the majority very cheerily but a couple looked rather bewildered at our presence. It felt like the least touristy place we have stayed since being away, they see at most two tour groups of several foreigners every few weeks, some months none at all.
Bacii ceremony in full swing
Ban Phonsim village, Savannakhet
As evening fell, we were called to the family living room for the Bacii Ceremony
'), a Lao tradition where the host ties white cotton around the guest's wrists whilst praying for their safe travels and good fortune whilst away from home. About 10 friends and neighbours gathered around the tree decoration in the centre of the room adorned with flowers, bananas and rice crackers; the white cotton was hanging from the branches. A family friend incanted whilst we all held on to the tree, then one by one our hosts placed a bowl containing a boiled (whole!) chicken in our right hand whilst tying the cotton round our wrists and saying to us in Lao things like "welcome", "best of luck for your life" and "bon voyage." Then the chicken was passed to the next person and replaced with a beer which it is customary to drink; into our left hand was placed a boiled egg representing our spirit (which we later ate at dinner!!). Apart from the beer drinking part, the bacii
ceremony was a cultural eye-opener.
For food we sat on rattan mats around a low table, a bit like in Japan. The host
And we're off...
All dressed up to give alms to the monks
father and his friends spoke hardly any English (not that we expected them to!) but did remember a fair bit of French from when it was taught in schools until 1953 when Laos gained its independence. We had a good chat about our different ways of life; when we asked them how their society had changed over the years they told us that electricity has been the biggest change (they got wired up in 1984), also the use concrete as an alternative to wood for building. They told us that life was much easier for kids nowadays in that they have a chance to be educated for longer and not do strenuous work from a young age, but lamented the fact that some youngsters have got involved in drugs that have made their way over from Myanmar and Thailand.
Rise and shine soon after dawn next morning to take alms to the monks
at the village wat
(temple) round the corner. It was special day in the Buddhist calendar so about 200 villagers there, but on a typical day still about 10 people go every morning. Everyone sat or knelt (it is disrespectful to point your feet towards the
Ready to sell at market
Our host family father with crab catch
Buddha statue) with their bowl of offerings in front: ours consisted of sticky rice, satsumas, biscuits and a bottle of water transported in a reused bottle of M-150
(a Thai energy drink full of caffeine and sweeteners:"Recommended consumption 2 bottles per day"
- good marketing, I suppose!). A leader and then the monks chanted various prayers as we tried to concentrate. As my eyes wandered to the story of Buddha's life painted around the walls, I was reminded of the Stations of the Cross around the walls in Catholic churches.
After our breakfast of more sticky rice, eggs and crabs (the father's catch from the rice terraces the previous day), we did the rounds of the village to see the different trades: scarf and skirt making (the cotton is dyed with leaves of the indigo plant), mats and mattresses made from dried papaya leaves. A man weaved a fishing net and another (aged 84) honed different lengths of small bamboo stalks to produce different tones which he fixed together to make a kind of panpipe - the music he produced was lovely (see video). He lamented the fact that his eyes were not so good any more for the
intricate work and that younger people want to learn an easier trade. However, the instrument is highly appreciated by Thais, who pay up to GBP30 pounds (a lot of money!) for it. Heading out of the village, we passed sticky rice fields where young boys caught up with us and insisted we take pictures of them! A clearing in the nearby forest used to be the Old City of Savannakhet in 1577 - you would only know it now from a crumbling brick stupa
(conical Buddhist monument to store sacred objects), where our host father spent a few moments informing the spirits of our visit and asking for our protection. We passed a watermelon field (I would have thought they grew in water
...) where the fruit were still young and only about the size of a golf ball but we could already see the light and dark green patterning like on a big one. Our packed lunch was consumed in an open-air wooden hut on stilts overlooking Turtle Lake
- apparently there used to be turtles in it but they have since been eaten (?!) On the way back to town we stopped at Wat Inghang
temple, built about 2000
Posing six-year olds
They insisted we take their photo! (For you boffins, this is the 1,000th photo we've published!)
years ago and is meant to mark the place where Buddha rested while visiting the area. The place is so revered that worshippers travel from Thailand to show their respect on Buddhist festival days. Lao sandwich
was had for breakfast (pate and salad baguette) the next day which was so good we bought another for lunch. Our bus to Pakse
was so full we had to sit on plastic stools in the aisle - I did manage to nab a proper seat for the last hour (of 5) and my neighbour shared his sweet potato with me - so kind. Our first task in Pakse was to patronise a coffee shop; the town's wealth is built on coffee and we thought it showed in a number of very smart hotels on the main street.
Perhaps cancelling out the detoxifying achieved by a relaxing and herbal sauna and oil massage, we had a curry for dinner! Nick writes...Just as at the sauna in Vientiane, I was not sure whether wearing trunks under my towel was a good idea. The previous time, I had erred on the side of caution and donned them, but inside I heard some embassy
guys talking amongst themselves and saying how overly reserved it was to gird the loins with anything other than the sarong provided. So this time, I didn't wear them but inside the sauna some guys removed their towel and were wearing trunks! Oh well, I was comfortable at least. There was slightly less steam than in the Vientiane sauna, but it got plenty hot enough and it was refreshing to come out every once in a while for a hot glass of mulberry tea
Can you spot Nick, bottom right??
Tad Yueang waterfall, Bolaven Plateau
We hopped on a bus to the village known as "Km40" (villages don't always have names so they are distinguished by how far they are along the highway) on the Bolaven Plateau
, an area famed for its coffee plantations and waterfalls
. There weren't enough seats on the bus for everyone, so Nick spent half the journey sat along with a few others on sugar sacks that were being transported in the same bus; we went relatively high up in the mountains, and our ears popped with the altitude.
Our guest house owner showed us their garden where they grew peppercorns, chillies, bananas, papayas, Lao green tea and of course coffee beans. We saw Tad Fan Waterfall
(one of Laos' most famous, cascading from 120 metres) from afar and a few kilometres later on brave Nick went for a chilly dip at Tad Yueang Waterfall
(see video). In the front garden of almost every house we walked past, between the two waterfalls, were fresh coffee beans drying in the sun.
Now as proof of the strength of the coffee fresh from the plantation this is my true story: at 5 p.m. we enjoyed the earthy and mocha-like taste from a cup of the good stuff and went to bed at a respectable hour. Well, I don't have any trouble getting to sleep usually but I don't know how much caffeine that stuff contains because I didn't nod off that night until 4 a.m.! I was only allowed Lao coffee at breakfast after that... Nick writes...Swimming under Tad Yueang Waterfall was the first time I had swam under such a great height. It was freezing when first got in, and there were a few rocks to avoid, plus not much visibility underwater. I stood under the waterfall and tried to look upwards but unsurprisingly the huge volume of water splashed my eyeballs and so much went up my nose that it wasn't possible.
Next day we took two buses to stay near Tad Lo
- probably the waterfall most talked about in Laos (but to be honest I was more impressed by the ones we'd already seen). As we awaited the connecting bus at a street junction, papaya and watermelons were piled up for sale outside a family-run cafe, a chicken, a dog and a few piglets weaved in and out under and chairs the tables foraging for titbits (I guess it was their home too!). The first bus that pulled up was full; the driver of the second, dollar-struck by our foreign faces, tried to charge us GBP15 for the 2-hour trip and was promptly dismissed. Third time lucky was a local bus, full but not quite bursting. After an hour or so perched half on an armrest and half of sacks of rice piled up to the same height in the aisle I had reassessed the concept of comfort; it's all relative. The songthaew
(local transport) we chartered for the final 2 km from the main road to Tad Lo village conked out after a couple of minutes so a spot
Your elephant awaits, madam.
Tad Lo village, Bolaven Plateau
of exercise - walking whilst weightlifting (rucksacks) - was in order.
We secured a bargain
room ($2) with wooden floor, rattan walls and (luxury-of-luxuries) a mirror, but as the day went on we realised that meant only in monetary terms. The mosquito net neatly tied up above the bed was only a single, so to fit it meant the mattress edges curled up, the two door bolts were unaligned so we had to secure ourselves in at night by tying a shoelace (one was already hanging from the door handle - we should have guessed...) tightly to a nail in the wall so the door stayed securely closed. Well, almost. Tad Lo Waterfall
, the draw of the area, is quite tame but every evening the dam is opened so more water swells the flowing water and provides sufficient water and pressure for showers: this, our owner later explained as she said the shower only worked between 6 and 7 p.m. (she kept that quiet when plugging the room, didn't she?!) Having been allowed to use next door's water supply instead of waiting until 6, we headed to a dinner of Fish 'n' Chips (a whole fish - mind
On an elephant
Tad Lo village
you, we've got quite used to seeing them) during which we decided to take an elephant ride the next day and change guest houses. We arrived back at the guesthouse at 10 p.m. by which time there was still
no shower water. Bargain
indeed. Elephant ride!
It felt very grand to travel so serenely and at such a height, seated on our beast all of 60 years old. She stomped across rugged countryside with where lots of young bamboo grew, wading across rivers, descending and ascending banks we would have thought too steep for our total weight (Nick, I and the 'driver'!). After the morning's excitement a chilled-out afternoon was spent as we strolled over to Tad Lo and read our books sitting on the big rocks, and having a dip in the river.
There are more photos below