Published: February 14th 2011January 4th 2011
Our appearance in south-east Asia was the beginning of the end.
We had a schedule, we had a flight, we had an end-date. Five months left before we had to find a job, and do it. Five months, five countries - starting with Laos.
On the other hand, Laos did
promise something different. Most travellers we'd talked to who had toured SE Asia had nothing but glowing praise for the country and it's people, so we were looking forward to it. The first thing we noticed was that it's a relatively poor country. Arriving at the border we passed through the gleaming modern structure that houses Thai passport control, and walked out the other side into... something else. There were a few rickety market stalls where local women in conical hats laid out their fruit and vegetables, a couple of trucks and not a lot other than that. It was in fact quite a lot like the more remote Nepali border crossings. We found the small immigration office and waited for the official to turn up, paid some dollars then argued when he requested a few more as an 'administration fee'. This turned out to be genuine (well, as far as
Some of the best coffee around.
We negotiated a mini-van along with a Spanish couple and waited for the remaining 6 seats to fill up. The driver found 9 more people, crammed them in and off we went towards the town of Pakse
, vibrant transport hub of the south.
Despite this being a mini-bus and therefore free to drop us off wherever we wanted to go, we were dumped in some far-flung area where there were (naturally) rickshaw drivers waiting for us. It would be genuinely interesting to know what commision changed hands between drivers for this kind of thing. The whole 'behind the scenes' of the Asian tourism industry must be an endless cycle of money changing hands, calculated in percentages. Maybe they could teach 'the west' a thing or two about sustainable economics... Anyway, we jumped on one of these ungainly contraptions, sped off and wallowed in hilarity as the spaniards ran out of petrol in front of us, rolling to an undignified halt as we flew by with the wind in our collective hair.
Pakse has a few guesthouses, but only one of them is highly praised in the Lonely Planet: Laos
guide. This one was (and always
Time to relax...
K showing how it's done in southern Laos.
seems to be) full. As we sat and pondered our next move, we ordered a 'coffee with milk', or cafe nom'
as it's known to the locals. What a wonderous thing is the cafe nom. Thick Laos coffee sitting atop a layer of sweetened condensed milk - this might just be the best thing about Laos, and that's meant in the best possible way.
We didn't consider Pakse to be much of a destination in itself, and were keen to head to our next stop - Si Phan Don
('Four-thousand islands') in the far south, a few kilometres from the cambodian border. Having taken a mediocre room for the night and being introduced to the Nazim
Indian restaurant chain, we rickshaw'd back out to the bus station the next morning to catch what we could catch on the road south. 'What we could catch' turned out to be a Săwngthăew
(something we still can't pronounce convincingly). This is basically a flatbed truck with a bench bolted along either side, and a roof bolted on top. As part of our negotiation the driver agreed to let us sit up front in the cabin, rather than out the back. Deal. While
Don Khon locals making friends and begging for sweets.
we waited, we tucked into some local food - the 'authentic' stuff travellers are always raving about. This turned out to be a few skewers of grissly, unchewable BBQ'd meat for Ben and a distinctly fish-pasty papaya salad
for vegetarian K. Tasty.
Si Phan Don is a nice place. Well, area really. We're not sure how many islands there actually are
in this wide stretch of the Mekong, but there are only three likely choices for travellers. We caught a long-boat to Don Khon
, which was supposed to be the quietest and most rural of the three. It was indeed that. Don Khon is so quiet and rural that there isn't much to do other than lounge in hammocks, ride around on a bicycle and sip a cold Beer Lao
. After a fair bit of walking, we found a cheap place right where we'd started our search - a small room of unfinished weatherboard containing little more than a bed and a mosquito net. We did
have a nice view from the balcony though and managed to string up a pair of hammocks outside. Mmm, the tension melts away just writing about it...
The next day we decided
Si Phan Don.
to do not much. Virtually nothing actually. this day was reserved for lounging, beer and lazily flicking through our guidebook. Some more tourists moved into our guesthouse and six of us dined out that night. Of course, we've 'dined out' virtually every night for the last 16 months so this night wouldn't be noteworthy were it not for a peculiar episode - K's dinner smelled decidedly 'fishy' despite the request for no fish sauce
. When we queried this, a random tourist piped up from across the room, loudly informing us that "You'll have a hard time avoiding fish sauce in south east Asia".
Thinking this a bit of a stupid (and redundant, under the circumstances) thing to shout across a restaurant, we sort of rolled our collective eyes and thanked him for his comment. This response apparently didn't go down too well and the guy could be heard fuming away about the 'stupid tourists' some minutes later. This amused us quite a bit but we did feel sorry for his girlfriend, who's helpless expression may have spoken volumes had we bothered to look over.
After this 'day of rest' we decided it was time for action, and by action
Driving to Bolaven plateau.
we mean renting a pair of little-girl bicycles to explore the island on. We visited waterfalls, jungle-backed beaches and villages on our way and returned happy from the day's activity. All that cycling sure made us thirsty though... time for another beerlao.
Leaving Si Phan Don proved to be quite an ordeal. Although the vendor had happily written us a pair of bus tickets and taken our money, she hadn't checked that there were indeed seats available. On arrival at the bus station (well, the area of the dirt road where busses generally come to) we were shunted around in circles as we tried to find someone
with a seat. This silliness couldn't last forever though and eventually we were ushered aboard another bus for the trip.
A few hours later we were back in Pakse, and checked out our first Laotian Wat
(monastery) which was home to more cats than monks if our impressions were correct. Yep, Pakse was thrilling. In fairness though, we did recieve a pretty good hour-long massage, having parted with about $3 each.
The next morning, we impulse-rented a little moped and sped off (well, maybe not sped
so much as inched
K modelling her trendy lid.
towards the Bolaven Plateau
, a...plateau which is home to some nice nature and the country's best coffee, if the guidebook is to be believed. Our first stop was the little town of Tad Lo
, which didn't impress us sufficiently despite being quite nice to look at. We split after lunch, which proved to be a mistake as we soon came head to head (literally) with a local drunk on a moped of his own. Rounding a bend and spotting a pair of tourists, he was compelled to stare. While staring at us, he was compelled to steer in our direction. Simply physics did the rest and we were soon picking ourselves up off the dusty road - mostly unhurt. The drunk did likewise and swayed a bit on his feet before getting everything pointed in the right direction and driving off again. One can only hope he took himself out before hitting anyone else... We drove on to a place which we expected to be quite special, until we actually arrived. We're not sure if someone actually told us it was nice or if was all in our heads but the reality is that as a destination, Ta Thaeng
Vigorously and persistently. Finding little but a dusty truck-stop, we continued into the gathering stormclouds while our collective mood plumeted along with the temperature. The last few miles were bitterly cold but the scenery was at least pretty nice. We entered Paksong
just before dark, found a little hotel and some noodle soup and hit the sack. The day had been one to forget, despite the fact that it's now here on the blog...
Our time in Paksong was adequate. A couple of nice waterfalls, some local coffee and a day spent getting lost in the jungle - quite literally. Thankfully there was no UXO
(leftover bombs) lying around, a blessing which we attribute to the golden buddha statue perched atop a nearby hill. During these few days we also tried an apparently onion
flavoured ice cream and some amazing hot chocolate - courtesy of a dutch expat called 'Mr coffee' by the locals - and met a slightly eccentric old Englishman who confessed to being a 'rich old bugger who spends most of his time travelling the world'. If that's really his idea of a confession, we think he's doing pretty well in life!
Post-collision, we'd bought
Somewhere in the Laotian jungle.
some new footpeg rubbers to replace the torn-up items on the bike and spent half an hour worrying that the pegs weren't straight and trying to bend them back. We employed a large steel hammer for this purpose which was fun but showed no tangible results. With no time left before the bike was due back we had no choice but to get back to Pakse and hope for the best. We needn't have worried- it worked fine and when we returned it the guy glanced briefly and returned our deposit (no less than a passport in fact) without further ado. Maybe they weren't actually bent at all...
Our other task for the day was to book a sleeper bus to the Vientiane
, Laos' capital city. Unfortunately, the very regal sounding "King of Bus" wasn't available and we had to make do with a lesser-named company. This would have implications later that night, but for the time being we were excited to be heading north and spent the day just killing time until our departure.
Interesting times ahead...
There are more photos below