Published: August 18th 2008July 22nd 2008
A 100% guaranteed way to eradicate stress and revitalise: go to Laos. Doctors should forgo prescribing medicine and give out Laos visas instead. If you've just been in neighbouring Vietnam, you will find Laos is the perfect tonic of peace and tranquillity to your hawker headache. Everything slows down and nothing seems to matter. Life revolves around simple pleasures: a breeze as you swing in a hammock, a sunset Beer Lao, a meal down by the mighty Mekong... and yes please, I would
like a job for the Lao Tourist Board.
We crossed at the Lao Bao border and continued on to Savannakhet, a Mekong town of dusty red roads devoid of traffic. The pavements were utterly redundant, being overgrown with weeds through lack of use. We spent the first five minutes bushwalking on the pavement before realising that it would be near impossible to have a traffic accident. In Laos, you run more risk of getting run down by a cow than getting hit by a car.
Savannakhet has no real sights and would probably be a fairly boring place if you had travelled through Laos to get there, but to us it was perfect. To join the
smiley locals down by the Mekong for a Beer Lao was far more enjoyable than any sightseeing could have been. We bought BBQ sticks of chicken, beef and pork to go with the best beer in South-East Asia. The Mekong is lined by these one-woman operations with a cool-box full of beer and a small grill sizzling with meat. We relaxed and looked across to the comparatively bright lights of Thailand. The hardest thing about it was dragging ourselves away and back to our traditional wooden guesthouse. Paying was confused by my half-remembered Thai (Thai and Lao are very similar) and the fact that it was almost free. We spent the next day visiting the local Wats and were delighted by the familiar (and missed) South-East Asian Buddhist style, with their bold, dazzling temples and complement of saffron-robed monks, waving to you out of classroom windows. That night we sought out food in our favourite spot down by the Mekong and had a bubbling pot of make-it-yourself noodle and seafood soup, enjoying it so much we tried to justify having another day in Savannakhet just so we could have another night of rustic Mekong dining.
We tore ourselves away
knowing that better was to come and took a range of vehicles down to Pakse (the hub of Southern Laos) and on to Champasak. We spent the majority of the trip crammed in to the back of a people-/rice-laden Songthaew (pick-up truck with two benches in the back) with our knees up around our shoulders. This was luxury in comparison to other passengers who gave up their seats on the bench for us and sat on the floor, sleepy children and babies on their laps (yes, we did feel guilty, but there was no arguing with them!). Our dusty backpacks and the obligatory chickens rode on the roof. To reach Champasak, you have to cross the Mekong - this is achieved on a boat which has been created by someone with an overactive imagination and a highly developed sense of humour. It is actually three
boats with a wooden platform on top holding them together. The cargo consists mainly of Songthaews and motorbikes, with every available space utilised. Our Songthaew driver was particularly eager not to waste any precious inches and almost reversed us into the Mekong (several times). I was smiling around at the other passengers in a 'isn't
this fun!' kind of way until I noticed all the locals were looking utterly horrified. That soon wiped the smile off my face and rendered me equally horrified. Being a foreigner is like being a child; having to take your cues from the locals (adults) as to what is a bit of a laugh and what is downright madness.
We were welcomed into Champasak in Lao, English and French by the owner of a local guesthouse who found everything unspeakably funny (literally every sentence and at times every word was surrounded by a bubble of infectious laughter). His warmth and good humour won us over and we stayed for the bargain price of 30,000 kip (US$3).
The attraction in Champasak is Wat Phu, an Angkorian temple on the side of a mountain. We rented bicycles and cycled there, accompanied by the cry of 'Sabaai dii'
from small children peeking out of roadside huts. In the 30-minute bike ride we saw more animals than people and only a couple of vehicles. Wat Phu is one of Laos' most touristy sights (probably second to Luang Prabang) but it was almost devoid of people. It's certainly no Angkor but its semi-ruined
appearance and beautiful setting (lake, a mountain and surrounding paddy fields) makes it worth the effort.
We headed off to 4000 islands, sitting on the gearbox of an improbably full bus. The aisle was taken up by locals sitting on plastic stools and handling the discomfort in typically Lao style (big smiles and twinkly eyes). We eyed the plastic stools with envy whilst we were cooked by the gearbox, which was like sitting on a hotplate when you're already inside an oven. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the bus wasn't actually going where we wanted to go and we ended up on an island one and a half hours boat ride from our intended destination.
The error was almost certainly an intentional one on the part of the ticket seller (there wasn’t really any room for misunderstanding, and the look on his face was one of ‘damn it, I’ve been busted’). It seems that this was a regular ploy, and one that unsuspecting tourists didn’t normally discover until after the bus had pulled away and it was too late.
Laotians are among the friendliest, most honest people I have come across - but, of course,
there are always exceptions, and people, who, for whatever reason, can’t resist the temptation to make some extra money from tourists. We had lost a few hours and a few pounds but it was nothing that couldn’t be resolved. The ticket-seller was so uncomfortable about the situation (everyone else on the bus was under no illusion as to how the situation had arisen) that it was probably an adequate punishment in itself.
A fellow traveller didn't seem to take the bad news quite so calmly and started wailing at the ticket-seller banshee-style. It was an embarrassing display of uncontrolled anger: he was spitting with rage, swinging his fists and screaming threats.
Showing strong emotions publically is frowned upon in a Buddhist country like Laos, where interaction is based around maintaining face not losing it. Such an explosive reaction to such a minor ‘crime’ must have been mindboggling for them. We were eager to distance ourselves from him as soon as possible and got our bags off the bus and disappeared as quickly as possible (after getting some of the ticket price back). Unfortunately, there was only one place to go and we found ourselves trying to negotiate a
price for a boat to the right
island with the banshee still blood-boiling angry, ranting at a boat driver 'You lie! You lie! Everyone lie, Laos is bad country'
. Quite possibly, the scam did extend to, or even originate from, the boat owners (the situation certainly benefitted them). But, whether he was or he wasn’t involved (and I got the impression he wasn’t), screaming ridiculously childish insults was in no way helping our negotiations.
Heart-pounding I tried to get him to see reason (and shut the hell up!), but I don’t think he even heard for the blood roaring in his ears. He claimed defiantly that he was going to leave the country as soon as possible due to it being full of liars. He had to give up on that plan when it transpired that there were no buses back to Pakse that day, so he would have to spend a night.
His mood soon lightened when we got on the boat (a fishing boat with a propeller that looked more suited to frothing cappuccino than navigating the swirling currents of the wet-season Mekong). We stayed close to the safety of land where local children were playing in
the water, calling 'Sabaai-dii'
and waving until we were out of sight. We passed island after island with nothing visible but the occasional hut through the dense foliage. Finally we arrived on Don Det and I prepared myself for the inevitable changes that would have occurred in the six years since my first visit. The first ten minutes didn't go well as I discovered the arrival of internet and scores of guesthouses. As we walked the narrow dirt path of the island, all the depressing signs of a backpacker ghetto gave way to islanders’ huts set over the river or on the boundaries of rice paddies. We carried on walking south until we felt like we were on the same island I visited six years ago, with simple huts, no electricity and not a computer in sight. From a traveller’s point of view, progress is delightfully slow in Laos. We found ourselves a cheap hut on the river, furnished with a bed, a mosquito net and a couple of hammocks for 15,000kip (just under a pound!).
We planned for a few nights and ended up spending six. A far bigger indicator as to the charms of Don Det was the
fact that the banshee from the bus was also still on the island six days later with a beatific smile on his face whenever we saw him. The temperament of the locals was infectious and we met some amazing people - both local and foreign - and spent our days swinging in hammocks that were more like gigantic slings, with the only downside being I kept falling asleep in mine. We woke early each morning to the sound of cockerels and made the transition from bed to hammock with ease, eventually working up to getting some home-style cooking in a local ‘restaurant’ (hut with food) or rolling into the Mekong for a swim. Everyone we met was glowing from the hammock therapy and we ended up moving to a sociable group of huts owned by an especially friendly woman with two young kids who spent most of their time naked and learning their limits in the 'baw pen ngan' island-style; the two year old crawled around on an open balcony with a six-foot drop whilst the five year old ran around naked from the waist down with a knife in his tiny hand. We hung out with our neighbours, especially
Chris and Kate (was great to meet you both!), chatting from respective hammocks, playing cards and swimming in the calmer water by the huts.
We went for a ‘chicken party’ held by a local guy one night. It was on the sunset side of the island (we were staying on sunrise) so we followed the narrow path around the edge of the island, visiting a few hut bars on the way. The party was dominated by a local farmer who didn't speak any English but sang Bob Marley songs with Lao lyrics in a Justin Timberlake style. Apparently he normally kept himself to himself but that night he was centre stage and loving it, chatting away with all his new farang (foreign) friends, completely oblivious to the fact that the conversation was being conducted in two languages with neither party having the slightest clue what the other was saying.
We went off for a day, on a fishing trip with Kate and Chris. Paul brought in the catch of the day with a baby catfish who was released back to grow into something a little more edible. Despite the lack of fish catching it was fun to try,
especially because we had never done it before. There is something quite iconic about casting off from a rickety fishing boat in the Mekong. Luckily they had bought a fish from the market just in case and we had a BBQ on a local island, almost getting trapped there when a storm rolled in for the evening. Monsoon downpours never fail to impress. When the rain finally stopped, we headed back through the swirling waters of the flooded Mekong in darkness, with just a tiny little cappuccino-frother of a propeller to get us there. Paul helped bail out the boat as we were chased back to Don Det by threatening forks of lightening splitting open the dark night sky.
We managed to drag ourselves away from the idyllic islands to visit Tat Lo, a small town based around a waterfall. Tat Lo made the other places we visited in Laos look chaotic. The village was little more than a collection of huts. We reached our hut by weaving around the other villagers’ huts (there was no path), past the grunting pigs, skittish goats and naked kids. Whenever we sat on our balcony we became part of village
life as people dropped by for a chat or to play with the funny-looking farangs. Animals ruled the town: cows hung out on the main road (a dirt track), pigs stomped about down by the river or around the tangle of huts in the centre of the village, getting their bottoms stuck part way through the fences that the goats mockingly jumped over. All the animals wandered into our guesthouse restaurant, wanting to know what was cooking and inadvertently flirting with death.
The owner of our guesthouse insisted we called her 'Mama.' After our experience with Mama Naxi in China we knew that Mama Paps would doubtless provide some extremely enthusiastic (borderline aggressive) mothering and she didn't disappoint. We were treated like naughty six year olds who weren't allowed to leave the big communal table until we'd finished everything on our plates. We ate well and laughed a lot, with Mama speaking her mind about one thing or another whilst slapping an unordered (free) oversized plate of fruit down on the table (got to get our vitamins).
Along with our neighbours, Jessi and Chloe (we met such fantastically friendly travellers in Laos!), we got into the rhythm of
local life and spent our time swimming in waterfalls, washing our clothes in the Mekong (much to the hilarity of the local girls), hanging out on our balcony and watching village life unfold. We spent the vast majority of our time playing with the local kids (of which there were many); children of all ages played together with big sisters carrying little brothers on hips and bigger boys encouraging the smaller ones to jump out of trees into the Mekong. The girls wore their beautifully embroidered sarongs and did some washing whilst the boys went naked and never tired of dive-bombing and egging each other on. At the end of a day of playing in the Mekong they'd come back to our balcony until they exhausted our limited adult energy and we retired to Mama Paps for a few Beer Laos and some more mothering.
Time ran out and called us back into reluctant action as we began the too-long journey to Bangkok. From a Lao farming village to the urban jungle of Bangkok in one go is still a shock even when you're expecting it.
We waited in a monsoon downpour and got two motorbike taxis to
take us to the main road. I struggled on with my backpack and clutched a collapsing umbrella the driver had thrust into my hand (I tried to get it over both of us but ended up being terribly English and just held it over him, hoping that our chances of skidding off the road would be diminished somewhat if he could actually see). I felt fairly optimistic that the journey would improve from there. It did and it didn't. We got across the border and to the train station as smoothly as a border crossing can go, but the train to Bangkok messed things up by being full apart from the 3rd class hard-seat compartment (there is no such thing as 'full' in 3rd class). Perhaps as a reaction to being back in a more touristy 'easier' country we decided that an overnight, twelve-hour journey on a hard bench would be just fine (‘how hard can it be to sleep when you're exhausted from a full day of travel?’, we thought). The looks we received from the locals told us that we were horribly wrong, and as always, they were right.
There are more photos below