Our entry into Laos was the complete opposite of the one in Cambodia. Our first stop in Don Det (part of Four Thousand Islands in South Laos) set up the mood. It is very laid back and it was such a nice, warm welcome to Laos. It was so relaxing to stay there for 3 days, enjoying our hammocks on the deck of a bungalow.
The funny thing was that I felt like we were still in Cambodia. The change from place to place is not drastic. The houses are very similar if not less charming than in Cambodia. The main difference I noticed is more in people's facial expressions. In Laos people don't smile as much as in Cambodia. They seem to be more difficult to read. But it goes very well with the somewhat lethargic pace of the country.
I like the way people say hello in Laos - Sabaidee. And in Don Det they kind of stretch the ending even more, making it into a melody - Sabaideeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
It was a whole day trip from Kratie in Cambodia to Don Det. We changed three minivans and had to take a boat. The entire journey was slow, not big distances but a lot of waiting in between. It cost only $5. I was anticipating the border crossing (too many bad memories) but it went ok. We just had to pay $1 on the Cambodian side so they would let us go and $1 on the Lao side to let us in. Baksheesh for the border officers.
Don Det is popular among travelers as a party island and lot of young backpackers go there. It was the day before New Years when we arrived and we did not mind being in a more "happening" place. Still, we wanted a more quiet place to stay in and started looking around. The first people that talked to us was a nice couple of old hippies who told us immediately about a nice bungalows down the road called "Paradise". We liked their description and headed there.
The place is not listed in Lonely Planet and sometimes that is a very good thing. The bungalow we took was very simple, one room with one very hard bed, a mosquito net, and the best part - the deck with 2 hammocks overlooking the Mekong river. That's the key to good time in Don Det. I installed myself immediately in one of the hammocks. The river running below, few long-tail boats here and there, trees everywhere, it was so peaceful.
The "Paradise" is run by a really friendly Lao family and the way it is set up made us feel as if we were part of it. At least a little. From the open restaurant area where we took most of our meals, we could see all the drama and daily activities happening. One of the kids, Bong, has a Down syndrome. He is 16 years old and looks like 12. But his behaviour and interest toward the female guests definitely reflects his age. He had a unique way of "scratching" himself between his legs sometimes :) He still was a really nice kid. Very affectionate with his little nephew.
The food at "Paradise" was delicious home made and very cheap. We had some yummy pumpkin soup, and lentil pumpkin curry, and even pumpkin burger. And in the restaurant area we met the other guests staying there. Angy, a girl from Chicago, was our next door neighbor. She has been traveling for six months in India, followed by a one year in Africa. She is very brave in my eyes. It was interesting to talk to her and hear about her adventures. Very good energy.
The chatty, older hippie couple was there also - Lance and Donna. They left the US a while ago and live in Germany now. They are musicians and have gigs in bars during the summer and the winters they spend in Laos, mostly in Don Det with the "Paradise" family.
One thing about Don Det, which you quickly forget about, is that there is no electricity. They have generators which run only from 6-10pm. It gets dark s also, including me :)
early in the winter, soon after 6pm, and all the locals are in bed by 9pm and some of the tourist
There is not much to do in Don Det except to relax. On our first day we rented bicycles and explored both small islands Don Det & Don Kon going through villages, passing by farms, through the dry rice fields. We went to see a waterfall, had lunch on the beach, and watched the water buffaloes cooling off in the river.
That was our nice New Years Eve day. The pace was set. At midnight we entered the 2009 smooching in our hammock...
Our New Years day was pure Lao day. Nothing except chatting with our fellow travelers and some ex-pats living on the island. Drinking Lao coffee (very creamy and dense), eating donuts (from a real bakery!), and getting some more hammock exercise. That day we also met a very nice French guy Gregory who was at the end of his 10 months trip around the world. He also has a blog (in French) with nice photographs: http://www.grig-around-the-world.blogspot.com/
At the "Paradise" we also met a group of mostly Frenchies who work for NGO's in Laos and Cambodia. Very interesting and nice people. A lot of insight I got into Cambodia was through a conversation with a couple from the group.
In order to really master the art of hammocking (?!), we decided to stay one more day in Don Det. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm
To leave Don Det we took a boat to the shore and then a public bus (a large tuc-tuc) to Pakse. It was full, mostly with foreigners and a few locals including a lady who loaded the vehicle with the crates and bags full of big frogs, chickens and who knows what else. Throughout the ride, she kept moving her load around, arranging the bags under our seats by shuffling our legs. She was using the local bus to deliver her goods.
After 4 hours of the bus ride we arrived in Pakse. A rather ugly town. But with 2 good Indian restaurants. The only reason we went there was to rent a motorcycle for a 3 day ride in the Bolaven Plateau, something Miko has been talking about since Cambodia.
Bolaven PlateauThe next day we left Pakse and headed toward Tad Lo, our first stop, 85km away. On the way to Tad Lo we stopped to check out another waterfall Tad Paxuam. The waterfall itself was nothing spectacular but the area around was beautiful. Something like a park, tastefully built, run by a Thai company. There were huts in the trees (jungle tree houses) and an ethnic village. When building the huts they did not cut any trees but used the fallen trees. There is a tribe that lives in the area (I forgot the name) and two women dressed in ethnic clothes and funny haircuts were walking around. Miko was geeking out taking photos of them. After they asked for money.
We arrived in Tad Lo, a place known for its waterfall, in the early afternoon. We checked in The Tim's guesthouse, recommended to us by Donna & Lance in Don D et. The bungalow was cute, all crooked. There we bumped into Angie, our neighbor from Don Det, and together we went on a walk to see two waterfalls and to swim in the river. Cold.
At this point Miko was not very excited with what we were seeing. While the ride to Tad Lo and the place itself was nice, it was not new and surprising on each corner so Miko was a little disappointed. I was fine and happy to be just traveling around on a motorbike, but Miko due to his nature needed more.
Yes, I was anticipating this few day bike ride a lot. And I think that was my mistake. Too much expectation. Even if the first half of the ride wasn't amazing, it was still a nice one, and Tad Lo is a cute village where by waking up early (thanks to my daily bowel movement at 6am), I could witness the morning routine of people the re. Many villagers were squatting around a small fire and cooking breakfast. And because of all the smoke combined with the morning mist and the sun shining through, the place was really atmospheric. People in the river were bathing, washing clothes and fishing. Others were watering their little parcels of garden. And me, the lonely fallang (foreigner in Lao), was geeking out taking way too many pictures again.
The next day, after a walk through the surrounding area, visiting some villages with a local guide, we hopped on the motorbike and continued our journey. Hana was a bit anxious about the ride because we had about 30km of bumpy, uphill dirt road ahead. It went fine. Good job Miko! It actually took only 45 min to do and once we were at the top Miko asked: "Is that it?" Then we were riding on top of the Bolaven Plateau but it did not look much different from the rest. We went by many villages and rice fields and pretty farms with palm trees. We reached Sekong an hour before sunset and were looking for a guesthouse further down the road. We never found it. But we are glad we went to look for it beca use as we were driving we noticed a large group of people in some kind of procession. They were carrying something. By the time we stopped and turned around they disappeared in the forest. We tried asking one guy on a motorcycle if we could go and see but instead of replying he asked us for money. No surprise there.
After parking the bike we caught up with some people who were trailing behind the procession. We said hello, smiled. They smiled back, probably wondering what these " fallang" were doing here. We were guessing that there was a funeral happening but could not find the word for funeral in our useless Lao phrase book. They realised our curiosity and gestured to us that it was ok to go and see. We were excited and uncomfortable, but it didn't matter. You don't see a funeral in a forest every day. In the middle was a pile of wood on top of some structure where the body probably was. We could not see the body. Monks were chanting and some people were dressed all in white. We assumed they were the family members because white is the color of mourning in Asian cultures. But the rest of the people were all dressed casual and nobody was crying. There were smiling and in good spirit. Maybe it is because they are Buddhist and believe in reincarnation. We tried not to intrude too much but it was impossible. Soon everybody was turning around and looking at us and smiling. Then eve rybody crouched down, so we did the same. They lit up the wood on fire. People were approaching the fire and lighting incense. A circle of people formed around us. Seeing his camera, some people approached Miko and wanted their photo taken. Many were laughing. We could not really talk to anyone so we just smiled. Then everybody started leaving and motioning us to leave as well. They washed their hands in the bucket of water with orange slices before leaving. We did the same. Then everybody left.
I was happy we had this experience, but Miko was REALLY happy. Finally, the poor guy was getting something new and different and the feeling of adventure came back. I agree with him that sometimes these kind of experiences don't happen by themselves but you have to put yourself out th ere.On our way back to Sekong, the sun was going down, and there were more locals round and about. We noticed a group of young men playing some kind of volleyball with their feet. The ball is made of woven bamboo strings and hollow inside. One guy was specially good, doing flips in the air as he was hitting the ball and sending it back over the net. He was happy to be filmed and photographed which Miko happily did.
We spent the night in Sekong where we met a nice French couple in their forties, also on their trip around the world. Here is their blog: http://almansagirl.spaces.live.com/
It is crazy how many people we meet who are doing th e exact same thing as us - traveling for a long period of time.
On our third and final day of touring the Bolaven Plateau, had to do 70 km on a
dirt road partly through forest. It turned out to be the best part of the trip. The road was red dirt and rocks and it was slowly climbing uphill. The vegetation around was beautiful. A dense, green, jungle with massive plants and trees. Nobody on the road but us and the sound of birds chirping around. We were looking for two waterfalls which according to our guide book were hidden in the jungle. It was fun looking for them because we went at a much slower pace and enjoyed the scenery. We have found both of them and were able to get to the very top of the first one and look down. Scary as it was probably over 50m deep. The second one was further away in the jungle (Tad Katamtok), but we got the full frontal view of it. Supposedly it's the highest in Laos, about 90 m high, strong and impressive. We left some of Pepe's ashes there. It's something we've have been doing since the beginning of the trip, spreading Miko grandpa's as
hes where ever we go.
After the waterfall we still had 50 km of the dirt road. It was bumpy and full of big rocks which Miko got really good at dodging. But at some point we almost lost control and fell. Likely, Miko saved us by using his feet to skid on the ground until we regained balance. Good job again! Midway the vegetation and the landscape started changing, became more dry. Passing through villages, we were not alone anymore and the road became more hard packed and uneven, almost rigged. We were shaking through our bones and the vibration would just never stop. While the first half of the dirt road was really fun, the second part became draining. Even when the dirt road stopped, we still had to dodge many, many potholes on the
paved road. Eventually we made it back to Pakse tired but happy. Mission successfully accomplished.
6am - arrival at the bus station7am - expensive but very appreciated american style breakfast of bagels w/cream cheese & brewed coffee at Yoma bakery. Very popular spot with ex-pats. There we saw a French guy #1 we met in Don Det as part of the NGO group.
8am - looking for a room9am - checked into a room and rented a motorcycle ... again
10am - visit to the Buddha Park 20km south of the city, main reason why we came to Vientiane. It is a little like a Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India. Full of sculptures of Buddha. Very popular place for kids. Perfect for us.1pm - lunch by the river. Hana ordered uneatable green papaya salad - too spicy. Ahhhh
2pm - visit to four out of hundred temples, followed by a visit to Phra That Laung, the symbol of the country. Beautiful when the sun shines on the gold paint but ugly when overcast.4pm - Vientiane "Arc de Triomphe" called Patuxai. An ugly structure which even Lao people find unattractive. This is what it said on the sign on the building: " ...from a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete."
5pm - BEST TIME EVER - visit to the "Wat Sok Pa Luang" (means forest temple) for some Lao style herbal sauna and massage. Mmmmmmmmmmmm. Soooooooooooooo Gooooooooooooood.8pm - looking for a restaurant, ended up in an ex-pats bar with French guy #2 and then #1 again from Don Det. It felt as we were in France and not Laos. the conversation, the beer and the cigarettes.
10pm - Good Night.8am the next day - local bus full of boxes and people to Vang Vieng.
Maylyn Guest House was worth the effort. It is on the other, more quiet side of Vang Vieng, and has the best food ever. The banana chocolate pancakes are the best we had on this entire trip. They also had great sandwiches, specially the BLT's. It might not mean much to you but after months and months of eating Asian food, good sandwiches are very appreciated. Since we enjoyed the food so much there I was encouraging Miko to eat a lot hoping he would gain back some weight. He is all skinny now :(
We ended up staying 3 days in Vang Vieng. We enjoyed our stay there but we were not sad to leave. It is sad to see beautiful places like this getting destroyed by fast booming tourism. People mostly come here to go tubing, which means renting a tracktor's inner tube to float down the river and get completely trashed at one of the many bars along the way. The crowd is mostly composed of young Australian and British kids in their early 20's. The town itself does not look like anything it used to be. According to the Lonely Planet, a new guest house is being built every 46 days. Besides tubing & drinking, the second main activity is to watch reruns of "Friends" in many cafes all day long. I have no idea who and how started this trend. All this crap is on one side of the river. The side we visited only to check internet and rent a motorbike. We were staying on the opposite, more quiet side. There are a few guest houses with bungalows, but it has more of a village feel, surrounded by rice fields and mountains in the background. And if you explore further on this side you discover and can appreciate a magnificant landscape without a drunk dude yelling behind you. There we slowed down the pace a little.
Our first day was the best for Miko (if we cross out a little disapointing encounter at the end) and second day for Hana. On the first day we went to a view point that a local guy told us about. We had to walk 3km on a dirt road, turn right, pay 10,000 kip ($1.25), and hike up a steep 250m hill. A local kid followed us and as expected asked for money on the way. No way kiddo. At the top there was like a small hut with a bamboo roof. From there you could enjoy the beautiful landscape around. A valley full of rice fields with a few villages scattered around, surrounded by high green hills and sharp cliffs. It was past 3pm when we arrived. The sun was going down. Two teenagers were playing a guitar and singing. The music was very calming. We were completely absorbed. We stayed there for a long time, soaking it all in. As we were walking down, the same kid plus his buddy followed us and asked for money again. No way kiddos. Hana was getting very annoyed with it.
Then on our way back to the guest house, a group of locals sitting on a deck in front of a house asked us to join them for some Lao-lao (local drink like whiskey). We were in a very good spirit and were happy to share some time with the locals. The conversation was limited, so we smiled a lot. The lao-lao is pretty strong drink and they seemed to be drunk already. It was nice and fun until the drunkest one and also the owner of the place asked us for money for the drinks. The drinks he so warmly invited us to share with him and his friends. He was also the only one who spoke a little english and I'm not sure if the others understood what he had asked us. Hana immediately got up and as we were leaving one of them handed me another glass which I for sure took. Hana was very angry. They invite us & then ask for money?! She couldn't help disliking the people there and seeing them all as ignorant, greedy for money. Just like they see us all as big, walking bags of cash.Joe, the cynical Irish owner of the Maylyn, told us that villagers in Vang Vieng, mostly uneducated people became really greedy with the ever growing tourism in the area. But when we told him about what happened to us, he seemed a little surprised. Inviting people over for lao-lao is common, asking them for money after is not. But it still happened to me again, two days later...
So, on our second day we went to visit the "Tham Sang Triangle". It is an area 13km north of Vang Vieng with 3 caves. The best one was the Tham Hoi cave. In the guide book it says that the cave continues 3km into the limestone and there is an underground lake at the end. As we started walking into the cave, a local guy sneaked in pretending to be another visitor taking pictures. Soon enough he was offering his service as a guide. No way kiddo. After he left, we realized that our head lamps were not very strong and if they died inthe middle of the cave we would be stuck, freacking out, crying like babies, not knowing how to get back. So, in order to avoid that, I went back to get us two more flash lights, free with the entrance ticket. As we were walking in, we saw two groups coming back. They had gone all the way to the end and it was about 30 min. After the last encounter we were completely alone in the dark and it became a little scary. I was remembering the movie "Descent" which freaked the hell out of me. In the movie a group of girlfriends goes underground to explore a cave and end up being slaughtered by half human/ half bat monsters. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!! Anyway, we kept walking depper & deeper, going through mud, climbing, crowling over the rocks, hoping we would find our way back. Then Hana started leaving a trail of pieces of paper behind us. After almost giving up and returning, we heard water in the distance and finally reached the underground lake. It was a strange feeling to be there, in the pitch black, wading in the water (Hana went skinny-dipping & was very happy), knowing that if our lights died we would not be able to find our way back. It was exciting and scary at the same time.After coming out of the cave (so happy and proud we had made it without a guide) we went to the next cave - Tham Nam (Water cave). They give you an inner tube and a flashlight and you pull yourself by the rope floating on your tube. It sounds like great fun, but water was VERY cold. In a few minutes our butts were freezing. The cave is not very big so it took about 10 minutes to explore. Actually, the cave did go deeper in but there was no rope to pull on. It was enough anyway, we were cold and shivering when we got out. Overall fun day. Hana kept talking about it afterward.
On our last day in Vang Vieng, I rented a motorcycle and went on a 40km loop in the countryside, while Hana chilled out at the Maylyn guest house. The loop was fun. It is all dirt road more or less bad - shaky ride. It pretty much consisted in exploring the beautiful area we were contemplating from the view point. Somehow very early on I missed a turn and ended up doing the loop in the reversed direction. Lucky for me. Going through a village I heard female singing and pounding. Curious I backtracked to have a look and immediately got invited inside the house where the noise was coming from. Entering the main room was like entering another world. Everybody seemed to be drunk or drugged out. On the left, women were singing and pounding on the floor with big bamboo sticks. On the right, this welcoming and very drunk man handed me a glass of lao-lao which I HAD TO TAKE. Then he had one himself. On the right side of the room there were two circles of men sitting. They all looked completely drunk. I was called to drink from a large clay jar with a bamboo straw some other kind of alcohol. The man next to me had passed out. This is all happening a little before noon. Then I was called to another circle and given another lao-lao. It was strange and exciting. After another lao-lao a young man speaking english invited me to another room. Few men were sitting there and they played karaoke videos on the tv as background music. They kept drinking more lao-lao and me with them. The way it works in Laos, everybody is drinking from the same glass. One person pours, you drink it all, then pass the glass to the next person. It is inpolite to refuse a drink. The english speaker and I were trying to have some kind of conversation. Everyone was very nice. Then out of nowhere the english speaker asked me for money for the drinks. Surprised, I replied laughing: "No way, I am not paying for any drinks" and the guy continued the conversation as if nothing had happened. He kept being very nice and friendly but I was ready to go and did not trust anyone anymore. I said goodbye to my drunken hosts and got back on the bike hoping I could still ride straight.
We had noticed before that Lao people like to party a lot and it is always in the middle of the day. If you pass by and take a look you are very likely to be invited. Everything seems to be an excuse to celebrate: completion of a house or school, marriage, birthday, etc. And from what I noticed men get really hammered. They are a little scary sometimes when they are drunk. Usually everone is so mellow and quiet during the day but when they are drunk they are hyper, speak very loud, and laugh hysterically. But they are having fun, so what the hell...
So after I had left the party house, the rest of the ride was very nice. Going through villages, enjoying the landscape and saying "Sabaidee" with a big smile to everone I crossed.
We had a very good stay but we found it sad to see what has happened to Vang Vieng. This once quiet, pretty Lao town was beautiful and untouched until about 10 years ago. In my opinion tourism destroyed it. Staying on the other side of the river, away from the party crowd, we were able to enjoy it and I think we got the best possible out of Vang Vieng.
The next day we went to beautiful Luang Prabang where we were going to meet up with Mr. Kevin Bell, a good friend from SF. To be continued...