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Day 18: Pakse

Hit The Road Jack

Today has been a good travel day. It was sad to leave the quiet and peaceful Don Khone. However, the journey back to Pakse was interesting, as travel always is in Laos.

You really must have a sense of humour and no time limits when you travel in Laos. Fortunately I had both. Departure times are never quite exact (perfect for me!). So when we finally got on our boat to get to Ban Nakasang to make our connecting bus, not far from the river banks we turned around as the tour operator forget his squash racquet! We all applauded when he picked it up and pushed the boat off again.

The boat trip was lovely as it always is on the Mekong. Scenic and enjoyable watching the green water pass with the breeze blowing and spots of greenery on the river from river trees. The most exciting part was coming into the port and watching a boat racing team practicing. The season has already started and I haven’t had the chance to see a race yet, so just as good to watch a training session. Humorously, they stopped momentarily and we watched them bail out water from the boat! They were sitting pretty low in the water. But soon they were off again, the team counting in unison with their quick strokes.

Unfortunately, it was off on a minibus for us, couldn’t stand around watching the boat racers all day. Although when I looked back at the port, the clouds and sky was looking amazing. The sky does amazing things here that make for really good dramatic pictures.

Another funny story was before he took off, the bus driver went around closing all the windows. It’s the middle of the day and quite hot with the air-conditioner going it’s still a little stuffy. The road ahead was dusty, so the reason was evident. About 10 minutes down the road, visibility inside the mini-van started getting bad. I cleaned my glasses as I thought my lenses were dirty. But no, despite the windows being closed, the mini-van was quickly filling with dust! It was hilarious. We were all laughing on the bus. Not too long after we hit the main paved road and the windows were all opened to let the dirt out. This is why we travel! For these experiences; it was so funny. Ok, maybe you had to be there.

On the rest stop, there were the usual vendors trying to sell corn, meat and various delicacies. I picked up a few sticky rice cooked in bamboo sticks. They’re fun to eat when you can crack them open. It was a really good choice. It turned out to be sweet coconut sticky rice! I haven’t been able to find it all this trip, so very pleased I got it at this rest stop. Delicious and very sticky! :-D

Finally, after a few more pit stops picking up and dropping off passengers, we ended up in Pakse central. It was nice to be back on familiar ground and I was able to help a few travelers get orientated. It’s funny, when you’re on the islands, you keep running into the same travelers. So it’s like a nice little community of travelers, even if you’re only there for 1 or 2 days, you’re bound to run into the same person at least once. This is what happened to me, so whenever you say goodbye, it may not really be goodbye! But this time, seeing my French friend to a hotel, I think it was the last time.

So here I am, about to board my sleeper bus to Vientiane. I had my final meal of ‘Heavenly Beef and sticky rice’. Well, it was very good. Not sure about heavenly, but it was warm soft beef jerky. Very tasty indeed!

Looking forward to being back in Vientiane tomorrow – a few more things and places to eat at! :-D
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Posted by Teamworkz 04:20 Archived in Laos Tagged islands province laos thousand four southern champasak Comments (0)

Day 17: Don Khone and The Four Thousand Islands

Just Sit Back and Relax

Don Khone is the much more relaxed neighbour to Don Det. It’s easy just to sit here, watching the Mekong and be slowly caressed by the gently blowing breeze. It’s so laidback that even the waiters don’t bother you if you sit here for hours with just one drink. Not that they bother you on Don Det, but it’s just the general atmosphere here feels a lot more relaxed.

I started the day with some rather superb French toast (using baguettes, rather than a slice of bread). Then I made my sweaty way to Don Khone by walking the 5km there. I had meant to set off earlier so it wouldn’t be so hot, but I was a little tired after the night before. The guesthouse owners hosted a birthday party for one of their children that lasted until past midnight. Very loud and out of tune karaoke singing until late is rather off-putting for sleep when you can hear it all! Even the children were still singing songs that late! Surprising, but seems like they had a good time.

After just peacefully relaxing by the Mekong, I decided to set off by foot to find some waterfalls that a restaurateur in Pakse had advised me of (he even drew me a map, but none too detailed). It was a lovely stroll through the villages nearby to the waterfalls. Just watching the daily life of villagers was peaceful. I guess, because they themselves are peaceful. So many things I saw today that I’ve been seeing throughout my trip that I think I’ve taken for granted.

Like seeing the green vegetable patches that most people seem to have. There’s always chickens (baby ones too), at least one pig per yard sometimes buffalo and sometimes cows that just lazily wander about. I always wonder how people know whose chicken is whose.

Often there is smoke from people making charcoal for cooking. It really feels like an organic life. So it’s funny to see a sign for an organic farm when you walk around and the lifestyle seems very natural and organic! Aside from the incredible amount of dust, that is kicked up by passing motorbikes.

Then there are times during the day that families just gather together. There is a strong sense of family and community that you can feel and see when you walk into a village. The best act of recycling that I saw was 2 children with plastic bags and sticks remodeling into kites. They were happy running about trying to get the air underneath the bags. Very impressive and looked like fun!

After the villages, I continued on the path and found the Pa Soi waterfalls. Like Li Phi they have multiple cascades and parts that seem to snake around rocks. They were very interesting and pleasant to see. Being able to walk around the natural path and being free to wander about the area is very nice. It’s not too busy so you do get to have some time alone with the falls as you walk around. There was even a local man walking about the falls searching for fish I think as there were some large fish traps at the bottom of the falls. There were some bungalows set up, but not quite ready for operation. It would be a lovely spot to stay!

Coming back I walked into a small museum next to Sala Don Khone that documents the old French railway that ran through Don Khone. Quite interesting, had some good photos and actual pieces of the railway on display. Then – another stunning sunset….what a great day! Tomorrow will be an interesting travel day all the way back to Vientiane on a sleeping bus (mattresses instead of seats)! Looking forward to the experience!
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Posted by Teamworkz 04:10 Archived in Laos Tagged islands laos thousand don four southern khone champasak Comments (0)

Day 16: Don Det and The Four Thousand Islands

Don Det, Waterfalls and Dolphins

After an enjoyable hour long boat trip to Don Det, I arrived and was quietly shocked to find the place similar to Vang Vieng. It was a tourist haven with guesthouse and tourist services lined up side by side on the main strip.

So I quickly rented a bike and got out. The countryside was similar to Don Khong with empty rice fields creating a dry roadside scene. After half an hour of riding in the baking sun on a frequently rocky road, I arrived at the bridge to Don Khone. Don Khone was a much greener island with a lot more tracks to cycle down – however sometimes very rocky and more suited to walking or a proper mountain bike.

It was a fun experience to just cycle wherever the road led. There weren’t too many other cyclists or traffic on the roads, you could go for stretches without seeing anyone. However, turning up at the main port or Li Phi waterfalls there were quite a few others but we all seem to space our timing out that we never have to fight for space on the tiny roads.

Taking the boat trip to see the Irrawaddy dolphins was the highlight of the day. The Li Phi waterfalls were very pretty and impressive in its expanse as well as the strength of the water gushing over the rocks.

The boat trip down the Mekong was very scenic and being in a long-tail boat which just sits above the water made it feel like you were just flying across the surface.

Pleasantly we arrived at a large rock on the middle of the river that would be our viewing point. We stood on the rock and gazed around the river. Our driver was very good and spotted them almost immediately and stood pointing in the directions that he saw the dolphins. It took us a while to spot them, but then we got better and he didn’t need to point them out for us. Although they were specks and largish specks in the distance, it was marvelous seeing them pop up and sometimes even playing, a few times they’d splash about and we’d all be laughing with them at their enjoyment. I felt like I could have stayed there all day just watching the water for a fin or tail movement. Except, whenever a long tail boat passed through the area the dolphins were in, it was very sad that they left their engines on at full blast. It’d be nice if they either took a different route or if they killed their engines or slowed right down. Hurtling through this peaceful zone was so disruptive for us, I can’t imagine the impact on the dolphins. The engine sounds must be awful underwater!

Then a quick cycle back to Don Det to make it for the spectacular sunset. The sun blazed an orange hue and as time passed it turned deep pink and spread across the clouds and reflecting beautifully on the river. It was a wonderful end to a great day of cycling, wonderful waterfalls and being fortunate enough to see the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins!
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Posted by Teamworkz 04:05 Archived in Laos Tagged waterfalls islands laos thousand don four khon champasak liphii Comments (0)

Day 15: Don Khong in the Four Thousand Islands

Four Thousand Islands in the Mekong River in Southern Laos

Traveling in Laos is quite magical. Somehow it all just works. This morning I got up for an 8am bus to Don Khong (the largest of the 4 thousand island region). About 7:50am my breakfast arrived and I quickly consumed it and pointed to my bus ticket to the waitress/hotel staff. She made a quick phone call and in a few minutes a tuk tuk arrived with 2 other foreigners and sped us down to the port. We then joined a few other foreigners on a long tail boat that quickly transported us to the mainland. From there, a bus full of more foreigners was ready and waiting to take us to the ports to the 4 thousand islands. With nothing more than a few words spoken and few fingers pointed in the direction of travel we arrived. It was a very surreal experience, but yes, it works.

I thought Champasak was laid back, but Don Khong was even more so. Only 3 of us came off the bus to come to Don Khong and on arrival there seemed to be very few people stirring. A walked around a little to get orientated but it really was very quiet that the goats bleating while roaming about were really the noisiest things around.

Four Thousand Islands, Mekong River, Champasak, LaosThe best thing to do in these places is either get a good book and hunker down somewhere or rent a bike. I rented a bicycle off an older lady away from the guesthouses. She only knew a few words: thank you madam and 10,000 KIP for 1 day. That’s all you need, really. Having rented a few bicycles over the last few days, it always a wee problem finding one that is short enough for me. It seems most are set to tall foreigners. Luckily, some young man was walking along and helped the lady and me out with wrenches etc to adjust my bike seat. With only Lao words exchanged, we communicated with a thumbs-up and a smile. When I was all set, the lady pointed in one direction and in that direction I headed.

I cycled through a few villages and rice paddies and just watched the local life. After a quick lunch stop I continued on my way only for my bicycle chain to become unhinged. I tried to fix it myself but wasn’t able to achieve too much. I peddled a bit with my broken bicycle, there was nothing around for 100 metres so fortunately when I got to a few shops (huts), a man hailed me with a ‘sa-bai –dee! (hello!)’ and pointed to a shady spot where there were 2 other bicycles.

I wasn’t sure what was going on, but if he could help, better than me trying to walk all the way back to the village where I borrowed the bicycle. He had a quick look and then went to the wooden planked wall behind him and pulled a couple of planks out. This revealed a little hardware shed of tools hanging up ready to put my bicycle back in action! It was very surprising. So away he worked with a cigarette hanging loosely from his lips. He grunted a bit, used some wrenches and basically fixed my bicycle for 50c. I couldn’t believe my luck that I happened to break down not far from this helpful man.

Back on my bicycle I decided to head west. It was quite a desolate road out west with a few green rice paddies in between. What was nice is the number of children saying hello with big grins on their faces. Many would wave from their house, or wherever they were. Adults too would do the same. A lot of people who passed me in either direction would turn to have a good look at me or to say hello. I must admit it felt rather celebrity-like waving my hand about and saying hello to all these people. It was really nice. The cows I passed made a bit of noise but I don’t think they were really greeting me like the people were. The buffalo just continued on their way, munching, or they may have given me a bleary eyeballing.

There were few people riding bicycles and I was the only foreigner that I saw in 3 hours of riding around. It was fun to see groups of boys/men playing volleyball, or petanque or soccer. Children were playing and doing handstands in the fields. There was so much to observe and nice to be away from the throngs of tourists. Fortunately, less pot holes so no serious injuries from me gawking at the countryside.

Heading north was a lot greener, such a different landscape to out west! Closer to dinner time the smell of smoke and sound of knives chopping up food for dinner were abundant, which told me it was time to head back to my village. It’s very easy to forget that this is an island in the middle of the Mekong River!!!

Tomorrow Don Det - where I’m sure there will be many more tourists. But over the next two days I’ll be able to see the wondrous Li Phi waterfalls and hopefully glimpse the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins!
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Posted by Teamworkz 03:53 Archived in Laos Tagged islands river laos mekong thousand four champasak Comments (0)

Day 14: Wat Phou

Wat Phou and Champasak Town in southern Laos

It sure is a rocky road to heaven.

The road to Vat Phu is full of pot holes so you really can’t spend too long admiring the countryside and watching the local life otherwise you might end up with your insides being jiggled about! I made the mistake of looking around too often, as soon as something off the road would catch my eye, boom, I’d hit another pot hole. It’s a good 12km ride out to the world-heritage listed site from Champasak town and it starts getting pretty hot after 11am!

But the real meaning behind that remark is the ruins at Vat Phu. The steps up are fairly well still stacked in a stairway formation but broken up a bit – not bad given they were probably built around the 11th-12th century AD. It is a little rocky so watch your step!

The frangipani trees growing out of the stairway add a little mystique to the place and I noticed quite a few people could not resist taking one or two and putting it in their hair. When you get to the top and look down, you realize someone was really thinking when they built this place. It is a prime location with a great view of Champasak and the palaces below.

I think the Oscar definitely goes to the stonemasons and the people that built Wat Phu. The stonework carvings on the sanctuary/temple at the top are magnificent. It may have had some preservation work done to it, but they still look amazing. I’d find it hard to believe if any modern architecture would still be in such good shape with such attention to detail 10 centuries from now. It’s really amazing.

Going to the museum first was a definite plus as it meant that the sculptures and carvings made a lot more sense when you see it on the site. The map on the back of the ticket was also particularly useful and well thought out!

What was nice was that the locals are still using the spring water for their own use. 2 little girls were filling up their water bottles when I arrived. There were also plenty of recent offerings to the shrines and buddha’s about the Vat. It’s nice that it’s still a living temple, not just an archaeological site… there’s something very comforting about that.

The best part is to be there in the morning before the large groups of tourists arrive. I basically had the place to myself to wander around and you can just about go anywhere. There are no ropes or signs to say this way please. Just wander at will. It’s marvelous. It’s a great place to meditate or bring a book or just sit and enjoy the views. There are a few vendors selling refreshments at the top, so you could spend a fair bit of time there.
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Posted by Teamworkz 03:49 Archived in Laos Tagged town laos wat southern champasak phou Comments (0)

Day 13: Elephant Trekking

Elephant Trekking on Phou Asa

Multi-coloured patterned butterflies flit here and there. The rich green dense jungle feels very much alive with bird song and the wind playing with the trees. The foliage releases fresh scents and the hot sun weaves it way through the canopy. There you are, on top of a large pachyderm slowly rocking from one side to the other, meandering up a hill leading to Phou Asa. Ok, there I was, not there you are. But you could be there. In fact it’s so hard to describe what it really feels like to be here. Nothing beats actually breathing, living, feeling, seeing and sensing all of this. While no one aspect is more poignant than the other – the whole experience together is something better to experience yourself.

The jungle suddenly stopped and there was a large open plateau of volcanic rock with sparse, almost dead, trees speckled in between. As the trees thinned out, to the left was a view of the valley below and mountain peaks rising in the distance. To the right, is the same rich green jungle, just sitting quietly stopped at its’ border. Ahead was an elephant stopping platform and rising gently above it was the remains of Phou Asa

As the story goes, Phou Asa was used by an enterprising Monk called Sa. In noticing how badly the villagers were being treated by the feudal lord, he raised & trained an army in the villages to overthrow said feudal lord. Phou Asa was his training camp and a fairly decently located fort or stronghold. What’s left is stone columns evenly spaced around a large perimeter. If you didn’t know what it was, it would look rather uninspiring in this desolate space. Well, it rather looks uninspiring anyway. The tourist information centre back down in the village jazz it up a bit by adding Monk Sa trained them in swordplay and martial arts. So if you can imagine that in the space, it’s probably more interesting than what you see today.

The only way people seem to reach this spot is via an elephant ride. This would be the only way I’d want to go up at this stage, because of the heat and also because there are so many elephants trekking up and down, it’s be down-right difficult to avoid stepping in their droppings. It’s quite nice to amble along and watch the multi-coloured butterflies randomly flittering about.

After this little excursion I was off to marvel at man’s ingenuity. Really. Who’d have thought of strapping 3 long tin boats together with some planks of wood on top to make a ferry? I’d like to see Ikea do better! There are about 4 of these that seem to criss-cross the Mekong to and from Champasak whenever they have a full load. It’s only a short 10 minute ride. It’s really rudimentary but I think amazing that people just use what they got. Nothing fancy, but it works. It works well! I didn’t believe my guide when he said: just go to the ferry over there. I looked over there and all I saw was a jeep parked on a wooden pontoon looking thing. Even as I stepped up the ramp, I wasn’t really sure if it was really a ferry! There were icy cold refreshments and noodle soup for sale. Talk about full service onboard and all for 5,000 KIP (about 60 cents).

On the other side, I’d highly recommend trying to cram aboard the tuk tuk/song-thaew that is waiting on the other side. I’d read that the town was about 2km from the ferry. It’s more like 4. It’s a hot walk even in winter and not a great deal to see/admire on the way.

Funny story, there was a man touting his guesthouse that rolled up along-side me just after the ferry asking if I needed a guesthouse or tuk-tuk ride. I politely declined, committed to walking 2km. After a parching, sweaty 40 minute walk later I found my hotel, checked in and went in search for food. There was a guesthouse opposite my hotel, but I thought I’d look farther afield. Failing to find anything, I went back to that guesthouse to eat. Lo and behold, there was the man from the ferry and we exchanged laughing hellos as he confirmed that I had walked all that way. Yes. Yes. Yes, I did. How hilarious. Oh well, small world when you’re on an island like this. Pack_Pachy..sak-034.jpg

Posted by Teamworkz 03:44 Archived in Laos Tagged in at trekking elephant laos champasak phou asa Comments (0)

Day 12: The Bolaven Plateau

Coffee and Waterfalls

Today was full of coffee trees, villages and waterfalls. Driving south of Pakse onto the Bolaven Plateau we pass plantation after plantation of coffee trees with villages dotted in between with coffee beans drying in the hot winter sun.

First waterfall stop was to Tad Padsouam. It resembled a small version of the devil’s mouth at Iguacu Falls. Although the falls were none too spectacular, a local guide who spoke decent English took me closer to the falls navigating through the large boulders beside it. It was interesting that you could just walk that close to the falls.

Near Tad Padsouam there is a display ethnic village. This resembles a bit of a theme park where each house has examples of different ethnic groups from Southern Laos. The houses are real examples of each group and the government has assigned families to live in each house. There is always one person dressed in traditional garb ‘on display’. I asked my guide to ask one of these traditionally dressed villagers if they liked living in this display village, the villager replied, ‘they just put me here’. No further questions. While learning about another culture is interesting, displacing families for tourism like it were a human zoo is a little sad. They do get a free house and their children are employed by the local resort, but it does not seem the best situation.

On the bright side, I had to giggle when my guide explained a tree-house type structure in the village. Raised up high with seemingly only one room, this was the dating place. When a boy and girl like each other in the village, the allocated place for their first date is this house! They also have some interesting customs like having a small hole cut in the wall where the girl sleeps so the guy can come feel her hand and give her gifts before the first date.

Next waterfalls: Tad Hang and Tad Lo. Again you could wander over the boulders to get closer to the waterfalls. It was nice being able to walk around than having everything fenced and cemented. I’m sure this will come in due time. The other enjoyable feature is that there are very few tourists at these waterfalls. Roving about the Bolaven Plateau you feel a sense that this is what the south of Lao is really like. Devoid of tourist services and hoardes of tourists, you can see villagers and observe locals going about their daily life. Past Tad Lo is a real, live Nik (ethnic group) village which is nice to also walk in and observe. The villagers don’t seem to mind and continue about on their way. The chickens, pigs and other animals also don’t seem to mind. The children might ask you to donate a pen, apparently as an educational resource, but my guide told me they try to discourage giving as it only encourages the children to keep asking each time a foreigner comes through.

Lunch stop was nearby where there was a guesthouse for foreigners and a computer centre and library. Sometimes foreigners come and volunteer to teach anyone in the area how to use a computer and speak English. The food was good and freshly made here. I enjoyed a chicken curry and sticky rice. The host spoke very good English and French (as well as Lao)!

We stopped off at a Sinouk (brand) coffee plantation and resort. With elegantly manicured gardens it seemed out of place after passing through coffee farming village after village. Sinouk, while less well known as Dao, apparently treats their coffee farmers better, but who knows. The farmers we passed along the road certainly aren’t living in places as well kept as this resort facility.

Then it was onto seeing the Tad Yoaung and Tad Fane waterfalls. I felt the day was leading up to these two falls. Tad Yoaung was more impressive than Tad Fane because you could get closer to it. Tad Fane, even from afar, the height of the falls was impressive. Finally we stopped at a coffee and tea farmer’s plantation and got to see how they pick coffee! Also the farmer’s wife poured us some fresh green tea which was delicious and refreshing. A lovely way to end the day!

Waterfalls on the Bolaven Plateau, Champasak, Southern Laos

Waterfalls on the Bolaven Plateau, Champasak, Southern Laos

Posted by Teamworkz 03:51 Archived in Laos Tagged waterfalls the on plateau laos southern bolaven champasak Comments (0)

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