Travels in Southern Lao
Travels in Southern Lao a Real Adventure
My first taste of Travels in Southern Lao was back in December 2010. I fell in love with the Islands in the Mekong known as Sii Pan Don. Lonely Planet describe Sii Pan Don as an Archipelago which my Dictionary tells me is (any large body of water with many islands) I believe at some points here the Mekong is actually 14 Kilometers wide!! This beautiful area is close to the Emerald Triangle which is a largely unspoilt region where Lao,Thailand and Cambodia meet.
I returned to these Lush Islands set in the Teal Green waters of the Mekong One Year later for further Travels in Southern Lao. With so many other destinations available to me (I live in Thailand) it took a special place for me to visit twice.There is something magical about Sii Pan Don (Four Thousand Islands) actually there are only three of any size where one can stay, Don Khong (the Largest) and Don Kon and Don Det 18 Kilometers further South.My favorite by far is Don Det.There are no cars and One can walk round the Island in an Hour.
If asked to describe Lao in one word,my choice would be Tranquil.Lao’s soaring Mountain’s, pristine Rivers, cascading Waterfalls and lush Forests enchant the visitor and gently seduce him with their beauty.Tranquil is also a good description of the Lao people,laid back to the point of apparent indifference,they refuse to be hurried!,not overly friendly,like,for instance the smiley insincere Thai’s,they do their own thing in their own time.
I recently spent 15 wonderful days Touring in Southern Lao, I traveled by motorcycle,which I brought with me from neighboring Thailand where I live.I found touring on my bike great fun but this journey can just as easily be made by bus,either local (slow,hot and crowded) or by mini buses which are readily available and link pretty seamlessly with most of the worthwhile destinations.
My adventure started badly leaving the Town in NE Thailand where I live at 6am. on a Wednesday Morning I rode the some 300 Kilometers to Mukdahan.I was aware that taking a motorcycle out of Thailand and into neighboring Countries is a complicated,sometimes fraught business.I knew for example that motorcycles are forbidden to exit Thailand via the bridges which have recently been built across the Mekong. After a rather unhelpful talk with Thai Customs at the Ferry crossing I was informed that I would not be allowed to exit via the Ferry either! I should add that this information was in fact available on the excellent Website GT rider (Golden Triangle Rider) but I had misread it!!
I rode some 100 kilometers North to Nakon Phanom site of the nearest alternative crossing point.Bright and early the following Morning I presented myself at the Thai Customs Office,only to be informed that Lao was “Closed Today!!”It transpired that Lao was having a public holiday,which precluded any Immigration or Customs Officers actually being at work!!
Day 3 of my Oddesy seemed to get off to a more positive start the chap at Thai Customs filled out the appropriate forms for me and a few minutes later I was on the small ferry,which my bike and I shared with a very large truck.The small Lao Town opposite Nakon Phanom is Tha Khaek Riding up the Causeway leading from the River I arrived at Lao Immigration. The beginning of Touring in Southern Lao appeared to be Imminent, however when things appear to be going well there is usually trouble close at Hand!! My Trouble appeared in the Guise of an extremely Oafish Immigration Official.Presenting my documents I was informed by the apparently indifferent individual behind the window that I was not allowed to take my motorbike into Lao and that I should take it back to Thailand!!
Attempting to remain polite and positive in the face of this chaps intransigent attitude,I explained that I was aware of quite a few people taking motorcycles into Lao,provided they had the correct documents.I courteously but insistently asked to speak to the Officer in charge, a request which was conveniently ignored.This verbal ping pong continued for some time.Eventually I was ushered into the office of the senior officer a very young,plump individual with a friendly demeanor.
Having realized at an early stage that this denial of entry was being used as a financial lever,I decided to get right to it and ask “how much?” whilst acknowledging that, yes, money was always welcome, it was explained that the stumbling block was that all my documents were in Thai and should be in Lao.As the two languages are practically identical I was at something of a loss to understand the problem.Eventually an underling was assigned to take me to a travel Company who could do the necessary translation work.
Arriving at a small office, an elderly Lao Gentleman was summoned from presumably his Bedroom from which he emerged in a state of partial undress as he put his shirt on the situation was explained to him by the junior official. The Elderly Gent said it would take 2 hours to complete the necessary translation.I went off to eat some breakfast,after around 45 minutes the young intermediary arrived back to tell me that in fact I would not be allowed to take my motorcycle into Lao.At this point I lost my temper (a really futile thing to do in Asia!!) I marched back to the hut of the so called Travel Company to demand the return of my documents.
Following me back to the Customs hut I was then informed by the same young Official that I could now buy the necessary insurance cover to drive my bike in Lao.So after two hours of misinformation and confusion, I bought 15 days insurance cover and paid the elderly Gent for his services. Incidentally nothing had in fact been translated!!This whole Pantomime was of course a device to disguise the Customs officials bribe collecting technique.I imagine the elderly gent shared the proceeds with the Customs Boss.The fee I had to give to the Travel agent was almost ludicrously insignificant 50,000 Kip £11.00 or $15 Dollars!!!
On my subsequent arrival in Tha Khaek ( The Small Lao River Town where the Ferry Docks) one Year on the Bribe collecting technique had been noticeably updated and was in fact much more Falang Friendly!! Two rather well dressed younger Men filled in some paperwork regarding the importation of my Motorcycle at the foot of the document the cost was in Lao Kip,the Custom’s Guys however insisted on being paid in Thai Baht (Lao Kip is a pretty worthless Currency and only any good in Lao). On both of my visits the amount I was ripped off by was extremely modest.
Heading South towards Savannakhet on highway 13 (Lao’s main highway) I was struck by how deserted the roads were,in Thailand once outside of the Towns the roads are very quiet by European standards but here there was simply no traffic, apart from small tractors which towed trailers filled with farm workers.Whilst in Thailand the danger for a motorcyclist comes mainly from Thai drivers whose impatient recklessness and stupidity is mind boggling.Lao Drivers are every bit as Daft as their Richer Neighbors on the other side of the Mekong, although thankfully there are far fewer of them to watch out for!!The danger here however, I soon found out was from animals,particularly Goats!!
Now while other animals seem to have some inkling of the danger an approaching vehicle may present, Goats are oblivious of anything going on around them and in fact appear not to even look where they are heading.Female Goats have a penchant for stopping in the middle of the carriageway to open up the milk bar for the kids!! As charming a sight as the aforementioned is, it is disconcerting to say the least to be faced with it when approaching at 90 kilometers per hour!!
Savannakhet whilst Lao’s third largest City is eerily quiet and wandering around the deserted Streets, I was again keenly aware of the difference between the Thai Cities which I am used to,with their colorful Night Markets and Kamikaze scooter riders,and the almost ghostly quality of these dimly lit streets with their crumbling Indochinese buildings.I did however find a restaurant , which while shabby in the extreme had a good menu, I enjoyed an excellent steak au Poivre with french fries,vegetables and the delicious French bread which you find everywhere in Lao.
The legacy which Lao has inherited from it’s former Colonial masters includes a love of and the ability to bake wonderful baguettes the fairly wide availability of good French wine (at a price) and some wonderfully atmospheric French Colonial buildings,most of which are gently crumbling away.If you are looking for Night Life then I fear Lao is going to be a big disappointment to you!
Next day I rode the 250 kilometers to Pakse, where I stayed in the Sedon Riverside Guesthouse.Nice rooms with private bathroom (cold shower only) Seddon has a terrace from where you can sit with your Beer Lao and watch the Sun go down over the Mekong!Just round the corner Jasmin Indian restaurant does the best Indian food I have found in SE Asia!! It is fascinating watching Dean, the owner kneading and tossing knobs of dough into wafer thin nan bread which is then wood fired,delicious!!
Bright and early next Morning I was on the road bound for the Bolivan Plateau.1500 meters above the Valley of the Mekong,this is a lush Oasis of Forests,Rivers,Waterfalls and incredibly green and fertile areas of cultivation,where among many other things the delicious Cafe Lao is grown.I must say that Tadlo,which is the main place to stay is not of itself very prepossessing,neither the Guest Houses or restaurants are anything to write home about! That said they are perfectly adequate and besides if you wanted luxury you would not be engaged in Travels in Southern Lao you would have gone to Thailand, which is knee deep in Luxury Hotels!!
While the Bolivan Plateau may not cater for the 5 star traveler what it offers is to my mind better by far than a choice of swimming pools ,and the sculpted lawns and Tennis Courts of a Luxury Hotel.Your swimming is done in one of several deep pools at the foot of Cascading Waterfalls.While the artificial perfection of Hotel grounds where nature has been Cowed into regimented perfection are replaced by the forests and plantations of this verdant Fortress. One can venture down shady paths,discovering the Villages where Mon-Khemer tribes people arrange their houses in a circle,and everywhere the Children are playing at the rivers edge,enjoying a Carefree existence long since denied to the “Privileged” Children in our rich part of the World!!
Just a brief but illuminating illustration of the laid back almost Bovine attitude of Lao people.I had returned to the Restaurant where I had spent the previous 2 evenings, eating reasonable food and drinking Beer Lao with a number of friendly young Back-packers.The waitress was lazing on a bed watching Thai TV.Being the only customer this Evening I sat,sipping my Beer Lao and planning my next Day’s adventures.When after some 45 minutes I inquired as to the ETA of my meal I discovered that the waitress had in fact gone home without telling the Cook that she had a customer!!
Next Day I crossed the Maekhong on a tiny Ferry (two canoes with a few planks lashed together and an outboard.I made several such crossings and was on each occasion mortally afraid that I would wobble while negotiating the narrow gangplank and end up in the River.I have to confess that on one occasion I coerced the Ferry owner and his chums to push my Bike up the narrow plank!! Compounding my woes were the steep and sandy approaches to the little beaches where one boards these ramshackle craft,and I was always mightily relieved when I actually arrived or departed an Island without a catastrophe.
Champasak was my next destination this pretty one Street Town is set on the Eastern side of the Mekong. Most people come here to visit Wat Phu Champasak.While in no way any competition for Angkor Wat, and with it’s structures in ruin this is non the less a beautiful and hugely atmospheric site.Climbing the dauntingly steep Naga staircase which is lined with Jacaranda trees, I found myself wandering whether this expenditure of energy was actually worth it. On looking back at the superb Valley of the Mekong set out below like a shimmering kaleidoscope of green this unworthy thought was quickly dispelled.
On arrival at the upper temples one is met with a backdrop of soaring stone cliffs,this plateu nestles into the Mountain itself,giving the whole the feel of a natural Amphitheater.While the ruins here again are interesting it is the natural beauty of the site combined with it’s serene atmosphere which give this spot a uniquely peaceful feeling. I actually climbed a little higher,found a shady spot and had a snooze!!
In Champasak I stayed at the Vong Phaseud Guest House,a friendly pleasant place with a terrace where one can drink a Bier Lao while watching the Sun set over the Mekong.I had decided to Dine at an Italian Restaurant which I had seen earlier in the day.Set in the grounds of a fairly substantial Indochinese Mansion,the Menu which was cleverly displayed beside the entrance,so that passers by could pause to peruse it was sensibly short but offered some tempting choices.Unfortunately the promises implicit in the Menu were far beyond the competence of the Chef, so I enjoyed or rather did not enjoy a deeply disappointing meal.
Next Morning I recrossed the Mekong and again headed South on Highway 13.My destination was Don Khong, largest of the Islands collectively known as Si Phan Don ( Four Thousand Island) I took a room at Souk Sabay Guest House,nice large room with private bathroom and a hot shower,for some reason installing efficiently functioning hot showers seems to be beyond the abilities of Lao plumbers/electricians,this is no real hardship as cold showers are perfectly acceptable,the water is tepid rather than icy.
Don Khong is a pretty Island with a good road around it I went round a couple of times on my motorcycle and once on a pushbike which I rented.I managed to find a spot with a large sandbar from which a ferry operated where I felt safe to swim.One has to be wary of just diving into the Mekong the current is strong (the strength of the current increases in direct proportion to the width of the River) however if one can find a spot which is sheltered by a sandbar then it is safe to swim.Two days on Don Khong were long enough so I recrossed the Mekong, and for the last time headed South on Highway13.
The departure pier at Ban Nakasang was undergoing construction work,and in order to get on a ferry I had to make a detour through some rice fields!After negotiating a nasty slope and a sandy beach I finally got my bike on the tiny ferry and set sail for Don Det! Lonely Planet suggests that Don Khon which is connected to Don Det by a railway bridge left behind by the French is the better Island to stay on.
I have to take issue with Lonely Planet on their bias,I spent one night on Don Khon and I found the Riverside path where all the accommodation was very busy and not really what I was looking for on an Island.The other bugbear about Don Khon is the 20000 kip charge which one has to pay every time one crosses the Bridge.Now 20000 is not a lot of money (around $3.00) but I had it explained to me that this charge was also levied every time one went under the Bridge on what is the only road connecting with the East of the Island where one goes to catch a glimpse of the Irrawaddy Dolphins or visit Khone Phapeng Waterfall.
In fact I did not have to pay my 20000 Kip as when I proffered a 50000 Kip note to one of the Men who appear to live in the Toll Booth his frantic search for change was unsuccessful and he reluctantly returned my money!!The fates were smiling on me and I found my ideal Island retreat on Don Det,Mr Bounphans Guest House is an idyllic spot with 5 riverside huts (I think 2 with private Bathrooms) a nice little bar/restaurant.Hammocks slung on the huts Verandas and also bamboo hammocks slung between the Riverside Trees gave a good indication of what the main pastime was.
Don Det is a truly Beautiful Island,the inhabitants as well as being cheerful and friendly are also extremely hardworking.I was here during the rice harvest and most Islanders were in the Fields from Dawn till Dusk.In the evenings they were to be seen in their barns separating the rice from its stalk using a treadle driven spiked roller.The Island is small one can easily walk right round in less than 90 minutes,I in fact did this twice one day as I found it so enchanting.I hope to return to Don Det in a few Months during the Rainy season when I imagine there will be fewer tourists.
The reader will have gathered that I am mightily smitten by Lao.I urge anyone with even a modest sense of adventure to go to Lao soon.The places I describe are already on the way to being irrevocably changed,as indeed the Lao people are being changed by the constant diet of Thai TV which is watched from Morning to night.Thai’s are amongst the most aquisitive people on earth and this hunger for material goods saturates the ouput of every Thai TV show!
Getting to Lao is easy,one flies to Bangkok from where one can catch a flight to Ventien,or indeed Pakse.Alternatively there are sleeper trains from Bangkok which take you to the Friendship Bridge in Nong Khai which links up with the Lao Capital Ventien.Overnight luxury sleeper buses depart Ventien for all points South.Tip go to a pharmacy before your bus trip and buy a couple of tranquilizers to ensure that you get some sleep on the bus.I do this when undertaking long bus journeys in Thailand,I used to buy a sleeping pill but this tends to make one feel like death the next Day