Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Journey South Part 2: Vientiane to 4000 Islands - Laos

We were looking forward to some culture after the fun but rowdy tubing experience in Vang Vieng and where better to find it than a nation’s capital city?  The heart of Laos, Vientiane had us filled with high aspirations.  First we had to endure a very smelly VIP tourist bus ride before arriving at a poorly organised and chaotic bus station which was surprising considering we hadn't had problems elsewhere in the country.  After agreeing prices on a tuk tuk after being ushered between taxis, tuk tuks and small buses we spluttered our way into town.  We spent a lot of time hunting around for a guest house at the right price which turned out to be pretty difficult.  We settled for a box of a room way up in the gods of a Chinese hotel although to its credit it did have a shared balcony with a great view and so it should have after the ridiculous amount of stairs we needed to climb that must have constituted a daily workout.  Needless to say we never forgot anything that required us to go back up to the room!  It was a little pricy and we looked to find another room the next day.  Little did we know that the room we would eventually find would have a surprise up its sleeve. 

We were unlucky in that many of the good value budget areas had filled their rooms minutes before we arrived the day before, perhaps a busload of people had come in before we began our hunt.  Now strolling through the streets of Vientiane with the hot weather and heavy backpacks was beginning to take its toll.  God knows how we found it, but we eventually ended up staying in a cheap room with a hot shower and even cable TV although it could have done with a lick of paint to say the least.  We later discovered that the hotel we were staying in served as a brothel.  Working girls lived out of their rooms and asked me for my room number even when Kate was on my arm.  There were many 'interested' feline-like women dressed in very little parading up and down the stairs, especially late at night and could sometimes be seen bringing home westerners.  Other than an occasional lack of respect for guests by having late night conversations about god knows what in echoing corridors and feeling slightly unnerved by their presence, we didn’t really mind.  We also couldn't work out if the sign on our toilet pictured below was intentional, the result of poor translation or if the word was simply added as a joke.

Vientiane was pleasant enough, but so far I found it somewhat lacking in personality.  It appeared to be a relatively expensive mish-mash of overpriced accommodation and dining that wasn’t on a par with most capital cities but was still just as pretentious.  But being in the city we took the opportunity to splash out again, this time on an all-you-can-eat promotion at a Japanese sushi restaurant which turned out to be an amazing night.  The waiting staff at least appeared to be impressed with the amount of Laos we had picked up and used it as an opportunity to teach us more in return for clarifying some English.  We sat at the bar in front of the chef and marvelled at his precision with the knife and enjoyed the mouth-watering food he kept serving up to us.

Next to this dining experience, the highlight and my outright recommendation was hiring bikes and riding them around the city.  The place is perfect for bike riding as it is flat enough and small enough to be able to navigate easily by pedal power.  We used our bikes to make our way to the Visa office to pay for an extension as ours had ran out.  It had in fact run out the day before, a Sunday.  We had tried to visit the office to make the extension on the Saturday and Sunday but without success and I was a little concerned as to what fate would await us.  The Visa Office also served as a Police Station and we had bumped into two tourists on separate occasions who had had their bags snatched from the basket of their bikes by opportunist motorcyclists.  We had known not to have anything so freely available but I can understand how people get careless in such a sleepy city.   

We entered the office and managed to convince the government staff of our inability to extend the Visas previously and miraculously we were let off the overstay fines.  On top of the money we paid for the additional two weeks there we handed over a few mandatory fees to pay for various forms and photocopying services as we went from window to window and had forms stamped in laughably bureaucratic fashion.  We visited the notorious Pha That Luang which is said to be the most important national monument in Laos and features on the kip notes.  The stupa looks grand from the outside but probably isn't worth paying the entry fee as you only get to go closer to the cracked faux-gold paint and a substandard museum.

Pha That Luang Stupa

Kate on her bike in the square in front of the Stupa
The Wats close to the stupa are impressive and worth a visit, one is home to hundreds of pockets in the wall with miniature Buddhas contained within.  There is also an Arc de Triomphe replica which was built from concrete donated by the USA to build a runway back in 1969 and not too far away there is an imposing statue of the King which overlooks the Mekong River.  We also spent a short amount of time in the outdoor gym which was very popular with the locals.  All in all Vientiane was a pleasant enough capital city but I would not be overly eager to return.


We said farewell to Vientiane and headed to Tha Khaek, aiming it to make it our base whilst we made arrangements to visit the revered Kong Lo Cave nearby.  This cave is comprised of a 7.5km tunnel through a limestone mountain that you can explore via a small boat on the river which runs through it.  Tha Khaek was about seven hours away from Vientiane by a local bus that we shared with an abundance of cucumbers which took up the entire rear of the vehicle.  At one point when the bus happened to brake suddenly I had to protect an elderly lady from a cucumber avalanche by sticking an arm out to stop them raining down on her!  The trip was pleasant enough, but we made the mistake of arriving late at a shady bus station which had its fair share of people circling on motorbikes offering to help and other lingerers who are usually best avoided.  We stayed at a nearby guesthouse where oddly enough we weren't even granted possession of our own key no matter how much I insisted and gesticulated, the proprietors spoke absolutely no English which made it fruitless to pursue the issue after approximately half an hour.  We could have left but we had a good feel about the staff by this point and we were very hungry.  A small restaurant nearby were persuaded to cook us up some late night rice dishes before we headed back and were let in our room for a good sleep.  The next day we checked out and after a short tuk tuk ride we managed to secure a room in Tha Khaek Travel Lodge in an impressive barn of a room with an equally large shower room adjacent to a cosy courtyard area.  This was one of the best places we stayed in so far, mostly because of the friendly staff and the open fire which burned in the heart of the courtyard making it a natural place to chat.

It didn't take us long to realise that this was more than just a stopover town.  Never had we seen the locals so friendly, especially the children who couldn't wait to practice their English with us as we walked down the street.  A short tuk tuk ride or a long walk and we were on the Mekong river making the most of great value eateries serving up tasty dishes.  On one of our walks back to the guesthouse we were invited to dine with a group of friends who were celebrating Laos independence which we did although we had already eaten! We chatted with them and had a really good time eating their food but they wouldn’t accept any money and were extremely friendly.  A French couple walked past and seeing us all round the table eating and drinking mistook the hair salon that we were in for a restaurant and ended up joining too!  Having stayed for another beer Laos or two and some spicy cockles we thanked them and continued on our way.  After buying water from a roadside stall on the way back, we were browsing some of their other items when a man ran out of the shop, saw that we were looking at incense sticks and insisted we take them without accepting anything in compensation.  A hundred metres or so down the road we were invited to join a petanque game and these are just a couple of examples testament to the amazing old world reception we received in the town.

Some friendly locals celebrating Laos Independence

Our primary interest was the Kong Lo cave so we set about looking to assess our transport options with the cheapest and least preferable being to rent our own motorbikes.  Fortunately we found four other people at the only travel company, 'Green Discovery' who were also looking to go on the same day in a vehicle offering some protection!  For some inexplicable reason, the company was not willing to offer us group discount to visit the caves and would only offer a cave visit as part of a trek.  It wasn't until one of us suggested renting a minivan that the member of staff offered to arrange it.  The caves were about three hours away and we managed to all get the van and a driver for half the price of a trek at around 35$.  A young couple from Quebec and an older couple from Austria were our comrades on this haggling mission and we did a great job. 

When we arrived at the caves it was turning into a gorgeous day and the view of the cave entrance feeding onto a cool looking blue pool was as impressive as any beach or lake we had already visited.  The Austrians were willing and kind enough to split up (temporarily) as it was an odd three to a boat when going through the caves.  Once you enter the darkness of the cave and the boat engine sputters into life you find your senses tingling as you are guided solely by the head torches of the two boatmen navigating their way through the darkness.  Flipflops were a must as we often found ourselves ankle deep or worse in the cold cave water when it became too shallow to stay in the boat.  At one point we were able to disembark and make our way up a rocky slope to where stalactites and stalagmites had been expertly lit up.  After an hour motoring against the current we saw daylight again and passed buffaloes and other animals before stopping shortly at a village with stalls offering refreshments.  We were eager to get back into the boat and enjoy the darkness during the journey back which was slightly quicker.  Extremely satisfied, we made our way back to the guesthouse.

View from outside the cave
Coming out the other side one hour later

The next day we had a lazy stroll through the town and bought our bus ticket to the more popular town of Pakse.  This trip was supposed to be direct and take about seven hours, but an unprecedented stop in Savannakhet meant that people got off and there weren't enough people to warrant the driver continuing.  This lead to us waiting around for about three hours playing cards and chatting with Tanya (from Holland) and Jonathon (from Sunderland) who we had previously bumped into in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng until they racked up enough customers.  Although we were technically the first people on the bus, when we boarded again the food we placed on our seat to reserve it was gone and so were our seats.  We argued them back again but then a mother and father holding a baby got on and argued that we were in their seats and we couldn’t really leave them standing in the aisle.  
The long stopover also had the knock-on effect of us arriving late into Pakse with little motivation for the guesthouse hunt and next to nothing being open.  We ended up staying in a slightly pricey but extremely large and clean Chinese guesthouse where we even shared a balcony with the other guys.  Luckily we found some dinner in the form of sandwiches which we just managed to get from what must have been the last open restaurant with its lights on and even that was in the midst of closing.  We decided to stay there another night due to the convenience before saying goodbye to Tanya and Jonathon, unfortunately Tanya had lost her passport on the journey down so I hope she managed to resolve this and carry on enjoying her journey as soon as possible. 

Seeing a chicken in a basket was the highlight of the day

In Pakse we booked a tour of the Bolevan Plateau with Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse who we also agreed to stay with the following night as it was half the price of our present digs and the 'our pick' from the lonely planet.  We had an amazing group for the tour, which began with a visit to a Laos tea plantation.  We were walked through the gardens with our insightful guide 'John' pointing out the tea leaves amongst other native fruit and fauna.  We even managed to get a photograph of the tea guy with his photograph on the packaging!  I happened to ask the first ridiculous question of the day which was something along the lines of whether or not they had considered commissioning local monkeys to pick the leaves to save on the already minimal staff costs (you can't take these things too seriously).  This was well received by our guide and the group and set the tone for the rest of the day.  We visited fair trade and non-fair trade coffee plantations, talked about the different coffee beans and the necessary growing conditions required for these.  We also visited three amazing waterfalls, the last one some of us swam in and when getting changed behind a bush a giant iguana dashing away from me with my pants around my ankles nearly gave me a heart attack! 

At one of the waterfalls our guide stunned us by suddenly diving over the safety rail and into a tree overhanging a massive drop.  He snatched at a branch and climbed back over towards us with a bit grin on his face and a massive spider.  He pulled out its fangs with his fingers and let those brave enough amongst us hold it.  He later had it cooked and ate it for lunch! 
At another stop on the tour we visited a village where individuals were expected to construct their own stone coffins when they began to get old or ill and lived out the rest of their days in full view of them.  The villagers jokingly remarked that people tended to get better after the coffins were produced and many of them lived on for many years.  It was the rule that widows or widowers weren’t allowed to move on to another partner until the stone that the coffins were made from had cracked.  There were many stories of incidents when people would manually cause this to happen in order to legitimately instigate or continue a new romance!  We later got to visit a school which had no pupils due to a two or three week break so we all sat down at the desks and got John to teach us some more Laos words, although not all of them were rude...

Mr. Tea

Our guide

Fair Trade coffee farmers

Spider which turned out to be lunch
The final waterfall that we swam in

The next day we had an early start for our journey to 4000 Islands at the southern tip of Laos.  After munching some breakfast we set off on our bus which again was supposed to be direct yet again we found ourselves held up at the bus station again with the driver moving people into another bus.  After seven or so people changed to the other bus it was apparently full so we stayed on and having done another full circle of the town we drove past where we originally embarked half an hour later and finally continued our journey south!  After four hours we arrived at our bus destination and changed to a small boat taxi to get to Don Khong, the largest of the islands in this area of the Mekong.  The ride to the island was incredibly beautiful and consisted of large and small land masses dotted amongst the river that buffalo were wading in to cool off.  Arriving in the early afternoon, we managed to find a good value guest house and I managed to get an update on the Man United against Blackpool game which I thought was not on until the next morning.  The guesthouse front of house was a keen red and had stayed up until five in the morning to see it through and gave me an insight in broken English into what sounded like a great game.  We hired some bikes off him and began peddling our way along the coast.

Aside from the difference in climate Don Khong reminded me of somewhere closer to home, Sark in the Channel Islands.  It is also quiet and pretty, albeit Don Khong has the occasional car or motorbike along the road which you won’t see on the quaint isle.  After cycling for the best part of an hour and a half we had only witnessed the usual endless wooden huts and rice paddies, which for all their beauty are not the most exciting things to see.  We therefore decided that it was a case of enjoying the bike ride rather than trying to find anything exciting or unique.  However, something would always happen on our wanderings and on our way back we were invited (via a crackly home karaoke machine) into somebody's hut so we thought why not? 
There were three inhabitants in the hut who had presumably had a Laos Lao or two or perhaps some opium as they were very giggly.  They appeared to be in the midst of making their ritualistic ancestral prayers which we had seen take place before in temples, consisting of lighting incense sticks and candles on a small spire and binding coloured string around each other’s wrists.  I can only assume that our presence was announced via the karaoke machine, as we were soon joined by a monk in full attire along with a couple of other onlookers.  They said prayers for us and tied orange string around our wrists and taught us how to properly pray for our ancestors.  They even let us both tie some string around the monk's wrist which we did semi-reluctantly, every now and then our hosts would burst out laughing which made it even more awkward and less sentimental! To be honest we were both a bit confused by the whole thing and were relieved to get back on our bikes and continue the journey home.  At some point along the way we managed to overshoot our turning and got lost.  Luckily Kate had brought some torches and we eventually found our way home after stopping for directions at a couple of places which ended up with us getting invited in for drinks.

Kate posing at one of many rice paddies

Our cycle ride, minutes from home before we got lost

The next day I headed to the bank to try to make what I thought would be our last opportunity to withdraw Kip before heading to the bankless, ATMless island of Don Det.  Unfortunately the bank would not accept my card and there were no cashpoints.  Fortunately there was a lifeline in the form of a nearby guesthouse which offered a cashback service with a not too ludicrous six percent commission.  We then attempted to get to Don Det which is only about an hour away by boat and was said to have more of a traveller vibe but were put off by our guesthouse owner and the travel service operators who said boats only go in the morning and private ones cost the equivalent of around thirty five pound.  We took our chances on finding like-minded people and had some lunch close to where the boats arrived and departed.  About half way through our food, would you know it but a couple of Russian girls began chatting to the boat operators so I ran across and found out that they had the same intention to island hop.  As if by magic a man on a motorbike then appeared asking if we needed a boat and just like that we had arranged a crossing in fifteen minutes for cheaper than the original morning boat price quoted, hah! 

The boat to Don Det

Some buffalo enjoying a dip in the river

We arrived at a very small beach on Don Det and then made our way through the town, bumping into a group of girls who we had met in Pakse.  We said our hello's then continued our walk, from the guidebook there were two sides to this island: the loud and noisy sunrise side and the supposedly peaceful sunset side where there was tough competition for rooms.  We didn't realise at first, but a trip to the sunset side was only a five minute walk away from sunrise side so it made perfect sense to head to the former for a peaceful place to stay and migrate across for the good times.  The travel Gods were smiling on us again as we managed to secure the last of a set of five huts on stilts with a shared toilet and shower, a small patio with two hammocks overlooking the Mekong for less than four pound a night between us.  It doesn’t sound like much but there was the most incredible view of the Mekong River especially at sunset as we would discover later.  We didn't realise our luck as we accepted the room, the owner already had the pen and register open for our details after our inspection.  
Later we discovered from others how hard it was to secure the sunset side accommodation and the previous guests in our hut (as we found out from our new neighbours) had just checked out after a two week stint.  The hut itself was basic, simply a bed with a mosquito net but when you have warm nights and a view like we did you don't want to spend your time inside! We spent three nights in our Mekong hut paradise and would have gladly stayed longer if we didn't have to head to Cambodia as our two week Visa extension was due to run out.  Most people stay for longer and end up having to do shuttle runs to Don Khong to get more cash.

Pottering about in the bars and eating delicious samosas was great but we decided to take the opportunity to do one of the many activities on offer from the island.  We decided to do a Kayak trip around the islands which involved visiting two waterfalls and the opportunity to spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphin.  It was a great way to see the islands again with a great group and the waterfalls were of a grand scale and spectacular (you certainly wouldn't want to swim in them).  We managed to catch a few glimpses of the dolphins from a baking hot rock before getting back into our tandem kayak and paddling down the river.  There were a couple of rapids but nothing too scary, in fact the scariest bit was when we were close to the bank and somebody cut down a tree which although it landed a safe(ish) distance away it sounded a bit too close for comfort.  It also happened to land upon somebody’s house which fortunately didn't appear to have anyone in it at the time, you certainly do see some odd stuff in Laos.

Two monks at the waterfall

Two monkeys at the waterfall
Some 4000 Islands buffalo

The islands were an amazing way to end our time in Laos, after the kayaking we had another day of ultimate relaxation and booked our boat and coach tickets to Cambodia not really knowing what to expect.  We planned on visiting the North Eastern town of Ban Lung, however we were put off on going there directly after a tour guide said that it was near impossible to lay your hands on any money until you got as far south as Kratie, even though they supposedly had a Visa accepting cash machine in Ban Lung.  Cambodia readily accepts US Dollars alongside its domestic currency Real, yet we only had enough USD to pay for our Cambodian visa (plus the notorious bribes) along with perhaps one night in a guesthouse with food and breakfast.  We decided to gamble and take a coach to Stung Treng, a town on the road to Kratie but still on route to Ban Lung.  If our cards worked here then we could get out enough cash for a visit to Ban Lung, if not then we had enough money to continue south to Kratie where we could definitely access our cash but would have to miss out on Ban Lung.



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