Happy birthday to… this blog!

I’ve now been on the road for one whole year! Unbelievable but true! I’ve put together some videos to celebrate and to help me get my head around just how much we’ve seen and done these past 365 days. 🙂 Enjoy!

Intro

India

Myanmar (Burma)

Thailand

Laos

Cambodia

Vietnam

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Looking back on Laos

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A design in concrete made of Beerlao bottlecaps

Compare and contrast

We’ve been in Cambodia for nearly two weeks now. There’s still lots to see and absorb in this country and we’re still getting a feel for the culture, food, people etc. Coming from Laos, comparisons and analysis of this “new” country gives us lots of food for thought. Roman and I spend time chatting about it pretty much every day.

The backdrop of Cambodia throws into relief not only many of the experiences we had in Laos but the overall energy and atmosphere of that gentle country.

It may not have the obvious wow factor of its neighbors – no coastline to speak of, unlike Thailand with it’s idyllic beaches, no ruins as world-renowned as Cambodia’s, few pagodas as ancient and spectacular as Myanmar’s.

Wholehearted

For Roman and I, the great treasure of Laos is its people. The genuine welcome we received there as well as the laid back, easy-going vibe made our time there so special.

This is going to sound cheesy but I’ll write it anyhow. The slogan of the country’s infamous Beerlao (quite possibly the country’s second national treasure!! 😉 None of the Cambodian beer I’ve tried so far can compete.) is “Beer of the wholehearted people”. I don’t know if all Laotians consider the nation’s beer to be their drink of choice, but certainly most of the people we met in Laos were whole, warm and open-hearted.

Having the opportunity to compare and contrast our experiences there and in Cambodia so far only further strengthens those impressions. Laos is not much better off than Cambodia in many ways. The villages and even many of the cities we saw there made it clear that most of the people are living pretty simple lives, as is the case in Cambodia.

Hearing people in Laos talk about some of the issues in the country – limited opportunities (and limited perspective too, as described by Sone the monk) and corruption (the first week we were staying in Pakse, Mama Tan had to pay bribes on three different occasions!) just for starters and seeing clear evidence of poverty, one could expect the atmosphere to be much more negative.

Instead, what stands out in my memory are things like:

  • How the villages we passed felt simple instead of poor. Houses were basic but well cared for and clean.
  • How much adults seemed to cherish the young children
  • How people went out of their way to help us or welcome us and make us feel at home
  • The laughter-filled conversations groups of friends would have as they rode in a pack of mopeds down the street
  • How straight forward things felt – like using someone’s porch as a place to wait out the rain or getting help starting our bike – without feeling invasive or obliged
  • The tons of “Saibadees”, smiles and waves we exchanged with people in passing (interestingly, since in Cambodia, we’ve rarely been greeted with the Khmer greeting “Sua s’die” – pretty much everyone just says “Hello”)

Here is the overview of where I was during our visit to Laos. For me, it was only eight different locations through only one half of the country (Roman did the North without me while I was home having a love fest with my new nephew. 🙂 ), but we managed to pack a lot in and have some really magical experiences, and all I can say is “khawp jai” Laos!!

May 22 Vientiane Vayakorn Inn
May 28 Savannakhet Phonevilay Hotel
May 31 Ban Phon Sim Home stay
June 1 Savannakhet Phonevilay Hotel
June 2 Pakse Sang Aroun Hotel
June 11 Tat Lo Siphaseth Guesthouse
June 12 Attapeu Dokchampa Hotel
June 14 Paksong Paksong Phuthavada
June 15 Pakse Sang Aroun Hotel
June 17 Muang Khong Phoukhong Guesthouse

First, somewhat random, notes from Cambodia

We’ve been in Cambodia for a bit over a week now. The first few days were spent in Kratie, a small city about halfway between the four thousand islands in Laos and Phnom Penh.

Now we’ve made it to Cambodia’s capital, just as initial hearings against four top leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime are kicking off. We’ve been reading about it in the international press; as tourists in the city there’s no indication that anything special is going on. Later we’ll be visiting TuolSleng, the genocide museum where many of the crimes these people are accused of were committed.

I’ll write more specifically about Kratie and Phnom Penh later. For now though, here are some first impressions and random bits and pieces.

Back story

Having finished “Cambodia’s Curse” before leaving Laos, it’s been a bit tough not to arrive in the country with a few pre-conceived notions in my head. I’m not sure if I was noticing more differences because of the book. It repeatedly describes the desperate living conditions for many of Cambodia’s poor, the shoddy state of the country’s infrastructure (i.e. roads) and the self-interested power plays of the leading political parties (who seem to have offices everywhere, especially the CPP, even in the scruffiest scrap of a village.

Taking my own impressions with a grain of salt then, it was still interesting for me to observe things that corresponded with the book as our bus drove through the rugged-feeling province of Stung Trent towards Kratie.

Right off the bat there was evidence of poor government planning: the border crossing was one massive, muddy construction site. No provision had been made for through traffic during the rainy season. Our bus was spinning its wheels in thick mud in no time, and everyone had to climb out until a combined effort of digging and pushing got us going again. A fun welcome into our newest country! 🙂

Bus with a view

The villages and homes we saw in Laos were simple, but had a feeling of rural charm and simplicity. Compared to the scattered dwellings we passed in the Stung Treng province, they came across as neater and more cohesive. Gazing out the window as the bus bumped along, the houses seemed scrappier (mis-matched or poorly trimmed walls; more use of plastic as a building material, corrugated iron older and rustier), the towns dirtier, the land less cultivated by comparison. Naked or half clothed young children were not uncommon, something we hadn’t seen in Laos (in “Cambodia’s Curse”, the author notes this is because parents can’t afford diapers). There were definitely less satellite dishes than we’d seen in Laos; I wonder how many of the homes we passed are without electricity.

The bus ride between Kratie and Phnom Penh offered different sights. It seems much more of the land in the Kratie and Kompong Cham provinces is cultivated. The land is relatively flat, and we drove through areas filled with line after perfectly parallel line of rubber trees and acres of flat rice paddies accentuated with thin palms stretching out towards the distant horizon.

Passing through these apparently more productive, populated areas, the villages still struck me as somewhat rough around the edges, and also somehow lop-sided – larger, modern homes that we didn’t see often see in Laos were often flanked by patch-work houses of bamboo, wood, palm leaves and plastic.

This impression continued as we entered into Phnom Penh. The bus drove through rough neighborhoods with even shoddier looking housing, only to turn a corner onto a broad boulevard with proper sidewalks, orderly patches of green grass modern high rises and attractive hotels and restaurants.  The neighborhood we are staying is lovely – tons of good food, pretty buildings, and lots of thick walls topped with heavy coils barbed wire. So far, Cambodia gives the impression of being a country of especially strong contrasts.

Photos taken from the bus with my iPhone – quality is not the greatest

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Rice fields with palms

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Houses made of wood, thatch, iron

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Even nearing Phnom Penh, the state of the roads isn’t great

Easing in to opening

I’m still getting my head round the energy of the people here. Laos and the lovely people we met there melted my heart completely. My experiences with Cambodians so far are not as straight forward.

The scrum of hotel touts that met us as we climbed off the bus in Kratie or the ceaseless and ceaselessly “charming’ propositions from drivers in Phnom Penh that start the second we walk out of our hotel (Clapping to get our attention, “Hey!”, “Lady! Lady, tuk tuk!?!” “Tuk tuk, ok???”) has got me started with my defences slightly raised.

When I’ve let them down though, I’ve had some amazing, open interactions people. I’ll write more about them later, but in the mean time, it’s food for though.

Random: Currency

One of the first things I like to do when we get to a new country is check out the currency. It’s just something I like. 🙂 Laos’ money (the kip) had some great illustrations; women farming and my favorite water buffalo feature on some of the smaller notes. China (bills picked up during my stop over in Shanghai) highlights some of its beautiful scenery on the nation’s currency; in Thailand the baht, not surprisingly, seems to be all about its royalty, with various kings highlighted on different notes.

Arriving in Cambodia, I checked out the first riel I got my hands on. The country’s famous temples feature heavily, but each note has something different going on. Kids going to school on the 100 note seemed pretty standard fare, but something on the 500 riel note really caught my eye. Is it just me, or is it a Porsche driving over that bridge? A week in, we’ve seen plenty of school houses and temples; however we have yet to encounter a Porsche in Cambodia. 😉

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Women farming, cows and buffalo on the kip

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Chinese landscape on the yuan

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King Bhumibol Adulyadej, apparently also a photographer, on the 1000 baht note

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Cambodian school and school children

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Nice bridge; even nicer car!

Mekong meanderings

The last of our days in Laos were spent on and among the Si Phan Don, or “Four Thousand Islands”, an archipelago on the broad Mekong River comprised of islands that vary in size and number depending on the season (rainy versus dry). We only had a couple of days there, but the idyllic setting was a lovely place to bring our time in Laos to a close.

Transport and accommodation notes

We got there with an easy van ride from Pakse. Buying a ticket through one of the many travel shops in town meant pick up straight from our hotel and getting crammed into a stuffed vehicle with a bunch of other tourists. The drive was relatively quick and very easy, and after getting dropped off along the shoreline, a short boat ride brought us to Don Khong.

The main island among the “4,000”, Don Khong boasts a population of about 13,000 and is less touristy than the backpacker haven of the better known island Don Det, further down the river. We took a hotel on the main strip along the water front (mostly a cluster of guest houses and tourist-geared restaurants. The rest of the island though is mostly villages and farmlands) of Muang Khong, the larger town.

The hotel is listed as Phoukhong Guesthouse in Lonely Planet. It seems to have changed names but unfortunately I forgot to write down the new name! It’s easy enough to find from the description in the book though if you happen to be looking for it. The room could have used a thorough sweeping and dusting, but overall it was relatively clean and the huge windows and all the light they let in were lovely.

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Lovely big windows and a balcony to boot!

Sights and photos

The first day we rented bikes (a matching blue and pink set!:-)) and did a tour, following one of the few roads along the island’s perimiter. Despite finishing up with really sore rear ends by the end of the day, we loved the ride.

The island is so quiet; we hardly ran into any traffic. Mostly we were biking through beautiful farm lands and I got to savor more of my favorite south-east asian scenes – rice fields in varying stages (fallow, ploughed, dried out, just sprouting) stretching out towards the horizon, people in conical hats working in those brilliantly green paddies that are ready for harvesting, endlessly adorable water buffalo luxuriating in mud puddles, massive butterflies dancing through the air in front of temples.

Our drinking in the sights was punctuated with choruses of “Sabaidees” every time we’d pass through a village – pretty much every child we passed was eager to greet us. Very sweet! 🙂 Fun too was being forced to find shelter from time to time when (thankfully) short downpours would begin. The fun of the rainy season!

The next day, we hired a boat for a tour along the river (encouragingly, we ran out of gas after the first ten minutes and our driver spent a lot of time bailing water out of the bottom. We made it back safe and dry though 😉 ), cruising between some of the smaller islands and making a stop at Don Det. The river scenery was lovely. The Mekong is just huge; at the center between either shore the mud-colored water expands out underneath you in all directions, capturing the broad sky above in its reflection. We really enjoyed the atmosphere, skimming along the serenely churning waters.

Our short walk through Don Det was nice enough; we were happy not to be staying in one of the many back-packer style bungalows (“Know thyself” – I’m too old for that sort of thing at this point! 😉 ) but we enjoyed wandering among the houses further back in the island, smiling at betel chewing grannies, walking by massive clumps of towering bamboo that creaked magically in the wind and searching for an abandoned colonial railway.

Best of all though was being able to catch glimpses of every day life along the river: families paddling out in small boats to gather edible greens from the water, men and boys casting nets from shallow waters along the shore, women bathing young children and washing clothes at the river’s edge, groups of kids pausing their games to wave and shout enthusiastically at us from the shore.

We’d just passed a grandmother and grandchild harvesting river plants when we encountered the most shocking portion of the boat ride. Two boys were in the water by a wooden boat. I thought they were fishing and waved back as one started to greet us when suddenly the second one sprung up from the water like a rocket. He was stark naked and started dancing like crazy with enthusiastic gyrations and hip thrusting that would have been incredibly lewd except he was young enough to get away with it. Instead it was just hilarious (Roman assures me I was blushing none the less!), and I cracked up for the rest of the day every time I thought of it.  🙂

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Old tree among rice paddies

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Our matching bikes, parked while we waited out the rain under a cozy tree

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Village kids come by to investigate and say hi during another rain break

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Storm clouds ahead, golden sun behind

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A farmer and buffalo ploughing rice fields

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Beer-bottle caps ready for a game of checkers

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Strong currents – the view from the middle of the Mekong

The Southern Swing Part 2: Highlights and photos

Like I mentioned, much of the pleasure of the bike tour was the journey itself – the fun and freedom of our own transportation and just taking in Laos’ beautiful countryside. There were a lot of other highlights though too. Here’s some of my favorites.

  • The village shortly outside Pakse where every house and shop had a stand in front selling durian and pineapple (often with the owner napping under its shade); the air smelled delicious!

At Tad Lo:

  • Our fun walk through thick bamboo forests and my ineffective anti-spider stick

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Roof of the bamboo tunnel

  • The awesomely decrepid boards on the bridge and the cute kids playing at the waterfall

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FIrst waterfall at Tad Lo

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The view through the bridge. Very reassuring. 😉

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Bridge detail

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Lovely girl at the falls

  • The gorgeous sunset walk at the village outside of the tourist area, and how so many people gathered at the river to bathe, do laundry and just hang out at dusk

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Village house detail

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At the river at dusk

  • The shop girl’s sweet and open smile
  • The empty bomb casing serving as a flower pot outside the place where we ate breakfast

On the way to/at Attapeu:

  • The way the tendrils of thick fog encircled the Bolaven Plateau in the late afternoon
  • The flash of blue from the wings of three beautiful birds flitting across the road in front of us (we’ve been trying to find out what sort of birds they could have been with no success so far…)
  • Chatting with locals and taking in some interesting sights at a market in Sekong

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Vendor hard at work at the market

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Bucket full of frogs – just one of the interesting things on offer at the market

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Her bananas were delicious. 🙂

  • The big group of boisterous kids that ran out of their home to chat with us in Sekong when we stopped to get oriented
  • Racing the impending dark to arrive at Attapeu as the moon was rising; driving around the pitch black side streets in search of a hotel
  • Amazing food at Johnny’s. We had seen this place during our hotel search and it looked cute and welcoming. We grabbed a seat and the owner/waiter came to greet us. We tried to ask about a menu and different dishes, but he just kept saying “fish” and shaking his head “no” when we asked about rice, vegetables, etc. We shrugged and decided to with it. The result: one of the most amazing meals we had in Laos.
    Mysterious things were placed on our table – bowls of water, some sort of sauce, a mountain of different greens topped by a pile of what looked like thin, circular pieces of white plastic, a plate full of condiments like fresh ginger, peanuts, cucumber, onion. And finally, a massive, grilled river fish skewered on bamboo. Fortunately the owner was wonderful and gave us a demo of what to do.
    Wetting the “plastic” (actually rice paper) turned it into a soft wrapping for DIY Lao style burritos! Fill with chunks of delicious white fish meat (I wish I knew what sort of fish it was. Mild and sweet, with a slightly nutty flavor (veering towards hazelnut actually), very tender and moist), any greens and condiments you desire, fold up, dip and enjoy! Absolutely delicious and so much fun!

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Ingredients

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Delish fish!

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The finished product

On the way to/on the Plateau

  • The family we saw at the cross roads before heading on the road that would take us to the plateau. A man with a big rifle slung across his chest sandwiched between his wife and young child on a motorbike.
  • The amazing glimpses of acres and acres of jungle we would catch when we rounded certain turns on the road up
  • How I nearly flew off the back of the bike the first time Roman tried to gun the engine up one of the slippery hills. Shortly thereafter we instituted the “I walk/Roman rides uphill” technique.
  • The group of kids smoking cheroots (!!) in the fields of a small farm
  • How relatively nice the homes and villages got as we moved into coffee plantation territory and how nearly every home had a garden – most of them with coffee bushes in them and/or rows of little baby coffee plants in front waiting to be planted. Also funny to see beautiful blue Hydrangea in many of the gardens!
  • The stands of pine trees lining one section of the road – we could almost pretend we were in Switzerland for a bit! 🙂

The Southern Swing Part 1: Rain chasing

One thing we’ve discovered on the trip so far is motors put Roman to sleep. Whether it was the gently rocking berths in India’s peaceful A/C 3 train cars or a packed bus blaring dramatically screechy movies and bouncing along pot-holed roads, pretty much as soon as the wheels start turning, Roman is lulled into dreamland.

On the other hand, give me a window seat and no responsibilities and my gaze is glued to the scenery rolling by. All I want to do is drink in the shape and colors of the land and the momentary glimpses of every day life while my mind wanders at leisure. Heaven. 🙂

So it worked out that Roman was behind the wheel of our little Honda for most of the southern swing, and that suited me just fine.

There’s an immediacy to seeing a place from the back of a bike, rather than through a bus window, that I just love. The warmth of the sun or the fresh feel of the wind, driving through smells (good and bad), the ability to stop when ever you feel like it for a photo op or just to take something in more fully, the direct feeling of road pulling away underneath and behind you as the bike wends its way along… I just love it.

Stormy weather

Although there are some less romantic parts to it – namely soreness from longer drives and being so dependant on the weather – although that can add to the adventure. I can see that our run-ins with rainstorms are already becoming some of the best memories from the trip. 🙂

The first day was fine – easy roads, a short route and sun the whole way. The next day was wetter, but we got lucky, managing to pull into a simple roadside shop in some no-name village just before the rain got serious. It felt as though the store was just waiting for us to show up. A simple table and plastic chairs and room enough to park our bike was all under a sturdy iron roof. The adjacent room held a small selection of goods and the shopkeeper was blasting Lao pop that was a great soundtrack as we drank a soda, enjoyed the company of some hens and their broods of fluff chicks and watched the deluge going on outside.

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Watching the rain from the safety of the road-side shop

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One of the hens that was keeping us company in keeping out of the rain. It’s not the best picture, but can you see the little chick peeking out from underneath her wing on the right?

Into the clouds

On day three, though, our luck changed. The most challenging leg of the journey coincided with the toughest weather. We left Attapeau in the morning and drove towards the dark hills of the Bolaven Plateau, crowned in tall, grey clouds. A lovely sight but also exactly where we were heading. That day it seemed that if there was any patch of blue in the overcast sky, it was always to be seen in our rearview mirror, while the darkest bunch of clouds gathered above the road ahead of us.

That day the drive included dirt roads through some absolutely stunning jungles. The road was pot-holed, winding, and primarily up hill. Roman was doing a great job of navigating it though, and we were feeling pretty confident. We stopped along the way to see an absolutely magnificent and massive waterfall in the midst of the thick trees. We were enjoying the incredible view when a friendly Lao guy pulled up for break from his journey. He didn’t speak any English, but with sign language managed to communicate that he was heading the same direction as us and that it looked like rain was moving in. We didn’t have to wait long before his forecast proved to be correct.

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The waterfall. This photo does nothing to convey just how incredibly huge and amazingly beautiful it was. Was mesmerizing watching such huge volumes of water falling down over the rocks, seemingly in slow motion from that distance. Just gorgeous.
The photo does capture some of the darker rain clouds that were heading in our direction.

We’d been back on the path just a few minutes when the rain started. It wasn’t a heavy downpour like we’d experienced the day before; rather it turned out we were in for a steady, good long rain. Soon, the road began to devolve into orange colored mud and little gullies of neon, fast moving water streaming down hill. With me hopping off and walking the steeper and more challenging bits of road while Roman and the bike slipped and muscled their way up hill, we slowly but surely made progress, getting more soaked and muddy the whole time. After a lot of work and no break in the weather, we finally made it to the top of the plateau, probably looking like a couple of tired but happy drowned rats.

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The rear wheel and exhaust pipe of our bike completely spattered with ruddy mud (as were we)

On top of the plateau (elevation of 1,000 to 1,350 meters or 3,300 to 4,430 feet; thanks Wikipedia), the roads were happily nice and flat and the rain began to let up a bit, although that blue sky and sun remained elusive and it was pretty cold going. Driving through acre after acre of coffee fields and the small villages was beautiful and relaxing – until we hit a massive construction site with mud even slicker and stickier than during the upward journey. We were happy to see locals slipping and sliding through the muck just as much as we did; happily we were all laughing about it. 🙂

We spent the night on the plateau, in the town of Paksong. I was still cold the next morning and wrapped myself in all the dry clothes I was carrying for the trip back to Pakse, even picking up a scarf to wrap around my torso for an extra layer. It was amazing how quickly the temperature changed once we got out of the cloud cover and into lower elevations; I was peeling off layers as best I could on the back of the bike. 🙂

Southern Swing: Specs and Travel Notes

This is the basics of the bike trip we did – the where and how. Photos and highlights to follow in the next post. 🙂

Overview

Lonely Planet’s book on Laos (LP) divides the country into four sections. The chapter on the southern most part of the country (covering Saravan, Sekong, Champasak and Attapeu) suggests a motorbike route as a nice way to see a bit of all four provinces: the “Southern Swing”.

LP provides one page with a suggested itinerary and points of interest along the way. They suggest it’s possible to do in a minimum of three days or much longer, depending on how often you stop for photo ops and if you spend multiple days at each destination.

We ended up doing a slightly modified version of the route in four days. It was not without challenges – primarily weather and driving condition related. But despite, or maybe even because, those, it was totally great – so much fun and definitely worth doing.

The stops LP suggests vary from absolutely lovely to more just a place to rest your head, but the two things that made the trip amazing were simply taking in the gradually changing, always stunning landscape from the bike (not limited to but including lots of rice paddy filled vistas, a gorgeous sight I seem unable to get enough of! :-)), and the unexpected experiences. More on those later. 😉

Prep

We rented one of the numerous little 100cc Hondas on offer in Pakse. It strained a bit during some of the most challenging bits of road which was fair – imagine trying to get any vehicle up slippery inches-thick mud. Mostly though it was perfectly good for our purposes; although we did tend to have pretty sore posteriors by the end of each day!

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Our noble steed

We left most of our stuff at the hotel in Pakse, managing to fit all our gear into my Fin back pack, with some spill over into the seat compartment and basket of the bike. Basic clothes and toiletries, our rain jackets (VERY essential!), flip flops (good to have in general but especially after our sneakers got soaked through on the wettest day), sun glasses, money, phones, cameras (which I didn’t end up using a soften as I expected, given the rainy weather, but I was still glad to have along), and some food and water for the road.

I felt slightly unprepared for how cold it got up on the Bolaven Plateau, and given the amount of rain we encountered, a full body diving dry suit probably would have been more appropriate than just a rain jacket 😉 , but mostly the stuff we had with us was exactly what we needed.

The route and accommodation notes

Here’s the overview of where we went and where we stayed while there.

Day 1 – Pakse to Tat Lo

Very easy driving, stayed at Siphaseth Guesthouse. Basic rooms that could have been cleaner, but the price was right and the water view from the balcony was lovely.

Day 2 – Tat Lo to Attapeu

Lonely Planet suggested a side trip and possible stay to Salavan before heading to Attapeu, but we skipped it. It was a long day of driving but mostly decent roads until we got to Attapea, which seemed to be largely under construction. Our first two LP hotel picks were closed (Saise Guesthouse and Attapeu Palace, in case you’re planning your own trip); we ended up at Dokchampa Hotel which LP calls “slightly pricey” for what you get – accurate as we should have been able to split the cost with the large colony of ants living in our room! 😉

Day 3 – Attapeu to Paksong

Driving up through amazing forests to get to the top of the Bolaven Plateua – a.k.a. coffee land! Very challenging driving during the wet season, but also lots of fun if you have the right attitude. We stayed at Paksong Phuthavada. “Hot” water was luke warm at best which is not ideal when you arrive soaked and freezing but aside from that it was a lovely place.

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Back to Pakse and the comforts of the Sang Aroun Hotel and Mama Tan’s food! 😉

Pakse travel notes

Our next stop after the lovely trek and home-stay experience outside of Savannakhet was Pakse. We used it as a base for a day trip to stunning Wat Phu, which I wrote about earlier, and for our awesome motorbike tour – proper post about this to come in the hopefully near future. 🙂

So Pakse itself was more about relaxing and research rather than sightseeing, which is why this post is mostly accommodation and food notes. 🙂

Overview and accommodation

I found Pakse to be more charming than Savannakhet (glad that we saw both though), and it was slightly more cool than Savannakhet too (proximity to the Bolaven Plateau I guess?). It’s certainly more geared towards tourists. It’s got more hotels, western food options, bike rental places – while still being a normal, down-to-earth Lao city – it doesn’t feel overrun which is nice.

All this made it a perfect base for us. We spent a bit more money (USD 18 a night) staying at the Sang Aroun Hotel. Good location, not the fastest, but decent wifi, very simple in the best way – think white floors, walls, linens – and delightfully clean. 🙂 We were really happy and comfortable there.

We love Bolaven Cafe!

Possibly the best part was it’s proximity to Bolaven Cafe. The area around Pakse is Lao coffee country, and the city is absolutely full of cafes (another reason we loved it), so we might not have found this place if our hotel hadn’t been so close. As it was, it was the absolute highlight of our time in Pakse.

The cafe in Pakse is brand-spanking-new. It’s part of a larger company of organic, fair trade coffee plantations in Laos. They employ farmers for a number of years, teaching them organic farming techniques before assisting them to buy their own land – a technique that benefits more people in the long term. The company has a few other cafes and distributors throughout the world. Their aim on the retail side is to get a strong franchise going.

That’s all great, but what made it the heart and home of our stay in Pakse was this particular cafe’s owner, Momma Tan. She’s Thai but lived in the States with her American husband for many years – and from the moment we wandered into the cafe she gave us an American-sized welcome. She really took us under her wing, treating us like her own kids, sharing inspiring stories about her life, giving us advice  on places to shop or things to do in town, using us as very willing guinea pigs to taste test her latest batch of baked goodies (all her own recipes), even driving us places.

As if that wasn’t enough, all the young Laotians working there were really sweet and welcoming and the food was delicious. The cafe has a top-notch espresso machine; Roman was enthusiastic about the best espresso he’d found in a while! With all that plus refreshing A/C and free wifi, it was the perfect spot to research our trip on and around the Bolaven Plateau. Really a home away from home for us! Thank you Momma Tan and everyone!

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The lovely staff at Cafe Bolaven. Momma Tan is in the middle (wearing glasses)

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Freshly baked coffee cake and pecan brownie with a mad good latte. Mmm….

A few of my favorite things

Other nice things about Pakse:

Hanging out on the bridge by the Champasak Palace Hotel, watching the approaching storm clouds and awesome daredevil swallows dancing over the Mekong River. They were a type I’ve never seen before, all black with a distinct white patch on the base of their tails. Wonderful to watch.

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View from the bridge; clouds gather over the Mekong – so beautiful!

Wandering the dark, peaceful streets of the village across the French Bridge, to the chorus of hundreds of chirpy frogs.

There were so many fantastic rain storms. We got treated to impressive thunder and lightning shows nearly every day. The last day we even saw a faint but lovely rainbow.

The musical sound of young students enthusiastically reciting in unison floating out of a simple school we passed on the way to the post office.

The cute twin ginger cats who were hanging around our table at Khem Khong, the floating restaurant on the Mekong we ate at one night. (Decent food, lovely river views!)

The service at Delta Coffee was so dismal that it actually was hilarious. The girls working there seemed so miserable at the prospect of having their gossip or TV-watching interrupted; they did everything they could to avoid making eye-contact. Even though there were scores of them just standing around, they couldn’t even take our order – we had to write it down ourselves. Roman and I have experienced amusingly indifferent service in Asia before, but this just took the cake. At least we had a good laugh about it. 🙂

Some of the best pizza we’ve found in Asia at Pizza Boy (also conveniently close to our hotel)! It’s not Italy good, but we were still pleasantly surprised! Just be prepared to put some effort into ordering if you want custom toppings. 🙂

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the real deal!

One Beerlao for the road

There’s still more Laos back-filling to do on this blog, not to speak of Thailand and even Myanmar, but for now I want to look forward to our next stop.

Tonight’s our last night in Laos. We’re currently at pretty much the southern most point in the country, a cluster of islands on the Mekong river called Si Phan Don (the four thousand islands).

We’ve had a lovely day and a half here, enjoying Laos up to the last moment our visa remains valid. Bike and boat tours have brought us even closer to, a figurative arm’s reach away from, our next destination: Cambodia.

Tomorrow morning we’ll board a bus that will take us across the border and on to Kratie, our first stop in the new country.

Travel homework

I’ve always tried to do a bit of reading ahead about where we’re going to next, at the very least picking my way through the introductory chapters of the Lonely Planet. But I knew just enough about Cambodia’s recent history to realize I needed to know more before we got there. I wanted to be an informed visitor, but, having heard about people’s impressions of places like the genocide museum and killing fields, I also wanted to know how much I might need to brace myself.

I’ve been reading Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley.

(Side “gear” note – most books I read are on my iPhone – although it will never be the same as reading a physical book, you just can’t beat that for portability! The other downside – the limited selection and not always being able to preview books in Apple’s online store. There may be better books on Cambodia out there, but this seemed to be one of the most recent, and most relevant to what I wanted to learn about.)

I’m well more than three-fourths of the way through at this point. So far it’s provided an overview of the country’s history – ancient, the events leading up to and during Khmer Rouge times and, foremost, what’s been happening since then. One of the book’s main thrusts seems to be that the massively corrupt government has been and continues to be enabled and condoned by the international community for multiple reasons. Throughout the chapters runs a litany of horrific crimes committed against the Cambodian people – post the Khmer Rouge regime. I’m more or less up to 2008 in the chronology and I’m beginning to give up my hopes for some sort of “happy” ending to the book.

Homework round 2

I know though it’s always best to take everything with a grain of salt (just take a look at all the comments about Cambodia’s Curse in the link), and reading all this has only made me more curious to see the country and its people for myself. Brinkley makes comparisons between Cambodia and Myanmar (a country with an even worse rap than Cambodia that we are SO glad we visited) and Thailand and Vietnam feature regularly in the book, but Laos is hardly ever mentioned.

Laos has had its own share of hardships – it’s been eye-opening to learn about the bombings that took place here during the Vietnam war (apparently it is the most bombed country in the entire world. See some quick facts here.) – yet most of the Laotians we met have been among the most welcoming, easy-going folks we’ve encountered on our trip so far and while there is no doubt it’s a poor country, it has felt, to us at least, safe and not without its dignity, despite the poverty.

So, I wanted to get some additional context beyond the utterly bleak picture painted in the book. Statistics may be flat compared to the stories Brinkley recounted – and I don’t in any way discount the suffering he describes – but it was still interesting to learn that in terms of figures, Laos and Cambodia seem to be running a tight race.

Just the facts

Both countries have a very young population (a median age of 22.9 in Cambodia, compared to 21 in Laos) with a similar life expectancy of around 62.5 years – the lowest among all their neighbors, including Myanmar. Both countries also have higher infant mortality rates than their neighbors (Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam).

In fact both countries are by and large markedly worse off than those neighbors, except in certain areas where Myanmar is in similar or worse shape (i.e. unemployment – 5.7% in Myanmar versus 3.5% in Cambodia and 2.5% in Laos. Myanmar also tops the list of the largest chunk of the population under the poverty line – 32.7%. No wonder since their GDP per capita is also the lowest, at USD 1,400 per year. In Cambodia it’s USD 2,100, in Thailand USD 8,700).

Literacy in both places is the lowest of the five countries at around 73% (the neighbors are at around 90% or higher). Cambodia provides safe drinking water to more of its population than Laos; Laos has got Cambodia firmly beat for sanitation facility access however. Around 87% of Laos’ roads are unpaved; in Cambodia it’s around 92%.

(PS – thanks to the CIA World Factbook for all those figures.)

So what

I am no statistician and can’t and don’t want to read too much into those figures. But I’m glad I’m aware of them if only for the reason that they are reminding me to keep my eyes and heart open. If the figures for Laos are so poor and yet this country and the people we’ve met here have been so beautiful and uplifting, what can expect of Cambodia? We’ll see how it goes once we’re there, but I suppose the (informed) answer for now is: nothing and everything.

In the mean time, farewell for now Laos, and thanks for all the beer! 😉

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Our last Beerlao in Laos!

Bike trek adventure

We arranged for a two-day bike trek from Savannakhet – biking from the city to the Dong Natad NPA (National Protected Area – wilderness preserves throughout the country), through the forest, to the village of Ban Phon Sim for a home-stay overnight and temple visit in the morning, and then back via That Ing Hang, a beautiful Buddhist stupa.

It was a package offered by the Eco-Guide Unit in Savannakhet. Being low season, we could go on our own with a guide and a local forest “specialist”, but during peak times, this could have been a group trip of up to eight people.

Roman is a bit allergic to organized, tourist-group activities, and we were excited for the trek but also braced for the possibility that it could feel a bit “manufactured”. It turned out to be really wonderful though.

Laos has opened up to tourism later than many of its neighbors in southeast Asia and has taken lessons from their successes and mistakes. From what we’ve read and experienced, it’s making a decent effort (not perfect, I’m sure, but at least it’s trying) to develop tourism in conjunction with and to support local communities.

You can read more about it here if you are interested, but certainly our experience with Eco-Guide Unit made us feel like we got a wonderful view of traditional life in the region without being too invasive. The people in the village of Ban Phon Sim seemed comfortable having us wander around and were happy to greet or chat with us; at the same time, there wasn’t a single post card for sale or eatery with food aimed at tourists – really nice.

Jungle boogie

Our guide from the Eco-Guide Unit was a young man named Pasert. He was soft spoken but opened up more as the day progressed and we had more time to talk (the shots of Lao Lao at the home stay may have helped as well. 😉 ), and was really sweet.

We rode with him from the shop in town to the stupa where we met with our “local” guide, Sodar. He was an expert on the forest we’d be biking through. He didn’t know any English and obviously we don’t know any Lao, but that didn’t stop him from talking and laughing lots – regardless if Pasert was around to translate or anyone was even in earshot. He was good fun. 🙂

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Sodar demonstrating the flammability of the fuel produced by a special tree, used for torches traditionally used by the locals

The ride through the forest took up the better part of the day and was wonderful. The trees and undergrowth grew thick and the air was always humming with the buzz of insects. The flora was pretty varied – ferns and vines and smaller fruit or flowering trees grew prolifically under the cover of less frequent but totally impressive towering, ancient giants of trees. We saw no other tourists while we were in there, just a handful of locals who were foraging for edible plants and animals.

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We met a small group of women gathering these plants in the forest. They were too shy to have their photo taken, but they let me try the leaves. Sticky like okra but with a lovely, fresh taste.

Even under the cover of the trees, it was very hot going and Roman and I are convinced we’ve never sweat that much before in our lives. 🙂 We made pretty frequent stops, hopping off the bikes any time Sodar had something interesting to show us: termite colonies, stink bugs, dung beetles, edible (?!?) halucinigenic spiders, all sorts of amazing forest fruit, jungle vines that would yield small sips of delicious water when chopped open with his machete. Learning about those sort of things, being in the incredible nature and the exercise of biking through the muddy, sandy, rocky paths were all right up my alley – I just loved it.

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A massive cicada. Sodar played with it – making crazy sound effects by opening and closing his mouth while it was inside and chirping like crazy. This was before he ate it, the first of multiple bugs he’d munch on during the trek. 😛 I’m just grateful he didn’t eat the spiders he found…

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One of the types of forest fruit we got to try. White flesh around a big pit under that bright pink peel, very sour. Roman got pretty addicted to them. 🙂

We took a break when we came to some open farmlands on the edge of the reservation. We made ourselves comfortable in a simple hut on the field – a small platform a couple of feet off the ground with a thatched roof – and ate a lovely al fresco lunch. Lots of still warm sticky rice with a myriad of vegetable dishes. My favorites were the big steamed bamboo shoots (similar to artichoke) and some sort of eggplant dish with lots of cilantro. Dessert was dozing and daydreaming in the shade until we’d digested enough to move on.

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Pasert unpacks lunch

Home stay magic

We pulled into the village of Ban Phon Sim in the late afternoon. We were staying at the home of the village head. We were invited to make ourselves comfortable on a simple wooden platform in the yard that functions as deck, table and lounge areas and were welcomed with traditional shots of Lao Lao. Strong stuff! 🙂

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Ducks enjoying a puddle at our home stay

We had some time to relax, freshen up and explore the village before the baci ceremony – a traditional buddhist ceremony that is performed to celebrate everything from guests arriving to school graduations to the start of new business ventures – in our hosts’ home. We went for a lovely stroll around the village and some of the surrounding, peaceful farm lands. I really enjoyed cleaning up with the standard Lao shower, wrapping myself in a borrowed, well-worn sarong and cleaning myself with bowlfuls of refreshing water in the family’s outhouse.

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The road out of the village, flanked by towering Eucalyptus trees

The baci ceremony began after the sun had set. A good-sized Pha Kwan, a kind of “mini stupa”, had been set up, streaming loads of perfectly white strings. Elderly neighbors arrived to join in the welcome ceremony and dinner that would follow. The oldest guest led the event, reciting traditional invocations. Everyone present reached in to either touch the Pha Kwan or touch someone who was touching the stupa as the prayers were said. Once completed, everyone removed the strings and came up to me, Roman and Pasert, tying the strings around our wrists as they blessed us, each in turn. The ceremony was simple and of course we couldn’t understand what we being said, but the gesture of blessing us individually was so heart-felt and lovely – I was so moved and so grateful.

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The Pha Kwan

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Family and neighbors gather for the ceremony

The dinner afterwards was simple but delicious, and again we were treated as honored guests, being served first and on a low table, while everyone else had their plates simply on the floor. Even though communication was really limited, still all the members of the family were sweet and easygoing and made us feel really welcome.

After dinner, we enjoyed some start-gazing from the platform outdoors until we were too tired to stay up any longer (the family stayed inside, watching music videos and comically dramatic Thai sit coms. Apparently this is the thing to do in Laos – we’ve seen it every where we’ve gone.).

We slept on mats on the floor under mosquito netting – until we were awakened in the middle of the night by booming peals of thunder close by and the deafening pounding of rain on the tin roof overhead. The storm was magnificent and huge and I was really glad it arrived during the night and not while we’d been biking.

The morning after

We had to get up shortly after 6am the next day; part of the experience was bringing alms to the local monastery. The mother of the house gently wrapped me in the traditional sarong and scarf – required for women presenting monks with gifts – and Roman, Pasert, one of the daughters and I headed to the temple, bowls of donations in our arms.

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The lovely mother at the home stay, two daughters and one granddaughter

It was a holiday, so the place was absolutely packed. We squeezed into a small patch of open floor for part of the opening prayers, then joined the crowd as the alms – everything from fruit and sticky rice to pens, toothpaste and cigarettes to money – were placed in large bowls. A lovely experience, albeit a bit early!

We were very happy to get a strong Lao coffee at a shop in town afterwards, joining a group of amiable men from the village who were getting caffeinated and chatting before getting going on the day’s work, including one teacher who was using the school holiday as a chance to go collect mushrooms in the forest we’d driven through the day before. It was fun talking with him and the other men in a mix of English, basic French and translation facilitated by Pasert.

Back to town

After a lovely breakfast at our home stay, Pasert took us for a small bike loop through delicious smelling Eucalyptus plantations and picturesque rice paddies and along a lovely lake. We stopped back at the house to pick up lunch for the road and then headed back to the village of Ban Thad – home to the That Ing Hang stupa and Pasert.

The stupa was lovely – unfortunately though my camera had run out of batteries at this point, so I haven’t got any pictures. You can see it online though if you’re interested.

After checking out the stupa, we stopped at his house in the village, where his mother and sisters welcomed us and served us lunch – and then went back to watching their Thai soap opera. 😉 Roman was brave and tried the chicken feet on offer. I was happy with my veggies and sticky rice. 😉 Fueled up with more delicious food, we hopped back on our bikes and pedaled our way back to Savannakhet, where we arrived a couple of hours later, hot, sweaty and happy. All in all, a great experience!