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!

Coming clean about dirt, or, It’s not me, it’s you

Back in my former life, before all this travel business kicked off, I don’t think anyone who knew me would describe me as a particularly neat or persnickety individual. In fact, some may go so far as to say I had a bit of a tendency towards messiness and chaos within my own environment. And I’ve never been afraid to get grimy for a good reason (yoga, gardening, cooking, etc.).

Knowing this about myself made me feel relatively confident that I’d be fine traveling in countries that might not be up to Western standards of cleanliness. I was surprised, then, to find that I was actually more squeamish, far more often than I had expected to be. I was feeling pretty wimpy about all this and was tending to judge myself a lot for it (“Bad world traveller Jenny!”) and actually started to worry that I might be getting a bit OCD – being hyper aware of and sensitive to dirt and grime – and possibly take this new-found paranoia home with me when our trip was over.

My little trip to the States was a great opportunity to disprove this pretty useless theory my “running mind” (as Roman likes to call it) had felt the need to come up with. Within no time of arriving back home, dirt was the last thing on my mind.

Having some time and space, I realize now that there are only certain types of dirt that get to me, in certain situations, and in fact, upon reflection, I’m not even that big of a wimp.

I can totally handle:

•Peeing in “unpleasant” smelling squat toilets on the trains of India
•Taking care not to step in the goat, cow (and occasionally people) poo that was all over the roads of Hampi
•The rickety bus rides in Myanmar that left us and our stuff covered in a thick film of dust and grime by the time we made it to our first bathroom break
•The gleeful rats and scurrying cockroaches of Bangkok’s streets
•Sharing a tuk tuk with fly-filled bags of meat bits (hair still intact; I think they might have been tails but I didn’t want to look to closely…) in Savannakhet
•Watching our Lao jungle guide chow down on massive, living bugs
•Getting totally caked in mud up on the Bolaven Plateau

I don’t think that’s the resume of a big-time travel wuss.

What I realize now though is that I get sensitive when it comes to hotels. Out there in the world I can manage most things. But when it comes to where I lay my head, I need a bit of comfort. It doesn’t even need to be fancy. Simple is totally fine, so long as it’s clean and cared for. Places that look, feel or smell neglected just get me down. Oh, and so does bad fluorescent lighting.

Realizing this doesn’t mean we’re going to upgrade away from budget lodging for the rest of our trip. And it certainly doesn’t mean we won’t end up in shoddy, cheap hotels from time to time.

But having this knowledge means I don’t have to beat myself up for being a wimp while simultaneously trying to pretend that everything is great and I really love stained linens, spider webs and grim lighting that makes me look even more tired and grimy than I may already be feeling. It means I can accept the situation while also accepting that it’s probably not going to be my favorite part of trip, and then I can simply move on. Liberating!!

Oh, and if you’re curious what may have prompted this post, let’s just say it was a bit of a rough adjustment staying at Phonevilay Hotel (I won’t go on and on, but just to paint a brief sketch – while it could have been a lot worse, the floor was not pleasant for bare feet, the gecko poop was prevalent, the ant population was thriving and the sheets were hole-y) after the comfort and elegance of Vayakorn in Vientiane. 😉

Savannakhet highlights

Here’s a bit of what we got up to we weren’t hiding from the overwhelming heat in Savannakhet.

Eating out

We went out for dinner one night with Antony. We were wandering along the Mekong trying to figure out where to eat when we saw an outdoor restaurant on the riverbank that seemed to be popular with the locals. Communication with the wait staff was limited pretty much to sign language, but apparently there was only one thing on the menu anyhow – a fun, interactive, Lao-style fondue.

A heavy brazier full of red-hot coals is set in the middle of the table. On top, a metal pot with a rise in the middle. The “moat” part of the pot is filled with a simple broth, the middle “grill” area is topped with some sort of thick lard that melts slowly, keeps meat from sticking and adds flavor to the broth as the meal progresses.

Everyone is given their own bowl of superbly delicious peanut and garlic based dipping sauce, and then the “ingredients” show up – one plate of all sorts of meat, from shrimp to liver, even some eggs, and one piled high with awesome mystery vegetables and packets of dry rice noodles. A metal kettle full of broth is on standby when a refill is necessary.

Add some tasty BeerLao and good conversation and you’ve got yourself an awesome meal.

I only took one (quick and bad) photo, which doesn’t do it justice, but hopefully it gives you some idea of how it works.

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Breakfast and company

We were searching for a place to eat breakfast our first day and happily were beckoned by a friendly, smiling face to take a look at the menu of a restaurant called Bounnam Natalie.

The owner of the face and the restaurant was a lovely older woman called Vongsot. A gynecologist by training, although she no longer has a practice she is still using her extensive knowledge to educate Laos about reproductive health and prevention of STDs, as well as nutritional health. Her husband is an engineer and she travels with him when his project takes him to different parts of the country, using it as an opportunity for outreach. When she’s in town though she also runs the family restaurant. She was absolutely lovely and welcoming, inspirational and interesting to talk too. We also really enjoyed her young (we think) grandson, nicknamed Lemon, who she was looking after. About five months old, he was a butterball of cuteness with an infectious smile.

The food was simple but good, and her fresh pineapple juice was a dream – creamy and refreshing. Needless to say, it became our regular breakfast spot in Savannakhet. 🙂

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The sign outside the restaurant, in case you might want to find it. 🙂

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Delicious pineapple juice, in an Arsenal glass no less!

Wat Sainyaphum was a lovely monastery that we visited. It had a quiet, peaceful atmosphere and beautiful grounds full of impressive flora. We timed it wrong though, stumbling upon it at mid-day, so the brutal sun made for a shorter visit. 🙂

A dinosaur of a museum

Apparently Savannakhet Province has been the site for some significant dinosaur finds over the years. Lonely Planet informed us that Province’s captial had a “small but well-presented” dino museum, which we were keen to check out. Even that description didn’t properly prepare me for just how small and simple this place was – but it was cute and we really got a kick out of it. The clear highlight for me was the life-size outline of a Brontosaurus that was sketched across three of the museum’s four walls in colorful Christmas lights. 🙂

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The left hand corner and back wall with display case are missing – otherwise that is pretty much the sum total of the museum there in that picture. 🙂

Trek prep

We took time to research and get signed up for a two day bike trek and home stay at one of the eco-tour places in town. More on that later, but here are some photos of a poster the place had up on the wall. All very sound advice on how to behave while interacting with villagers, but I really get a kick out of how Westerners are portrayed.

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I wonder what religion, exactly, he is representing? The Brotherhood of Barefoot Christian Warlocks?

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Do I look like that? (love the sunburns on the pic on the left!)

Little things I want to remember

The amazing ninja cat that scaled the bamboo framework as we ate dinner at Cafe Chez Boune.

The super cute, super cheeky puppy at Bounnam Natalie Restaurant

The site of a street full of moped drivers, all shading themselves from the sun with dainty plastic umbrellas.

Just how quiet the place was on Sunday – parts of the city felt like a ghost town.

The mounds of sugar palm husks piled on the ground by the river. Still sad I missed the chance to try some!

On the road again: Vientiane to Savannakhet

After the lovely reunion with Roman and introduction to Laos in Vientiane, it was time for us to start exploring the country’s southern half. Roman had already spent time checking out many of Laos’ northern highlights while I was visiting my family in the States – keep an eye on his blog (in German, he’s still on Thailand but Lao updates will follow) to learn more about that part of the country.

Our first stop was the city of Savannakhet, whose Lonely Planet description includes adjectives such as “crumbling”, “languid”, “forlorn”. Roman’s good friend and travel aficionado, Pirmin, who has seen a great deal of Asia, mentioned something along the lines of “there’s so little going on that even the flies don’t move in Savannakeht.” 😉

We got there by way of a dusty, nine hour bus ride. Roman had already seen a lot of the Laotian country side, so I enjoyed taking in the view from the window seat, watching countless acres of farmlands and wilderness roll past. It was amazing how much space there was between villages, and how dark it got out there once the sun set!

We met a nice guy from Liverpool called Antony on the bus; he’d been depending on the bus driver to let him out at a stop about halfway between Vientiane and Savannakeht – this totally didn’t happen, but happily for us he ended up becoming a lovely impromptu travel/dining partner for a couple of days.

There we further unexpected surprises with the bus ride besides them failing to alert Antony of his stop. When we arrived at what seemed to be the Savannakeht stop, we and the rest of the passengers ended up getting loaded into a small truck – evidently some sort of transfer to the city proper. They kept squeezing in people and goods until the thing was full to bursting – Roman and a couple other folks had to stand on the back edge, hanging on to the truck’s frame. When it was packed to the driver’s satisfaction, we took off on a longer than expected drive through pitch black roads till we reached the city proper (we knew we were there thanks to the appearance of street lamps, complete with frangipani and dinosaur-shaped christmas light decorations. 🙂 ). At the bus station, we haggled most unsuccessfully with the only tuk tuk driver there (he really had an unfair advantage! ;-)), and got dropped off at the first hotel we could find in Lonely Planet.

Maybe arriving after dark was a factor, but Sayamungkhun, described as having “spacious, spotlessly clean rooms” with “an inviting atmosphere”, was quite possibly one of the most grim and depressing looking hotels I’ve seen in quite some time. We left to check out some other options, helped out by a very sweet, very enthusiastic man we met who cycled around ahead of us to see if the places he was recommending were open and had room for us.

We ended up settling in at Phonevilay Hotel (more on that later) and the next day started to get to know the city. Crumbling it certainly was, it was definitely sleepy compared to Vientiane and the mid-day sun was so brutally hot I can understand why the flies wouldn’t want to move. But the place was not without its charms and points of poignant beauty, and we managed to really enjoy our time there. More details to come in the next post, but here are some initial photo impressions of the place.

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Street-side shrine

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Fading paint

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Dumpling vendor on a smoke break

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Statue in front of a sacred tree

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Honda repair shop

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Cigarettes for sale

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“Sorry for inconvenience”