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

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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.

Day 4

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!

Gear check in

A technical post for any interested fellow travelers. 🙂

Going home gave me the chance to switch out/augment some of my travel gear; the rainy season in Laos is affording us the opportunity to test some of our stuff’s durabilty/imperviousness. Here are some notes/reviews.

Back packs

Roman and I both bought the Osprey Waypoint 65 for the trip. It comes with a large, main pack and a smaller day bag that can strap on tot he back of the larger pack.

So far I am satisfied with the large pack, but I’d been getting frustrated with the day bag. It’s ability to attach to the large pack necessitates some compromises in terms of access and space. It’s a function I’ve never used – the one time I tried it I felt like I about to teeter over at any moment because of how it skewed my center of gravity. I’m traveling with a camera, and once the camera bag is in the day pack, there’s basically no room left for anything else.

So when I was home, I ditched the day bag and picked up a new back pack – Eastern Mountain Sports’ 20 liter Fen (women’s), and I’m really happy with it. It fits tons more than the Osprey day bag and is really comfortable. (Although it is definitely a women’s pack – Roman finds it much less comfortable.) It also did a decent job staying mostly dry during the rainiest sections of our bike trip – although I’d recommend putting anything you really want to keep dry in plastic.

Shoes

I’ve also ditched my Naot sandals. As light weight and comfortable as they were, I could never adjust the velcro strap as tightly as I would have liked and I came too close to twisting an ankle too many times – they had to go. They’ve been replaced by my cheap as chips H&M flip flops. Less arch support, sure, but boy are they portable. 🙂

Still loving my Merrell Moab Ventilator sneakers, although even they were no match to the weather we encountered on the road trip. They are currently caked in mud and drying out in the low-land sun in Pakse; we’ll see how well they recover!

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Our mud-splattered bike, shoes and legs after one of the more slippery patches of road. Will our shoes ever be the same again? 😉

Bottoms

We shouldn’t encounter too much cold weather any time soon, so I got rid of my layering leggings and a couple of other items of clothing. My bottoms currently consist of my original Eastern Mountain Sport Compass Pants (still love ‘em. They got totally soaked as well during the bike trip and dried out most times even as we were still on the bike), a second pair of EMS brand capri pants (also really good!), the lovely orange and brown sarong I bought in Thailand and a pair of shorts for when I can get away with them (in some cities and tourist spots I feel comfortable bearing knees. :-)).

Rain gear

The advent of the rainy season means I finally have a chance to use the fancy pants rain jacket I’ve been carrying around for months. It was one of the more expensive items I invested in for the trip so I’m glad it’s getting put to use! It’s a Mountain Hard Wear Typhoon Jacket (which I affectionally call the froggy), and I’m pretty well pleased with its performance. It’s the only reason there were still some dry patches left on my body after biking through the rain on the Bolaven Plateau – no small feat considering the amount of water we were up against! Although if you own one please note that the pockets must be fully zipped or else they will leak if you are driving into the rain as we were. I zipped but didn’t double check the first time and ended up with a wet belly as a result. It also does a good job as a wind breaker if, for example, you’re biking in cooler temperatures.

Girl stuff

I won’t go into detail, but another bit of gear I can recommend to women travelers is the Diva Cup. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s a Godsend for long-haul flights, endless bus journeys with minimal stops and situations where you have to deal with questionable bathroom situations. 🙂 Also good for the environment!

Pearls of wisdom from our bike adventure

Roman and I are just back from an awesome little road trip adventure through southern Laos (more or less Lonely Planet’s “Southern Loop” if you’ve got the book). We rented a little Honda in Pakse and spent four days on the road, rolling around the countryside, checking out some interesting towns and villages, and getting acquainted with the rainy season in southeast Asia. 😉

I’m having some computer-related technical issues at the moment so I’ll do a proper post with pictures about the trip later on, but here are some notes in the mean time.

Lessons from the road

In case you are planning to do your own bike trip around and on Laos’ Bolaven Plateau during the wet season, here are some nuggets I learned/rediscovered that may come in handy:

  1. A little sun goes a long way in southern Laos.
    Especially if you’re fair like I am (even if you are wearing SPF 70!). Covering up for those hours on the road is advisable.
  2. Changes in altitude may significantly affect temperature.
    While we were sweating in the valley, we were shivering in the mountains. An additional layer of clothing would not have gone amiss.
  3. What appears to be light rain becomes heavy rain when you are driving through it on a bike, even at slow speeds.
  4. What appears to be heavy rain is not something you want to drive through on a bike in southern Laos.
    Trust me on this one.
  5. Travel with extra plastic bags.
    You never know when you’ll need someplace to put trash, last-minute waterproofing for your gear, or impromptu galoshes when your shoes get utterly and completely soaked.
  6. When you are in the middle of no where, you haven’t seen another soul for ages and there is no hope of a bathroom for miles and you finally give in and decide to pop a squat in the great outdoors, ineveitably someone will manage to suddenly show up while you are in the middle of your business.
    Seriously, I am two for two for this happening to me in Laos and not feeling too great about that 100% track record.
  7. Passengers are advised to hold on.
    Even when the road looks decent, you never know when the next bump, pothole or patch of bad road will occur. It’s best to have at least one hand holding on at all times, preferably two.
  8. Any right of way you assume you may have as a driver of a motorized vehicle will be entirely ignored by cows, goats, buffalo, pigs, chickens and dogs.
    Don’t expect them to take any notice of you, let alone move out of the way.
  9. While oncoming traffic is infrequent, do expect it approach from the middle of the road or in your lane.
    This is especially true on blind curves.
  10. When crossing paths with or being passed by buses and trucks, brace yourself.
    You will be hit in the face with a spray of stinky air, dust and grit. It’s best to hold your breath and keep your mouth firmly shut.
  11. Bugs in the face are inevitable.
    As above, keeping your mouth shut is advisable!
  12. Enjoy the view!
    Beautiful farmlands, dramatic mountains, gorgeous skyscapes, lush forests, stunning waterfalls, impressive coffee plantations, lovely villages and lots of smiling Laotion faces are yours to discover!

Three miles of bad road: Day trip to Wat Phu

(I’m leaving off the back filling for a bit – this is a post about what we did yesterday.)

At the risk of sounding nerdy, I really enjoy history. Roman and I are lucky that we are getting to visit some amazing historical sites during this trip, and I love learning about and being able to imagine what daily life was like when these locations were at their height or why some building or person is historically significant. The red forts, the Taj, Mehrangarh and Hampi in India, Bagan in Myanmar have all been just fascinating to learn about.

But sometimes I want to set the dates, facts and names aside. Some places it’s enough just to be there – to see, to be with, to simply experience. To tap into and commune with the energy and mystery of the land and the layers of history that run through it.

Wat Phu, the temple ruins set on a hill in southern Laos, is such a place for me. It’s been a sacred place for multiple religions across the centuries and remains a place of worship today even as it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a decent amount of information about it on the web if you are interested to learn more, but mostly I’ll just write from my perspective.

What I can tell you is that it is good-sized temple ruins spread up a beautiful, wooded hill with a lovely view of the valley stretching below. The ruins are centuries and centuries old. In its earlier history it was a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva; in the 10th century it was a sacred space for the Buddhist Khmer empire.

The journey

We decided to rent a motorbike in the city where we are staying, Pakse, and do a day trip to the Wat. It had not been on our radar, but the monk we met in Vientiane and his friends all raved about the place and said we had to go see it (even though they’ve not been – but they’re from the area and it seems to be a source of regional pride).

We took the new road (it’s less than a year old and not yet quite finished) from Pakse to Champasak, the town that is host to the UNESCO site. The journey took about an hour and a half in one direction; mostly easy-going and a beautiful drive. Even the bits where we got off course or the road quality deteriorated were good fun.

There’s not much along the way between the two towns but it was a gorgeous drive. Roman soon found he prefered driving to being a passenger, so I hopped on back and was at liberty to enjoy the scenery and flirt to my heart’s content; waving at any friendly villager who smiled our called out “Sabaidee” as we passed (which was most of them).

We stopped to photograph water buffalo cooling themselves in mud puddles. In no time we needed to cool off too; hopping on the bike and zooming across the gentle bends of the road was welcome relief from the pounding sun.

The landscape and weather began to change as we traveled on; towering mountains of earth and clouds reflected in the still waters of the rice paddies that flanked our path. We could see the rain moving in, a sheet of soft grey straddling the mountain. At one point we drove through a refreshing shower, cool drops hitting my cheeks and lips like unexpected but welcome kisses, but I’m glad that we made it to Champasak by the time the real rain started.

We managed to park under the awning of someone’s front porch just as the skies opened up. I felt bad parking and sitting just in front of their house, but Roman assured me this worry about invasion of space was Western thinking, and of course he was right – the residents weren’t bothered in the slightest. The rain came down hard and heavy for about a half hour. Villagers took shelter or continued on their bikes, utterly soaked and squinting through the down pour. Young kids threw off their shirts and took advantage of the chance to cool down, running and playing through the streets.

The destination

Finally the rain abated, and we headed through the village to the ruins. They are stretched across a large area, starting with an ancient stone-lined road pointing the way up the hill to the main Wat. It’s a steep climb up weathered stone stairs with much beauty along the way, and we took our time and savored each step.

Although the precipitation stopped, the dark clouds remained, and deep, sonorous peals of thunder punctuated and accompanied our journey up the sacred hill. The air was thick with the song of hundreds of bugs, a constant and ceaseless mantra.

The hills are covered with rich vegetation – great flowering trees, vines, thick, vibrant green grasses. With only few other visitors to the site, it felt like we were entering the deepest jungle. The great stone steps and temple walls are being claimed by the plant life; flagstones are crooked where roots flow under and through them, tumbling walls begin to disappear under a cover of ferns and moss. The buddha statues and other sites show evidence of modern day worship; bundles of incense are secured under a vine and statues that have witnessed the passage of centuries are garlanded in bright, plastic flowers.

The place feels bigger than us but willing to hold us too; a place of worship for all, from the smallest ant to the gods older than mankind. The sacred cycles of nature – from ceaseless destruction of the man-made buildings over the years to the ephemeral adornment of flowers and leaves, perfect for a moment, before they fade – encompass the stumbling gestures of man like a mother taking a beloved child into her lap.

Suffice to say, the whole day was magical, and we absolutely loved Wat Phu. I’m still taking it in, so that’s all I’ll write for now – but here are some photos before I end the post. 🙂

The pictures

A panoramic shot of the view from the steep, stone steps, shaded by magnificent leelawadee trees at Wat Phu. Click for a closer look.

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Some very happy, very muddy buffalo

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Sun and shadow, mountains and rice fields

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The rain approaches

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Heavy drops fall into muddy puddles, Champasak

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Approaching Wat Phu

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No entry – a girl plays where restoration work is being done to some of the structures in the site

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Butterfly landing on a fallen frangipani bloom

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Headless statues, incense sticks

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Incense and flowers in a tree

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Overgrown walls, mountain views

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Steps and roots

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Jungle Buddha

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Temple detail

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Making miniature stupas out of banana leafs and flowers – an offering