Navimag: after the hype

So here we are, in beautiful, rain-driven Castro, on the mystical island of Chiloé, on the other side of our Navimag journey.

There’s loads of things I want to write about, but after the last post I think it’s fair to do a quick debrief about our time on the Ferry.

After all the hype and psyching myself up about “the good, the bad and the ugly”, I think it’s fair to say that none of the extreme scenarios won out.

Our days on the Ferry were, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag, with the balance leaning towards the good.

Was it a miserable four days filled with vomit and regrets? Most definitely not! Was it a life changing experience? The answer is also no. Am I glad I did it? Sure!

I don’t know how soon I’d do it again, but I love what I got to see along the way, and it made me hungry to visit Patagonia again – by land – for a closer look some day.

Here’s an overview of my personal ugly, bad and good from our four days on the ferry.

The Ugly

Allegedly the cabins in the normal ship are a bit nicer (The Evangelista – currently out of commission waiting for a new drive shaft apparently).

We got to see the Evangelista when we arrived at Puerto Montt

Ours were ok. Simple but fine – but for a few (important) details, like the toilet seat not being entirely attached and my ultimate pet peeve: dirty bedding. The linens were ok, but the top sheet had questionable stains of the variety my slightly paranoid mind likes to run away with. My intellect was “certain” was just mud, but my inner five-year-old inevitably christened it “the poop blanket.” So there was that in my head the whole time to deal with.

Just SOME of the offending stains…

Our cabin

More serious on the ugly list though was taking in the reality of the truckloads of cows who were outside on the cargo deck, tightly packed and standing for the entirety of our journey. (Not to mention how ever long they had been and would be in that condition during the over-land portions of their journey). The patient, half resigned/half hopeful expressions on their faces – whether real or projected – were heart breaking to me.

The Bad

My Spanish skills!

I could just about have very basic conversations (provided things remained in the present tense only!) in Argentina with what I’d learned in the two week’s of class I had there. Chilean Spanish is a whole new kettle of fish though, and I’m really struggling with it.

I was the only person on board with next to no Spanish, and most people couldn’t speak any English at all, so I ended up feeling a bit out of the loop. I am positive that being able to interact more meaningfully – beyond being able to say “hello”, “thank you” and “excuse me” basically – would have made for a more interesting experience on board. Definitely feeling motivated to take some more classes at some point and get somewhat more comfortable with Spanish!

The Good

Patagonia, Patagonia, Patagonia! Our weather was mixed too, but we had enough luck to see some pretty awesome views – and some wild life! Check out the magic:

This is the view we had on Puerto Eden. (Love the recurring theme of awesome colorful houses since we’ve gotten to Chile!)

The Ferry docks here during the summer, but as it’s winter now, boats from the village came out to meet us to pick up supplies from the ship, and this is as close as we got. I would LOVE to come back and check this place out up close some day. From Wikipedia:

Villa Puerto Edén is a Chilean hamlet and minor port located in Wellington Island, in Natales commune, Última Esperanza Province, Magallanes Region. It is considered one of Chile’s most isolated inhabited places together with Easter Island and Villa Las Estrellas. The village is known for being the home of the last Kawéshkar people. Owing to the large tidewater glaciers caused by the region’s super-high precipitation, it is only accessible by sea, on the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt in the north, or Puerto Natales in the south. There is also a monthly boat from Caleta Tortel.

The population is 176 (2002 census). Owing to the extraordinarily humid climate the village has no roads, with only pedestrian boardwalks connecting the houses and shops. A weekly transport boat takes local fish and shellfish products (the latter mainly mussels) to markets.

And last but not least, some videos. The iPhone had a tough time reading the light, so forgive some overexposure and blurry moments in the first video.

Views from the first day: waterfalls, water fowl and keep an eye open for seals.

And this. Was. Just. Magic.

Seeing this was the icing on the cake for me. Was lucky enough to have the phone in hand as it happened. I didn’t even know that seals did that. I still get shivers down my spine watching it – soooo magic and just awesome.

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Good bye Puerto Natales, Hello Navimag!

It’s our last night in Puerto Natales.

Well, technically that’s not entirely true. It’s our last night at the B&B in Puerto Natales – tomorrow night we’ll be sleeping on the ship as we have to “check in” the night before it departs (feel certain there must be a specific nautical term for this occurrence but have no clue what it might be. “Sets sail”? Only the ferry doesn’t have sails to set. Hm.) early on Sunday morning.

As usual, I’m experiencing pangs about having to leave some place I’ve come to love. (It’s an interesting sensation, having a simultaneous abundance of both wanderlust and sentimentality)

We have a draft itinerary for the rest of our time in Chile and there is no place we plan to spend as much time as we’ve ended up spending here in Puerto Natales (unless more unexpected things happen – never say never 😉 ). I’ve arrived in Chile with only a vague sense about the country and I still can’t really imagine what awaits us as we travel north through this shoe string of a country. What I can say though is that Puerto Natales has given us a lovely introduction and welcome. It’s felt really natural staying here and I’ve enjoyed every moment. The city is the gateway to the Torres Del Paine national park and yes, the park IS as incredible and beautiful as everyone says and I’m not lessening it at all but it’s really this little tourist-town-on-the-off-season and the experiences we’ve had here that have charmed me entirely, and entirely unexpectedly. What a lovely thing to have gotten stranded here. 😀

Happily we have something really exciting and adventurous as our next step, which tempers the verklemptness somewhat! 🙂 And that is four nights, three days on the Navimag ferry!

This is a trip through the Patagonian fjords along Chile’s southern coastline, and from all accounts, it can be either sublime or downright hellish. I suspect the reality will fall somewhere in between – so long as the weather isn’t too uncooperative.

(Well, we will see – according to Navimag’s website we are traveling during the second rainiest, second coldest month of the year. There is probably a reason why there are only two other tourists traveling on the ship with us. In fact we’re bunking with them in a room that appears just big enough to fit two bunk beds. Please keep your fingers crossed for both decent weather and decent company!)

I don’t think I can explain it better than Lonely Planet, so please excuse this large excerpt:

The Navimag Experience: The good, the bad & the ugly

Back in the prehistoric Patagonian travel days of the 1980s and the early ‘90s, travelers had to beg and swindle just to stow away on the rusty cargo freighters that plied the waters between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales. No regular passenger ferries were installed as tourism to the region increased, but the Navimag shipping company caught on and decided to dedicate a section of their boats to passenger transportation. So, these days, you can have that same experience of stowing away on a freighter – packed with 18-wheelers, drunken truck drivers and cattle – but you can make a reservation online and they will charge you hundreds of dollars for your bunk.

The Navimag is not a cruise. If you are looking for a cruise, check out Skorpios and ready your credit card. The Navimag is a quirky travel experience that comes with the good, the bad and the ugly. If you like to have different experiences and are adventurous it just might be the highlight of your trip.

The Good

The boat takes you through days of uninhabited fjords, close encounters with glaciers and views of surreal orange sunsets over the Pacific. It passes through Aisen’s maze of narrow channels, navigates the Angostura Inglesa (a passage so confined that the ship seems to graze the shoreline on both sides) and stops at the impossibly remote Puerto Eden, a small fishing port (etc. etc. – other things that we probably won’t do because of the time of the year, as I’ve been told by the guy at the Navimag office here in town…)

Beyond the stellar scenery, the trip has become a unique bonding experience for independently minded travelers. Strangers become tight friends after numerous bottles of wine, round after round of pointless card games, sympathizing about queasy stomachs (I hope we have enough Dramamine to go around!) deck-top soccer matches, late-night dance parties and plans to meet up in Torres del Paine (most travelers do the opposite direction apparently). Even though the ship’s common spaces are bare and not particularly comfortable, the crew does a yeoman’s job of trying to entertain with games, slide shows, music and a respectable selection of English-language movies.

The Bad

If the weather is poor, your views are limited and you will spend much of your time watching movies or drinking in the dining area. If the weather is worse, you can spend a day or so pitching back and forth on rough seas and fighting to hold down your lunch. If the weather is worse than that your trip can be delayed (for days) prior to departure and you can even be delayed en route if the Golfo de Penas (on the open Pacific) is too rough to cross (the guy at the office told me that too rough means waves higher than 4.5 meters. Yikes.)

In the winter the boat can have less than a dozen passengers (check!), which can be fine or can really detract from the social experience. In the heart of summer, it is often so full that people are packed on top of each other and must dine in shifts. A very crowded boat can make the cramped downstairs dorm rooms seem less bearable.

The Ugly

During the winter, when there are fewer passengers and more cargo, hundreds of head of cattle are kept on the top and middle decks in open-top trucks. They are packed together so tightly that not all animals can keep their feet on the ground and after a day or two the stench of 300 cattle can be tough on your nose – especially if you are already seasick.

However, as you should know by now, no valuable travel experience comes without a dose of hardship. If you have the time, trips on the Navimag will not only change the way that you understand Chilean Patagonia, it will also add depth to your entire trip.

So, let’s see what happens.

Earlier when we booked I was really wondering what we were getting ourselves into. I’m definitely feeling calmer now and mostly just curious to see what it will be like.

Also, it helps to remember our time on the cargo ship in Myanmar – how those three days became and remain one of THE big highlights of our trip so far. Yes, we were sleeping on a one-inch mattress, the nights were freezing cold and I didn’t shower for days, but it was just magic and I wouldn’t give up a second of it. The fjords and open ocean will be something completely different from the Irrawaddy River, and the Navimag ferry is at least 10 times cushier than our ferry in Myanmar.

So, let the adventure begin! 🙂 We’ll be offline for at least a few days, so see you again once we reach Puerto Montt!

Before I go though, here’s a quick peak at Chilean Patagonia… Tons more photos to come at some point in the future… 🙂

Technical difficulties

We went over our to-do list over breakfast this morning. All the little things to sort out in preparation for three days on the Navimag ferry. We headed out to town to get things done, including stopping by the Navimag office to find out exactly what time the boarding was. What a surprise to be told that there wasn’t going to be any boarding. Not until Saturday anyway!

It seems there are issues with the ship we were meant to be on. It didn’t sail on it’s weekly run last week, and as they’re not even sure what the problem is, they can’t say when it’ll be fixed and ready to go again. Navimag has a second ship though – less cushy than the one we were meant to be on – and that is stepping in to do the route from Puerto Natales up through the Patagonian fjords to the port city of Puerto Montt. Only instead of departing tomorrow, it’s departing in five days.

We’ve of course experienced delays during this big trip of ours, but five days is most definitively a record. 🙂

I’m not complaining though. We decided the journey through the fjords is worth the wait, and our lovely B&B has room for us all week, so we’re happy to camp out here in little Natales for a while longer. It’s definitely not a bad place to be marooned, as far as we’re concerned. If nothing else, it’ll give me the opportunity to catch up a bit more on the blog! 🙂

So that’s all the news from our neck of the woods for now. Hope everyone else out there is having a good week – where things go to plan, or, when they don’t, the unexpected is something delightful, like it is this week for us. 🙂

Getting to Coral Bay

Just to give you a sense of where we are and how we got here… 🙂

Start off in urban Manila

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Hop in a plane, fly over amazing, verdant islands and deep blue seas…

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…Until you approach Busuanga Island. Note the lack of urbanization

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Land on the island’s little airport

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Drive to the island’s one proper town, Coron

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From Coron, drive the bumpy path through the jungles to an isolated little dock

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Take a boat ride for about an hour…

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…until you arrive at Coral Bay’s dock

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Find yourself a hammock – you’ve arrived. 🙂

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Xinjiang: Getting there, getting around

A bit more background – this time on the logistics front – before I get into the “meat and potatoes” of Xinjiang.

Why an organized tour?

Knowing our time in China is limited (we were able to get a one month visa in Hong Kong; we are banking on receiving an additional, month-long extension while in Guangxi province), that the country is HUGE and that there will more that we want to see than there will be time for us to be able to see, we decided to ask for a bit of help for Xinjiang.

We heard good things about Abdul Wahab Tours and we’re so glad we were able to explore a bit of the region with their help. (I’ll write a full review about them later on.)

We booked a tour with them focusing on Kashgar and other points of interest in western Xinjiang, all accessible by car. It was a private tour for just Roman and me. We were provided with both a guide and a driver. The itinerary was very full and allowed us to see as much as possible in our limited time. In the end, we spent a little over a week in Xinjiang; the tour was five days.

I was totally captivated by the province and feel like I only was fed an “appetizer”. At the same time, it was pretty demanding travel and there was SO much to take in that staying longer (if we continued to travel at that clip) would probably have been too much; I think it would have left me utterly exhausted.

As it was, I do feel like we had a wonderful and satisfactory introduction to the place, thanks to Abdul and his team. I left Xinjiang feeling totally spellbound by it, amazed by its unexpected and fascinating sights, sounds, tastes, textures, knowing that for me, this is one of the big highlights of our big trip. What more could I want? 🙂

Our days in Xinjiang

Click the image for a detailed view. Thanks to www.maps-of-china.net for the map images!

The itinerary was as follows:

Day 0: Arrive at Kashgar late Friday night.
Day 1: The tour began the next day, early. Departing the city to drive along the Karakoram highway to Karakul Lake, where we would spend the night.
Day 2: Up early again the next morning, driving from Karakul Lake to the mountain town of Tashkurgan where we would spend the night.
Day 3: Leave before sunrise the next day to return to Kashgar in time for the action at the livestock Market (which only takes place on Sunday). Sightseeing in and around Kashgar.
Day 4: Next morning drive to Yarkant where we would take camels out into the Taklimakan desert, overnighting in a tent.
Day 5: Return to Kashgar for the completion of the tour
Day 6: One full day in Kashgar on our own
Day 7: Flying to Urumqi.
Day 8: One full day in Urumqi on our own
Day 9: Depart for Yangshuo mid-day.

Why Xinjiang first?

Roman pointed out that we traveled from Hong Kong to Kashgar (check out the distance on the map), only to return to Yangshuo, which is, relatively speaking, a stone’s throw from Hong Kong and no doubt a MUCH more pleasant journey. So, travel isn’t always logical…! 🙂

Xinjiang is about as far north as we expect to travel in China; it’s probably also the roughest terrain we’ll be seeing here. We wanted to have our Chinese course at the beginning of our trip (that at least makes sense!), but we’ve turned soft with all these months in tropical Southeast Asia and the days are getting shorter now… Basically we didn’t want to end our time in China miserably freezing our butts off up in the mountains so it was either start with Xinjiang or forget it. As it was, even in September things get pretty frosty up in those mountains!

Getting to Kashgar

What this meant for us was one extremely long day of travel. It wasn’t as many hours as my trip from Thailand to the States but it sure felt nearly as long (and it was nearly as expensive!).

I don’t think Xinjiang/Kashgar is particularly easy to get to from most places. If you are considering it, I’d encourage you to try to break up the journey for yourself if you have the means/time to do so.

We had three stop-overs on the way from Hong Kong to Kashgar – Wuhan, Xi’an and Urumqi. It was an interesting first experience of Mainland China, flying domestic and being literally the only westerners hanging out in the departure lounges!

The airports became simpler and smaller with each subsequent destination on our itinerary. There were delays in Xi’an and we were anticipating having to do a mad dash to get our luggage and check-in at Urumqi (China is like the US – you have to pick up and re-check your luggage at each stop).

Amazingly there was someone waiting with our names on a sign as we got off the plane. She walked us onto the tarmac where we got to peer into the under-belly of the plane to identify our bags for quick transfer, then whisked us efficiently through the nearly empty airport. We had our own private security check – the fastest I’ve ever experienced, and then were escorted directly to our plane. Total VIP treatment when we had been bracing for possibly missing our flight. Roman and I got such a kick out of it! 🙂

The plane views from Hong Kong to Urumqi had been non-existent – all of China seemed to be covered in a drab, obfuscating haze that day. From the runway we had seen that things looked clearer in Urumqi, but as we took off into the dark night sky and headed west towards Kashgar, there was nothing to see below. Every once in a LONG while, there would be a small clutch of lights clustered together, but mostly the land was a vast, mysterious expanse of black underneath us. My imagination percolated, wondering what exactly we were flying over. Our flight back nearly a week later would prove that there really wasn’t much in the way of civilization under the airspace between Kashgar and Urumqi – mostly just tracts of desert and color-infused mountains. Simply gorgeous!


I love how the clouds are just skimming the mountain tops! 🙂

Travel joys: the bus from Cu Nam to Hanoi

Don’t let the title fool you; this is actually a travel gripe. 🙂

So we’d just had this magical moped ride through softly twi-lit farmlands as a new moon rose over the land. I was floating in the beauty of it all when suddenly our drivers unceremoniously dropped us at the bus “station”. Presumably they then sorted out the ticket with the guy who seemed like maybe he worked at the place. The “place” being a lot facing the street in front of what appeared to be someone’s home. And then they were gone.

Our hosts at Phong Nha had said they could fix us up with a bus ticket to our next destination, Hanoi. Had assured us that this particular bus at 8 at night was the only one that we’d be able to get to Hanoi. Had convinced us we needed to leave the home stay at 6 to be there on time.

So there we were at 6:20, the only people hanging out in these folks’ driveway, wondering how we would occupy ourselves for the next hour and a half.

Luckily, it turned out we’d have plenty of time to sort out entertainment. After about five minutes, the guy at the bus station explained to us with limited English that the bus was running late – two hours late in fact. We called the Farm Stay and had them talk to the guy and confirm this unbelievable fact. They said they’d look into things but we never heard from them again.

So, we sat on the little plastic chairs as the last of the light faded, and proceeded to watch as bus after bus, clearly marked with the end-destination of Hanoi, rushed mockingly past us. We were joined by a friendly English teacher, who pulled up a chair and shared cup after thimble-sized cup of the bitterest green tea with me. (Knowing we had an overnight bus ride with the distinct possibility of no bathroom breaks, I’d promised my bladder I wouldn’t drink anything after leaving the hotel. Ah the lengths I will go to be politely social!) Eventually his bus (to Hanoi) showed up and my taste buds could slowly start to uncoil. (And I attempted to make amends with my bladder in the family’s wet, dingy “bathroom”.)

Finally, four hours later, our bus pulled up. We scrambled across the waist high road divider with our luggage and up into the bus.

We’d done overnight buses before in Thailand and figured it would be more or less the same. Something half way between an economy and business class seat in a plane, except with a lot more neon and black light decorations, so you feel like you’re traveling through Thailand inside a rolling fish tank.

Because of this, we were a bit taken aback to discover a whole different set up on the Vietnamese night bus. Three rows of narrow metal bunks, stacked two deep, filled the crammed bus. The pathway between the bunks was so tight that my backpack kept getting stuck as I walked through to the back of the blue-lit bus.

A really nice guy switched his seat so that Roman and I could bunk close to each other. Up into the narrow “bed” we climbed and attempted to get comfortable for the night. The bus took off and the lights went out; the lucky went to sleep and the rest made do.

I was wired from all that green tea, so I plugged in my headphones and tried to enjoy the dark scenery outside, doing my best to block out the sniffling, snorting, snoring, sneezing, vomiting and – most persistent and pervasive – a steady stream of farts that were making their way at regular intervals through the aisles from somewhere in the back of the bus.

After a few hours even I was able to finally nod off; blessedly when I woke up the sun was up and we were nearing Hanoi. Eventually we arrived at the bus station – this time a real one – groggy, sweaty and eager to get to our hotel. My bladder was complaining about all that green tea but there wasn’t a bathroom in sight. Or a taxi we were willing to get into, either.

We’d been instructed by the hotel in Hanoi which cab companies were trustworthy, and how much it should cost us to get from the bus station to the hotel.

We left the bus station parking lot with our big packs, fending off sketchy drivers and scanning traffic for a legitimate cab. After a sweaty quarter-hour of failure, my bladder getting more insistent by the minute, we finally gave up and flagged the next cab we saw.

The driver agreed to use the meter; we thought maybe we’d be all right until we noticed that it was running faster than water through a sieve. In the end the price was well over double what we knew for sure it should be. Roman was an absolute hero and stood his ground with the guy for another fifteen minutes in front of the hotel (no joke, the guy would NOT back down! Finally after Roman threatened to go to the police, the driver grudgingly accepted the fair payment) while I checked us in and (bliss!) use the lobby’s bathroom. I tried to have some breakfast pho, but all I could smell (and subsequently taste) was bus farts – pho may be ruined for me for the near future.

The hotel staff were very sweet but also a bit too well-trained; they took us through the numerous tour options they could arrange for us while I was just trying to revive my brain with cup after cup of coffee. Eventually our room was ready and I gratefully flopped into the non-moving, non-smelly, silent bed. Hello Hanoi!

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Roman managed to snap a quick photo of the bus before he disembarked in Hanoi – just to give you an idea of the set up. 🙂

Backtracking to Battambang

We’ve made it to our sixth country – Vietnam! Just got in to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City last night after a loooong day of bus travel. I’m excited to be here but for now I’m going to try to finish my posts about Cambodia, which means a bit of backtracking….

Our next destination after Kampong Chhnang was Battambang, where we had another short stay.

Fun with bus travel

Getting there from Kampong Chhnang was an experience. We’d bought bus tickets the day before and expected the short trip to get us there by early afternoon. The guy we bought the tickets from picked us up from the hotel and dropped us off at what we assumed was the bus station.

Apparently, however, there is no real bus station. Buses barrel down the road on their way to or from Phnom Penh (where they fill up – problematic for us). You have to flag them down and if (and it’s a big if) they have any free seats, they’ll stop. It took about three hours and five or six buses until one showed up with room for us. Not awful but it was a hot, dusty wait on the side of the street – be braced for a longer wait if you’re following the same route!

About Battambang

Battambang is Cambodia’s 4th most popular tourist destination (following the Angkor temples at Siem Reap, the country’s capital Phnom Penh and the beaches of Sianoukville). With a population more than three times that of Kampong Chhnang, it definitely feels like more is going on there. Hotels are plentiful and there’s a bit of a backpacker/missionary scene with a good number of cafés/restaurants catering to Westerners, ranging from pretty boring to pretty decent (Gecko Café was our favorite).

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Delicious spring rolls at Gecko Café

Hard to say how accurate my perception was, but to me, Battambang, unlike Phnom Penh, seemed to have more “middle class” Cambodians and that tourism hadn’t taken over. Walking around the streets and parks, it felt more grounded to me – I caught myself feeling relieved to see “normal people doing normal things” – like having picnics or doing aerobics or line dancing in the park, just having fun. Maybe somehow we managed to miss this side of life in Phnom Penh, but anyhow we enjoyed it in Battambang.

There was more to see in town than in Kampong Chhnang. We did our best to overcome the oppressive heat (felt like a giant sprung up from the molten depths of the earth sat heavily on the city, occasionally pushing the heat around with fiery sighs) and took in some of the crumbling French-era architecture, every day life along the riverside and the charmingly desolate train repair sheds, abandoned since colonial times except as an improvised playground for local kids. DSC 0624
At the train shed

More photos from around town here.

Out and about with Sum & Dollar

While there was more action in the center of Battambang, like Kampong Chhnang, the real beauty was outside the city. We got lucky again and had two great moto drivers/guides for a day’s excursion out and about (photos and details about sights seen to follow in a later post).

Dollar and Sum were young and energetic and good fun. They drove like mad men between destinations (great for me – anything for a stronger breeze! ;-)) and shared stories about their lives and dreams.

Best of all was chatting with them over a drink at the end of the day. They got sodas and then they got sugar rushes! Dollar kept us all laughing with really awful magic tricks and really awesome impersonations of tourists he’s met. He’s got a great ear and his Scots, British and Aussie accents were amazing! I loved the day we got to spend with them. 🙂

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Sum (on the left) and Dollar. To quote them, “Small but strong!” 🙂

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 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! 😉