14.03.2011 - 28.03.2011 30 °C
With still two weeks before we were due to go to Malaysia, we went over from Cambodia into the southern Laos boarder and headed for a place named Si Phan Don (which means 4000 islands). A collection of small islands (some of them tiny!) set amongst a wide opening of the Mekong river, it was a beautiful sight to see as we took the long wooden tail boat from the mainland at sunset. Small communities live on a few of these little islands and being so close to the boarder this had also become a place for backpackers to set down and chill for a while (Most people staying at the island of Don Det or Don Khon). We choose Don Det to make home for a couple of days.
Immediately it struck us that the village, once a humble fishing community had clearly adapted to foreign visitors with many restaurants and huts dotted along the edge of the island, catering for the steady stream of western backpackers. Though this is firmly on the backpackers route, you could consider this still an uncut diamond with nearly all the accommodation being very basic (picture you nan’s old rickety wooden shed after too many long hard winters) though thankfully the place we had booked (Don Det Bungalows) was of a good standard with four solid wooden walls and no signs of the multiple legged creepy crawlies which typically come free of charge with many cheaper huts we had come across on our travels. Another observation we made was that the average age of the foreigners appeared to be pretty young , guessing that many of the backpackers were possibly not more than 21; so instantly we felt like a pair of golden oldies gate crashing a kids party! Perhaps an exaggeration but you get the picture!
That said, on the first night we stumbled upon a familiar face and one that was not 21 (halleluiah!). A chap by the name of ‘Rocky’ who we had seen doing the open mic live nights back in Goa. Fellow travellers have told me about seeing the same faces in different locations but I didn’t expect to see one here!
The following day, we woke to discover what all the fuss about this place was all about. In full daylight with the sun glistening on the lake and with the birds singing you could see why this was a place that people found themselves staying for longer than planned and we found a few people who had lost weeks and even months in this vortex of peaceful relaxation (with Rocky being a likely candidate!).
Being keen to buck the trend of 24 hour hammock dwelling we hired a couple of bicycles to hit the pathways and go exploring! It appeared to a popular method of transport on the island and a bit of a giggle too so off we went with our very dainty shopping baskets attached to the handle bars! It was all very ‘Mary Poppins’!
We met lots of fellow bike riders along the way though my favourite was this little cutie who hitched a ride in her mom’s basket!
We had heard about a bridge connecting Don Det with Don Khon and that you had to pay a toll fee to cross. This came in the form of some shady looking guy who stood at the end of the simple bridge holding out his hand and saying “you must pay” with a grimace on his face. Perhaps he hadn’t been on his ‘customer care’ course yet?! The fee really wasn’t very much but the unsmiling man did have a bit of a menacing expression on his face which put a dampener on our happy upbeat mood.
So with our toll fee paid, off we went exploring in search of Somphamit waterfall which we had been told was nearby. We got to the place easily enough and went to park up our bikes to walk the final few metres. It was here that we met another local guy who had cordoned off a piece of scrub land and called it a ‘bicycle park’ also demanding money from us. He was pretty insistent that we use his parking area for our bikes (for a fee of course!) but we told him that we were happy with leaving our bikes parked up under a tree. It wasn’t that the fee was much but we didn’t like being told that we ‘must’ pay up especially as it was nothing more than scrub land and it looked to us like a pointless service set up to get money for nothing. The man, clearly not happy with our decision got a bit pushy and a tad angry that we didn’t bend to his demands and so we didn't hang about..
The Somphamit waterfalls were not steep but a collection of small waterfalls and rapids which were indeed very nice. It was the dry season so it was not in its full glory but was still worth the visit.
The heat of the sun was melting us and fortunate for us we discovered a little area where we could take a dip to cool off from the mid-day heat and not get dragged into the rapids! After the sweltering bike ride it was so lovely in the cool clear water!
We headed back to get our bikes but we soon discovered the consequence of refusing the bicycle parking from the local man. It seems that the pushy local guy had decided to teach us a lesson by letting J’s back tyre down. It couldn’t possibly have been a coincidence as there were a couple of other bikes parked next to ours and they too had flat tyres! So it was a long walk back into the town in the blazing heat was ahead of us…and it was not much fun I can tell you! Thankfully after about half a kilometer we came across a bike repair shop who’s fee to reinflate the tyre was the very same as the fee we would have paid if we used the bike park. Another coincidence???
Keeping in mind that we had only two weeks in Laos, we only stayed on Don Det for two nights before moving on. Si Phan Don was indeed beautiful but we were yet to experience the friendly welcoming nature which we had heard was typical of the people in Laos. We continued on in hope!
Si Phan Don being in the far south of the country we looked at what would be the next stop. Most people tended to head north to Vientiane but that seemed like too long a journey to do in one go on a Laos bus (which had the reputation of being over crowded, slow and susceptible to breakdowns) so we decided to break our journey up by stopping off at a place called Thakhek which we thought would be a good base to go explore the Kong Lor River-Cave (though the water of the Hinboun River into the cave which boasted a 7km cave passageways which are up to 90m wide and 100m high) which we had heard was well worth the effort required to get to it.
Pumped for a bit of an adventure when we arrived in in the seriously dead town of Thakhek but when we made some inquiries it turned out that the only way to reach it in a reasonable time was to hire a private taxi for approx £100 as the round trip was about 300km. With no other travellers to share the cost we re-evaluated how important it was to see this cave! We thought about doing it by local bus but we were told that it would have been a mission from Thakhek with no chance that we’d be able to reach it and back in one day. So with local buses out of the picture we took the decision to take the morning bus out of there and continue onwards!
We took a local style bus from the towns bus terminal and got stuck into the journey. We soon discovered that buses in Laos consisted of long waits, stops every few hundred yards to pick up yet another passenger, untold items being placed on the roofs of the bus (furniture, mopeds…you name it, it goes up on top!) little plastic stools for even more people to sit on up and down the narrow aisles, bags and kids everywhere and locals eating with an amazing ability to make the loudest slopping noises with their mouths (especially gross when you have it in stereo surround sound!). It sure is an experience!
Getting hold of good food on these journeys wasn’t easy, with the most basic of food you can imagine at the isolated places we stopped, most dishes often with very little and bad quality meat and having been left out for the flies to get. It was not appetizing! Even those ladies who would jump on board selling food along the roadside would sell barbequed chicken on a stick that looked like the poor chicken had been starved to death! So it was plain sticky rice for us on pretty much every bus journey. Though exceedingly tasteless it t kept hunger at bay for those lengthy journeys.
Vientiane was a wash out as it rained every day for the three days we were there so didn’t get to check it out but did manage to find a good Thai restaurant which was like seeing an oasis in the desert compared to our food options over the previous couple of days!
We moved northwards to Vang Vieng, in hope that the weather would improve and we timed it right as we arrived there to beautiful sunshine! This time we took the VIP (tourist) bus which meant they only allowed enough people on to fill the seats which saved time and was less crammed but cost more than the regular bus.
We arrived along with all the other travellers to the town famed for ‘tubing’. We wern't sure what to expect especially as we were not drinking at this point in our trip (and everywhere we looked in town had signs for cheap booze and ‘happy’ pizzas). Not what we were looking for but we were curious about what this ‘tubing’ was all about. We saw lots of really young guys and girls (probably the same kids we saw back in Si Phan Don!) coming home at sunset covered in splashes of body paint, staggering through the town cross eyed, disorientated and usually bare foot and in their bikinis /swim shorts. It was a very interesting sight!
Despite us doing it booze free, we still spent a great afternoon floating down the Mekong river in our ‘tubes’ (giant lorry inner tubes), jumping in the river off swings and slides which were part of the various river-side bars along the way!
J wasted no time in getting out of his tube to venture up the rickety wooden ladder to the top of the biggest swing on the river, making a dramatic splash into the water!
I was not quite so brave, opting for the less scary water slide. Embarrassingly, as I slid down it, gaining in speed I started to rotate as I came off it and went flying through the air sideways and sort of thigh flopped into the water (think belly flop but side on with my thigh!) OUCH! A beautiful purple bruise appeared on my leg shortly after the red blotches subsided! Apparently it was funny to watch so I guess it wasn’t all bad!
While we were there we also did some caving and rock-climbing. The rock-climbing was the best though as you get to climb right next to the Mekong, where all the people tubing float past. It was especially great for J as it had been a while since he last climbed and it reignited his passion for it! A fantastic day out and one which we'll remember as a highlight of Laos.
I have to say that the area around there is simply stunning, with beautiful limestone rocks jutting out as the Mekong river curls around it. It’s not something the people really talk about when they describe Vang Veing, but if you look past the loud bars dotted along the river banks and in the town, this part of Laos is really beautiful.
North of Vang Vieng was Luang Prabang, a really picturesque town filled with French colonial architecture, lovely boutique style restaurants and shops, peaceful riverside restaurants and a daily night market. Upmarket and beautiful, Vang Vieng was quite a contrast from the poorer, rural parts of Laos.
We took a tuk tuk to a nearby waterfall which we had heard was worth the visit, and we were not disappointed! With a large waterfall at the top, then cascading shimmering blue pools, it really was a slice of paradise!
Conscience of that we had a flight on 29th to Malaysia, we decided to head back to Vientiane a couple of days early. Back in Vientiane, we took advantage of being in a capital (and this time without the rain) and enjoyed our time by renting bicycles and checking out the local area. We found out about a gym and pool not too far away and took advantage of the opportunity to do something active. It was a nice couple of days just pottering around on our bikes and a chilled out way to finish our Lao trip. All in all we enjoyed Lao, and though two weeks was enough for us, we were glad to have been able to do all the activities we did, especially the rock-climbing!
With that, it was time to get ready for our flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia!