Laos – the land of smiles and striking scenery. From the mountains of Vang Vieng, to the colonial charm of Luang Prabang, this land-locked country has a lot to offer, not least the area of 4,000 Islands, an archipelago in the middle of the Mekong by the Cambodian border.
But first, that border needs negotiating – and I choose that word carefully.
Of course, we should not have thought crossing from Cambodia to Laos – two of the poorest countries in the region – would go as smoothly. But with a bit of forewarning, we might at least have avoided being scammed so meekly.
Grim Siem Reapers
I’ll be brief: whether you’re coming from Siem Reap or Kratie, you’ll be dropped at a little café and told to wait for the bus to the border. That’s a six-hour drive and a two-hour wait from Siem Reap, or a two-hour drive and a six-hour wait from Kratie.
That’s because when you get to the border, the scammers want you worried about the time; they’ll continuously remind you that the border closes at 4pm, or whatever it is, so you’re only option is to pay this chap to take your passports and your immigration forms on his scooter and get it all done for you.
This is horseshit. Politely thank him for the form, fill it out and carry your stuff over the border yourself. You’ll be done before he’s even collected his money from the mopes who stayed behind (including us). The guy’s fee ranges from $10-15 more than you’ll actually pay for a Laotian visa.
Not a great start to Laos… nor was finding out our bus ticket didn’t include the boat to Don Det, even though we had returned to the travel agent and specifically checked it would be. The agent made some calls and then just smiled and said it was fine. It’s not fine, you need to have a different ticket. The Laos driver got horribly irate when we insisted we’d paid for it, saying he gets as shafted by the Cambodians as we were being.
Anyway, we were here to have a nice, relaxing time on Don Det and first impressions, despite the awkward arrival, were positive. The short boat journey over the Mekong, winding through islands on all sides and passing wading buffalos, was beautiful, and we soon moored on a small brown-sand beach to disembark.
How many islands?
The name 4,000 Islands might have a touch of hyperbole to it – many of the 4,000 are nothing more than a bush breaching the surface of the water. Don Det is the liveliest, with a strip of bars and restaurants along its coast and a range of bungalows and guesthouses to suit backpackers and “flashpackers” alike.
We’d heard so much about the Laos people being friendly and inviting, but the folks on Don Det seem rather more jaded at the prospect of yet another westerner coming to drink cheap booze and make a mess of their island. Actually, when you put it like that, it’s fair enough really.
We hooked up with two English girls we met crossing the border, Charlotte and Jenny, who were going tubing with a group of people they’d met on their travels. Tubing just means taking an inflated tyre inner-tube and floating down the river in it – usually with a couple of beers.
It’s relaxing, once you get the hang of paddling yourself into the current, but it’s most fun when you find a rope-swing hanging from a tree on one of the islands. We’d seen one from the balcony of our guesthouse, so I was always heading us that way. The river at that point is so deep, there’s no chance of touching the bottom from even a great height. Proper fun.
There must have been 12 of us, altogether – Brits, Belgians, Canadians, Aussies and Danes. We formed an island of humans, holding a foot, or arm or tube of the adjacent person, chatting about where we’d been, where we were going, how we were going to avoid the islands looming downstream; and then frantically paddling to avoid hitting the bush, which was rarely successful.
Good times. Until three of us got caught in a strong, shallow current, and I had to save Swarana and Jenny from floating back to Cambodia.
On the walk back to the town, we passed through a local village, where the girls became fascinated with a litter of puppies – and their rather heavy-handed three-year-old custodian. She flung them around like their spines were made of rubber, as we switched from coo to cringe with every swing of the pup.
Restaurants on the island are a little uninspiring, but we got together with the group that night for a meal by the beach, where Swarana and I met a sweet Aussie girl called Annie-Mai. Somehow we got talking about Japanese, and I told my story of the few phrases I’ve learned.
When I was 16, I was fascinated with all things Japanese: Ghost in the Shell, Nintendo, Akira Kurosawa movies, karate, sushi, ninjas; I mean, what’s not to like? My friend Gary and I used to emulate Akira by riding around on mountain bikes hitting each other with sticks.
I was so enamoured with Japanese culture, I attempted to learn the language from a cheap piece of CD-ROM teach-yourself software, with dubious results.
Thing is, skip forward a decade and I can still remember a few small phrases: Excuse me; Hello; Do you speak English?; What is that?; My name is Tim; Thank you very much – that kind of thing. But there’s one more phrase that has stuck in my head and I don’t know how or why it’s in there…
“Teberu no shita neeru onnanahito.”
This enigmatic phrase is a little difficult to drop into conversation. It simply means: “There’s a girl under the table.” The only way I’ve managed to use it in conversation with a Japanese person has been when Swarana was willing to climb under a table for me to point it out to two tourists in the Faltering Fullback back home. Just another reason why she’s amazing.
So I mentioned this to Annie-Mai, who turned out to be fluent in Mandarin. She taught me how to say my phrase in Chinese – which I have written down but need to practice – and considering I can say it in French and Spanish, I’m well on the way to being internationally table-girl fluent. Brilliant.
After the meal, someone lit a fire on the beach and we drank $2 whiskey until some ungodly hour. That’s $2 for a litre of whiskey. It tastes like cheap rum, but it does the job. Someone had a guitar, I think there were some joints being passed around – you get the idea. It was nice.
But the morning brought about my third bout of illness – this one would last the best part of a week. So, shackled to within a maximum safe radius from the guesthouse bathroom, we weren’t able to explore the adjoining island Don Rong or its waterfalls. In fact, worried about bus travel and being caught short, we separated our journey north to Vientiane into several stops.
The first was Pakse – a small town upriver. There’s great noodles in the restaurant-cum-travel agent on the corner where you get dropped off, and there’s a roof-top bar at the Pakse Hotel, where you can watch the sun set with bats swooping overhead and geckos calling each other’s name from the lamp shades.
Apart from that, there’s not an awful lot to see in Pakse. Many people come here to do “the loop”, a motorcycle route through the countryside to see far flung villages and waterfalls away from the main Chinese-built roads.
Indeed, we bumped into three of the Don Det tubing group – Dan, Karly and Sophia – who had just returned from their two-day jaunt into the wilderness. We were a little jealous of the pictures they showed us, of clouds of butterflies and tremendous waterfalls. But I’d only just started a course of antibiotics, so we had to pass it up.
Back on the road
A few hours north is Savannakhet. It feels a little bigger than Pakse, but it’s certainly prettier. Wide roads separate old French buildings, sheltered with blossoming trees all the way to the riverfront, where locals eat sinbad, cooking their meat and vegetables themselves on a domed hot plate in the centre of each table.
There’s a dinosaur museum here, with bones dug up from the surrounding countryside, though the exhibits hardly fill two small rooms and the descriptions are all in French. It took us longer to find it than it did to peruse the exhibits. Still – dinosaurs. You can’t argue with that.
That evening, we ate Laotian noodles from the excellent Xokxay, at a table in the middle of the central boulevard, which itself is absolutely gorgeous. The old European buildings reminded me of some small Patagonian town, with wooden shutters and yellowing, mouldy plaster.
After dinner we listened to live music with a couple of Spy Wine Coolers (like a wine spritzer alcopop thing) at an open-walled bar off the boulevard. The music was a mix of acoustic local tunes and some western covers, one musician playing guitar, percussion and singing at the same time.
It was low season in March, which meant two things. There were no tourists about, so we hung out solely with locals; and there were no tour guides around, so all the tourist information offices were shut. This scuppered a couple of plans.
By the time we were in Savannakhet, I was feeling a lot better, so we would have liked to have done some of the trekking in the nearby national park forests, but without a guide, or a map, we were a little stranded.
Still, the town is lovely, easy to walk around and it’s dead quiet. I’d certainly come back, especially if it was the tail-end of the tourist season, to take a look at the parks in the surrounding area.
Our next stop was Thakhek, for the sole purpose of visiting the Kong Lor caves, one of the supposedly must-see spectacles in Laos. However, if I used the word “ordeal”, I’m not sure that would adequately describe the experience. But that’s next week’s post.
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