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Vientiane to Si Pahn Don to Pakse, Laos

LAOS | Thursday, 10 January 2008 | Views [6935]

I spent this morning sitting in a packed pick-up truck with a dying chicken wrapped around my ankles. A small Lao girl rested her head against my shoulder whilst her mother chain-smoked, shouted things at the other passengers and shoved things down behind my back. Storage space was limited, see. Forty people plus livestock, belongings, clothes in plastic bags and an unprecedented supply of decaying fish matter all crammed into the back of a large songtao bus. At one point a water bottle sprung open and leaked its contents over my feet and the understandably disgruntled chicken. At other points the truck stopped to let people off, squeeze more people on and to get snacks. To get snacks you don't need to get off the bus... as soon as you pull up to a village or bus station the bus is swarmed by food vendors. If you so desire you can dine on barbecued chicken or pork on skewers, sticky rice, steamed eggs, industrial cakes, soft drink, water, chewing gum. You can even get the dish my mother so feared... barbecued rat! (Little hands and little feet starfished, head turned sideways, big ole stick up the bum.) Old women and small children thrust skewers of meat up through the windows of the bus: If you want something you beckon with your hand, point, and pass your money out the window. Once you've finished eating you can throw the remnants of your meal out the window -- what fun! The side of the road, waterways and bushes throughout Laos tell stories of satisfied bus snacking.

My journey started at 7am this morning. After saying goodbye to the sweet couple who rented me my bungalow on Don Dhet I walked down to a riverside restaurant and swung in a bamboo hammock while waiting for my ride to the mainland. At 7.15 I was cruising down the Mekong in a long boat, being skillfully maneuvered around trees that will soon begin to stick their heads further out of the water as the dry season progresses. Early morning mist mingles with the smoke from small fires and turns the distant banks into rather ghostly versions of their daytime selves. As you approach Ban Nagasang on the mainland it feels like a very Lao form of rush-hour. Boats speeding across the water from all directions, all heading towards the market where they will stock up on cabbages, petrol and BeerLao for the day ahead.

At 7.30 I was strolling down the main street of Ban Nagasang looking for the bus that would take me back to Pakse. At 7.45 I was buying dumplings stuffed with boiled egg, glass noodles and black pepper from a very fat woman at the market. At 7.50 I was realising that if I didn't get into the bus quick-smart I would be riding on the roof. At 8.00 we were trundling out of Ban Nagasang, our driver's hand resting heavily on the horn to announce our imminent departure, speed only slightly exceeding walking pace lest anyone make a last minute decision to jump on the bus. People on the bus were screaming various things: Go go go! Wait! Go! Move down so they can fit! Go! Red dust and cigarette smoke was filling the back of the bus, resulting in an almost simultaneous lifting of clothes to nose and mouth. Go go go! At 8.30 we were onto the main road and the suffocating dust and cigarette smoke was supplanted with the relatively innocuous smell of decaying meat and fish. At 11am I was being ushered off the bus by an old woman: I had expected the trip to take at least an hour more and so didn't notice when we pulled into Pakse's southern bus station. Go go go!

I love travelling in Laos.

I last left you in Vientiane. My mystery affliction of the stomach and areas further south resolved itself on day six and I found myself particularly peckish. I bought bread. I bought soup and pizza. I bought a whole banana cake and stuffed it into my backpack to snack on throughout the day. I hired a bicycle and rode around this city that I'd already spent five days in. I still saw nothing, but at least I was on a bicycle. I met up with Sebastian -- my unexpectedly longlasting travelling companion from Luang Nam Tha, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng -- and we went out for Indian with two other delightful randoms he'd met along the way. While I was spending $20 a night to lounge about in my luxury accommodation, he was paying a tenth of that for a bed in a dorm of perhaps the most depressing guesthouse I have ever stepped foot into: Cold fluorescent lights illuminating narrow corridors and dorms with walls that failed to reach the ceiling. Thin mattresses, thin blankets, intimidating bathrooms at the top of rickety sloping stairs. At night the door is locked from the outside so that if there was a fire you'd end up with a whole bunch of barbecued falang. That's another South East Asian cliche I've failed to tick off: Staying in a flophouse.

I spent my last day in Vientiane having fascinating conversations with one of Sebastian's randoms. Russ the itinerant musician who falls in love at the drop of a hat, tours with his poppy punk band across Europe and America, lives in perpetual debt, works in menial jobs when not travelling or touring and fantasises about becoming an archaeologist like Indiana Jones. We sat by the Mekong drinking pepsi out of plastic bags filled with ice, with the smell of quiet midday putrefaction emanating from the dry river bed. From the banks of the Mekong we progressed to 2-5pm lunch of curry and Nescafe. From lunch we progressed to tea, banana cake and posing at my favourite cafe. From posing we progressed to wandering down dark streets searching for the street vendor night market where we could purchase mystery treats for a pittance. This last progression was thanks to Sebastian who can always be relied upon to cross town in order to save 2000 kip (20c) on a feed.

Sebastian and Russ having a romantic dinner in Vientiane

The next morning I'm up at 6am and zipping through the already busy streets of Vientiane towards the southern bus station, banana cake at my feet. One of the most delightful things about travelling on the public buses in Laos is the way it also doubles as a personal freight service: People bring sacks of every possible thing and load up the top of the bus, the compartments under the bus, and then when they're full: the aisle. Usually it's simply sacks of rice, but for the nine hour journey to Savannakhet when had a motorcycle blocking all entry and exit to the bus. When food hawkers swarmed the bus they had to climb past each other over top of the motorcycle to reach the passengers at the back of the bus.

This is my favourite one so far. Motorcycle in the aisle!

On the way to Savannakhet (8 hours) we suffered two flat tyres and a busted radiator. I suffered from an inordinately dirty curtain which spent a large portion of the journey wrapped around my face, leaving me rather grey by the end. The man in the seat next to me would fall asleep on my shoulder and then wake up rather embarrassed. We arrived in Savannakhet, where I proceeded to offend a tuk tuk driver by offering him what the guidebook recommended a trip into town should cost, and then upon arriving in the centre managed to look sufficiently lost that a lovely Lao girl came to rescue me: first with directions, and then with a ride on the back of her motorbike. Me and my giant backpack on the back of a motorbike!

Savannakhet is the first place in Laos where I've attracted "that" sort of attention from Lao men. First I had the guy at the counter of my guesthouse saucily offer to be my guide for the evening, and then another man cycled past me, whistled, hollered and patted the back seat of his bicycle. I met an interesting German woman who pointed out that for men, travelling in South East Asia is an experience akin to what women have when travelling in the rest of the world: Constant harassment from the opposite sex. For women in South East Asia such attention is refreshingly absent. Western women are just too big for asian men.

Flat tyre #2

From Savannakhet I took the super-early 7am bus down to Pakse. No motorcycles, no breakdowns. Just cute little old Lao men carrying chooks under their arms. Five hours later and I arrive in Pakse, jump in a tuk tuk to the southern bus station and arrive with about a minute to spare before the last songtao down to Don Dhet rolled out of town.

Don Dhet is part of the area called Si Pahn Don (Four Thousand Islands). These are islands that are formed by the braiding of the Mekong at the far south of Laos, just before you hit the Cambodian border. They're all about the red dirt, sand, palm trees, buffalos, little houses perched on stilts and fishermen stalking up and down the river casting their nets at sunset. Don Dhet is the main traveller's hangout with more bungalows than you can shake a stick at, but there's still not a hang of a lot to do except hire a bicycle and explore the dirt tracks that crisscross the island.

So much fun for bicycle puttering, particularly at night!

Children leaving school at lunchtime on Don Khon

Obligatory sunset photo from the old railway bridge

I'd withdrawn what I considered to be a reasonable amount of money from one of the extremely scarce ATMs in Vientiane before I left. There are no ATMs further south and I'm not carrying any travellers' cheques, so that money had to last me until I flew out of Pakse to Cambodia. On my second day in Don Dhet I estimated that I had about 120,000 kip per day ($12 USD), and from that I had to subtract the 40,000 kip for my bungalow, 10,000 kip per day for my bicycle, leaving me less than 30,000 kip for each square meal. I began to tighten my belt. Tightening your belt when you're in a dirt-cheap country is an interesting exercise. I'd been trying to refrain from bitching over a few thousand kip lost here and there, but now every kip was precious. This led to some rather ungracious behaviour.

For instance, there's a railway bridge built by the French that links Don Dhet with Don Khon. On my first day there I was informed by a reasonably long-term resident of the islands that the daily charge of 10,000kip they make you pay for crossing the bridge is a complete rip. They didn't build the bridge. They don't maintain the bridge. It's just a sort of tourist tax, and you're better off just pedaling faster when you reach the ticket booth. So that's what I did: When I'd reach the end of the bridge the little uniformed man would step out of his little hut at the base of the bridge and call out to me: "Excuse me? Miss?" and I'd cheerfully cry "Sabaidee!" and keep biking. The road then curved down and went under the bridge. The man would try to collar me again. "Miss?" and I'd wave, "Sabaidee!" and keep biking.

I'm such an asshole.

On my second day I went looking for Sebastian. He'd been looking for me, spamming me with "I'm on this island! No, I'm on this island! I'm staying here on this island!" messages. He saw me first, biking down the path towards the main town. I explained that hanging out with him too long had turned me into a complete tightass too, and together we sought super cheap lunch and inexpensive lying on the sand (despite the absence of swimmable water) type activities. In the evening we hung out at his guesthouse with a bunch of long-term falang. The guesthouse owner was a german fellow who had been on the island for years. When he was detained after one too many visa runs, he married a Lao woman. He was Sebastian's oracle. He offered to pick me up from my guesthouse in the morning on the way to market, thus saving me a potentially hilarious thirty-minute bikeride down to the main town with my backpack in order to catch the regular ferries to the mainland. Then I left for the ride back to my guesthouse... headtorch illuminating the dirt path, dodging buffalo in the dark, the only light provided by the occasional generator-powered lightbulb. When I switched off my headtorch the darkness and silence was engulfing. The only sign that I hadn't fallen off the world was the sky completely full of stars.

Then I flicked my headtorch back on a focused on not riding my rickety but ultimately trusty bicycle full tilt into the Mekong.

So now I'm in Pakse. When I was leaving Pakse the first time, zipping through town on the tuk tuk to the southern bus station, I passed what I considered to be the most ostentatious hotel I had ever seen. It was about five stories high and resembled a wedding cake. In Don Dhet I read about it in a guidebook: It was built as a palace for one monarch or other, but then the monarch was exiled, so it was turned into a hotel. I thought that never in my life would I be able to sleep in what was essentially a palace, and that I should absolutely book myself into this wedding cake hotel upon my return to Pakse.

But I was too chicken. Instead I've booked myself into a $2/night dorm room just down the road. I think this might just be my biggest regret in Laos: That I didn't stay at the Wedding Cake.

This also makes me an asshole.

Where I didn't sleep: The Champasak Palace Hotel, otherwise known as The Wedding Cake.

Where I did sleep (the far bed, against the wall, is mine)

I fly Laos Airlines to Siem Reap tomorrow. I'm slightly nervous about this because I've seen how the Lao run their buses. Tonight I have the job of spending 125,000 kip ($12.50). Turns out that my budgeting was a little overzealous in the end. I plan to eat and eat and eat. I think I'm up for it.

Tags: On the Road

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