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Its not the destination, its the journey...

LAOS | Saturday, 9 June 2012 | Views [1362]

We arrived in Savannakhet, Laos in the evening. The air was warm and sticky. The people were friendly and helpful. After a week in Vietnam, Laos felt like a vacation from a vacation. In many parts of Laos there is no use in haggling and the locals are honest and considerate. Especially in the central and southern sections, it seemed the days were too hot, the air too heavy, and the options too few to put too much effort into anything.


So, we did as the locals do, foreshadowing the rest of our time in this sleepy country. A whole lotta nothing. We rode bicycles around the town, which only took about an hour to cover. We meandered beside the vast, milky brown Mekong River and glanced at the crumbling colonial mansions along the way with little interest.

In attempts to track down a motorcycle to purchase, we left for Pakse. Our efforts were unsuccessful. It seemed it was too expensive to buy a new bike and too difficult to find one second-hand in the allotted time we had left. So, we decided to rent an 110cc moped for a 3-day loop around the Bolaven Plateau. Over 350km covered and countless amazing moments. Here are our “Moto Diaries”.            

Our little red moped zipped along Route 20, Ves driving, me on the backseat and my big red backpack on my back, resting the edge of the seat. For the first day, we planned a 90km drive to Tad Lo, a 10m high waterfall surrounded by “rustic scenery” and home to several Mon-Khmer ethnic groups.

Along the way we stopped at a coffee shop and homestay in one of the little villages. This was a perfect example of how you just never truly know what to expect from a self-guided trip like this.  We were greeted by a young Austrian man playing Blues from Around the World on his laptop, and grinding coffee beans, which were grown in the lands surrounding the shop. He made us two cups of coffee freshly ground and gave us our first lesson in Laos coffee plantations and the art of making a real cup o' joe. Needless to say this was not the experience we anticipated as we took the turn down the dirt road, but nevertheless it was perfectly peculiar.


Its hard to describe the intense contrast between the electric green rice paddy fields that stretch on and on between villages and bodies of water, and the assorted shades of brown filling in the rest of the landscape. It seems as though brown is the official color of southern Laos. The ubiquitous Mekong River is the brown bloodline that pumps life into these subdued villages. The robust, reddish-brown clay spreads and sticks like honey on every surface imaginable, and even creeps its way into your ears and eyes to travel along with you. The typical home is made of a patchwork of woods, metal sheets, thatched roofs, and stilted approximately one story off the ground. Rarely do you see a painted home and if you do spot one of these gems, they are usually painted in a variation of bright green, purple, and blue, as if to say “Look how not brown our house is.”

And of course the people, their tanned skin appears to harmonize seamlessly with their surroundings. As we drove along, children playing under their houses would spot us, somehow, even from 300m away, we were obviously falangs (Westerners). They would wave and shout “Sabaidee!!” or give their best “Hello!”


Our brief stay at Tad Lo was lovely. We played under the baking sun in the waterfalls, ate grilled steak Lao-Lao style, and swung the hammock on the deck of our bungalow overlooking the waterfalls. Locals washed themselves and their garments in the river while children bounced raucously in a blow up house provided by the nearby temple late into the night. It was sublime and we couldn’t help but feel so utterly grateful.


The second day the inevitable finally happened. We got caught in some rain, a short downpour really, and finally had to break down and buy some ponchos. Bright blue and orange sheets of plastic must have looked ridiculous fluttering in the wind as we sped down the plateau.

We somehow managed to follow another sign for a coffee shop and end up with another unexpected experience. Down a dirt road on the way to yet another waterfall (the Bolaven Plateau is full of waterfalls) we stopped to have lunch at the coffee plantation and resort located at the entrance gate for the Tad Heuang waterfall. Here, we met Mr. Dao, originally from Laos but having lived in France for the past 50 years he spoke English with a heavy French accent. One year ago he moved his family back to Laos to open a coffee plantation and resort just down the street from the town he was born in.

What’s funny is, our initial impression was we had unintentionally backed ourselves into eating a pricier lunch than we wanted. But, in the end we both agreed it was worth every penny. Mr. Dao told us of his history leading up to the temperamental investment, and how incredibly difficult it is to get coffee plants to grow…”too much rain, no grow, too much sun, no grow”…and went on to explain how he had started a school in nearby Paksong and was inviting foreigners to come help teach English. All the while, his daughter kept bringing me grilled bananas which I continued to stuff my face with and even, after Mr. Dao insisted, took a few for the road!  We definitely see ourselves coming back here to help out and indulge in more stories and grilled bananas!


Our second to last destination was Champasak, about 35km south of Pakse and a ferry ride across the Mekong. Champasak is home to Wat Phu Champasak, a mountainside ancient city that is reminiscent of Angkor Wat but drastically smaller and less impressive. It was blatantly apparent the locals have recently begun to realize they have something to capitalize on and have raised prices and begun constructing new additions to their guesthouses and updating the rest with falang-friendly amenities.


We visited Wat Phu early in the morning with hopes of cooler temperatures. The grounds were beautiful and well maintained. The ancient stone carvings and unbelievably steep stairways were remarkable. We climbed the steep sets of stairs and wondered around noting the heat and heaping amounts of sweat flowing from every pore. As with many archeological ruins, there was some restoration going on while we visited. We thought it was strange though that they were not only using the original stones to recreate the palace, but they were carving new imitations of what was once there, as if piecing together a replica with the old.


The final night of our loop was spent in a homestay on Don Daeng, a practically untouched fishing island in the middle of the Mekong River. We took a ferry, which is essentially a wooden platform attached to two longtail boats with a single motorized propeller that slowly creeps across the river. Upon arriving on the shore of Don Daeng, we had to maneuver the bike up a long stretch of three or four boards nailed together to make a pathway up to the dirt road that would lead us to our homestay.


A few dirt roads wrap around the island and occasionally cross through it. Rice paddy fields, temples, schools, and the locals’ homes are all you see here. There is currently one brand new lodge that will inevitably attract more tourism to the island and eventually lead to a different way of life. But for now, it is rows of stilted, brown homes, naked babies, farmers walking there water buffalos, and fisherman teaching their boys how to cast a net.


Homestays are always a little uncomfortable for me. I am typically way out of my comfort-zone and due to the language barrier; communication is so limited and awkward. But, this is essentially why you do a homestay, to get a more authentic feel for how the locals live. I am always so surprised by the level of hospitality we receive. They wanted us to have the best and to have it before them. The meals were a perfect arrangement of home-cooked Laos love. Our family was young, younger than me anyway, with a beautiful two-year-old girl, Kik, who was the queen of the household.


Much of the time was spent attempting to break the language barrier by smoking cigarettes, sharing a few Beer Lao, and adoring Kik. She liked my fan I got on the first day in Thailand so much I had to give it to her. The heat was sweltering and unrelenting and of course there was little to be done about it. So, here again, we sat around trying not to raise our heart rate. 

There is such a gentleness and carefree mentality in this part of the country that was magnified by each place we stopped. I suppose we could have had a totally different experience during dry season with more visitors crowding the dirt roads. Despite the unbearable heat, temperamental weather patterns, and occasional monsoons, we are thankful for visiting this beautiful country and it’s beautiful people while it was quiet enough to hear the peace of mind.

Tags: champasak, don daeng, ferry, homestay, laos, moped, motorbike, pakse, savannakhet, wat phu

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