The last couple of weeks have given us an opportunity to re-visit some of our favourite places in Southern Laos; Pakse and the ancient nearby Khmer ruins of Champasak (pre-Angkor 7th century), the fertile Boloven Plateau (famous for Lao coffee and numerous waterfalls), the usually-tranquil-but-not-this-time 4,000 Islands, and finishing off at the Kingfisher Eco-Lodge with marvellous views out across the wetlands populated by delicate white egrets perched on water buffalo, and village elephants lumbering slowly through the boggy grass as the dawn mist lifts.
We started our journey with a so-called First Class overnight train journey to Ubon Rathanthani. Unfortunately our sleeping quarters were right above a broken whee which caused the carriage to grind, clunk and bump relentlessly throughout, and the challenging squat loo was disgusting, meriting the graffiti which proclaimed, “This is the worst train I have ever travelled on”. We arrived, bleary-eyed but ready for our onward journey to Pakse by public bus. In the general confusion of the bus station, there was a moment’s panic when the bus (with all our rucksacks) took off without Barry and I, despite the protestations of Liz and Alan who had to practically threaten to jump off the moving bus if the driver didn’t stop. We suspect there was something of a ‘loss of face’ issue or simply bloody-mindedness as he was already hurtling down the main road before he eventually relented and came to a begrudging halt.
After some tedious and time-consuming border formalities, we crossed at Chong Mek from where it was only about an hour or so to Pakse, the largest town in Southern Laos at the junction of the Mekong and Xe Don rivers. As befits ‘Flashpackers’, we booked into the Champasak Palace Hotel, described by the Footprint Laos guide as “a massive chocolate box hotel of 55 rooms and lit up like a Christmas tree’. It may not be the most stylish place, but the rooms are positively cavernous and it retains a certain charm with beautiful floor tiles and wooden shutters and long cloister-like corridors that remind me of an Esher painting.
In the morning we collected our ancient 250cc Honda Baja motorbikes (until very recently, the only two bikes in the whole of southern Laos larger than 125cc), and set off for Champasak and a sweaty walk in the heat of the day up to Wat Phou at the foot of Phou Pasak. The original Hindu temple complex dates back to the 5th and 6th centuries although a lot of what’s left spans several centuries later. The site contains evidence of early Hindu worship, but converted to Buddhism sometime around the 14th century. The barays, (reservoirs) at the base of the site still contain water and the long processional causeway is thought to have inspired the Angkor Wat causeway.
After a couple of days in Pakse, we drove up onto the Boloven Plateau which, with its rich soil, allows abundant agriculture including coffee, rubber, cardamom and tea. The French left between the 50s and 70s but there are occasional glimpses of colonial architecture in some of the towns that survived the US “Secret War” carpet bombing (1964-1973).
The Plateau is lush, slightly cooler at 600m, and home to a number of minorities. Since our previous visit, some of the main roads have been surfaced and it seems to be becoming more popular as tourist destination particularly Thai tour groups (although the infrastructure itself hasn’t changed dramatically). We had a great few days re-visiting some of the many incredible waterfalls and at Tad Lo, I persuaded Alan to go on another elephant ride which was absolutely beautiful through rivers, jungle and a local village. We also visited the local HQ of the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme in Salaven, once part of the Ho Chi Minh trail, but part of other intense military activity as late as 1974. Indeed, according to the UXO Annual Report of 2007, over one half of the villages surveyed in the province reported the presence of UXO (unexploded ordnance) and these ‘bomblets’, mortar bombs, landmines and big bombs – some as large as 200 lbs continue to maim and injure villagers every year although a programme to encourage people to report such finds rather than attempt to dangerously salvage the ‘scrap metal’ seems to be bearing some fruit. As the area is mountainous and jungly, clearance is a slow and incredibly painstaking process, not just in this province, but throughout all of Laos. It was therefore with deep sadness that we noted the entire annual budget for mine clearance in the country is just over a mere $5.5m. Total donations received (including directly from the US) amount to a paltry $7m.
Returning to Pakse for a further night, we stopped off at the famous 800m drop waterfall of Tad Fan, before inadvertently driving through a swarm of bees. Alan, in the lead as his role of ‘tour guide operator, came off worst although Liz’s hand subsequently swelled up to elephant proportions before some borrowed anti-histamines took effect. I got off unscathed, thankfully although was subsequently smitten by a night of sickness and diarrhoea which delayed our departure for the 4,000 Islands next day.
Alan and Baz had, most fortunately, organised a plush minibus to take us the 2.5 hours south to the dusty and non-descript trading port of Nakasang from where we caught the ferry to Don Khon island. We were looking forward to limited electricity and a comatose pace of life on the river, but various factors conspired to prevent this, starting with our accommodation – Sala Phae, reportedly the only floating bungalows on the Mekong. Unfortunately, they weren’t just floating, but one or two were actually sinking so Liz and Baz had to switch rooms to prevent involuntary paddling, whilst Alan and I amused ourselves watching a posse of Lao boys attempting to stop the one next to us float away altogether!
We happened to be on the island during the first Full Moon Party of the year, an enormously popular event with virtually the whole island, as well as boatloads of neighbouring Cambodians who turned out to celebrate – ALL NIGHT and with whopper speakers just a couple of hundred metres away from us. I can’t say I’m a fan of Lao pop music which resembles a slow but high-pitch catawauling. In contrast, the night before, we were the only customers at a lovely restaurant overlooking the magnificent Li Phi falls where ‘Mamadame’, a lovely gentle Lao woman of 57, cooked us fresh Mekong fish which we ate under a near full moon, on a candlelit table next to a smokey fire, the sound of cascading and swirling water not far away. Our thoughtful tour guide, Alan, had previously arranged for the fantastic bottle of Champagne that Liz and Baz had kindly brought with them to be chilled and available from their generator-run cool box, so we celebrated both Baz’s birthday and the fourth anniversary of having sold Recruit Media in style!
After a couple of days cycling and walking around the island, and re-discovering evidence of the folly of the French (whose master plan was to create a trade route from the Mekong to China), we returned to Nakasang to ponder on how to reach Kingfisher Lodge which is not accessible by public transport. After hanging around the bus station for about 15 minutes, Alan suddenly materialised, beaming, in the front of a swish minibus which barged its way past the cartel of Songtheaws (a kind of pick-up truck with two long benches in the back), scooped us up and we were on our way once more.
And so our last couple of days in Laos has been at Kingfisher Eco-Lodge, owned by an affable but frustrated Italian on the edge of the protected Xe Pian National Park. As per last time, he frets about the difficulty of keeping his Lao staff who frequently fail to return after holidays or simply bugger off if he tells them they have done anything wrong (that loss of face issue again). In spite of that, however, the place is charming and, I’m not sorry to say, offering a fine fare of Italian food and drinkable coffee which is a refreshing break from endless rice and veg and stand-up strong coffee with 10 tablespoons of Nestle condensed milk!
The four of us had a great afternoon's walk through the village of Ban Kiet Ngong and along the side of the Kiet Ngong Wetland and inot the forest/jungle. We followed a good trail that had been established by the villagers for elephants to drag large hard wood timber back to their village for their own use. Vix had a restful afternoon ..to write the blog, while Barry , Liz and myself headed off to explore Phu Asa..an ancient Khmer and Hindu influenced site on a prominent hill with a great commanding view over the wetlands. This site was later used by the villagers to defend their independence and resistance through to colonial times. The walk up is rather boring on a newly carved dirt track. However we decided to be adventurous and find a way of the hill to the east, through the jungle and back to the village. We eventually found an old elephant track, at places challenged by fallen trees..Liz looked rather pleased when the path eventually led us out into the edge of the village. Barry and I were fascinated to come across four woodmen working in pairs on huge tree trunks. They were hand-cutting planks 12 feet by 0.5 inches from these trunks. Their location, discretely outside the village suggested that the National Park would not have approved!!
Tomorrow, we head back into Thailand again, and we are looking forward to showing Liz & Baz some of the delights of The Gulf of Thailand and its islands.