28.03.2016 - 21.04.2016 33 °C
People often ask, "what is your favorite destination?" There simply isn't just one. However, the country that so far has left the least impression on us is Laos. That doesn't mean we didn't like it at all, but aside from Luang Prabang, it pales on many levels - friendliness of the people, historical monuments, landscapes and food - with neighbors, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia.
The "s" in Laos is silent. The French felt they needed to add it. This will by no means stop you from pronouncing it because it's there and your brain refuses to process the anomaly. Locals rarely smile at you. Compared to the rest of Asia, where perfect strangers flash wide grins and are eager to engage you, Laotians are down a lap. Timid or indifferent?
We shuffle through the administrative process at Trapeang Kriel the southern border with Cambodia with hardly a word and little eye contact. The minivan drops us a bit further with a few hand-signals telling us to wait. Eventually, a bus takes us to a small pier where a battered boat is waiting to ferry us across the Mekong to Si Phan Don, 4,000 Thousand Islands, a scattering of small islands that vary in number with the water level of the river. Our ticket is valid for crossing to Don Det which I've since renamed Don Don't, one of three islands with tourist infrastructure. The boat pulls up on a puny sand beach that leads to a dirt lane lined with shacks. Main street.
The vibe is Bob Marley, dreadlocks and tattooed 20-somethings carrying inner-tubes. We fit right in. I make the rounds of accommodations and settle on Le Bijou. $15 buys 4 walls, a bed, A/C, bathroom and that's it. No table, no chair, not even a hook, but it's new and clean.
Aside from tubing or kicking back in a hammock, the main attraction is the unusual rather horizontal Li Phi waterfalls on neighboring, slightly more upscale, Don Khon. The islands are connected by a bridge.
The falls are an easy, picturesque 45 minute bicycle ride away. It's low season, so aside from a bunch of local kids proudly shooting lizards with sling-shots, there are just a handful of tourists.
It's best to ride back in the late afternoon because while it's perfectly safe, the bumpy dirt road is pitch black once the sun sets.
Despite the pretty Mekong scenery, when we can no longer stand the bad food, reggae music and tourists catching up on all the cigarettes they can't smoke in restaurants and bars at home, we head back to the mainland and catch a bus and a boat to sleepy Champasak
As we arrive by boat from the opposite shore, an overly-eager man practically pushes 6 of us into his minivan promising cheap and clean rooms with great river views. He's so enterprising that I'm hopeful, but just in case, I note a couple of options as we drive along the main road. One look at the rooms and I'm racing back down the street. Kamphouy Guesthouse (15 euros with A/C) a notch above despite no restaurant or river view, will do. Rest assured, there are a couple of fancier places in town.
We rent a scooter for the straight 10km ride to Wat Phu the Khmer, Hindu turned Buddhist temple now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins are spread up a mountain via impossibly steep stone steps, but the view trumps the effort.
Back in town we stumble upon the most improbable Frice and Lujane, an authentic northern Italian restaurant with a pretty deck overlooking the Mekong, and gorge ourselves on grilled aubergine and homemade pasta.
It's early morning as we flag down and squeeze into the local bus that doubles as school bus and head for Pakse. At the bus station, we stake our claim to a portion of wooden plank in the next sorngtaaou (covered pick-up with benches) bound for Paksong on the Bolaven Plateau and kill the wait with a noodle soup for breakfast. I notice a lady with a bucket making her rounds of the market giving pedicures to women in front of their stalls. Hygienic? Maybe not, but what service!
The Bolaven Plateau is known for cooler temps, lush waterfalls and abundant coffee plantations. Unfortunately, coffee season has just ended along with visits. We figure we'll rent a scooter and explore the waterfalls. Turns out this may be the only place in the country where you cannot rent one. No problem, we'll take the bus or a taxi. That too proves difficult as we find ourselves standing at a busy intersection in the blazing sun, choking on dust whipped up by eighteen-wheelers, for almost an hour.
Finally, a sorngtaaou heading in the approximate direction takes us, dropping us a good 5km from destination. While I appreciate the exercise, we are parched and limp as we approach the ticket window. It's amazing though how you can forget your pain with some nice scenery and the rehydrating kick of fresh coconut juice. Tat Gnueang waterfall is beautiful.
And that's where it ends. The restaurant across the street from our guest house is not only bad, but we have to endure the sounds of a cat being strangled. Oh, that's a karaoke session. At 7AM the next morning it's breakfast and more karaoke!
We hightail it back to Pakse and check-in to the Phi Dao hotel. The room is modern with all the fixings - A/C, good bed, TV, fridge, hot shower. The shower is aimed at the toilet and soaks the whole bathroom, but this is the norm in SE Asia and we've gotten used to "wet rooms".
The cool lobby restaurant offers refuge from the torrid midday heat. The waiters are expressionless with body language that screams, I'd rather be anywhere else! As the late afternoon light rouses troops of mosquitoes, a waiter waltzes around the room waving a tennis racket zapping them with an electric shock. It takes him forever to crack a smile.
It's easy to run into people you've met elsewhere in Laos as everyone is following more or less the same route. To our delight, we spot the lovely couple from Washington DC that we met down south and head to the roof-top bar of their hotel for drinks followed by a delicious Italian meal at a nearby restaurant. The (European) owner confirms that 99% of the businesses in Pakse are Vietnamese owned. Laotians can't be bothered to work that hard. His words.
The overnight double-decker bus to the capital Vientiane is fitted with flat beds almost big enough for 2 westerners, good pillows, light blankets and a toilet on board. It's the first sleeper bus we've taken that stops only once to change drivers.
The bus leaves us on the outskirts of Vientiane early morning. With heavy traffic, it's an agonizing 1.5 hours to get to the center and our hotel. Always know where you're going because despite assuring you they know, drivers here have no clue and don't speak a word of English. April is probably not the best month to visit. It's oppressively hot and the air is thick with dust, but having inhaled clouds of fine particles in Paksong, we are now equipped with masks. These will prove invaluable in many other Asian countries.
The room at Moonlight Champa Guesthouse, 35 eu with breakfast, is compact but ultra bright and comfy and a 10 minute walk from the noisy center.
We visit the sites around town with friends from Europe who are here for a night on a visa run from Thailand.
It's a comfortable 4-5 hour minivan ride to Vang Vieng. As we head north, the landscape takes on the cone-shaped limestone mounds of Vietnam and Thailand. Vang Vieng is infamous as the tubing and party capital of Laos, but (thankfully) things have calmed down a bit over the last few years after too many serious accidents involving foreigners. The town is awful, but the surrounding countryside is beautiful.
Our hotel, Laos Haven and (eventual) Spa is on the quiet end of the main street; double room with A/C, hot water, TV, breakfast, 25 euros.
About 1/2 an hour outside of town is Tham Phu Kham cave aka Blue Lagoon. By scooter we cross a nerve-wracking wooden bridge and bounce along a rocky road for a bit admiring the pristine scenery,
but as we approach the site a thumping base sound signals the unfortunate scene that awaits. The parking lot is jammed with mopeds and vans and the lagoon (river) has been besieged by howling Korean tourists wearing fluorescent life jackets and wielding selfie sticks. You'd think they've never experienced water before. Nearby, in front of a soundstage, locals and tourists are dancing to an Ibiza track in a fog of pink bubbles (roll eyes).
Fortunately, only a few visitors are climbing the ultra-steep rock steps to the impressive cave.
Tham Nam offers tubing through the cave. I didn't think to bring my waterproof bag, so we'll have to pass, but we stop for lunch at one of the leantos with warped wood planks that undulate as people walk by creating a tsunami in my soup. Groups of Asian tourists, outfitted to the gills are coming and going, posing for photos. Every few seconds a zip-liner shoots by overhead screeching with joy/fear.
The most scenic route so far is the minivan ride from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, the jewel of SE Asia according to many.
The French colonial architecture and beautifully maintained temples make this UNESCO World Heritage Site a welcome place to drop our bags for a week. We check-in to the charming Singharat Guesthouse - 34 eu with breakfast, A/C, hot water, TV.
The markets and shops in Luang Prabang sell things you actually want to buy and people are very friendly.
All this great energy may have something to do with the impending Pi Mai Lao - New Year celebrations. It's hot, insanely hot, and what better way to cool off and spread good cheer than with a giant water fight. For the next few days, from sunrise to sunset, with music blaring from makeshift sound systems in front of businesses and homes, locals set up barrels of water, pots and pans, hoses and all kinds of ingenious methods to douse cars and pedestrians. Pick-up trucks drive up and down the streets loaded with water and people fighting back. Pedestrians arm themselves with water guns and waterproof bags.
Not even monks and cops are off-limits.
If you go out, you're going to get drenched. Some add flour and color which is not as much fun especially when there's only a trickle of water left at the hotel to shower off at night. By day 3 we're saturated.
Festivities go on for a week in Luang Prabang and include, a beauty pageant, processions, traditional dances and ceremonies, boat races and more.
The watering of the Buddha ceremony takes place in most temples. A halved, bamboo log is placed above a Buddha image. Devotees climb a ladder and pour (scented) water into the bamboo trunk which runs down and drips over the Buddha. They then collect the run-off to pour over themselves, family and friends as a blessing for the year ahead.
Across the river, families build elaborate sand stupas and pray for a good year.
One evening, we follow a crowd to Wat Mai Temple for a traditional dance performance. We're given VIP seats in front which is a relief for our tired legs after a long day of water fights, but leaves us struggling to sit through the entire 2 hour performance.
When the festivities come to an end, the town folds back into a peaceful hamlet; somewhat hard to reconcile with the previous days.
With a few days left on our visa and glowing reviews from other travelers, we push further north to Nong Khiaw.
Our room at the Sunrise Guest House (12 euros) is basic but new with A/C and a lovely terrace overlooking the Nam Ou river.
We wake up to a downpour. First rain we've seen in months.
It's a nice place to chill for a couple of days before the epic haul back to Vientiane and Nong Kai, the border crossing to grinning, playful, Thailand.
It's great to be back in Thailand! On the way to Bangkok, we stop for a couple of days to visit the Khmer temples of Phanom Rung and Prasat Muang Tam. Like Pimai, a few hours away, there are very few tourists. The temples are easily visited by scooter.
Bangkok is becoming our second home. In order to get to know the city better, we stay in a different neighborhood every time. Located near Bobae Market, a large dreary wholesale shopping center where most of the local retailers buy their goods, and you can also buy retail, The Seven Luck offers a small, modern bedroom with TV, AC, hot water and nice view of the canal (23 euros). There's not much around, but the canal boats stop nearby and it's a fun way to explore Bangkok away from the traffic jams.
Vibrant modern Bangkok is so much fun after a month in rural Laos. Endless shopping malls filled with food courts, restaurants, gourmet markets, luxury cars, movie theaters, gaming arcades, every fashion brand (and their copies) and millions of people moving about day and night. We settle into the plush couches of a telecom store/lounge/cafe to sip a cappuccino, write about it all and plan the next destination.