Laos Travel Journal: the South

This travel journal is part of a series of journals, which are all written during a long trip between november 2007 and may 2009.

> From Cambodia to Laos

20-03-2008 In a little over 2 hours we drive from Kratie North, in the direction of the Lao border. In Stung Treng we're among those lucky people who are the last ones to be transfered over the Mekong in an old boat, too noisy to be fast. In another 2 months the new bridge will be opened, but right now the only option is that boat. After another hour in a minivan suddenly a clumsily fabricated barrier appears, right next to a paintless little shed of barely 2 square meters: the border. To avoid demands for more money we pre-arrange a Dollar note of stamp money (read: self invented complement to the Cambodian salary) in our passports. The money modestly disappears in the drawer under the desk. We do receive value for money, as there are put at least 3 stamps in each passport. A kilometer ahead the whole procedure is repeated in a shed at least as impressive as the first one and that's how we end up, after 2 months of absence, in Laos again. We get into another van and by boat we're taken to Don Det, one of the many islands in the Mekong river.

> Don Det

Waterfall Don Khone21-03-2008 Even though we avoided the 2 Dollar bungalows without any comfort, to move into a more luxurious type costing almost 10 times as much, we didn't sleep very well. On the entire island there's only 2 hours of power a day and with temperatures of well over 35 during the day and at least 28 in the night time it's simply hot, especially without any fan. Even the buffalo who apparently lives on the beach, tries to cool down in the water.
We decide to leave tomorrow, to explore the island and its neighbour Don Khone on foot today. The area around and in the river is very green and we find Tat Somphamit waterfall on Don Khone very impressive. Considering it's the dry season there's definately a lot of water flowing through this rocky part of the Mekong, causing a deafening noise. By noon we almost melt, so we eat something and relax a bit.

> To Champasak

22-03-2008 It's another hot day today, especially in the bus, where we have to wait for the drivers to stuff 5 more people in when it's finally full. An hour or 2 later we change from the bus into a songthaew, which is leaving the main road to reach the Mekong river. Only as we're crossing the river on a boat (well... boat), we truely see how wide the water is here. The last kilometer, walking to our guesthouse in Champasak, it's so terribly, oppressively hot; there must be a thunder storm coming. And of course, an hour later it's there. Giant foam trails are drifting on the Mekong and the beach on the other side completely blows away. Fortunately we're cooling down in our own stone, aircon hut and the restaurant of the best cook among the Lao grannies lives just next door.

Temple Champasak23-03-2008 On a bicycle we head to Wat Phu Champasak, a beautiful Khmer-temple from the same era as Angkor. Soon our Sabaidee-rsi from before starts hurting again, with all those calling and waving kids on the side of the road. Despite of the many similar temples we've already seen this one is very impressive. The partially by beautiful trees overgrown stairs lead up to a source in the mountain, a crocodile-rock and (according to our travel guide) the umptieth Buddhas footprint, somewhat of a fixture at important temples. Maybe this one is a true fib, as we're not able to find it. Well... Buddha was just not able to pay a personal visit to all the good places and in that time there were not yet umpa lumpas to help out of course. We did notice once that Buddha had such a variable shoe size at the different temples, so perhaps he did have his auxiliaries.
By noon temperature went up again and slowly we paddle back in the direction of the village. With some trouble we're able to get us a noodle soup for lunch at one of those cute local home restaurants. As the women from the neighbourhood have come by to take a look and point at our long, white noses, we're able to eat tastefully and next cover the last few kilometres. We've not been inside for long when the sky turns dark again and the wind is rising.

> On to Pakse

Crossing the Mekong by ferry24-03-2008 Before dawn we're at the roadside to catch the first songthaew to Pakse. The very first is packed, but only a couple of minutes later the next one shows up and we find ourselves a seat. A few kilometres and several stops later we're full enough to get to the car ferry, to cross the Mekong. Together with 7 more vehicles we're squeezed on the wooden construction, which surprisingly smooth reaches the other side.
Once in Pakse we use the rest of the day to update the website and to relax a bit.

> Around the Bolaven Plateau

25-03-2008 Even earlier than yesterday we're outside, waiting. Waiting for a tuktuk this time, to take us to the Southern bus station, some 8 kilometres out of town. At the dusty bus stand it's still very quiet, which surprises us a little. The bus to Sekong will leave at 7 thirty we were told and in Laos everyone shows up early, to secure a seat, preferably not one of the plastic ones in the aisle. So it makes sence that we have our bags in the luggage space to claim a seat even before 7. But where are the other passengers, those with the bags of rice, chickens, eggs, pigs, vegetables, fruit and bags of chilis? Ah, departure times have changed. We're now gonna leave at 8 thirty.
As the people with their merchandise, mentioned above, have arrived as well ánd as a bunch of satelite dishes, some motorcycle tires, about 50 straw mats and a couple of undefined products have been tied to the roof we're ready to go. We cross the Bolaven Plateau with its coffee plantations and green jungle and continue our trip through a boring landscape where, except for a few villages, is not much to see. In Sekong the Falang (that's us) are directed out of the bus at a spot where no one is able to tell us where we are or which way to the only hotel this town owns. We suspect the few guesthouses here do not really meet our standards, so we'd like to go to the only hotel. As soon as they've recovered from both shock and laughter in the barber shop one man knows how to give us some directions by hand gestures. It's quite a walk, but as soon as we've seen the rooms of the fanciest place in town we're glad we didn't chose anything else.
Handing out Balloons in an Alak villageAt lunch we arrange a rental motorbike for tomorrowand then we're off to explore this town. Using the only tuktuk we're able to find at the market we're gonna visit an Alak village, one of the ethnic minorities in this area. On our way over there many necks twist and some jaws drop. Apparently not many tourists pass by here. As we decelerate the driver looks quizzically at us, while pointing at the village: "Ban Alak". Obviously he wonders what we're doing here. Actually we do wonder what we're doing here as well, as we get the impression this is a typical Lao village, a dime a dozen. Hesitantly we walk through the first line of huts leaving the road, where we see that the rest of the huts has been built in a circle around some sort of sandy square. Now we see that this village differs quite a lot from villages we've seen so far. In the middle of the square there's some sort of totem pole, decorated by panicle branches. When we take a better look we see a lot of activity in the village. A woman is producing brooms, a man is cutting roofing with a large knife, women collect wood in handmade baskets, rice is cultivated and meals are being prepared. The village consists of about 20 huts and soon we've reached the last one. An older man tries to make contact and we ask whether we're allowed to take a picture. Proudly he poses for our camera, showing the big bulge in the tumor on his belly. We hand out balloons to the children in the huts, some of them are a bit anxious for them at first and we wonder whether they've had or even seen balloons here before. An extremely old man, looking like a hundred years old, likes to touch us and he's truely excited when we take a photo of him and he's able to see a picture of himself on the little screen. We buy some things at the only house-shop of the village and visit a waterfall on our way back to Sekong.
Once we're back at the market we see the entire area has come down here to buy or sell homegrown veggies and fruit. Even caught salamanders and frogs are for sale here, and so are wurms, larvae and we also see cow -tails and -snouts, waiting to be eaten. For now we stick to the restaurant we visited before for our dinner.

Market sekong Market Sekong

> Minorities of Southern Laos

26-03-2008 After breakfast we unsuccessfully attempt to start the motorbike we got. The Lao owner of the restaurant has some difficulties to start it herself as well, so another bike is retrieved. With some effort we succeed to get this one running, just to find out it rides like a tractor. As there are no other options left here we decide to first fill up at the gas station. As we're just finished a worried restaurant owner comes to meet us: "you, you... (hand gesture) motor no good, you restaurant (hand gesture)" We understand as much as there's some sort of problem, probably with the insurance, and we get back to the restaurant. 10 Minutes later we head to the gas station on the third bike of the day, where we're treated on some strange looks of the manager.
We chug around in the area, leave the main road and see some tiny villages, a beautiful large waterfall and many surprised faces. Early in the afternoon we follow a dust road through some dense jungle to the highest waterfall in the area, when we drive through another village. Apparently there's something special happening, as the people are sitting together in the dust, sucking something from big jars using bamboo straws. At the "village square" the head of a small ox is skewed on a stick and we guess this is yet another Alak village, where the annual sacrifice of the buffalo has just taken place. Alak and Katu Rijstwijn drinken met Bamboe-rietjespeople do this each year at full moon in March, to honour the village spirit. We skip the waterfall, we found it too far anyway, and extensively look around in the village. Under what seems a holy tree, with many notches, a giant jar is filled with Lao Lao. All the villagers, including the older kids, are allowed to sip from the brewage using a giant bamboo straw. We're offered one of the collective straws as well, but we politely decline as we're not anxious to have all those strange bacteria in our mouths.
A dark sky is fast coming our way from the Bolaven Plateau, spreading sounds of thunder and we quickly say goodbye. Waving to all those kids, wearing rags and with just a handmade wooden car as a toy, and their drunk and still somewhat surprised looking parents, we drive away from the village.
On our way back home we see a thatch contruction a bit off the road with wooden benches under it, on which children are sitting. They are taught by a young teacher and we guess this is a very new little school. One of the kids has an exercise book and a Writing with chalk on a piece of wood.pen to write, but most of the students have just a piece of wood and chalk. The teacher writes exercises from his only text book on a blackboard made of 4 wooden boards nailed on a background. We don't want to interrupt, so we continue our trip back home.

> To Attapeu

27-03-2008 We're only waiting on the side of the road for a bus for a couple of minutes when a super-de-luxe touring car shows up. So we drive super fast and luxurious like a king and queen through a rainy, but very beautiful woody landscape, right along the Bolaven Plateau and through some tiny villages, to Attapeu. This is definately the most agricultural provincial capital we've ever seen and it even has a giant monster of a hotel to offer, where we can even use wifi in our room.
At night the entire village gathers at the Beer-Lao-35-Years-Festival which is held on the field opposite our hotel and which is probably thé event of 2008 for the people here. Naturally we also check this festival out and enjoy the music, the infaltable and snack stalls together with the locals.

28-03-2008 We rent the motorbike of one of the residents of Attapeu and first visit the market. Today we'd like to Phou Vong, a district quite a bit to the South and inhabited by the Laven. These extremely poor people once lived on the Bolaven Plateau, but in the past couple of decades they've moved to the surrounding areas. The man at the small Tourist Office in Attapeu told us that at least one of these villages has a school and we'd like to donate some exercise books and pens. We assume there's a lack of these things, On the Beach with our Motorbikelike we've seen before in this area. Exercise books are hard to come by, even in the largest town in the surrounding area, but this can't stop us of course. So a little later a motorbike carrying 2 falang, with backpacks ánd a pile of exercise boioks and pens in the basket, is crossing the Se Kong River by wooden ferry.
The first kilometers of the red gravel- and rocky road we are enthusiastically yelled at by anyone who sees us drive by, but the longer we drive the more quiet it gets. It's not that there are no people, as there still is the occasional hut on the side of the road, but they simply don't respond. That doesn't stop us to keep waving, but get silent stares Bringing pens and exercise books in Vongvilaiin return. Odd! With a selfdrawn map of the Tourist-man we find the village of Vongvilai Neua, where we instantly discover the school he mentioned. Apparently there's no class today, as only 1 class is present. The students who are on watch shrink as soon as we're there and they're extremely quiet, but the teacher elaborately thanks us in Lao for the stuff we brought and which they can obviously use well here. The school is housed in a relatively new, wooden building, but the benches inside are old and apart from the blackboards it's a rather empty place. We doubt there are any text books here and we see only a few exercise books and pens. The village seems to be more of a hamlet and soon we're done looking around. We collect our motorbikes at the school, but try one more thing to approach the shy kids. We grab our photobook Watching photos in Vongvilaiand sit down in a corner. Soon there's one little boy who dares to take a look and now more follow his example. The circle of kids is growing fast and even the parents from the neighbouring huts curiously come closer to see our pictures. Then we say goodbye, but there's just one boy who feels secure enough to respond and even he quickly lowers his arm as he sees no one else is joining him.
We follow the dirt road for another 5 kilometers or so with an ever growing astonishment. When we greet children saying "sabaidee" they obviously react startles and either they run away as fast as they cab ór they start crying. Would sabaidee mean something rude or mean here, or is this the very first time these kids see white people? While we were just figuering we got pretty tanned the past couple of months.
Ban Phou Home appears to be a village not too small and we park our bike to look around. Around the huts of the part where we're standing now there's a handmade fence and behind the fence a bunch of kids are hiding. As soon as we come closer they rush back to hide under or behind one of the huts. In the nearest hut many people are sitting together and everybody stares, but none of them answers our greetings. Hmm... and now what? Leave? Or...? Let's see whether we can convince them of our good nature with some balloons. Yvonne blows one and holds it up at the fence. No response. Gestures to ask for permissionHanding out Balloons in Ban Phou Home to come over to bring it. No response. As these people don't look angry nor aggressive she carefully takes a step in the right direction. Another one. Slowly to the first hut, but there's no kid who dares to take the balloon. With big scared eyes the children sit in the farrest corner. She puts it down on the edge and steps back. And then a little girl dares to snatch it. Still no arrows are fired at us, so carefully we grab another balloon to blow. Now a little boy dares to take it out of our hands. Even the younger women with large piercings in their ears dare to step forward to get themselves a balloon for their offspring. We Granny and little girl with balloongive them a finger puppet to play with their toddlers and they clearly haven't seen anything like it in their lives, let alone they owned a thing like this, and they are truely happy ith their gifts. As all kids have gotten a balloon, except for the very little ones with the grannies under the house, we try... but no, that results in screaming and panic. We have the bigger kids deliver the balloons.
Well, there we are, standing among the people who now know we're not the monsters they thought we were at first, but still... Let's see what they think of our photobook. The enthusiasm is overwhelming as they see the strange people and buildings on the pictures. As we're done showing the pictures we find it enough and quietly everyone watches us leave again.
We drive back in the direction of the rest of the world and visit one last village: Ban Viengxai. The men here drink Lao Lao with bamboo straws and remember us of the Alak village of a few days ago, just like the bone tied to a tree, but those people here are Laven. The shock effect here is significantly less and we guess, every once in a while, they see some tourists here. We walk around in the village and make some people happy by taking photos of them, a special honour and a memorable event. Since a long time they're able to see themselves and even on a magic device like that. At a roadside stall we drink and eat something, before we get back to Attapeu, which suddenly seems like a true metropolis.

29-03-2008 We relax a bot after yesterday's tour and do nothing special. Nice for a change! We'll be heading North pretty fast, starting tomorrow, to catch our flight to China on the 9th.

South Laos video

The South Laos video will show here

Click on the film up here to look around at the crossing of the Mekong river, almost live.

> More Info

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