Archive for the ‘Laos’ Category

  • Back in Bangkok


    On the same day we had arrived back to Pakse from our three days motorbike loop through the Bolaven Plateau, we took a songthaew (kind of a pick up van with two benches very common in Laos as a local bus) to the Thailand border crossing of Vang Tao. Once in Thailand again, we decided to try our luck and increase our hitch hiking experience and got a free ride to Ubon, the closest railway station with a daily train service to Bangkok. Our expectations of getting an sleeper train and have a good rest that night could not be accomplished and we had to complete our 10 hours night ride in a quite small and hard 3rd class sitting bench. One of the inconveniences of travelling without any fixed plan or booking-security, but who needs that…? At least not us.


    So, we arrived in Bangkok early on the next morning tired and close to a neck contracture from the many contortions in the train. We catched a bus to Kao San Road, the tourist area of the city, got a room and went to eat something. We were back in Bangkok, something we had been secretly expecting in our mind. Somehow, we love this city and we still have so much to discover here…

  • The Bolaven Plateau


    The fertile Bolaven Plateau is a semi remote area in the south eastern part of Laos, famous for its cool climate, waterfalls, fertile soil and high grade coffee plantations. In the last years, some “good roads” –sealed- have been constructed and it is now easier to travel around the province either by motorbike or by public transport. We decided to rent a 110 c.c. motorbike, the most convenient way to cover the area. Shopping around in Pakse we found a brand new Honda with only 15000 km and for a reasonable price and started the loop on the same afternoon.

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    We stopped for the first night at Tad Lo waterfalls, where a dense concentration of lodges and guest houses spreads along the river. It is in that kind of moments when we realise how good it is to be travelling in the low season, since most of the hotels are empty (bad for them but more intimate for us). From there we took the road on the next morning to go to Sekong. The scenic road was kind of short ride for us and we decided to continue over towards Attapeau, where we spent the afternoon between the local market and the town bridge, from where we could enjoy an spectacular sunset over the river and a pretty full moon later on.


    On the third day, we took an offroad path (not paved) to Paksong, the capital of the coffee plantations. With “coffee plantations” we were specting something bigger, something much more spectacular. In any case, the path we took to get there and our stay in Paksong were completely rewarding. We found a beautiful wooden guest house a bit appart of the town (Boraven Guest House) with a lonely tree on the courtyard, which two friendly Gibbons considered their home. Much of the time in Paksong we were playing, observing and feeding them. We were impressed in how friendly and playful they were. On the next day, early in the morning, we continued back to Pakse, where we arrived at early noon and got ready to cross the border to Thailand again on our search for a place to fix our camera…

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  • Champasak and the Wat Phu ruins


    Our visit to Champasak was brief but exciting. The city itself has not much to offer but it is located in a pretty emerald green scenery. We arrived in the early afternoon, after crossing the Mekong river with a local ferry, and were ready to start exploring the town in almost an hour, the time which took us to find by foot a convenient guest house for our one night stay. There we rented brand new bicycles (never again with a hired old bike!!) and went to the nearby ancient Angkor style temple ruins.


    The ancient Khmer religious complex spreads over the lower slopes of Phu Pasak, a sacred mountain for the local people. The archaeological site is divided into three levels joined by a long, stepped promenade flanked by statues of lions and nagas (mythical water serpent common in Thai and Lao legends and art). The lower level consists in the long causeway promenade flanked either side by ceremonial ponds that once was the entrance to the temple complex. The middle level comprises the sandstone Khmer pavilions with fine sculpture and reliefs. On the uppermost level is the main temple sanctuary itself.

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    The crumbling pavilions, the Shiva ligam sanctuary, the enigmatic crocodile stone, the stairs covered with grass and moss, and the surrounding dense vegetation give Wat Phu an almost mystical atmosphere. It was great up there, sitting among old ruins, an impressive cliff and the emerald green nature, but we could not enjoy our visit properly because it was the closing time and it was pouring rain like in the peaks of the rainy season.


  • Don Det and Don Khone, the smaller islands


    Unexpected things are the most rewardable things that may happen while travelling and we didn’t expect Don Det to be so laid back and beautiful, so it was really pleasant to stay there for almost a week. The accommodation offer in Don Det consists in many similar wooden bungalows overlooking the river. They all look the same but there are little aspects that make big differences. We found our place in Vixai Guest House on the sunset side of the island, a family run Guest House in which the ambience was really peaceful and from where it felt very difficult to leave on the last day. The Vixai family were great hosts –always with a smile and ready to help- and it was real fun to interact with them, share a ride on their long-tail boat along the archipelago, play with their son Sitta and try to make bamboo instruments with Vixai. The room was pretty basic –mattress, mosquito net and no power or light, just candles-. The attached shared terrace/balcony outside the room worked out as a living room –with hammocks, table and chairs- and was less than 2 metres above the Mekong water, so you could almost wash your feet from there. The view was superb: water, islands, birds, vegetation and the wonderful sky with its blue colour and its amazing cloud shapes and colours.

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    Most of the time we just explored the island, walked among the rice paddies while the farmers where planting the rice, interacted with the locals in rain-calling ceremonies (so much fun!), played with the kids and mostly just chilled out. We also rented a bike and visited on a day trip Don Khone island, further south and linked to Don Det by an old bridge. We saw the beautiful Li Phi waterfalls, visited villages, tried to spot the Irrawady dolphins with no luck and refreshed in a couple of nice beaches formed in the river island. The journey was great but hard, since the bicycles were pretty bad and the paths were full of stones, plus the path was sometimes an adventure like when we had to cross a rudimentary bridge made out of a couple of wood planks and an old and rusty railway line from the french colonial times pushing our bikes and maintaining the equilibrium as good as we could. The many hours we spent riding around ended up with aching bums but admiring a great sunrise from the hammock in our room balcony with an ice coffee, the perfect way to finish the day.


  • Si Phan Don, the 4000 Islands


    Si Phan Don is a vast area just north of the Laos-Cambodia border, where the Mekong river opens out forming an intrincate network of channels, rocks, sandbars and islets 14 km wide. During the rainy season this section of the Mekong river fills out and covers up most of the islets. The largest of the permanent islands are inhabited all year round and offer fascinating glimpses of tranquil river village life: the fishermen in their long-tail boats, water buffaloes wading in the water, families planting the rice in the paddies, women washing the clothes or weaving textiles and children swiming in the river.


    Is the perfect place to just sit down and relax doing nothing, although there are also several things to do if you feel active: few interesting old temples, some rapids and waterfalls, where the Mekong suddenly drops in elevation at the Cambodian border, and try to spot a rare species of freshwater dolphin, the Irrawaddy dolphin.


  • Central Laos


    On our way to the south we have visited the Mekong river towns of Tha Khaek, Savannakhet and Pakse, with their lowland Lao communities, decadent French colonial arquitecture and lethargic lifestyles. The central “waist” of Laos is full of emerald green mountains, pristine rivers, dramatic waterfalls, huge caves and rugged karst terrains. Our staying is been very short in each place, more as a stopover to catch the bus to the next town, but enough to pay a brief visit to these little towns.


    Tourism is much less developed in central and southern Laos than in the north, which means that here you can travel in a more independent manner and really interact with the local people, speacially if you travel by local bus or songthaew (converted pick-ups or trucks with two wooden benches down either side packed with passengers).


    Pakse is the capital of Champasak province, one of the most visited in Laos, with Wat Phu Champasak (Angkor-period ruins), the Mekong river islands of Si Phan Don and the Bolaven Plateau (famous for its cool climate, waterfalls, fertile soil and coffee plantations) being the main attractions. We have gone directly to the Si Phan Don area looking forward for its relaxed islands and chilled days passing by. Where is my hammock???


  • Towards the capital, Vientiane


    Vientiane, capital of Laos, is situated on a bend in the Mekhong river, which will follow our way down south Laos, crossing Cambodia and up to south Vietnam. The city is the country’s hub for travel to the rest of the country and it can be visited in one day and the truth is that there is not much to see. There are still few traditional wood houses and colonial mansions, but most of the city is now full of concrete structures with little appeal. We walked along the streets, explored the market, saw some nice French colonial houses, a couple of Buddhist temples and that was it.


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    At least we found one little stall in Talat Sao market which seemed the only place in the whooooole city that apparently could fix the camera. It was one of this stalls where they open up any electrical device with very basic but effective equipment, gut their contents and reassemble everything again as a puzzle. The guy had all short of watches, mobile phones and digital cameras and little bits and bobs all around. It was the kind of place where you wouldn’t trust to leave any valuable, just in case they mess it up even more, but hey! we where pretty desesperate and this was our only chance in the whole country (the alternative was to go back to Bangkok). So he worked for more than 3 hours on the camera, opened it up to the very little pieces, cleaned he dirt here, put some grease there, soldered few wires and played with it for a long time until he succeded to make the camera work again…. for a while. The lense is fixed, it can open and close properly, we can swith on and off the camera, and even take pictures, but after 1 minute being on the screen blaks out and asks you to switch the camera off. We don’t really know what’s the problem and this guy couldn’t fix it, but he was so nice he didn’t even charged us a kip for the long time he was working on it since it wasn’t completely repaired. At least some good news!! It seems we will have to wait until being back in Bangkok to fix it properly and in the meantime use the camera as little as we can. Mission half-accomplished, we can now head south Laos and continue with our trip.


  • Luang Prabang


    For many centuries the city was the former capital of Laos, where artisans, Buddhist monks and merchants of the Khmer kingdom lived in harmony. Dominated for several kings during 6 centuries, it was the most powerful area of the Indochina peninsula. For many years suffered the occupation of Burmese and Siamese reigns until king Oun Khan finally signed a cooperation pact with France, starting thus the French colony period.


    Luang Prabang is renowed for its outstanding cultural and natural beauty. The town is one of the best preserved places in Southeast Asia and its beautifully restored temples, period buildings, traditional cultures and tranquil atmosphere make it one of our favourite cities so far in this trip. We found a small but charming guesthouse (Mai Pai Inn House) in the old quarter just next to the Wat Xieng Thong, the city’s oldest and most magnificient temple. The wooden and bamboo lodge is run by an old Turkish ex-archaeologist who has been travelling for long time and, fascinated by the city, decided to stay in Luang Prabang. He was very friendly and thoughful, always trying to help us in any possible way and has been for us one of the best hosts in Asia, we felt like at home and will definetely come back if we ever go back to Luang Prabang.


    The city mix of shiny temple roofs, crumbling French provincial architecture with its fading facades and multiethnic inhabitants gives a feeling of a town lost in time and trends to captivate almost all the travellers. Hmong, Mien and Thai tribal people can often be seen walking around town on their way to the markets. Orange-wrapped Buddhist monks walk along the streets early morning for the alms giving ceremony, called Tak Bat. Every morning the people line up the streets to offer food and pay respect to the monks who form a procession through the town in a beautiful yet solemn religious ceremony. There are many sites to visit in the city and many surrounding villages, rural communities and mountians to explore, but above all it’s a great place in which simply relax and unwind.


    Unfortunately, our digital camera broke and we couldn’t find any place to fix it. Laos is not a developed country and reparation shops are nowhere to be found. So we have had to change our route and go directly to Vientiane, to see if we could find someone who was able to repair it, fingers crossed!!!


  • Navigating the Mekong river downstream


    We went back to Huay Xai just as a stopover before boarding a slow boat going down the Mekong river southeast to Luang Prabang. We got into the barge with many other foreigners and a couple of local people. There we found Kip and his wife again, a Dutch couple that we met in Thaton and again in Chiang Rai and who are travelling around Southeast Asia riding their bicycles (it’s not the first time that we keep on finding again and again people that we have met along the way).


    Navigating this part of the Mekong river it’s been such a scenic boat trip. The boat moves forward slowly through the Mekong’s brown waters, one of the biggest rivers in the world. The first span of the trip goes between Thailand and Laos riversides, both covered of dense vegetation and sprinkled with little villages. A sand beach in one of the shores, kids playing on the riverbank, few rocks in the middle of the river or some rapids make the journey different and exciting as we continue downstream. After seven hours we arrive to Pak Beng, a small riverside town half way of the trip and where we will spend the night.


    The next morning we hop on the boat again and navigate along the river getting inside Laos territory. Sometimes the boat stops in one of the villages to pick up more passengers or goods, is on that moments when we can observe closer the life along Mekong’s shore: children splashing in the water, a fisherman repairing the fishing nets, women in their bath time… After eight hours we arrive to Luang Prabang, a beautiful city encircled by lush emerald mountains and set at the confluence of the Khan and the Mekong rivers.


  • Muang Sing, the northern mountain region


    This is not much more than a couple of streets in the middle of a plain and surrounded by some small mountains and forests, but Muang Sing has been a well known place since long ago. First as one of the biggest opium markets in Laos and nowadays as the starting point for many eco-minded treks in the mountains. Even having asked in many guest houses, in the tourist office and to some locals too, we could not get much information about trekking independently in the surrounding area. It was thanks to an american guy who gave us a copy of a hand made map that we could start to think it was possible to hike by ourselfs, with no guides, group or whatever.


    On our second day in town we couldn’t do much because of the heavy rain (the wet season is just starting and, from our point of view, it’s doing quite well: raining everyday sometimes 24 hours non stop!!). But we used that day to familiarize with some Akha hill tribe women who were in town to sell their souvenirs to tourists. They were very friendly and we had good fun together, although they constantly tried to sell us things that we had refused just minutes ago.


    The next day we rented a mountain bike and made our way through extremely muddy paths up and down the mountains towards the Chinesse border (just 12 km away from Muang Sing). We visited many tribe villages and played with many kids, but the best thing that day was the good time we had riding the bikes through these narrow, muddy paths between rice fields and forests.


    After aproximately 8 hours biking, we came back to town completely knakered and with pain all over our bodies (specially in our bums), so we just relaxed and got ready to go back to Huay Xai the next morning.


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