Vientiane

The Lao capital is my last stop before Myanmar. I won’t get to see the beautiful wild north this time, but I have plans for another trip in the future. The journey from Thakhek to Vientiane was rather uneventful: no delays, no lao pop music, no weird food on the bus. It was a “VIP” bus and had a crazy design. I arrived in the afternoon and checked into a cheap hostel. 

So far everyone I’ve met have told me that Vientiane had nothing to offer, and that it was not worth spending any time there. I disagree. During my first evening  I discovered another face of Laos: not the rural agricultural side, but a laid-back, cosmopolitan city with a ton of different restaurants, cafés, bars, and a huge night market. 

The people here clearly have more money than in the places I had seen until now and they speak good english. Its colonial past is visible in the architecture, the presence of many French restaurants and cafés and advertisement in french. It’s even possible to get belgian beer, but be prepared to pay a parisian price for it! 
I had a whole day to spend there (Thursday), my flight to Myanmar being on Friday. There were a few things I wanted to do. First thing in the morning, I headed to some temples. I was disappointed as they were not as beautiful as others I had seen before (but I was fine with that, I’ll get my temple fix in Myanmar for sure). After that I did the next thing on my list: a traditional Lao massage. My arms and shoulders were aching after three days of climbing and I came out of the saloon half stoned. Amusingly, a one hour massage is cheaper than a belgian beer here. I smiled at the idea remembering that back home a massage is something I would never treat myself to because of the cost, whereas beer… Speaking of western treats, I found a really nice café held by a Lao woman who speaks perfect french to hang out after the massage. Lunch was falafel, amazing! In the afternoon I visited the Lao national museum. It was very cheap but not very well laid out and a lot of translations were missing. But it’s worth seeing, as it covers the country’s history from prehistorical times to modern days, with a strong emphasis on the independence from the French and the war with the US.

For my last evening in Laos I shared drinks with some travellers I met at the hostel on the Mekong side. I’ll be flying to Myanmar later today (Friday 10th). 

Bye bye Laos and khop chai lai lai!

Hiking in the Khammouane province

​I was very much looking forward to action on the next day. The travel agency picked me up to bring us (the guide and myself) to the starting point of my two-day hike, a village on a bumpy dust road, a good twenty minute drive from the main road. And off we went, through a dry forest. We were surrounded by the very typical karstic formations of the region: very steep and narrow limestone peaks, often with caves puncturing them at their base. Lunchtime was at one of those caves, I got to swim there, it was wonderful. 

According to the guide we were moving at a very fast pace and we got to the village where we were to spend the night at 1 pm! I would have liked something more challenging… The guide is really funny, he picked up a lot of french songs and phrases from tourists over the years (ouhlala !). This village mainly relies on agriculture and tourism revenues, and has a population of 98. Running water was installed by a French initiative. They’re used to having tourists here, and even built a house for those who spend the night here like I do. Children kill time when their parents are busy working or taking care of the house by playing all sorts of games including attaching a small swallow to a string and making it fly around. 

In the afternoon we just relaxed and strolled around the area, and after dinner when the sun had set the villagers did a little buddhist ceremony to welcome me and wish me luck in my life and lots of children (although I’m not sure I want that…). 

That evening there was some sort of buddhist celebration going on. In the neighbouring village (a short walk away) they were doing soundchecks on a massive sound system when we arrived and the guide immediately suggested we go. Obviously I was curious and I spent a couple of hours drinking beerlao and dancing with the guide’s young daughter. She was delighted! When I asked the guide what the occasion was he said something about half moon but that was all the information I could get.

The next day we set off early, the temperature was bareble and we advanced at a fast pace through the jungle, listening to the strange sounds of tropical wildlife. It was only 11 am when we found the driver waiting for is on a dirt road, to bring us to a lake lovally known as the blue lagoon. It’s as deep as 70m in certain areas and a lot of local kids were swimming in the shallower parts. We joined them and were nicely refreshed after the morning’s hike. 

Then, after a quick lunch, I was driven back to my guesthouse in Thakhek. The”two-day” trek ended up being much lighter than what I expected but still well worth doing.

Tat Lo

Having discussed going to Tat Lo (a few hundred km northeast of the islands, close to the Bolaven Plateau) with two travellers from the kayaking tour, I headed off the next day. But things didn’t turn out being so simple. They were staying on the other Island, Don Det, so we had to book through different travel agencies. This meant we took a different bus and I didn’t find them. Then, in Pakse (where I had to catch another bus), rather then arriving at the bus station like I thought we would, we were dropped off at a random location in the city, miles away from where my next bus was leaving from. Luckily, a tuktuk driver quickly understood my problem, and for a shockingly high fare he got me to the station on time. I made it to my destination without any further complications and checked into a small guesthouse held by a family, jazz playing in the restaurant.

I was feeling a bit sick the next morning (nothing serious, the usual travel bug), so I had a very quiet day. In the morning, I met Helen, a dutch woman travelling on her own, and Peter, a german man who came to Tat Lo to medidate. We basically sat around the restaurant most of the day, and walked around the village. The place is very peaceful and it’s nice to blend in with the locals (and their animals, lots of pigs and incredibly cute piglets around). In the afternoon, I went for a swim at the waterfall and there were two (domesticated) elephants there bathing.

Helen and I decided to hire a local guide to take us hiking the next day. For five hours, we walked around villages, and through the jungle to a nice viewpoint on top of a dried-out waterfall where a few people from Vientiane shared some beer with us. What I enjoyed the most about this hike were the villages. The Boloven plateau is the home to ethnical minorities (known as Katu). They live in isolated villages, mainly live off agriculture and are animistic. We crossed a lot of dry rice fields and spent some time resting in the shade of their huts.

And we returned, content but hungry and suffering a bit from the heat, to Tat Lo. There are more pictures on Flickr if you want to see them. And a met my kayaking friends! They rented a small motorbike, like most people. I really need to learn to drive those.

After three nights I thought about leaving the leaving and going to Thakhek (the next place I want to visit, in central Laos, about eight hours north), but in the end I stayed another day, just relaxing, catching up on the pictures and blog, and drinking local organic coffee. Helen had left but Peter was still there.

Right now I’m writing from a bus which will hopefully eventually bring me to Thakhek. We barely left the bus station and it already broke down :/ They’re constantly playing cheesy Lao pop music videos, I wonder how I’ll like that after a couple of hours!

The 4,000 Islands

As I wrote earlier on, I was seeking peace and quiet to rest from my very busy arrival to Asia. The 4,000 Islands (Si Phan Don) turned out being perfect for that. On my first evening there, after an quick dinner I went straight to bed. The place was quiet enough and I slept until 8 am the next day, and woke up feeling really refreshed. Accomodation is more basic than in Siem Reap (although about the same price, 9$ for a double room): a small room with really thin walls, a noisy fan and leaking plumbing. 

I didn’t get much done that day: I simply rented a bike and cycled around the place. It turned out being more tiring than expected. The bike was not adapted to the bumpy, sandy pathways and of course the heat (38 degrees and high humidity) added to the challenge. But it was definitely worth it, with a couple of nice waterfalls, isolated villages and a stunning view on the archipalego on the way. Although most families probably live off tourism, they all have some animals (mostly hens and perhaps a cow) and a lot of men go out fishing. There are two primary schools on the island (and a lot of young children around, they enjoy giving visitors a high-five), and a couple of monasteries.

Most travellers who land on the islands take a one-day kayaking and sight-seeing tour, so I decided to do the same, also to meet fellow travellers. This took most of my second day here. I didn’t want to risk getting my camera wet so no pictures! It was a great mix between paddling, waterfalls (including the largest in terms of water flow in Southeast Asia, quite a sight. But we just looked at it, obviously) and swimming. Note to self: a t-shirt is not enough peotection against the sun…  (I ended up with a mild sunburn although I stayed covered most of the day). The touring company also advertised we would see an endangered species of dolphins (the irrawady dolphin, named after the longest river in Myanmar where they can also be found), but no luck… 
At this tour I met two other people heading to Tadlow (Tat Lo) on the next day (Saturday 25th, I’m a bit late posting because I couldn’t find wifi). That’s also my next destination! I’ll probably see them around.

From Angkor to Laos

With another day on my three-day pass, I had the opportunity to see more temples before heading to my next destination. Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat is a very popular attraction, but that implied getting up at four, and spending several hours waiting with hundreds of other tourists, each wanting the best spot for their souvenir photo. I was definitely too tired for that and slept a bit later than usual. A very shy tuktuk driver then drove me around Angkor Thom (the imperial city with a large concentration of ruins) and I spent a few hours browsing through the temples. It was very peaceful at lunchtime and mid-afternoon, as crowds returned for sunset, I headed back to my guesthouse. That was the end Angkor for me. It’s obviously possible to spend much more time in Siem Reap but I was longing for a quieter next few days.

So this morning I took a minivan, which brought accross the Lao border around 3pm. It then got us to a small town, the gateway to the 4,000 Islands on the Mekong river. The boat ride to island I was staying on (Don Khon) offered a beautiful scenery, and by the time I reached my destination I could admire the sunset over the idyllic landscape.