A Travellerspoint blog


I want to take you to the Islands

and trace your footsteps in the sand

sunny 32 °C

We've been blessed with the weather here for the last few days. Beautiful sunshine most days and beautiful sunsets in the evenings. We headed to see the Khone waterfalls yesterday and in the rainy season they are mighty impressive. The sheer volume of water going over them is amazing and although not the highest by any means they truly are spectacular to view. On our cycle we also went to the south end of the island and looked across the Mekong to our next stop, Cambodia. It is literally only a couple of hundred metres away.

Today we took the bikes across the old railway bridge to Don Det, apparently a favourite haunt of backpackers. The north end of the island is a bit of a kip, lots of shabby bungalows and loads of bars selling 'happy shakes', a poor mans Vang Vieng as far as I could make out. That said the southern part of the island is pretty nice to cycle around with some far more salubrious accommodation. We also took a trip to the 'beach' here on Don Khon. Its really a big sand bank at the side of the Mekong a few hundred meters downstream from the Khone Falls. You could only go in for a couple of metres otherwise you'd be washed down the Mekong River. With any luck and weather permitting we'll try and see the Irrawaddy Dolphins tomorrow. I was chatting to a guy today and he was out looking at them yesterday. As the only freshwater dolphins and on account of them being in danger of extinction they must be worth a look I reckon.

The relaxed pace of the 4000 Islands is suiting us just fine. We're all a bit sunburnt and tired but thats not a bad way to be. We head to Cambodia on the 12th July as our visa runs out that day. Maybe they'll have an Apprentice Boys parade to greet us.

Posted by goldenmaverick 06:35 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

4000 Islands (half of them underwater)

sunny 30 °C

Today we left Champasak. Back home there's a phrase - Up with the lark, over here it's - Up with the Laos. These folk like to get up early although after four weeks here it still hasn't become apparent why? They're all up at the crack of dawn but its unclear what the majority of them are doing. When you go into any restaurant to get food the first thing they do after taking your order is to go to the shop to buy the ingredients. You might innocently assume that they've already had most of the morning to sort that stuff out but that's never been the case. This morning we had to take a local songthaew (a covered truck with wooden seats) back into Pakse at 7am. We'd been warned that there was no ATM in the 4000 Islands so we had to get some cash for our last few days in Laos. Last night we'd organised the journey at our guesthouse and Ralf the German was going to accompany us. We were told to be ready to depart at 6.55 and we were up and at it a few minutes beforehand. I was greeted by Ralf at around 6.30am who was complaining about being woken by the dogs. He'd already been up an hour or so. Therefore I was pretty surprised when we wnere still waiting for him in the songthaew at 7.10 - so were the twenty or so local folk. Eventually he hopped in and off we went. I always thought that Germany was noteworthy for its timekeeping but it seems that's not the case with this lad.

On arrival in Pakse we hit the bank machine with gusto and headed to the bus station. Once again Ralf accompanied us - uninvited this time. At the bus station we were informed that there were no buses to the 4000 Islands but a songthaew would make the 4 hour journey. We threw our bags on the roof and headed off to get some breakfast. Big mistake. When we got back we were crammed into the back with twenty five or so others - but Ralf was riding shotgun in the front with the driver. Maybe I'm just jealous of other travellers but the cocoon in which some of them live never ceases to amaze me. They appear to think that everything should work the way they wish it to rather than having some sensitivity towards the country in which they travel in. Ralf is just one of those travellers I guess. Thankfully tonight he's sleeping on another island - I couldn't hack much more of him. The journey in the back of the squashed songthaew was infintely preferable to listening him drone on. As always the kids are a great icebreaker with the locals, they like to practice their English on them and me.

Compared to Champasak the 4000 Islands are buzzing but its all relative. As I write this its only 9pm and the whole place has gone to bed. They've switched the wi-fi off so I'll have to post this tomorrow. We'll get some bikes and travel around a little and maybe go on a daytrip to some other islands over the next couple of days. It's all a bit up in the air to be honest so we'll play it by ear. Low season here means its very quiet - whilst you have the pick of the accommodation it also means you're eating in empty restaurants most evenings. More trips to the shop every time you order.
Cambodia beckons and whilst looking forward to it I also get the feeling that it'll be pretty quiet there too. Caroline and myself treated ourselves to a massage in a French owned establishment in Champasak yesterday, a beautifully tranquil place in a gorgeous setting on the banks of Mekong. I think a little more of that might be required over the coming weeks if we're to get through our travels in one piece. A couple of weeks on a beach might also be required. Five weeks in and everything is going pretty well all considered. Joe and Paddy are still very picky eaters, Harry's pretty good, whilst Rosie has been a revelation. As a family we're getting to know each others idiosyncrancies a whole lot better than before which can only be a good thing - although it doesn't always feel that way. You just have to remind yourself how lucky you are to be able to do this and that will always keep you going. Onwards and downwards to Cambodia. Best foot forwards.

To finish I should point out how great this place is - four water buffalo have just stopped beside me to have a look at me and then moved on down the road. Only in Laos!

Posted by goldenmaverick 03:36 Archived in Laos Comments (5)

Sleepy Champasak

sunny 30 °C

Sleepy Champasak
Champasak is a terribly quiet place in low season. There's maybe a dozen 'farang' in this series of small villages that stretch along the Mekong River and we make up half that number. We're staying in a place called the Anouxa Guesthouse, a family run establishment that is in off-season mode. We rented bicycles from them yesterday and after trying out 8 or 9 rusty variations we finally settled on four that might take us the 10km to Wat Phou. Wat Phou houses the largest Khmer ruins outside of Cambodia and was the centre of the Khmer kingdom before they upped sticks and moved it to the much more famous Angkor Wat. They began construction of a now disappeared city in the 5th century A.D. but the religious complex that still exists was only built in the 11th century A.D. The whole thing is a Hindu complex that sits at the base of the Phu Kao mountain and its very impressive. There are amazing views out over the plains below and you can see why they picked this place for it.

Our outward journey was pretty uneventful, it was a pretty cloudy day and perfect for the bicycles. We stopped at a roadside noodle restaurant and had one of the cheapest meals on our travels thus far. After a whirlwind tour of the complex we set out for home. Disaster struck. My back tube blew and despite some helpful info from locals there was nowhere around that could repair it or sell me a new tube. I resigned myself to pushing the bike home and sent the others onwards, the sun sets pretty early in these parts and it was already past four in the afternoon. I attempted to flag down any passing trucks or tuk-tuks to no avail. After pushing it for around 800 metres I spied Caroline and the children ahead. The chain on Harry's bike had come off and a local chap was attempting to set it to right. Once done and after he'd refused payment they all set off on their bikes again and I continued on foot. Then the rain started. After another kilometre or so I spied the rest of the family ahead again. They were waiting by a truck whose driver had stopped for a roadside toilet stop. Caroline was straight over and badgered him into giving me a lift wih the bike. Once I got there we threw all the bikes in and hitched a ride home on the back of the truck. Fortunately, it appears that you can always depend on the kindness of strangers.

Last night we got a bit of a buzz going with some other travellers here in the guesthouse, an Aussie and his Guatamalean girlfriend, Ralf the German and half a dozen or so Thai dudes over from Bangkok for a few days. They were top buzzers who after the 10pm curfew insisted we finish our drinks on their balcony. Although I say its sleepy here in Champasak, there's still enough of a buzz about the place to make it enjoyable.

Posted by goldenmaverick 00:22 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Tha Khaek to Champasak - Heading south

sunny 30 °C

Once again I've learnt not to judge a book by its cover. On arrival in Tha Khaek I was not impressed. Another dusty town, unfinished roads, big new houses and lots of Toyota Hi-Lux vehicles. Arriving from Vientiane was easy, as things go in Laos. Taking the VIP bus in this country is never less than interesting especially when the plastic chairs are put down the aisle. The town of Tha Khaek itself is pretty grim but there's some beautiful countryside all around. On our second day we attempted to visit five local caves, four of which were inaccessible due to the heavy rains in the last few days. The only cave we managed to access had to be done by boat. The road stopped 400 metres short of the entrance so we had to take two boats to enter. Inside were a number of Buddha statues and absolute tranquility. The statues were surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites and the setting was wonderful.

Due to poor planning and even poorer geographic knowledge we has missed the famous Kong Lor Cave on our way to Tha Khaek. We decided to stay another day and double-back on ourselves about 140km. We hired a minivan and driver to make the journey and we are so glad that we did. It was the highlight of the holiday for me. The cave entrance sits on one side of a mountain and the exit is about 7km on the other side. Once again we needed two boats but the journey was one of the most incredible couple of hours I've ever experienced. You enter the underground river into a limestone mountain and at one point you alight from the boat to wander through a section of the cave. It was half 'Mines of Moria' from Lord of the Rings and half lunar landscape. As a non-swimmer it was pretty terrifying at first but the boatmen were incredible, navigating by using memory and a torch strapped to their head. Once you get out the other side it only gets better as there's only one way back, through the cave again. There@s a village on the other side and the cave route is their only connection with the outside world.

We've landed in a place called Champasak this evening and it's pretty beautiful. We'll hang here for a few days until we make the final leg of our journey south to the 4000 Islands. All in all Laos is a incredible place. There'll be plenty of memories to cherish from our time here. If you ever have a month to kill and are filled with wanderlust I'd highly recommend it as a destination.

Posted by goldenmaverick 04:44 Archived in Laos Comments (2)

Vang Vieng to Vientiane

storm 28 °C

There's two sides to Vang Vieng - the first is the godawful bacchanalian backpacker tubing buzz that exists within a couple of blocks in the centre of the town, the second is the immense beauty of the area on a five minute cycle in any direction out of town. After hmming and hawing as to whether we'd even visit the place we ended up staying for three days. The first day was a bit of a write-off. We arrived on the dusty main street and were immediately greeted by the sight of cut and bruised 19 year olds fresh from a day of tubing on the river. The tubing experience involves being dropped off a couple of miles upriver and floating downriver on an inflated truck-tyre inner tube. As you float past the river bars you are offered shots of lao-lao whiskey and various other alcoholic beverages. The ensuing bedlam sees the tuber lose their footwear, money and dignity and in extreme instances, their life. Apparently around thirty tubers have died over the last twelve months. I didn't believe this could happen until the second night, when sitting on the outdoor area of a hotel, I saw a yong guy drift past in the darkness. He'd missed the finish line by about 1.5 km and was floating away downstream. I guess if he didn't find land he's somewhere in the Mekong delta at this stage.

The second day was infinitely more fun in Vang Vieng. We hired some bicycles and headed out of town to a small lagoon where the kids could have a swim. Our third day was by far the best and made our visit worthwhile. Once again we hired some bikes and cycled 7km out of town to the now famous Blue Lagoon and Phankoum Cave. The scenery on the way there was breathtaking. Massive limestone karsts jut from the newly planted paddy-fields. When we arrived at the Blue Lagoon it was as if Harry's dreams had all been answered. A crystal blue pool with rope swings surrounded by a green area in which to picnic. The kids were a bit slow to get in but once they were in they were loving it. Soonafter a bunch of what looked like Thai twenty-something daytrippers arrived and gave a daredevil display of diving. It was a great buzz for both them and us as they would climb about twelve metres up into an overhanging tree and proceed to do an array of back-flips and sometimes belly-flops into the water. We also checked out the cave. That involved a steep climb up a rock stairwell and once inside the entrance it opened up into a massive limestone cavern. We only went in about fifty metres but you could have kept going through a long dark tunnel for another few hundred metres. The kids decided against proceeding on through and I was happy enough to turn back too.

We arrived in Vientiane, capital of Laos, this afternoon. It's a bit of a soulless capital city to be honest and a bit grubby around the edges if the truth be told. As I write this I had considered staying up until 1.45am tonight to see the Euro 2012 fotball final but we're leaving here tomorrow afternoon in order to make our way further south to Tha Khaek. The draw of the far south is becoming stronger and I'm eager to get there with enough time left on our visas to enjoy it. Tha Khaek doesn't appear to be much of a town but it looks like there's plenty of nice stuff around it. I was trying to book accommodation in advance but it looks like we'll have to just wing it when we get there. Despite it being low-season the guesthouses there and in other places we've been aren't too keen on discounting. It's a little harder to bargain with them with four kids in tow as you really just want to get your head down for the night rather than traipse about looking for the best deal in town.

It's been a month on the road for us today and the experience has been both trying and rewarding thus far. The intimate living creates strains on the family dynamic. When you're at close quarters you see eachothers foibles and follies at a microscopic level. Throw in a bad nights sleep and someone is likely to snap. That said, days like the one at the Blue Lagoon will be remembered for the rest of our lives. Thirty days down. Forty or so to go. I'm already looking forward to the memories I haven't even experienced yet.

Posted by goldenmaverick 19:21 Archived in Laos Tagged tubing blue_lagoon Comments (3)

Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng

sunny 32 °C

After a very nice few days in Luang Prabang we've arrived here in Vang Vieng. We've opted for far less salubrious accommodation here. We're pretty much on the main drag in a hostel called Pan's Place. On checking in I was obliged to write down most of the usual details; name, passport number, nationality but more peculiarly, age. A casual glance down the list of other residents it became very evident that I'm at least twice the age of everyone else. Nevertheless if I use the mean average of our family it brings us more into line with the rest. The accomodation is very much An Oige style. Seventies style bed linen but at least its clean. We took a mini-bus from Luang Prabang but in future I reckon we'll stick with the buses. Because there were only six of us in the mini-bus, the driver would slow to a crawl in every village we passed through in the hope of making a few extra kip in fares. Though he was unsuccessful in his attempts he added at least another hour to the journey here.

Vang Vieng looks like most Laos towns on the surface but as you look around you can see it really is geared to the younger travellers that pass through. Over the past few weeks I've really gotten to like the local Laos grub but there's an absence of local eateries in this place. There is however an abundance of pizza and burger joints. That said it also looks like everything is about half the price of Luang Prabang. That's no bad thing.

Caroline and the three older kids are thinking of going tubing tomorrow morning. I'm thinking of going for a bicycle ride with Paddy. The scenery around here looks pretty incredible so we won't have to go too far by the looks of things. As I'll be doing the cycling I'll have to task Paddy with reading coordinates etc.

As we move south through the country we've definitely favoured some places over others. Luang Nam Tha appears to have been a highlight for the whole family and our stay in Luang Prabang was definitely both easy and comfortable. We're winging it from hereonin and are looking forward to the delights in the south of the country; Tha Kaek, the 4,000 islands and whatever else we see along the way. Journey times appear to be shorter as we move to the lowlands and that is to be welcomed greatly. In two days time we'll have been on the trail for four weeks. Tempus fugit.

Posted by goldenmaverick 03:56 Archived in Laos Tagged vang_vieng Comments (2)

Chitty-chitty Luang Prabang

overcast 30 °C

Bread, coffee and lots of tourists. This is the most touristy place we've hit since Chiang Mai. That said, it comes as quite a welcome relief. After about ten days of the northernmost part of Laos its nice to have a really comfy bed to put the head on. Every day is an early start in this country. They don't seem to do lie-ins. This morning we had the drums beating in the various Wats around us, that was at 4am. I was chatting to one of the guys here and he said I can expect the same tomorrow morning.

We headed for Kuangsi Falls today. Clear blue waterfalls that you can swim in. Harry decided to brave one of the rope swings following much careful consideration. Our tuk-tuk driver promised us exclusive passage for the 35km journey for his best price. We then made a detour to his house to pick up his wife, one year old daughter, sister-in-law and two baskets of laundry. To be honest, its those experiences that make travelling all the more enjoyable.

When we stayed in Nang Khiaw we regularly frequented a place called 'Alex's' which was run by Mama. She has 8 kids, one of whom runs a place called Delilahs here in Luang Prabang. We had a great dinner there tonight albeit the kids found their food 'too spicy'. I suppose that's what you'll say when you've been fed a diet of spuds all your short life.

Paddy, our youngest, is fast turning into Little Lord Fauntleroy. His blond hair and red, sweaty face mark him apart from most kids in these parts. He's becoming an all-singing, all-dancing space cadet who turns it on for the locals. His whirling dervish antics means he now has to be regularly held in check when we're out, otherwise he starts wandering into the kitchen when he should be eating his dinner.

The kids and ourselves are planning a trip to the library tomorrow afternoon. They organise english conversation classes for local kids and novice monks where travelling 'falang' lîke ourselves can chat with them for a couple of hours. It should provide us with the opportunity to improve our english.

Posted by goldenmaverick 06:43 Archived in Laos Tagged waterfalls luang_prabang Comments (3)

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