The south of Laos, a country without a hurry
In 2004 it was for me more as 7 years ago that I was for the last time in the country of the thousand elephants, the visa-runs to Vientiane not included. For the one who has never been there first a small impression of his country that is land-locked by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. It’s a country with about 5 to 6 million people, who have been in the faraway history a play ball of the Khmer kingdom en the Siamese kingdom. After that it became a victim of the French expansion drift. And in more recent history it became the battleground between communism and capitalism.
As a result of that the north has strong ties with China and Vietnam, and the south feels closer with Thailand and Cambodia. While traveling in this wonderful country you will see traces of history everywhere; the Old Russian buildings, French colonial houses, temples in Thai style and temples in Khmer style. And in the politic you see communism. And in the real life of today Laos seems to become an economical province of Thailand. The Lao people are watching Thai TV, listing to Thai music and they can speak en read Thai. And as the Lao currency, the kip, is so un-useful in daily life (the biggest note is 20.000kip or 80thb or 2 US$) they use the Thai baht as the second (un)official currency. Of course followed by US$ as the Euro is practical still unknown. In the meanwhile the financial investments from Thailand are growing by the day. As one (1) of the 5 (yes 5!!!) GSM networks is 50% owned by Thailand’s biggest wireless network provider.
Our final destination that day would be the in the jungle build Tad Fan Resort at Paxong, high on the Boloven plateau. But first we would visit the old Khmer temple in Champasak, the Wat Phu Champasak. From the border town it was an easy and good road to Pakse, the place where the river Se reaches in the Mekong River. About 30km after Pakse we made a ferry crossing over the Mekong to Champasak. Until now the road were very good, something that I had not expected. The village of Champasak is along the banks of the Mekong and since it’s a popular place for backpackers it’s also full of guesthouses, restaurants and even two (2) real hotels. The temple itself is about 10-km outside the village and build upon the slopes of the mountain of Champasak (the name of the temple says it all). The temple is a World Heritage Site and you have to pay 3us$ pp entrance fee. Some books say you can visit the temple by bicycle but that means that you can ride TO the temple from the entrance. Not IN or AROUND the temple, because like I already said it’s build on the slopes of the mountain. Once walking up to steep stairs you see a beautiful view of the valley of Champasak, and of course the remains of the old Khmer temple. For visiting the temple you will need at least two (2) hours and a good condition.
The Lao have a old sage about why this temple is never really finished. As the all area including what is now called Thailand was all the Khmer Kingdom the people of Champasak did send their people helping other temples in what is now called Thailand. But because of the beautiful Thai lady’s the man did never return and thus their own temple could never be really finished.
After our visit we continued our journey in the big open pickup truck and at sunset we did arrive at the beautiful jungle setting of Tad Fan Resort. It’s located on the famous Boloven plateau, between the jungle and the coffee plantations build by the French. During the war this area was a battle zone (HoChiMin Trail), but now you can make beautiful trekking in the bomb and mine free jungle area and visit one of the many waterfalls that you can find here. While waiting for our dinner I started to understand what was meant by “Laos, country without a hurry”. Well the time between ordering your food and actually really getting your food is enough to make a short trekking. BTW a ritual that would be repeated everywhere in Laos.
We did stay for 2 days in Tad Fan and even I made a half-day trekking (all arranged by the hotel). From here we would travel to the most southern point of Laos “thousand islands”, where the Mekong river has created a landscape of “thousand“ islands. On the way to Don Khong we made a stop at Ban Khiang Ngong where we could make a beautiful elephant trip trough the jungle to visit the remains of an old temple. The mahouts of this elephants are Suwaai, who also live near Surin in Thailand and there they are also know as mahouts.
In the afternoon we did arrive at Don Khong (an island in the Mekong River) and as the only bank was closing within 15 min we first made a stop at the bank. ATM? The Lao people do not even know what it is. No you will need a an old fashion real bank with real cold hard cash to get money. So with 18 people we entered the bank, which looked more as an abandoned bunker. I was afraid that this would take hours but they were surprisingly efficient. In the first room was the administration paper work stretched on the floor, in the second room were 3 desks. At the first desk the money that you wanted to change was checked and at the second desk you did get a paper with the amount that you wanted to change and how much Lao kip you would get for it. At the third desk everything was checked again and given to someone in the third room. In this room were 3 bulks of money on the floor. In the left corner us$, in the right corner Thai baht and in the middle the Lao kip. After some counting you were apprehended some big bundles of Lao kip. Use it quick before it’s worthless.
So after the bank stop we finally arrived at Pon’es Guesthouse along the Mekong River and with a good restaurant overlooking the Mekong River. Don Khong is a popular island and it’s full of guesthouses and restaurants. There is even an internet shop. Yes the results of backpacker Lonely Planet is sometimes devastating. It’s a small and cozy island and from here we made a boat trip the next day.
Early in the morning we were picked up by our boat and after a trip of about 45-min over the Mekong River we arrived at Don Kone where you can see the remains the one and only railway that Laos ever had and that was build by the French. The French wanted to transport their coffee-bean to Cambodia but it was impossible to cross this area by boat. So on one island they did build a loading platform and there started the railroad that would cross the island and via a bridge to Kone island. There it did cross this island to the other side where it was put on boats again. On Don Kone you can even see the remains of a French locomotive. We made a short walking over the green island and passed some villages and temples to end up at Kone waterfall, which is actually a huge rapid in the mighty vein of Mekong region. We walked back to the boat which brought us back to the mainland where we took a pickup truck to the border area with Cambodia.
From here we took small boats to a dead-end of the Mekong, which actually looks like huge lake. And here it is where you can spot the famous Mekong dolphins. At one side is Cambodia and at the other side is Laos and between there in this dead-end of the Mekong we really did see a few times the green and black dolphins. It was a amazing trip, one to never forget! In the afternoon we drove back to the mainland across Don Khong where we took a very small boat back to the other side where our hotel was.
After 6 days in the south of Laos it was time to start traveling to the north. With our big open truck we would travel all the way back to Pakse again, where we would take the VIP night bus to Vientiane, as to be our starting point for traveling really up north to almost the Chinese border. But that another story again.