Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
149Trip End Ongoing
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-Where did you come from this morning?
-The last big town. I had a bit of a nightmare yesterday, ended up still 50km from the town an hour before dark. There was nowhere to stay there so did the last couple of hours in the dark to get to the town. You?
Since we never learn, the following day we found ourseves caught out again by the setting sun (who'd have predicted it'd set again). We weren't as far from a town this time, but it was still touch and go. Each village we passed through had nothing to offer, even when we asked around. About 30mins before dusk we left a village, where we'd been explicitly told there was nowhere before the next town to stay, and then almost immediately came to what looked like a small, admittedly shabby, resort. There were bamboo huts, with huge holes in the walls and doors held closed with rope, but with beds and mosquito nets. We gestured that we needed sleep, and the woman who ran the place beckoned us in. It wasn't exactly luxury, the bucket and tank for washing were by a standpipe in front of the huts, but it was cheap and available. All the staff there were women. We had to acknowledge the possibility that not only the rooms were cheap and available, when my counter argument "It's much too sketchy to be brothel" didn't seem overly convincing.
The following day we arrived in Pakse, the last town in southern Laos. There was little to do, but we were suffering from sensory overload simply by seeing tourists, and of all the unlikely things, a busshelter! (Not just any bus shelter, a smart one. Not even like an English busshelter: Like a Swiss busshelter!) Had there been any actual 'buses' we may have had several heartattacks each.
From Pakse we rode to Champasak. We tried to take a scenic route that was marked on our maps, but abandonned it this when asking idle police for directions hinted that if it existed, it was never used. I found out later that if we'd persisted, it would have involved twice the distance on a dirt road, so felt we'd dodged a bullet there. We arrived in the early afternoon, with time enough to go and investigate Champasak's one attraction, the ruins of the 'Wat Pho' Kmer temple, 8km from the town. There's always some tricky social games played when you meet people traveling, as you try and figure out if you actually like each other, and subsequently, if you have similar enough budget, interests, and for cyclists also load and fitness, to travel together for any length of time. In deciding if we'd stick together or split up after Pakse:
Me: I'd like to go and see Wat Pho, it's supposed to be very pretty. But I can't hang around too long. It's about a day's ride from here anyway.
Lindsey: That sounds cool. I have to be at the border in 5 days, and I want to rest in Siphondon.
Me: I don't know about you, but I can see temples, even museums, quite... efficiently...
Lindsey: Absolutely. Even to the point of riding straight past sometimes...
Me: So, get to Champasak, quick butcher's hook at the ruins, crack on the the next morning?
The ruins were very pretty, and tranquil. Situated on the side of a steep hill, partially restored by archeologists, mostly reclaimed by the jungle, there was a calm grandeur to the site. After having a poke around for thirty minutes or so, we sat on an ancient breezeblock in the shade of an enormous tree, admiring the plains below, with the Mekong a ruler-straight scar across them. You could understand the French colonials frustration when they found it unnavigable, from this vantage point, it was clearly a natural highway.
In Siphondon, the very sothernmost region of Laos, the Mekong widens to it's greatest breadth, having been swollen by all the discharging watersheds of the Lao hills. (Hydroelectricity is one of Laos's few exports). Several islands in the river are inhabited and offer superb tranquility and natural beauty. We were headed for the island of Don Koung. We met another cyclist on the way, a Belgian called Natalie, so we arrived in convoy. We had to charter a longtail boat across the river to the island. With three laden bicycles and a sand-bar berth, this inevitably involved somewhat fraught load and discharge operations, suffering from a lack of stevedores both ends.
My original plan, to ride through Cambodia to Thailand, had failed a reality check. The route I found on my map was, further research revealed, unlikely to be possible and even less likely to be quick. Consequently, I only had time for one rest day before catching a bus back to Pakse. From Pakse I could cross directly into Thailand and reach Bangkok in time to meet my parents. Not wanting to miss my opportunity, however, I made the most of my 'rest day'. I paid 15USD for what transpired to be a 12hr day-trip, taking in the largest waterfalls in S. E. Asia, which are the obstacle to the Mekong that made the French lose interest in Laos. A broad rock shelf 5 or so meters high but over a hundred metres across, with millions of tonnes of water dropping over it every hour. (probably. exact statistics not available at this time)
We also saw some smaller falls and cooled off in an eddy which let us relax and float safely in circles. Until I decided to try and swim, and found myself exactly on the border of two currents. One would take me to the left of a rock, around the eddy and safely back to the bank. The other would take me to the right of the rock, and off down the Mekong. To the other falls...
Fortunately, just as I was swept to the right of the rock, I managed to grab a hold and haul myself out of the water. I took a deep, calming breath, and jumped back in to the safe side. No panic.
The highlight of the day trip was being taken to a rock in the middle of the river, just on the border with Cambodia, where a small pod of irawaddy dolphins live. Freshwater dolphins are rare, and will be extinct before too long, so it was a privilige to see them. We watched for an hour; they seemed to be playing and several times they breached the water not far from our viewpoint. Dolphins, it turns out, are large. It was late afternoon. The water was sparkling, the sky was blue, and one of the worlds rarest, most sleek and graceful creatures was pissing around in front of us. Fifteen dollars well spent, in my book.