Daytripping the Laos fantastic

Trip Start Sep 29, 2010
Trip End Nov 30, 2011

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Where I stayed
Mekong Paradise Resort

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Champasak,
Friday, April 8, 2011

We had a very early start on Tuesday morning, leaving the hotel at 5.10am to make it to the airport for our 7am flight to Pakse in southern Laos. We were being very organised, making sure we left ourselves plenty of time to get to the airport for our flight, but we needn't have. The streets were deserted and we arrived to find the airport in a similar state.

As we approached Pakse the first thing that stood out, looking out of the plane window, was the very dry, brown landscape, and the bright red clay soil – very much a contrast to the green landscape in the north of Laos. Coming into land we experienced one of the slightly more scary moments on our trip thus far, when the plane seemed to land nose wheel first. We’ve had the occasional rough landing, but I think we were all grateful when the plane finally pulled up at the gate. Having collected our bags, we managed to negotiate a taxi fare to the hotel directly with a taxi driver, to avoid getting ripped off – 60,000 kip total, instead of the 50,000 kip per person that they wanted to charge us at the taxi dispatch counter.

Arriving into Pakse itself the impression was very much of a rural town, but one which seemed to be developing and growing fast. There appeared to be a significant amount of construction going on with new hotels, houses, and shopping centres being built – a provincial capital that’s growing up quick with both increased commerce, and an increased numbers of tourists beginning to travel to southern Laos.

We arrived at the hotel very early, around 9am, and well before normal check-in time. Despite this we were given keys and shown to our rooms. Trying to get the password for the wi-fi out of the non-English speaking receptionist proved harder than any of us could have imagined. All of the signs in the hotel reception were in perfect coherent English, but despite this the receptionist didn’t speak, and could barely understand, a word of English - very helpful!

It didn’t take long before we worked out that we were the only guests staying at the hotel, and that we had the whole resort to ourselves! We couldn’t understand why though – apart from the obvious communication issues. The rooms were very nice, spacious with large balconies that looked out directly over the Mekong River. Admittedly we were a long way from the centre of town – certainly not within walking distance – but this was a nice resort and there was no one there but us.

After resting for a while after our early start, we called for a tuk-tuk and headed into town to look around, grab a bite to eat, and book a couple of tours for the next two days. We stopped at Wat Luang, the largest temple in Pakse, where Kerry and Margaret proceeded to get into a deep and meaningful conversation with one of the resident monks, who was more than happy for the chance to practice his English with them. After a simple lunch, and booking our tours, we wandered along the less than majestic riverfront to orientate ourselves, and get a feeling for the town.

Wednesday we booked to go on a tour of the Bolaven Plateau, a highland area outside Pakse known particularly for its tea and coffee growing plantations.

I was in a reflective mood on Wednesday, and as we headed out of Pakse several things really stood out. It occurred to me that Vientiane very much seems to be the centre of wealth in the country, but judging by the construction of some of the houses, there also appeared to be some wealth situated in Pakse, one of the provincial capitals, too – and perhaps increasingly so. Secondly, there seemed to be a permanent thick haze in the air – much more so than we had seen in the north.

We began our day by stopping at a tea plantation for an explanation of how tea is produced, and to see it being grown and picked. Further on we made a brief stop to see coffee seedlings being grown for sale to plantation owners, and a few small roadside stands of coffee trees. I thought that we may get to visit a working coffee plantation but it turned out to be no more than a passing talking point for our guide as we moved onto our next stop, where we enjoyed a nice view out over Tad Fan waterfalls, the highest in southern Laos.

A short drive away we stopped at the picturesque Tad Yuang waterfalls, where we were told that we could go swimming. However, with another opportunity to go swimming after lunch, we decided against it - in any case, the water wasn’t that warm that we felt like diving in for a swim. Just a photo opportunity for us.

Leaving the waterfalls behind, and driving a further hour or so, we arrived at a desperately poor ethnic minority village, former hill tribes which have now been moved, or migrated, down to the roadside. We already knew that Pakse itself was off the main tourist route in Laos, but as we headed further away we were beginning to realise that we were venturing well off the beaten tourist path. We wandered around the village of Kok Phoung for maybe 20 mins getting an explanation of, and witnessing, their way of life, and the difficult living conditions which the ethnic minorities face. It certainly wasn’t the sort of visit that warmed your heart, or left you with a nice fuzzy feeling – it really laid out the stark reality of the immense poverty and the difficulties that go along with that. It particularly highlighted how lucky we are to come from a developed and educated society, where the basic necessities of life are both understood, and available to all.

Many of the former hill tribes have been encouraged by the regional and central governments to migrate from their former hillside homes, down to the roadside, in order to give them better access to transport and markets. Unfortunately this isn’t going to work for, or benefit, all of those who relocate to the roadsides. Consequently mile after mile of highway roadside north-east of Pakse is occupied by displaced former hill tribes, now trying to make a living and survive in a more modern (commercial) society. Unfortunately, it appears that they still have a long way to go, judging by much of what we saw.

After that slightly depressing stop, we headed to the Tat Lo waterfalls for our lunch. We enjoyed a nice meal overlooking the waterfalls, before having some free time to explore further along the river to a second waterfall upstream. We saw a few people swimming at the upstream waterfall, but downstream the water certainly didn’t look particularly clean or inviting.

As we headed back to Pakse we stopped at a weaving village that appeared to be some sort of community advancement project, where we also got to wander around amongst the villagers houses. While these families still faced the difficulties associated with poverty and hardship, they were seemingly far better off, and happier, than the villagers we saw before lunch. Having said all of this, it was very interesting to see the true rural Laos, away from the developed tourist circuit of the north.

Thursday we had organised to go to Wat Phou at Champasak, around an hour south of Pakse. Originally Kerry and I had thought about spending two nights in Champasak in order to go and see Wat Phou, but after driving through Champasak I was quite glad that we hadn’t – it really was the true embodiment of a one-street town if ever there was one. We were dropped at the entrance to the Wat Phou site, and left to wander at our own leisure, which was nice – no guides to keep up with, or tour groups to contend with.

With panoramic views over the Mekong River valley, Wat Phou is one of the most impressive archeological sites in Laos, and is only the second UNESCO World Heritage listed site in the country after Luang Prabang. Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, Wat Phou predates Angkor Wat by 200 years, and is considered to have some of the finest Khmer art in South East Asia. It is located at the foot of a holy mountain called Phou Kao, which was regarded as such because of its shape, identified in ancient times to represent the linga, the phallic symbol of Shiva. The crumbling hilltop remains of Wat Phou were rediscovered in 1866, and today the former Hindu temple contains a simple Buddhist sanctuary.

Overall I’ve been very impressed with Laos, from the temples of Luang Prabang and the amazing vistas around Vang Vieng, to the rural communities of southern Laos. It’s been a great country to travel and experience, and certainly more developed than I had originally thought or feared, particularly along the northern tourist circuit. It was also a real pleasure to be able to share it all with Michael and Margaret - it makes a real difference for both Kerry and I having others to share our travels with, and just makes it all that little bit more interesting too.

Finally, I need to say a very big thank you to Michael and Margaret for their generosity and hospitality while they were with us – it was certainly very much appreciated. We got to experience Laos in slightly more comfort and luxury than would otherwise have been the case, had we been doing it just by ourselves. We also had a great time just hanging out with them and chatting over a few Beerlao. What do you think, Michael… one more? Waiter, another big Beerlao, please!

I think that Michael and Margaret also now have a true appreciation of the effort we go to on a daily basis while we’re travelling. They’ve seen firsthand, and can attest, that it’s certainly not a giant holiday – there’s plenty of work and effort going in on an almost daily basis, to our blogging and planning in particular.

Our next stop is the temples of Angkor, at Siem Reap.

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