I just returned from my first holiday since living in Laos (it feels a bit like taking a holiday from a holiday). I was keen on seeing new parts of the country so I chose the South of Laos. Together with my Australian friend Phil we flew from Luang Prabang to Pakse which is only 160 km away from the Cambodian border. We had a week together before Phil had to fly back home and I would continue further South for another 4 days. The first hurdle was already GETTING to Pakse as after Lao New Year (mid April) Laos goes into hibernation – also called low season. 2 days before our original flight date Lao Airlines called to tell me that they were cancelling the flight (because the 2 of us were the only people booked on that flight) so we had to wait anoher 2 days to get down there. Once we arrived in Pakse we had the afternoon to explore the city which was more than enough because – quite frankly speaking – the stories that I head about this town were more than true. I find Pakse boring, uncharming and a typical no-sights town which serves merely as a stopover beforeheading to the South. The next morning we rented scooters and began our journey to the Bolaven Plateau, THE coffee capital of Lao. With an altitude of 800-1.350 meters the Bolaven Plateau is green and cooler all year round and the highlights of this region are lush jungles, impressive waterfalls, hilltribes and high quality coffee. This area is really pretty, and one of the benefits of low season was that we had ALL the waterfalls all to ourselves. On the first day we visited 3 beautiful waterfalls, immersed in 2 of them and throughout the 60 km on the first day we were amazed at how happy and friendly the locals were. Every child, every person walking on the street or watching us from their garden or coffee plantation waved at us and yelled a loud and cheerful “Sabaideeeee!” On our second day on the plateau we started driving towards Attapeu on the “old” road, which is marked as “very bad old road” on all maps, and we were aware that this road was going to be bumpy and a dirt road, but after a 2 hour drive on red sand the road became more and more “old&bad” until we met a French young couple on the way who had just come from “the other side” and when we saw them we knew that we had to give up on the remaining 25 km: they were covered in mud and had tilted over with their bikes, telling us that half of their scooters had disappeared in big holes and mud. I wasn’t too keen on risking breaking my leg or arm so we went back all the way to take another road. But on the way back a huge thunderstorm caught up with us, and we were lucky to find a big gas station where we were able to find shelter from the rain and soon following hail. After an hour of shivering soaking wet under the roof the storm finally moved on and we did too – heading to Tad Lo via Ta Teng and Ban Beng. Tad Lo is one of the more touristy towns on the Plateau but that still means low key. With maybe 10 guesthouses in town this place is still very chilled, and the guesthouse we stayed at cooked wonderful food in the evening and everyone ate together on a long woode table. We hired a loval guide, an ex-monk who spoke English quite well and he brought us to 4 different minority villages and told us about their customs and traditions.Those villages are often from the main road and that means BAD acess roads, as soon as it rains (which it did when we drove around) the earthy paths become slippery as ice. One of the villages we visited was a Katu tribe. The Katu are like most other minorities animists and whilst walking through their village you often see coffins stored under their stilt houses. They are either made of big tree trunks or cement and they are made well in advance of an expected death and stored under their houses or rice sheds until needed. Once again heavy rain surprised us and we had to seek shelter at a school just outside the village. During our wait I was lucky to experience once again one of those wonderful unspectacular yet deeply moving moments: the grassy playground area infront of the school turned into a swimming pool within 15 minutes and one of the little school boys went absolutely crazy out there. He stripped his t-shirt off and started running around in knee-deep water, making summersaults backflips and many other adventerous figures in the brown, murky, muddy water until he got exhausted after a few minutes and just sat down in a big puddle, looking at us with big brown eyes. He had so much fun out there that I would have liked to join in in his going-crazy moment (and at the same time I wondered how many kids in our countries can play around so carefree and have such a blast on a rainy field). On our way back to Pakse we still had some excitement as we stopped at a traditional weaving village to buy some handwoven Katu textiles and as we were the only falangs on the way the number of women trying to sell their goods to us tenfolded by the time we fled the stilthouse as we would have probably had to buy the whole house plus its contents(those women are damn tough and good negotiators!). After another “hiding-from-the-rain-under-the-roof-of-a-shack” break we encountered another break, namely the break-down of Phil’s motorbike. And THAT was the moment where all my Lao knowledge was required as I had to drive to the next town and ask for some bike repair shop and then EXPLAIN that one of our bikes had broken down and I wanted the guy to come with me. In the end the repair shop guy wasn´t able to fix it but Phil got it started one last time so that we made it back to Pakse where we exchanged it for another bike and then continued our journey in the darkness for another 30 km down to Champassak. The main reason for a stopover in Champassak is its proximity to Wat Phou, an ancient 11th century Khmer temple. Unfortunately there is not much restoration work being done (as opposed to Angkor in Cambodia) so all you can enter is a little temple on the top of a hill. The temple itself didn’t blow me away (but I have to admit that after having seen Angkor Wat NOTHING compares, ever!) but the view from the top was a nice one (I still don’t understand how you can put up a blue tin roof over an ancient temple which is a 100% mismatch!). The next morning Phil headed back home and I made my way down south to Si Phan Don – meaning 4.000 islands. I have heard and read so much about this popular tourist destination, several hundreds or thousands of islands (ranging from big islands more than 8 km long to tiny tussocks sticking out of the water) emerging from the mighty Mekong river.
I don’t know if it is due to that fact that I see the wonderful Mekong every day in my hometown Luang Prabang or that my expectations were too high from all the stories I had heard from travellers but to make a long story short: I was quite disappointed. Most of all by the fact that you never get to see how wide the Mekong is and how many islands there are as the islands are blocking the view to the others and so I often had the feeling that I see the mainland right next to me. I guess with a helicopter flight this would have been an impressive sight but sitting on an island or on the boat just didn’t give me a great perspective. After visiting the biggest island, Don Khong, for 1 day I hopped with y motorbike on a tiny boat to Don Khone which was more charming, had a cute little main street with some interesting houses, a nice waterfall and also gave me the chance to see the highly endangered Irrawady Dolphins (yes, freshwater dolphins!) from a great distance. Reading a book and chilling out in a hammock is pretty much all you can do on the islands.
My last stop was Khone Phapheng, the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia (in terms of water coming through), just a few km before the Cambodian border. That day it was boiling hot (44+ degrees!) and the concrete roads emitted even more heat so when I arrived at the viewing platform of the waterfall I thought I was hallucinating as the only thing I saw there was people dressed in orange. Turned out that the monks and novices of a temple from Savannaketh had a “field day” and enjoyed the impressive views as well. Only 15 monks and novices and me. No foreigners, no falangs. That day the roles were switched and not I, the falang, asked the men in orange if i could have a picture taken with them but THEY sneaked up to me one by one, little old monks and some young novices and gestured that they would like to have a picture taken (as their Lao friend had explained to me they “never see white lady” where they live and would therefore like to have a photo with me). After this little photo session I enjoyed the last few minutes on a cliff closer up to the impressive waterfall and then left my southernmost visited point of Laos, accompanied by the waving of an old monk under a shady tree.