it's "same same but different"...
Written on May 8... actually, started on May 8 and finished on May 11...
(entry didn't save properly (to my great annoyance!!!) and I'm about to re-write/finish it)
We crossed into Laos on Many 4th, coming from the super high tech/high security Cambodia border into the "no less high tech and high security" Laos border.
We headed straight to the island of Don Det, which is part of a place called Si Phan Don (or 4000 islands) on the Mekong river. It's very pretty, and we had to get used to a new currency all over again (I now have, HK$, Thai Bahts, $US, Cambodian Riels and Laos Kips in my money belt!) (other side note: in order to not use the words "money belt", I wanted to call it MB and ALiya wanted to call it Franklin (because of the US$)...so we agreed on "ch-brak", which is the acronym for Canadian,HK(minus the K),Bahts,riels,american,kips - nerdy we know!! hehehe, but hey, I'm a proud nerd!!
Back to Laos:
The island itself was more of a sore sight than anything else. Don't get me wrong, it's actually very very pretty, sitting on the Mekong river, with the people still practicing fishing (as you can see below) and traditional farming. However, and unfortunately, tourism has forced it out of it's tranquil pace into a wirlwind of cheap food, accomodation, booze and drugs... On that note, I was shoked to hear a guy order a mushroon shake, and Aliya and I debated a bit on the kind of mushroom... Wow, how weird ot have that, or weed added to any of yoru meals (i.e. I'll have a fried rice with weed please...!!!! hehehe)
The island is divided into 2 main dirt paths, called Sunrise and Sunset blvd, lined with guest houses "huts". It reminded me of Haad Rin (on KoPaghan in Thailand) as there is not much there other than tourists who do nothing during the day and get hammered at night, and the locals who serve them. Furthermore, there's only electricity from 6 to 10pm (or so), which means "no fan" nights. In this heat, this means "sleeplessness and heaving sweating" (unfortunately not caused by any pleasurable experience), so we only stayed 1 night and promptly took off the following morning. I saw my first live cockroach that night, in our bathroom, approx 1 foot away from me. weeeewww! Seen them on the street and stuff and don't like them there, like them even less so close to me. Apparently, if you squish them, they lay their eggs, thus increasing the problem...ingenious move from mother nature, but still weeeewww!!
We then headed to the town of Pakse, where we encountered the fastest internet so far on this trip, allowing me to update my blog to...well, this entry would have been completed as well had the web site no F-up'ed. arrgghh!
In Paske, we realized we hadn't stayed anywhere for more than 1 night in the past 3 nights, so we decided to hang out a little (the fast internet was a strong strong incentive as well). On the second day, I got a massive bug (or food poisoning) and essentially vigorously emptied my body at both ends, thus keeping us in town for an extra day. Pakse is overall pretty unremarquable, except for the fact that it is approx 1 hour away from the Bolaven Plateau, known for it's nice waterfalls and many coffee and tea plantations. We decided to venture out (I didn't realize it was so far away at the time) and rented a motorbike. As we were driving away, Aliya, reading the Lonely Planet, advised of the distance, which made me cringe a little (it IS a long time on a motorbike, and she doesn't drive, so it's all me). We eventually made it to the main fall, which was quite nice, as you can see.
Rain season has started here, and it started raining as we decided to head on further onto the plateau. Once hail started, I vetoed a "turn around", so we headed back down to the town of Paske. Hail on a motorbike is not exactly a fun experience, and it hurts!!! (hehehe)
On the way back, from time to time, Aliya's helmet would hit mine, and each time I wondered why. Well, it turns out that, as I was weaving through cows, pigs, chickens and ducks, and later through fairly heavy motorbike and big trucks traffic, miss princess back there was taking a nap and her head would dip forward from time to time!!! I got back to the hostel sooo tired and was ready to take a nap when she admitted to the deed! hehehe!!
Anyway, we were now faced with a fork in the road of our journey through Laos:
Option 1: VIP bus (aka nice and comfy) directly to the capital of Vientiane
Option 2: Local bus to a town called Ban Na Hin (sort of midway up on the way to Vientiane), then somehow make our way to a 7km-long cave (approx 2 hours out of Ban Na Hin) called Kon Lot.
Since we were looking for a bit of adventure, we chose option 2.
We headed on our local bus (sat on the very first 2 seats, for fun and for the view) at 7am. No other falangs around, no one speaking english or french (except for a Vietnamese guy, very little english).
Side note: In Thailand, we are called Farangs, Cambodia: Barangs, Laos: Falangs - close, here we'd say "same same but different". I know it's not a very nice thing when the Thais say it, I haven't really heard it from the Cambodians, but the Laos people call us that openly and everywhere, so I think it's not as derogatory (after all, in all three languages, it's simply the word for "foreigner")
Back to the bus; It must not have gone faster than 10km/hour for the first hour or so, and stopped throughout the trip almost every 500 meters to either pick up/drop off someone, stop for food (vendor ladies walking around with their meat on a stick - I have pics to load up, but the internet here is painfully slow, so another time), pee stop (on the side of the road, rarely at proper toilets), many cigarette stops and so on. hehehe, it was fun but long (we got to the fork of the road where we were to be let off at 6:30pm)
We promptly found a pick-up taxi they use everywhere here, and found out that it was leaving at 7pm for Ban Na Hin. Very well. At 6:55, a massive "open top" truck, partially filled with rice bags pulled up. We were informed that this was the transportation method to Ban Na Hin, not the regular pick-up. It took a few seconds, until locals actually started climbing up at the back, to confirm/realize that it was really true, not a joke (didn't help that the guy telling us was laughing!).
We were offered a spot in the cabin, but opted for the outside, sitting on rice bags (might as well take it like locals!) for the 1 hour ride. Overall, it was actually quite enjoyable (surprisingly)!!! and rice bags are hard but comfy (I'm sure I've slept on harder beds many times!).
It became a bit scary when one of the bridges was broken, so our truck had to venture on a dirt road, in the forest, to drive through the river (still very low since rainy season just started) but we eventually arrived at the only guesthouse in town (where no english or french is spoken at all!!) and got a quite decent room.
We got up and followed Lonely Planet's advise to catch a taxi thingy (pick-up) to a next town (and an diff one to a next town, and so on, for a total of 3 towns), on our journey to the Konglor (local spelling, LP called it Kong Lot) cave. We met with an American guy on the same pick up and ended-up spending the day with him. The ride was made much easier as the pick-up drove all the way to the last town, where we were told there would be no pick-up going back later in the day and we had to do a home-stay. I had really wanted to do a home-stay, but, stupid me, whenever someone tells me something is a way and cannot be different, I have a tendency to want to do different. We could have gone back for a hefty price, so we decided ot accept, kinda, the home-stay offer (also for a fairly hefty price of $5ea).
We eventually head off to the cave on a boat. The trip was very very pretty, the cave lasting for very long (I doubt the 7km estimate, but maybe, several Kms for sure), with stalagmites and stalagtites. It was quite eery to be in such a dark and remote space (our 2 non-english speaking guides had powerful flashlites and we had our small shitty ones). A shalow river was flowing through the cave, and we often had to get off the boat and walk in the water as there was rapids or the water was simply too shallow. We ended-up at the other end of the cave, to another tiny town. Apparently, the locals found out there was "another end" when one farmer lost his duck, and it was found at the other town. They then tested with a log and so on until they were comfortable with it. It's now one of the main links between these two towns (separated on land by a mountain!) and is well marked. Our guides knew it like the back to their hands, turning the motor of the boat off a few seconds before the bottom of the boat touched the rocks, and knowing where to turn and what angle to take the boat at. It was reassuring to see that! The ceiling of the cave was generally approx 2-3 storeys high, but sometimes up to 6-7. We took pics, but only a few ones are good. I love my camera and am so thankful to have it, but it has it's limitations, and a cave definitely is too much for it! hehehe
We took a break, then head off again through the cave back to our original town. Upon arrival (4 hours later), we found a pick-up with a different driver in it. Upon much gesturing and trying to figure out, we confirmed that he was going back to Ban Na Hin within a few minutes. We then hopped on it and left.
It is now one of my main "missed opportunities" of this trip so far.... I regretted leaving the instant we did, and blame my stubbornness ("you say I can't, let me show you I can" attitude)...To be honest, we really didn't have the money for this (we arrived in Vientiane with less than 50,000kip each) and would have been in a bit of a pickle (the american guy said he would have lent us a bit of money until we got here, but still...) and Aliya wasn't too keen on the idea in the first place, but it sure would have been an experience.
I think my main problem with not staying, other than being potentially mis-interpreted/rude by the locals, is that I always thought that I wanted to do this trip as "real' as possible. However, when the opportunity was forced upon me, I reluctantly agreed and took my chance to get out of it... I have to re-evaluate my assessment of "how real I really want this trip", I guess.... I'll go for medium I guess... (how canadian of me! hehehe)
Anyway, what's done is done, and I was glad to sleep in one of the most comfy bed (rock hard, but the blanket was soooo nice!!) I've slept in so far. No shower though, as there was simply no water pressure. I'm on my 3rd day without and look forward to a shower this evening!!!
This morning at breakfast we met with a hig-up of the dam that is built (they're working on a second) near that town. He started talking with us, and spoke good french and english (and russian and thai and diff dialects of laos!) and gave us a bit of info aboutthe place and history, but more interestingly, about their gov.
(Bit of info from LP:Laos is a Democratic Republic.Eventhough the word communist doesn't exist in any of their logal/official/constitutional paperwork, it is said that no non-communist person will ever be a member of the ruling party...)
I asked about the reaction of the locals when they started to build and stuff, and said that in Canada it always raised a lot of protest and stuff. He smiled a little and said: "When the government wants to go something, it does it". He added that the locals were simple and looking for peace and not violence or conflict... hmmmm...ok! He of course pointed our benefits of the dam (i.e. electricity to the houses of the area, better roads, etc) Overall, he was quite interesting to speak with (fyi, most of the electricity is sold to Thailand!).
We hopped on the first bus that drove by this morning, only to find out that it was a Vietnamese bus on the way to Vientiane. No problem with that, and actually better, as we didn't stop every 500m like the local Loas bus does! As a result, the ride took 3 hours instead of probably 4-5. Same conditions though; no air-con, windows opened (aka wuper windy and dusty), loud "bad" local (in this case Vietnamese) music playing on the PA system and a TV....ahhh good times. Unfortunately, my stomach started bothering me again during the trip and I ended-up fighting massive cramps for the whole journey. Normally, Aliya and I end-up each in our "happy place' on these trips, where we just daydream and think about whatever. Unfortunately, today, my happy place invariably included a toilet and made my pain worst ! hehehe To make matters even worst, we never stopped at a proper place, but instead drive approx 1km past a "real toilet" to stop on the side of the road and people to go in the bush. I held it in with great pain, but was just not ready for this yet (back to my "how real do I want it"!! - but event he local Laos but did "proper stops" - and this was Vietnamese- same same but different!)
So anyway, we made it to Vientiane, and are leaving tomorrow for Vang Vieng, a town where we can apparently tube down a river while stopping at bars and drinking up... yippeee! tourist attraction anyone??
We'll be back in Vientiane on Monday as Aliya needs to get a visa for Thailand... so more on here at this time.