Saturday, November 29, 2014

4,000 Islands: Rest and Relaxation on the Mekong

After successfully completing our motorbike tour of the Bolaven Plateau, we made our way south alongside the Mekong until we reached Si Phan Don, more commonly referred to as the 4,000 Islands.  Near the border with Cambodia, the Mekong widens, making room for 4,000 islands of varying shapes and sizes, at least during the dry season.  We were headed for Don Khone, one of two popular islands (the other is Don Det) linked by a bridge.  (In case it hasn’t yet become obvious, “don” means island in Lao.)

Of course, first we had to get to Don Khone from the mainland.  We bought an all-inclusive minibus + ferry ticket from Pakse to Don Khone and then onwards to Kratie in Cambodia – a total of 4 bus tickets (2 per person) and 4 boat tickets (also 2 per person).  Imagine our surprise when we were handed a simple yellow paper with a hand-written date and a “note” that detailed “To Don Khone, then overnight, then Kratie.”  More details on the crazy adventure that is buying tickets and traveling by bus in Laos and Cambodia in our next post.

Our minibus dropped us off near the riverbank and we followed our driver down to the ferry landing.  At that point, everyone started yelling at us to buy a ticket or they wouldn’t take us to Don Khone.  Having already paid for the previously-mentioned all-inclusive ticket, we adamantly refused to make a second payment of $3.  As we were being yelled at in Lao, Gio emphatically pointed to the magical yellow paper, shouting back “included in the ticket from Ms. Noy!”  We repeated this exercise three or four more times.  Somehow, we eventually were allowed to board an already very-full ferry.

Having missed the direct ferry to Don Khone during our ticket discussion, we boarded a ferry that stopped first at neighboring Don Det.  The majority of visitors to the islands stay on Don Det, which has more guesthouses and a reputation among the many backpackers travelling through Southeast Asia.  Since we are no longer 20-year old backpackers and/or dirty hippies (seriously, they are very prevalent here, and very dirty), we opted to stay on the slightly quieter Don Khone.  We had read that many ferry drivers simply drop everyone off at Don Det, leading to a long walk with heavy backpacks to Don Khone, so we were prepared for a second discussion as to our drop off location, but we were needlessly worried on that front.

With the boat to ourselves, we puttered around Don Det and into the channel separating the two islands, where the driver deposited us on a muddy beach.  We headed down the dirt path, presumably in the direction of our hotel.  Walking with our backpacks in the heat, even for a short distance, we were thankful that we weren’t traditional backpackers who show up at a destination to wander from guesthouse to guesthouse to find a place to spend the night.  Apparently, the term for what we are doing is "flashpacking” (similar to “glamping”).  Who knew that wanting to know you wouldn’t have to sleep on the street (and having an en suite bathroom) was so flashy and glamorous?  Our destination was only a short walk away from the beach and we were happy to check into our home for the next three nights: a floating bungalow on the Mekong!

The island of Don Khone is not exactly a bustling metropolis and we passed a lazy three days along the banks of the river.  For one thing, there were gorgeous sunsets to view from our balcony (accompanied, of course, by the requisite sundowners).

We also made various forays via bicycle into the surrounding countryside.  We peddled through rice paddies, down to the “beach,” to the edge of a series of waterfalls (more like rapids), and across the old French railway bridge.  Despite several close encounters with cows, ducks, and motorbikes, Steph miraculously never crashed.  However, she did almost get trapped in the mud once.

Having survived our biking adventures, it turns out that we should have focused more closely on the dangers associated with spending the night in a Lao floating house.

One evening, we listened to a torrential downpour outside, wondering all the while how tightly the house was bound to shore and whether we would start to float down the Mekong or if we should be worried about flooding.  Furthermore, floating, wooden houses happen to be surprisingly flammable.  We woke up one morning to a funny smell and a somewhat smoky room – was it the exhaust from the boats puttering up and down the river with ancient engines?  No, it turns out that the wooden walkway to our house had mysteriously gone up in flames.  As Giorgio ran for some water, a hotel employee arrived just in time with a fire extinguisher.  In case you were wondering, nobody ever bothered to explain what actually happened or try to reassure us we would not be incinerated sometime during the subsequent two nights.  Just another morning in Don Khone.

For our final expedition around the islands, we headed to the southernmost point, which promised views of the local pod of rare Irrawaddy dolphins.  We hired a boat driver to take us out onto the river for a close-up sighting.  After a lengthy, although scenic, wait, we finally spotted a few of the marine mammals in the distance.  We asked our driver if we could get any closer, but were informed that the dolphins were currently in Cambodia.  Did we want to go to Cambodia?  If so, we just needed to pay a “fine” to the Cambodian police.  Rather than go through the lengthy and probably confusing process of bribing the Cambodian authorities, we opted to continue watching the dolphins from afar.  Sadly, this means there is only very poor photographic evidence of our animal sightings.  Try to spot the dolphin in the second picture!

PSA:  Irrawaddy dolphins are highly endangered!  There are only about 10 dolphins in the pod that we saw and less than 100 individuals in the Mekong.  Although they aren’t being poached by the Chinese like the rhinos in South Africa, they are endangered by local fishing methods, as detailed in this sign we found:

Yes, current fishing methods include dynamite and electrifying the water.  Plus, there is apparently a big dam being built slightly upriver which is likely to cause the death of all remaining local dolphins (as well as severely affecting the livelihoods of the local fishermen).  We’ve determined the electricity is probably going to be exported to China.

After our lazy days on the Mekong, more adventures were waiting – an overland journey back to Cambodia!  Stay tuned for more details.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Southern Laos Motorcycle Diaries: Scoot Scoot!

As we continue hopping from one country to the next, Laos was next on the itinerary.  On Tuesday, we headed from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Pakse, Laos.  Although the towns looked quite close on the map, overland travel between the two would have taken all day, so we opted to fly.  We weren’t sure what to expect from Lao Airlines and were pleasantly surprised by the on time takeoff, early arrival, and delicious snacks (including free beer!).  The latter was particularly impressive given the 40-minute flying time.

We discovered that Lao customs is not quite as efficient as the national airline, as we queued in three separate lines for our visas, visa payments, and passport stamps.  No one thought to give us the forms in advance like they did in Cambodia.  We rushed to fill out the paperwork, but were tripped up by some of the questions.  For example, why did they need to know our race?  (Similarly, the forms for Myanmar had asked about our complexions.)  Any guess as to how Giorgio filled out this section? 

Lao visas are some of the most expensive yet, at $35 for Americans.  Stephanie suggested that Giorgio use his Peruvian passport to save $5 (and get some stamps on the blank pages), but he wisely determined that it is always better to enter a country as a national of a country that actually has an embassy there in case anything should go wrong.  Plus he more than made up the $5 when the customs agent gave him incorrect change for our visas.  After all, American dollars are all the same color and size.  Although the visas were glued into our passports, we still needed to get them stamped, which turned out to be more complicated than usual when Stephanie’s passport wouldn’t scan.  Hopefully that’s due to their faulty machines rather than the actual passport as we don’t want to repeat the lengthy wait at other borders.

As we waited, we wondered how the three customs agents in front of us could all be from the same small country:  one had used so much bleaching cream that he was ghostly pale, another looked Chinese, and the third looked like Giorgio (what would he write on a Myanmar visa application?).  Eventually, passports and visas in hand, we were ready for Laos!  As Giorgio scanned the flags adorning the airport, he paused and asked, “Wait, is Laos Communist?”  Yes, Laos is Communist and there are hammer and sickle flags all over the place.

Arriving at our hotel in Pakse, we set out to explore the sleepy town and figure out our motorbike rental for the next four days.  Before we could make any major decisions, lunch was required (at least in Steph's opinion).  We wandered along the banks of the Mekong until we found a restaurant where locals were eating.  Instead of bringing us a menu, the waiter led us to the front of the restaurant.  Which of the items on display did we want?  Fish, chicken, or pork?  Since many of the chickens’ comrades were clucking their way around the restaurant, we opted for fish and settled in with a Beerlao to watch the river drift by and wait for our lunch.

First, a waiter brought a plastic container of herbs and lettuce.  Then bowls of water, peanut sauce, and noodles.  Eventually, our fish appeared and the question was, how are we supposed to eat this? In particular, what were we meant to do with the container of lettuce?  We never really figured out the answer to the last question, but after observing some of the locals, we determined that the noodles were to be eaten by hand and everything could be dipped in the delicious peanut sauce.  All in all, it was a good way to start our visit to Laos – plus it all only cost 50,000 Kip – about $6.20.

No longer concerned about the source of our next meal, we then needed to sort out our plans for the next few days.  We had read that the region surrounding Pakse was ideal to explore via motorbike.  However, we had few details as to how this was actually meant to be done, other than the vague instructions found in various guidebooks: show up in Pakse, rent a motorbike, proceed to see gorgeous waterfalls.  As many of you can probably guess, the lack of more specific plans had been worrying Stephanie, who has most of our itinerary set to the day.  Giorgio originally felt this is how the entire trip should have been organized.  However, the stress of not knowing what was next or where to go eventually caught up to him; he has decided he prefers to just show up where Steph tells him.  Regardless, it turns out there was no reason to be worried – motorbikes were available to rent on every corner and we even found one establishment with a Belgian expat offering not only bikes, but also detailed maps and explanations of possible itineraries.  (If anyone is planning a similar trip, we highly recommend stopping at Miss Noy’s for your bike and accompanying map.)

Bike rental arranged and map in hand, we were ready to tackle our first-ever motorbike loop!

Day 1: Scooting and Temples

Wednesday morning, we picked up our motorbike, which we affectionately named Sasha, leaving Giorgio’s passport as a deposit.  Although Stephanie had suggested he leave one of his non-American passports just in case we wanted to abscond with the bike, he decided at the last minute to leave his most valuable document instead.  (Don’t worry, we got it back when we returned the bike so Giorgio can still go back to the US for Christmas.)  While we waited, we discovered that Giorgio looks Lao in addition to being Cambodian and Hawaiian.  As we waited for our rental, a French girl tried to rent a motorbike from him and was quite disappointed to learn that he was out of stock. 

After Giorgio had made a solo trip around the block to learn how to drive a semi-automatic motorcycle, we were speeding over the Mekong and south to Champasak on our very own Honda Wave!  Although Steph had a brief panic attack that we had taken a wrong turn (unlikely given that there really aren’t that many roads in Laos), our drive south was uneventful.  Stephanie eventually relaxed her death grip on Giorgio, the continuous presence of the Mekong on our left and jungle-clad hills on our right was incredibly scenic, and we were not run over by any of the Lao trucks sharing the road with us.

Arriving in Champasak, we celebrated our successful trip with another lunch along the banks of the Mekong, accompanied by another Beerlao and the sound of what we have decided was the state propaganda radio blaring in the background.  Did we mention Laos is communist?  Gio is baffled. 

Having escaped the midday heat, it was time to explore the nearby Vat Phou, an Angkor-era Khmer temple – the main reason for our stop in Champasak.  This temple provided the full experience of exploring remote ruins in the jungle away from the crowds, at least until a horde of iPad-toting Buddhist monks arrived.  Our guide in Cambodia had warned us that monks no longer adhere to many strict rules such as stripping themselves of material processions.  (But many still are not allowed to be touched by or even talk to women.) 

Although the temple has not been restored like many of those we saw in Cambodia, clambering over the fallen stones and imagining the grandeur of the original structure was a unique experience in its own right.  We entered the temple complex via a long path bordering the barays, or reservoirs, at the entry and ascended a series of steep staircases to the main buildings and sacred spring.  During our explorations, we also encountered a Buddha footprint and an elaborate elephant carving.  We’re now wondering if Buddha footprints are as ubiquitous in Asia as slivers of the cross in Europe.  We couldn’t find the holy crocodile that the signs had also promised, but later found out that what we had originally thought was a gecko was really the famed crocodile.

Day 2: Scooting and Waterfalls

On Thursday, we planned to scoot back north and start exploring the Bolaven Plateau.  Not wanting to repeat the prior day’s route, we opted to take a ferry across the Mekong to a different northbound highway.  The ferries in Madagascar had prepared us well, so we weren’t surprised when the “boat” turned out to be two canoes with a few wooden slats connecting them.  The one-armed driver decided that Giorgio certainly couldn’t deal with the motor-scooter on his own, providing assistance to properly board the vessel and situate the bike.

Aboard Sasha, driving north was as uneventful as our southbound route the previous day, except for the few times a truck determined the highway had three lanes rather than two or a chicken (or pig) decided to cross the road (why, we do not know).   We turned east to begin our ascent to the Bolaven Plateau, which reaches 1,500 meters.  The traffic and construction from Pakse started to diminish and soon we were driving along a highway lined with coffee fields and jungle.  The higher altitude of the plateau is perfect for growing coffee, with the added bonus that it isn’t nearly as hot as our prior Southeast Asian destinations.

It turns out that Laos is somewhat similar to Iceland – there are waterfalls everywhere!  Our route on Thursday included stops at four different waterfalls, or tads in Lao.  They aren’t difficult to find, either, as the turnoffs to most falls are marked with large pictures of waterfalls.   Over the course of the day, we saw Tad Itou, Tad Fan, Tad Champi, and Tad Yuang, each beautiful in its own right.  However, our mutual favorite was definitely Tad Champi (photos 3 and 4 below), where we battled the currents to swim directly under the falls.

To complete our day, we made one final stop for local fair-trade coffee at Jhai Coffeehouse.  If you find their coffee anywhere in the US, definitely buy some as it’s a great cause!  (And it’s quite tasty.)

Re-caffeinated, Giorgio and Sasha expertly navigated the final 30 kilometers of our journey with sunset upon us, trying not to swallow any of the mosquitoes intent on torpedoing into his face.  Although we were once again briefly concerned that we had made a wrong turn, we finally spotted the sign for our hotel and its beautiful gardens, which were swiftly obscured as darkness fell.

Day 3: Scooting, Cliffs, and Elephants

In the morning, we awoke to the sounds of the river rushing by our chalet.  Before embarking on the day's drive, we explored our surroundings, discovering that the setting we had only briefly glimpsed in the dusk the night before was a picturesque coffee plantation and botanical garden.

On the road again, we dodged one or two more buses, plus several cows and piglets.  We also spotted a few highly amusing signs, although we never encountered the promised “shap curve” constantly advertised.  Hopefully, you appreciate the accompanying photo as much as Gio, who pulled a slow motion U-turn to capture the sign’s unintended wittiness and promptly tipped the bike over.  For a day or so, Steph was concerned that the fall had caused a Terence-style broken wrist, but it turns out she just banged her hand more forcefully than necessary on the asphalt.

A short scoot later, we arrived in Tad Lo, which is both the name of a waterfall and its neighboring town.  Briefly stopping to take in the falls and drop our belongings at the guesthouse that overlooked them, we were quickly back on the road to find another waterfall, Tad Soung, in the surrounding hills.  Although our hand-drawn map clearly stated that the falls were a 10 km drive from Tad Lo, we encountered a sign to the base of the falls only a few kilometers later.  As various children ran after us, encouraging us to park the bike with them, we began to wonder if we were in the right spot.  Seeing another sign pointing toward Tad Soung, we decided we must be in the correct location, plus Giorgio successfully brought the parking price down from 10,000 to 5,000 kips (about 60 cents).

A local child acting as a guide was apparently included in our parking fee, and we followed our young leader across the village fields, through the jungle, and over several borders.  Practically every guidebook we read about Laos had warned us against wandering on unmarked paths due to the risk of lingering landmines in the area.  We kept thinking, “this is how we die.”  Despite our concerns, our guide safely deposited us next to a boulder in the shade as we wondered where the promised falls were.  Giorgio went on a lengthy scouting mission (all the boulders looked the same, so he couldn’t find his way back) and determined that the children had brought us to the base of the falls.  Not eager to scale the 50-meter cliff to the top in the heat or get sunburnt among the boulders like the French tourists we encountered, we determined that there must be a way to drive to the summit.

After trouping back over the boulders and through the jungle and fields, we were happy to find that the children had not absconded with our only means of transportation.  At that point, Stephanie suggested that perhaps we should have lunch before embarking on another trip of indeterminate length.  Finding that the lone place in town had only one dish on offer (noodle soup), we backtracked to Tad Lo to stop at an establishment that had caught our eye on the way through: Eat the Rich Restaurant.  We aren’t sure if this is an establishment closely hewing to the ideals of Communism or if there was simply a translation error expressing some idea about rich food.  Regardless, like many Lao establishments, this restaurant proudly displayed the Soviet flag.  (Have we mentioned Laos is communist?  Seriously, Gio is extremely baffled).  Here too they only had noodle soup, which turned out to be not only rich, but delicious – the experience was further enhanced by the Lao telenovelas on the TV over our table.

Fortified by the noodle soup, we retraced our prior route, ignoring the children eagerly gesturing for us to park in their village and narrowly avoiding a family of goats fiercely guarding a one-lane bridge.  About 10 kilometers later (we should have paid closer attention to our map), we were at the top of the falls.  A new hydroelectric dam has significantly reduced the water flow over the top, but peering over the sheer cliff provided its own thrills.  Plus there was less-dangerous version of Devil’s Pool to relax in.  However, we were warned that "at or around 4:00 PM" they open the dam and anyone at the top of the falls may suffer a mild case of death.  We made sure to leave well before 4 pm.

We returned to our accommodation on the edge of Tad Lo just in time.  The lodge owns a couple elephants used for tourist rides.  We were initially taken aback by the heavy saddles encumbering the animals and the loops of chains around their necks.  However, Giorgio decided the chains were the elephant equivalent of a dog leash, and was comforted by the fact they were not used during rides when the elephants willingly follow their mahouts, or trainers, instead.  (Stephanie continues to be less convinced.)  Just as we returned to Tad Lo, we witnessed the two elephants head into the river for their bath, ridden by their mahouts (without any saddles).  Even though they were not wild like the elephants in Chobe or Etosha, we wondered how much you can really domesticate an elephant and decided to be impressed.

Day 4: Scooting, Coffee, and Asian Hands

The itinerary for our final day of scooting was simple: drive the 80 or so kilometers back to Pakse, stopping on the way for freshly roasted organic coffee and the glimpse of one more waterfall.  It took us some work to find the coffee stop, but after another U-turn (without tipping over), we were treated to a delicious brew accompanied by freshly roasted peanuts and freshly picked bananas.

Recaffeinated, we scooted an additional 30 km to the last waterfall on our loop.  Many guidebooks had warned us this stop was particularly popular with Thai tour buses and they were not kidding.  As we stopped for lunch, we witnessed various individual photo shoots full of awkward poses in front of the waterfall, as well as groups gathering to pose for pictures with no scarcity of Asian hands.  We were thankful for Sasha, making a quick escape after taking in the view.

After traveling 397 kilometers over four days (rather than 8,000 kilometers over nine months like Che), we arrived unscathed (and still believing in capitalism) back in Pakse on Saturday afternoon, thus concluding Steph and Gio's motorcycle diaries.  Now intimately familiar with the small town, we had a relaxing evening, returning to the same hotel like old friends and dining at our favorite restaurant, home to what we have determined are the best spicy noodles.

We are posting this from Don Khone, a sleepy island in the middle of the Mekong, where we are relaxing for a few days before braving the border crossing and a lengthy bus trip back to Cambodia.