Saturday, 26 November 2011

Pakse to Ba Na Hin.... A journey from hell, Laos - 1 May 2011

It's four in the morning and Tom, Nicky and I are sitting on a stone table outside a closed shop, tired and irritated by the swarm of mosquitos flying around us waiting for their chance to sink their malaria and dengue fever ridden suckers into our skin to feed on our blood. I was forced to change into my long trousers and a shirt as they began bite. It wasn't supposed to have turned out like this. We should have been comfortable in bed now following a couple of ice cold beers not wondering around the small lifeless town of Ba Na Hin in an effort to find somewhere to sleep for the night.

I thought back to the previous morning in Pakse. We hadn't bought our tickets as the elderly guesthouse owner told us that a bus leaves every hour and not to worry. Our next destination is the Seven Kilometre Konglor cave in Tham Kong Lo however, there is not a direct bus there. The night before last, the owner had sprawled a map out and with his index figure indicated our required route. He informed us that we will need to get on a bus bound for Vientianne and ask to get off at Ba Na Hin where we could catch a connecting bus to Tham Kon Lo. Sounds easy!

We arrived at the bus station just as a bus for Vientianne was about to leave. Our tuk-tuk driver leapt off his seat, grabbed our bags and ushered us towards the ticket counter where he helped us buy bus tickets. Before we knew it, our bags were being hoisted onto the roof of the bus and secured down underneath some tarpaulin with some rope and we were pushed aboard the bus. How's that for Laos efficiency I thought to myself.

Time to wait...
The bus was predictably full and the aisle was nearly full with passengers. My first thought was a memory of that extremely uncomfortable journey between Siem Reap and Banlung the previous week. As soon as they saw us inside the bus, the Lao passengers looked at us and smiled whilst excitedly remarking on the foreigners to the person sitting next to them. Unlike the bus journey in Cambodia, I felt hugely welcomed and smiled back whilst looking for a place to sit in the aisle. As we prepared to perch on some boxes, three people stood up and ordered us to sit down in their seats. I felt truly humbled by their hospitality. The day was going extremely smoothly and as the bus crawled out of the bus station I said to myself "I love Laos".

That's not a good sign....
The lush green hills and the Mekong river that act as a natural border between Laos and Thailand rolled past the window. The sun was beating down rather heavily as the small windows let just enough air in to cool the bus down. We had been travelling for an hour or without hitch until suddenly… BANG, CLATTER-CLATTER-CLATTER… The bus slowed to a stop on the side of the road. People looked around questioning their friends as to what had happened and slowly people stood up and got off the bus.

Out from the back of the bus was a streak of oil stretching back in a straight line for a couple hundred metres. The driver and his assistant crawled underneath the back of the bus. The dangling driveshaft had ripped itself free from a universal joint which lays in pieces on the ground. Quite a serious mechanical failure. Never the less, the driver was under there tinkering away in an effort to fix it. I don't know why he didn't just give up and join his passengers who were all sitting on the verge as it was pretty obvious that it was unrepairable.

The sun was particularly hot as we sat there on the verge whilst the driver and his right hand man tinkered beneath the bus. We had made friends with a Japanese business man who was on a short break from his dealings in Vietnam. After an hour, our throats became too dry and in desperate need of an ice cool refreshing drink so we walked up the road towards a shack that looked as though it was selling drinks. It was indeed a drink selling shack with a wonderful family running it. The family sat around a table eating their lunch. I felt as though we were intruding, however, as soon as we walked in their eyes widened and big smiles spread across their faces. They couldn't speak English and didn’t need to as they jumped up to greet us, shake our hands and began to laugh and joke with us. It's highly likely that they don't see many foreigners cross their path in such a remote location. Unfortunately the drinks weren't exactly ice cold but what more could you expect from a roadside shack in the middle of nowhere. We said our goodbyes to the family and thanked them for the drinks and made our way back swiftly to the bus where the driver and his assistant had finally pulled themselves from underneath the bus.

Transferring goods
Two hours had nearly passed by when another bus arrived and pulled up in front of ours. The bus driver climbed out and had some hushed words with ours whilst inspecting the damaged engine. Suddenly, the men climbed upon the roof and began taking bags down and transferring them onto the other bus. Suddenly the other bus sprung into life and we thought it was driving off with our bags on the roof but instead of moving forward it reversed back and pulled up very closely besides our stranded bus where there was one motorcycle left on the roof. Four men hopped aboard the roofs of the busses and began moving the bike carefully across the gap onto the roof of the new bus. A sight which was interesting indeed.

A squeeze, but look at all those smiles!
We looked inside the working bus and were greeted by an overloaded bus full of passengers smiles. To this day, I have absolutely no idea how we did it but we managed to squeeze two bus loads of people on board one bus. If this happened in Cambodia or Vietnam, I would have been angry but because the Laos people are so friendly and genuine, I really didn't care and enjoyed the bilingual banter between our fellow passengers. As we stood in the middle of the isle whilst things were being sorted out, a lady pinched our bums and laughed. We were again presented with Laos' excellent hospitality when two men gave their seats up for us, although it was a tight squeeze, two seats for three people! The bus sprung into life and we were off again. I do look back and wonder what happened to the stranded bus and its driver and assistant. Are they still there? Did they miraculously fix the bus somehow?

We travelled for what must have been an hour until we pulled into the compound of a small warehouse where we were all asked to get off. What happened next was beyond belief, they proceeded to load the bus with eighty big sacks of rice. Two sacks to each footwell and hell knows how many in the aisle. I couldn't believe how much one bus could hold. After waiting for nearly another hour in the scorching sun unable to sit down as there were far too many ants and flies around, we were finally allowed to crawl back on the bus and over the sacks of rice to find our seats again. Even though we had been on the road for nearly 5 hours, we hadn't made much progress whatsoever.

Getting bored now....
The hours passed by and it was now late afternoon and we had just pulled into the bus station in Savanakhet, only half way to Ba Na Hin. Here we stopped for a further hour, where most people on the bus got off. Gave us some time to have an ice cream and stock up on some more drink an defeat the urge to abandon ship and get the next bus into Thailand which was leaving in just a few minutes. Despite the temptation, we climbed back on the bus, over the sacks of rice towards the back of the bus and prepared for the second half of the journey.

Shortly after departing the bus station the bus turned into a small side street and the driver asked us to get off, which we diligently did and proceeded to stand on the gravel track whilst the bus drove inside a compound with heavy gates and high walls. To us in certainly looked like a drug deal going down as more bags were hoisted on top of the bus. After 30 minutes, we were off again and the sun had dipped below the horizon spreading darkness and lights began flickering on the cars and buses.

The bus journey didn't seem to be ending, hours passed by and we stopped several times, once at this big bus station for another hour whilst we waited for somebody or something. I went to a food stall and began laughing with the girl as I began to haggle with her for some grapes. Despite the journey's length, I still love Laos and its people. We were beginning to consider our options at this bus stop as it was now heading into early morning and we still had a couple of hours to go until we reached Ba Na Hin and knowing that it was a very small town sitting on a junction of two main roads and finding somewhere to sleep would be difficult at the vest of times let alone in the middle of the night. Should we continue on our way or cut our loses and sleep in the questionable motel in this station and get another bus in the morning? Needless to say our procrastination was without results and we were again on our way again.

After a few more hours on the road, some strange conversations with the Laos lady in front of me and keeping an eye out for spiders that periodically crawled quickly over our feet, the bus stopped and the driver's assistant approached us and told us to get off. It was just after 4am and we had finally made it to Ba Na Hin. As soon as we stepped off the bus our bags were there in front of us and the bus drove off into the distance onwards to it's final destination of Vientianne.

Ba Na Hin was at this moment in time the epitome of a ghost town at this time of night, no life apart from the odd motorcycle passing by. Nicky ran off to scout the area and to see if he could find a guesthouse. He did but the man, who we took as security, told us no room. We found the only other guesthouse in the town back on the main road but no one was around to get a room. We sat there for a while in the dark with mosquitos feasting off us and tried again. Success. We finally rouse a lady who was able to give us one room for the remainder of the night. One double room for the rest of the night. Nicky said he didn't mind sleeping on the floor in my sleeping bag whilst Tom and I shared the bed. This changed when we saw insects crawling over the floors which ultimately forced all three of us in one double bed. Thank god there was a shower and wonderful air conditioning unit to refresh us and keep us cool...

Friday, 11 November 2011

Royal Wedding and Ruins, Pakse, Laos - 29 April - 1 May 2011

Goodbye to our riverside apartments
“Can we pay please?” We asked for the third time. Having to ask to pay the bill has become a strange concept for me as in Cambodia and Vietnam, they can't wait to take the money from your hands. In Laos, however, it seems that you have to ask several times and plead with them to take your money off you. We were just having a bite to eat before getting back on the boat to the mainland to board our bus to Pakse and we had five minutes to pay up, grab our bags and head to the beach.

Tom's new friend!
Back on the bus again, our first major bus journey in Laos was an utter pleasure. Bags were passed up to the driver on the roof and covered with tarpaulin and each person was allocated with their very own seat. Tom, Nicky and I were on the back seat along with another girl who was not shy at falling asleep on Tom's shoulder. The windows were wide open, blowing cool air through the bus. It was a short, painless bus journey and we arrived in Pakse and hour or so later.

We didn't know much about Laos before we arrived apart from the country was extremely poor following the civil war which brought the communist party into power. Having been dragged into the Vietnam war, the USA dropped more bombs on Laos to stop the North Vietnamese between 1964 and 1973 than the entire second world war. It was estimated that Laos received an average of one B-52 bombload every eight minutes 24 hours a day. This had, of course, a dramatic effect on Laos not only the initial loss of life but the unexploded ordinances left behind.

After getting directions to our guest house from a local travel agent, we strolled and checked into the Sabaidy 2 Guest house. We dumped checked in, dumped our bags and headed to the café across the road for a fruit shake and something to eat. Whilst ordering our food, the slightly elderly lady, presumably the grandmother of the family was flicking through the television channels and stopped on something that caught her eye. It was the beginning of Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding ceremony. When people ask me where was I when I saw our future King get married, I will think back to seating in this local café eating chicken fried rice and drinking down a banana fruit shake. Seeing London on the TV and all those patriotic people lining the streets with flags and banners in their hands made me feel proud of my nation and happy to see that there are still people that take pride in our heritage. In a small way, it made me feel homesick for a brief second.

Pakse is a small city, not touristy in the slightest with quiet dusty streets which periodically become busy with the odd vehicle. I liked it as these smaller and less visited places give you a better example of what the country is all about. On our initial list of places to visit were Four Thousand Islands, Vang Vieng and Luang Probang. Only by travelling did our plans fill out as people recommend places and maps lead the way to interesting places. As I had already been to Vietnam's My Son and Cambodia's Angkor Wat, it was time to see what Laos had to offer in the way of ancient ruins. Pakse was the place to be as nearby were the ancient Khmer ruins of Wat Phu Champasak.

A typical Songthaew
The previous day, we had made the journey to the bus station where there are a series of local songthaews congregated to take people to a number of locations. A songthaew is a converted pickup truck with three benches for passengers to squeeze onto. We wanted to ask how we get to Wat Phu and how much it will cost. The tuk-tuk driver who took us from the centre of town to the station knew who to take us to. A few men stood around us and answered all our questions without us even getting of the tuk-tuk. We were told that we needed to come back the next morning when we could catch a Songthaew to Champasak for a nominal fee. Back at the guest house, it was time to relax for the night and for a proper shower with warm water instead of the river water coming from a hose pipe on Don Det.

The next morning, as agreed, our tuk tuk driver who took us to the bus station yesterday was there at 8.30 ready to take us to our Songthaew for Wat Phu Champasak. Once we were at the station it turned out we had to wait for hour until it departed. We were asked to board the songthaew by the same group of men we spoke to the previous day. It was actually quite pleasant sitting there watching the Lao people stroll around in their day to day lives. Everyone seemed so calm and content walking from bus to bus and selling their goods. The songthaew quickly filled up with locals and their newly bought goods. The time waited went quickly and before we knew it, we were on our way to Champasak.

The journey took us south along the Mekong for around an hour, stopping at various places to drop people or goods off before arriving at the entrance to Wat Phu Campasak. We were the last people on board and the driver got out to take our money. “What time is the last bus back to Pakse?” We enquired.
“No public bus until tomorrow morning.” He responded.
“But you said you could take us back?!” We challenged.
“Yes but you have to pay more as there will only be three of you.” He returned.
Basically they failed to mention that the return journey would be a private affair and that it would obviously cost more. This outraged us but we agreed that we would take our chances and try to find a lift back to Pakse when we want to leave. It was a risk, we could have been stuck in the tiny town of Champasak all night with nowhere to stay.

Wat Phu as we know it today was built during the eleventh century, however, there are transcripts mentioning a previous complex there in the fifth and sixth centuries, although these have long disappeared. The complex is of Khmer architecture and Hindu religion. Our first stop was an interesting museum with a collection of archaeological discoveries on the site and surrounding area. As well as the obvious size difference between Angkor Wat and Wat Phu, the sheer variance in tourist population was a fantastic relief. A handful of people were walking with us as we made our way up the long grassy path between the North and South Palaces which were under restoration work and led to the steps that climb the foothills up to the sanctuary.

South palace
Halfway up I was struck with a sudden urge to release my bowels. Great, what a fantastically inappropriate time for my insides to reject something I may have eaten. There were no toilets about. Tom and Nicky suggested that I went in the bushes. I initially thought that was a great idea, however, as I began walking into the high grass, I suddenly became aware of snakes, spiders, leeches and all those lovely creatures crawling around minding their own business. On top of that, it wasn't the most secluded affair as I looked around, I could be seen from most places above, below and on the same elevation that I was on. I eventually decided that I was going to quickly run down the steps to the toilets at the bottom of the hill. Annoying as I had already made it up three quarters of them but needs must. I won't go to much into detail but, it was a failed visit and after climbing the steps once again, rejoining Nicky and Tom and completing the remainder I discovered that the Laos people had very courteously placed a toilet for tourist convenience and the top! Running down and back up was a complete waste of my time and only agonised the issue.

One section of steps up to the sanctuary
The sanctuary at the top was stunning, not Angkor Wat stunning but it felt much more real in a way as it was largely untouched and was teeming with 21st century structural supports making it semi safe for people to visit. The view from the top overlooked the flat plains of Champasak and had a very calming feel which made you understand why they had built a sanctuary there in the first place.

We reached the bottom of the rather uneven and crumbling steps safely. It was time to find a ride back to Pakse. Having failed to get a tuk tuk or songthaew, we approached a line of minibuses obviously privately rented and asked whether we could get a lift back to Pakse. The first said no flat out but the second, with some persuasion, agreed to take us back to Pakse. He told us that he had two passengers and would have to talk to them first but guaranteed us it would be OK. We arranged for him to pick us up from a restaurant outside of the site in half an hour which would give us some time for some food. True to his word, he turned up to pick us up and we met his two passengers, an eccentric middle aged American couple who were only too happy to give us a ride back to Pakse. What a great couple of people, their stories of past travels were extremely entertaining and we stopped along the way to meet some locals harvesting in a slightly strange machine. Turned out to be an amazing ride back to Pakse in a luxurious air condition minivan.

Monday, 7 November 2011

What a difference a border makes, Don Det, 4,000 Islands – 26-29 April 2011

I've only been in Laos for a few minutes but I'm already loving it. Thoughts of our arduous journeys over the last couple of days in Cambodia are fading away as our minibus takes as towards Don Det, one of the popular islands that make up Laos' Four Thousand islands that sit in the middle of the Mekong river as it widens in the south of the country.

It's now early afternoon and the sun is high in the sky. I rest my head back on the chair and close my eyes as the breeze through the windows cools my mind. The roads are deathly quiet and no one was working in the fields as we passed by. The minibus slowed and bumped along the pot holes that scattered the poorly repaired roads until we reached a small town that consisted of a row of businesses whether they were restaurants or workman providing services of all kinds. The driver manoeuvred the minibus into a tiny driveway between two vertical columns holding the roof up and a wall, there was no more that four inches leeway on each side.

Having stopped, the cooling breeze that I had become accustomed to had also ceased and the afternoon heat swallowed us and demanded perspiration. There's no time to worry about that here, you have to accept it and get moving. The driver opened the tailgate and began removing the bags with determined speed. As always, the passengers become his assistants and help him to retrieve the bags. With our bags strapped to our backs we begin to follow the driver down the road, past the tradespeople, to the quay where dozens of long, thin wooden boats wait to take people to any one of the thousands of islands that litter this area of the Mekong.

After climbing over concrete pipes, rubbish and negotiating sandy traps across the beach, we climbed aboard our boat which was waiting to take us to the magical island of Don Det. The boat skimmed across the water and made its way through the maze of islands of differing sizes. Fishermen clinging onto their fishing rods in an attempt to catch those unlucky fish that swim too close to their bait. Although the engine made a terrific noise, it was a very peaceful and calming ten minute trip to the island. We were warned before going onto the island that we should take enough cash with us for our stay as there aren't any cash machines, they have only just got electricity in recent years. The skipper launched the boat hard into the sand bank which led up towards a small beach where a handful of people were lazing around catching some rays. I jumped off the boat a little prematurely and ended up knee deep in cool Mekong river water.

We arrived on the island with no idea where we were going to be staying. This has become second nature to me and is part of fun of travelling. We had no idea as to what we would find as we hadn't been able to access the internet in Banlung, nor did we have a guidebook. Most of the island is littered with bamboo shacks and very very small amount of brick buildings. As we made our way up the beach and onto the main strip of restaurants and shops, we took a right as we saw a sign to some accommodation and at the end of a narrow pathway stood eight bamboo shacks circling a piece of grass. There seemed to be no signs of life.

"Hello?!" We called out in a louder than usual voice, but not shouting.
"Hello?" A small petite Lao lady picked her head up from the hammock that she'd been sleeping on in the middle of the grassy area. Her eyes looked dazed and her posture lethargic.
"Have you got any rooms free?" We enquired.
"7, 8, 9" She threw her arms out in the general direction with great effort as she battled against falling asleep.
"Excellent! How much?" We asked.

Dusty path around Don Det
Nothing. She gave up. Her battle against tiredness overthrew her as she sighed and collapsed back into her hammock and slept. Nicky, Tom and I stared at each other not believing what we had just witnessed. It's a complete reversal to how the Cambodians and Vietnamese act. We were used to being hounded the moment we stepped off a bus or train and not left alone until we handed over cash. Here, the lady couldn't even be bothered to speak to us. This is heaven although we didn't end up staying there as she went to sleep and didn't wake up again.

It didn't matter too much as there were plenty of places to sleep, mainly bamboo shacks that we could choose from. After walking a couple of hundred metres down the dirt track that led through the main settlement of restaurants, bars and shops, we came walked passed a lady who asked whether we needed a place to sleep. Of course we did, so she showed us to her bamboo huts that overhung the river. We took a hut each. The basic huts, had a double bed, mosquito net and a fan. The bathroom was a small concrete hut with a hose pipe and a traditional squat toilet. Thankfully these were in separate sections so you didn't trip whilst taking a shower and ending up with you foot in the bog.

A few hours later we had forgotten about the morning's journey from Banlung and were submerged in the life of Don Det and that is complete relaxation. Tom, Nicky and I were cooling off in the river whilst tiny fish nibbled on your feet, throwing Tom's ball around like children. That evening we went out and found a restaurant and bought a burger and a few drinks whilst playing pool. When all of the bars shut up at eleven, everybody heads to the beach where to sit round a bonfire and continue drinking and laughing. Walking home from the beach is certainly an experience, especially when you've had a few drinks and not quite sure where you actually stay because as soon as you leave the main strip, the lights cut out and you cannot see much. I was walking alone as Tom and Nicky had already gone back to bed, however, I felt that someone was with me. I looked round but couldn't see anyone. I shook off the feeling as paranoia and continued cautiously along the path back to my hut. Suddenly I jumped and quickly turned as something brushed against my leg. It was a dog, now in front of me but had slowed to join me for my walk home. My next issue was, which hut is mine? They all looked the same to me. I went up one set of steps and discovered someone else's clothes hanging over the banister which confirmed that this was not mine, so the dog and I turned and continued up the path eventually finding the my hut.

View from my riverside hut
FLASH....BANG... Eyes sprung open. What the hell is that? Rain began pounding hard on the roof of my hut as the heavens fell in huge buckets. I fought with the mosquito net as I jumped out of bed and headed outside to see nature's light and sound show. The whole sky was lit up every few moments shortly followed by excruciating cracks of thunder. Staying in a hut made from bamboo with a corrugated metallic roof during an electrical storm is certainly an experience. The deafening sound of the rain hitting the roof was immense.

We stayed on the island for three days, however, our plans to walk and cycle round the island or kayak down the river were not fulfilled as Laos' heat and humidity had overwhelmed us into a lazy Laos stupor. Having spent three days lazing around watching films in the bar, playing pool, eating food and having the odd beverage it was time to push on further into Laos. Next stop Pakse.