The 4,000 Islands are a group of islands dotting the Mekong River in the very south of Laos near the Cambodian border. I’d heard there was pretty much nothing to do there but sit in a hammock. After four days of motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau, hammock-sitting sounded like a darn good idea.
Although there are supposedly 4,000 of them, foreigners only seem to visit three of them. We chose Don Khon, because we’d heard it was laid-back, and didn’t have a big party scene like Don Dhet. (And this was true, right up until a super chatty Aussie girl and pot smoking Canadian boy moved in next door, but I digress).
The hammock sitting on Don Khon turned out to be a bit of a bust. We only could find riverside accommodations for our second night, and the hammock to floor ratio was not quite right once you actually sat in the hammock. Plus the addition of millions of river gnats feasting on my skin made it less than pleasant to sit outside. But despite the hammock fail, three things in particular made our short time on Don Dhon worthwhile:
Amazing Sunsets. Watching the sunset over the Mekong never gets old.
The Little Waitress. We randomly picked one of the many restaurants lining the riverfront for dinner and were met by a pint-sized waitress. She had to have been no more than ten years old and her English was impeccable. She accessorized her t-shirt and traditional Lao skirt with a glittery purse and a beaded necklace, and she carried herself with poise and grace. In between taking our order, she peppered us with questions about where we were from, telling us her mother and sister were in America. She returned to her desk, where she sat dutifully doing her homework until our order was up. I wondered what her dreams were like. Would she stay on this tiny island in the middle of Laos, serving in her family’s restaurant? Would she join her mother and sister in the United States when she got older? Would she go somewhere else? We’ve seen plenty of children working in their family business or alongside their parents elsewhere – child labor laws do not exist over here – but the maturity of this little girl stood out to me.
The Chicken Boy. Right before sunset on our first night, Sean and I walked the path away from the strip of restaurants, towards the place where the islanders lived. The river, the palm trees, the fields – they were all bathed in the magical light of the Golden Hour. Out of nowhere, a little boy appeared further on down the path, barrelling towards us. We had seen him earlier, clutching a chick in his hand by the neck. We weren’t sure if the chick was real or stuffed, dead or alive, but the way the chick was flopping its head around listlessly told us its fate. I saw that the boy was till clutching the chick as if it was a stuffed animal as he passed me, making a beeline straight for Sean. The boy slammed into Sean’s legs, hugging him tight around the knees. When the hug was over, he looked up at Sean, grinning. We had no idea why he decided to give this tall foreigner a sudden hug, but it was one of the cutest things I have ever seen.
Someday girl I don’t know when we’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us baby we were born to run
- Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen
We awoke early on Day 3 and set off from Paksong towards Tad Lo, determined to put our previous day’s mishaps behind us. I’m not going to lie – we both were still a little gun shy – but cruising along on the paved roads seemed like a cinch after navigating the soft dirt of the day before.
Once again, the sun was shining and the fluffy clouds were out in full force. Mountains dotted the backdrop of the landscape. As we headed away from Paksong, the chill in the air disappeared. Before long, smiles reappeared on our faces and the only sign of our spills was the dirt caked into our clothes. (Oh, didn’t I mention were were wearing the same clothes for the third day in the row? It is not like we had a lot of options for chilly weather anyhow, and we’d left most of our stuff behind in locked storage at the Pakse Hotel to lighten the load for the bike. Months later, there’s still traces of the orangeish brown dirt on our daybag, our trail runners, and Sean’s pants where he hit the hardest).
Considering our current state of dishevelment, we hesitated when, out of the blue, we came across a fancy resort and coffee plantation advertising tours of their gardens and cups of coffee. The resort seemed out of place in the middle of very rural Laos, but the colorful flowers we could see from the road looked so inviting and we welcomed any excuse to hop off our bike. We soaked up the sunshine as we drank coffee from the plantation and watched women weave Lao silk into scarves. Afterwards, we strolled through the grounds and checked out the coffee trees, ponds, and gardens. Groups of butterflies danced around the garden. If it sounds like a little oasis, a little Eden, it was.
But we still had a ways to Tad Lo, so we continued down the road, passing through villages with roaming pigs and cows with real cowbells, schoolgirls walking to school in their traditional skirts, and roadside stands selling steaming bowls of noodle soup and Beer Lao.
We arrived in Tad Lo in mid-afternoon. Tad Lo, which is not too far from Pakse and home to several gushing waterfalls, is one of the more popular spots on the Bolaven Plateau. Whereas in Paksong, supply far outweighed demand (as a result of people being just a little too hopeful about the somewhat increased tourism), in Tad Lo, we had trouble finding a place to stay. Most everything in town was booked, leaving our choices as a primitive $4.50 hut with a neighbor in the other half and a shared bathroom with cold water, or a $19.75 cabin up on the hill next to a big waterfall. The $19.75 place left a lot to be desired, and the $4.50 price was tempting, but in the end, we value privacy and hot water.
After traversing the town’s rickety bridge more times that I would have liked and checking out the waterfalls, we ended the day with Beer Laos next to the waterfall gushing to the right and monks frolicking in the river to our left. Day three? Not too shabby.
Day four, on the other hand, was rather uneventful. In the morning, we stopped by a road stall for some noodle soup on our way out of town. Like most roadside stalls, the restaurant doubles as the family’s home, meaning you are eating at plastic tables steps from the family’s television (everyone’s got a television, even in the Lao boonies!) and beds. As we waited for the preteen girl to serve us our breakfast, I did a double take. Were those? Are those? Staring me right in the face were not one, but two large posters of a completely topless girl. The posters looked like something that might have been hung illicitly in a warehouse of one of my former clients’ places and later made an exhibit in a sexual harassment case. I looked around. The only people I saw were the preteen girl preparing our soup, and her mother nearby. It was very bizarre, very bizarre indeed, especially considering we were in one of the more traditional, conservative countries in Southeast Asia where locals sometimes can be offended by the shorts and tank tops worn by Western tourists.
Other than some surprise breakfast boobs, there’s not too much noteworthy about our return to Pakse. The day was mostly characterized by extreme discomfort in the rear end. Sure, maybe a motorbike could hold two people and a small bag for four days, but should it? I must have made Sean pull over at least every ten minutes during the last hour. But we finally made it, pulling into Pakse rather dirtier than we had been four days ago, with all feeling in our butts lost forever, but glad we saw a side of Laos we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
You know where you are
You’re in the jungle, baby
You’re going to die
- Welcome to the Jungle, Guns’n'Roses
Day two of motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau started off innocently enough. For breakfast, we did as the Laotians do and had a bowl of steaming Lao noodle soup. After stopping by for a quick cup of coffee at Koffie’s place, we set off under blue skies and white fluffy clouds. We intended to head to Sekong, a town on the outer edge of the plateau, and had to head down a dirt road to get there. Koffie and an American expat living in Lao cautioned us before we left that the dirt road to Sekong and Attapeu, another town, wasn’t great. We figured we would be okay if we took it slow; we had heard of troubles during the rainy season, but there were no rain clouds in sight this time of year.
Shortly after we left Paksong proper, we spotted a dirt road to the right, where our map indicated the road to Sekong and Attapeu should be. There were no signs that we could see. We paused briefly, but ultimately shrugged and forged ahead. The dirt road seemed to be in good condition, and we sailed along past coffee plantations on either side. If it wasn’t for the large trucks flying by, spraying clouds of dirt, life would have been good, right up until we hit the road work. Who knew dirt roads have road work? The first segment of the dirt road was wide but completely torn apart. I felt like we were back home in Pennsylvania, where the road work never ends. Because the Laotians didn’t actually feel the need to close the road while they were working on it, everyone drove their scooters and trucks where ever the large steamrollers working on the road weren’t, which might be the flat, dusty parts on the sides, or might be the rubble in the middle. Hmmmm…maybe this isn’t such a good idea.
To top it off, we still weren’t really sure we were on the right road. No one mentioned road work. Efforts to ascertain that we were indeed headed in the right direction produced less than certainty. Anytime we saw a person, we pulled over to ask if this was the road to Attapeu. Many times, the person smiled and looked confused, giving us our first indication that no one around spoke English, and we were probably once again butchering the only word they might have otherwise recognized in our complete inability to pronounce names of towns. A few seemed to nod yes and point where we were pointing, but you never can really be sure. Hmmmm…hope we are on the right road.
One thing was for sure, however. The tourists we kept seeing the day before on the way to Paksong were nowhere to be found today. Kids playing alongside piles of coffee beans drying in the sun stopped in their tracks to give us big, huge smiles and loud, happy sabaidees. Their mothers, donned in traditional Laotian skirts, looked up to see what all of the fuss was about. Even though we were covered almost from head to toe to ward off the chill in the air and the dirt sprays, everyone knew we were foreigners from a mile away.
The roadwork finally ended, but then the potholes began. After dodging the craters, we thought we were home free when we came upon the village that was supposed to be the halfway point between Paksong and the end of the dirt road. We stopped at a roadside stall and had – you guessed it – Lao noodle soup for lunch. If you’re counting, that makes our third soup meal in a row. Delicious. Before we ate, I wiped my face and hands with a wet wipe. The wipe came away an opaque orangish-brown. I mentioned something about being dirty to our host, while Sean kicked me and whispered, they’re covered in this dust all of the time! It was true. With their houses, restaurants and workplaces mere feet away, getting dirty was unavoidable. Our meal was accompanied by the lovely screech of Lao music. Sharing with us the pineapple being passed around the family, the one guy in town who spoke some English explained everyone else in town was at the wedding ceremony. I wish we could have solved the eternal mystery of why Asians only enjoy music blaring out of loudspeakers at top volume, but I couldn’t figure out a polite way to inquire about this. Alas, another time.
Unfortunately, the semi-English speaker disappeared after lunch, making it quite difficult to inquire whether there was a toilet we might use before setting off. After exhausting every possible word I could think of to convey bathroom and only getting blank stares, I cursed myself for not learning more Lao. Who ever thinks they’ll actually need the suggested phrases in guidebooks and translators like where is the bathroom or those drugs are not mine, officer? I was racking my brain trying to figure out how one would convey going to the bathroom in Charades without being culturally offensive, when someone finally figured out what we needed and showed us to the shed out back where the hole in the ground was located.
Waving good-bye, we set off again. A ways from town, the road turned soft, made of fine, rusty terra cotta dirt. We passed a local couple on a motorbike, and I noticed Sean noticing them right before we toppled over. We hit a divot in the road and landed with a big thud. Even though I landed intertwined with Sean and the bike, I only had a small scrape on my knee. Sean, on the other hand, was a bit more scraped up, but nothing a few band-aids couldn’t fix. I gave thanks to our foresight in wearing long pants and sleeves. Even though the soft dirt was our nemesis, it also broke our fall. As we wiped everything down in vain, two women came around the bend and toppled in the spot where we just fell. Great; now we’re going to cause a scooter pile-up. Luckily, they drove away unharmed.
We took off again, rather shakily. I had to turn away from the road; I was certain we were going to fall again at every hole and every rut, Sean was certain I was going to make us fall again at every hole and every rut with my squirmings. I tried to concentrate on anything else but the road: the fluffy clouds, the dense greenery, the occasional house. But then we both saw the worst thing we could have seen in the entire world at that moment: a fork in the road. Hmmm…that’s funny. There are no turns on this map. I thought it was supposed to be a straight shot?
We crossed our fingers and picked left, since the dirt on the road to the right seemed different than the road we were on. I’ll spare you the suspense; we picked wrong. Or maybe it didn’t even matter at that point, because it was quite possible that any number of slight diversions from the dirt road we ignored in blissful ignorance (lalalalala, I don’t see you!) could have a road we were supposed to take. As we figured out much, much later when we ran into a group of travelers at dinner who traversed the dirt road in the opposite direction, it DID appear to be a straight shot coming from Attapeu. From Paksong, not so much. Going in the opposite direction, everything appeared to be in a straight line for hours, with an occasional road joining the way, whereas in our direction, there were ever-so-slight options.
At the time, we decided we were too far from town to turn around. We kept driving onward, deeper into the what was increasingly looking like a jungle. There were no kids calling sabaidee now, just an occasional scooter whipping by and thick tropical greenery on all sides. I entertained the possibility this was where we’d meet our demise when we came to the end of the road. We’d probably been driving for two hours since we left the village where we ate lunch. At the end of the road, we were greeted by two Lao men in military uniforms. Their knowledge of English was only good enough to point over the hills and far away towards Attapeu. Turning away, we came to the realization that we had no idea where we where, and we had no other choice other than to turn around and retrace our steps back to Paksong if we didn’t want to be enveloped by nightfall in the jungle. So for two very long hours, we headed back, dejected, to the village at the half-way point, itself over two hours from Paksong.
Naturally, as a fait accompli, we wiped out again, this time trying to avoid a ridge in the soft dirt. We had spectators this time around; a family of 12 or so came out to the road to see what was going on. What was going on wasn’t pretty. Sean’s arm and the bike’s kickstand got the brunt of the fall. The arm was bleeding; the kickstand was wedged in such a way that the gears could not be shifted. I was resigning myself to having to walk miles and miles or moving in with this Laotian family when the husband and father came over to help us. He didn’t speak a word of English, but he knew exactly what the problem was and how to fix it. He laid down in the dirt and tried kicking at the kickstand, but couldn’t get enough force with his short legs and bare feet. Sean gave it a whack and we all smiled when the bike actually started. Considering there hardly was anyone around in these parts, we are eternally thankful that this kind man happened to live near by.
The four or five hours back were some of the longest of my life. We both were frustrated, fearful and occasionally blinded for minutes at a time thanks to the dust kicked up by the larger vehicles on the road. Pulling into Paksong, caked in the rusty dirt, we both breathed sighs of relief when we saw the paved road.
And just think: we had at least two more days of driving ahead of us. Whose idea was this, anyway?
Next on Hog Tales: I’ve got the fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell!
Get your motor running
Head out on the highway
Looking for adventure
In whatever comes our way
- Born to Be Wild, Steppenwolf
After moving along with the masses between Laos’ popular cities, we were itching to set off on our own to explore parts of Laos with more Laotians than foreigners. A motorbike road trip around Southern Laos seemed to be just the ticket. Similar, but each unique, trips had been taken by Shanna and Derek at One Year on Earth, Theresa and Jeff at Lives of Wander, and Wes at Johnny Vagabond, inspiring us to get out on the open road. One small problem. Our entire repertoire of motorbike riding consisted of a brief scoot around Lastovo Island on a severely underpowered scooter and a couple of rides around Havelock Island on an automatic scooter. Given our motorbike experience, it makes perfect sense for us to set off on a Honda Wave 100 cc manual motorbike on a four day, three night motorbiking trip on a loop in the Bolaven Plateau, a remote rural area of southern Laos, right? Right. Glad you agree.
The motorbike trip, which, spoiler alert, was one of our best experiences of our whole trip so far, almost didn’t get off the ground. We had reserved a motorbike at our hotel the night before we planned to set off from Pakse. Or, at least, so we thought. When we went to pick up the bikes, they were mysteriously all in need of repair, even though they were sitting out the night before for rent. Well, not sure what that was all about, but whatever, we didn’t want some defective bike anyway. We then tried to find another bike to rent. Contrary to what Lonely Planet/Travelfish/Wikitravel told us, Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse does not rent out bikes (or have maps, for that matter). Okay, we’ll try again. We found a shop that had bikes for rent sitting out front, but when we inquired about, you know, actually renting them, the girl in the shop just shook her head no. Hmmm…is someone trying to tell us something? We then checked in with the shop by the Langham Hotel noodle shop, which seemed to be the most popular place for bikes. The guy working there tried to tell us the bikes he had were too small for two people. Now, I know we’re bigger than the Laotians by a long shot, but I know what these motorbikes can handle: families of six (spotted by Sean, true story); televisions, enough cases of Beer Lao for a small village, bags of rice, you name it. There was talk of giving up and just heading straight to the 4,000 Islands. But then we saw two full-sized Western adults drive by on the same motorbike the guy told us was too small for us. Screw it, we said. Everyone else is doing it!
Soon thereafter we were zooming down the highway, making our way towards Paksong, a small village high up on the Bolaven Plateau. It turns out that Laos is a good place for a beginner to ride. The further we got away from Pakse, the less traffic there was. Other than the occasional truck or bus barreling past with its horn blaring, or some piece of primitive farm equipment loaded to the gills with hay with Laotians perched precariously on top, there aren’t that many vehicles on the road that are bigger than you. It’s a good feeling to be cruising down the road, wind whipping past, and sunshine on your face. After months of noisy, overcrowded buses, the feeling felt the closest to freedom we’d encountered in a long time.
The drive on the first day was short; only 50 kilometers. (That’s 31 miles to you Americans. Avery: Well how far is the border? Maybe we could run! Jack: I don’t know. When I asked the lady at the desk she told me in kilometers!) Paksong is coffee country in Laos, and the further we got away from Pakse and the closer we got to Paksong, it seemed that out front of every wooden house was a pile of coffee beans drying in the sun on a tarp.
Even after a late start, we were in Paksong by lunch time and made our way over to Koffie’s coffee shop. Koffie is a rather quirky Dutchman who married a local Lao woman and now lives with her family in the village surrounded by coffee plantations. Apparently Koffie loved coffee long before he ended up in the coffee heartland of Laos, so it was a perfect match. At Koffie’s coffee shop, you’ll find the only wi-fi in Paksong and coffee that was grown practically in the back yard. Koffee roasts the coffee in small batches in a wok, giving each batch a different flavor. I’m not really a coffee fan, unless it’s spiked with sugar, milk and chocolate and blended into a million calorie Frappachino, but Koffie’s coffee? It could make me reconsider. The flavor was so nuanced and the different notes lingered on your tongue. It reminded me of single-origin cocoa beans I tasted in the bars of Pierre Marcolini I sampled in Brussels.
Sean always regretted missing out on a tour of a Kona coffee plantation on our honeymoon, so we decided to go on Koffie’s coffee tour, which appeared to be offered once or twice a day whenever people wander by. Traipsing past coffee trees, Koffie explained to us the growing, picking, drying, and roasting process. Even better than learning about coffee, for me, was getting a little peek into rural Lao life that we weren’t able to see from the roadside. Up close, we could see laundry strung on lines underneath the simple wooden houses we saw from the road earlier. In the late day sun, women climbed into trees to retrieve low-hanging fruits. We watched kids playing volleyball in a field while their younger brothers and sisters yelled Sabaidee! and giggled every time we walked by. The giggle of the Lao children is infectious – although the adults do not smile much until you draw them out, the children don’t yet have reservations. While Koffie was explaining the benefits of shade-grown coffee to us, we kept hearing giggles from behind the trees where two little girls were playing a paddy-cake game.
For dinner, we headed to the Borlaven Restaurant on the outskirts of town, per Koffie’s recommendation. Shivering from the chilly temperatures in Paksong’s higher elevation, we ordered steamy bowls of Lao noodle soup and through in some laap for good measure. Laap is a Laotian dish made from minced meat, herbs and lime juice. We watched through the screen as the family prepared our order, each member having a role. The youngest daughter was in charge of peeling garlic; guess your family rank determines your job. Upon receiving our order, I recalled what I had previously read about laap: that traditionally it is served raw, but in most tourist restaurants, the chicken will be cooked. Well, this was no tourist restaurant. Despite its aromatic smells, there was no way I was eating raw chicken coming off of two weeks of a stomach bug up north. Good thing the noodle soup was extra tasty.
There wasn’t much of anything going on in Paksong (must not have noticed the brothel down the road) so we headed back to our hotel, Phuthevada Hotel. Sitting high on the hill overlooking the town, and easily the most expensive option in town even though it was only $13 for a double for the rooms in the building in the back, we felt a little pretentious. But the room was nice and clean, and most importantly, there was a television. We specifically got a room with a television in the hope that in some crazy random off chance that we would pick up the Steelers’ first playoff game on our favorite channel, the Asian Sports Network, but as we suspected as we set off into a very rural part of one of the most rural countries in the world, no such luck. Unfortunately, what the hotel also did not have was heat, so we hunkered down to watch the one English speaking channel, a movie channel devoted to showing the random collection of movies ever assembled. First, there’d be an obscure movie, such as the Bill Murray film Broken Flowers that we actually had seen before, or Falling Angels, a rather intriguing movie about three sisters coming of age in the sixties in a dysfunctional family in Canada (the Canadian location never occurring to us until we looked up the movie when we got back to the interwebs). Immediately after the obscure movie, the channel would show a second-rate, made-for-tv movies that probably never saw the light of day elsewhere. Highlights included a horror movie with a severed head that gave me nightmares and a super cheesy Western/Vietnam War movie. Who knew watching movies from bed could be important cultural lessons in of themselves. Apparently the communists believe that the actual placing of a smoking device to one’s lips that corrupts the public, but dangling cigarettes from the character’s hands and rampant swearing are no problem. What really cracked me up was a scene in Falling Angels. The actual smoking of the bowl? Not okay to show. But the lighting of the bowl, the exhaling of the smoke, and the passing of the bowl, all okay. I’m so glad I wasn’t corrupted by the placing of lips to bowl. I could rest easy now, save for severed head nightmares.
Next time on Hog Tales: Karma gets its revenge for our nicknaming a couple who took a spill on the scooter in the Andamans “Roadkill.” Stay tuned.
Vientiane, population 726,000, was, as promised, the sleepiest capital city we’ve ever seen (well, except maybe Ljubjlana). Sure, it’s the biggest metropolis in Laos, but that’s not saying much in a country with six million people. Vientiane has scatterings of influences leftover from French Indochina, including a supposed replica of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, although the sign on the monument describes it as “a monster of concrete” that gets “less impressive” the closer you get. I’m not sure who wrote the sign at the monument, but I’m guessing it was the French.
Say what you will about the French, though, but one does have to pay homage to the baguettes and pastries they’ve left in their wake. A lingering stomach bug meant I didn’t eat any proper French meals at any of Vientiane’s French restaurants, but Vientiane turned out to be a good place to take it easy and nurse myself back to health. There’s just not a lot to actually do there, for starters, and my daily diet included lots of tummy-friendly Laotian noodle soups, the first real baguettes we’ve had since Paris, and homemade yogurt and bananas drizzled with the sweetest honey from Champasak, Laos, that I had eaten in my life to date. (I say that because the wild honey at Epic Arts Cafe in Kampot, Cambodia, gave the Champasak honey a run for its money several weeks later – and I’m not even a honey fan).
And, okay, maybe a non-tummy friendly pastry or two consumed. Try to contain your shock.