The sleepy landlocked nation of Laos was the penultimate country I travelled to on Globo Trip. I did not initially intend to visit Laos, but geographical convenience and financial considerations persuaded me otherwise. Laos features a deurbanised population of 6.5 million, which is relatively miniscule for Asia. It is an isolated nation without access to the sea, international train connections or major airports. These factors have undoubtedly contributed to the lack of economic development in Laos, while giant neighbours boom. Nevertheless, the serenity of Laos is unique to the region and it has a placid and rural character. The territorial “shape” of Laos is rather unusual: slender, long and slightly more bulbous in the north (similar to Vietnam). I journeyed from the Cambodian border in the south to the far north, an itinerary which required several arduous bus trips. Laos is a diverse nation with 132 different ethnic groups and contrasting landscapes (interminably flat in the south and mountainous in the north). The identity of Laos is integrally linked to the Mekong, Southeast Asia’s greatest river, which flows through the entire length of the country (defines most of the Lao-Thai border). This trip enabled me to “complete” my jaunt through the former French Indochina. Although the cultures and pre-industrial histories of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are all quite different, connection exists between the three countries particularly in relation to the French era and the turmoil that ensued in the decades immediately after. I spent two and half pleasant weeks in Laos, soaking up the slow life.
The Mekong River reaches her widest span directly north of the Cambodian border. The area is called Si Phan Don, or the Four Thousand Islands, and is Southern Laos’ most appealing and popular destination. It is an immensely beautiful natural attraction and a wonderful place to enjoy rural life in Southeast Asia. As the name denotes, thousands of islands are scattered throughout this area (although the definition of what constitutes an island needs to be applied liberally). This makes it somewhat difficult to appreciate that the countless channels of Si Phan Don form one mighty river. The principal island for tourist purposes is Don Det. The northern tip of the island is congested with *backpacker-oriented businesses and is thus an undesirable area to stay. Dozens of guesthouses are located at intervals further along a bike path (no four-wheel vehicles on the islands) on the eastern “sunrise” side of Don Det. Together with the three Swiss I met at the Cambodia-Laos border, we stayed at a guesthouse ideally situated in a rural setting but still accessible to the town only twenty minutes away. I occupied a private riverfront bungalow for four nights (unfortunately I had a second bout of sickness, which slightly lengthened my stay. Si Phan Don is hardly the worst place to relax in though) and enjoyed the sunrises from a hammock on each morning I was willing to wake up early (once). Don Det, like all the large islands of Si Phan Don, is completely flat and covered in rice fields. Thick vegetation grows in any pocket unused by human development. Massive water buffalo are omnipresent on Don Det and one regularly grazed below my balcony each morning. Most people explore Don Det with a bicycle, but it only takes two hours to circle the island on foot.
Don Khon is a larger and wilder neighbouring island. It is connected to Don Det with a bridge constructed during the French colonial era. The French optimistically planned big things for the region, as they intended to establish the Mekong River as a great highway between China and their Indochinese capital and maritime port, Saigon. However, navigating the channels of Si Phan Don is virtually impossible because of rapids and waterfalls. To circumvent this issue, the French constructed a railway across Don Khon and Don Det (the only railway in Laos until 2009), which allowed for the transportation of goods between ports on either ends of the two islands. The bridge, the railway and the loading bays are the surviving vestiges of this project on Don Khon.
Small villages of colourful stilted houses, plots of agriculture with bamboo fences, rice fields and water buffalo abound on the island. Yet jungle covers most of Don Khon and the numbers of inhabitants and tourists alike are much smaller than Don Det. The island is thus more naturalistic and pleasant to gander around. On the eastern side of the island, there are French-built artificial channels that were used to direct logs through the rapids. The concrete foundations are now overgrown with vegetation. Some of the natural channels between Don Khon and surrounding islands are narrow and placid, while some are wide with rigorous flowing water. I scampered along forgotten forest trails (not always such a great idea: I came a foot away from walking straight into an orb spider that was half the size of my face) on the western side of Don Khon and came to a deserted field of black jagged rocks bordering a raging channel of the Mekong. The dramatic scenery was totally uninterrupted by human activity. The Tat Somphamit waterfalls between Don Khon and Don Det were my highlight of Si Phan Don. Stilted fishermen’s houses are perched above the calm water upstream of the falls. This peacefulness is totally forsaken at a series of cascades and rapids that collectively form Ta Somphamit. The heights of the drops are not particularly noteworthy, but the volume and power of the gushed water make Ta Somphamit so impressive.
I joined a group kayaking excursion around some of the islands of Si Phan Don and shared a boat with one of the Swiss ladies I was traveling with. We started from the northern tip of Don Det and kayaked along the eastern shore in the same direction as the water flow. We were required to negotiate a stretch of “grade 1 to 2 rapids”, but the water was so tame that everyone suspected it was somewhat of a dubious classification for advertorial purposes. The greater challenge was weaving the kayak around the trees, roots and bushes growing in the river (it was like canoe-slalom). Our kayak was the only one in the group (including the guide) which never got stuck, thanks to some inspiring steering by yours truly. We landed on Don Khon and walked along the eastern side to avoid the waterfalls. We continued kayaking in safer water and eventually reached a vast “pool” between the south of Don Khon and Cambodia. A handful of Irawaddy dolphins inhabit this pool, which is the northernmost part of their range in the Mekong River (they cannot swim further upstream because of the rapids and waterfalls). The subpopulation in the Mekong River is critically endangered with only 70-80 dolphins in existence (although the species as a whole is only listed as “vulnerable” as there are thousands in the Bay of Bengal). Fortunately, we enjoyed several glimpses of these beautiful creatures. The Irawaddy dolphin is grey, features no discernible pattern and lacks a beak. Quirkily, we landed on the Cambodian shore and enjoyed lunch overlooking the pool. The guide had to endure jokes about our presence in Cambodia without visas from my hilariously clever group-mates, which he undoubtedly hears every day. We kayaked back to Laos and jumped in the Mekong to cool off. A “local bus” (truck with three parallel benches in the back) transported us to a massive waterfall (by width and volume of water) and then upstream of Don Det, allowing us to kayak back at sunset.
I caught a “local bus” from the mainland town that services Si Phan Don to Pakse, the major transport hub in Southern Laos. Only thirty minutes into the journey, smoke suddenly billowed from the front of the truck and all passengers, Laotians and Westerners alike, charged off maniacally in fear that our bus was about to explode. It turned out the oil tank was leaking quite profusely. The driver patched the tank up and wanted to continue, but one of the Laotians demanded another bus come because the situation was too dangerous. Us Westerners were told that we would only reboard the bus briefly, as we needed to be transported to a key junction to change vehicles. Three edgy and uncomfortable (dreadful seats) hours later, we arrived in Pakse.
I was forced to adjust my travel plans in Southern Laos after my ill health on Don Det. I opted to avoid overnight bus trips, to prevent a repeat episode of vomiting to occur in a rather uncomfortable situation. I decided to break up the long journey to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, by stopping at the colonial city of Savannakhet for two nights. I adopted the precautionary principle and chose to relax in a languid riverside town instead of motorcycling to Kong Lo Cave as I was originally intending. I hung around with two Scotsmen I met at the guesthouse and encountered the first Swedish person on Globo Trip! Savannakhet is situated on the Mekong River and faces Thailand. The centre of town is primarily composed of charming French colonial buildings with faded façades. This area is devoid of activity and the glory of Savannakhet’s (if there was ever any) has certainly been long lost. Several elaborately decorated and bombastically colourful Buddhist temples are located in Savannakhet. The architecture resembles modern Khmer prototypes rather than the more restrained and stylish Laotian temples in the country’s north. They feature terracotta roofs, golden nagas (mythical snakes) on the roof lines and red and gold doors and window sills. The interior walls and iconography are painted in a kaleidoscopic range of colours. Unfortunately, the streets of Savannakhet stink because waste water drains are exposed to the atmosphere at intervals of every ten metres.
The only occasion all year that I have felt genuinely unsafe was in Savannakhet. I may have previously begrudged leaving accommodation in certain cities, but only because of climatic reasons or annoying hassling (or supreme laziness). But in Savannakhet, I developed a debilitating fear of their insane dogs. The dogs of Savannakhet are presumably trained to protect their owner’s property, so they bark schizophrenically at any strangers walking past. Scarily though, the dogs are rarely locked behind gates and are free to roam the streets. Three times I needed to pretend to throw something at dogs to stop them from charging at me at possibly biting. This clearly demonstrated the danger of dogs to society and how cats, who do not pose a threat, should be man’s best friend.
Vientiane, the nation’s capital, is not located in Southern Laos. But since Vientiane also does not “belong” to Northern Laos and is not sufficiently interesting to warrant its own entry, I will briefly discuss my time in the city here. I arrived in Vientiane in the evening after an all-day bus trip from Savannakhet and left the next morning. I returned to the capital for one day just prior to exiting Laos, which enabled me to “see” the city to some degree. Vientiane is a small city of three quarters of a million residents and it feels much smaller as there is minimal traffic (people actually follow road rules) and no congested areas. The tourist area is conveniently packed into a dense area beside the Mekong. Most of the streets in this area are relatively quiet and free of rubbish. This tourist zone of guesthouses, restaurants, cafes and bookshops is actually quite pleasant because it lacks the raging bars and endless junk souvenir shops. The central area also features a smattering of French colonial buildings. Vientiane became the capital of the Laotian state in 1563 and was used as the centre of French administration during the colonial era. The nation’s most iconic and holiest structure, Pha That Luang, was built in 1566. This massive four-sided Buddha stupa is covered in gold-leaf and features dozens of small towers surrounding one great tower. Patuxai is Vientiane’s moderately impressive equivalent to the Arc de Triomphe. It was constructed with concrete that the United States donated for developing the airport; and hence the nickname “vertical runway”. The view from the seventh view provided a decent view over this boring city.
Guidebooks and restaurant menus convey that the food of Laos is based heavily on Thai cookery, which is inherently not true. For whatever reason, Laotians seem reluctant to showcase their culinary traditions at tourist eateries and instead serve generic Asian dishes. The fundamental difference between Laotian and Thai cuisines is essentially the variety of rice they use. Laotians usually consume sticky rice (different species of rice), which they eat with their hands. Consequently, typical dishes are “drier” than Thai dishes to maintain cleanliness (Laotians are very clean people and they wash twice a day). So coconut milk for curries and copious amounts of oil for frying are not indigenous components of Laotian cuisine. The most distinctively Lao dish is laap, a spicy salad made with minced beef, pork, duck, chicken or fish (or no protein if you choose to be weird). It consists of finely chopped mint, dill, shallots and chillies and is mixed with fish sauce and lime juice. Unfortunately, this was the only meal I ate in the south of the country that was definitely Laotian. I went to a German-owned restaurant on Don Det and ordered Weiner schnitzel with cream sauce, mash and vegetables. While the meal was absolutely delicious, I vomited it all up during the night (I’m certain that was not the cause). The guesthouse I stayed at in Savannakhet cooked fantastic servings of fried rice. At a neighbouring café with connections to an NGO, I drank a scintillating honey lassi. In Vientiane, I ordered “Vientiane style” beef, which was beef fried with chilli, ginger and curry leaves (probably influenced by Thai cuisine). On my final night in Laos, I bought a skewer of grilled pork from one of the numerous street stalls and ate the skerrick of meat on it (majority of pork was fat) with jeow, Laotian chilli relish of many varieties.
Si Phan Don is one of the highlights of mainland Southeast Asia; a natural wonderland of islands, rocky outcrops, patches of jungle, rice fields, water channels, waterfalls and rural life free of modernity. Unfortunately, the location of Si Phan Don is incredibly inconvenient for most travellers to Laos. The country’s other constituent attractions are in the North, where I believe the true character of Laos is found. The South is substantially more populated than the North, but to me the culture just felt generic “Asian” and not uniquely Laotian. Nevertheless the twenty hour bus trip from Vientiane (still not quite situated in the North) to Si Phan Don in Southern Laos is definitely worth the detour.
That’s all for now,
- Backpacker: Mutually exclusive to “traveller” (traveller is permitted to use backpack and not be classified as a “backpacker”). Youth between the age of 18 and 30 who travels only to major tourist destinations and tends to stay at party hostels. Particularly attracted to drinking, even if it compromises the ability to visit sights or partake in activities of the destinations travelled to. Converses about such destinations with a cringe-worthy lack of awareness or intellect. Smoking weed or taking other illicit substances is considered the height of coolness and the primary justification for travel. Often ornaments their person with an array of hideous tattoos and piercings and may fashion an intentionally outrageous hairstyle. Eagerly wears daggy clothing bought at markets to demonstrate how they “fit in” to the local culture, yet will also expose an unsuitable amount of skin relative to their destination. Wear T-shirts with beer labels or the names of supposedly cool destinations or activities (like “tubing” in Van Vieng; a popular pursuit to get drunk on the river in Laos, and sometimes killed). Almost certainly speaks English as a first language. Liam is not a backpacker.