A week in Southern Laos Part II

After two nights in the sleepy village of Champasak we caught a bus down to Muang Khong. That’s as far as you can go by road so we joined hoards of tourists leaving the bus station and headed down to the waterside. It was quite obvious as we got onto the ferry that most travellers were young backpackers, in other words we kind-of stood out! Seems that one of the islands, Don Det is known for its hippy party scene and is a backpacker’s Utopia. It’s part of the beautiful 4000 Islands archipelago on the Mekong Delta. But Don Det wasn’t our destination, we were heading for the quiet village of Don Khon, the southern-most island and as far as you can go in Laos.

It’s a little confusing as normally you can get a ferry direct to Don Khon but because the Mekong was so low they were not running and so the only ferry was to the neighbouring island Don Det. These two islands are connected by a bridge and the only way we were getting to our guest house was by motorbike taxi. Neither my man nor I had been on a motorbike since the ’70’s! I was a little apprehensive but was assured that my young driver was very experienced. Did I enjoy the twenty minute trip down the unmade sandy tracks – you bet!

A handsome chap to hang on to!

The Pomelo Guesthouse is run by Olivia who is Swiss and her Thai partner, Tan. It’s a very laid-back friendly place with excellent home-made Thai & Lao food, basic but adequate wooden stilted bungalows and an endless supply of Lao beer. There was a friendly cat as well so all needs were catered for. The village has around 50 houses and 250 people live there. It’s very peaceful but you can hear the partying going way into the early hours on nearby Don Det.

An excellent place to enjoy a beer and watch the Mekong slowly drifting by.

Before we had our meal we decided to hire a boat to see the freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphins. Again a little confusing as they live in the Mekong close to the shoreline. These dolphins are so endangered that WWF estimates that in the river between Laos and Cambodia there are only around 90 left. It costs about 9USD for an hour’s trip and together with the possible sighting of a dolphin or two, you get to see a beautiful sunset. The boatmen know exactly where to take you. There were only a couple of other boats around and when a dolphin is spotted everyone converges to that spot. They say sightings are pretty certain and especially when the river is low because the dolphins stay close to the shore. It’s so hard to take a picture of them as you’re excited when they appear and of course they dive back into the water quickly. However it was magical to see them and what a precursor to an excellent Thai curry at the guesthouse.

An Irrawaddy Dolphin.

Now any guide book will tell you that the way to discover this area is by bike. There’s the remnants of the old railway line which link the island to Don Khon and is the main route now. It’s called the Don Khon cycle loop and includes a temple, the French bridge, a decrepit old French steam locomotive and the Khon Pa Soi Falls. Cycling is the obvious way to travel and most people do, however that’s all very well if you can ride a bike. Well I can, but I’m rubbish and despite several attempts over the years, I’ve given up on it. They were quite surprised at the guesthouse that we were walking to the waterfalls and in hindsight they were right. It was only a few miles and it was interesting walking along the paths away from the main route but unfortunately after an hour or so the searing heat affected me. What seemed like miles from anywhere we sought refuge in the shade of a disused wooden shelter, drank copious amounts of warm water (it was cold when we left) and ate several polos. After a while I was able to carry on and and thankfully just down the road was a sign to the Khon Pa Soi Falls.

The falls aren’t the largest on the island but they are pretty impressive. It is on the tourist trail but apparently it never gets too crowded. I can’t tell you if you have to pay to go in as we somehow got swept through the entrance with a tour group. There is a wooden suspension bridge to the island which takes you to the main waterfall but that was closed when we were there.

The old railway route which connects the two islands and the Khon Pa Soi Falls

With the temperature still hitting 40 degrees we stopped at the little cafe there to get more water and to ask about a tuk tuk to get us to Ban Khon Tai. The guy at the cafe said something to his lad who was obviously none too keen to cycle to the village in this heat but he did and came back with a Tuk Tuk and we rewarded him for it. Hope we gave him good enough tip?! I’m glad we went to this village because it made us really appreciate where we were staying. Ban Khon Tai was very touristy with cafes and restaurants either side of the street. We had lunch in one of them but it wasn’t anything special and the service was rubbish … our next challenge after that was to find a tuk tuk back to our guesthouse. It wasn’t easy and no doubt we paid over the odds but at least we didn’t have to walk all the way back. It took a couple of beers back at Pomello to sort us out.

If that wasn’t enough excitement for the day, it wasn’t over yet. First of all we decided to take another boat trip to see the dolphins. Our boatman, a real character and a man of few words with a cheroot permanently wedged between his lips took a while to spot any dolphins. We’d booked the sunset trip so we were slightly later than the night before, however seeing dolphins a second time and the most impressive sunset was just perfect.

Sunset on the Mekong silhouetting the hills of Cambodia.

Once again we had an excellent evening meal complete with the resident cat on the look out for food. Olivia and Tan had left their young assistant in charge as they had been invited to a party in the village. I might have mentioned how quiet and peaceful this island is but tonight they were rivalling Don Det. The only difference was the party was for the locals. They were celebrating the completion of a new house, similar to the ‘Rickfest’ which Germans have when the roof is finished on a new house, only party was on a much grander scale.

We’d seen the tables being set up earlier together with the erection of a large stage so we knew this was going to be some party. Olivia had said that most islanders would be going as it’s expected. What surprised us was how many people were there and how much food was put out on each table plus an endless supply of Lao Beer. For the entertainment there was a compere and a couple of singers accompanied by very loud music. How do we know all this? Well after our meal we decided to be nosy and walk round there to see what was going on. Even though we weren’t standing that close it wasn’t long before a very smartly dressed woman came over and led us to a table full of young people. Whatever she said they quickly moved their chairs so we could join them. What a hoot!

Although only one or two of them spoke a tiny bit of English we were made very welcome and given the flimsiest plastic glasses I have ever seen with Lao Beer and lots of ice. Every few seconds you had to clink your plastic glass which is not easy when they’re so flimsy and you say “Nok”, Laotian equivalent of “cheers”. We didn’t have anything to eat as we had already eaten and to be honest we had no idea what most of the dishes were. As this is Lao everyone and I mean everyone was drinking Lao beer. We didn’t want to let the English side down by refusing too many top-ups but we were also aware that if we stayed too long we wouldn’t be able to walk back to our guest house! These people know how to party!

We slept well that night and were pleased to hear when we checked out that Olivia knew an experienced boatman who could navigate the low waters of the Mekong to get us back to the mainland. We were so lucky as if it was a week later the river would have been too low. Our young ferryman really knew the river and only scraped the boat once. Don’t know how he managed because all the way along you could see the bottom of the rocky river bed, just inches away it seemed.

Our two-hour bus journey back to Pakse was less eventful and quite a boring journey so we were pleased to arrive back at Residence Sisouk and be welcomed back like long-lost friends.

Not sure I should include this last picture. We went back to the same cafe that evening where I polished off a plate of Morning Glory washed down of course with Beer Lao. I love this vegetable but on this occasion it didn’t love me! Fortunately by the time we boarded the plane for Bangkok my tummy had settled a little. Can you spot all the garlic? I didn’t need the side dish of chillies!

So that’s the account of our week in Laos. Next stop Bangkok.

Southern Laos

We were very lucky to get away before ‘Lockdown’ and got back home just in time. Heathrow seemed surprisingly normal with a few sanitiser bottles dotted here and there. I don’t think at the time we were ready for what was to come …

Our holiday started off as we flew into Bangkok and then after quite a wait in the airport we boarded a ‘twin-prop’ plane to Pakse in Southern Laos. Although we’d been to Laos a couple of times this area was new to us. Our hotel, Residence Sisouk was built in the colonial style with an imposing teak staircase weaving around the building up to the bar and breakfast room. It’s a small, family-run hotel and was perfect for us. It’s true, there’s not a lot to do in Pakse but we enjoyed wandering round and found a lively bar/restaurant just down the road for our evening meal. Lao Beer, was in much demand! It’s definitely the national drink.

Beer lao bottles and Laotian menu
We love beer Lao and so it would seem so does almost everyone else in Laos! Not so sure about some of the Laotian delicacies though …

For our first full day we hired a tun-tuk to take us to the small village of Ban Saphai on the edge of the Mekong – very sleepy and that included the cows. It’s described as a having a Handicraft Centre which is definitely nothing to get excited about, not much activity there! We then took a short boat ride to the island of Don Khon which did live up to the description in Lonely Planet. It’s a weaving village and yes almost every house has a loom. We stopped and chatted to one lady who was working away and of course I bought something. Interestingly whenever I wore the skirt, it was much admired.

Don Khon island, southern Laos.
Ban Saphai is the main picture. Don Kho Island is mainly a weaving village.

Back to Pakse for lunch and a siesta before getting the same tub-tuk to Pakse’s main tourist attraction, Wat Phou Salao. There is a road up to the giant Buddha and temple but there’s also scores of steps to the top. We like a challenge especially when the taxi driver looked at me and asked if I was sure I wanted to do it! Blinking cheek! If there’s steps to climb, then we’ll always go for it.

When you get to the top there’s great views over Pakse and the mighty Mekong. The Buddha is striking and also the rows of smaller Buddha statues all donated by the people of the town. There are hundreds of them. The best time to go up to the summit is either sunrise or sunset. Unfortunately the smog was pretty thick that evening so there was no sunset, but a nice golden glow. We enjoyed our walk around at the top and were especially pleased to receive a blessing and buddhist bracelets from a monk in the Wat (Temple). It’s always good to be blessed when you’re starting your holiday.

Wat Phou Salao
Wat Phou Salao

The next day we travelled by boat along the Mekong to the village of Champasak. It’s not on the tourist trail although it has a certain charm with its traditional Laotian houses and colonial villas. Our hotel was right by the river and we were luckily enough to be given the best guest suite in the place. Nakorn Cafe Guest House was excellent and the food, superb. It was a great find.

After a late lunch we explored the village which was very sleepy. Maybe it’s always like that? The handicraft shop run by a French lady was the one and only interesting shop we came across. School was out so we chatted to some children who were playing in the grounds of one of the many temples dotted along the main road. My man was asking the children the name in Laotian for elephant but every time he tried to pronounce it, it just sent the children into fits of giggles. One thing though, they loved having their picture taken which was great for me.

Children in Champasak, Southern Laos
Children in Champasak
Children in Champasak, Southern Laos
And more Champasak children.

The next day we started early to try to beat the heat of the day. It’s hard to walk around ancient sites or anywhere else for that matter in 35 degree heat. Most tourists staying in Champasak are there for one reason and that is to visit the world heritage site of Vat Phou complex and temple and we were aiming to do that but it wasn’t our first stop.

Wat Muang Kang in Champasak, Southern Laos
Wat Muang Kang, in Champasak, the oldest temple in Southern Laos, being prepared for a festival.

It just so happened there was a festival starting that day at Wat Muang Kang. The older ladies were decorating the temple whilst children were trying their luck on various sideshows – much the same as home really. I’m sure if we’d gone there any other day it would have been a peaceful tour round this ancient temple but this day it was just manic. Great to see everyone enjoying themselves.

Our next stop over very bumpy back roads was to a ruined 11th century temple which is undergoing extensive restoration. Basically Hong Nang Sida Temple is a building site. We had to sign a form as visitors although frankly there was little opportunity to to explore the temple ruins. We chatted to a couple of workers who were from South Korea. This country is working in partnership with the Laotian cultural heritage department. Slightly disappointed that our driver had brought us along miles of dusty track as apart from a buddhist shrine there wasn’t much to see except piles of stone slabs. It’s going take some time to re-build this temple!

And then it was on to Vat Phou, the ruined Khmer Temple complex and the main tourist attraction in Champasak province.

Vat Phou World Heritage Site
Shrine at the Hong Nang Sida ruined Temple (top picture), and below, entrance to the Vat Phou World Heritage Site
Vat Phou World Heritage Site
Vat Phou World Heritage Site a combination of Khmer architecture and Hindu religion. The picture top right is an example of the stone ‘staircase’.

This is a vast site at the foot of the Phou Lao mountain built along similar lines to Angkor Wat. By the time we arrived here it was almost midday and 35+ degrees and no shade. Fortunately you get a mini bus to the start of the first complex of temples. After walking through the first section you’re faced with the Phou Lao mountain in front of you …it’s uphill all the way from now on.

I’ve already mentioned that we like a challenge and getting up to the top wasn’t going to be easy but we had to go for it. Steps to each terrace are tricky; apparently there are seven tiers to the top although we didn’t count them. The views of the Mekong and surrounding countryside are stunning and at each terrace there are shrines to both Hindu gods and Buddha. So much to explore at each level and take pictures of course. Reaching the top we certainly weren’t disappointed. Water from a nearby spring comes down the mountain where there’s a makeshift channel so you can cup your hands and drink the wonderfully cold, water. You need reviving after this climb! The covered area by the side of the cliff is recognised as a spiritual place and the buddhist monk in front of us waiting in line to drink made the experience even more special.

Vat Phou World Heritage Site
Vat Phou World Heritage Site celebrating Hinduism and Buddhism.

Climbing down the hillside wasn’t too bad until we got to the flat area where the sun was at its harshest. Our water by this time had got very warm so we were thankful to arrive at the excellent Visitors Centre where a peculiar green drink revived both of us. The moral of this visit is …avoid going to a large temple complex in the heat of the day.

I’m going to end this Blog here as from Champasak we travelled by bus, boat and motorcycle to the southern-most tip of Laos, a spit away from Cambodia. There are more stories, more pictures to go into the next Blog and it probably won’t be quite as long as this one! I hope you stuck with this first account of our holiday in Laos and thank you if you did.