Waterfalls and French Railroads on Don Khon

Yesterday I woke up early to beat the heat, rented a bike, and set off with the morning commute of uniformed schoolchildren. My goal was Somphamit Falls, 3 kilometers from the village. The claustrophobic village road, where neighbors and guesthouses and simple restaurants of thatch roof and tables hug the narrow dirt road, receded behind me. I pedaled past dead rice fields, simple elevated houses, pigs and chickens, and the occasional wandering cow pack that barely blinked at the honking of a motorbike’s horn. 15 minutes later I reached the ticket booth for the falls.

Relieved of 35,000 kip (roughly $4 US), I walked over a rickety wood bridge, through an empty ticket turnstile, and out to the newly built, half-finished restaurant at the head of the falls. As I approached, I could feel the rumbling, hear the roar, but all I could see was the forest and a few hand-painted signs assuring me I wasn’t lost. My first taste was the rusted water wheel flashing in the golden morning sun as turkeys grazed around the sedate green stream. Just steps away, over a muddy path and the newly poured concrete base of a future viewing platform, the Mekong River starts its angry descent, gnashing through rock and crevice, as multiple tendrils devour the earth across a wide series of small gorges.

From here I could see the river approaching me, a wide, deceivingly calm plateau of water, seeming to pause just a moment before tumbling into the teeth of Somphamit. Turning 180 degrees, I looked down the gorge, a couple kilometers out, where waterfall after waterfall of the Mekong pour into the funnel that recedes into the distance. Continue reading

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Where Life is the Mekong River

I wrote this two days ago, when the WiFi and power were down….

I sit on a deck gazing across the water at another island, so close I can hear the conversations of people in their homes and watch the women wash clothes in the river. Children shriek and laugh as they dive among the jumping fish and swim across to my island in two minutes with their long, expert strokes. The constant stream of long tail traffic doesn’t bother me; I swing in my hammock, waving to the fishermen in their conical hats and the women holding the motorbike in the long canoe-sized wood boat.

I’ve reached Si Phan Don, or Four Thousand Islands. Here, far in the southern tropical reaches of Laos, the Mekong River unbraids her hair into hundreds of flowing, twisting strands that caress islands – some mere tufts of greenery, others large enough to host quiet villages of fishermen. Water buffalo wade into the shallows to cool off in the heat. Fish flip in the morning light to feast on water-skimming insects, and somewhere the fabled naga swims among the depths, a feared fabled creation that haunts the nightmares of local fishermen.

My island for the week is Don Khon. The village along the northern shore has grown into a tourist destination, but this is still a small village. The bamboo houses and gardens include the numerous guesthouses and restaurants in their daily rhythms. At 4:30 pm a sudden onslaught of school children flood the only street as they celebrate their freedom to play and swim in the Mekong. I woke up this morning to the rooster underneath my stilted bungalow and opened the front door to a clucking hen who gave my outfit a nod of approval. It’s an odd mix of tourist hub and slow village life. I hope the growing tourist trade does not fundamentally alter the island, but I know it will and I feel conflicted about my tiny role in that change, just by being here.

Tomorrow I will explore the island, and neighboring Don Det, connected by a former railroad bridge. For now I sit on my balcony above the water, read and write and nap, and listen to the purr of the boat traffic.

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Khmer Ruins and Butterflies in Champasak

Traveling any distance in Laos can be both frustrating and fascinating. Unless you are connecting to or from Vientiane, the majority of buses are of the “local” variety – no a/c, hot, dusty, uncomfortable, arduous journeys that rarely make speeds over 45 kilometer an hour. My goal was the quiet town of Champasak.

On Thursday I woke with the rooster’s crow to catch the first bus out of Savannakhet to Pakse. If you want to beat the heat and ensure a seat to sit in, the earliest bus is always the best option. In Laos, the early bird really does catch the worm….of significantly less heat exhaustion. By seven we were chugging out of town.

Six hours, 3 bottles of water, several stops for food hawkers to sell beverages and quail’s eggs through the windows, and one mid-way pit stop to pee in the bushes later, and we arrived in Pakse. I spent most of the ride listening to the ducks complaining from their massive basket cage and sharing my tunes with the Laotian grandpa who sat next to me. (He is especially found of Johnny Cash and Norah Jones.)

For nerves and health reasons, I overnighted in Pakse. Pacing yourself when you have a chronic health condition is always essential. Yesterday morning I finally arrived in Champasak, carrying my luggage down to the informal cluster of rickety wood boats beached on the sand of the Mekong River from where the bus dropped me off in a tiny village. My boat captain helped me toss my pack into the boat, then waded us off the sand, revved the longtail motor, and off we glided across the river in the cool of morning. The mountains rose behind the opposite shore as a raft-like boat ferried a truck the opposite direction.

Here at last was Champasak. Continue reading

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How I learned to like, not love, Savannakhet

The danger of traveling with expectations is simple – your expectations can crash and burn dramatically or dance wildly with unanticipated glee. Savannakhet has crashed and burned. I came on the promise of a beautiful old town on the Mekong River. I found an old town disintegrating into the weeds and littered in trash. I wanted to turn around and endure the torturously hot and bumpy bus ride back to Thakhek.

I laid in the full blast of my guesthouse air-con, guzzled water, and decided to give Savannakhet a chance.

It’s day three, and while the city hasn’t charmed me, she has slowly revealed her gentle graces hidden behind the faded shutters and forlorn rusted concrete (yes, concrete can develop a yellow-red rust patina from exposed, rusting rebar.) Due to the heat (high of 37 Celsius yesterday), I am moving slowly. As I saunter street by street, shade patch by shade patch, stopping to breathe and inhale water, I notice the tiny vignettes of everyday life.

Kittens playing in an overgrown, broken-down children’s carousel.

Raucous matches of bocce ball on carefully groomed courts tucked behind what appear to be abandoned villas, but are functioning provincial government offices. The Lao are enthusiastic about bocce, badminton, football, and ping pong. The local newspaper staff set up their ping pong table every evening and a nearby rusted corrugated tin warehouse vibrates with men and women diving with their badminton rackets at sunset.

The music of children laughing, babbling, and reciting floating out of the schools, simple rows of classrooms with their shutters open to catch the breeze. Continue reading

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A Hot, Dusty Pilgrimage on the Mekong

I arrived in Thakhek at the last twinge of twilight. Along with six other tourists, I squeezed into a tiny tuk-tuk with all our luggage. The merry driver shrugged off all our expressions of doubt at the impossibility of the exercise, “No problem, no problem!” I had to salute his business sense in packing so many fares into one trip (still less for us than going alone, still more for him than one). We bucked and bounced and stuttered down the dark road into the center of town, so laden with weight that other tuk-tuks screamed past in a glory of exhaust and dust.

Already exhausted from the long, uncomfortable bus ride (bus travel anywhere in Laos is a slow, arduous experience), I stumbled into my guesthouse disoriented by the boisterous Saturday evening crowds sipping beer, singing, and having a grand ol’ time in the restaurant that occupies the front of the guesthouse. Thankfully my room was tucked in the back. Never has a fresh, white bed’s linen looked so good. But first I had to wash my feet or I was sure to mar that freshness with gross grey streaks (feet are inevitably always dirty in SE Asia – a fact of life, like death and taxes.)

I awoke early, very early, to beat the heat. The Mekong region is about to be hit by an early heat wave and I wanted to explore before I wilted under the sun’s vengeance. Normal afternoon temperatures hoover around 30 to 32 Celsius, but by mid-week highs will hit 37 or 38 Celsius. That’s freaking 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. So my strategy of the week: early to rise, siesta, then late to bed.

The Mekong towns of Laos are hot and dusty this time of year when no rain soothes the dead brush and the fields are mostly blackened burnt patches picked over by wayward cows and goats. Thakhek is even dustier than I expected. The town center is dead by ten in the morning, the tuk-tuk drivers napping where they’ve parked or huddled in patches of shade. Most people on a Sunday are hidden deep within their cool houses, whether the sorrowful French colonial buildings that bow under the weight of history or the intrepid stilted wood houses under which chickens scratch and laundry flash-dries. Continue reading

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Diving into Vientiane’s Sedate Side

I’ve plunged off my beaten path into the beating heart of Laos, the capital city Vientiane. For all her dust, roaring motorbikes and lumbering lorries, and tall ugly concrete edifices, I’ve discovered I like Vientiane. Her chaos is manageable, her dust easily shaken off, and her brutal mid-day sun sufficiently escaped by hunkering down in a cafe.

Laos produces excellent, rich, smooth coffee beans. Marry this with the influence of the French, and you find a city with cafes lined up on every street, from air-conditioned American-style joints popular with the office crowds to expansive shady verandas that tuck back from the traffic exhaust for genteel conversation. I’m sipping my way through the city, from café to café, until I locate my own Vientiane hangout.

Laos doesn’t feel much different from Thailand on the surface. The streets feel the same, the businesses hang the same large advertising banners over their open-air fronts, and the food carts ply the streets with fresh juices and grilled meats. The best meals are the noodle and pho restaurants that are no more than rickety tables and a steaming food cart out front. People chatter full speed in the same musical lilt, a language cousin to Thai.

Beneath the surface, some differences emerge, as I slowly observe the people and culture around me. The first thing I did upon arrival was buy the local English-language newspaper and read it cover to cover. Laos is a Communist country, although not to the same hardline extent as North Korea. It appears to follow the model of China, opened up to consumerism, foreign investment, and social media, but with state-owned industries and party-approved newspapers. The first few pages of the paper focused on government community initiatives to improve local health and life, business investment (mostly from Japan and China), and efforts to increase use of the local libraries. World news focused on the ASEAN region – I learned more about Asian on-goings in one hour than in one year of reading US newspapers – with one single article about the USA, the resigning of Flynn. The turmoil of home and Europe seem worlds away. Continue reading

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Slow Train to Nong Khai

After the heat, dust and chaos of Nakhon Ratchasima, I needed a break. A place where I could lie in a hammock and watch life lazily pass by. I packed up my scant possessions and hopped the local train to Nong Khai.

Most trains in the Isaan region are the 3rd class non-air conditioned variety. No reservations are necessary and the slow, screeching train makes every stop along the way. Some have simple wooden benches; I lucked out with padded benches for the seven hour journey. We passed through fields and villages and cities. Most stations were immaculately groomed with cheery little colonial-style buildings and pots of decorative flowering shrubs. Some were no more than a flattened patch of grass and two benches in a field. The farmers were burning harvested fields along the way, so we opened the windows at the top only for air, but pulled down the slatted sun shades to keep out the debris. Some slivers of burnt plant material still managed to flake through, covering the seats in a light dust.

All types of people take the rural commuter train between Nakhon Ratchasima and Nong Khai. Families making short hops to shop or visit loved ones, children on weekend field trips with their teacher, the odd foreigner who sticks out like a sore thumb (though there were only two of us, me and a British bloke), and people hawking food up and down the aisles – entire roasted chickens splayed out and tied to a massive bamboo stick, bags of hard-boiled eggs (chicken and a smaller pock-marked bird variety), and bags of shelled peanuts. Continue reading

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