|12th June||Wed||Sydney 10.55am to Kuala Lumpur 5.30pm (9 hrs flying Air Asia)|
|13th June||Thurs||Kuala Lumpur 7.35am to Vientienne 9.10am to Tha Khaek|
|14th June||Fri||Tha Khaek to Savannakhet|
|15th June||Sat||Savannakhet to Don Kho homestay|
|16th June||Sun||Don Kho to Champasak|
|17th June||Mon||Champasak to Don Det|
|18th June||Tues||Don Det to Don Khon|
|19th June||Wed||Don Khon to Kratie (Cambodia)|
|20th June||Thurs||Kratie to Phnom Penh|
|21st June||Fri||Phnom Penh|
|22nd June||Sat||Phnom Penh|
|23rd June||Sun||Phnom Penh 4.40pm to Kuala Lumpur 7.25pm / Kuala Lumpur 11.40pm to|
|24th June||Mon||Sydney 9.45am|
What it Cost
Sydney to Kuala Lumpur return for two $703.00
Kuala Lumpur to Vientienne for two $193.70
Phnom Penh to Kuala Lumpur for two $144.69
Tunes Hotel – Kuala Lumpur $49.00
Travelodge – Tha Khaek $8.00
Lena Guesthouse – Savannakhet $12.00
Homestay – Don Ko $8.00
Vong Pasaud Guesthouse – Champasak $7.00
Mr B’s Sunset Bungalows – Don Det $4.00
Auberge – Don Khon $55.00
Balcony Guesthouse – Kratie $7.00
Narim II Guesthouse – Phnom Penh $12 X 3 = $36.00
$1AUD = 7,300 LAK (Laoatian Kip)
$1AUD = 3.6 KHR (Cambodian Riel)
$1AUD = 3 MYR (Malaysian Ringatt)
Tuesday 11th June, 2013
Newcastle to Sydney
Mark has to go into JSA this morning and Lauren is at work so I’m lucky to be minding our darling Abi. We girls have a quiet day at home while I do the last minute packing. Lauren gets home at two o’clock then stays till we have to leave for the station. We’ll miss our darling girls so much. Lauren is five and a half months pregnant so I hope she doesn’t get too tired while we’re away. I hate to leave her.
She drives us to Hamilton Station for the 3.30pm train to Sydney. The Dolly doesn’t cry this time when they wave us goodbye. She understands now that we’ll be coming back. Arrive at Central Station at six o’clock then catch the train to St James. From here we walk across Hyde Park to Jillian’s in Woolloomooloo. Mark and Jillian walk up to Bar Reggio in Surry Hills to pick up pizzas. A good night talking and having a few drinks before bed at 9.30pm. We’ve all got an early start in the morning.
Wednesday 12th June, 2013
Sydney to Kuala Lumpur
Up at six for showers and a quick breakfast. Jillian heads off to work while Mark and I walk across Hyde Park to St James Station where we catch the train directly to the international airport – $32! – probably the shortest and most expensive land leg of our trip. At baggage check-in we’re two kilos over so we have to repack our big packs, squashing some of the heavy stuff into our carry-on bags. We manage to get our favourite seats – a window and an aisle at the back of the plane – then go straight through immigration.
Here we have our usual McDonalds then buy Bacardi duty free. We spend the rest of the time paying bills and shuffling money around on our laptop. We’re truly broke but going anyway – I love Mark’s attitude! At 11am we take off on Air Asia with me scoring three empty seats in the middle. As usual Mark doesn’t want to sleep on a daytime flight so he takes the two seats near the window while I can lie down almost the whole way. We’ve also brought along our own party food – grapes, cheeses, rice crackers and salami. With a glass of wine each we have a ‘first class’ time.
While Mark reads, I sleep for a few hours then we swap. In the window seat, I’m just in time to see the Australian coastline disappear below us – an excellent flight especially with some cute bubbas nearby – missing our Dolly already.
At six o’clock (8pm at home) we land at Kuala Lumpur’s Low Cost Carrier Terminal. Because it’s the budget airport, we disembark on the busy tarmac with a long, very hot and humid walk to the main terminal buildings. No problem – we love the heat, the roar of planes just arriving or revving up to taxi out as well as all the busyness and excitement around us.
Passing through immigration is quick as always and, as usual here in Malaysia, there isn’t anyone at customs so we stroll straight through. We’ve booked into an airport hotel – very unlike us but we had the experience of sleeping in the airport last year – it was a bit of a mission as we had to get to the main international airport (KLIA) thirty minutes away and then get back again in the early hours of the morning. This time we’ve booked into Tunes Hotel which is only about half a kilometer walk through the car park.
Tunes is a typical cheap airport hotel – a featureless three story block with a few eat-in places below. Our room is barely more than a cupboard but it’s clean and we have our own bathroom. We’ve kept the cost to a minimum – for $49 we have one towel, twelve hours of air-conditioning and no hair dryer – all we need for a quick overnight stay. But, of course, this is the first night of our holiday so we decide to have a few drinks in the courtyard outside the Seven Eleven downstairs. Not terribly atmospheric and very hot and sticky and so, for us, just perfect.
I have my duty free Bacardi but Mark has a ten minute walk across the main road to bring back a couple of Buddweisers and to get some Malaysian money (3 Ringatt to each AUD$1). It’s times like these when I really miss smoking – hate being so fucking sensible! Anyway, I suck up smoke from the lady at the next table and try not to feel too pissed off.
So, okay, we did plan to have an early, sober night but what the hell! During the night we both wake about a thousand times – too hot, too cold, is it time to get up yet? …
Thursday 13th June, 2013
Kuala Lumpur to Vientienne to Tha Khaek
The alarm goes off at 3.45am so we can have quick showers and pack. By four o’clock, we’re walking in the dark, warm night air across to the very busy LCCT. Booking in our big backpacks we’re two kilos over again so we take out our boots and my hair dryer and shove them into my day pack. Mark has a coffee at Starbucks so we can use their wifi as we need to transfer more money. Afterwards we hang out in Marry Brown for hot noodle soup and deep fried chicken.
At 7.20am we take off on Air Asia with seats across the aisle from each other but the flight is only two and a half hours so it doesn’t really matter. Mark is sitting next to a friendly black guy, who unfortunately stinks, and I’m sitting next to a young Muslim girl in a veil – very cosmopolitan.
Before we reach Laos I must say that this is another of our shoestring holidays. Usually we travel on a budget because that’s how we like it – nothing pisses us off more than paying a fortune to just crash out for the night – what we hated about Europe. This trip, though, we really do have to watch what we spend but it shouldn’t be a problem going on the price of rooms we’ve seen on Tripadvisor.
And while I’m sidetracked, I’ll just remind myself of a couple of things. Firstly, to say ‘Laaow’ instead of the very uncool ‘Lay Oss’.
And secondly, to remember the country’s very turbulent past. In the mid14th century Laos was romantically called ‘The Land of a Million Elephants’. Then it fell under rule by French Indochina – not sure if they were colonial arse-wipes or not, but they did leave a legacy of lots of beautiful old buildings. Now it’s very unromantically ruled by the communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party who’ll probably fuck things up by pulling them all down. Whether the people are better off or not, we don’t know.
Anyway, back to the diary. At nine o’clock we land at sunny Wattay Airport in Laos’ capital, Vientienne. Visas cost us $30 each then after quickly passing through immigration we repack our bags. We’ll be sitting on a bus all afternoon so we’ll have to have everything we need in our day packs. Before leaving, Mark withdraws our first Lao money – 8,000kip to the dollar.
Outside the heat and humidity hit but we don’t have to wait long to catch a taxi into the centre. Things don’t seem to have changed much at all since our last visit twelve years ago. It’s still is a wide, open city and unusually laid-back for an Asian capital.
At the Han Sam Euay Nong café we order fried noodles (cold) and spring rolls. With a temple just across the narrow street and a view of the Mekong, we’re in heaven already – wonderful to be back in Asia.
While Mark eats, I wander through the temple then we head down to the road that runs alongside the river to hail a jumbo (like a little songthaew) to take us to Wat Si Saket. This is Vientienne’s oldest temple and we missed it when we were here before so it’s at the top of our list today.
The grounds are pretty with pink flowering bougainvillea and big trees shading a very old, moss-covered stone stupa. We visit the main prayer hall then wander through the open-air arcades lined with Buddha statues wrapped in orange robes. Suddenly, we hear chanting so I do the bolt in search of monks. And here they are, having some sort of ceremony – how lucky is that! Mark knows that if I ever leave him it will only ever be for a monk.
Back outside we set off for the Southern Bus station about five kilometers east of the city centre. On the way we pass Patuxai which is Vientienne’s version of the Arc de Triomphe. Apparently the American government donated cement for a new airport but the Lao government used it to build this monstrosity instead – hilarious!
Anyway, we don’t need to stop as we’ve already climbed it when we were here in 2001. It doesn’t seem that long ago but so much has happened since then. It makes me sad to think how much our life has changed, losing both our mums and our beautiful Angie. I can’t believe it’s really happened but I think if I did I wouldn’t be able to bear it. Thank God for Mark and thank God for Dad and Lauren and Abi.
At the bus station we find that the bus will be leaving in five minutes – good timing as well as good value at only $8 each for the six hour trip to Tha Khaek which is our destination for tonight. We manage to grab two seats each because it isn’t full – probably because it’s later in the day. It’s always the morning buses that are packed to the rafters.
Anyway, we’re not sure if they’re all the same, but our bus is a bit of an old wreck with crappy suspension making everything rattle and shake – very noisy. To make up for it, though, we do have nice Lao music playing and the passengers give us lovely welcoming smiles – ‘You sit here!’ they all point to the spare seat next to them. We’re the only westerners so maybe we’re a bit of a novelty. Hawkers in conical hats jump on selling sticky rice then jump off a kilometre or so later. They’ll probably have to walk all the way back and repeat the whole process when the next bus leaves.
We take ages to actually get going after stopping a few kilometres down the road so everyone can stock up on whole chickens on skewers, more sticky rice, baguettes, etc. at a roadside stall. Our driver has a leisurely lunch as well while the rest of us sit sweltering in the back. A few overhead fans keep us a bit cool but it’s much better when we finally start moving and get a breeze flowing through the open windows.
We’re heading south now down Route 13 which runs all the way from Vientienne to the Cambodian border – over eight hundred kilometres. Once it was a pot-holed mess but, for some political reason I’m sure, the Chinese have fixed it up in recent years so now it’s surprisingly good.
At a rough estimate we should reach Tha Khaek about six o’clock tonight. Hopefully there should be lots to see on the way to keep us amused. I’m looking forward to just taking it all in and absorbing the local way of life in this southern part of Laos. Mark, on the other hand, isn’t exactly thrilled at the thought of a six hour drive. We’ll see.
Just about the whole way we have mountains on our left and the ‘mighty Mekong’ on our right with Thailand facing us on the opposite bank. Red dirt tracks wander off the main road in both directions and we pass endless rice paddies where farmers wearing conical hats are ‘eking out an existence’ (that very annoying travel writer’s expression) using wooden hand ploughs.
Now and again we pass through small townships where wooden houses built on stilts are shaded by coconut palms and tall spreading trees covered in striking red flowers. Golden temples look even prettier with gardens of flowering bougainvillea, vines and banana trees.
Every hour or so we stop in the middle of nowhere so everyone can pile out for a wee wee or a poopedy. People dash off to squat behind bushes and in the long grass but, holy shit, hasn’t anyone heard about landmines? The Lonely Planet says that because of its involvement in the Vietnam War, Laos is the most bombed country on the planet! – bombed by the Americans, I might add. Apparently there are 80 million (yes, MILLION!) unexploded bombs still here. And that’s why we’ll hold on, thanks very much.
After four hours Mark is getting restless and taps me on the shoulder. With all the racket the shitty suspension is making I can’t hear what he says but I can read his lips – ‘I hate you’ – ha, ha. Later he taps me on the shoulder again – this time it’s, ‘Whyyy?’ I don’t have the heart to tell him about the even longer trips we’ve got ahead of us in the next week or so.
Roadside markets are frequent and whenever we come to a town, there are always local women in straw hats jumping on trying to sell the usual chickens on sticks and sticky rice. In one village we stop for everyone to pile out and tuck into even more food at a basic open-air restaurant – do these people ever stop eating?
As the afternoon wears on we pass local people on remorque-motos or packed in the back of trucks going home from a long day in the fields. Others are still tending cows, goats and water buffalo while aromatic wood smoke drifts from home fires.
As the sun drops towards the horizon we at last pull into the pretty riverside town of Tha Khaek. The bus station is on the main road on the outskirts of town so we grab a jumbo to look for somewhere to stay. The jumbos are different here – a little cabin pulled by a motorbike instead of a mini truck. At this peaceful time of day, it’s a pretty drive along a dirt track through a rural village to reach the guesthouse we’ve chosen from other travellers’ recommendations on Tripadvisor. It’s glamorously called the Tha Khaek Travelodge but luckily has nothing to do with the international chain of upmarket Travelodge Hotels. If it was we wouldn’t be staying here – hate that five star shit!
We bump our way up a tree-lined laneway off the main street to the Travelodge looking quite impressive set back behind tall palms and shady trees. The desk is in a long, low dark wooden building where we pay only $8 for the night – great value even if the room turns out to be a dump.
A nice garden and hanging out area are a bonus and we’re unexpectedly happy with our room. It’s on the middle storey, big and airy with stained curtains across a window that takes up one whole wall and the other three walls painted a baby pink. The bed is extra big as well and we have a fan. The shared toilets and showers are out on a nearby verandah and look fairly clean. It’s all a bit worse for wear but we love it.
Mark wanders downstairs for a Beer Lao where a group of young backpackers are swapping travel stories. I read on the bed but only last fifteen minutes – can’t relax when there’s so much out there to see. In the laneway at the entrance to the guesthouse we hire a motorbike from a smiling, kindly man called Mr. Ku. For a couple of dollars we have a shiny red bike that we’ll use tonight and again in the morning for our planned ride into the countryside. He says we don’t need to wear helmets but we promised Lauren that we would so we choose a baby blue one each.
Hungry by now, we decide to head down to the Mekong in search of cafes and somewhere to have a drink. The ride to the river is about three kilometres through the centre of town. The road is lined with little shops, market stalls, a school and lots of trees making a pleasant drive especially at this dusky time of day. The architecture is a strange mix of modern rickety buildings and once beautiful French villas now crumbling around the edges. When we reach the water we turn left, taking a long drive along the river road past interesting stilted wooden houses in overgrown, tropical gardens – very appealing.
A number of cafes line the riverfront road serving the usual types of basic food and a small night market is set up with the food stalls lit up by battery powered lamps. Not fussed on the look of anything really – all too local especially the terrifying balut – duck eggs that have been incubated until the fetus is all feathery and beaky and then boiled alive.
The cafes have small tiled tables and bench seats set up overlooking the water so we find a good spot near the market under a big tree. The lights of Nakhon Phanom in Thailand look pretty across the river and we watch noisy longtail boats going past on the still waters. It’s a perfect night – starry skies, not a breath of wind and the sun already set in a soft mauve sky. We feel very relaxed and especially happy.
At a café across the road we order roast chicken but it’s all bones – the poor thing must have been starving. And I can only get Pepsi to have with my Bacardi – takes like shit – but Mark is happy with his Beer Lao which funnily proclaims to be the “Beer of the wholehearted people.” – what the fuck is that supposed to mean?
Later we go for a walk past the fountain which is dry as a bone then ride over to the ‘upmarket’ Inthira Restaurant and Bar for spring rolls and $3 margaritas – now this is more like it! Good people watching here too! A group of ugly western men are having drinks with some local girls who are actually lady-boys. Would love to stay and stare but ‘I have to go home now’.
A lovely ride home in the quiet streets of this early-to-bed little town.
Friday 14th, 2013 Tha Khaek to Savannakhet
As usual on holidays, I’m awake early and this morning I’m in time to see the first light of day breaking over the coconut trees outside our window – makes me feel very peaceful and very grateful to be here. Mark is soon up as well and after cold showers, we’re ready to leave by 6.30am.
The sky is a cloudless, bright blue and the temperature not too high as yet. We retrieve our bike helmets from Mr. Ku who is up already. Across the laneway is a small family shrine under a tree while smoke from a wood fire adds to the atmosphere – the simple things can be the best and my heart is full – sounds a bit of a wank but the only way to describe it.
We haven’t been on a bike since we were in Bali last year and, as always, this is one of our favourite things about travel. It would be better if we weren’t wearing helmets but Lauren told us to be safe so we’re being good little children.
Riding the bike eastward out of town we’re soon in the open countryside in search of Buddha Cave. Before long, though, we spot a sign pointing to Elephant Cave so we decide to check it out as well. Off a dusty sidetrack we pass through flooded rice paddies then a picturesque small village.
Here we need to descend an embankment before crossing a stream. Stupidly, we decide to take it on riding the bike. We don’t notice the soft ground and our front wheel promptly digs itself into the dirt which sends the back of the bike flying up into the air throwing us arse over head with the bike on top of us. Besides being a bit shaken, neither of us is hurt except for skin off our knees and arms. Mr. Ku’s shiny red bike, though, is now wearing lots of scratches and one of the side mirrors is smashed but fortunately that’s the extent of the damage. Now, more sensibly, I get off so Mark can drive slowly across the stream.
On the other side is the base to the Elephant Cave near a group of family shacks where two bare-bottomed little boys are playing outside. A family of goats is running around like lunatics with strange wooden contraptions attached to their necks. Mark thinks it must be to stop them getting through holes in the fences around the vegetable gardens – the little shits will eat anything – so funny to watch.
As usual at any Buddhist shrine, we need to climb numerous steps – something to do with walking up to Buddhist heaven – but not too many this time. The entrance is shaded with trees draped in colourful prayer flags and we can see a golden, standing Buddha in the cave mouth. Luckily, we’re the only ones here to enjoy ‘the serenity’, the views over the countryside and the hundreds of Buddha statues – not sure why it’s called Elephant Cave but there must be some legend to explain it all.
On the bike once again, we head back out onto the main road heading east but soon realize we must have missed the sign for the Buddha Cave and backtrack towards Tha Khaek. We finally find the right path then drive for half an hour over a very bumpy and very dusty road. At the base of some towering limestone rock faces we pull into a market of rickety, wooden open-sided shacks. The ladies are just setting up so we can’t get breakfast as we’d hoped. We ask them the way to Buddha Cave and they point to a red dirt track.
Here we pay a small entrance fee then follow walkways and bridges across a few ponds till we come to, you guessed it, a long steep staircase. This a tranquil place with a few tables and chairs under the trees and the usual fluttering prayer flags. A couple of locals are hanging around but luckily we’re the only visitors.
At the top of the stairs we squeeze through a hole in the rocks to enter Buddha Cave – an amazing deep, dark cave with different areas lit up where people are praying, eating, lighting candles and burning incense. Long stalagmites hang from the vaulted ceiling and Buddha statues occupy every nook and cranny. Some ladies are sitting on straw mats on the floor preparing food and putting it into offerings bowls. There must be some sort of ceremony happening soon but we haven’t got time to hang around. We need to get back to town so we can catch the 10.30am bus to Savannakhet.
So back on the bike, we head for Tha Khaek hoping to be able to get a new side mirror before we return the bike to Mr Ku. Just as we come to the start of our street we see an old motorbike repair shop and in no time we’ve been fitted with a brand new mirror for just a few kip.
Starving by now, we ride down to the river to find something for breakfast. Overlooking the Mekong, we have fresh pineapple shakes but don’t have time for anything else. We race back to our guesthouse, returning the bike to Mr. Ku who doesn’t notice the scratches. Sorry about that!
Quickly packing, we find a jumbo outside to drive us the short distance to the bus station. After Mark buys our tickets, we wander around looking at all the stalls and locals sitting on the ground selling homemade noodles to the passengers. Nearby a very old lady is selling traditional medicines – lots of roots and dried plants.
Mark buys black, sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf – just the look of it makes me want to throw up.
Almost time to leave, we take the two back seats and spread out for an extra comfortable trip to Savannakhet. Wrong! At the last minute the bus fills up with young police cadets who want to sit as close to us as they possibly can. They’re very sweet – super excited and giggling like little girls. The guy sitting almost on top of me is obviously the class clown and they all fall into stitches every time he opens his mouth. Not wanting to sound like a fucking tragic feminist, but it’s nice to see that there are a couple of female cadets as well and one soon swaps seats with the funny guy to sit next to me. She speaks shyly in broken English, very proud of herself. She asks me if I have some paper and painstakingly writes in my book.
‘My name is Souphalak Ving Keoasart
I am Twenty Three year old.
There are Five people in my family.
I study English in Savannakhet province.
And I study English in two year.
Leaving Savannakhet two day.
My mother is a house wife.’
I’m very impressed and give her a clap while her friends still giggle the whole way. Souphalak tells me that they all come from Savannakhet and they’re going home to see their families for the weekend before returning to Tha Khaek on Monday for their studies.
Continuing south we see much the same type of scenery as yesterday – flooded rice paddies, wooden bungalows, oxen, cows, farmers and lots of small villages. We notice that the People’s Republic of Lao flag is proudly fluttering from all sorts of buildings. Mark says whenever a government puts the word ‘People’s’ into its name, you know they’re probably just a bunch of corrupt arse-holes who don’t give rat’s about the people at all – I’m sure he’s right.
Love the bus trip again today made even better by these friendly young people. Mark seems to be enjoying it more, too, and is chatting away with his seatmate. I don’t know why, but whenever we’re in Asia, I always feel more alive and aware of things around me. I also know that I probably see most things through rose coloured glasses but better to be that way, I think.
After three hours we pull into the Savannakhet bus station. We have no real plans of where we’ll stay but there are good comments on Tripadvisor about Lena Guesthouse. And we’re soon heading there in a jumbo. We like the look of it immediately – set at the end of a long leafy driveway with the rooms built around a sunny courtyard. Our room is big and super clean with a cool tiled floor, a television and a hot water bathroom – all for just $12!
Now we’re ready to explore the town and get something to eat. We walk along the laneway towards the shops which are only a few hundred metres away. But there’s no shade at all and the sun is scorching by now so we quickly find a café for bowls of noodle soup.
Like Tha Khaek, Savannakhet is located on the banks of the Mekong River and it also has the same pervasive French influence. Savannakhet actually means ‘City of Paradise’ – a bit of an exaggeration these days although there does remain an air of faded grandeur in the old French architecture. The remnants of a glorious past, however, may soon disappear forever as the colonial buildings are badly neglected and apparently the government has no interest in preserving them – stupid if they want to attract tourists!
And, besides the decaying elegance of the French architecture, the town also has a strong sense of traditional Lao culture with an appealing sleepy atmosphere. A funny quote in the Lonely Planet really sums it up. It says something like, if you had to compare different SE Asian countries as tuk-tuk drivers, the Thai tuk-tuk driver would take you to a gem store, the Vietnamese tuk-tuk driver would chase you down the street for business and the Laotian tuk-tuk driver would actually need waking up.
Setting off towards the river, we visit a Chinese temple then the big complex of Wat Sainyaphum. We wander around inside the grounds, picture-perfect with immaculate gardens, topiaries, manicured trees and ponds as well as lots of stupas and prayer halls. The unique thing about this wat though, is the Buddha-making workshop. Buddha statues in all stages of production, from the bare cement to the full-on gold finish. This is done in a pretty, shaded area facing the river with a lot of sleeping dogs lying around.
Directly across the road we buy cold drinks from three very laid-back ladies at a riverside stall. We give their little ones some of the toy koalas we’ve brought with us from home. While we’re sitting here a young woman pulls up on a motorbike and, in sign language, asks if we want a neck massage. ‘Yes, please’! She’s not very good and it doesn’t last long but then it didn’t cost much and she’s very enterprising so we all win. The strange thing is that although it’s stinking hot, she’s wearing trousers, a zipped-up tracksuit top and woolen gloves!
I have a theory. People in the west want brown skin because a tan not only looks good but it’s associated with holidays or lots of leisure time which means having plenty of money. In the east people want white skin because dark skin is associated with working in outside jobs which is associated with being poor. So Asian people cover up to keep their skin as pale as possible. But I don’t get the woollies thing – maybe it’s all relative and to them thirty degrees in the shade seems cold – bizarre anyway.
Later a young beggar woman carrying a baby girl also approaches us and we give her $7. It doesn’t seem a lot but she’s shocked when she sees how much it is. She walks away with the biggest smile and bouncing her baby up and down in happiness – pretty humbling. She must spread the word as in minutes we have more people heading our way asking us for money. Oh God, what do we do? Escape in a hurry, actually!
We’re now looking for the Red Cross where, according to the Lonely Planet, they have a Seeing Hands massage place set up. We’ve got the directions but walk up and down block after block till we finally realize that the map is wrong – naughty Lonely Planet! We find it at last but no-one seems to be around and there aren’t any signs. I call a friendly ‘hell-oooo’ up the stairs where we can hear people talking but all we get is a woman’s angry voice screaming back ‘what you want?’ – hilarious!
Oh, forget it! We’re too hot and tired now to care anyway and just want to get back to the cool of our room. But where is everyone? Where are the tuktuks or jumbos? End up walking all the bloody way home – should have hired a motorbike but it’s too late now as we’re leaving in the morning.
Back in our cool, dark room for a quick siesta and then back up again about six o’clock to get ready for a night out. I must say, after what we’ve seen already we’re not expecting much. Walking out to the main street we actually find a jumbo to take us to the river. While last night’s sunset had left the sky a gentle mauve, tonight the sky has turned a brilliant red which is reflected in the river to create one of the best sunsets we’ve ever seen.
Along the riverbank, we have a deja vous feeling as it looks almost identical to Tha Khaek with the lights of Thailand opposite and tables and chairs set up across from small, quiet cafes. Further along, though, we see an open-sided karaoke bar decorated with flashing coloured lights and it’s absolutely buzzing. Excellent! The music is pumping and young people are getting totally pissed. Even more excellent! We find a small table on the river side – at least we can get a bit of a breeze here and the music isn’t quite as deafening. Can’t believe how drunk these people are – one guy near us has already passed out on the table.
Later we decide to look for Lao Derm Savan, one of the floating restaurants that Savannakhet is ‘famous’ for. It’s a steep walk down to the riverbank but a pleasant surprise to see that it’s not one of the touristy floating restaurants we went to in Saigon years ago. This is very rustic, with rough wooden floors, railings made from tree branches, hanging paper lanterns, lots of plants and traditional Lao music coming through a crackly speaker. Our table is literally inches from the water – can’t believe how scarily fast the current is running and you seriously wouldn’t want to fall in.
Our waiter is very sweet and insists that he pours our drinks himself. The menu looks good but we were hoping to get Red Ant Salad which we’d seen Luke Nguyen cook when he was in Laos but it’s not available tonight. And my prawn dish isn’t what I’d expected. The prawns are tiny and unpeelable for some reason. I can’t do the whole head/tail/legs thing so I give up and chuck them in the river. Mark’s dish, on the other hand, is a masterpiece – a whole fish with a plate of salad that could feed a small village.
We don’t stay long as tomorrow is an early start – heading for Pakse hundreds of kilometers further south. Yes, sorry darling, but another six hour bus trip. We’ve had a nice time in Savannakhet but, honestly, the town has been a bit disappointing on the whole.
Saturday 15th June, 2013
Savannakhet to Don Ko homestay
By 5am we’re up to shower and pack, ready to get a jumbo to the bus station. The sky is clear and blue with the promise of another hot day. Our tickets are a bargain again at only 40,000Kip each (about AUD $5.50). After grabbing good seats at the back of the bus, we hang out in one of the basic little cafes and order baguettes with cheese and tomato, a cake wrapped in clear cellophane, potato chips, water and Mark has a horrible strong coffee.
If all goes to plan, we want to get off just north of Pakse at the village of Ban Saphai. From here we hope to cross to an island on the Mekong called Don Kho where we’ve heard about homestays.
I ask the driver if he can let us out at Ban Saphai but he can’t understand what I’m saying so he decides to ignore me. I ask the conductor instead and he can’t understand me either. I keep saying Ban Saphai in an accent I imagine is close to how it would be pronounced in Lao. A few other men are listening but all look just as puzzled. Suddenly the conductor says, ‘ahh, Ban Saphai?’ – sounds exactly how I’d just said it except that I missed the singsong bit at the end – must make all the difference. Anyway at last we have recognition but then again we don’t know if he’ll still remember to tell us where to get off in six hours time. Whatever, we’ll work it out somehow.
At first we have lots of room around us so we spread out with two seats each. As on the last two days, we’re the only foreigners on the bus – southern Laos is definitely not on the tourist trail as yet. We’ve managed to get on the right hand side for shade and our seats even recline a little. And we also have air-conditioning which is welcome on this very hot day – a good bus. The only downside is deafening Lao music so we put in earplugs – can’t have everything.
Again, today, the road is flat and fairly straight with the ever-present scenery of rice paddies, goats, temples, monks, bare wooden houses built on stilts and farmers in conical hats planting rice or using hand ploughs.
Sometime before lunch, we manage a couple of texts back and forth to Lauren and Jackie. Missing our darling girls but for a couple of weeks it’s great to feel so far away from the sameness of home – different sights, sounds and smells.
After two hours the bus is full with numerous bums sharing seats and extra plastic chairs in the aisle. We even have handmade woven baskets holding chirping baby chickens up the back. We seem to stop more often today and, in each village, ladies jump on the bus selling the usual skewered chickens, baguettes, sticky rice etc
After nearly six hours and about twenty kilometres before Pakse we start looking out for the sign to Ban Saphai. Soon though, the conductor squeezes his way down the aisle to tell us to get off – he remembered, bless him. He helps Mark drag our packs from under the bus and we’re suddenly standing alone on the side of the road. We see a sign that says Sa Phai with an arrow pointing westward.
Crossing the road we ask a man about getting to the village which is apparently three kilometres away and so too far to walk. He happily piles us into the back of his van and off we fly with his two little girls in the front. They keep staring at us and giggling – a great joke it seems.
In no time we’re in Saphai and getting dropped at the river where we’ll presumably be able to get a boat over to Don Kho. But because we’re not sure if the homestay thing will happen and, even if it does, whether we‘ll get fed straight away, we decide we’d better eat something here in the village before we make the crossing.
We leave our bags with some local boys hanging around at the top of the stairs leading down to the water’s edge, then find a floating restaurant for lunch. This is similar to the one we went to last night but smaller and even more basic – a corrugated iron roof, a rough wooden floor, rickety cane chairs and yellow plastic tablecloths.
The menu looks bizarre at first but it’s probably just spelling mistakes or a lost-in-translation thing rather than scary foods. We don’t think ‘Deep Fried Neck’ is literal nor the ‘Fried Pork Ceiling’ but then they can keep the ‘Deep Fried Duck’s Chin’ which is probably the real thing. Anyway, we order ‘Squids Dip Frid’ (fried calamari), Crispy Potato (chips) and ‘Fid Lice Fig’ (seafood fried rice) – all excellent and my favourite meal so far. Of course Mark washes his down with a ‘big one’ Beer Lao.
And besides the great lunch, it’s an interesting place to spend an hour – the passing Mekong traffic, fish farms next door and people pulling up for lunch from a longtail. But now it’s time to find a boat to take us across river to Don Kho.
Back at the boat ramp, we ask the guys watching our bags if one of them can take us over to the island. Because the wet season hasn’t quite started yet, the river is very low so we need to clamber down a steep embankment to reach the boat. It’s a small, wobbly longtail and just big enough for us, the driver and our packs. It only takes about ten minutes to reach Don Kho where we unsteadily jump out onto the muddy riverbank – nothing as glamorous as a jetty – then scramble up another steep embankment to reach the top.
Here we get an immediate sense of an idyllic little island with the people living a very simple and traditional way of life. Perfectly, it seems to be made up of a thatched roofed village almost hidden by thick vegetation.
A few houses are huddled close to the stairs and a Buddhist temple sits overlooking the water. We call out to a lady in the yard of one of the houses – ‘homestay?’ She gives us a big toothless smile then beckons us to follow her. Past a couple more homes we come to the centre of the island (it’s only 800 metres wide) which is cultivated with rice fields and vegetable gardens.
We trail after her along a small, dirt track where she points to a traditional wooden house. Now she calls out something in Lao and a young woman appears at the gate. We carefully make our way to the house along narrow, raised pathways between the rice paddies. Here we’re greeted by the beautiful Mik who bows with a gracious sa bai dee clasping her hands together in a traditional nop.
Mik is about Lauren’s age and amazingly the little girl she’s carrying on her hip is the same age as our Abigail. This is perfect as we’ve brought a lot of clothes from home and they’ll fit both Mik and little Mior. Next, we’re introduced to her old mother who lives here as well. She can’t speak English at all but Mik is fairly fluent thanks to an uncle who taught her when she was a little girl.
Firstly she shows us the house which is made in the traditional Lao way of dark wood built on stilts. Beneath is a cooler, open area with a packed earthen floor and used as a kitchen and workshop. Fishing nets and silk weaving looms are mixed with pans and cooking devices. A couple of bamboo platforms are used as tables or as seating or as a place for a daytime nap.
We follow Mik up the stairs to the house proper. Part of this is a wide, roofed-over verandah with a low bamboo ceiling. It’s open on two sides and where we’ll sleep on a mattress tonight. The rest of the top floor consists of two rooms where the family sleeps.
We ask Mik if she’d like to look at the clothes we’ve brought with us. She loves everything and little Mior can fit into nearly all the clothes that Abi has outgrown. Now she takes us back downstairs where she gives me a weaving lesson on the homemade loom. She already has a sarong underway so she continues with that. Combining black silk and gold threads she shows me how to work the bamboo foot pedals at the same time as pushing wooden hand paddles through the strands of silk. It takes a while but I gradually get the hang of it – I’m very proud of myself – probably very therapeutic, too.
At the same time, Mik’s mother is using a hatchet to sharpen a long piece of bamboo. She’s also a weaver and has her own loom as well as a spinning wheel. Like all the ladies on the island, they make a large part of their living from home weaving and selling their beautiful silk sarongs at the Pakse Market.
Now Mark and I want to go for a swim so Mik lends me an old sarong as women need to cover up. She points us to the western side of the island where we should turn left where we’ll find ‘big beach’. Past the rice paddies we come across a herd of water buffalo up to their ears in a muddy pool and then more staying cool under a shady tree. At the end of the track we go left passing stilted bungalows surrounded by coconut palms, bamboo and fruit trees. Children are playing inside the yards while their mothers are busy weaving. Everyone is friendly and wave as we pass.
We’re not sure where the beach is and when the track finally stops at the school we think we’re in the wrong place. Anyway we eventually find a way to get down to river and make straight for the water to cool down. The current is incredibly fast so we don’t venture past the shallows.
Instead of going back ‘home’ we decide to check out the eastern side of the island. This is just as lovely with all the houses stretching along the riverside dirt path. The Mekong runs below us and, through the trees, we can see its red-brown waters gliding past. With no transport of any kind (not even a bicycle) there’s complete calm with only the sounds of a random long tail in the distance.
Surprisingly, we come across a little palm-thatched shop where two families of ducks are waddling around. Naturally it’s very basic with an earthen floor and a bamboo platform to relax and have a drink.
Back towards Mik’s house we pass the temple where a group of young, orange-robed monks are standing on top of a bamboo scaffold that they’ve put up to repair the tall entrance gate. The temple itself is called Wat Don Kho (not very original) and very, very old – supposedly built 1800 years ago. Hopefully we’ll be able to meet the monks at a ceremony that Mik is going to take us to in the morning.
In the late afternoon, Mik’s husband, Nyom, comes home from the mainland. He’s very good looking and they make a handsome couple. He can’t speak any English but Mik asks if we’d like to go fishing with him. We follow him across the paddy fields again to a wide sandy beach (ah, ‘big beach’) where water buffalo are wading in the river. They wear bells around their necks and rope through their nostrils. They all sneak closer to stare at us and look very scary with those deadly looking horns but then I’ve never heard of a water buffalo attack, so I guess it’s okay.
Nyom shows Mark how to throw the net out into the river then pull it back in, hoping to have snared a fish. Mark does well but it would take a lot of practice to become as good as Nyom. But then, even he doesn’t catch anything.
Later, Nyom walks over to talk to a fisherman in a tiny boat – it’s actually his father. Not surprising really. Only four hundred people live on this little island so I guess your family is never far away. I couldn’t live here forever but there’s something definitely magical about this place. As the sun sets over the Mekong a few fisherman chug past in small longtails and we make our way back to the house.
Mik, in the meantime, has been preparing vegetables so now we watch her cook our dinner over an open fire in the lean-to at the back of the house. It’s hard to imagine such a life with only the absolute barest essentials – no refrigerator, no microwave or oven or hotplates, no sink – and there’d be no point having a dishwasher because they’ve only got about five bowls anyway.
Dinner is an omelet along with a chicken and bean dish. We actually heard the poor chicken being sacrificed earlier – try not to think about it. And, of course, we have sticky rice, the staple food of Laos and eaten with every meal. You eat it in bite-sized balls with your fingers alongside small morsels of food or dipped into spicy sauces. Mik serves it all in three little bowls on a wide flat cane basket while we sit on the bamboo platform under the house.
After we’ve eaten we find her back out in the ‘kitchen’ making food for tomorrow’s Buddhist ceremony. Sticky rice is being cooked in a conical bamboo steamer over a pot of water heated on top of a traditional Lao charcoal stove. While it’s steaming away she’s also wrapping cooked bamboo shoots in banana leaves that she skewers together with slivers of bamboo that her Mum is carving off a thick stem.
There’s nothing at all to do now but go to bed early under our bright pink mosquito net. From our perch on the verandah we can smell the sweet smoke from evening fires and the sky is bright with stars.
At some point in the night I imagine I hear rain on the roof but then I realize it’s just a soft breeze cooling us down. Perfect for an excellent sleep.
Sunday 16th June, 2013
Don Ko to Champasak
Wake at 6am after a restful night – almost like sleeping under the stars. The roosters have woken us but we want to get up early anyway so we can visit the temple before getting a boat back across to Ban Saphai in time to catch the 8.30am songthaew to Pakse.
After getting dressed, Mik asks me if I have ‘crem’ for her face. I show her a bottle of moisturiser but she points to my face powder. I think sitting here with Mik putting on our makeup together is one of the loveliest travel times I’ve ever had. She now looks especially pretty and I think of my own two beautiful daughters.
Downstairs she dresses me in an elaborate temple sarong – orange and maroon with lots of golden thread like the songket weavings in Bali. Mik herself is wearing a frilly pale pink top with her black embroidered sarong and pink sandals. Next for both of us, is a scarf thrown over one shoulder and tied at the waist – all part of the temple get-up. Mark too must wear a scarf and we all set off from the house through the rice paddies. Each of us is also carrying a silver offerings bowl which already contains the banana leaf packages that Mik had made up last night.
Our first stop is to another family home where the lady who lives here makes the elaborate weavings that go around the bottom of the sarongs. Of course I buy one to attach to the sarong I’d bought from Mik yesterday – they’ll be very special mementos of our stay here.
Now we arrive at the wat where a line of monks pass in front of us. Apparently the ceremony can’t be held at the temple as it’s still being repaired. Instead it will be in the home of the lady that the whole thing is centred on. Apparently the lady is very sick so the community is getting together to raise money and to pray for her recovery.
We follow the monks along the riverside path. I would love to catch up to them but Mik strolls unhurriedly in her usual gentle way. I must say that it’s intensely beautiful just now with the sun barely up.
After a few hundred metres we turn into a grassy yard where long tables have been set up with the monks’ alms bowls lined up on top. A few men are sitting on red plastic chairs but the women, as usual, seem to be doing most of the work. Under the house, a group of local ladies are preparing food that will be eaten after the ceremony upstairs. But now we follow Mik up the steep staircase to the verandah where more ladies are sitting on grass mats. They’re surrounded by big round cane trays supported by tiny, wooden legs, each holding about ten small ceramic bowls filled with different foods. These are for the monks while the villagers will eat later.
But the main action is taking place in the room inside. There’s just enough floor space for us to squeeze in with Mark being sent up the front with the men. The monks sit cross-legged in front of us holding a long piece of white cord with their hands in the traditional Anjali mudra or prayer position. The lay-people all hold their hands in the same way while an old man chants in a musical incantation.
There’s so much to see I think my eyes will pop out of my head – I can’t believe this is happening – a dream come true. Bowls of food are all over the floor and all the ladies have their silver alms pots in front of them. Each one is filled with fruit and have little candles burning on the side. Now and again everyone bows their head to the floor so we copy.
Meanwhile, the early morning sun is slanting in through the open slatted windows – surreal or is it just me getting totally carried away with the whole spectacle and I vow to become a Buddhist when we get home – or not.
I almost don’t want it to end but after an hour we all pile downstairs to fill the monks’ bowls with goodies from our own silver bowls. There are the traditional offerings of rice and fruit but also money, bottles of water, lollies, biscuits, etc. This is how the faithful gain religious merit and we hope we’re getting a few brownie points as well.
In Buddhism you can’t be absolved of your sins. If you do something bad, you lose points so that you have to ‘do-good’ your way back up the ladder again. I think feeding the monks is a pretty cool way to do it.
Now we sit under the house to watch all the food preparations for the feast. Vegetables of all kinds are being chopped while other ladies are pounding away using mortars and pestles. Outside wooden fires are heating up big pots of rice. Meanwhile, chickens are scratching around under the banana trees and family dogs are lying in the shade.
If only we could stay longer, but we have to leave before the food thing happens. We tell Mik that we’ll go back to the house ourselves but she insists on coming with us. We also tell her we’re in a bit of a hurry but I’m not sure that ever happens here. After we pack and take photos of the family there are lots of hugs and goodbyes – (Khawp Jai) thank you.
It’s very tempting to stay and it’s hard to say goodbye to Mik and the warmth of her home as she’s given us so much of herself. At least life had slowed down, even for just a day. As Mik waves from the shore, Nyom now takes us back across the Mekong in his shaky little canoe to Ban Saphai. Here we see more women weaving outside their homes or on their verandahs as we hurriedly make our way to the shops.
Of course we’ve missed the eight thirty songthaew but another one is sitting empty in the middle of the square. There aren’t that many people around, just a few women doing their shopping and no-one seems to speak English so we just throw our bags in the back of the truck hoping it’s actually going to Pakse. With time to kill, we wander up the street looking at the market stalls selling baguettes, rambutans, breadfruit, mangosteens, nuts and all sorts of vegetables. At a small open café with a rough, dirt floor we eat noodle soup that’s bubbling away in a big metal pot over an open fire.
Meanwhile we’ve been keeping our eye on our songthaew at the other end of the street. Finally something is happening so we make a run for it. A young woman is at the wheel trying to get it started but after a few loud belches it conks out altogether. Someone then has the bright idea of towing it but the rope is about as thick as a piece of string so of course it immediately snaps. After a few more unsuccessful attempts, someone else finds a thicker rope and we’re off. Mark almost gets left behind and is clinging onto the back for dear life before scrambling inside.
We’re sharing with five local ladies, one with a baby girl – oh, Abi we miss you. Everyone is laden down with big bags of vegetables and baguettes and one lady has brought along a mountain of bulging cane baskets so she’s obviously off to sell her stuff at the market in Pakse.
After driving the five kilometres back out onto the highway, we’re soon heading south again on Route 13 for the forty minute drive to Pakse. This is the biggest (and only, really) city in southern Laos and is situated on the confluence of the Mekong and the Se Done Rivers. Our first impression is pretty good as we cross the Se Done with temples and parks on the opposite bank.
We’re not sure of our plans and it will depend on what we can find out from the Sabaiday II Guesthouse. Apparently they can arrange transport to some places a few hours west of here and also boats to Champasak further down the Mekong. So now we jump out in what looks like to be the middle of town and pile into a tuktuk to take us to the guesthouse. It’s along a busy, dusty road past impressive wats and the even more impressive Champasak Palace Hotel which was once the home of the last Prince of Champasak, Chao Boun Oum. He didn’t get to enjoy it for long, though, as had to make a run for it in 1974 when the Royal Lao government was overthrown by the communists.
We finally end up in a pleasant maze of little streets to get dropped off at the Sabaiday II. But there’s no luck with transport to the west until tomorrow and sadly the boats south don’t run anymore so we make a quick decision to move on to Champasak today by bus. This will give us more time up our sleeves for either the Four Thousand Islands or Phnom Penh at the end.
Walking back towards the main road we eventually find a tuktuk to take us to the bus station. This happens to be back in the town centre at Talat Dao Heung, the main market. It’s actually not a bus station at all but where the songthaews depart. Apparently the buses are only used for the longer routes up and down the highway. Much better to be going in a songthaew anyway especially to get up-close and personal with the locals.
The market is packed while the songthaew area is frantically busy and very exciting. Touts are yelling out destinations and grab our packs to throw them on top of one of the trucks that are jammed up against each other. We leave our bed pillows on one of the bench seats to save a spot then head into the market to get something to eat. At a small handcart, we buy a bun then point to some lettuce and a tomato – almost a salad roll and very nice.
We haven’t wandered too far away so we can see when our songthaew is about to leave. As usual in Asia, there isn’t any real timetable – when it’s full then you go. It looks pretty well packed to the rafters already so we squeeze our way in with Mark almost doubled in half on an extra bench seat running down the middle. There are lots of stops along the way, dropping people off in tiny villages, dragging the bags of the food and provisions they’ve bought at the market.
In less than an hour, we arrive in Champasak, yet another drowsy, riverside town. The only difference is that it sits on the western bank of the Mekong as the river no longer forms the border between Laos and Thailand as it had further north. Champasak was once the capital of Champasak Province and a major town but today it’s not much bigger than a village with lots of guesthouses along the riverbank catering to tourists visiting the Wat Phu temple ruins. That’s where we’ll be going later this afternoon but first we want to find a room and get something to eat.
The Lonely Planet recommends the Vong Pasaud Guesthouse which we love on sight. It’s a small place right on the river and surrounded by local homes. It’s actually a family run place itself with the kids and grandparents hanging out in the big, homey kitchen/eating area where we check in. Our room is the cheapest yet – $4 with our own bathroom and a fan. We would have paid extra for air-conditioning here if it was available as, right now, it’s about a thousand degrees in our room and will only get hotter. We do love it, though, especially our little window with green, wooden shutters and a fly screen instead of glass.
There are only about six rooms that face a small side garden and then a few more off the big verandah overlooking the river. This is where we see our first westerners for a few days. Half a dozen young backpackers are having lunch and engrossed in their ipads.
Instead of eating here we decide to hire a motorbike and find somewhere more traditional for lunch. As far as we can work out, there only seems to be one road in Champasak which runs parallel to the river with houses, a school and temples on both sides.
While the town is small, a lot of the houses are relatively up-market compared to other places we’ve seen so far. We really like the blending between colonial and traditional Lao architecture. Some have several layers of high peaked roofs which apparently represent the levels of existence or enlightenment in Buddhist doctrine. And the pointy bits on some roofs are meant to ward off bad spirits.
There also appears to be a very laissez-faire (French, get it?) pace of life here but to be honest it’s bordering on boring. And we can’t find anywhere to eat except for a French restaurant across the road from our guesthouse. It’s literally three metres from our front door. Anyway we’ve been able to check out the village and lunch at the Inthira Restaurant is excellent.
To avoid the midday heat, we decide to have a rest before setting off for Wat Phu – why we’ve come to Champasak. Mark’s cough is terrible today and I’m starting to get really worried about him. If it doesn’t ease off by the time we get to Phnom Penh I think he should see a doctor at the very least. For now we try to have a sleep but by this time our room has turned into a sauna and the overhead fan is just blowing around the heat, making it even worse. We leave the door open but the air is too still to make a difference.
About three o’clock we’re back on the bike and headed south-west out of town. The ruins are only eight kilometres along the single main road where water buffalo and wandering geese are as common as cars or trucks. We pass farmers still working in paddy fields and cross a pretty stream before reaching the base of Phu Pasak and the UNESCO World Heritage sight of Wat Phu.
This is quite a surprise but unfortunately not in a good way. What’s really strange is the huge car park and an over-the-top administrative centre and museum – very unexpected in this out-of-the-way location. The Lao government seems to throw money at the weirdest things – remember Patuxai in Vientienne? And even more strange is the fleet of pristine white, electric buses – like overgrown golf carts – that trundle the tourists around the lake and up to the site. It’s hilarious and weirdly out of place in this ancient lost city. Thankfully the whole atmosphere isn’t completely trashed as we’re dropped off on the edge of the complex and we have to walk the rest of the way.
This is along a lengthy processional causeway with sandstone pavilions on either side. These were once used for segregated worship by pilgrims, one for women and the other for men. It’s all very teetering and well-worn with weathered masonry and largely as it would have been for centuries.
The temple was actually built in the 6th century – bloody hell! – as a tribute to the Hindu god Shiva. At that time it would have been magnificent but now it’s almost crumbling before our eyes – worn down over hundreds of years by both the weather and neglect. Here’s a thought! How about dumping the golf carts and spend it on restoration – after all it is the most important Khmer site in Laos. Anyway, it’s no Angkor Wat but being small it has a certain charm and lots of atmosphere.
But forget the history lesson, oh my God, I can see monks ahead. About twenty old dears in orange robes are walking back from the main temple and obviously heading for a waiting golf cart. I make sure we reach them before they leave and ask if we can take photos. They proudly line up then want to take more photos of us all using their i-phones – hilarious! They’re completely gorgeous with smiles from ear to ear. As they leave, they snap off more i-phone photos as we wave each other goodbye like old friends.
Now we make our way up the hill where we buy incense sticks from some local ladies. They show us where to burn them and how to pray beneath a tall, standing Buddha shrine sheltered by an elaborate silk umbrella. Lovely here amongst frangipani trees, with the smell of incense and having temple string wrapped around our wrists – we’re told we must leave it on till it falls off.
From here we could walk to more ruins up a very steep hill but we’re both too hot and sticky and Mark is still coughing his lungs up so we decide to head back to Champasak. An even nicer ride on the way home as the long shadows of dusk fall across the countryside.
After dark we eat dinner on the guesthouse balcony then have an early night. Tomorrow we’re off to the Four Thousand Islands called Si Phan Don in Lao. They’re just above the Cambodian border where the Mekong is broken up by the Khone Falls which splits the river into countless channels producing the thousands of islands and islets.
Visiting Si Phan Don is the main reason for coming here to southern Laos in the first place – can’t wait!
Monday 17th June, 2013
Champasak to Don Det
Wake around sunrise again – could be the resident rooster or just habit – probably both. Brekky is a banana and chocolate pancake for me and a tomato and onion omelette for Mark served on the balcony. Lovely this morning with just a few longtail boats chugging past on the still waters of the Mekong. Mark also has a coffee – instant but better than the gluggy Lao stuff.
Manage to get a few photos uploaded onto Facebook – painfully slow – then call Lauren. Lovely to hear our darling’s voice and catch up on Dolly news. We’ve already asked the owner about getting to the Four Thousand Islands. He says he can arrange it all and to be ready to leave in half an hour.
I’m not sure about the cost for today’s transport, but for our room, the motorbike hire, drinks, breakfast and a mini-van to Don Det, our bill comes to $56US. Probably paying too much but at least it should be an easy trip in the van with only one other passenger. This is Mariana, a stunning Brazilian girl with snowy white teeth, a mane of black hair, golden skin and a gorgeous face – oh, and she’s super nice so I can’t hate her.
The three of us throw our gear into the back of the van then spread out for the trip which should take about three hours going on our calculations. Wrong again! After only a couple of kilometres the van pulls up at the river where our guesthouse owner tells us to get out and cross in a small boat to the other side where ‘my son be waiting’.
So, in another rickety longtail we chug across the Mekong to a small straggly village. We pass a motorbike on a canoe going the other way and then a car ferry which is actually just three little boats strapped together.
Of course ‘my son’ isn’t here to meet us and we wonder if daddy has just taken our money and done a runner. I’ve got the number of the guesthouse so Marianna rings him and says ‘WTF’ or something like that. ‘Son be coming soon’ daddy fibs. ‘He be arriving in fifteen or seventeen minutes’. Nothing we can do but wait and see what happens. It’s nice here anyway.
We hang out in a café typical of hundreds we’ve seen – earthen floor, thatched roof, rough wooden tables and bench seats, lots of straw baskets and something cooking in a large pot in the corner. We even manage to buy a couple of cans of Coke Zero – at last. So far I’ve had to mix my Bacardi with either full strength coke or, the even more horrible, Pepsi. I do have very high standards when it comes to my cola.
After half an hour a big orange bus arrives – we presume this is ‘my son’ and we’re soon speeding south again and headed for the Four Thousand Islands. And for the first time since we’ve been here, most of the passengers are westerners – mainly young backpackers – just like us – ha ha. We manage to get two seats each so we’ve both got a window except that we’re on the hot, sunny side today.
While I’m sitting here I have my travel diary open on my lap and I jot down things as we pass by. I’ve read that this is what Paul Theroux, the great travel writer, does – we must be twins. But the only people who will read my sad little diaries are Mark and a few kind hearted friends. Over the years I’ve worked out how I want to write – keep it simple and never try to be clever and never try to be funny. The ‘clever’ travel writers who use big words and flowery metaphors just end up sounding like tryhard fuckwits – my worst nightmare.
And the writers who try to be funny are even worse. Unless you’re really, really funny (which I’m not) don’t try it. You’ll also sound like a tryhard, fuckwit.
Meanwhile, Mark has been engrossed in his Ian Rankin novel so the time passes quickly for both of us. We’re surprised that after only an hour and a half, we reach the small village of Ban Nakasang which is the jumping off point for the Four Thousand Islands – we’ll obviously need to find a boat.
The bus stops a long way from the river which means a sweaty hot walk in the burning sun. Mark suddenly realises that he’s left his novel on the bus so I run back to get it. No luck – someone must have spied it on Mark’s seat and picked it up. A bummer for Mark but we hope the other person enjoys it – what goes around … This means that we’re now short on books but hopefully we’ll be able to buy one on Don Det.
After only fifteen minutes we reach the water where we buy our boat tickets – a mere 30,000 Kip – then board a big longtail with a small group of other people including Mariana and a German guy who’s already latched onto her.
Navigating our way past lots of islands, some as tiny as our boat, Mark starts to count them – only three thousand, nine hundred and something to go. Soon we see an island with lots of stilted bungalows built out over the water and realise that we’re here – Don Det.
Don Det and Don Khon are the backpacker islands with Don Det the main traveller hangout. Apparently we can get a bungalow overlooking the river for next to nothing. So here at last, we jump out into the shallow water and immediately know that we’re going to love this place. One of the first things we see is a Thai Massage sign and my heart lifts even more. That’s definitely on the agenda for today.
The vibe here is laid back to say the least and it seems that there won’t be a lot to do except lie in a hammock, read, eat and drink – sounds perfect – for a couple of days anyway. We wander around to the sunset side which is supposed to be a bit quieter as most of the bars and cafes are on the sunrise side. As it takes about two minutes to walk from one side to the other it’s not like we’ll be far away from anything.
We like the look of Mr B’s Sunset Bungalows which consists of either tiny cabins surrounding a nice tree-shaded grassy area or very tiny rooms built out over the water. We go for one of the river-side rooms which at only $4AUD a night is a real bargain. We have two beds draped in mosquito nets with about one foot in between – and that’s it. We do have two doors, though, one leading out to the garden and one on to the verandah which we share with a couple of other rooms occupied by young trendy backpackers – Europeans of some kind. Everyone is swinging in hammocks with the water just metres below and more tiny islands all around.
After a quick change, cold showers and a disgusting toilet visit (me, not the toilet), we head out to explore the island. A shortcut to the sunrise side takes us past Mr B’s family home and a couple of milking cows. Most of the cafes and bars are congregated at the pointy northern end and there’s heaps to choose from – I think I love them all. And between the cafes and for as far as we can see are guesthouses all very much like Mr B’s. It’s the off-season at the moment so this place must be packed from November to May.
We’re feeling hungry but before lunch we can’t wait to have a massage. It’s set up in an open sided place with raised platforms covered in mattresses. The Thai girls are lovely and the massage perfect as always and only $8US – it reminds us why we love Thailand so much.
Next we wander back to the sunset side for lunch at Little Eden. This is a more up-market place run by a German guy. His mother is here on one of her frequent visits and she’s busy on her computer – she looks interesting. At a nice table over the water, we have excellent tuna salad and fish and chips -115,000Kip.
Before going back to Mr B’s for a sleep, we ask the owner if he can show us one of Little Eden’s rooms. It’s stinking hot by now and our dodgy little fan doesn’t look too promising, so air-con is looking very appealing. But that’s until we see the rooms – they’re just too perfect with no atmosphere whatsoever. We pretend to like them and say we’ll come back tomorrow – not! Much prefer to swelter in our cute little shitbox.
And it turns out that with both doors open we get a bit of a breeze running through and we manage a quick nana nap. Later we take our books out to the hammocks where we can also watch the sunset. This is actually my first time in a hammock. I always thought I’d fall out but now I’m hooked (pun unintentional).
It’s very peaceful here in the fading light while we watch a lady below us in an old wooden boat collecting water hyacinth. Some people stay here for weeks on end and I do get it but we don’t have the time and even if we did I think I’d want to keep moving on – get bored very quickly.
Anyway, now it’s time to go out and ‘par-tay’, as they say. Our first stop is the Reggae Bar which has low tables and floor cushions set up on wooden platforms and Bob Marley music playing – very cool. Darkness falls quickly as it does in the tropics and we’re soon drinking by candle-light – Beer Lao for Mark and duty free Bacardi for me. We order French fries for a starter and catch up on Facebook. The service is laidback in the extreme. We think the staff have been having too many ‘happy’ shakes – ‘is possible’ here, but no thanks.
Later we move on to a couple of other places for more food and more drinks but don’t stay out too late. Already I’m thinking that we might move on to Don Khon tomorrow – been here, done that. Back now to our room where the only sounds that come through our window are chirping crickets and the musical ‘gecko’ of the resident lizards.
Tuesday 18th June, 2013
Don Det to Don Khong
With another hot day dawning we’re up very early to make the most of every minute – that’s my motto anyway and Mark is ‘happy’ to do the same – ‘Yes, darling’.
The day begins with breakfast of banana/chocolate pancakes and pineapple shakes at another place where we lay back on cushions and eat from baby height tables. This café overlooks the laneway and good for people watching though there aren’t too many at this early hour. Later we walk along the sunset side of the island and come across even more cafés and guesthouses.
The island widens as we walk further south and we discover rice paddies, vegetable gardens, cows and family homes. Like everywhere on the island there are no roads just little dirt tracks overhung with coconut palms, banana trees and thick tropical vegetation. We stop for a mother duck to lead her family of baby ducklings across our path. I manage to catch one for a cuddle.
Back towards our guesthouse, we decide to move on to Don Khon and ask a guy in the laneway about getting a boat. He says to come back in half an hour so we quickly have cold showers, grab our gear and check out of Mr B’s. We can’t find the padlock for our door but don’t think too much about it .
But while we’re waiting for the boat to arrive, a young girl from Mr B’s comes running after us – she’s out of breath and still wearing her pyjamas. Apparently they think we’ve pinched their lock – wtf? – so we give her some money just to shut her up.
Now it’s time to go so Mark throws our gear into yet another longtail and we set off with our new little driver for the next adventure. We float past the shoreline of Don Det and realize how very long it is and just how many guesthouses there are. We pass kids swimming, people washing their clothes and wave to locals in other boats laden down with provisions. Further on we pass part of the rusty old French bridge that would have connected Don Det to the mainland but for some reason was never finished.
And, of course, all this time we’ve been passing lots and lots of other little islands. Apparently, some will completely disappear once the monsoon arrives and the Mekong swells to enormous heights with huge amounts of water gushing down from its origin in China.
After only about twenty minutes we reach the southern end of Don Det where we veer right to pass between Don Det and Don Khon. Here we can see another French built railway bridge that joins the two islands. Once there really was a railway but now it’s only used for bicycles and pedestrians. Mountains on the mainland rise up in the distance so it’s a lovely sight on this gorgeous calm morning.
Just before the bridge our boat pulls into the shore and we scramble out onto a track that runs between traditional houses almost hidden by tropical shrubs and palm trees. This is the small peaceful town of Muang Khong where apparently we’ll find most of the accommodation and cafes. We decide to have a wander around first so we walk up towards the bridge. And instantly we know that moving here has been the right choice. It’s completely different from the backpacker vibe of Don Det which was great for a day but Don Khon will give us another taste of Lao rural life that we loved at Mik’s homestay on Don Kho. By the way, these island names are bit confusing. Of course Don means island but there’s Don Kho and Don Khon and then not far away is Don Khong just to add to the confusion.
So anyway, even though Don Khon will give us another insight into rural Laos, we won’t be staying in a homestay – I have other plans. I’ve seen photos and fallen in love with an old French villa called Auberge Sala Done Khone but I’m not exactly sure where it is or if we‘ll be able get a room.
Still walking, we pass the bridge then stop into a big open-air café built partly out over the water like most cafes and restaurants here in the Four Thousand Islands. We were able to keep cool on the boat but now we’re sweltering so cold lime sodas are looking good. While we’re here I ask the little waitress about the cabins next door so I go off with the owner for a look. They’re nice but expensive and someone is using an electric planer which will possibly go on all day. And anyway I want to find the Auberge even if we have to walk miles to get there.
Back outside we ask a man if he knows where it is. He’s driving a little sidecar thing attached to a motor bike so we pile in with all our gear. Then he calls out to two little boys who jump on the bike and off we go. The driver is about ten years old and the other one is about six – hope he doesn’t get a turn!
Heading back the way we came, we bounce our way through one pot-hole after another while passing lots of beautiful old French buildings, now totally abandoned and falling to pieces. We see glimpses of tranquil river-oriented village life with pigs and chickens scrabbling for food under the houses and people going about their daily chores.
And then we’re here – Auberge Sala Done Khone sitting gorgeous and golden back off the road. There’s nothing pretentious about it though including the weathered picket fence – understated elegance – hope it’s not too expensive. At the Auberge Restaurant across the track we ask about a room for tonight. At $55 Mark isn’t too happy but I get my way especially after we see inside.
We have a huge room with a four poster bed, an original tiled floor and a lovely bathroom. There’s even a little sitting area and another double bed in an alcove. Mostly I love the louvered window shutters and the arches between the bedroom and the sitting room – all original French Colonial. We couldn’t care less about a television or a fridge or whatever else most fuck-head tourists seem to need.
So after moving in, we must to do something about our filthy clothes. Between the two of us we manage to wash everything in the sink, hanging it out to dry on the railing of our verandah or from the top of our four-poster with the ceiling fan blasting away on high.
By now we’re ready to explore some of the island and hopefully to find Khong Phapheng Falls which shouldn’t be too far from here. But first we stop to say hello to the cute yellow furred monkey in a big cage in the grounds. He’s got a lot of room to swing around in but he looks sad.
In the laneway we find a lady who rents push-bikes so we’re soon pedaling south back towards the bridge. I’m in the lead and as pathetic as ever – the usual squealing in fright every few metres when I inevitably hit a rock or steer straight into the deepest pot-hole – thank God that traffic here is non-existent. Poor Mark is stuck behind me rolling his eyes I’m sure.
But I gradually improve and get to enjoy the scenery. We pass the main strip of guest houses which is very pleasant and very quiet with a few scenic restaurants overlooking the Mekong. At the bridge we’re stopped by a young man and woman who charge a toll to anyone crossing the bridge to Don Det or going south to the waterfall. It’s all very basic and laid-back like everything else around here.
Further on we pass the pretty temple of Wat Chom Thong at the upstream extremity of the village. It’s hundreds of years old and we might have time to see it on the way back. Further inland the houses give way to paddy fields and true country life. The people here tend to be self-sufficient, growing most of their own rice, sugar cane, coconut and vegetables, catching fish and even weaving textiles like the ladies on Don Kho.
Not far to go now as we continue to pedal along dirt tracks waving to locals walking past with bundles of sticks on their heads. At last we see the sign to the falls and pull into a little market place with a few stalls and basic cafes. Here we leave the bikes and set off on foot for a few hundred metres when we can soon here the thunder of pounding water.
Khong Phapheng Falls is supposed to be the biggest waterfall in South East Asia. When I say big, I mean the widest because they’re not particularly high. They actually straddle the Mekong for over eight miles from bank to bank. They’re more like a series of treacherous rapids and are the reason why the Mekong isn’t fully navigable all the way to the sea. A bit of a bummer for the economy of all the countries it passes through really.
We just stand staring at it for ages – we ‘think it ‘mazing’ – and can’t believe we’re the only ones here except for a couple of lesbians. We’d watched a documentary a few months back about how the locals risk their lives trying to catch the much prized plabuck, or Giant Mekong Catfish, that can grow up to ten feet long. We can see the very dodgy looking makeshift wooden ladders that the fishermen have erected to reach tiny outcrops of rock where they set their fish traps. It’s as dangerous as hell – one slip and you’re dead.
From here we keep walking through thickets of bamboo to a place past the falls where there’s supposed to be a beach and where we hope to have a swim. By now the clouds have rolled in and by the time we get to the beach it’s started to rain. Quite lovely really when it’s still hot and humid. The current is so strong that when Mark swims against it he stays in the same spot – pretty funny to watch.
On the bikes again we start to head back home but the rain is pelting down as only rain in the tropics can do. We decide to take shelter in one of the cafes and have a late lunch at the same time. And it turns out to be one of those really memorable travel experiences – a perfect chicken curry with sticky rice served in a small cane basket sitting in this homey simple café. Love the beaten earth floor and watching the family kids having a meal of their own sitting on a bamboo platform just near us. The rain finally eases off so we jump back on the bikes only to be drenched again soon after – an exciting ride really and heaps of fun.
Back in our room, we clean up with a warm shower then have a nap before dinner. As darkness closes in, we decide to eat at the Auberge restaurant so we’re there in two minutes. Only one other couple is here so it’s very peaceful especially looking out over the river. Of course I have my Bacardi and waste no time dragging it out when I find that they sell cans of Diet Coke. I’m a very cheap drunk so I’m completely sloshed after a couple of drinks. Mark has quite a few big bottles of Beer Lao and we’re having fun.
After dinner we wander around looking for somewhere else. No luck except for one little place that’s half-heartedly open. Most of the lights have been turned off and the family just seem to want to go to bed which is actually just over there in the corner. It’s all a bit strange with a hyperactive little boy being calmed down by the parents and a woman in her pyjamas walking around attached to a drip that she’s pushing around on a stand.
Just across the road in the darkness is another dimly lit place with a few local teenagers hanging around so we buy a couple of beers and coke before heading back home for drinks on our verandah. It’s still only eight o’clock but the whole town seems to have gone to sleep.
I’ve read that time stands still in Dong Khong but not for us. After moving a couple of chairs outside we finish the night with a few more drinks under the stars. One very weird thing is when we see a snail sliding across the grass – it’s HUUUUGE – as big as my fist – sort of cute but sort of creepy too.
Bed about ten o’clock with our washing billowing above us like sails with the ceiling fan still on high. A fitting end to a funny night.
Wednesday 19th June, 2013
Don Khong to Kratie (Cambodia)
Wake at six o’clock to shower, pack and pay our bill. When we ask the owner about getting a boat back to the mainland, he says that he can also organise the bus to Cambodia – ‘very big and comfortable’. It doesn’t leave Ban Nakasang till 9.30am so we’ve got plenty of time.
Breakfast is at the Auberge Café overlooking the river. The water is glassy this morning with coconut palms reflected in the calm waters. A lady wearing a sarong is washing herself downstream and a few longtail boats chug lazily by. The laneway is still very quiet except for the occasional bicycle and two ladies who are carrying baskets of vegetables bouncing on the ends of bamboo poles balanced on their shoulders.
Before leaving we say goodbye to our little monkey friend then struggle down to the boat with all our gear. We’re sharing with the lesbians we’d met at the waterfall yesterday and a friendly, bearded man from Scotland.
As we set off we feel very grateful to have come here. Even as the biggest of the Four Thousand Islands, Don Khong has still been a peaceful, friendly paradise. For the next thirty minutes we chug past Don Det then turn towards Ban Nakasang on the mainland. This is where we were dropped two days ago and where we’ll get our visas for Cambodia.
Reaching the village, a tout says he can organize visas for us and we need to hand over our passports. The lesbians aren’t happy but sometimes it’s best to just go with the flow and it all works out in the end. Eventually, we all follow him to a café where we buy cold drinks while we wait in the shade.
I need to use the loo before we leave so I head for some dodgy-looking toilets across the road, always a bit wary of what I’ll find. I’m followed by an old man who waits outside for me then asks for money for using the toilet. I haven’t got my bag so I just act dumb and besides that I couldn’t ‘go’ with him lurking outside the door.
Half an hour later our visas have been organized and we follow the visa guy up the long road to the bus station. We’re surprised to see how many people are waiting for the Cambodia bound bus – all western backpackers again. And here again we run into Mariana who seems to know everyone – she’s one of those people who makes friends easily. She tells us that she’s been here for hours after getting wrong info from the owner of her guesthouse.
Now I see her heading for another set of toilets and this time there’s no weird little old man sniffing around so I decide to try again. But this time we have to pay a little old lady sitting nearby who hands us two squares of toilet paper each.
Still waiting for the big comfy bus to arrive, it’s getting hotter and more humid by the minute. At last at 9.30am a series of minivans pull up and we’re told to throw our gear on top of one and squeeze inside with as many people as humanly possible. We’re assured that this is only as far as the border and we’ll be getting onto a big bus on the Cambodia side.
In a mini convoy we set off out of town through the open countryside for about twenty minutes where we all unload at the border post which is just a little blue shack and a sagging boom gate. Our passports are handed in then we all walk across no-man’s land between the two countries.
The thrill of walking across the border into Cambodia eleven years ago just isn’t happening here. Last time at the Aranya Prathet/Poipet border in the north-west, it was a frantic crossing with hoards of local people, animals and carts. But despite the lack of excitement, it’s still brilliant to be arriving here again after all these years.
On the Cambodian side is a string of rustic cafes all attached to one another where we’re told ‘you wait’. There’s no indication of how long it will take but you never know in these developing countries. No-one is game to order food because we could have to leave at anytime so we just buy snacks and cold drinks. An hour and a half later the big comfy bus we’ve been expecting finally pulls up and we’re soon on our way to Kratie a few hundred kilometers south on the road to Phnom Penh.
From the start, Cambodia appears in a much worse state than Laos. The roads are dustier, the people obviously much poorer and the houses mere shacks. People are riding rusty old bikes and even the land looks dry and barren.
And the road is a far cry from the smooth roads of Laos as we journey unspectacularly at 40kph towards the next town of Stung Kemp. We begin to suspect that this trip is going to take a lot longer than we’d thought – what can we do but sit back and enjoy? It’s a nice atmosphere inside the bus anyway and there seems to be a lot of new friendships made among the backpackers most of who are heading for Siem Reap. For some reason, there’s no direct road from this side of Cambodia anymore so they’ll have to go all the way south to Phnom Penh then head north westward to Siem Reap – about twenty hours! Doesn’t make our own journey to Kratie seem too bad after all.
Every so often we pass dangerously over-laden trucks then see the closest near-miss when one careers spectacularly sideways on two wheels as it tries to dodge a huge pot-hole. At one point we all have to get out and walk past a particularly huge hole where two trucks have almost been swallowed up, one with a broken axle. Meanwhile our bus crawls past on the very edge of the hole and fortunately makes it to the other side where we all pile back on.
Onwards again we pass through small towns each one as pathetic as the next. I dread to think what life for these people must be like. As we enter the outskirts of Kratie, and for no apparent reason, we stop at a row of roadside vendors where we all pile out for a meal. Why we couldn’t wait till we arrive in town I don’t know but we line up for bowls of hot noodle soup and some interesting people watching.
By the time the bus crawls into Kratie (say kra-chey) it’s half past four. It’s been a long tiring day even though we’ve been sitting on our arses for most of it. We want to stay at The Balcony Guesthouse because of good reviews on Tripadvisor, so the bus drops us somewhere along the river where it’s not too far to walk. The rain has started by now but as usual it’s ok because we’re still hot even at this later time of day.
Happy to eventually find The Balcony which is run by a friendly Cambodian guy called Pete who speaks English with an Australian accent. It sounds very bizarre until he tells us that the owner, recently deceased, was an Aussie who treated Pete as a son and left him The Balcony in his will. Apparently the Australian guy drank and smoked himself into oblivion and died an early death. Pete says that his breakfast consisted of beer and cigarettes so it’s no real surprise that he’s dead.
Pete now shows us a spacious room adjacent to the balcony overlooking the river for just $7 a night. With air-con, a bathroom and hot water, it’s a good deal. The balcony itself is a nice place to just hang out and lie in big cane circular chairs to watch all the action on the river.
On dark we walk along the riverside in search of Red Sun Falling restaurant. It sits on the waterfront opposite the port building and is a backpacker staple with apparently good food and drinks with an ex-pat touch. The menu explains how the café got its name as well as giving an interesting insight on what travel was like here back in the 70’s.
Unfortunately despite the good food (tuna salad, an omelet, lemon sodas and Angkor beer) the owner is an annoying, overly-gushy Yank who’s currently boring a young English couple to death. See ya later, mate!
Thursday 20th June, 2013
Kratie to Phnom Penh
Last night Pete arranged for transport to take us to Phnom Penh this morning. We could take the local bus which I’d prefer but it takes an extra few hours so we’ve opted for the mini-van choice. And because each seat is only $7, Pete suggested we book three so we won’t be squashed. A brilliant idea that we’ve done on other trips but may not have thought of this time.
It’s due to arrive at 7am so we have early showers before packing and ordering breakfast. This is served on the balcony so we can watch the river traffic as we eat. I have a tomato, cheese and onion omelet while Mark has the works – bacon, eggs, baked beans, tomato, sausage, chips and two baguettes. With tea and coffee it’s the best western food we’ve had – all cooked the Aussie way thanks to the dead guy.
We also get to meet Pete’s wife and baby girl called Jessica. She makes us very homesick for Abi and we give her a toy koala. Now Pete calls out that the van is here so we’re soon on our way. We stop for ages at the market in the middle of town to find more passengers and it’s nice to see that they’re all local – no backpackers today except us.
The people are typically friendly and we’re lucky to have a young woman and her baby girl sit next to us. The baby stares at Mark for the rest of the trip. She’s fat and cuddly with a bright yellow dress – I’d love to ask for a nurse. And right in front of us is a fat cuddly baby boy – this trip is looking great already.
An hour later the van is full and we set off for Phnom Penh which is supposedly four hours away but we’ve already wasted an hour so who the hell knows. Just go with the flow again and enjoy the scenery and the other passengers. That’s all okay but then of course the air-conditioning isn’t working on this super hot day. We’re all sweltering and the babies are soon being stripped off looking even cuter than ever.
We stop a couple of times for toilet and food stops. The last place has a few stalls selling fresh fruit so I ask a lady to chop me up a bag of watermelon. Mark orders a hot soupy thing but I don’t like the look of whatever is floating around on top. Other delicacies that all the locals are buying to eat on the way include tiny spotted eggs, quail, scary looking things on skewers and cooked crickets. Mark decides that he’ll try a cricket or two and he has one hanging out of his mouth. He says it tastes like shit but he does manage to swallow it.
Off again, we’d expected the road to improve closer to Phnom Penh but it continues to be bumpy and rock-covered slowing us down even more. Then about ten kilometres out of the city, the road becomes so congested that we’re barely moving. At long last we’re in the centre and getting dropped off at the Central Market about one o’clock – six hours instead of the promised four but it’s been a fun trip.
Now we jump straight into a tuktuk as the rain has started. Threading our way through the traffic, we soon reach Narim II Guesthouse over near the Russian Market. It’s amongst four and five storey houses that huddle together in a narrow street lined with lots of waiting tuktuks and little shops and cafes. We’re very happy with our big front room overlooking all the action. We have a huge bed as well as a single where we dump our packs. The bathroom is a bit tragic with a wonky door but okay if you don’t mind hearing each other’s toilet noises. But we do have air-conditioning and hot water – all for just $12 – and we ARE in the middle of Phnom Penh. We like it so much we think we’ll stay put for the three nights we’ll be here.
The rain has ended as quickly as it came so we soon head out again towards the market at the end of our street. On the way Mark gets fitted for two pairs of trousers and three dress shirts at a funny little open-sided tailor shop – apparently they’ll all be ready tomorrow afternoon. Then while Mark has something to eat at a cute local cafe called Mama’s, I race back to the tiny hairdressers just across the street from our guesthouse.
This is the funniest little place. The owner (definitely gay) is the only one with an inkling of English but basically I still have to mime what I want. I scrub my hair for a hair wash then point to a hair dryer. He seems to understand and hands me over to a stern faced little girl who shyly introduces herself as Bung. She sits me in front of the mirror and squeezes shampoo then water on top of my head. The shampooing lasts literally for twenty minutes while I get an excellent head massage at the same time. She then takes me to the basin out back where she washes out the soap with cold water then continues with the head massage thing.
Meanwhile the gay owner has been doing nothing but giggling with one of the other girls. The place itself seems to be a family concern and I almost feel like I’m sitting in their lounge room. The parents, or grandparents, are sitting on a couch behind me and a little boy is squatting on the floor in front of them. They’re all eating mountains of food with chopsticks and watching a television that’s blaring above my head.
Now I follow Bung back to the mirror for the blow dry. I point to the straightener and shake my head. Last time I had my hair straightened by a hair dresser I ended up with stick straight hair lying dead flat on my head – very unflattering when you’re old and wrinkly. I point to a poster showing a model with bouncy waves and she smiles, nods and proceeds to give me a head full of tight baby-style ringlets. She’s smiling at me so proudly that I don’t have the heart to tell her to stop.
When I’m finished the gay guy comes over with the bill – actually $2 for the wash and $2 for the blow dry/ringlets! I’ve been here for an hour and a half for god sake! At this price I’ll definitely be coming back even if I do look like a creepy version of Shirley Temple.
It’s the best laugh and I can’t wait for Mark to see me so I hurry down to Mama’s before the humidity ruins my curls. He’s obviously lost for words and we take front and back photos to show Lauren.
Return to our room for our usual afternoon siesta then on dark we find a tuktuk out front to take us to the river. Our driver is a friendly man with a kind face. His name is Nara and he says that the tuktuk business is slow because of the time of year – really not sure exactly when the high season is but obviously not now. This has been good for us – no crowds of tourists and we can get into any accommodation we want just as we have for the whole trip.
We ask Nara to take us to the riverside bars that are apparently the best place to go especially for western food and drinks. I’m hanging for a pizza and a margarita to celebrate our first night back in Phnom Penh. As usual in a busy Asian city, there’s never a dull moment with the roads choked with traffic and people everywhere.
There are cafes, shops, markets and temples as well as foul smelling drains, broken pavements and traffic fumes but we love it all. We love nothing more than flying around in an open tuktuk on a hot, sweaty night in the tropics.
Nara drops us at the river which incidentally is not the mighty Mekong but the less romantic Tonle Sap – impressive all the same. Riverside is a magnet that attracts backpackers, holidaymakers, expats and trendy locals. We stroll along the pavement which is busy with hawkers, beggars, tuktuk drivers and drinkers. We like the look of the Mekong River Cafe for its Chinese red interior, hanging lanterns, rattan furniture and its corner location for great people watching. And it’s happy hour so we’re extra ‘happy’ especially as I finally get my margarita and pizza.
Later we seek out Phnom Penh’s perennial favourite, the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club), where we’d visited in 2002. Nothing has changed which is good news. The bar is a classic example of French colonial architecture and is where foreign correspondents and diplomats gathered in the 1990s, when Cambodia was emerging from the fall-out following the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rule. Today, it’s famous for its great views of the convergence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers and the madness in the street below.
As always it’s very busy but we manage stools at the bar where we order beers and Diet Coke for my duty-free Bacardi. We don’t stay out too late as we have a lot planned for tomorrow.
Friday 21st June, 2013
After yesterday’s long road trip, it’s nice to know that we’ll be staying in the same place again tonight. Looking out of our big window we’re happy to see clear blue skies so we’re fortunate with the weather once again. We sleep till 7.30am then find Nara waiting for us outside. He asks if he can be our driver while we’re here in Phnom Penh. It’ll mean a couple of days of guaranteed work which makes him very happy.
Since we’re in search of breakfast, he drives us up to the market at the end of our street even though we could have walked it easily. He says that he’ll meet us back at the guesthouse as we want him to take us to the Killing Fields this morning – really dreading it but we still want to go.
On the edge of the market we stop at a busy Chinese restaurant where lots of little waiters are buzzing around in white uniforms. Mark orders another disgusting looking soup – floating entrails swimming in a grey gruel that I’d have a chance in hell of getting down. I can’t even stomach the white doughy bun stuffed with pork that Mark also devours – I think I’ll eat later.
Now we head back to Narim II where Nara is chatting with some of his tuktuk driver friends. We already have our day packs with us so we set off for The Killing Fields known here as Choeung Ek. The streets are especially busy today and even the main road out of Phnom Penh is choked with traffic. We pass motorbikes carrying families of four or more, other tuktuks, modern cars and buses packed to the rafters. The site is only seventeen kilometres south of the city but it takes almost an hour to get there.
Even before we reach Choeung Ek, I feel very teary because we heard the whole terrible story when we visited Tuol Sleng (S21) when we were here in Phnom Penh last time. At the entrance we pay a small fee to hire ear phones for a self-guided tour. As we move to each different section we hear the story of the terrifying four year reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (1974 to 1979) when one third of Cambodia’s population was murdered or starved to death – about two and a half million people.
This ‘killing field’ alone holds the mass graves of 20,000 men, women and children who were killed for senseless reasons. They were brought here from Tuol Sleng prison in the centre of the city where they’d already been tortured until they confessed to being spies of the KGB or the CIA. These were what Pol Pot called the New People, people who lived in the cities, and therefore had money and lived by western ideals. He wanted to stamp them out and return Cambodia to a purely agrarian-based Communist society.
We see scraps of clothing and bits of bones on the ground and a tree where the babies were dashed to death. It’s heart-breaking and almost impossible to imagine how human beings could do such things to each other. A tall glass structure with stepped shelves inside holds nine thousand skulls – a shocking reminder of Cambodia’s terrible history.
It’s hard to come to terms with what happened in this peaceful place now pretty with shady trees. Even before the genocide it had been an orchard and a Chinese cemetery. We stop to talk to an elderly Australian couple then wander around the museum building before finding Nara outside. We can’t but be relieved to be leaving – too much sadness here.
Now we turn towards Phnom Penh but Nara has the brilliant idea of taking a shortcut. He wants to dodge all the traffic on the main road which he says will be twice as bad in this direction. So, soon after leaving Choeung Ek, we turn right into a village area of dirt streets dotted with pot-holes the size of small lakes. They’re all filled with water after the downpour yesterday while the rest of the road is a bog of red mud. And besides the mud, there are pointy rocks that make our teeth clatter. All this wouldn’t be so bad for a short time but after an hour of rattling our way back towards the city we wonder how this can possibly be a good plan
So very happy when we finally bounce onto a paved road and we’re soon in the centre close to the very impressive National Museum and the Royal Palace. Our destination is Wat Phnom. I know it’s probably just another Buddhist temple, not terribly different to lots of others we’ve visited all over Asia, but there’s a special significance here.
Guide book info says that the founding of Wat Phnom is tied to the beginnings of Phnom Penh itself. Legend has it that in 1372 Lady Penh fished a floating Koki tree out of the river. Inside the tree were four Buddha statues and, because of this, she built a hill (‘phnom’ means ‘hill’) and a small temple (wat) at what is now the site known as Wat Phnom. Later, the surrounding area became known after the hill (Phnom) and its creator (Penh), hence the name of the city ‘Phnom Penh.’
But besides all the historical significance, I really just want to hang out in a temple and soak up the atmosphere – feeling unsurprisingly down after our visit to Choeung Ek. Nara now drops us at the foot of Wat Phnom in a sort of park-like leafy area in the middle of one of the busiest parts of the city.
We climb the stairs to the main temple to spend a peaceful time sitting on the floor and watching worshippers come and go. There’s a lingering smell of incense and burning oils inside the colourful interior. The whole ceiling, all the walls and the two rows of columns are painted with pictures of the Buddha’s life in gorgeous rich colours while a golden sitting Buddha looks down from a carved lotus flower at one end. Some people are praying, some are giving flowers offerings while one old guy is just chilling out reading a newspaper.
Out through the back exit we find lay women selling incense, candles and flowered leis then lots of stupas and statues of lions. Not sure what that’s all about but can’t be bothered finding out – just want to find the Seeing Hands Massage which is around here somewhere.
Back down in the park, Mark studies the map in the Lonely Planet to work out our bearings. We need to cross the road dodging jumbos, motorbikes and ladies pushing hand carts carrying trays of cooked snails then around a corner to find the Seeing Hands Massage Centre By Blind Persons (as the sign reads) right across the street from the Post Office.
This small, unassuming place is a Cambodian charity that trains the blind in the art of massage. In 2002 we visited the Seeing Hands in Siem Reap so now we want to support this one as well. Up a narrow set of stairs we’re shown to a dark, cramped room set up with about ten massage tables. We’re each given a top and pants (like hospital scrubs) then meet our masseurs. Like the massage we had in Siem Reap, this isn’t all that great and there’s a lot of chatter going on between the blind people but and we enjoy it heaps – and it’s only $8 anyway.
From here we walk around to the riverside where we find a breezy corner café with cane lounge-style chairs and swirling overhead fans. Cold lime sodas with fresh lemon cools us down then an egg salad for me and fish and chips for Mark. Feeling a lot happier until I notice a ragged young woman with a baby strapped to her chest begging on the pavement. I give her money but I feel so sad and can’t get her poor little face out of my mind. Later I go back out again to buy her some food but she’s gone.
What with this and the visit to the Killing Fields, I can’t shake this awful depression and just want to seek refuge back at Narim. It’s good to lie on our bed to cool down and we both manage a sleep.
Later I wander across to our little hairdresser, this time for a facial – can’t deal with the ringlets today. The owner points to the price list to show me that it’s very expensive at $10! Bung gets me to lie on a raised table and the facial starts out with the usual creams, scrubs, steaming (hate that bit) and massage but then she lays something cold and slimy over my whole face except with cutout for my eyes and lips. It’s feels lovely but I wish I could see what it looks like. Bung says ‘pipteen minutes’ and goes off to do something else. Then I get the bright idea of taking a selfie and, oh my God, I look like an alien. I’m covered in a dark green shiny mask that fits my face exactly – excellent!
By now, it’s late afternoon so we make plans for this evening. Mark asks Nara if he can take us to the night market back over near Wat Phnom – always love the night markets in Asia – so off we fly, thrown back into the traffic frenzy once again.
But despite the craziness of the city it has a real buzz – monks whizzing past on the back of motorbikes, hot congested streets, kids playing outside, roadside markets and food being cooked on the pavements. And the area around the market is extra lively as we expected.
And we’re not disappointed to see that this is a true local market with the only tourist stalls catering to the Asian visitors – fake designer brands with misspelt names, sparkly jewellery, cushions, Angkor Wat ashtrays, paper flowers and lots of things for the kids – it’s a real family affair here.
The food and drink stands are in the middle so we check out what’s on offer then carry our plates and fruit shakes over to some tiny plastic stools that you can see at every food stall all over Asia. All over the market are an expanse of floor mats, each one coming with communal tissues, chili sauce, pepper and lime mix. But right now they’re crowded with family groups already chowing down.
As the sun sets we head back to the riverside – a calm respite from the madness of the city. The area close to the river is really pretty with lots of beautiful French colonial architecture and tree lined boulevards. And it’s surprising how many sophisticated cafés and restaurants line this stretch of road. We like the look of the upmarket Anjali Restaurant and head in for our usual Angkor beers and margaritas. An early night.
Saturday 22nd June, 2013
Today we‘re going to try to get to Mao Lim’s temple. We met Mao Lim on Sampeau Mountain just out of Battambang in the north-west of Cambodia in 2002. He invited us to his temple in Phnom Penh but at that time we had his actual address which we’ve now lost. We do have the name of the temple but there are so many of them and this one is a long way out of town anyway so no-one knows how to find it. Oh well, can’t do anything about it. Instead we decide to go to the Russian Market.
Setting off early with Nara, we blaze our way through the crowded streets threading our way through the early morning traffic. Each street around here seems to specialise in one thing – just like in Hanoi – so there’s toy street, flower street, engine street and even teeth street. We also pass a big white marquis set up in the middle of one street with elaborate floral decorations inside and blaring out traditional music. No chance of getting bored in an Asian city!
The Russian Market is a sprawling, congested maze of souvenirs, clothing and food stalls. It’s an assault on the senses, between the stifling heat, the women vendors calling out for us to buy something and the smell of raw fish. But it all comes together to create an amazing experience that epitomizes the richness and vitality of old Phnom Penh itself.
We wander around the colourful market stalls that sell everything from mangosteens to knock-off Levis. This is a haggler’s paradise – two t-shirts at $3 each, a silver chain for me at $38, five sets of silver earrings at $15 each to give as presents and some baby mobiles.
The food section is the best with the usual smell of over-ripe fruit and rotting vegetables and fascinating things being cooked. We want to get something to eat as we haven’t had breakfast as yet. I buy a bag of sweet doughy cakes while Mark orders a beef and rice dish – all good but shit it’s hot in here! Everything is being cooked over coal fires and as we walk past the stalls, red hot coals explode all over the floor. No problem – someone just sweeps them up and all is well again.
Back outside we find a clothes stall selling t-shirts for $2 each so we buy three more. Nara tells us that it’s much cheaper out here so we’ll remember if we come back tomorrow. Now he takes us back to Narim II passing the terrible S21 museum on the way.
Dumping our purchases, we head with Nara back over to the riverside for lunch – I think we probably should have stayed around here as we keep coming back. We could change tonight but we really like where we are anyway. Today we eat in a pretty sidestreet, lush with lots of trees and greenery and lined with lovely cafes. Lunch is a salad for me and a nice soup (no entrails) and French bread for Mark – of course all is washed down with cold lime sodas.
Home again we have our usual afternoon read and nap then head out just as the light begins to fade. Tonight we’re off to Le Royal – Phnom Penh’s grand historic hotel. It’s part of the Raffles group first established in 1929, and in its early days, had a diverse international clientele of backpackers, writers, journalists and distinguished royalty. We came here for happy hour drinks last visit and here we are again all dolled up in our poshest travel clothes. Nara drops us at the stately entrance just on dark.
Like all the Raffles hotels it has an old-world charm of understated grace and unobtrusive luxury that harks to its rich Indochine heritage. The architecture is an inspired blend of Khmer, Art Deco and French Colonial – the perfect mix in my mind. The lobby itself has plush armchairs and antiques all framed with soft white curtains. We wander around the corridors then outside to the pool area fringed with shady frangipani. We vow that one day we’ll come back to stay – for one night anyway.
Back inside we follow a long corridor with a black and white chequered floor to the famous Elephant Bar. This is a beautiful room of colonial elegance with high ceilings, antique furnishings, plush carpets, intricate Khmer fabrics and rattan arm-chairs.
We find a cosy spot where we can watch the other patrons as well as having a good view of the guy serenading us on the grand piano. By warm lamplight we order the first of our happy hour drinks – margaritas for me and beer for Mark. Free salsa and corn chips come with the drinks but we also splash out on calamari, spring rolls and king prawns. The service is fittingly old fashioned and the food presentation is stunning – not usually my thing but this is perfect – wooden bowls and banana leaves on a big wooden tray. And the food is excellent as well so we don’t worry about the price especially in this brilliant setting.
Of course the drinks keep coming and, like I’ve said before, I’m a very cheap drunk. I’m not sure exactly when I start to lose it but I have no recollection of leaving, the ride home or the fact that I was partying with Nara and his friends in our lobby. Thank God I went to bed before I made too much a fool of myself. Poor Mark!
Sunday 23rd June, 2013
Phnom Penh to Kuala Lumpur
Our last day in Phnom Penh. We’re not flying out till late afternoon so, with quite a few hours to kill, we sleep in till 7.30am. Mark has slept badly – coughing again for some reason. He can’t seem to get rid of it. He’s been sick for a month now and needs to see a doctor as soon as we get home.
We’ve got nothing major planned for this morning – just picking up Mark’s clothes from the tailors and I want to have my hair washed and dried (ringlets again).
Breakfast is back at Mammas – coffee with a tomato and onion omelet for Mark and a soda water with bacon and eggs for me – don’t eat the toast or drink the ice – must be getting old and sensible.
Mark’s clothes are ready – surprise, surprise! Two pairs of trousers and three shirts all fit perfectly – only $66! I head then for my favourite little beauty parlour. Bung is there in the doorway and happy to see me in her own stern little way. While she washes my hair (with a thirty minute massage again) another young girl (I can’t understand her name and don’t want to keep saying ‘what?’) gives me a really good manicure and pedicure with polish. All this (which takes over an hour) is a tiny $6! I leave with my Shirley Temple ringlets once again hoping that brushing them out and applying some makeup will be an improvement.
Mark packs while I load our last photos onto Facebook then we throw all our gear into Nara’s tuktuk. On the way to the airport, he takes us to the Russian Market as we want to buy a few extra t-shirts for presents. Now we’re off to catch our plane – only about thirty minutes – it’s Sunday so the traffic isn’t as bad. We give Nara $10 and thank him for being our driver for the last three days.
After making ourselves sick at Hungry Jacks (never again) we take off on Air Asia at 4.40am. A mere one and a half hours later and we’re in Kuala Lumpur landing at 7.35 pm KL time. Very weirdly, the air is thick with smoke creating an eerie sight. Apparently the whole country is like this from forest fires deliberately lit on Sumatra – tragic!
We need to check out our bags then check in again. Eat at McDonalds then a long four hour wait till we fly out on Air Asia at midnight. Mark has an aisle seat and I’m in the middle – very cramped but we manage to get about four hours sleep thanks to a triazepam each.
Monday 24th June, 2013
Land in Sydney on a cold, cloudy day – only twelve degrees. Quick through immigration and customs and very happy to get to Central in time to jump on the 11.15am train home. Lauren and Abi are picking us up at Hamilton Station. Sooooooo happy to be home. Will see my darling Daddy tomorrow.