A Travellerspoint blog

November 2010

Savannahket

overcast 26 °C

After we left the island we boarded a shared bus to take us back to Pakse (10,000k, $1.10 each) . On the bus we picked up a lot of rice, a few locals and some ducks (who weren’t far from the pot ((in both senses: apparently they get livestock stoned before they transport them)) we figured).

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At Pakse bus station we booked a bus to Savannahket more easily than we expected, 35,000k each and it was due in about 20 minutes. Simple! When it arrived it was a rather rickety affair and was apparently VIP.....hmmmm. Nevertheless, it had windows that opened and (5!!) friendly helpful staff onboard. The only annoyance was the amount the driver used the horn, for everything from indicating to cars coming towards us on our side of the road, to cars coming towards us on their side of the road, to cows by the side of the road, to people safe in their houses. Everything. All the way. And to do it he had to touch two exposed wires on the dashboard together....nice.

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A few hours later we arrived in Savannahket and started the 3km walk from the bus station to the hotel Susie had found in the good old Lonely Planet. It was a long old walk in the sun and when we got there it was full! Gah! So we were directed down the road to another hotel LP really didn’t rave about, but which only charged 25,000k ($3 for both of us) a night! Amusingly the guide described the staff as “utterly indifferent” and indeed they were. Ah well for that much money, who can complain!

We then set off on back the way we had just come to find our main reason for coming to Savannahket, the much famed Dinosaur Museum! Unfortunately we hadn’t accounted for the French legacy of public buildings (which is alot of buildings in a communist country...) closing on the weekends and it was shut! Also, as it was Saturday it meant we wouldn’t be able to go the next day either. Very sad times indeed!
Undaunted, we continued our walk and found a rather nice looking boulevard complete with a church at the end of it - St Teresa’s!

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John also got rather excited about all the rather dilapidated but authentic French colonial buildings everywhere, Susie didn’t.

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On the boulevard we went for a Chinese – Laos style, which was far too spicy for Susie but John enjoyed it (and they even had tescos ketchup!).
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We then went to a rather nice and posh looking bar on the river. It was very overpriced and seemed to be intended to cater for Thai tastes (judging by the indecipherable menu). It would have been a great idea in London or on any river in any well used city, however here it just looked run down and unused. You can get to Thailand from Savannahket – its just across the river....

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But very few people do because the town on the other side doesn’t have a train line. The nearest one is next to Pakse. Ah well, a good idea, perhaps one day. After a much needed beerlao the sun was starting to set so we headed back to our hotel. Bit of a boring day really, though it was quite nice to see a bit of ‘real’ Laos, especially the exposed wires on a lamppost, covered by a water cylinder cut in half...

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n the morning we walked back to get the bus to Vieng Kham. On the way we got a sandwich....picture says it all....

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Posted by John_713 02:27 Archived in Laos Tagged savannahket Comments (0)

To Pakse and beyond

sunny 26 °C

Once we got to the mainland, we were all bundled (surprisingly efficiently) onto minibuses headed for various locations around Laos and Cambodia! Our 2 hour journey to Pakse only lasted about 3 hours (not bad compared to the last two journeys!), and we arrived at about 2pm. We checked into a hotel (60,000kip ($8), which buys you a proper toilet and hot shower, but unfortunately not a softer bed!). We then headed out to get some munch, and lo and behold, there were two Indians right down the street. Hurrah! We had one spinach and potato, and one kidney bean and tomato, with rice and cheesy naan bread. Tasty tasty! However, apparently Susie ate too much again (always happens with Indians somehow), and she spent the rest of the afternoon with a sore stomach and feeling quite dozy!

After our late lunch, we went to the Tourist Information Office, to find out about our options. We wanted to do a trek, but at $150+ per person, there’s unfortunately going to be no trekking for us, boo. However, we found out about homestays on Don Kho, a small island 15km away, which is going to be our next port of call. We then had a wander around the (very limited) sights of Pakse, (although note to any travellers – there are LOADS of ATMs here, so don’t panic about money – we had issues finding out about this before we came!), went to an internet cafe for a while, and then went back and got an early night (there doesn’t seem to be anything to do anywhere at night, so it’s lots of 8pm bedtimes for us!).

We started the next day with a very tasty (and local) breakfast of noodle soup, which comes with various accompaniments that you can add yourself, such as green beans, lime, chilli, fish sauce, a herb that’s similar to mint but we’re not sure it is, etc. We both accidentally added too much chilli, but it was very yummy none the less.

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After our brekkie, we went and spent a while on the internet downloading a few things, went back to our room and made the most of a long, warm shower (it’s been a while since we had a consistently hot shower. Mmmmm), and then after a little wander, returned to the curry place for lunch (slightly smaller this time so Susie’s stomach didn’t explode!).

Then it was time to sort out getting to Ban Saphai, the village on the mainland next to Don Kho. We tried to get a local sawngthaew (translates as ‘two rows’ and are just covered trucks with a bench down either side), but this proved to be beyond us, so we got a jumbo (Lao tuk-tuk) for a far too high a price, despite our best bargaining. Grr! However, we arrived at the beautifully peaceful Don Kho, via a initially pleasant, but ultimately annoying boat jouney, when at the end the driver demanded three times more than his mate had said on the shore. We reluctantly paid up, feeling it was unwise to annoy the locals when we were hoping to stay in one of their houses, and hoping that this island proved itself worthy of the money we were spending getting there!

When we first arrived on the island, the first person we saw was a European guy wandering around the pagoda. So much for getting off the tourist trail! He pointed us towards the main path, and at the first house we asked about homestay. The woman made a phone call, and then proceeded, along with her neighbour, to try to sell us the silk sarongs that she'd made; Don Kho is famous for silk making, and all the women here have a loom underneath their houses. Apparently you can learn, and Susie did want to, but once she'd seen how complicated the looms were, she gave up on that idea! Anyway, 5 minutes later, after we'd admired their sarongs, but insisted that we didn't want to buy one, a cheery, fat monk showed up, who sent us off with another lady. She was in charge of our homestay, and took us back past the pagoda to our home for the night...
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Our room was nicer than we expected, with a proper (if very uncomfortable) bed, but unfortunately was seperated from the families area by a door that they kept carefully shut all the time. In fact, the whole time we were there, the family didn't seem too bothered about really spending any time with us, despite our best efforts. The language barrier was naturally a problem, but other than the main woman, none of them tried to communicate anything more that hello in any way and didn't stick around for long enough for us to try to talk to them, and even the main woman only spoke to us to the level needed to tell us what we needed to know, or to answer our direct questions.

So, seeing as we felt a bit in the way, we went out for a walk. It started nicely enough, past lots of friendly locals, who all had a cheery 'sa bai dee' (hello) for us as we went by. We followed the edge of the island, that led us to a cow field...
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...a short detour later, we got to the village on the far side of the island, where we had a nice wander, and finally paddled in the Mekong river (after spending so much time on/near it!)
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Well, do you???

Then we headed up into THE WORST FOREST EVER at the south end of the island. A very stressful, ant infested, scratching branch filled, mosquito biting 100 mile (well 2km or so) trek later, we finally emerged the other side, mentally and physically scarred!
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It looks innocent, but IT WASN'T!
We went back to our house, where we were joined by another British girl who was going to be staying in the same house as us. We went and watched some of the family we were staying with and their neighbours harvest their rice outside.
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We also wandered around, saw a boy fishing....
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...looked at the local pagoda...
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....and watched island life go (slowly and infrequently) by. When we returned to the house, we watched our hostess cook dinner....
...and tried to offer to help, but weren’t really able to. It was fun to see how she cooked the food though.
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We went up to the house, and a little while later she brought our dinner up to us. We had sticky rice (Lao fave), with a tasty beef and vegetable stir fry, and a yummy, if very spicy, dipping sauce, followed by papaya.. We ate on the floor, and felt very local, but unfortunately the family took their meal into the room next door, so we couldn’t eat with them.
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After dinner, we all played cards for a while, John was a man and killed a horrible huge bug with a shovel head, and then had fun cleaning our teeth in the little bathroom....
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...and then went to bed.

I think we can both honestly say that we’ve had better night’s sleep! The very uncomfortable bed combined nicely with the cockerels outside, the monks banging at massive drum at 4am, and the insects outside! We pulled ourselves out of bed at about 6:30am, since the family had been up since 5:30 when it got light, we felt it was about time we started our day too! We had a little wander round, and watched the sun rise over the river. It was very beautiful and peaceful, and lovely knowing that you were on an island with no tourists, outside us 3, and all the locals just going about their mornings business.
We went back to our house, and had breakfast; more rice, this time with chicken soup, another dip, and bananas. After breakfast, it was time to pack up and head back off on the boat.
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Overall, we did enjoy our homestay, and we wouldn’t rule out doing another one, but it didn’t allow us to feel as integrated as we hoped it would. It just felt like being in a guesthouse really, and the family didn’t really seem that interested in us, or in showing us about their lives. It did give you a really good feeling of how they lived though, and perhaps we were just expecting too much from it. Plus it was really quite expensive - 80,000 kip each including food, which is double what we've been paying for a hotel and two meals each in the rest of Laos. The guidebook, and I assume most people, justify it by saying that it's giving money to some of the poorer families in Laos, but this family was really well off compared to some of the people we met at Grace House; they had electricity, a fridge, a tv, their own toilet, etc. Whilst it was nice to see how they lived, it would have been nice to have been invited into their lives a little more - both helping out and socialising - since we paid them for one night, between the 3 of us, $30, which is the monthly salary of a teacher in Cambodia. There just seemed to be an element of the tourist cash cow about it, which is what we really wanted to get away from.

Oh well, we're learning lessons all the time, and finding out more about what we do and don't want to do, and where we do and don't want to go! Onwards to Savannaket!

Posted by John_713 00:52 Archived in Laos Tagged homestay don_kho pakse homestay_don_kho pakse_atm Comments (0)

Don Det, a 4000 island adventure...

sunny 30 °C

4000 Islands, Don Det and Don Khon
Having braved the border, the bus, the other bus and the boat, it was now time for our reward, the idyllic river islands of Don Det and Don Khon! Of course we had arrived in the dark and having spent not too long choosing a hostel – squat toilet, hammock outside, 30,000kip ($4), called Nouphit, we’d grabbed something unmemorable to eat and slumped into bed.

In the morning Susie woke up at sunrise and soon dragged John out of bed to see our impressive room with a view’s view....
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After taking it in for a while we decided to go for an explore and set out to walk around the island. In the early morning light the rice fields and bungalows looked incredible, as did the waterside. All of the Lao were of course already busy at work.....

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herding buffalo

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(including 3 boys who thought leading a buffalo down a slope and back up again was the best game ever)...

going to school or ferrying supplies on their little boats,

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as well as loads of pigs!.

We walked for the best part of an hour down the longer west side of the island where the buildings, though always few, faded to just a trickle. Perfect! At the end of the island we were presented with a rather surreal object to fill this rural land. A French arched railway bridge, complete with ruined tracks! The bridge had been a failed attempt by the French to make the Mekong and the islands into a trading route to China. This railway was, until recently, the only bit of railway ever built in Laos!
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After this sight we continued on up the shorter side of the island and saw similar views of beautiful fields and farms and returned to ‘civilization’. We had a slightly overpriced but very necessary baguette (Laos bread is amazing, one thing to thank the French for!) with eggs and tomatoes for breakfast, had a chill and soon it was lunch time. This was another disappointing meal of cucumber....and not alot else.
Time for another walk! The bridge we had seen earlier is the link from Don Det to Don Khon, the more refined of the two islands. We set off down what would have been the railway route down the centre of the island from Don Det village pier..... to Don Khon. Unfortunately crossing the bridge is 20,000Kip each (about $3) and although according to most people we spoke to its easily dodged, we paid it in the hope it goes to someone who needs it. After crossing we headed for the “small” waterfall about 1km away.

When we arrived Susie thought this was it.....
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But it actually looked more like this.....
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Amazing!

Also we’d heard there was still a rusting locomotive from the old railway next to the tracks, a little way from where we crossed, which John was expectedly excited about. Needless to say he made sure we found it.....
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As we walked back the sun was starting to set so we cruised up to Mr Happy’s bar to watch it come down. We were worried the clouds would preclude any postcard images but actually they added to the effect....
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Once it was down they turned the lights off so we assumed it was our cue to leave. We headed back to the hostel area for dinner, yet another disappointing meal of Laap chicken, a spicy lime dish with rice. Dubious. Then it was off to bed, Susie had white water rafting on her mind for the morning......

Day two....we didn’t go rafting, you might be pleased to read, but we did go on a quest for lunch at “the veggie patch” a western farm which had just that day started to do food, and veggie lasagne was on the menu. Slightly expensive at 50,000k a portion, we shared one between us and wow was it tasty! Also we found out that the owners hadn’t been living there long and intended to grow all their own food in their rather inviting garden. Good luck to them *Susie hopes John doesn’t get any ideas of running away to Laos islands to be a farmer......*.
Between chilling in our hammocks and learning Japanese, we had samosas from a street seller for afternoon tea, which were also amazing and they became the plan for bus snacks the next day, and managed to get some dinner. Where we finally found some great food cooked by Lao, pumpkin burgers from Mama Tanon’s Rasta Cafe, which went especially well with the ketchup they had on the island. Roza, the best either of us had ever tasted! A bit of star gazing and then bed.. Ha what a lazy day compared to the first, but at least we’d found some food worth eating!
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In the morning we’d booked ourselves on a boat to go to our next destination, Pakse and headed to the samosa lady for supplies but.....she wasn’t there! Bad bad times! Oh well. At the pier ready to go we joined the best part of 40 other tourists also heading away from paradise, we were bundled into the boats and headed for the mainland.......

Posted by John_713 04:29 Archived in Laos Tagged don_det 4000_islands si_phon_don nouphit Comments (1)

Cambodia to Laos...to Cambodia...to Laos....ARGH!

Never trust border guards.

overcast 27 °C

When we arrived in Kratie we booked seats on a bus from there to Nakasang in Laos. The bus was meant to leave at 12 the next day, great we thought, its 4 hours and we’ll be on Don Det for sunset. The next day came and the bus didn’t. In fact it didn’t come for two hours! When a bus did arrive, it wasn’t the one we’d been booked on, but another which was headed all the way to Vientiane. Fortunately this did mean it went past where we wanted to go so we got on board and headed to our.....beds! A sleeper bus in Cambodia, well there’s a first time for everything, though it would be a long way to fall from the top bunk!
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The main worry over the bus being late was whether we would be able to get a visa at the Laos border. We’d read a few blogs which had hinted the visa on arrival service only ran normal office hours (and god knows what they’d be in sleepy Laos!) so at the very latest we’d want to arrive at the border was 5pm. We’d opted to get a visa on the border rather than in advance because it was $55 from Siem Reap or anywhere from $20 to $35 on the day. A gamble, but a worthy one, we hoped.

So we set off in that hope but weren’t too impressed when the bus we’d literally just got on, stopped so that some people could use and ATM, and we were even less impressed when it stopped 5 minutes outside Kratie so the drivers could eat their lunch! Anyway, we were now 2 ½ hours late and 5pm didn’’t seem so far away. After a few hours of napping we woke up to find the bus had dropped even further behind schedule for some reason making our hopes seem desperate. At 5:30pm the bus slowed, and slowed and stopped in the middle of nowhere next to a field. People got off for the usual fag break but the truth seemed to come out when a random moto drew up with a big barrel of something golden. We’d run out of petrol! Once that was filled lo and behold the bus wouldn’t start which meant the people outside had to push the double decker down the road to jump start it! With a big cheer it appeared to have worked but it was now nearly 6 and was getting darker by the minute.

10kms and half an hour later we arrived at the Cambodian border to find.....noone there! We all stood around clueless until from the distance a few motos and a suitcase carrying man in uniform arrived. We handed them our passports and the customary $1 for the Laos immigration retirement fund and headed down the dark road to the Laos side of the border. By this point we were pretty convinced it was going to cost an arm and a leg to get across, with some people banding about figures of $70 or more! Amazingly when we got there a very friendly border guard greeted us and quoted “just” $36! PHEW! All our fears of having to spend the night on the road were gone. We handed him our visa papers and passports and went to wait at the next window......

“John?!” came the call from the window.
“Yes?”
“No stamp.”
“Sorry?”
“No Cambodia stamp”
“You what?”
“No Cambodia exit stamp, go back and get one and we give you Laos entry stamp.”
“Errrrrrrrrrrrrr”
So John ran back down the road, where he couldn’t see his feet for the darkness, to the Cambodian border, where of course they’d all gone home. He then ran back panicked and spoke to the bus drivers who didn’t speak the best of English. They told him they didn’t have their number to call. Panic x 10. The drivers then spoke to Laos immigration who suggested he leave his passport there, go to nagasang for the night and come and get it in the morning. Well Nagasang was only 40 minutes away but that didn’t seem like the best idea. The discussions continued.....
Then a moto appeared and John was told to get on board. He did and headed off into the night back towards Cambodia......
The driver of the moto was one of the staff from the bus, but even in the dark he drove like he was in the motogp. Not the most reassuring position to be in for only my fourth moto ride! We stopped at the first house on the nearly deserted road and the driver explained the situation. Of course the locals didn’t have a clue but motioned us towards a bungalow a way down the road. Reluctantly the driver got me back onboard and we headed off into the night. Next stop was a military barracks where a rather rotuned and cantankerous officer was summoned from his bed (without a shirt on I might add.) (Moobs I might further add.) He seemed fairly miffed but sent us even further down the road. As we walked back to the moto I realised the driver had been keeping my passport in the basket on the front of the moto, marginally less safe than my pocket, so I rescused it. As I got onto the moto the other officer turned off the generator for their house and we were plunged into almost complete darkeness and then the moto wouldn’t start.....
Here we go I thought! Middle of nowhere, soldiers, half a Laos visa, half left Cambodia, eugh, stressful. Fortunately it turned out the driver had just forgotten to turn the key on the moto, maybe I wasn’t the only stressed one. Next stop was a house. With dogs. Who barked. Alot. This was a mistake and actually we wanted the building across the street. Thankfully the dogs didn’t bite! This building was the immigration office and more semi uniformed men emerged to fix my exit stamp. In the end it was so simple to fix. A simple stamp and date. And this time it didn’t even cost me a dollar! How nice of them.....
Back onto the moto to head back to the bus which was hopefully still waiting for us. The driver seemed to go even quicker this time and I really thought we were going to fall off. As you’re reading this now you can see that I didn’t and the bus was indeed waiting. Hurrah! All it took was another $2 to pay for the moto (which incidently belonged to a random Laos 12 yr old who had happened to be passing) and I was able to reboard the bus, visa in hand, legally exited Cambodia, relieved and ready to be on an island somewhere peaceful.

So the bus set off again (hopefully for the last time!) and it wasn’t long before we were told to get off because we’d finally arrived at Nakasang, where a boat would take us to Don Det. Noone really explained how this would all work though so we were pretty much dumped by the side of the road, all 20 of us, in the dark. Nice. Before too long a man appeared from somewhere and told us to get into his truck for a ride to the water. It would cost $3 rather than $2, due to the late hour (7:30pm), but would include our boat to the island. Now the truck did have seats but after perhaps 5 of us had got on with our bags we soon realised all 20 of us were not going to fit....comfortably. With 5 on the roof and a big squash we did all fit and in 15 minutes we were at the jetty. A similar situation transpired with the boat (though no one on the roof this time) and I have no idea how we all managed to fit in the end! Once again we set off into the night, on water this time, and headed for the dim lights in the distance which we hoped were Don Det. We landed on the shore happy to have arrived. We weren’t picky about where we stayed for the night and found the first place we could which didn’t have a queue. 30,000Kip a night did us just fine, even if it did mean cold showers, no sink and a squat toilet, but we were here! 4 hours later than we should have been but legal and a little wiser!

Posted by Susiep539 19:15 Archived in Cambodia Tagged laos cambodia_laos_border laos_visa don_det Comments (0)

To Kratie!

Buses shouldn't break down!

overcast 27 °C

So, we woke up stupidly early, at 4am, in order to be ready to be picked up for our 5:30am bus to Kratie, in the Northeast of Cambodia. By 5:25 we were beginning to worry slightly, so we woke up the poor security guard, who phoned the bus company.. They sent someone over in a tuk-tuk to pick us up, and as we got to town, we flagged the bus down in the middle of the street, and transferred ourselves over to it. The journey promised to our first excessive bus journey, of 8 hours, so we settled down. Luckily the bus wasn’t too full, so we had two seats each, and after watching the sunrise, we settled down to sleep. However, peaceful slumber was not to be; as the bus thundered down the road, we were woken by an almighty crash, as one of the tyres burst! We fell asleep again as the bus got the tyre mended, and woke up an hour later as the bus set off again. For the next 4 hours, John mostly slept, whilst Susie watched interesting things out of the window, such as people harvesting rice using oxen, cows being driven to market, lots of ladies riding along on top of a truck full of bricks, various sculpture makers, a large group of men in a cafe intently watching a WWF wrestling match, and a man on moto with a trailer with two massive jars on, each with a small child in it!
We suddenly stopped at 11am, and were told to change buses. This time we were lucky enough to have aircon, but there were less seats, so poor Susie had to deal with John lolling all over her as he slept! Another looooong 4 and a half hours later, we arrived in Kratie at 3pm, 9 and a half hours after we’d left Siem Reap. Hurray!

We got settled into Yon Hong guesthouse, into a $5 a night room with a private bathroom, and then wandered into Kratie and bought our bus tickets to take us to Laos tomorrow. Kratie is nice, very untouristy really, but really quite small. We then got a tuk-tuk out to see the Irrawaddy dolphins – the main reason we’d chosen here as our stop off point. The tuk-tuk ride out, 20km through lots of villages, was very pretty, and as ever, we enjoyed all the kids getting excited at waving to us! We got to Kampi, where the dolphins are, paid our $9 conservation and boat fee, and set off, onto the beautiful Mekong river. It was so calm and picturesque, as we went across. We saw really quite a few dolphins, about 7 different ones we think which, when there are now only about 80 in the whole Mekong, isn’t bad really! Some of them were fairly close to the boat, but they’re not as inquisitive or playful as other dolphins, so we didn’t manage to get any good pictures unfortunately.
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Susie on the boat

On the way back, the sun started to set, and it was just beautiful. The whole sky was pink and orange, and it was all reflected in the river. Just perfect! It lasted us most of the tuk-tuk ride back, before night fell and the hundreds of bugs started. Yuck! When we got back, we got some fried noodles where we’re staying, and fell into bed.

Posted by Susiep539 19:13 Archived in Cambodia Tagged bus siem_reap kratie irrawaddy_dolphins Comments (0)

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