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Laos seduction

It'll happen slowly, but before you know it this country has infected your heart and won your admiration ... if only I hadn't almost died (yet again) in the process.
Laos is a strange place. Like Cambodia and Vietnam it was colonised by the French, but unlike the other two it was largely ignored by its new master, simply because it had little to offer by way of minerals or strategic positioning. It's small population (only 5-6 million) and relatively large size meant that little work was undertaken by way of infrastructure development and it is still considered one of the poorest countries on Earth by the UN, joining the likes of Somalia and Rwanda. Most houses in Laos, especially the rural and comparatively undeveloped south, are simple constructions of wood, and thatched roofs, and it is clear that with an income of US $230 per year, the average Lao doesn't have too much money to spend on the luxuries of life.

But that's not to say that poverty and famine necessarily follow. While the Lao may be poor in a Western sense, the fertile land the surrounds them means that they are largely self-sufficient, surviving on the crops they grow with little apparent need for outside aid. Lao are effortlessly friendly people and welcome foreigners without the cynical, money-hungry attitude of their SE Asian neighbours. They are laid back, easy going and not easily fazed, even by the most bizarre behaviour of Western falang who prove to be a source of constant laughter for the bewildered locals.

There was little on the Laos side of the border: a cafe, a few houses and a tractor clustered around a dirt road that led off into the distance. The plan was to jump on any bus heading to the town of Savannakhet and be there for dinner. A simple plan, you'd think.

These two young girls kept me company while waiting for 24-hours at a two-hut village 100 metres on the Laos-Vietnam border. Enlarge »
I walked up to the cafe attendant, pointed to where the road kissed the horizon in the distance and asked "Savannakhet?"

He just smiled and nodded, so I thought I'd drill for more details. "Bus when?" I asked, pointing to my watch to show him what I meant. He just smiled and nodded, holding up eight fingers in the air. "Eight o'clock?" I asked, holding up eight fingers as well. He just smiled and nodded.

It was two in the afternoon, so I sat at his cafe eating noodle soup and reading my guidebook for over seven hours until nine, when it became abundantly clear that there would be no bus to Savannakhet tonight.

"Savannakhet?" I asked him again, pointing to my watch impatiently. He just smiled and nodded, holding up eight fingers in the air. "But it's nine thirty," I said, pointing again to my watch and holding up nine fingers. He just smiled and nodded, holding up eight fingers again and then tracing an upside down U with his finger. This could only mean one thing: "Tomorrow morning?!" I incredulously asked, repeating his motions. He just smiled and nodded.

Luckily the cafe owner's wife took pity on me and, after a good chuckle at the crazy falang who had assumed he could get a bus on the day he wanted, let me sleep in one of their bedrooms overnight. I thanked her profusely using my rudimentary Lao and gave her 10,000 kip (AUS $2) in payment.

Every time we hit a pothole ... the hinges that held together the fragile frame of our cabin would creak and groan in agony, the occasional bolt would pop out and my desire for a quick end would jump a notch.
Laos is a country that forces you to slow down. Getting around the country is a time consuming, arduous process, and local transport, where available, tests the limits of your resolve. When the 'bus' to Savannakhet arrived at 8 the next morning, for example, it was nothing more than an aging Russian truck cab with a weathered wooden cabin bolted onto the back. About seventy of us were crammed into, above, and on the sides of the cabin along with three farms worth of livestock and rice, before beginning the agonizing 220 km crawl to Savannakhet over the most horrific roads you can imagine and past countless fields worryingly marked 'DANGER: UXO' to indicate that unexploded US bombs from the Vietnam War have still rendered much of the countryside uninhabitable.

The next ten hours of potholes, diesel fumes, dust and heat had me wishing for death hourly. Every time we hit a pothole (i.e., every five seconds) the hinges that held together the fragile frame of our cabin would creak and groan in agony, the occasional bolt would pop out and my desire for a quick end would jump a notch. But after a day on the road, two breakdowns and a whole lot of sunburn I finally made it, encrusted with dust, to Savannakhet.

Despite laying claim to being one of the big four cities in Laos ('big' being a relative concept in a country of 5 million people), Savannakhet resembles a sleepy riverside ghost town. With dirt roads, almost nobody on the streets and little to hold your attention, I only spent a quick night in the city before heading to the bus station. Undecided where to head next, I relied on a newfound decision making tool: a coin. Heads and I would go the coffee plantations of the Bolaven Plateau, tails and it'd be the laid-back charm of Si Phan Don.

Si Phan Don it was.

This photo was taken by yet another instant friend while trying to hitch a canoe to take me over the river to Don Det. It took me over two hours to get a passing fisherman's attention. Enlarge »
Slap bang at the bottom of Laos near the Cambodian border, Si Phan Don (literally 'Four Thousand Islands') is an archipelago of islands that span a 19 km wide stretch of the Mekong River. The fishing and farming communities of the islands are largely self-sufficient, and a few of them have built simple bamboo bungalows overlooking the river for foreigners wanting to get away from it all. After a two day 'bus' ride (this time a ute with two wooden benches in the cargo tray) to Nakasong village, it was only a quick canoe ride to the electrcity-free, phone-free and therefore hassle-free island of Don Det, where I quickly discovered that not only was it New Year's Eve, but that thanks to the influx of falangs who had arrived that day, there were no bungalows free.

After finally settling down on somebody's balcony hammock, I took a look around the tiny island. Palm tress skirt the edges of this 1.5 sq km island while the interior is dominated by dried up rice-paddies, simple houses and grazing land for livestock. As the sun set over 2001 on this bizarre mix of farm and beach, and as I dangled my feet into the Mekong while discussing new year's resolutions with a Berkley hippy, I quietly muttered to myself, "The coin has chose well. Long live the coin. All hail the coin."

The small community of Don Det had decided to go all out for NYE 2001, canoeing in some impressive speakers, and a generator to power them, especially for the night. Throughout the afternoon a Perth landscape gardener had taken it upon himself to direct the preparations, and someone had even constructed a huge standing xylophone out of bamboo and even an impressive bonfire on the beach. As the night progressed and the local spirit 'lao lao' flowed amid much dancing, drinking, smoking and debauchery I reflected that there were certainly many worse ways to be spending New Years Eve. Long live the coin. All hail the coin.

The next morning I awoke feeling slightly worse for wear but content that it had been worth it. Over a breakfast of eggs on toast I chatted with two Canadian girls who had embarked on a rather ambitious trip from Vietnam to Spain overland while planning where to go next. After recounting my previous typhoon- tainted experience on a small island (you all remember Malapascua in the Philippines?) the girls laughed and wondered what catastrophe would hamper my fun on Don Det. No way, I laughed, I'd had my fill of near death experiences.

It's a bad photo, taken by a heavily intoxicated reveller in non-existent light with camera of dubious quality at 3 am on New Year's Day. The only reason it's here is because of the rather impressive dimensions of a fellow traveller's, ahem, cigarette. Enlarge »
And that's when I proceeded to get very, very, very sick.

At first I thought it was just a normal case of gastro / diarrhoea, but the high fever, acute nausea and body aches that accompanied it suggested something more serious. I consulted my Lonely Planet and managed to narrow the symptoms to those of malaria, dysentery, liver flukes or even the usually fatal and not-so-pleasant Japanese B Encephalitis. That's the problem with getting a case of gastro in South East Asia, until it clears up, you're never entirely sure whether it's the result of a dodgy curry, or an exotic brain-haemorrhaging bark worm. After two and a half days without eating and throwing up everything I drank, I was near death and ready to consult a doctor, even if he was 4 hours away. I ambled down to the bungalow owner to check out, but she just took one look at me, hurried into her room and returned with a cup of foul-smelling tea.

"Drink this," she said, "and if still sick tomorrow you go doctor."

Still a bit nervous about strangers giving me drugs after the you-know-what incident, I cautiously downed the drink, along with four Panadol to get me to sleep and prayed I could keep it all down.

That's the problem with getting a case of gastro in South East Asia, until it clears up, you're never entirely sure whether it's the result of a dodgy curry, or an exotic brain-haemorrhaging bark worm.
The next morning I awoke to the sounds of the Mekong rushing by my door and, as I stepped outside, I felt great. I rushed over to the owner and thanked her for the medicine.

"What was it?" I asked her. "Family secret," she replied with a smile.

Who was I to argue?

About this time I moved into a bungalow owned by "Mr Tho" and his family away from most falangs, where I spent the next four days drinking, laughing and playing cards with an insane Brit, a pleasant American girl, British/American couple, an easily baited Italian, a great Israeli guy and a dreadlocked vegan anarchist who was always hyping up the impending 'revolution'. By nights we would sit down with a few others to meals of steamed fish in banana leaves, coconut curries and lentils served with Laos national dish of sticky rice that Mr Tho's family had prepared on the floor of their simple kitchen using nothing but a fire in the corner.

On the 4th of Jan, which also happened to be my birthday, I was even treated to a birthday 'rice puddling', a candle, and copious quantities of beer. And as I sat there, celebrating the passing of yet another year with a group of total strangers, it occurred to me that this wasn't at all unusual. In fact it was, for want of a better word, normal.

These newly-found friends on the laid back isle of Don Det helped me herald in the dawn of yet another year of commitment-phobic global wandering. If you're wondering what the white stains are on our clothes, they're stains from the bags of cement that the guesthouse owner, Mr Tho, charmed us all into carrying for him all day. Enlarge »
After fourteen weeks on the road, my definition of normal life has been somewhat warped. Mastering a new language, culture and country every couple of weeks; being constantly amazed and hypnotised by new sights, sounds, and smells; befriending dozens of new people each day that I would normally never have even met; flipping a coin to decide my next move; sleeping in a new bed every night; standing by the roadside in a country backwater trying to hitch a lift to the next village; living out of a backpack; surviving on my own … for me, these are all standard aspects of life now.

I have trouble conjuring up images of home now, and I even stopped dreaming about friends and family a while ago. For me, change has now become the only constant in my life. Travelling to new places each day has taken on a strange degree of familiarity as it is transformed from being the exceptional experience of a lifetime, to the regular day-to-day life I'm now living.

God knows what'll happen when I return in March.

After finally dragging myself away from the lazy days of Don Det, and after a few lazy hours perched on the roof of a northbound passenger truck, wedged between a basketful of angrily clucking chickens and a grinning local who insisted on shaking my hand every three minutes, I toured the ancient ruins of Champasak with a guitar toting British girl named Caroline before returning to the town of Pakse, flipping a coin (I had to give the Bolaven Plateau one last chance) but ultimately boarding a bus to the capital Vientiane.

Having just endured a sixteen hour ride of torture I'd rather not repeat, I'm left wondering where to go and what to see: temples, pagodas, or just a good ol' fashioned hill tribe?

Dammnit, where's that coin?

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