After Vang Vieng, the majority of travellers head to Vientiane and then get the bus to Hanoi in Vietnam, without making time to visit Southern Laos. I really wanted to go to Si Phan Don though (commonly known as the Four Thousand Islands) because of a Ben Fogle programme I watched on Channel 5. I realise that this is scraping the bottom of the television barrel but it was actually an amazing programme about people who quit their hectic lives and move to remote parts of the world. It’s also quite fun watching Fogle trying to be Bear Grylls – Ben, if you want to achieve this maybe leave your bright blue Gant knitwear at home when going squirrel hunting in the remote forests of Alaska! One of the episodes was about an English guy who moved to Si Phan Don and set up life in a small hut, it looked incredible! He helped the local people with building a community centre and it looked like a really peaceful place that should definitely be on my list to visit.
Before I tell you about Si Phan Don though, it is important to understand that getting there from Northern Laos is not necessarily going to be the most pleasant experience of your life. Laos doesn’t quite have the travel infrastructure of Thailand, which I think adds to its charm and makes it more adventurous, but might also result in some frustration! What I am about to tell you might put you off altogether, but I honestly think it’s worth it as I had the best time on Don Det island ( one of the Four Thousand Islands!). Unless you are a princess who expects a developing country to lay out a red carpet for you wherever you go, then make the journey! I promise you will not be disappointed ( if you are, I am not liable!).
So, I convinced Ebru and Veronica that it would be nice to visit Thom Kong Lor cave on the way to Don Det and because they are so lovely and easy going they happily agreed to join me! The first bus was going to be a long journey of around 9 hours to get to the caves. I was expecting a tourist bus but it was a local one, which I was happy with nonetheless. I think the girls would agree that it wasn’t the nicest bus by any means! Halfway into the journey, I was happily reading up on Don Det in my guidebook, when something brown that looked a lot bird poo dripped onto my book! Now I realise a lot of people would be disgusted and angry, but it’s not exactly the bus companies fault that a bird had decided to set up home in its air conditioning unit! I found it gross but also hilarious, especially when a local Laos man came over to help me and banged on the air con to make sure the unidentified creature moved along to poop on another unsuspecting victim. The bus stopped halfway so we could get some food, and by food I mean Oreos and Pringles. My general rule is don’t eat from roadside cafes in Asia, and I think it is a safe bet! Thailand may be the exception, but in Laos it doesn’t look very appetising and my idea of a bus snack is not dried buffalo skin or fertilised eggs – maybe I am just being a fusspot! We were relieved when our bus finally arrived at the tiny Kong Lo village. The view from our balcony was totally worth the long journey and look how happy Ebru is here to be here. Fit!
The village had only a handful of other tourists and it was perfect – buffalo, rice paddies, mountains and lots of baby farm animals! I literally could have spent all day chasing ducklings around and stroking puppies but that’s because I have the mind of a child most of the time. If you are a grown up, you can just have a beer and watch the sunset! Our guesthouse was lovely and they had chocolate ice cream! We all went to bed very early ready to explore the caves tomorrow.
When we woke up, it was absolutely chucking it down, so we had to wait till the afternoon to go to the cave. When we arrived, a man took us to his row boat and then after a short walk we reached the mouth of the cave and got into a motor boat. The cave was quite impressive, a 7km tunnel under the mountain with lit up stalagmites and stalactites. However, was it worth the 9 hour + journey – sadly not! We were only in the cave for about 2 hours as the guide seemed to be in a hurry. He also didn’t speak English, which I obviously don’t expect, but it does make tours more interesting. It annoys me when people moan about guides having poor English when they have only paid a measly few dollars. Newsflash – not everyone wants to learn English and not everyone wants to bend over backwards for tourists. You get what you pay for and of course if I paid a lot of money for a cultural tour and the guide didn’t speak English then I would be disappointed. But if they are just a transport service, like they were for the caves, then you just have to hope you get lucky. A lot less people speak English in Laos, as tourism is still a work in progress, and I think this is what makes Laos great! Sometimes it’s fun to muddle your way across a country, especially when most places you visit almost make it too easy and convenient. Here is a pic from the caves, which whilst nice may not be worth it, especially if you plan to go to Vietnam which has much better caves!
Now I know I just said that bus travel through Laos is exciting and more adventurous than Thailand, but it can also be a pain in the arse and make you doubt anyone who tells you how a long a journey will be. This is what happened on our onward journey from Thom Kong Lo to Pakse where we would get the bus and boat to Don Det. I would like to point out that a miracle happened this day – I didn’t lose my temper until the very end of the day and even then I did so very quietly with lots of swearing under the breath, teeth grinding and unimpressed glares. Those of you who know me well will appreciate that this is quite an achievement because I have been known to completely lose my shit and be a totally pain in the arse diva! So I expect a few messages of congratulations please 🙂 Here is our day in all its glory and looking back on it, it was quite amusing!
6.30am – Our lovely guesthouse host had arranged for us to get the bus early that morning. It was hammering down as usual and we had our breakfast whilst he waited to flag down the bus. When a small truck with some benches in the back pulled up, we thought to ourselves that this must be the transport to the bus, which is quite common in Asia. However, we soon realised we were mistaken – this was the bus that would take us to Thakhek and it would take 5.5 hours!!!! The truck was full to bursting with locals, plus some chickens and ducklings – a real local experience but not one I would like to repeat because I lost all feeling in my bum! A bench is not a suitable substitute for an actual seat and it was so bumpy!
12pm – We arrived at the bus station to get our 7 hour bus to Pakse. The ticket officer told us the bus would arrive at 1pm so we grabbed some snacks and had a rest. This was the smelliest bus station I have ever experienced, thanks to a large basket of unidentifiable ‘snack’ food which I later found out was dried buffalo skin complete with wirey hairs. YUM!! Here it is, if you would like some I will take orders and it should reach you in a few weeks. It’s dried food so it should make it through customs!
3.30pm – So apparently our 1pm bus broke down but this wasn’t information that the ticket office thought was worth sharing. Bus eventually arrives at 3.30pm and it thankfully looks a bit cleaner than the bird poop bus. We are told the bus will arrive at 10.30pm. We are all sceptic of this information thanks to the ‘bus’ we took this morning, and accept that we might never arrive! An hour into the journey, a few ladies get on with whole chickens on sticks and some more fertilised eggs. Surprisingly, we don’t buy anything and accept that dinner will be crisps and Oreos again. The lady next to Veronica shared her dinner with her though which was so sweet, and I met a lovely Vietnamese guy who was visiting family. Not a completely wasted journey (still a bloody long one though).
12.30am – STILL ON THE BUS!!!! Arghhhhhhhhh. The driver stopped at least 10 times to pick up all sorts of crap and also to have dinner for over an hour! I was seething, but no one else seems that bothered. Apparently, locals don’t care if they arrive 5 hours late. I quietly mumble expletives under my breath every time the bus stops again, approximately every 2 miles. We eventually arrived at 1.30am!! Then to add insult to injury, a lovely tuk tuk driver took us to our hotel, which was was about 1km away and cost us 120,000 kip each which was triple what we paid for for the 10 hour bus trip we had just taken!!!
As you can imagine, I wanted that day to over and to get moving to Don Det ASAP, which thankfully we were able to do at 10 am the next day. We were nervous getting on the bus that morning, wondering if it really would only take 4 hours or maybe 4 weeks. But it only took 4 – we had made it!!!!! And it was totally worth all the hassle, the Four Thousand Islands are beautiful – see below! The village of Don Det is quite small and is a mixture of bungalows, guesthouses, small farms and chilled cafes. The Mekong river is split into many smaller branches by the islands, and it looks stunning at sunset. I managed to capture this picture which is by far my favourite snap of my entire trip.
Due to the slightly traumatising journey, we chilled out that evening and booked a full day kayaking tour around the islands for the next day. It was a fantastic day, complete with capsizing, dolphins, a new addition to our little travel family and of course lots of beautiful scenery. Now, I could take full responsibility for capsizing the kayak but I think that would be unfair to Veronica who definitely played a part in us crashing into the reed beds and falling into the Mekong! We luckily managed to not drown or lose any stuff – even my awesome farmer hat survived! I mostly blame our kayaking guide, who kept giving us the wrong directions to steer and then had the cheek to ask us if we enjoyed our Mekong shower! We were very glad to reach calmer waters, and were rewarded for our efforts with some sightings of the rare Irrawaddy river dolphins, of which there are only 100 left in the wild. I felt very privileged to see them!
As well as making friends with dolphins, we also met Adrian and we let him hang out with us for the next few days because he was all alone….only kidding! We happily welcomed him into our little group and spent the next few days with him chilling out in Don Det. We then kidnapped him and forced him to come with us to Cambodia, poor guy! Here he is being much better at kayaking than me, front of the boat (I.e. He is still in the kayak!) Also, a picture of me at the waterfalls with my homegirls. My awesome Jungle Book T shirt is from Primani in case you were wondering!
Whilst I really enjoyed Laos, I was very much ready to see what Cambodia had to offer. Laos was great for countryside, meeting amazing people, baby animals and the most incredible waterfall in Luang Prabang! However, I t wasn’t so great for food or transport options, and the beer was not my fave! All in all, I would recommend Luang Prabang and Si Phan Don. I’ve also heard there are some amazing waterfalls in Pakse and that Laos is awesome for motorbike travel. You probably need around 3 weeks to really see and do everything properly. The girls were also glad to leave Laos, it had left them feeling very tired indeed! Apologies ladies, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made to make sure my blog is entertaining for my many adoring fans 🙂 Next, a post on Siem Reap/ Angkor Watt and the wonderful riverside town, Battambang!