Sunday, 20 June 2010


Both of us would admit that we knew very little about Laos before we arrived. It's one of those countries which occupies a more mysterious place in South East Asia, being a little more obscure in terms of a cultural identity compared with its more high-profile neighbours China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. With borders closed to foreigners until the nineties it's still a land relatively new to tourism too and as a result still feels pretty wild, but we'd heard nothing but good things about the place and its people.

Arriving after what had been a wierd last few days in Cambodia, we headed for Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) in the Champasak Province - the legendary inland delta where the upper Mekong flows so wide that large inhabitable islands have been forged, some with villages on them and (four with electricity). For the majority of our trip so far we'd had a guide book with us for general info, but for Laos we hadn't had the chance as the last town we had been to had turned out to be devoid of shops selling anything useful, so we really didn't have any idea what to expect or really where the hell we were heading.

Once we had reached the end of our bus journey we were taken down to small longboats on the river which ferried us through the channels to the islands. Along with our new friend Sam from Essex who we'd met on the bus out of Cambodia we'd decided to stay on Don Dhet, which from the info we could gather had the best options for accommodation. Probably the best way to describe the small island which we were staying on would be medieval. It looked like the set of Robin Hoods Adventures in Asia - pigs, chickens, ducks and children wandered around a dusty village set along the bank of the river. Men and women fished, bathed and cleaned their clothes in the water as small boats floated past. There were no cars, just bicycles, and the odd moped (mainly ridden by six year old kids). Our huts were little more than wood panels nailed to four uprights and cost us about two pounds per night, but as locations go there are few five star hotels in the world that could match the magic of staying on that island. We all fell instantly in love with the place.

The next four days were some of the best we'd had while travelling - there is something totally liberating about being in a place that wild and far removed from the rest of the world, about being able to walk around shoeless and swim in clean river water, that you forget almost everything about home. Being on an island, we quickly met a bunch of guys in the bar near us too who we spent the evenings chatting, drinking arguing and listening to a lot of ACDC with. On a couple of afternoons we all headed out on bicycles to explore the island and its neighbour Don Khon which was genuinely one of the strangest and most beautiful places you can imagine. Around every corner would be something else that would litteraly make you stop in your tracks; the grail being an incredible thundering waterfall leading down to a secluded gorge with its own hidden inland beach. All of us were soaked from cycling in the heat so took at dip, only to find the water full of Doctor Fish (the tiny helpful fish that swim up to you and nibble dry skin from your feet). Sounds grim but, actually quite an interesting experience once you've realised its not a school of Pirhana trying to eat you...

It was tough to leave Don Dhet; I can imagine few places as idyllic. Several people we met were staying on and had either started to run up bills at the bar or shop or made the trek over the the mainland to get more money, and we could have easily done the same, but along with Sam, we made the decision to say goodbye and head north and see some more of the country. From the mainland we took a bus to Pakse, then the sleeper coach to Vientiane, Laos' capital. Yet again Asia's comedy armada of transport didn't fail to amuse, with our "sleeper" seats being basically a massive mattress at the back of the bus. Cosy.

There isn't really much reason to head to Vientiane if you don't need to; as a capital city it's not particularly inspiring and not particularly cheap either for S.E Asia. We had gone there however to organise our visas for Thailand. It's possible to obtain these at the border but they're only valid for fifteen days, so that meant a couple of early starts waiting outside the Embassy at seven AM along with three hundred other tourists, business people and expats. As usual, it was chaos. The rules regarding application had apparently changed a week or so before but the Thai consulate hadn't bothered update their website. Things got more entertaining still when some overly vocal Vietnam Vet from Brooklyn in the queue decided to get more than a little bit sexist and patronising with the wrong woman - Sam - and ended up getting a full on dressing down in front of the whole crowd. The guy may well have been spent two years in the jungle fighting the Vietcong, but he was definitely no match for a pissed-off Essex Girl.

Visas sorted, we had a night left before we were due to move on. Luckily, David and Zuzana, a couple we'd spent some time with in Goa in India were in town, so we met at a French Restaurant for some food and a catchup - the last civilized evening for a few days as the next stop was Laos' own Disney Land for grown ups - Vang Vieng...

View our pics here:

Southern Laos - 4000 Islands & Vientiane

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