2nd May 2012 - 8th May 2012
Falang ... Pork ... Pork
So far travelling has provided us with some amazing times, but just occasionally things start to come undone. And I’m not talking about the binding on our Lonely Planet guidebook. Although that’s looking like it might give out at any point!! Over the last week or two we seem to be stumbling from one problem to the next, but as always there’s been some great times and unique experiences along the way, so it’s not all bad. Here’s how our time in southern Laos unfolded ...
After leaving Vientiane ... with our new bright pink (!!) laptop ... we headed south to Pakse on an overnight bus. The bus itself was ok, except weirdly there were no internal curtains to separate us from the people sleeping on the other side of the aisle. In our case the ladyboys!! Their dresses might have been very feminine, but the muscle definition and their hairy legs certainly weren’t. They were even hairier than Emma’s. I think I’m safe with that comment as I doubt she’ll read this!!
We had originally planned to spend a bit of time in Pakse, but just before decided to swap it for a place called Tad Lo. A really good trade as it turned out. Tad Lo was very different to the other places we’d visited in Laos and definitely had its fair share of interesting moments. To start with, just after arriving we almost decided to turn around, walk back to the bus stop and travel the 2 hours back to Pakse!! It wasn’t that we’d changed our minds and didn’t want to stay in Tad Lo. Nope, it was due the fact that we’d arrived in a place with no ATM and only had just over 200,000kip (approx £15.50) on us. Even as cheap as it is out here, that wasn’t going to last long. With all the laptop drama in Vientiane we’d completely taken our eye off the ball ... forgetting that we needed a cash top up and that our bank cards had also been declined!! Unsure of which way to play things for the best, we decided to go with booking into a cheap guesthouse ... 30,000kip (approx £2.40 a night was cheap!!) ... and heading out in search of a cashpoint. The nearest one turned out to be about 15km away by local bus. A bit of a pain, but at least we could withdraw some money. This time using a credit card as both our bank cards were yet again declined!! Santander is getting binned as soon as we get back!! After grabbing some rolls for lunch we decided to head back to Tad Lo ... on the infrequent bus. Roadside waiting time of almost 2 hours!! It was definitely proving to be one of those days!!
Tad Lo is a little off the main traveller route so does not see a lot of falang (the local word and a word used a lot is SE Asia to describe a white tourist). Stops like these are brilliant as you feel that you are seeing somewhere closer to real life. Somewhere that hasn’t been changed a lot by the commercialism of western travel. Having said that, if you fancied one, you could still find a banana pancake on the menu in our guesthouse!! We ordered them twice for breakfast, but both times we got pineapple instead of banana?! No complaints from us though as they were superb. Pancakes aside, there were to be far more interesting food experiences to come. Vegetarians out there might want to skip the next bit of this blog!!
The really cheap guesthouse we’d booked into before we went hunting for a cashpoint turned out to be more like a home stay. It was definitely very different to anywhere else we’d stayed previously. The family were really friendly and accommodating, and dinner times at the guesthouse were the best part. We got to help with the preparation of the food and then ate with the family and their friends around a large dining table on the porch. We were expecting some run of the mill thing, but what we got on the first night was a bit of a shock. We were sat at the dining table chatting to the owner when something going on behind us caught our attention. Only 6 foot or so away from us, two friends of the owner were killing our dinner ... a big black duck! We were a bit shocked to see this as normally we just buy the meat from the fridge in Tescos. Our dinner getting killed and plucked right before our eyes isn’t something we see every day! The duck was killed very quickly and with precision and care. Living a very rural lifestyle, it is something they do regularly for their family dinner. And the children were also all involved, watching the duck being prepared. They try to make sure they get the most out of the duck and even the blood didn’t go to waste. It was initially drained into a bowl, and then later used as a sauce when the chopped duck was served in a large tray garnished with herbs and spices. We were told “fresh blood, very good! You try..?” Needless to say we weren’t diving in but we did give it a try. It was weird!! Then they fried up some of the blood and duck for us as an alternative. No doubt tourists had been weirded out by the raw blood before and at least this way we could enjoy a bit more of the yummy duck. The next night we helped make chicken and pineapple kebabs. These were part of our meal which also included fresh river fish which were bbq’d on the porch and then went straight onto our plates. We weren’t as keen on them as someone said they always thought river fish tasted of mud and after that mud was all we could taste. Oh and the eyes and bones were a bit hard to handle for rookies like us! When we came to see what was on the menu on our third night we were in for a real treat. In a basket fresh from the market, was a live monitor lizard. Yep ... that’s right ... a great big lizard. It was killed discretely behind the house and then the body was brought out to the porch and the skin was charred in the fire. This made it easier for them to skin it which was interesting to watch. Soon there was a little crowd gathering and the tiny kids were flicking the monitor lizard’s long tongue! Weird! The pieces of chopped lizard were served in a sauce with lemon grass and other herbs and it was served with sticky rice and some amazing spring rolls that we all took turns making. I am getting to be a bit of a spring roll pro now! I quite liked the taste of monitor lizard and tucked into some bits of tail which are supposed to be the best part. It was a bit strange seeing the lizard’s claws on the plate too, looking like little hands, and even stranger sitting opposite a 3 year old girl sucking on one!! As food goes ... what an experience!
To see a little more of the area around Tad Lo ... including the waterfalls that it’s mostly known for ... we decided to rent a motorbike from the guesthouse. They only had semi-automatic geared bikes available, so it was all a bit strange for someone like me who is normally a scooter boy. No longer could my feet just sit there doing nothing. Nope, now they were needed to change gear and brake. Luckily after a quick ride up and down the road my confused brain was starting to work things out. Just as well as we had a 30km ride to the next town ... to pick up one of the ingredients for the second nights dinner ... pork. Yep the owner of the guesthouse had given us a handwritten note in Lao to take to the market in Salavan to pick up 3kg of pork. Salavan is even less touristy than Tad Lo so we caused a bit of amusement when we rode into town and even more amusement when we went up to the market stall selling the meat and handed over our request. Still it all worked out alright and after buying a couple of other bits we headed out of the market. On the way though we did pass one very curious lady, who after staring at our bag for a while, eventually asked us what we had. When we replied pork, she said quite loudly ... falang, pork, pork ... as if to let others in the market know what was in the bag of the white tourists!!
The last thing we did in Tat Lo before moving on was ride an elephant. It was something we’d been wanting to do since we hit SE Asia, but up until now hadn’t really had the chance. For 100,000kip (just under £8) each we got an hour and a half on top of the big grey thing. It was pretty high up and it didn’t feel that secure sat in the seat as we moved away from the start point. Initially we passed through some forested area before next heading towards the river. We’d not really been given any information about the ride, and our mahout didn’t speak any English, so we had no idea where the ride was going to take us. We thought the elephant was probably just going down to the river for some water, but before we knew it we were half way across heading for the bank on the other side. After this it was off through a village where at one point a small naked child just stood in the elephant’s path looking up in amazement. Despite the mahout shouting out to the child he wasn’t moving, but luckily his mum realised what was happening and rushed out form their hut and grabbed her child in before any harm was done. For the final part of our trip we headed back across the river at which point the mahout motioned to take our camera and jumped down from the elephant. Now either he was going to take some pics for us, or we were about to be scammed and loose the second camera of our trip!! Luckily he was just doing his tourist bit. Snapping pics of us whilst the elephant came out of the river and headed home.
After Tad Lo it was time to head a little further south to Si Phan Don (4000 islands). We headed back into Pakse then got a songthaew (a variation on the tuk tuk) for the rest of the journey south. On the way we stopped for food which basically consisted of us pulling up on the side of the road whilst local sellers pushed all sorts of meat on sticks through the bars around where we were sat. It was a pretty crazy few minutes, but obviously a situation that the locals travelling with us were more used to than us!! A little after this we arrived at Don Det, one of the islands located on the Mekong River, near the border with Cambodia. Of all the islands in this area Don Det is the most popular and an established stop on the backpacker circuit. It has a reputation for being a bit of party place. Not on the scale of Vang Vieng, but still with enough bars and restaurants to keep you entertained for a while. When we first arrived though, it just didn’t seem that way at all. In fact it seemed pretty deserted, with none of the bars we were expecting. It confused us a fair bit, but we guessed that maybe it just wasn’t high season, or maybe everyone else had headed to Thailand for the full moon parties. It wasn’t until later that night that it all became clear. Basically our boatman had dropped us at a different point to the main drop off location and totally disorientated us. The main backpacker area was in fact in another part of the island we were yet to discover!!
Our only real activity whilst on Don Det ... except hammock dwelling ... was a day out to the neighbouring island of Don Khone. These islands are connected by a small road bridge, and as they are both mostly flat, they can easily be explored by bike. The non-motorised version this time, but still with an ET basket on the front!! Up early and peddling away we started the day by heading right down to the southern end of Don Khone for the dolphins. Here there’s a small school of Iradwaddy dolphins which can be viewed by taking a boat a few minutes out towards Cambodia. In fact, on the day we went it seemed that the dolphins preferred Cambodia to Laos, and were swimming around in Cambodian waters. This meant we couldn’t get that close, but still saw them surfacing for air from about 100 metres or so away. Our boatman helped out with the dolphin spotting by regularly pointing into the distance and saying they were there. Maybe his eyesight was much better than ours, or maybe he just knew what to look for, as most of the time we couldn’t see what he was pointing to and we wondered if it was a case of ‘keeping the tourists happy’ sometimes.
After the dolphins we headed a little further around the island to a beach area were we swam in The Mekong whilst trying to decide whether the bank opposite us was Cambodia or still Laos. There was no-one around to ask so we’ll never know!! Our last stop on the island was a waterfall. Yep ... another waterfall!! Where India has temples, Laos has waterfalls. This one at least had a decent amount of water, unlike one that we visited the other day in Tad Lo were it was just trickling over a massive ridge. And if we hadn’t had enough water for one day it also started raining before we set off for home. Still ... a good excuse to grab some food, and wait for it to clear, before the cycle back.
To round off our time in Laos we decided to subject ourselves to some more drama. With only about an hour to go before we had to catch a boat over to the mainland to pick up our bus to Cambodia, we decided to lose our credit cards. We had them out the night before booking some flights and now couldn’t find them. I grabbed a bike from the guest house and rode up to the places we’d been to see if we had left them there. No luck and no time to Skype or call the bank to cancel them. Stress!! As it turns out though it was just as well, as about an hour later we found them hiding in a bag. Obviously one we had searched about a dozen times!!! We were relieved and said to ourselves that’s enough losing things ... but it didn’t last long as Emma dropped my spare sunglasses she’d been wearing, and they bounced and went straight down the drain! Bye bye sunglasses!!
Well that’s it for Laos as we head into Cambodia. The last 18 days here seemed to have flown, but we’ve managed to fit in a few different stops and along the way visited waterfalls, rode an elephant, seen monks taking alms, been tubing and kayaked, and almost had a complete meltdown over the laptop/hardrive/photos. It’s certainly not been dull!!
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