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Crossing south Laos
Vientiane (Laos), February 18th 2009

This article is written by Franka, the mother of Ivonne

On February 10th 2009 we crossed the Cambodian-Laotian border on foot. It is not possible to get a visa on arrival if you travel in this direction. For that reason we arranged our Laotian visa already in Bangkok. After we finished all the formalities, we waited for the minibus that should bring us to the island Don Khong (‘Don’ means island in the Laotian language), thirty kilometres from the border. It is way too easy to think that think that this is just a short bus trip. The journey is done in two stages, with a waiting period in between of one hour.

Don Khong is the biggest island in the Mekong River in Laos. It is located in the district Siphadone, which means “the four thousand islands” in the Laotian language. It is a very laidback place. The main form of activity on the island is rice production. However, we were there in the dry season, so all rice fields looked dried out and deserted. But we were lucky, because on some rice fields, people were preparing for the new season. We could see something of the rice process. In a part of the field, the rice plants were planted closely together in the water. As soon as the plants are big enough, the plants are removed from this special section and planted at the right distance from each other in the rice fields. When the rice is harvested, it is often spread out on plastic sheets on the road to dry.

We hired bicycles for one day to make a tour through the southern part of the island. There is almost no traffic and the road is in a good condition, so riding the bicycle is very relaxed. Once in a while you see a ‘Wat’, this is a monastery where monks meditate and live. You can bring the ‘Wat’ a visit and take a look around, for example in the temple. You often see the orange garments of the monks hanging over the balustrade of their residences. Our pension was located in the small village of Ban Kong, on the eastern side of the island. It was an old colonial building with a communal area, great for relaxing, talking, reading or writing. It was also possible to have your laundry done, and get a breakfast in the morning.

Exploring Don Khong Island by bicycle

After our visit to Don Khong, we took the local bus to Pakse. Pakse is a medium sized town in southern Laos, and a crossroad for many travellers. The town is not very special, except for the great Indian restaurants that you can find in this place. Yummy! Pakse is also a good town to see the ‘reras’. This is the mendicant route of the monks that they make everyday early in the morning to beg for food. It is a special thing to see, and Pakse is still a serene place to see it, in comparison to Luang Prabang where the mendicant route became some kind of a circus, with all the tourists around. From Pakse we took the bus in northern direction over national route 13. The local bus we took was filled till the last centimetre. It was not only full with people, including people on stools in the aisle, but also with goods. Also the roof of the bus was fully packed with hundreds of bunches of bananas.

Via the towns of Thakhek and Vieng Kham, where we had to change busses, we arrived at our destination: Ban Na Hin (GPS coordinates: N18°11.797 E104°31.095). This little village is located in the middle of Karst Mountains on an altitude of 170 metres. We stayed in a nice small pension with a good restaurant. The main reason to come to this village is the world famous underground river, located 35 kilometres from the village. But also the Na Hin forest is famous among bird watchers. It is a good place to see a selection of the local birds. But we were unlucky. In the best part of the forest it is not allowed anymore to go there by yourselves. You have to take a guide, and pay of course for the services. The reason is that some time ago, an Australian bushwalker got lost in the forest. He almost died on the spot and was only rescues after a lot of days, after the moment that flesh eating lizard started eating on him. The problem with the local guides is, that they have no knowledge about birds. They also make a lot of noise which means that they are a pain in the ass. For that reason we decided to explore a part of the forest located eight kilometres from the village. We asked the ladies of the pension to drop us over there early in the morning. The highlight of the day was the small and funny Speckled Piculet that we saw.

Tasty chicken for sale in the local bus ... who dares?
The other absolute highlight in the area is the seven and a half kilometres long underground river. It is possible to hire a boat with boatmen and to travel all the way through the cave. It takes approximately one and a half hours one way. The water level of the river in the dry season is not very high, so you have to get out of the boat once in a while to wade through the river, while the boatmen drag along the boat a couple of metres further. Don’t forget to bring some sandals. Also a torch is handy, because it is completely dark in the cave. The boatmen have torches, but it is also nice to have one yourself. Somewhere in the middle of the cave, you leave the boat and walk on some stairs to see some well lit stalagmites and stalactites. You will also find there a small temple where local people set alight a candle.

Finally, we were surprised to see that a lot of the nature in this part of Laos is gone. Most of the forests are cleared and especially in the dry season, the environment looks dried out and sad. But the ride was still very amusing. Especially the journeys with the local busses are fun, because it gives you a possibility to see how local people travel. It is nice to observe the activities that are going on when the bus makes a short stop. Within seconds the bus is filled with local women, trying to sell the food they offer, like sticky rice, bananas, chicken between bamboo sticks, pineapple and even fish. So, there is a lot to see, not only outside the bus, but also inside it.

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