Heading South

We’ve met a few other travel bloggers in our journey so far, and it seems that being a few weeks behind in your posts is not uncommon! But as I sit here at a sunny café table in the ancient north German town of Verden, sipping an espresso and watching the Saturday morning crowd go about its business, I feel it’s high time I recapped where we’ve been since leaving Phonsavan.

Heading south was the main aim, and we were forced to go faster than our normal pace to make up time lost due to the accident. We’ve developed an informal guideline for this year of travel: most of the time we plan to stop for at least three nights in a given location, often longer. This allows us time to explore and absorb the local area better, and just as importantly it enables us to relax and enjoy the journey. We’ve all done the rushed holiday where you’re go-go-go the whole time, moving constantly so that you feel like you need another break at the end of it all. Avoiding that pitfall has been one of our highest priorities, and I’m happy to say that we’ve maintained a relaxed pace for nearly five months now and counting 🙂

Below is a brief summary of our last week and a half in Laos, from May 28th to June 7th, stop by stop:

Paksan – May 28th

This was where our epic bus journey from Phonsavan ended, and as Kristen noted in her account of our meeting with Victorian Fisheries researcher Ivor it’s definitely not on the tourist trail. It’s a pleasant enough place but entirely nondescript, and we would not have stayed here at all except that it was where the bus stopped. I actually stayed here two years ago when I had more time, and I don’t think it’s changed one iota since then. If you do have to rest here for any reason, then the Paksan Hotel is a gem of a place: clean and spacious rooms with hot water, aircon and wifi for just $9 a night. Bargain!

Ban Na Hin – May 29th to 30th

This small town on the road to Lak Sao has grown quite a bit in the last few years, as more tourists start to visit the amazing Kong Lo cave nearby. I visited this place two and a half years ago and it was on my must-see list for Kristen this time, even though it required a detour of several days to visit (you can read what I said about it in 2009 here). We chose to stay in Ban Na Hin itself for two nights and make a day trip to the cave, as onward travel south is easier to arrange from this town rather than Ban Kong Lo. It was the right call, as the 44km journey to the cave by sawng-theaw took nearly two and a half hours one way! In Ban Na Hin Soxsay Guesthouse is the pick of the bunch, with solid aircon rooms for $10 a night. It’s the only place in the area that has internet access, though it was broken when we visited, and the food was excellent. In fact we could tell how fresh our meals were going to be when we ordered. A couple of minutes after taking our order, our host could be spied zooming off on her scooter to the market to buy whatever it was we’d asked for! The whole fish cooked with citronella leaves was particularly awesome, and it was only available for dinner because the market didn’t stock fish until the evening!

Tha Khaek – May 31st to June 1st

This large town on the Mekong is prosperous but languid, and a fine place to while away a few days if you have them to spare. We didn’t, and intended to stay just one night, but ended up staying for two because the hotel was so inviting. After quite a few days in more basic accommodation the Inthira Hotel was an oasis of comfort, and we loved our spacious room with balcony looking over the square towards the river. The food’s pretty special too! This hotel is highly recommended for anyone stopping in Tha Khaek, though the balcony rooms are best avoided if you’re there on a Friday or Saturday and want to sleep early (the karaoke in the square plays LOUDLY until midnight those nights).

Pakse – June 2nd

A large but quiet town in southern Laos, in my opinion Pakse has the potential to become another “must-stop” destination for visitors to Laos. Its proximity to the ancient ruins of Wat Phou, the waterfalls and other attractions of the Bolaven Plateau and even elephant trekking in Ban Kiet Ngong make it the perfect place to base yourself for several days. There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses but the town is still very quiet, and as tourist numbers inevitably increase there is a great opportunity for a lively bar-café to be established here (are you listening, Tony??).

We were here to arrange a two-day tour to some of the highlights of the region, deciding that the cost of the tour would be worth it to save time overall. But the cost was so expensive that we changed our minds and decided to do it ourselves (though my knowledge of the area from my previous visit certainly made this choice easier). So we only spent one night here, but made sure we had sunset cocktails and dinner at the rooftop of the Pakse Hotel with its sweeping 360-degree views of the area (highly recommended).

Champasak – June 3rd

Unlike all the other places in this post I had not previously been to Champasak, so I was excited to visit somewhere new. It’s only 35kms or so from Pakse and its only tourist attraction is Wat Phou, so the vast majority of travellers make a day trip from Pakse to the ancient ruins that pre-date (and some say were a template for) Angkor Wat in Cambodia. That’s a mistake if you have the time, because Champasak was a delightful surprise. It’s incredibly quiet, with the few accommodation options interspersed amongst the sleepy villages that line the banks of the Mekong. We only had one night here but could easily have spent several more, and Wat Phou is well worth a visit. We stayed at Anouxa Guesthouse which was recommended by the guidebook, and it was very quiet with a fine riverfront setting. It’s also next door to the excellent Champasak Spa where we had some very fine massages! The food at Anouxa is not great, but there is another Inthira Hotel here where you can eat even if you don’t want to splash out on the pricier rooms.

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Don Khon, Si Phan Don – June 4th to June 7th

Si Phan Don, or The 4000 Islands, is a legendary backpacker haven. Less than a decade ago, when you weren’t able to cross the nearby border with Cambodia easily and the roads were much poorer, getting here was a real effort and you were rewarded with the most laid-back part of the world’s most laid-back country. Super-cheap bungalows (think $2-4 a night) on the banks of the Mekong, with swimming and river dolphins and waterfalls to visit when you were in the mood, it was a place to drop out for weeks if you wanted. As the roads improved and the border crossing became easy, many people started to include at least a day or two in Si Phan Don as they headed south from Vientiane to Cambodia.

When I came here two and half years ago it still had a lovely chilled vibe, with the bungalows still very basic (shared cold-water bathrooms were the norm), only one internet café in the main village, and no wifi. I’m talking about Don Det here, the more party-oriented of the two principal islands of Si Phan Don, and my six nights here in early 2010 were delightful despite getting sacked by skype during that time![see my posts about Si Phan Don here and here]. How things change: it’s little more than two years later and Don Det has become a victim of poorly controlled development. It’s not that the standards have improved, though they have: most of the old bungalows that shared toilets now have attached bathrooms, and wifi is everywhere (the internet café has gone out of business). The problem is that new bungalows have been put up haphazardly, with little regard for the views from them (or of them), and there is a cluttered, uncomfortable atmosphere that simply didn’t exist before.

Fortunately nearby Don Khon, regarded as the more mature (read: quieter and slightly more upmarket) island is almost unchanged and remains a delightful spot to spend some days. We’d already decided to stay on Don Khon even before we discovered the changes on Don Det, and planned to stay for two days while we visited the various sights of the island. We immediately extended to three nights once we saw how nice it was, and in the end stayed a fourth because we couldn’t drag ourselves away!

The main waterfalls of Khon Pha Pheng and Li Phi remain as impressive as ever, and we tried and failed to spot the rare river dolphins one morning, but the best activity of our time here was cycling through the villages along the riverside. Apart from lounging in our spacious riverfront bungalow, that is, complete with hammocks and deckchairs facing the water. Pan’s Guesthouse has some minor issues but overall our stay was excellent, with the hosts very friendly and the food excellent. Don Khon is still a beautiful part of Laos and I urge everyone to get here soon in case it goes the way of Don Det.

It was with great reluctance that we dragged ourselves out of Laos, but the road inevitably beckons and we wanted to visit our favourite city Phnom Penh before leaving Asia. There is no doubt we’ll be returning to Laos in the future though!

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