Having entered Laos from Cambodia, we had our eyes on a couple of what the guide book describes as ‘motorcycle loops’. These are exactly what you imagine them to be – circular routes that take in a number of various sights, and the easiest way to get around is by motorbike. Well, where a motorbike can go, surely our trusty steed can also venture? Read on to find out…!
First though, we had the lure of the four thousand islands. This region of the Mekong, in the far south of Laos, where, in the dry season at least, innumerable (well, apparently four thousand!), islands rise out of the waters. Some are little more than rocks, but the three biggest are inhabited all year round. Being connected to the mainland by a bridge, Don Khong was our target for a couple of lazy days sampling the restaurants on the river front. After spending one night in a guesthouse, we found a beautiful spot to camp on the outskirts of the village, and whiled away our time drinking the cheapest iced coffee and Big Beer Laos for miles around. That’s not to say that we didn’t find anything to do – we managed to find a number of other forms of transport that were even more uncomfortable than the Beaut! First on the list were some hired bikes, on which we spent an afternoon pootling round the island. Second was a canoe, which was possibly the most unseaworthy craft ever built. It was however, just about good for some gentle exploring of some of the smaller islands in the river, once we’d worked out that it moved in a much straighter line if we didn’t spend the entire time shouting at each other…
Don’t expect to be able to take cash out on the island – even the locals were struggling with the cash point, and the opening hours of the bank were relatively indecipherable. Also don’t expect to be able to find the market first time – it’s now a kilometre out of town and most definitely not where the guide book implies! The market opens at 5am and shuts at 7am, which was a bit of a disappointment for us layabouts, but, in dire need of a cheap breakfast, we made the effort in search of bread. We failed. Completely. This market appeared to sell everything apart from bread, and I think it’s fair to say that we both got a bit hangry. The irony was that later on that day, a woman on a bike cycled up to the back of the Beaut with her basket filled with baguettes. A needless early morning!!
Our one gripe with camping by the Mekong is the stifling heat, most importantly at night. It just doesn’t get cool. The Bolaven Plateau was to be our sanctuary.
Heading east out of Pakse towards Paksong, you climb slowly onto a fertile region of land that is famous for growing coffee. Our first stop was Kiet Ngong, a tiny village on the edge of the Se Pian NPA national park. The reason for this was simple – elephants. Some elephant trekking centres have slightly dubious morals, but this one is a bit different, as the elephants here used to work in the fields, but now pay their way by lugging tourists up into the national park. After a night camped outside the gates of a particularly expensive eco-lodge, we were woken by one of the elephants walking right past the tent! Amazing!! Although the elephant ride itself was great fun, it was yet another contender for in the ‘most uncomfortable mode of transport’ category!
One thing I will say about Laos is that there are some incredible waterfalls. We took to camping near them, as they make brilliant spots for a cheeky shower. If I’m honest, there are so many that tumble off the edge of the Plateau that they blur slightly into one – but both Tat Fan (viewed from a resort opposite) and Tat Yuang (great for swimming) are well worth a look.
Tat Lo was another highlight. We ended up spending a couple of days here, and it’s a really nice place. We spent a day exploring the waterfalls on a 6 hour trek (with a dog for a guide – he even climbed the ladders with us!), and then watched the elephants get a wash in the river at Tadlo Lodge. You could easily spend a lot longer here.