28.1 – 02.2.17 Don Det

Our bungalow has a double bed, mosquito net, ensuite and two hammocks on the balcony from which we can see the sunset over the Mekong and Cambodia on the far bank. All this for the princely sum of 50,000 Kip, or £5 a night. We decide to stay a while.

Don Det has the most backpacker infrastructure of the river islands with many restaurants, bars, travel agencies and shops. The daily temperature peaks around 31° so the days main activity is sweating. We spend all day in flip flops, feet slowly going brown, feeling the smooth wooden planks of restaurant’s floors underfoot. There is something I find comforting about being barefoot in hot countries.

We drink watermelon smoothies and the deliciously rich, sweet milky Lao coffee over ice. We eat rice and veg, Indian curry, asian coconut curries and on the night Wolverhampton Wanderers beat Liverpool at Anfield we had fish and chips. Beerlao is always being drunk, not necessarily by us but someone, somewhere will be enjoying a cold one.

The island is covered in feral creatures. Chickens, cats, dogs and kids. The kids play endlessly and are free to roam unsupervised. They play in the dirt, in the river, paddle boats, balance on floating logs, run around with catapults, always shouting, screaming and laughing.

Cockerels, chickens and their chicks are everywhere, strutting, clucking, scratching and chirping. You never have to wait long to hear Cock-a-doodle-doo. I see three cock fights in my first three days here. 

The inevitable mosquitoes are giant and silent. They hover ominously and you pray that the herbal spray you bought works.

Sundowns are spent in our bungalow restaurant with my teenage idol Jimi Hendrix accompanying the cold beerlao. The owner tells me to help myself to the fridge which saves him a job and makes me feel like a local. The privilege goes to my head and some nights I test our tight budget which is imposed as there are no cash points here.

Some nights at sundown the sky goes red. I think its a beautiful thing to watch.

Next up is a rendezvous in Bangkok with some good friends. A world away from here.

27.1.17 Don Khong to Don Det

Today we left Don Khong for the smaller but busier Don Det. The wind was up creating small waves on the river and spray over the boat. We had done this journey two days ago, so it was familiar but still mesmerizing.

Al waited with the rucksacks whilst I headed down the west side of the island to find a bungalow, just like the old days. 

We dumped the bags in the room and explored the backpacker friendly restaurants and shops, stopping for a rice soup and a delicious spicy coconut curry.

At 4.30pm ish, I sat in our guesthouse restaurant and rekindled my teenage obsession with Jimi Hendrix whilst drinking a cold beerlao and watching the sunset.

We then went for an Indian curry. Malai kofta, chicken tikka masala and aubergine curry with naan. It was very good. We passed a bar playing The Stone Roses so popped in for a beer on the way home and sat facing the street, watching the comings and goings of the folk out partying.

26.1.17 Le Tour de Don Khong

Today was the big day, the Inaugural Tour De Don Kong by Team Roberts.  If any of you remember the Inaugural Tour D’ Isle of Arran, where Guy convinced me via Google maps that there was only a teeny hill on the Scottish isle and I would be fine and it turned out both he and Google maps were very wrong, you will understand why cycling on holiday around islands has never been mentioned again……….until now.

However, he convinced me Don Khong was flat (as indeed it was) and not be too arduous…..

We woke to blue skies and blazing heat, similar temperatures to what Chris Froome and his mates deal with on Tour D’Espana every September.

We had a caffeine shot, lao coffee each, Guy added about half a can of sweetened milk to his, it was delicous and caramelly (just dont read the ingredients!).  We shared a egg and tomatoes with bagette for breakfast, not exactly what Froomey et al would have, but we are not pro’s.

The bikes were tested, ie they had brakes that vaguely worked, tyres that weren’t flat, baskets and bells (of variable effectiveness). Guy was disappointed there were no carbon frames available. 

Suncream applied and we were off, it was 10.30 am. Bouncing down the potholed sandy road wondering just how long can it take one amateur and one semi – professional  (recently retired) to do 30 kms in this weather and these conditions?

We were enthusiastically greeted by kids at the roadside shouting ‘Sabaidee’, unfortunately this tended to coincide with well worn roads, meaning huge pot holes and craters, so along with shouting and waving ‘Sabidee’ back we also had to navigate treacherous road conditions, it wasn’t made any easier when the kids also decided they wanted to high five us as well!

Stupidly we went off with no water, thinking we could buy some on the way. The only water bottles we saw were ones full of diesel, for ages we were gasping and not understanding why no one sold water, we eventually got some sugary iced teas from someones house to see us through until water finally appeared a few kilometres later,

Water buffalo were a consistent feature on this Tour, they wandered through the fields, over the roads and in the afternoon heat could be seen taking a dip in the Mekong. Other ‘road furniture’ we needed to avoid was dusty doe-eyed cows with their low sonorous bells donging around their necks, chickens and their obediant chicks, and waggling ducks. Apart from that and the occasional bike, scooter and truck we had the road to ourselves!

Some people had directed us to the northern tip of the island, citing a conference centre and also beach to view.  They weren’t wrong, there was indeed a (very out of place and closed) conference centre and stunning beach with loads of cows and thier ringing bells and water buffalo grunting happily in the waters edge. The sounds were as wonderful as the view.

Still, we were about 1/3 of the way round and it was 11.45. We were cycling through rice paddy fields, watching men and woman do the back breaking, hot work of planting and tending to the rice harvest.

The island is very rural, very few restaurants or even shops for the locals, it it seems they are either self sufficient, use the mobile shop or go to the main town for provisions.

 I was starving so was chuffed to see a sign ‘Noodle Soup’, alas the restaurant was no more, so we peddled onwards in the 31 degree sunshine wondering just when our fuel stop would be.

It was in the main town, which we reached at 2pm, so we had done 22 km in an unimpressive 3.5 hours. 

The restaurant did a good trade in noodle soups, which was just as well as the menu was slightly odd. This was the fuel Team Roberts was needing. Tasty liquid and loads of noodles ensured it was difficult to get back on the bike, especially as I was particularly saddle sore, the saddles were not Brookes! Ouch!

After a long refueling stop we entered the home straight at 4 pm, stopping for a shandy, or two to celebrate. 

The result was a dead heat. We were both dead from the heat. BOOM!

We ate at our place, after a few more celebratory Nam Khong’s which resulted in Guy taking sepia photos of the sunset! Hic…. 

25.1.17 Don Khong. Day trip to Don Khon

As we were up early we chose a table for breakfast overlooking the Mekong in full morning sunshine. We soon realised this was a mistake, as even at 8am the sun is fierce and we were glad we had already used factor 30 suncream. Al ordered Beans on Toast, a menu item we could not believe we were seeing and as we excitedly waited, we stared at the river.

Today we were going on a day trip to Don Khon, another popular tourist island. Personally I wasn’t that bothered about the destination but I was really looking forward to slowly puttering up and down the river and it was an opportunity to see if we liked Don Khon and if we should move there.

We wait with our fellow day trippers while Mr Phoumy, the organiser sold last minute tickets to a French and Spanish girl. He shouts ‘let’s go’ and we descend down the steep river bank and board our vessel. The French/Spanish girl’s scooter is carefully lifted into the boat but when they come to pay, there is some confusion whether they have bought a one way or return ticket so the scooter is lifted out again.

We set off and turn downstream. The sun is bright and there is no wind, so the river is smooth. We are transfixed by the palms lining the banks, such an exotic view. There are kids playing on the shore, women washing clothes, water buffalo resting in the shallows. We pass a Wat where the bright orange monk’s robes are drying outside, adding colour to the green bank side. 

I have to pinch myself. I’m in Laos, travelling on a boat down the Mekong. I could not of dreamed of this scenario when I was young.

We arrive at Don Det where everyone except us and an Australian family get out. Twenty minutes later we pull up to Don Khon. We chat to the Aussies as we view the old French railway. They head off to hire bikes but we decide to walk and under a fierce sun we make our way down a dust road to Somphiant waterfalls.

The falls aren’t the highest you will ever see but they are impressive and we watch kayakers descend down scary looking rapids. One guy goes under and we don’t see him for a while but thankfully he pops up and his friends pull him ashore.

We follow unexpected signs to ‘The Beach’ and pass through a small beautiful resort of open bungalows with hammocks and a small bar. The sand burns the feet but the beach is a relaxing place. We have worked up a thirst in the heat, so stop at the resort for a beer lao shandy and sit and watch the river. It’s a great spot.

After some time we walk back to the main restaurant area and stop for rice and veg. We reach the boat and once the Aussies have arrived, head back to Don Det to pickup the Spanish/French girls. They aren’t there so we wait and wait but eventually we need to leave to get back before dark. The two hour trip back is spent chatting to Aussie dad, Paul, discussing capitalism, Trump, immigration, left wing politics and generally putting the world to rights.

The conversation continues over our evening meal, late into the night as we eat and drink with them at the restaurant next door.

24.1.17 arriving into Pakse then on to Don Khong

I open my eyes and its daylight. I am amazed that I’ve slept through the bouncing. Al wasn’t so lucky. Her fitbit said that by 4.30am she had done 10,000 steps!

After some time I check maps.me and we are only 40km away. At 30km to go the bus engine stops, the Aircon goes off and we ‘glide’ to the side of the road. After a few minutes people get off for a smoke and we decide to stretch the legs. We chat to a Laos guy who explains we have run out of diesel. This pleases Al no end, as she predicted it would happen. Chorouses of “I told you so” rain down onto my stationary ears. During last nights gear repairs, the engine was left running the whole time, which apparently was four hours.

We wait in the shade. A van turns up with a load of plastic tubs of diesel which are emptied into the tank. The driver and his mate then have to pump the fuel back into the system and as the engine rumbles into life plumes of black smoke are coughed from the exhaust. We pile back on.

Progress then slows. We make multiple stops to drop passengers off. As we enter Pakse we gingerly pull into a petrol station only just clearing the roof. As the huge tank is filled we watch the drivers crew buy snacks and drinks from a fridge on the forecourt. The mechanic inevitably takes two cold beer lao cans and spends no time draining them. He then mimes to the driver how to change gear. We watch this scene for a long time.

At noon, four and a half hours late, we arrive at Pakse bus stop. Songthaew hawkers are waiting for our custom and after dropping the other passengers at the market we are transferred to a different songthaew who takes us out of town to the bus station. With the wheels still turning, a hawker jumps onto the vehicle and shouts “Don Det, Don Det” at us. We explain we’re off to Don Khong and he takes our bags onto a big songthaew then takes our money. We wait while other passengers are rounded up. 

We pondered an overnight in Pakse as we are tired but decided to push onto Four Thousand Islands and get the travelling out of the way. The area is named from the amount of islands where the Mekong widens to 15km. Its an area of rural relaxation for backpackers with some islands louder than others.

We bounce down a straight dusty road for two hours. The scenery is dry with wooden stilted houses and paddy fields breaking up the scrub. People get off at random stops and soon its our turn. The drivers mate points down a road and we set off on foot in toasty conditions. Householders shout “sabaidee” as we go by and a family of water buffalo stick to their side of the street more cautiously than we do as we pass.

At the end of the road is the Mekong and on the opposite bank is Don Khong, our days destination. There are some boats abandoned on the beach but no ‘ferry’ or people, except for a guy with a squealing piglet in a bag. We go to a restaurant and ask two Laos ladies if there is a way we could cross the river without getting wet and once the dramatic scene on the soap opera they are glued to finishes, they point vaguely outside of the restaurant.

We walk down to the beach, take off our bags and sit on them. For the first time on the trip I feel like I’m travelling. The situation is beyond our control. We stoically have to wait to see what happens. Perversely, I find this exciting. Of course, within 10 minutes a bloke appears and offers us a decent price which we accept. We climb into his boat which he casts out into the river and says “bye bye”. We laugh and he climbs in and we cross a bit of the Mekong.

We find a guesthouse and pay for two nights and have a stroll round the village. We are back in five minutes as its so small. On our way we see goats and chickens roaming around and a woman using a hand mill to grind something. We watch the sunset with a cold beer, then finally  eat at the guesthouse and we are so tired, lights are out by 8.30pm!

23.1.17 leaving Vientiane on an overnight bus

We lie in as you always do on an overnight transport day. Checkout time etched into your memory as the farewell date to your ensuite. 

We wander down our restaurant heavy road and stop at a tiny door front with a sign saying “beef noodle soup”. A restaurant that only serves one dish is always worth trying, as repetition creates perfection. We enter and the Lady shouts “Pho” at us, the Vietnamese national dish. A reminder of the proximity of the neighbour, the porous nature of borders and the fact we’re in a capital city with cosmopolitan options.

The twist in Laos though is that you flavour it yourself. The stock is meaty and simple but the table has fish sauce, vinegar, soy seasoning, fish paste, pepper, salt, chilli flakes which you add to your own taste. You are also given fresh mint, holy basil, lime, watercress, peanut sauce and chilli sauce to add.

Breakfast over, we head to Les Trios coffee shop for more delicious Laos coffee. The coffee here is the most intense I’ve tasted anywhere so if you like your coffee dark and rich I’d urge you to seek out some Laos coffee. We sit and blog and just watch time go by.

We stroll along leafy, dusty streets and we spot a delicatessen which we are always curious to explore. It has jars of capers, French sticks and real Camembert wheels, a reminder that Laos was a French colony.

Vientiane is the most laid back capital city I’ve visited. Its hot, dusty streets have a relaxed charm that defy the normal hustle and bustle you encounter in a nations centre. There isn’t a huge amount of sights to see, but sitting on a sweeping bend of the majestic Mekong it is a wonderful place to explore for a few days. I really like it.

We wait outside the hostel. The sun goes down and mosquitoes appear. We spray our uncovered skin. Around 6pm a songthaew appears for us and as I pickup my rucksack a cloud of about 20 mossies fly off it. Time to go.

We cruise the streets stopping at hostels and hotels to pickup tourists. It’s always fun to gauge how successful your choice of accommodation was. Thirty minutes after we were picked up, we drive past our hostel again. After about an hour we drive out of the centre and eventually come to a bus station which we see is the northern station for buses headed north to the north of Laos. We are going south. A bloke in a pink coat appears and hands a bundle of cash to our driver, who then asks us who is going north. Those that are get off. The driver hands the cash to someone else and then we’re off again, back into the centre of town. We drive for a long time. We pull up alongside a closed shop and wait. We are wondering what we’re doing when pink coat bloke appears on a scooter and another bundle of cash is handed to our driver. At 8.10pm we arrive at the southern bus terminal where our tickets are taken and new ones issued and we find our mobile overnight accommodation. We are very pleased to find we have been allocated a bed and even happier to find it empty. It may be small but we can both fit in snuggly.

Lights out and we’re off. It is soon apparent that we won’t get much sleep due to the uneven Laos road surfaces but you have to be careful what you wish for, as after an hour of a unique type of Laos massage, getting pummelled and thrown around, a problem with the gearbox means our journey is over for now while the driver and his mate perform roadside repairs. I use the opportunity of the breakdown to finally sleep.

22.1.12 Vientiane. Day trip to Buddha park

After a ‘day off ‘ I make Guy do some tourism. We have blue skies and 29 degrees so were feeling pretty happy about not having to go to work and scrape ice off the car/cycle in the freezing cold.

We were on our way to the Mekong when Guy’s stomach suddenly reminded him of the chilli fest he had imbibed the night before, we took a quick diversion into True Coffee, Guy made it to the loo in time, and celebrated with a teeny weeny macchiato.

A lizard catches our eyes, playing in the sunshine.

We eventually walk along the Mekong, enjoying the view over to Thailand, can’t believe we are so close, it is only the other side. We stop to take photos of a statue, no idea who it is,  but if someone has gone to the trouble of putting up a statue the least you can do is photograph and blog it..

The bus station appears, there seems to be no system or way of finding out what the system is, we wander round and round looking looking for bus 14, nothing. Eventually someone asks us ‘where are you going?’, we assume he is a tuk tuk driver, but no, he seems to be a bus station guide, he points to the 14 bus, hiding round a corner, and get on. As the bus is nearly full we don’t have to wait long before we are on our way. We pass the Beerlao brewery and head towards the busy Thai -Laos Friendship bridge, the border crossing. 

10 mins later we are at Buddha Park, a weird fantastical place built in 1958 by a monk. The concrete Buddhst/Hindu sculptures are quite odd and bizarre, there is a giant pumpkin head which you can walk inside which depicts heaven, earth and hell! Guy photographs the sites, I wander through watching the locals, tourists and monks exploring the park and wondering what kind of mind created this.

We have lunch at a Laos PDR (Please Don’t Rush) restaurant, eventually we have holy basil, chicken and rice.

Sometime later our plate of stir fried vegetables arrives, which Guy has mostly eaten before we remember to photograph it.

We take the bus back to Vientiane, waiting ages for customers at the Friendship bridge. 

On our last night here we settled down with a beer or 3 overlooking the Mekong and enjoy the sunset. We walk through the extensive night market, nothing to buy for us.

We have dinner at Lao Kitchen, an upmarket place, beer is expensive so we try Laos whiskey, with ice. 

We also have sticky rice with Jeow (which is a spicy paste ours had buffalo skin in it, apparently),  Pakse sausage with a lush garlic and coriander dip, Orlam stew which is full of lemongrass,  lush. 

Back home for football (Guy), dozing (me)!

21.1.17 Vientiane

Not much happened today, maybe due to the Black Horse whisky?

We had an iced coffee at True Coffee, this took us about 10 mins to decide which one to have……..

We then went to Fruit Heaven for reviving smoothies and larb for Guy.

Chinese for tea, we were missing that firey spice so had 2 sichuen noodle dishes along with some dumplings…….of course!

Back to room for premiership football  (Guy) dozing (me). 

Saturday night with a Chinese and football,  just like home, but so different in Laos.

20.1.17 Vientiane, a trip down memory lane

Today we strolled around some of the sights we saw in 1999 but started the day in a coffee shop, something new. I can’t remember where backpackers and westerners would spend their time when we were last here, probably hostel bars, but they certainly would not be drinking machiatos while using free WiFi on their smartphones in stylish coffee shops. In the dark recesses of the past, I remember people would read books and chat to each other swapping travel stories. Its much easier to be introverted and aloof nowadays.

Anyway, I enjoy my machiato and sit staring into the middle distance, appearing aloof without using my smartphone. You can’t sit around stylish coffee shops all day though, especially if you’re married to Alison, who soon demands we actually do some tourism.

We walked past the Presidential palace and down the main road to the Patouxay monument, built from US cement intended for a new airport in 1969. We selfie, then are asked to be in a photo, then are asked to take photos. Its a snap happy time.

After a plate of holy basil fried chicken in a workers cafe, we walk to Pha That Luang, the most important national symbol in Laos. Eighteen years ago I took a picture of a monk sat mediating on its wall which I love enough to hang in my hall at home and I want to revisit the scene. Unfortunately, its currently covered in scaffolding so my hopes are dashed on the rocks of reality. 

We walk into a temple next door and sit quietly at the back while a ceremony unfolds under the Buddhist images. We start to feel a bit self conscious as it appears to be a monks initiation with his family attending, but as is often the case in south east Asia, an unexpected welcome gesture happens as a bloke brings us a bottle of ice cold water each. We thank him. 

We walk back into town on an unconventional route, looking at a bit of light industry as we go. It may not be top of the tourist sites but we like to see all of a country, not just the shiny bits. Learning about a foreign country isn’t just monuments, waterfalls and statues, back street life and food is also interesting to us.

We near the hostel and have another memory to revisit, a whisky related one. We previously had tried Black Horse Laos Whisky, my Dad used to work for Lloyd’s bank whose logo is a black horse, so it seemed appropriate! We found a shop which sold it for 12,000 kip or £1.20 a bottle so bought one. After a sundowner beerlao or two it was opened and swigged. The soundtrack to this whisky in 1999 was U2’s Rattle and Hum so the headphones come out and we indulge in Laos whisky and Irish blues rock. Its an understatement to say we have a good time.

OK Edge, play the blues……..

19.1.2017 Vang Vieng to Vientiane (and 21 years of happiness…..)

Another day, another bus! A later start allowed us to have breakfast of fried pancake with banana and nutella for Guy and the slightly more heart stopping nutella and peanut butter for me. We were slightly regretting not having listened to our Geordie mate and put ice in our beer last night…….but the pancakes helped!

Although we had paid for a minivan to Vientiane we were all bundled into an ancient ‘VIP’ (in name only) bus on which no seats worked, some reclined of their own accord, some were bolt upright, refusing to budge. Ours were the freely reclining variety which was unfortunate for the couple behind. There was very little complaining though. We also noticed that we were some of the youngest on the bus, the GreyPacker has really taken off here, with loads of middle aged (to clarify that is 45-65 age bracket now) backpackers spending their kids inheritance, seemingly doing it themselves.

The views out the bus window were still of a poverty stricken country but with kids laughing, smiling and having an afternoon wash in the Mekong. The roads are being created as as we trundle slowly along in our ancient, old bus avoiding the piles of aggregate and freshly smeared tarmac which would complete the road, in Laos time.

Entering Vientiane, it seemed very different to last time, there is more development and less dust, which is not surprising.  It still is very provincial looking though, not a fast food chain in sight or even a 7/11. (Although we saw an advert for Hard Rock Cafe a few days later…..not sure if it was a fake).

We are dropped off on a street about 5 min walk from our hostel, we checked in and we were delighted to see a fridge and a balcony available to us. Sunsets will be fun!

The beauty of being in a former french colony is the legacy of bakeries they left behind, this seemed a naturally sugar laden way of celebrating our 21 years of happiness together. One massive cinnamon roll, a mango crumble and 2 hot chocolates later (my request for iced chocolate falling on deaf ears) we crawled out Joma bakery and continued on our wander around this shabby, half built but wonderfully laid back city. 

A sign promising white wine for 20,000 kip (£2) drew us in, and being sensible we ordered food as well, the heart shaped falafel were delicious! 

We needed to stock up our fridge, so went to the shop for beers, laughing cow cheese and pepper salami. Oooooohhhhhhh la la! Sunset was taking place so we showed off our synchronised drinking skills and relaxed with a view over the local bank.

A walk down the Mekong was quite different, a road has been put in (although only in 2012) for traffic to cruise down the riverside, the level of the river is less (due to Chinese dams upriver) and a massive night market was in progress. Ignoring all that we went straight to food, following our noses to the smell of grilled mests, we had chicken, Laos sausages but the Som Tam we ordered never appeared, so it was a protein heavy meal, accompanied by Beerlao, obviously.  Leftovers went to a feral dog who woo’ed us with his big brown eyes.