Laos: Water & Waterfalls

I've done a fair bit of travel in the region recently, beginning with my trip to Southern Laos in April, but I haven't mentioned it much here, mostly because I've been distracted. Now, though, I'm going to post some photos from wandering around Cambodia and Laos, with a few thoughts. Then, tomorrow, I'm off again, this time to Bangkok for a weekend.

We'll start with Laos. The bridge above is from Pakse, the biggest city in Southern Laos, located approximately 90 minutes from the Cambodian border, and less than 100 km from the Thai border. We were astonished to find that it's much bigger than Cambodian provincial cities, despite Laos' smaller overall population. We didn't spend much time in Pakse, other than eating one night at one of the nicer hotels, and then staying another night on our way back to Cambodia at the end of our trip. Instead, we spent most of our time finding and enjoying waterfalls.

These photos are both from Khone Phapheng falls, on the Mekong river near the Cambodian border. We swam in the pool created by the water in the second picture. It was very cold, although the three naked kids who were also swimming there (and are not pictured) seemed to be enjoying it. We traveled to Laos during Laos (and Khmer) New Year, so at each of the places we visited, there were a lot of other people picnicking, swimming, or cooling off. April is the hottest time of year in Cambodia/Laos, so sitting near enough to the falls to enjoy some of the spray is a nice way to spend an afternoon. At Khone Phapheng, there was a fairly large market area, where we were even able to pick up a latte for the ride back to our guesthouse.

We arrived at Tad Lo, in what is called the Bolaven Plateau, at the height of Laos New Year, so the place was packed with people traipsing through the market area (and gambling on the street), swimming in the falls, and even perched at the top of the falls, eating. In the background, Laos music was blaring from the restaurant closest to the falls. There was also truly bad karaoke, fueled by Beerlao and lao lao and we wisely chose not to take part. The Tad Lo falls aren't very tall, so the attraction seems to be the various pools of water, as the falls start farther upriver, and finally end in the picture above. From there, the river is much calmer, and as we trekked over a bridge, through the market, and back to our guesthouse just as the sun was setting, we could see many of the residents preparing to bathe.

We had one truly bad meal in Laos (the rest were just slow to arrive), and it was in Tad Lo, at a restaurant recommended to us by the owner of our guesthouse. Unsurprisingly, the place was run by his aunt. I'm still not sure what they put in the coconut shakes (I suspect canned coconut milk, not fresh), but they were seriously greasy, which is unusual in this part of the world. Fortunately, the nephew ran his guesthouse much better, and although we 'roughed it' (as much as I'm willing to rough anything, that is), the only drawback from our stay in Tad Lo were clothes that smelled a bit like the wood fire our neighbors were using. The highlight was definitely the three Lao teens who decided they needed their photo taken with me. I've intermittently wondered where those photos ended up, and who those guys claim is in the picture with them.

After Tad Lo, we weren't intending to find any more waterfalls, but Tad Suong was on our route back to Pakse so we pulled off and trekked with a lot of other people to see this giant waterfall. We parked at the top of the falls, and then made our way to the head of the falls (above), which is also a huge picnic ground. Here's a tip: if you're planning to hang out with the rest of the Lao people at Tad Suong, you can buy a case of Beerlao and simply put it in the river to stay cool while you relax. In the dry season, you can walk around at the top of the falls, almost to the edge. The figures in orange at the edge of the photo are the monks, who have set up a small temple near the falls.

It didn't take long to realize that we could make our way to the bottom of the falls as well, so we hiked down what felt like two hundred stairs (carved out of the mountain) to get to this view. The falls were breathtaking, and I can only imagine what they look like now that it's the rainy season and there's more water. After months of dry, dusty Cambodian weather, spending time near the cool rivers of Laos and the green landscape was refreshing. We didn't venture into the water at Tad Suong, although we watched quite a few daring Lao youth dive in from rocks close to the falls. The rest of the swimmers hung back in calmer water, striking poses for their girlfriends or families to photograph. We all clambered for a foothold on the slippery riverbank as there were far too many people trying to go up and down the stairs, which ended on a cliff overlooking the pool.

Along with the tourists, it seems that photography is a brisk business at Tad Suong, with lots of enterprising photographers attempting to persuade us to pay them to take our photo. What was most entertaining was watching these guys try to keep their lenses dry when the breeze kicked up the spray from the falls.

Waterfalls, believe it or not, were actually a secondary pursuit. Our initial goal in visiting Laos was to see the 4,000 Islands (or Si Phan Don), which range in size from Don Khong, where we stayed for three nights, to really large rocks jutting out of the water. All of the islands are located in the Mekong river, which we traversed by boat quite a bit during our stay. At their southernmost point, Si Phan Don actually border Cambodia, and we spent a morning making our way to the south side of Don Khon island, where we took small boats to see Irrawady dolphins. We actually spotted the fins of at least a couple members of this endangered species, although snapping a picture was fairly difficult. We also traveled back to Don Dhet (just north of Don Khon) to go kayaking, and then spent a pleasant hour or two swimming in the Mekong. Sadly, the dolphins didn't join us.

We stayed a few nights at a "resort" along the Mekong, maybe 30 kilometers north of the border. Although they had great food, the main attraction was staying on the river, which lulled us to sleep at night. As we learned (or re-learned), sometimes "resort" doesn't mean what you think it means. In this case, it meant: "nice rooms, but keep an eye out for stray water buffalo."

One of our favorite adventures was the day we tried to find the market. According to the "concierge" at the "resort" there was a small market about 7 km away, where we could purchase a soccer ball, etc. to play on the grounds. We set off in the truck to find this market, and... ended up driving to Pakse (an hour and a half). However, before we trekked all the way to Pakse, we cruised some local Lao villages, where we tried out our (oh-so-limited) Lao language talents, tried to persuade people that they could speak a little Khmer, and then exercised our Thai. We also crossed a rickety wooden bridge (pictured above), which was probably ill-advised, but provided a little extra heart-pounding suspense and adrenaline. Even more so when, after crossing, we discovered there was no way back to the main highway and were forced to turn around and cross it again.

The worst part? The market that the resort staff sent us to was actually the dock for all the small boats over to Don Dhet island, which we found the next day when we went to go see the dolphins. It was packed with people, including other tourists, and there were lots of soccer balls for sale. We bought sunglasses instead.

All in all, it was a really great trip, with lots of time spent outdoors. The drive through Cambodia was also really beautiful, as it took us through Stung Treng and Kratie provinces, places I'd not previously visited. Of course, no border crossing in Southeast Asia would be complete without a little corruption, so our return featured some fast talking and negotiation, and then the obligatory rejection of romantic overtures by Kate.

Once we returned, many WR staff asked me if I prefer Laos to Cambodia (a totally loaded question). The answer: I had a lot of fun in Laos, but I prefer to live in Cambodia.

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