Stories

 

Laos


From the 8th to the 29th of December, 2014

Almost fully recovered from an hepatitis A, I was ready for a new solo trip. I landed in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, a country I was about to discover for the first time.

At sunset, the walk along the Mekong river came to live. Merchants started installing the night market. The main street was closed to traffic allowing bicycling, running or walking. Some people gathered together and were getting ready to dance. On one hand a rock class was about to start while a little further a salsa class was already in progress. The following day I wandered around this small human scaled capital city and discovered beautiful temples, monasteries and monuments. I was surprised this charming little city had little traffic and most were driving recent cars.

    

I reached the town of Vang Vieng a little further north. A few years ago, alcohol and illicit substances abounded. Westerners were partying night and day, and walking in swimsuit in front of shocked residents. Following to the government "cleaning" in 2012, the tourism is now more adventure and nature oriented. Located on the banks of Nam Song River, surrounded by karst mountains, the landscape is gorgeous. With a bicycle, I reached the Kaeng Nyui waterfall and the Tham Phu Kham cave. In this huge room decorated with stalagmites, a bronze reclining Buddha was being illuminated by the sunlight infiltrations. It was mystic ! Outside the cave, a beautiful turquoise lagoon was THE place to chill out and swim. Some people jumped into the water from a tree branch in front of amused spectators enjoying a sunbath.

    

The following day, I joined a small group of five people for a kayaking day down the Nam Song River. After floating up and down an underground river in total darkness, while sitting on an inner tube, we started the kayaking trip 10 kilometers away from Vang Vieng. We enjoyed this slow descent with beautiful view of mountain formations and the river to ourselves for the first seven kilometers. We then had to share the river with groups tubing down the river. That looked fun, but with the lack of current, it took them four hours to reach Vang Vieng in freezing cold water.

After a seven hours bus journey for about 200 kilometers, I reached Luang Prabang. Once a kingdom, the old town is today a UNESCO heritage city. Located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khane, terraced gardens lined the banks of both rivers. Local people played petanque while monks in their orange dresses roamed the streets. The Lao traditional wooden houses and colonial architecture blended perfectly. Pagodas were superbly decorated with sculptures, engravings, paintings and gold. Each of them looked like a jewel.

Together with Stephanie and Julien, a French couple I met at Vientiane airport, we bicycled to Tat Sae waterfall, 25 kilometers upstream of the Nam Khan River where we discovered beautiful turquoise natural pools flowing into one another. What a contrast with the brownish water of the Nam Khane. The following day we went to Kuang Si Waterfalls with a minivan. In addition to the turquoise water pool, there was an waterfall. A hike to the top allowed to admire the wilderness and some of the drop, but unfortunately to a full sight of the waterfall. While at Tat Sae we had the site almost to ourselves, Kuang Si is more popular.

    

At 8 am, a tuk tuk leaded me to the bus station. At 9am, I jumped into a local bus for three hours of winding journey to Sayaboury. Upon arrival, a vehicle was waiting for me. 15 minutes later, we reached a small pier where I boarded a barge in order reach my destination on the other side of the lake.

The Sayaboury province is the homeland of 360 registered domestic elephants and the second largest population of wild elephants in Laos. Domesticated elephants in Laos are traditionally used in logging. Worked to the point of exhaustion, these elephants are not reproducing. With only two births for every ten deaths, the sacred national symbol of Laos is under threat of extinction. The Elephant Conservation Center (www.elephantconservationcenter.com) created a nursery and implemented a program encouraging the natality of domesticated elephants. With its hospital, it enhances access to veterinary care. It offers training sessions to mahouts on various subjects and encourages to reconvert logging elephants into fair and environmentally friendly ecotourism.

Rather than taking them from their natural habitat to urban tourist areas, it is for the visitors to travel to their natural environment. Elephants at the center are here to recover of an exhausting life in logging or waiting to give birth.

The center is located in a forested peninsula on the banks of Lake Nam Tien. For three days, we were a group of three people guided by the rhythm of elephants life. A walk through the forest allowed us to reach the elephants which were resting and eating during the night. We then rode the elephants back to the center for their morning bath. At the nursery, we met a 22 months pregnant elephant which could give birth of a 100 kg baby at any moment. While visiting the hospital, we assisted in the care of a wounded elephant. At the age of 3, the time had come for Noy (small) to be separated from his mother for the first time in order to be trained. The mahouts chose three names which they wrote on bamboos and presented to the elephant to choose his name. The new named Sourya, joined his mother after two weeks of separation and met the other elephants of the center for the first time. A moment full of emotions where the mom kept aside in order to let him build a new relationship with his new friends. I accompanied two volunteers for the observation of elephant behaviors which was a great way to understand the character and habits of each individuals. I would have loved to offer some of my time, but unfortunately volunteering has a price.

Click here to see the video of this peaceful giant.


    

It was with a heavy heart that I left the center to continue my journey north to Nang Khiaw. From there I took a small boat up the Nam Ou River and reached Muang Ngoi Neua. This remote little village of about 700 alms was the perfect spot to relax in a hamock, enjoying the river and mountain view for Christmas.

After another five hours of navigation, I reached Muang Khua, a transit point for most travelers. From here, I could either catch a bus to Vietnam or another boat to Phongsali, but the second option involved coming back the same way to reach Vietnam. At the tourist office, a few hikes were displayed, but few were explored. Exactly what I was looking for. I decided to stay another day, and approached every tourist in the village (about twenty), in vain. At 8pm, while I was telling the guide I didn't succeed in finding anyone for the hike, a couple I had talked to earlier informed me that despite their limited travel time, they changed their itinerary in order to integrate this hike. I was so excited !

The following day we reached a Kha Mu tribe village by boat. The different ethnic groups we were about to meet did not receive any tourist for a year and were not informed of our visit. For some of them, it was even the first time they approached a westerner. Women and children were looking at us with a big smile on their face. Unaccustomed to see curly hair, a woman couldn't resist to arrange my hair... Our visit coincided with a very special day. As a spirit manifested his hunger, a pig was sacrificed and grilled. After the ceremony, the villagers were honored to share their feast with us. Indeed, an unplanned meeting falling in such an important moment is a blessing. According to their tradition, we started and finished the meal with two shots of rice wine. In order for the spirits to get away in harmony, everything had to be eaten. And they did not waste any part of the pig... Fortunately, our guide had brought some eggs and vegetables. Those women didn't look like heavy drinkers, but they handled pretty well... Gesturing at me, they invited me to spend the night and attend to their ceremonial dance the following morning. It would have been a great pleasure, but it was time for us to start the hike.

    

We left the tribe for a three hours walk through a bamboo forest. At the bounders of an Akha Loma village, an arched bamboo was decorated with a dog paw. Boun Ma, our guide, explained that the most aggressive dog of the village was sacrificed and exposing part of his body (better the paw than the head...) would keep bad spirits away. Here is another aspect of the watchdog. Surprised and shy when we arrived, the children led us to the village chief. Only married women were wearing the traditional dress. Others were wearing worn cloth they occasionally change. During the day, adults are taking care of the rice crop and opium fields, hunting, fruit picking or trading with other villages. At the age of 6 years, girls are like mothers to their little brothers and sisters. They carry them on their backs all day long, cook and feed them. There is a school, but with the lack of teacher, education is virtually nonexistent.

The chief invited us to spend the night in his two story wooden house. The living area consisted of the fire place where everything was being cooked, some shelves for the pots and bowls and a few water containers, knowing the nearest stream was 25 minutes walk away. The second half of the room was used for the storage of rice bags and hanging pieces of pigs wrapped in banana leaves. After dark, we attended the preparation of some rice bread. Some cooked rice was grounded and mixed using a rocking mechanism activated by the strength of four people. The mixture was then placed in banana leaves and can be stored for several weeks.

After drinking our two shots of rice wine, we enjoyed our delicious meal prepared with wild greens. What a delight ! The chief songs gradually attracted children and women who joined us around the fire. As the evening progressed, women who were initially shy, opened up to us and we all shared an amazing evening. Upstairs, a few mattresses and blankets on the floor served as a common bed for the twenty five family members. It seems that some of them slept in the neighbor houses in order to let us have their bed. In the morning, when opening my eyes, I discovered a little face staring at me. How long has she been looking at me...? Downstairs Boun Ma was already cooking breakfast on the fire. At 8:30 am, on an empty stomach, we started the day with two glasses of rice wine... and finished our breakfast with an additional three shots. The village chief explained that he was very grateful we came all the way to his village and was honored receiving us. Despite the constant buzz of children screams, he feels happy to perpetuate the tradition. Eyes filled with tears (and a little drunk), we started our descent to the Nam Ou River, where the boat was waiting for us.

Click here to see the video of this amazing moment.

The following day I left Laos and crossed the border to Vietnam.

It was a great pleasure to start this backpacking trip in such a calm and pleasant country, especially for a single women traveler.

Click here to read the following story about my trip in Vietnam.


From the 13th to the 26th of January 2015

After I arrived in Pakse, I rented a motorbike and did a 3 days loop around the Bolaven Plateau whose fertile soil is suitable for agriculture. Throughout my trip, I rode along coffee plantations and through different ethnic villages and their wooden houses. When I stopped to watch the drying seeds, the children greeted me, adults smiled at me. What a great feeling...

    

The area had many different type of beautiful waterfalls. The water curtain where you can venture back (Thamchampy and Tayicsia), the half moon shaped falls (Tad Gneuang and Tad Lo), the very high double waterfalls (Utayan Bajiang champasak and Tad Fane) or the one which disappeared or got drained after some dam construction. The 20 kilometers detour on a red dirt road to reach the Tayicsua waterfall was well worth the effort. The drop, the noise of the water crashing into the rocks, the sun's rays illuminating the splashing, the trees rooted in rocks and the surrounding green forest were the perfect ingredients for a magical place ! Aside from the extra kilometers drive due to my great sense of direction, it felt so good to be free to stop when and where I wanted to. Back in Pakse, when I saw my face in the mirror I thought I had a nice suntan, but after the shower my earth colored tan had vanished.

    

At his point, it had been five weeks I was traveling and five weeks I was wearing my only sweater and jeans almost every day. It was time for me to have some vacation... I set sail to the region of Si Phan Don, 4000 islands on the Mekong. On Don Det island, the climate was mild and there was no cloud to be seen ! Every day, I swam to a small sandy island, the perfect place to relax, read a book and recharge my batteries. The sunsets were stunning but the colors in the sky after the sunset was even more amazing. I decided to have a break in between my lazy days and I rode a bicycle to Don Kon Island to see the beautiful Li Phi waterfall (one more...). It was difficult to understand the shape of the river as the water winded between large rocks creating several falls, spreading over a few hundred meters and plunging into a canyon. I also visited the powerful Khon Pha Pheng falls which flow was impressive. With a small boat, I went on a trip to observe the Irrawaddy dolphins whose population is in strong decline. They look so different than the river dolphin in Amazonia.

After a week of relaxation, I was ready to leave Laos to discover Cambodia.

Click here to read the following story about my journey Cambodia.

Album "Laos - December 2014 - January 2015"

Video : "Laos adventure"
Video : "Akha Loma hilltribe"
Video : "Elephant conservation center"