Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands)

Our last stop in Laos was Si Phan Don or Four Thousand Islands. Si Phan Don is actually a river archipelago, where the Mekong River gets so wide that there are actually several large islands and tons of smaller ones in the river itself. Si Phan Don is mostly a place to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery, while there are a few trips possible from the area as well.

The great part about Si Phan Don is that accommodation and most other expenses are really cheap there. You can get a bungalow right on the water for just a few dollars per night and have great views of the Mekong River. We stayed on Don Det Island, where a lot of backpacker types like to stay. People definitely seemed to move at a slow pace as we normally had to wait two hours or more for our food at the small restaurants there. During our stay, we spent most of our time sitting along the riverside, watching the locals go by on their small boats, and enjoying the scenery.

Mekong River from Bungalow 

Hammocks on Our Front Porch 

One of the main reasons people go to Si Phan Don is to see the Irrawaddy Dolphins, a rare species of pink river dolphins. The Mekong River is big enough in the area that it is able to support dolphins, but apparently they are extremely endangered with fewer than 100 left. Their population is rebounding a bit thanks to conservation efforts, but they are still pretty rare and Si Phan Don is one of the few places where it is possible to see them.

To see the dolphins and some of the other sites in the area, we took a day long Kayak trip. The trip included some hiking on other islands and stops at some big waterfalls in the area.

Li Phi Waterfall 

Kayaking in Mekong

After kayaking for awhile, we actually crossed into the border into Cambodia to the place where the dolphins are normally active. It's a really wide stretch of the river and looks like it could be a lake because the water doesn't flow too quickly there. We were really lucky on our trip because the dolphins were pretty active and we could see them close up a few times. 

Waiting for the Dolphins

 A Dolphin Surfacing

At the end of the trip we stopped at the Khone Phapheng Falls, which is apparently the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia. While the falls are not that tall, since the Mekong River is so big in that area, they are pretty wide and have a lot of water passing through, which is why it is the largest falls.

 Khone Phapheng Falls

Khone Phapheng Falls

One of the best things to do in the Si Phan Don area is to sit along the Mekong River and watch the sunsets. There are several restaurants and guest houses along the riverside that offer great views in Don Det and you can just grab a drink and play cards as you watch the sun going down.

Chilling on Riverside 

Red Beard Allred

 Hidden Sun

Sunset over Mekong 

Locals Heading Home

Sun below the Horizon

That wraps up our trip to Si Phan Don and also Laos. Our trip to Laos was the best part of the trip for me and it's one of my favorite places that I've visited. While there are few large cities or developed areas, there is a lot of beautiful, unspoiled nature, the local people are really friendly, and you can see a lot of the country without spending a lot of money. We enjoyed pretty much every stop in Laos and met a lot of great people along the way.

Even though the trip ended a long time ago, I've really enjoyed reliving the experience by writing these blog posts and going through the old pictures. There are only a few stops left on our Southeast Asia circuit, so hopefully I can finish things up before my time is over in China.

For more pictures of Si Phan Don, see:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Pakse and Bolaven Plateau

Working our way south through Laos, our next stop was in Pakse. While being one of the larger cities in Laos, Pakse is still relatively small and is mainly a staging point for treks in the surrounding countryside. Our first evening after arriving in Pakse, we did spend some time walking around the city and checked out some of the main temples. Additionally, the hotel where we stayed at was owned and operated by some Indian people, so we took the opportunity to break from our diet of Laotian food to eat some excellent Indian cuisine.

Temple in Pakse

Monks in Buddhist Temple

 Local Soccer Game

Our main purpose in going to Pakse was to take another motorcycle trip. Near Pakse is the Bolaven Plateau, an elevated region formed by a huge ancient volcano. Because of the volcanic lava flows long ago, a lot of drop offs and rocky slopes were formed, which has resulted in numerous waterfalls around the Bolaven Plateau. It's a great place to cruise around on a motorcycle for a few days, stopping to check out waterfalls or villages in the area.

After spending a night in Pakse, we started off around one of the main loops on the Bolaven Plateau. It was a pretty nice way to spend a day, riding on a motorbike between stops at waterfalls.

E-Tu Waterfall

One of our favorite waterfalls on the trip was the Thamchampy Waterfall (see below), which had a rounded out cave area that allowed you to walk behind the waterfall.

 Thamchampy Waterfall from Above

Thamchampy Full View 

 Phil at Thamchampy

 Behind Thamchampy

One of the biggest waterfalls in the area is Tad Fane. While there is a resort built near the waterfall, actually getting down to a good view of the waterfall is really tough. It was a muddy and steep path, during which I slipped and fell into the bushes, sliding down the mountain for a ways. However, we did get some pretty good views of the waterfall to reward us for the effort. The pictures don't show how big it really is, but apparently the falls are over 100m or over 325 feet, so they're pretty big.

Tad Fane from a Distance

 Full View of Tad Fane Falls

The last major waterfall of the day was the Yuang Waterfall. It was another great waterfall to check out.

Yuang Waterfall

We stopped for lunch in a small town named Paksong, which was about the halfway point of our driving that day. In Paksong, a Dutch guy randomly has a nice coffee and tea plantation and small cafe. We stopped to chat with him for awhile, then headed on our way. The rest of the day we spent driving to Tad Lo village, where we were planning to spend the night. The drive was some of the most scenic of our trip and we had some great opportunities to see open countryside and small villages.

Cow Questioning Our Authority 

 Countryside on Bolaven Plateau

Open Road

We finally arrived in Tad Lo village, which has a nice river and series of waterfalls nearby. There are several guest houses in the village because it's kind of a nice stopping point for people doing the loop around the Bolaven plateau. That night, we grabbed some dinner at a small local restaurant, and then headed to one of the bigger hotels in the area, the Tad Lo Lodge, to watch the Netherlands vs. Brazil world cup game with some Dutch people. The Dutch won, which was cause for great celebration.

Our Bungalow in Tad Lo

The next morning, we took a short trek to visit four local villages and the major waterfalls in the area. The weather was perfect that day, nothing but blue skies to highlight the green countryside. Unfortunately, the biggest waterfall didn't have enough water when we visited, so it was just a drizzle. However, the trek and smaller waterfalls were still really great. After the trek, we were pretty filthy from constantly sweating in the Southeast Asian humidity and having dust stick to us from either hiking around or motorbiking on dusty roads. We took a nice dip in the river to clean up a bit, but it only lasted a short while before we got back on our bikes and got blasted with some more dust.

Filthy Wes on Trek near Tad Lo

Village near Tad Lo

Crossing Paths with the Locals

Muddy Road

Drying Leaves at Village

Blue Skies and Green Countryside

 Phil Walking Down Dirt Road

Swimming In River at Smaller Waterfall

 Biggest Waterfall Nearly Dried Up

After our morning trek, we hopped back on our motorbikes and started on our way back to Pakse. There were still a few waterfalls to visit on the way back, so we took our time getting back to the city.

Wes at Phasouam Waterfall

Finishing up our short loop around the Bolaven Plateau marked the last of our motorbiking trips. Riding around for those two days was a great trip and we enjoyed seeing all the waterfalls and the beautiful countryside. Having never before ridden a motorbike long distances, I was surprised how much I enjoyed traveling that way. Phil and I both agreed that if we did our trip through Laos again, we would probably just ride a motorbike across the whole country. We met a few people doing that and it seemed like they were really enjoying it. It lets you take in the countryside at your own pace and gives you a lot of freedom to see some things off the main path. You also don't have to worry about bus schedules, which is especially nice in a developing country where things aren't always on schedule. Riding a motorbike might even be cheaper than taking the buses, although some of the roads with sharp curves up and down steep mountains might not be that safe. 

There's only one more post coming for Laos, then hopefully I can finish up the couple posts for Cambodia and Malaysia before too long, so stay tuned.

For more pictures of Pakse and the Bolaven Plateau:

Monday, February 28, 2011


After riding motorbikes through the countryside around Thakhek, we continued traveling by motorbike to do a side trip to the Konglor Cave. The Konglor Cave is actually more of an underground river that you can cruise through on a boat. It's still relatively undeveloped since it was supposedly only discovered in 2004. Being about 5 miles long with huge caverns supposedly up to 100 meters high and 30 meters wide, it's a spectacular place to visit and was one of the highlights of the trip.

Riding by motorbike out to Konglor from Thakhek is quite scenic and you pass by a lot of local villages after you get off the main highway. It was a bit of a long drive using the small motorbikes we had, but it was manageable for a day trip. Unfortunately, both of our bikes started to show signs of wear and tear on the drive. Phil's was the first to go, with the sprocket on his back tire getting really worn down, so the chain would just spin when he tried to go. At first we thought we were in trouble, but after stopping for a bowl of noodles for lunch, we had a local direct us to a small repair shop. We expected to get charged a lot for the repair, but it was only around $10 and only took an hour to repair before we were able to get back on the road.

 Phil and Countryside on Way to Konglor

Getting the Bike Repaired

Rocky Karst Mountains

Water Buffalo Doing What Water Buffaloes Do

After finally arriving at the cave, we arranged to have a local take us on a canoe type boat with a motor through the cave. At first it was hard to see where the entrance was, but it was amazing how big it was once you were inside.

Where is It?

 Oh, There It Is

Because it's completely black inside the cave, it was tough to get a lot of quality videos or pictures. The best thing to do was to just sit back and enjoy the experience of blasting through the darkness on a rickety boat driven recklessly by a local Laotian. All we had to guide us were some flashlights and headlamps, but the drivers seemed to know what they were doing. There were definitely some tricky spots, where rocks would jut up out of nowhere or the river would get really shallow, that would definitely wreck an inexperienced driver. Other times the boat would scrape on rocks, go over a small fall or rapid, or we'd have to stand up and carry the boat past a particularly rough patch.

The Starting Point 

Driving Into the Darkness

At one point, the boats are stopped at an area of the cave with a lot of rock formations that they light up temporarily. When you get off the boat, the drivers lead you on a narrow strip of shallow rocks with sharp drop offs on each side into deep parts of the fast flowing river. I'm not sure who first explored this cave, but there definitely seem to be several parts like that where you could easily get into trouble in such a big dark cave with a river flowing throw it. 

Lit Up Section of Cave

 More Rock Formations

While the rock formations were cool, the best part of the cave really is the boat ride through the darkness and being amazed about how huge the caverns are and at times not even being able to see where the walls are. Eventually, after going all the way through the cave, you finally see light at the end of the tunnel. Then, the boats head back in the opposite direction and you get to do it all over again. In all, you're in the cave for around an hour or more.

End of the Tunnel

By the time we finished with the cave, it was already getting a bit late and we decided to do a home stay for the night. A home stay is basically staying with one of the locals in their hut, receiving room and board for an evening. There were several people offering home stays outside the cave and we joined some other foreigners who were also on the boat ride to go stay with a family. The village was right near the cave and in a valley between two ranges of mountains where people were growing rice or other crops. We had an opportunity to take in the beautiful countryside and talk with several of the locals as we relaxed that evening.

 Countryside Near Konglor

Rice Fields

Local Kids Coming to Shake Hands

The home stay itself was a lot of fun. We stayed with a nice family and enjoyed eating dinner and breakfast with them. At night there was a world cup soccer game on and since the family we were staying with had a TV, nearly all the men from the village crammed into the hut to watch the game. It was surprising to see how interested everyone in Laos was in the world cup on our whole trip and we had a lot of fun watching the games with them.

As we were packing up to leave the next morning, the Grandpa of the family said to me in broken English, "Hello Mister, I love you." I'm not sure where he learned how to say that, but it was definitely a surprise for me to hear. Most likely he tells a lot of guests that, even though he probably doesn't clearly understood the meaning of the words, which probably has given a lot of people a nice surprise like I had.

Kids and Grandma from the Home Stay Family

Authentic Laos Dinner

Watching the World Cup Game

 Receiving a Friendship Bracelet from the Grandpa

After eating our breakfast and getting cleaned up, we hit the open road and headed back to Thakhek. Pretty much right on cue, my motorbike started having more and more trouble. Eventually I had to stop and get the clutch replaced. Fortunately, it was again a pretty cheap and quick fix and we were back on our way. 

Phil at Laos-Style Gas Station

Wes Cruisin' Like a Boss

The Konglor Cave was a unique experience and was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. The home stay and beautiful countryside helped to make the trip even more memorable. While the area seems to be developing for tourists very quickly, it will still be one of the best places to visit in Laos.

For more pictures, visit: