Monday, February 13, 2017

Leaving Vientiane for Savannakhet and Pakse

I left Vientiane and headed towards the general direction of Savannakhet, though the distance was so great that I was pretty sure that I was going to have to stop somewhere in between. And I was right. I ended up stopping in a little town right at the corner of Highways 13 and 8 in Laos at a guesthouse for the night. The room was only 50,000 kip for the night, or a little over six bucks, which was great, and I think it was the cheapest place I have stayed in Laos so far. It didn't have hot water (which was not a big deal because it was hot outside, and I didn't end up taking a shower in the one night I was there anyway), and it didn't have wi-fi in the room, but it did have wi-fi once I moved closer to the office, which was good enough for me. Actually, it probably would have been good enough even if it didn't have wi-fi. I have a Laos SIM card so I have phone signal in Laos. It only costs 50,000 kip, for 5 Gbs over an entire month, which is good enough for mundane tasks, and I just wait for wi-fi to upload pictures (sometimes I will upload just a few over the phone data) or to watch videos. I had a Vietnamese SIM card too, and I'll put it back into my phone once I get to Vietnam again.

I spent the next day heading down to Savannakhet. Southern Laos on Highway 13 is all coastal plains, in contrast to the Northern part of the country, in which there are a lot of mountainous areas. So the ride was not as spectacular when it came to scenery. I arrived in Savannakhet late in the afternoon and found a guesthouse pretty much right in the center of the city, which allowed me to just step outside and be right in the middle of things. Savannakhet is the second largest city in Laos, right behind Vientiane, and it has a large number of beautiful disintegrating French Colonial style buildings interspersed with Laotian shacks. There is a central square, Talaat Yen Plaza, in front of the Catholic Church, that turns into a vibrant night market after the sun goes down. It's probably the closest thing Savanakhet has to a downtown. I was astonished to walk into a convenience store and be in line behind a boy who looked about five years old buying two packs of cigarettes. Just a few blocks away from the central square is the Mekong River, with Thailand right on the other side. The first night I was there, I met a French guy and a Finnish guy in the common area. The French guy said he was 28 years old and was traveling with a brother and a friend, but they had gotten temporarily separated and his two companions were staying in Vientiane; they were due to meet up the next day. He was traveling on a budget of 50,000 kip a day, which was impressive to me, because I was definitely trying to travel cheaply, but even the places I stayed were always more than that. He kept his costs down by WWOOFing, so he would work on farms for free. He said that Couchsurfing didn't really work around Southeast Asia, and I told him I hadn't tried it, but that had been what I had heard from others too. He also did some hitchhiking sometimes, but people in this region didn't really understand hitchhiking, and those that did pick him up wanted some money. I thought that was reasonable, but he seemed pretty impoverished, so it was probably a burden on his budget. The Finnish guy was in his sixties, and he was traveling through Laos and Vietnam by bicycle. He said he had left Ho Chi Minh City and headed slowly this way toward Laos, and he was averaging about 100 kilometers a day. He turned in pretty early because he wanted to get on the road early in the morning; he was already gone by the time I got up.

The next day, I explored Savannakhet a little more. I wandered around for a good part of the day, came back for a bit, and then went out again in the evening into the night. After returning from exploring the city at night, I was going to stay in the guesthouse, but I got a little hungry, so I decided to explore the city a little more. What I didn't realize is that the guesthouse closed fairly early, so the front gate was already padlocked shut with a thick chain at 9:30 at night. I poked around the front desk and found the key to the padlock. I figured I would just run out and get some takeout food from a restaurant and come right back. I ended up taking the key with me so I could get back in, but that meant that everybody else was locked in the guesthouse. When I got outside, almost everything was closed; I guess Savannakhet closes early, but that is the case for many towns in Laos. But I did find one place open near the square, ordered a quick meal for takeout, and then snuck back to the guesthouse. Hopefully nobody else tried to leave in the time I was out, but I wasn't out for long.

The next day, I left Savannakhet and headed for Pakse. It was getting even hotter as I moved further south. But it cools off pretty quickly at night. The highway is straight, flat, and well-paved for the most part, so I was able to move much faster for the most part. I noticed there were a lot of passive police presences along the way, that is, little stations where there were police sentries and cones to narrow the road, but they didn't seem to stop anyone, at least not anyone that I saw. I also saw some gruesome motorcycle accidents along this stretch of the road. One motorbike had been hit by a car, and was barely recognizable. I can't imagine that the driver survived.

Pakse had a lot more foreign tourists than Savannakhet did, and also had a lot more international restaurants; it seemed like it was geared more for tourists. I have heard that a lot of expats live in places like Vientiane and Savannakhet, which are right on the Thai border, because they can easily renew their visas once they run out by crossing the border for the afternoon, maybe just to have lunch, and then returning. If you have no baggage, it is a pretty straightforward thing to get a new visa-on-arrival just by crossing and coming back. Although I have to admit, nobody ever checked my baggage when I crossed into Laos. Once you get down to Pakse, though it is on the Mekong River, it is no longer on the Thai border, because the Mekong has veered wholly into Laos by that time and is no longer the border marker. Still, Thailand is pretty close.

The hotel I stayed at in Pakse was once again right in the center of town and was only 150,000 kip a night. This one at least had hot water and decent wi-fi. There were also a lot of really good restaurants very close by; I ended up eating several meals at an Indian restaurant across the street. There was also a small grocery store right across the street from the hotel. There were a lot of foreign guests staying there so there were a lot of people to chat with in the little patio outside the lobby, which doubled as a table area for the hotel's restaurant and bar.

Pakse was interesting but not terribly spectacular, so I decided to check out Don Kho Island just a few kilometers north of Pakse. Very few tourists visit this island, and the only way to get here is to take a small local motorized dugout boat from the small village of Ban Saphai. The first thing I arrived at up the steps was the Vat Chompet temple, which is right up a steep set of steps directly above the boat docking area, and is inhabited by Buddhist monks. I met a friendly monk in an orange robe as soon as I ascended the steps, and he spoke some English and seemed like he wanted to practice with me, so we engaged each other in conversation. Unfortunately, I only know a few words in Lao, so I was not able to reciprocate.

After wandering around the temple grounds, I walked south along the east coast of Don Kho Island. There were a number of weaving houses right off this path as silk weaving is one of the major activities of the island. The weaving houses were out in the open, and you could just walk right though them; everybody was going about their daily activities and tourists were free to just wander right through the bottom part of the houses, which for the most part were just outdoors, but there was usually a concrete foundation and some posts holding up a building above the ground level area where the weavers were working. There were only two other tourists on the island that I knew of, a British couple from London that I kept running into over and over again as I explored the island.

Next I went down the path that went down the middle of Don Kho Island, crossing over to the other side of the island. There was a school on that side of the island, and I think it was the only school on the island, so it probably taught all grades. The beach on the west side of Don Kho Island was very nice and I descended to the shoreline to check it out and dip my feet in the river. Then I crossed back over to the east side of the island, and explored the north part. I covered a good deal of the island, as it is very small. One strange thing that I saw was a cow climbing a ladder up the side of the steep cliff on the east side, to get to the top of the cliff and onto the path. I have to admit that was the first time I had ever seen a cow climb a ladder.

I left Don Kho Island and headed back to Ban Saphai on the mainland. The boat guy wanted me to wait for the other two tourists so he could bring us all back at the same time and not have to make two trips. But it wasn't long before they showed up, maybe only about five minutes after I arrived at the docking area.

Once I got back on the boat to Ban Saphai, I walked around the town a bit, as I hadn't explored it before I took the boat to Don Kho. There was a booth in Ban Saphai where a woman had some sort of mill to crush sugar cane and make a pulpy beverage out of it, so I tried one. She ran the sugar cane through several times. The beverage was nothing special and was too sweet for my tastes, so I watered it down a bit with some drinking water. It was also an unnatural looking yellow color though there was nothing in it but the pure sugar cane squeezings. I also checked out the temple in Ban Saphai, Vat Saphai Kang, while I was there. Then I rode my bike back to Pakse, and did some more exploring there before coming back to the hotel for the night. The next morning I took off to head further south.

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