Nick continues his journey from Cambodia into Si Phan Don - Laos' laid back 4000 Islands - and the Bolaven Plateau.
'Crossing the Cambodian/Laos border at Don Kralor could not be more simple; with your Laos entry visa already arranged, a single US $ changes hands and a Lao stamp is imprinted into your passport.
For all but the most stubborn of backpackers (of which there were two arguing their case as I was ushered through) $1 seems a small price to pay for the polite smiles and friendly welcome into Laos! How different this feels to the stern faces that meet you upon arrival in the US!
Having crossed from Cambodia into Laos you don’t immediately notice a huge difference. The people are very similar, you don’t start driving on the other side of the road, the food is just as good, and scenery just as impressive. The only immediate change I noticed was the marked improvement in the road standards (exaggerated perhaps by the extensive amount of time I’d been spending on their Cambodian counterparts over the past five days).
‘Laos’ and ‘good roads’ is something I never thought I’d witness myself writing in the same sentence, having made agonising journeys of 16+ hours on dirt trails in the past (the journey that so painfully springs to mind is now a smooth 5 hour from Huay Xai to Luang Nam Tha at the northern end of the country)
Having met with Khemla, my guide for the coming few days, we were soon en route to the impressive Khone Phaphaeng waterfalls. Travelling in late March, towards the end of the dry season, I wasn’t expecting much from the ‘Niagara of the East’, but I was in for a surprise - they must be quite something when the Mekong is bulging with monsoon rains.
Having driven a little further north it wasn’t long before we took to the water, weaving our way between a series of small islands and sand banks en route to Done Khone. The island was the final destination of the short railway that was built during Colonial times to combat the strong currents and torrential rapids of Khone Phaphaeng – nothing gets in the way of trade, even in Laos.
The region of Si Phan Don, or 4000 Islands, is utterly stunning and it is impossible to stop smiling as you pass amongst the many islands. Everyone you pass, either on land or boat, waves – not in a ‘hey look more tourist $’ manner, but in a genuine ‘welcome to the best kept secret on earth’ kind of way. And rightly so - you may be in a landlocked country, but if you want laid-back sunshine and water then you simply cannot beat it.
Arriving at the lazy island of Done Khone, I inspected (yes, there was work to do) several basic wooden bungalow properties that literally hung over the Mekong River bank.
Most visitors here tend to take things at the same pace as the residents, and I can assure you that no world records are in danger of being broken. Hire a bike or wander the dusty tracks by foot; pick a hammock and watch the boats as they drift past carrying brightly robed novice monks or bundles of fresh vegetable en route to market.
After a brief stop at the larger island of Done Khong, we left the river and drove the last half hour by road to the village of Kiet Njomg in the region of Phou Asa. Home for the night was the recently opened Kingfisher Eco Lodge. Despite arriving as dusk fell I knew I was in for something a little special. Undoubtedly the stand-out property of the trip so far, from the glass wall of the aptly named Comfort Bungalows, to the viewing deck-come-restaurant serving fine local laab, and the wonderful local staff who ensure that nothing is too much trouble.
I fell asleep to the distant sound of village elders singing folk songs, awaking six peaceful hours later to the noise of not-so-distant bells. I lay in my four-poster bed (it's not all work, I admit), presuming it was a musical instrument of some sort, before opening the curtains of the aforementioned glass wall to see that in fact it was the weightiest orchestra on earth – a troop of elephants were coming back from their morning bath, being led across the fields directly in front of my bungalow by their mahouts. Put simply, the Kingfisher Eco Lodge is worth the price of the flight alone.
The day, which had started so well, just got better. We spent the morning driving across the Bolaven Plateau, visiting Khemla’s family at their coffee and tea plantation amongst several other points of interest. The air on the plateau is refreshing thanks to the rich soils that encourage an abundance of crops to grown successfully.
Slash-and-burn farming was clearly being practised (fields are burnt in March and April, having been harvested in February) and at times there was a slight smog in the distance….aah, to be reminded of London!
Having made the journey to the relatively unrewarding Tad Fane waterfalls (as high as they are, you cannot swim in the pool below) I wasn’t sure what to expect of Tad Lo, the other large waterfalls in the area, and home for my last night in Laos. Fortunately the two ‘tads’ ('waterfall' in Laos) are in different leagues, and while Tad Lo is not perhaps as immediately impressive as Tad Fan, the series of pools and small rapids make for a wonderful natural bath.
Perched on the side of the falls, the Tad Lo Lodge offers simple but comfortable accommodation and the restaurant serves the best Lao cuisine I ate all trip (the spicy laab literally takes the roof off!).
They say that lightening doesn’t strike twice, but elephants do and the next morning two bulls were bathing in the waterfalls just a couple of meters from my balcony! A wonderful experience as they put on a water display for the half dozen guests who joined me, staring in utter amazement. The perfect way to end nine amazing days in Indochina!
At Selective Asia we have always believed the most essential ingredient to a great holiday is a truly great guide, and both Khemla and Valit are prove this rule time and again. They offer a wealth of information, flexibility to the programme on a day-to-day basis, and their grasp of the cultural differences between our worlds ensured that they became travel companions rather than 'just a guide'. While I hope it’s clear to tell from my diary how much I enjoyed returning to Cambodia and Laos, much good work was also achieved.
As a specialist operator we pride ourselves on our up-to-date expert knowledge. This doesn’t just mean travelling regularly in the destinations we work in, it means inspecting hotels, working closely with guides and meeting small, local operators who help us achieve the unique and inspiring holidays we create. On this trip alone I inspected an average of 5 hotels a day (on city based trips this can easily reach 15) and covered over 600 miles of dusty tracks, rivers, stunning scenery…. O.K, I’ll stop looking for sympathy!'