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Photo Friday: Mekong Sunset

Posted by Ted on Jul 21, 2011 in Photography, Travel

A few hours north of the capital Vientiane, Luang Prabang is a unique fusion of French European and Laotian culture, with both Laap and the best croissants we’ve ever had. Resting at the point where the Khan meets the great Mekong, the confluence of the two rivers is a striking difference.

Where the Mekong meets the Khan — Luang Prabang, Laos

However, one of my favorite memories of Luang Prabang is sitting on a riverside patio, drinking Beerlao and watching the sun set behind the karst mountains to the west. Longboats that would ferry tourists up the river to the Pak Ou caves and back would return downstream and have to swing wide against a very fast and strong current in order to dock for the night.

Mekong Sunset — Luang Prabang, Laos

(Related pictures can be found here.)

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A harrowing river adventure in Laos

Posted by Ted on Jan 15, 2011 in Activities, Outdoors, Travel

Of all six countries that we visited on our Southeast Asian Adventure, it was Laos that was the most challenging. The least developed of the lot, roads were not always paved, the language barrier was more pronounced, food quality was more questionable, and we narrowly avoided drowning in a river.

It all started in the quaint village of Nong Khiaw, nestled along a bend in the Nam Ou. We had decided to take an overnight kayak trip back down to Luang Prabang, 150 km to the south. The trouble began when we booked our tour with Green Discovery, one of many adventure specialists in the area; they charged us a higher-than-average commission for using a credit card and a lower-than-average exchange rate. Clearly, the “green” that they “discovered” was American dollars. That said, had that been the only issue, the most expensive activity of our trip would still have been worth the $360.

We were up early at 7am on the day of our departure, having already packed the night before. We enjoyed a tasty breakfast of banana pancakes with chocolate sauce and a couple of hard boiled eggs. We walked over to the Riverside, the one upscale resort in town where Green Discovery’s tours depart from. We met our guide, Tung, and proceeded to gather the supplies and take them down to the river where the kayaks were waiting. Despite being on-time for an early departure, we didn’t leave shore until 9:30.

It was a gorgeous day. The air was warm, the sky was clear, and the sun was shining down on the dramatic karst hills that flanked both sides of the river. Kayaking downstream was slow and peaceful, quite unlike the small, loud, and overcrowded hellboat that we took upriver a few days before. Dragonflies and butterflies flitted around us, and a large spider hung from the bow of our guide’s kayak, its legs skimming the water. We passed fishermen and giggling children along the riverbanks.

A few hours later, we pulled to shore for lunch at Ban Huihang, a small Khmu village. We hiked up the embankment and into the rustic settlement, where we were immediately beset upon by dozens of children. While Tung set out our lunch in the shade underneath a stilted house, we ‘falang‘ were the main attraction. Liz engaged them by taking and showing photos of them with her iPhone. While we ate our lunch, their gazes never left us. I decided to offer them their own diversion, and laid my iPhone on the ground, with ‘Bloom‘ set to ‘Create’. While the children seemed intimidated by the simple camera of the iPhone, Bloom spoke for itself with just a few taps from me to show them how it worked. It not only provided distraction from us eating our lunch, but it was fascinating to watch the understanding of how the completely intuitive UI and repeating patterns fell into place.

Finally it was time to get on our way, so we packed up and were escorted back down to the river by a few of the kids who waved to us as we paddled away. A couple of hours later, we stopped at Ban Houaikoung, another Khmu village on the prescribed tour itinerary. After a longer break than was necessary, we set out again and that’s when everything started to go wrong. We had navigated through some rapids throughout the day, but they were mere ripples compared to the turbulent whitewater that we soon encountered. To our novice credit, we did pretty well at first, shifting our weight and paddling down and over and around, attempting to remain upright. Then we collided with the other kayak and lost our balance, capsizing in the fast-moving river, our feet bouncing off rocks. My first instinct was to grab the drybag with my precious camera and hoist it above the waterline. Tung took the bag and helped us right our kayak and` get back on board. Our adrenaline pumping hard, our hearts beating fast, we caught our breath on the other side of the rapids and thanked Guanyin for keeping us alive. Had that been the extent of the day’s adventure, we might have even looked back on it as exhilarating fun, but it gets worse.

The sun had already dipped behind the jagged limestone peaks to our right, and soon after the colors in the sky revealed that it was setting behind the horizon. We called ahead to Tung and asked him how far until our stopping point for the day, another small riverside village where we would spend the night in a homestay. “Only 15-20 more minutes,” he reassured us. An hour later we were still paddling furiously downstream as full-on darkness descended upon us. Apparently, our guide had never run the route during the dry season when the river runs slower. We had no lights and under a sliver of a moon we could barely see our guide three meters in front of us as we navigated even more rapids. Our nerves were wracked and we didn’t know what to do. Finally, even Tung realized that the situation was dangerous and we were just not going to make it to our anticipated destination, so we pulled to the shore where we could see a single dim light of a village.

We trudged up into a dark settlement behind Tung, who asked around for the village elder. Finally, we were directed to the vice-chief’s house, who would put us up for the night. The simple two-room house with wicker walls and a corrugated tin roof was a welcome relief. Off the kitchen, we changed into dry clothes in the bathroom area, delineated only by a 5-foot-high concrete wall. We sat in the livingroom as they arranged mattresses and mosquito nets on the floor, and waited for dinner to be ready. We ate in silence, and the rest of the evening was spent in an awkward state of feeling like an imposition. Needless to say, we were disappointed by the turn of events – we had been looking forward to our homestay, and presumably our intended home was looking forward to visitors, instead of feeling obligated due to circumstance.

Once again, had that been the last complication and we managed our time better on day 2, we would have chalked it up as a colorful anecdote. Unfortunately, Liz became violently ill in the middle of the night with travelers sickness. While we ate the same meal, I was thankfully spared, but she was up for much of the night visiting the squat toilet all too frequently. I woke up with the rest of the village at 6:30a as the monks’ morning drumming in the wat next door sounded a slow beat at first picking up tempo over several minutes. Arriving at night, it was disorienting waking up in a strange place. A man walked by carrying fresh caught fish, and women with baskets of rice called “Sabaidee” through the open doorway. The vice-chief’s teenage daughter got ready for school, primping herself in front of a small mirror on the wall of the livingroom. I walked down to the small village pharmacy to get some medicine – we never knew what the discolored expired pills were, but they seemed to help.

Sick and unable to continue downriver, we waited for a couple of hours for the van that was supposed to pick up the kayaks in Luang Prabang to come and take us the rest of the way. Finally, it arrived, the kayaks were loaded, and we left Done Nun. The road followed the Nam Ou, and I could see it occasionally through the trees, wishing that we were on it rather than beside it. Eventually we made it back to town, we checked into a guesthouse, and Liz spent the rest of the day and evening recovering. What should have been a pleasant, slightly adventureful kayak trip turned out to be everything but. Thankfully, we have the memory of those children in Ban Huihang and the beauty of the river valley as some consolation for the stressful hardship we endured.

Have you had a similar experience of an activity going horribly wrong? Have you wondered if you would be lost at sea, dashed to rocks, or worse? Share your travel horror story!

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The Kong Lor Loop of Laos

Posted by Ted on Nov 4, 2010 in Outdoors, Travel

On the great Mekong River, 337 kilometers southeast of Vientiane, is the town of Thakhek. Decently sized by Laotian standards, it still has a fairly relaxed vibe and a riverfront strewn with restaurants and food carts offering a sunset view over Thailand. It is also a convenient starting point for The Kong Lor Loop,
a two to four day journey by motorbike through a dramatic karst landscape in order to take a small longtail boat underneath an immense limestone mountain.

The secret to this trip is revealed in a hand-drawn photo-copied map by Mr. Ku, whose one-room office is conveniently adjacent to the Thakhek Travel Lodge, a reasonably-priced guest house which features hard beds (the norm throughout Laos), excellent laap, and a bonfire every night. Mr. Ku will also rent you a motorbike for 100,000 kip per day, taking your passport as collateral.

The suggested route is counter-clockwise, and it is strongly advised that you always get an early 8a start to the day’s ride. Starting at 1p on our first day, we decided to reverse the directions by taking the main higher-speed road in order to cover the 186km to Ban Kong Lor, the village after which the cave is named, before sunset. Perhaps if we had not stopped to have our breath taken away by the spectacular grandeur of the Phu Hin Bun National Protected Area, we might have succeeded. As it was, we discovered the hard way that my bike did not have working head or tail lights.

Arriving after dark, the serene beauty of Kong Lor wasn’t revealed to us until the next morning when we awoke to water buffalos grazing in rice fields, framed by jagged limestone peaks. After a leisurely breakfast, we rode the 1km to the end of the road, paid the minimal park and parking fees, and happened upon a woman sitting at the gate reading a book. Her name was Katie, from Adelaide, and she was waiting for two other people to share the cost of one of the 3-seater boats through the cave. Finding it fortuitous that we all needed each other, we set off together to rent headlamps and hire a boat for 130,000 kip – about $16.

We walked into the small mouth of a cave which immediately opened up into a big cavern, and made our way over a soft clay floor to a waiting long-tail boat at the water’s edge. 20 feet long and 3 feet wide, with a small engine connected to an 8-foot long propeller, these craft ferry travelers the 7.5km through the pitch black subterranean tunnel and back. Riding just 6 inches above the surface of the water, we skimmed out into the river and headed upstream. The only lights were from our headlamps shining circles on the walls and ceiling like scanning floodlights against a night sky. The only sound was of the water rushing past and the loud engine, without which we would be stranded beneath a mountain like Gollum.

As we wound through the serpentine cave, our mouths were agape in awe. Generally about 200 feet wide, the tunnel’s ceiling varied between 10 and 100 feet above our heads. Then we would turn a corner and enter into a cavern that would reach 300 feet high, and all sense of significance was lost. We were but the smallest creatures in a gargantuan underground cavern. This happened over and over again as we navigated the river. After about 2km, we pulled to the shore in a large section with lights illuminating a particularly impressive series of stalactites and stalagmites. Surrounded by strange shapes in a dusty grey moon-like landscape, we felt as if we had stepped onto the set of a sci if movie.

We returned to the boat and snaked our way upstream, passing through more caverns and occasionally having to get out in order for the boatmen to push the craft through shallows. We finally exited into blinding daylight, finding ourselves in a lush green wilderness, surrounded by majestic peaks. We spent some time on shore walking to a nearby village before returning to the boat for our trip back through the cave. Heading downstream this time, we sped through the twisty tunnel without stopping. At one point we stopped to add more gas to the engine, and I relished the quiet moment, listening to the water echoing in the cave, wishing that we could have turned off our headlamps, just for a minute, to experience the cavern in its lightless natural state.

When we returned to Kong Lor, we shared a quick lunch before saying goodbye to our new friend and heading out again, aiming to make Kuon Kham before sunset, not only racing sunlight but dwindling fuel tanks. Arriving on fumes, we found a gas station and a nearby guest house to crash for the night. The next morning we set out early towards Lak Sao, 58km to the east, knowing that the day’s ride would be a hard one. The wind blew with fierce determination, causing us to stop several times just to gather our nerves. We had intended to hit the ATM to replenish our supply of kip, but neglected to take into consideration that it was a Saturday, and the one bank in town was closed. Thankfully, we had enough for lunch and our guest houses were happy to be paid in Thai Baht. Then we turned south, and that’s when the five hours of stressful riding really began.

The “road” from Lak Sao to Thalang is 62km of harrowing white-knuckled excitement. The first half is rutted uneven dirt and rocks. The second half was more flat and even, but composed of loose gravel. We could not tell you anything about the scenery, for navigating the road on motorbikes in 2nd gear required every iota of concentration that we had. Thankfully, we arrived in Thalang just before sunset. There’s a reason that the suggested route is counter-clockwise – it puts this section of road squarely in the early morning. Had the sun won the day’s race, we would have camped out by the side of the road rather than continue on in darkness. We found a guest house, and as we relaxed by the after-dinner bonfire, sharing bottles of Beer Lao with another couple taking The Loop, who should arrive but Katie, having made her own way by walking and hitchhiking.

Our last day began early again, parting ways shortly after breakfast. The road south of Thalang offered no respite, the gravel finer and only slightly less loose. Stopping in Nakai for lunch, we ran into Katie again by the side of the road on the south side of town, our game of leap-frog providing a moment of levity in the otherwise stressful second day of hard riding. We did not see paved road until many kilometers later, shortly before we turned west towards Thakhek. We relished in being able to use 4th gear again. 30km from the end of our adventure, we stopped to take a short break. That’s when Liz’ motorbike failed to start.

Neither the electric starter nor the kickstart brought the bike to life. We wheeled the bike into the nearest small village looking for a mechanic, but there were no one but children. We stashed the bike off the road, and continued on. The first shop we found was closed, being Sunday. 6km further, we found a mechanic relaxing with his family. With no common language, we played a game of charades, using the working bike to convey that the failing bike had gas, and we’d tried both methods of starting it. He pointed to the spark plug, and we simply shrugged. He grabbed a new one and a couple of tools, then followed us back down the road. Within 2 minutes, he replaced a worn black spark plug with a shiny new one, and the bike purred back to life. For this emergency out-call service, he asked for just 20,000 kip – about $2.50.

Finally on our way, with just an hour before sunset, we were rewarded with the most spectacular scenery yet. These last few kilometers east of Thakhek took us through a range of karsts, a deep orange-red sun playing peekaboo among the vertical cliffs. Tears of joy and sacred awe fell beneath my visor. Sadly, I was too frazzled and worried about the dwindling daylight to stop and capture the magnificent beauty with my camera. We made it into town before dark, and a mere 20 yards from the Travel Lodge that we had left 3 days earlier, we saw a familiar traveler walking down the road. By separate means, we and Katie had managed to travel the same route in the same time, each with our own stories to tell.

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