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The Four Thousand Islands and Pi Mai Lao Part 2

2008 April 26
by rob

April 14 and 15, 2008

In the morning, we checked out of the Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse in Pakse, Laos. While checking out, the staff dude looked at my last name and commented about it. I said, “Yeah, it’s a Polish name.” The staff dude said that the owner of the guesthouse, Mr. Vong, spoke Polish. I thought to myself, “No way… I’ve already heard him speak in excellent English and French… but Polish? No one in Southeast Asia speaks Polish.” So I struck up Mr. Vong in conversation. His Polish was even better than mine. Apparantly he studied mechanical engineering in Warsaw for ten years. That makes for THREE really interesting guesthouse/hostel owners whose names end with -ong: Pong (Spicythai Backpackers in Chiang Mai, Thailand), Mr. Kong (Kong Keo Guesthouse in Phonsavan, Laos), and Mr. Vong (Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse in Pakse, Laos). Just odd…

Alex, Damaris, and I boarded a minibus to take us two hours south. From there, it was a short boat ride to Don Khone.

We had heard about Don Khone in Pakse. The staff of Sabaidy 2 said it was a really nice and quiet island to visit. Not really very rustic, but very comfortable. It was exactly what we were looking for. When we got to Don Khone, we realized our error. We were really supposed to go to Don Khong, not Don Khone. Their names are so similar, we got mixed up! Oh well, Don Khone was still a pretty island and we would stay there instead.

Don Khone was very pretty, but not quiet at all. Pi Mai Lao was still in full swing here and the villagers were PARTYING constantly. Our guesthouse (Mr. Pan’s) had a restaurant and the staff of the restaurant were VERY aggressive about soaking people with water when they came by. We saw a pair of girls on a scooter totally wipe out while trying to dodge the water from their hose. Eep. Not only did they like to soak you, but they liked to spread lipstick on your face (as Alex found out, and I ran away from). They liked to put talcum powder in your hair and on your face, too. Oi!

Additionally, the villagers played a LOT of loud Lao music during the afternoon and evening. First the restaurant on one side of our guesthouse would play. Then the restaurant across the street. Then the house beside that. Then the house on the other side of our guesthouse. They were taking turns playing their music as loudly as possible. Sometimes they would play at the same same (“same same” — that’s a common saying on T-Shirts here — I don’t know why) time and try and drown each other out. I know that it’s their biggest holiday of the year, but combined with my recent travel fatigue, it was really getting old for me fast.

Also, there were lots of roosters crowing. I just couldn’t escape these guys. Would I never know peace again?

Don Khone is very rustic, too. They only have electricity for a few hours in the evening. The afternoons there are very very hot. Short of jumping into the Mekong River, there’s no way to cool off in the afternoons. You can’t even get an icy fruit shake to cool off with since there’s no electricity to run the blenders.

Don Khone was VERY PRETTY, and had really nice food and cheap liquor, but it really was way too rustic for us to handle. We decided to bear with it for two days and then would take the boat to nearby Don Khong.

We spent the afternoons trying to lie in hammocks and barely surviving. I tried to drink a lot of water (probably like three hours per day) and take three or four showers per day to keep cool. I occasionally let the restaurant staff hose me down, too. Damaris didn’t drink nearly enough water and started to feel ill. Doh. Drinking water is important, you know!

In the evenings we visited a pretty nice restaurant beside the river. One night, before sunset, we watched a bunch of locals on motorbikes set up a toll booth on the bridge beside the restaurant. It was not your normal kind of toll booth though. They made anyone who passed on their motorbikes stop and have some shots of Lao Lao before continuing. They were forcing people to drink and drive! That’s something you’d never see in Canada!

The “Lao Lao Toll Booth”

We prefered to drink and sit. The restaurant had the cheapest liquor I had yet seen in Lao. They charged only 10,000 kip (about CA$1.20) for a generous shot of Pastis and a bottle of water. The water usually costs 2,000 kip (about CA$0.20). Getting a drink of imported liquor for only CA$1 was very cheap in Laos — usually it cost closer to CA$3. We drank a lot of Pastis and Gin and Tonics there! They also had a fantastic Thai red curry with pumpkin there. Mmm!

Sunset on Don Khone

April 16 to 18, 2008

On the morning of April 16 we chartered a long tail boat to take us a hour and half back up river to Don Khong — the real island we wanted. It turned out to be everything we wanted. They had twenty-four electricity, guesthouses with AIR CONDITIONING (since our stay in Don Khong, every guesthouse or hotel we’ve stayed in has had air conditioning). There were very few tourists there. Strangely enough, there weren’t any crowing roosters as well. I saw chickens and chicks, so the roosters must have been somewhere… I just couldn’t see or hear them. Maybe they kept them muzzled in some shack out back somewhere. Hallelujah! It was a very pretty island, too. Don Khong was like a holiday away from our holiday. I needed it!

We didn’t see (or hear) any Pi Mai Lao celebrations on Don Khong. We knew they were still going somewhere, though. Our guesthouse kitchen was closed every night. When we asked why, they said it was because of Pi Mai Lao. We assumed that the cook was out drunk or passed out somewhere. Hehe.

We did very very little on Don Khong. We’d wake up in the morning and enjoy the free breakfast at our guesthouse — Auberge sa la Done Khong. The guesthouse was less like your typical cheapo-guesthouse and more like an old French colonial hotel that was starting to show its rough edges. My bathroom was completely overrun with mosquitos and I was afraid to go in there. Otherwise, it was really quite pleasant. It cost me US$10/day. Not that bad, really.

Oh yeah! Back to the breakfast! They served really nice coffee (which I usually got two or three cups of), fried eggs, fruit salad, and very fluffy pancakes. They didn’t have maple syrup (not that I would expect them, too), so we either spread sweetened condensed milk on our pancakes (much better than pouring puddles of it into coffee), or sprinkled sugar and lime juice. Most pancakes we had in Laos were too think and greasy. These were really good.

We spent a lot of time just sitting in our air conditioned rooms listening to music, reading, chatting, playing guessing games. I also spent time playing my Nintendo DS Lite. I finished up my book House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (it’s really good — highly recommended — thanks Aleks (my cousin) for the suggestion!) and started The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood (which Alex (my traveling buddy) traded to me). I also spent lots of time sitting on the deck chairs on the guesthouse patio. Life was hard. It was still excessively hot out, so you can’t blame us for taking it easy.

Occasionally we ventured out to find food. My Lonely Planet guidebook told me that there was another guesthouse (the Mekong Guesthouse) in town that made the audacious claim that they served Canadian-style pancakes and Tim Horton’s-style coffee. This was ludicrous. We had to investigate.

The pancakes were indeed very light and fluffy — as I would expect proper pancakes from Canada. Sadly, they lacked maple syrup — but honey made a very nice substitute. Alex admitted to being a Tim Horton’s addict (she is from Hamilton, Ontario, after all). She confirmed that the coffee really did taste like Timmy’s coffee! I don’t know how they did it, but they did. Since they managed to meet our expectations, we went to that guesthouse twice. There were really only like four places to eat in town, so quite a few places managed to score our repeat business.

One night, we were eating at this guesthouse patio overlooking the river. There weren’t many other tourists in town, but there were some. There were a couple of families from France. That night, while the French parents chatted with each other (and smoked like chimnies), the kids were happily playing with each other. I guess one of the kids (I think he was only three years old) got bored and decided to play with us for a while. He spent like an hour sitting on Damaris’ lap demanding that we draw pictures of cars, trucks, dolphins, bananas and other things. Once it was announced that it was I that was the artiste, the kid switched over to my lap and made me draw for him. It was mostly Damaris and Alex that spoke to the kid, though. Damaris speaks flawless French (as she should, since she is from Switzerland). Alex’s French is better than mine, too, since she went to university in Montreal and took French immersion.

The kid was a liar, though. When we asked him where he was from, he said he was from Marseilles. His parents’ corrected him and said that they were really from Nantes! Punk!

The riverfront view on Don Khong.

Alex tries to “roll up the rim” on her Tim Horton’s coffee on Don Khong

April 19, 2008

Today was the last day on Alex’s and my visas for Laos. We had to exit the country that day. We said our goodbyes to Damaris (I promised I would visit her if I ended up backpacking in Europe next year). She was going to go north through Laos to return to Chiang Mai, while we were headed south into Cambodia.

It was a long day of travel. We spent a long time at the border. There was a lot of border bureaucracy (e.g.: crap) to deal with. First we had to pay our US$2 “exit fee” to get leave Laos. Then we had to pay US$21 to get our visa for Cambodia. Finally, we had to pay a US$1 “entrance fee” to enter Cambodia. Really, most of these fees were really enforced bribes to the border guards. The only cost we were really supposed to pay was US$20 for the Cambodia visa. Damn border guards. There really wasn’t much we could do.

Much of the journey was spent in a couple of different minibuses. The bus had seating for thirteen people, but there was usually about fifteen people in it. The air conditioning was weak so we had to travel with the windows open. One section of the road was completely made out of dust and sand, so we ate a lot of dirt. Bleck. The ride was so long that the guys in the back of the bus kept lighting up cigarettes. Some of them had the decency to try and keep close to the windows to keep the smoke out, but not all of them did. Double triple vomity bleck.

I was excited to reach Cambodia, though. Laos really sucked for beer and liquor. Beer Lao is not good. Many people say that it’s one of the better beers available in Southeast Asia. I think they are wrong. W R O N G. Lao Lao is really harsh stuff, too. The problem is, though, that Laos claims to be a communist country (they’re not really communist though — see rant below) and they are landlocked — so the selection of imported products is pretty limited. Cambodia claims to be a democratic country (they’ve got some issues with that, too, though), and is not landlocked. Hence, the selection of imported products is much better. The most popular Cambodia beer, Angkor, is pretty decent, too.

We finally pulled into Phnom Penh at like 10:30 PM. Alex and I had pre-decided that would stay in a REAL HOTEL when we got to Phnom Penh. We had lived on the cheap in Laos for a full thirty days, and we needed a taste of luxury to relieve our travel fatigue. The auberge on Don Khong was nice, but we needed more! Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, and the biggest city we’ve been in since Bangkok in Thailand, so it was a good candidate for a recharge.

We had a couple choice locations picked out in our guidebooks, so we grabbed a tuk-tuk from the backpacker ghetto that the minibus from Laos dropped us off in and puttered over to the swankier section of town. Alas, the first two hotels we looked for were closed or moved. We walked around for like an hour in after-dark Phnom Penh (which many people say you shouldn’t do), before finding the Anise Hotel. We got a really swanky (by our standards) room for US$45. Yes, that’s really expensive, but we deserved it. It was 11:30 PM and we were tired of looking. We got a couple of draught Angkor beers from the hotel bar, cracked open the minibar and looted it for chocolate, cleaned the dust and dirt from ourselves with the shower and passed out.

To be continued…

Rant about Communism in Laos!

Oh yeah! I wanted to rant about the communist government in Laos. I didn’t really feel comfortable ranting about this while I was actually in Laos, but now that I’m in Cambodia, here goes.

Laos is trying out the same messed up form of communism that China and Vietnam are doing. I don’t like the regular socialist form of Communism either, but the capitalist form of Communism popular in Asia these days is just messed up. The people of Laos have to pay to send their kids to school or get health care from hospitals. That’s not real communism — not even close. That’s just an example of greedy government leadership. They’re just saying they’re “communist” to maintain their grip on power while they continue to exploit their population. That’s greedy and just plain evil.

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