Learning To Relax In Laos' Four Thousand Islands
Like storybooks from my childhood the vehicle is full of a lively chaos that draws a wild grin from me.After 40 minutes of smooth sailing I am completely unprepared for the quick change that is forced on me. In the middle of a street outside town I am quickly hurried off the bus and transferred swiftly, bag and all, to a smaller hybrid vehicle. "Songthaew" are the most common form of short-distance transport in Thailand and Laos and resemble cattle trucks for people.Imagine a stretched and roofed utility vehicle with benches against each side and another running up the middle, but filled to absolute capacity with people, food, live animals and packs. Unfortunate late-comers hang off the back step over the streaking tarmac. The guiding principle of these people-movers is that there is always room for one more.Transfer completed we speed towards the border town of Chong Mek and then on to Laos.Looking like an Asian version of the Wild West, the border town of Chong Mek is one of 10 border crossings with Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China that also offer a 15-day tourist visa on arrival with a cost of 30 US dollars. American dollars, Thai baht, or the local currency, kip, are all accepted in Laos. People flying into the capital, Vientiane, or Luang Prabang's airport on international flights can also get the instant 15-day visa but if you don't arrive with your greenbacks in hand you may as well call yourself Tom Hanks and start filming your airport campsite. If you want to be certain about your entry then 30-day visas can be organized beforehand at Lao embassies.Fifteen-day visa in hand and the prospect of being hammock-ridden by the end of the day I set off on the next songthaew from Vang Tao (the Laos side border town) to Pakse. Two hours and four random customs searches later I quick-change again and start off on the next truck heading for Don Det, my destination. Such customs searches and confiscations are regularly carried out on Lao people returning from Thailand with bulk Thai products they sell for a small fortune in Laos.Don Det, Don Khon, and Don Khong are the main tourist destinations in this 14-km-wide stretch of the Mekong River but the tranquil villages and bungalows of Don Det are where I'm headed.Three dust-filled hours later I'm standing on the banks of the Mekong River looking across the slow smooth waters at my goal while I bargain with boat-taxi drivers. It becomes quite apparent that I'm in their backyard and my options are limited to swimming or paying the one and a half dollars they're asking.Having paid the princely sum of five dollars to get this far from the border I decide I'm willing to pay up and I sling my bag into the long thin motorboat. Twenty minutes later the rich, yellow afternoon light surrounds me as I sip on a Beer Lao — the local brew — and watch tomorrow's dinner scratch around in the dirt for grain.
Made from rice and distilled by everyone, everywhere, you can buy it in everything from ornate glass bottles complete with giant pickled scorpions or cobras, included for your stamina, to five-liter plastic bags and jars. Unfortunately, because of the widespread production of this fiery grog, its potency is always uncertain. Alcohol percentages as low as 25 percent and as high as 75 percent can be expected so caution is best when called on to drink. Fortunately, a useful Laotian drinking ritual is always observed when Lao-Lao does the rounds. Every time you are offered a drink you must pour some out as an offering to the spirits and ancestors. Of course this affords you the opportunity to pour out as much as you like for the ever-thirsty spirits and allows you to maintain your drinking legs, not to mention your lunch.
Don Det and Don Khon offer similar tourist fare to Don Khong but with a few important bonuses. Downstream from Don Khong, near the Cambodian border, is home to the rare Irrawaddy dolphin as well as a very impressive set of rapids called Li Phi Falls.
In May and June, during the rainy season, the falls are at their most intense and fishermen here can catch up to half a ton of fish in their bamboo traps.
These parties are well worth the five to seven dollars you will pay for the whole days excursion, but be warned about the Lao-Lao.Whether you are sick of scurrying through Seoul's streets or being constantly crushed in frantic subway surges.Whether you are looking for the exotic and are curious about Lao culture or just want a breath of clean air and a sun tan, Laos is a cheap, relaxing, beautiful and simply outstanding holiday destination for those of you who want to step outside the hustle of life for a time, lie in a hammock and just dream for awhile.For more information about Laos and Si Phan Don
you can contact the Embassy of the Lao PDR
657-9 Hannam-Dong, Yongsan-Gu, Seoul, Korea
(02) 796-1713/ (02) 796-1714 or visit the Lao PDR Embassy web site at www.laoembasssy.com
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Crispin Anderlini, whos serves as Staff Writer & Photojournalist for The Seoul Times, has been working as photojournalist for such publications as South China Morning Post, Shanghai Talk magazine, and SajinYesul for the past two years within S. Korea, China, and Australia.This New Zealand photojournalist graduated from Victoria University in Wellington with a BA in Anthropology.
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