Saturday, February 25, 2012

Chasing Waterfalls, Ethnic Tribes & Nature at the Bolaven Plateau, South Laos - Travel Log 112111

Bolaven Plateau was always an idea that never drifted far from my consciousness. I was drawn to the name, and the idea of “scaling” mountains even more so. What’s not to like when you have lush vegetation, cooler temperature, awe-inspiring scenery. With an elevation of 3,000 to 4,500 feet above sea level, this plateau is home to several ethnic tribes, but more predominantly, the Laven. Other tribes include the Alak, Katu, Taoy and Suay. In the early 1900’s, the French, who colonized Laos, began agricultural experimentation. Coffee, tea, rubber, and bananas were planted as crops. But the coffee industry thrived, and this association stuck to the present day!

But aside from the aforementioned, Bolaven became a magnet of attraction because of the stark beauty of its forests and waterfalls and the uniquely preserved authenticity of the tribes people, making tourism a considerable asset in the economy of the region. Their culture is distinctive. The Alak and Katu people, for example, carve caskets way in advance of their demise. The Suays (or Kui) practice animism. These beliefs render the people a degree of character.

With all that in mind, I was gearing up for this tour of the plateau, one that would take me further east (parts of the plateau belong to Paksong; others are of Saravan).

On my second day in Pakse, I was up even before 6AM, but I couldn’t get out of my guesthouse because the gate was locked and I had to wake Por to get out. The idea wasn’t very palatable. So I waited for 30 minutes until I noticed the gate already open. Por had gone to the market, I was told later.


Mornings in Pakse are cold. I started walking towards the new market. Surely, there’s a restaurant for early creatures. All the bars and restaurants at the riverside were closed. At 7:15, I was comfortably seated at Xuan Mai Restaurant which, last night, was packed with customers. I had to try a popular place, didn’t I? But it must have been the wrong time of day because service was almost non-existent! In fact, many early customers – six, count that! – eventually left with utter disgust. I had to carry my menu to the lady who looked dazed. Though not hungry, I knew I had to eat for the energy that I'd need later in the day: fried rice with chicken at 15,000 kip and 2 fried eggs at 10,000 kip ($3). Food came 45 minutes later; a plodding wait that tempted me to cancel my order.

Once back in Imoun, my ride to the Bolaven had arrived. This personalized tour on a motorbike was a last minute arrangement because yesterday’s tuktuk suddenly decided to hike the rate to unbelievable proportions - $80! Did I look like I was growing gold? I asked Por to contact a motorcycle, and she did! This time, it was an acceptable $35 or 280,000 kip. I think I’ll live riding a motorcycle again.

This road in Pakse was almost deserted at 6AM. This was in front of Imoun Homestay.

Life starts stirring at the vegetable market in the center of the village.

Xuan Mai Restaurant is usually packed with mostly foreigners, but in the morning, service is a plodding snail paced, 6 other customers walked away, even those who already ordered.

Breakfast was Chicken Fried Rice at 15,000 kip; 2 fried eggs cost 10,000 kip.

A roadside stop on our way to Bolaven Plateau before we got off the highway en route to Utaing Bajiang Nature resort.


I was also curious if this will be a rough ride considering the expected ascending road (Bolaven Plateau is 3,000 feet above sea level, at least), but I eventually forgot this. The road, like yesterday’s, was good. The first turn of the road took us to Utaing Bajiang Nature Resort (aka Uttayan Bajiang) which is a more modest version of Taman Mini Indonesia Indah in Jakarta. Instead of the architectural styles of the region, it showcased the different ethnic tribes that populate the plateau. I paid 5,000 kip for the entrance and another 2,000 kip for the motorcycle. I haven’t really read about this so I was curious what it was offering. The road leading to the park was particularly dreamy – a narrow road with abundant foliage from each side, with yellow flowers sprouting away in wild abandon! It was just so beautiful; it almost took my breath away. Unfortunately, there are surreal scenes in life that are hard to capture on camera. This was one of it.


There was elephant riding to be had here but I politely begged off. How many times do I have to ride an elephant? I’ve done this several times in the past it felt daft doing it again. Though not necessary, my driver walked with me as we got further inward. The place was dotted with replicas of tribal houses. In each “hut”, you’d find a representative of the tribe’s man. They’re selling handicrafts, weaving stuff, or simply waiting for visitors. I took note of the ethnic names: Talieng, Alak, Lawae, Yahern, La Ngae, Katoo. Everyone seemed to be here but the Laven, the biggest ethnic group in the region. Did I miss something? Maybe they have a different name? I shall post a lengthier feature on this ethnic village – with lots more photos, but for now, I’d have to move on.

Entrance Fee is as follows: Laos citizen - 2,000 kip (others write it as "kib"); Foreigners - 5,000 kip; Motorcycles pay 2,000 kip; cars pay 5,000 kip. I am not exactly sure why cars and motorcycles needed to pay entrance fees almost similar to the human visitors since these vehicles aren't exactly taking the tour, but are parked instead. I am not complaining. It's just odd. Then you get to read their notice: "We do not charge parking and are not looking after your car or motorcycle. Look after your own possessions and find your own parking lot." I paid! I was asked to.

Yellow flowers on a tree.

Uttayan Bajiang Nature Resort

Elephant Riding Booth

The way to the Ethnic Tribe area

The “resort” has tree lodgings. I saw a sign that read “steam lodging” as well but I wasn’t sure what it meant exactly. I don’t think I’ve seen anything that resembled this. The other point of interest in Utaing Bajiang is the Maak Ngaew Waterfall and the Great Naga Cave, a Tree Pole House, and the ethnic Tribal Handicraft Museum. This place alone was worth my $35 transport service. Who cared if motorcycling was uncomfortable or windy or dangerous? Walking around the place was absolutely "chill" - and crossing the suspension bridge just to get to the short but crescent-shaped waterfall was a thrill.

Talieng House and their colorful products (above).

The Alak House and their products (above).

Lawae lady: she was working on some "reed", thinning them with a knife.

Yahern House

La Ngae House

Katoo House

Lanae Village where children gather around. Every time a guest comes over, they start singing.

Some of the displays at the Handicraft Museum. We shall post an in-dept coverage of this museum and the resort in the future.

A magnificent tree house that took my attention.

Huge wooden carvings of elephants in a solitary corner of the compound.

Waters from the Maak Ngaew River

A "dancing" but very safe suspension bridge.

Maak Ngaew Waterfalls

We drove back along the highway as we went deeper into Paksong territory, 38 kilometers from Pakse. We further went northeast until we reached another village – Ban Phakkoudkeo. We were heading to Tad Fane Resort, one kilometer from Ban Lak 38 (roadside marker).

The resort is perched on a cliff opposite Tad Fan. With ecotourism as its major attraction, you could hear birds chirping; the rustling of the leaves; the hush of the wind. The resort has 7 bungalows, each with 2 separate rooms. Tall trees surround the whole resort. But the main point of interest here is Tad Fan, Bolaven’s highest waterfalls. These are twin falls that plummet 200 meters down a rocky floor bed. The crowning glory of Tad Fane Resort is the amazing view of Tad Fan that it provides.

If you head to the jungle to your right, there is a rugged and slippery trail that leads down. I initially – and foolishly – tried to walk this path, but realized it will be a rough trek down, not to mention the fact that I didn’t have all afternoon to scale down this mountain which has an elevation of 1100 meters. Rolling down this rugged terrain was so dangerous I composed myself and gathered my wit. It was fine not to “stand” beside Tad Fan! Seeing it from the resort’s viewpoint would suffice.

Coffee beans were being sun dried along the path to Tad Fane's entrance.

A walk to the entrance of the resort where I paid 5,000 kip for my entrance and 1,000 kip for our motorbike parking at Ban Phakkoudkeo.

The twin falls of Tad Fan from the viewpoint of Tad Fane Resort. There's a craggy uneven path that goes down the mountain on the way to the falls but it was so slippery just 20 minutes into a hike. Needless to say, it was dangerous, especially when the trail was that slippery.

I met a German couple on my way back. “Is there a path?” the guy asked. “Yes, but it doesn’t look safe,” I replied. "That's alright," he said, implying they were savvy where dangerous treks are concerned. :) And I walked away. I mentally thought, “Break a leg.” I laughed in spite of myself. The implications could be limb-breaking. I was perspiring from my hike back to the viewpoint. This was anything but boring, with every change of location stirring electric current through my spine. Wandering in strange new places is nothing short of magical, and I wasn't even too far away from my guest house. Tad Fane is 45 minutes away from Pakse, but if you’re taking the commuter bus, I was told it would take 1 hour, even longer.

Just when I thought I’ve seen what’s there to see, it gets better. But that’s until next post.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Temple on an Island Called Don Kho, A Church in Pakse – Travel Log 112011

Upon arrival at Imoun Homestay, I promptly told Por, my host, about my intentions of taking a trip to an island north of Pakse. It’s called Don Kho, an island placidly suspended in time along the Mekong. It’s situated in the vicinity of Ban Saphai (Saphai Village) where a boat is hired to get to the island. South Laos is full of homonymous names that baffle and confuse newbies, I had to seriously study the places to get the difference. With reckless planning, there was a chance, though slim, of finding yourself in an inadvertent destination.


Don Khong is the big island in the riverine archipelago of Siphandon aka 4000 Islands (in the Khong District of Champasak province) several hours south of Pakse. Don Khon (Don Khone) is the other half of Don Det, and otherwise referred to as the “party island” of Siphandon. On a lesser scale of “difficulty”, there’s Don Det and Don Daeng. And as if that wasn’t enough, part of my itinerary for this trip would have me dealing with Thailand’s northern regions of Chiang Rai, Chiang Saen, Chiang Khong, Mae Sai, and Mae Chan. Inspiring, eh?


In my room, I gave myself 30 minutes to lay down my stuff, catch my breath and freshen up, then I headed back down the lobby which, that early, was starting to feel like home. Por informed me that a tuktuk was charging $10 or 80,000 kip for a return trip. After having had a tuktuk from the nearby bus station charge me 40,000 kip for a 15 minute ride, this rate was easily acceptable. After all, I’m visiting a village, crossing the Mekong on a boat, visiting an island and venturing around a temple.


Before leaving, Por whipped up a meal I specifically ordered: chicken, vegetables, rice worth 17,000 kip ($2.10). When you’ve read enough jubilant reviews from other travelers, you’re reduced to anticipation, and it would be an understatement to say that I was looking forward for a taste of Por’s cooking. Yum!

My ride swiftly came, like magical finger snaps from “Bewitched”, and for 45 minutes, we went northward on an immaculate road, heading to the fishing-and-weaving village of Ban Saphai. We passed by small houses and Pakse Airport, turned somewhere, until we reached the end of a road. It was my stop. My tuktuk parked where he could wait. A boatman guided me to the riverside and I had to skip on wooden planks leading to my boat - 20,000 kip ($2.50) one way, and another 20,000 kip back ($5 return). The water was tranquil and I caught very few others floating through. The ride itself was pleasant and short, 10-15 minutes.


Don Kho is an underexplored island in the middle of Mekong. It is 3 kilometers from end to end and 800 meters in width, with a population believed to be 800. It didn’t seem that way. It was desolate and underpopulated; the whole island is a village (ban) in itself with some 70 residential houses. The middle of the island is a haven of rice fields and vegetable gardens. But the main destination here is a Buddhist temple simply called Wat Don Kho, built 1800 years ago. It has a Scripture Library containing the most complete scripture written in Akhara Dhamma (ancient Laotian letters). Though it doesn’t do anything tangible for me since I am clearly not a scholar who needs to unravel the mysteries of the past, it’s nevertheless interesting information.

My tuktuk - 80,000 kip for a return to Don Kho and Ban Saphai

Nice northern road to Ban Saphai

Ban Saphai (Saphai Village)

20,000 kip for a one-way ride to Don Kho.


I carefully got off my boat in wobbly fashion, while the boat gently rocked back and forth on the water. There are no jetties this part of Laos. Then I climbed a flight of stairs until I saw the temple compound. It was eerily magical in its solitary splendor. The temple stood to the right beside a small Preaching Hall. Another building at the back of the temple must be the Scripture Library, but it’s closed – and would seem like no one’s visited in ages. At one corner near the library, there stood a Drum Tower. A big dilapidated two-story building rose forlornly at the center of the compound which houses the monks as well as long boats jutting out from some rooms. The back roof has amazingly caved in, and without human intervention, the rest of the ceiling would eventually all fall down. This decrepit condition should be a source of concern, most especially since young monks live there.


I sat at a waiting shed facing the temple and took in the atmosphere. I made it! I wasn’t sure this was do-able the same day I arrived. I was deluged by a sensation of serenity, such as the gentle breeze blowing from the east. There were few monks walking from their abode to the preaching hall, occasionally glancing at my direction. After checking out the temple, I braved the three-story Drum Tower. The huge drum, like the monk’s house, had a gaping hole at one side. I was awash with a fleeting sadness. Everything seemed to be falling apart in Don Kho. Isn’t a slice of history kept here? Before stepping down, I was joined by a young monk who would later prove that, even in its state of ruin, a rundown drum can still provide its purpose. Indeed, even broken souls can still provide a purpose.

Once back on the ground, I went further afield. There was a rice field at the back of the temple grounds stretching to the other side of the island. After a few considerations, I decided to walk and make the distance. God, let there be no dogs! I eventually reached the other side, 800 meters from the temple. This was the village, but even the houses were few and slumbering. The few people I saw smiled, but kept doing their stuff, placing some harvest on a sack. Lush bamboo trees abound. I excused myself and stepped inside a gated house to see the Mekong from the other side. The serenity of the river renders endless acquaintances with all that’s naturally beautiful.


I heard the beating of the drum. In steady cadence, there was a decadent beat that lured me back to the temple – so I went back where I came from. The drum was still working! And I was inexplicably overjoyed. For 15 minutes, a couple of young monks were playing music; one that thumped and boomed. Like magical incantations, the sound cast a spell on a sleepy island. There are simple pleasures more precious than anything money can buy. I also realized that it was time to go. A group of monks were cleaning a boat (1st photo). I saw my boatman waiting beside the monk's boat. Without a strain of conversation, we made our way back to Ban Saphai.

An oddly shaped Buddha inside Wat Don Kho

A novice monk joined me at the Drum Tower (below)

A broken drum

Gaping hole at the roof

A young student walks back through dry rice paddies.

Bamboo trees at the other side of the island.

The view from the other side of Don Kho. The village across is called Ban Saman. Just north of Saman is Ban Koutlamxeng.

A small temple in Ban Saphai.

Map of Don Kho - the road from Pakse to Ban Saphai


At Ban Saphai, I excused myself and walked away from my tuktuk. I checked out a small building with gadgets used for weaving, but it was deserted. Further away, I took a walk under the beaming sun and leisurely passed through houses. Was any one home? There was no hint of activity, but for a child who was riding a bike and moving away as fast as he came. I saw a small store and bought myself a Pepsi, then went back to meet my tuktuk driver.

The way back to Pakse was uneventful. I have always loved the rush of the wind on my hair. As immaculately coiffed my hair is in Manila, I hardly cared if they were in a state of disarray in Laos. This is after all the Land of Chill! And if I were to be castigated for repeating what “Lao PDR” really stood for, I dare say again: “Please don’t rush!” And no one’s rushing.

A street in Ban Saphai with wooden houses on stilts.

Back at Imoun, I got a few stuff from my baggage then decided to walk and check out the riverside which was just 50 meters from Imoun. I keep seeing Mekong like an old friend wherever I roam. It's comforting.

From a distance, I could see the graceful Nippon-Lao Bridge, otherwise known as the 3rd Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. There were modest restaurants scattered along the Mekong, and by 4:30PM, people have started to populate them. 4:30 is their Happy Hour! This schedule accommodates longer hours before the 11 or 12AM curfew. Laos has a curfew!
I walked away from the river and saw Por at the lobby. She invited me for dinner tonight. I needed to check my mail at the market, but quickly adjusted the plan. I am not gonna miss another gastronomic experience in Pakse. This village – Ban Pakhuaydeau – is relatively far from the hustle and bustle of the city, but I chose the area to acquaint myself with the riverside languor. The street in front of Imoun Homestay leads to a New Market where a relative hum of activity occurs.


Along the road, I saw a hospital. Nearby, there was a Catholic Church, one of the few ones I saw in Laos (there's one in Savannakhet). I peeped through a half-closed door and saw the setting sun dramatically illuminating Jesus crucified on a huge cross, hanging down the altar. It was almost prophetic; of what, I’m not sure.

It felt comforting to be in the company of Someone you believe in. I knelt down and prayed for my selfish intentions; I prayed for my family; I prayed for my dreams – the selfish man that I am. But why not? Though not particularly religious, the God that I know has boundless patience and kindness. I am sure He can understand through my greed. Haha. Meanwhile, the market area has shops that sell anything from clothes, kitchen ware, market produce, flowers and fruits, and even DVDs and VCDs.

References just call this "Catholic Church".

Sun shining on the crucifix.

Lao-Nippon Bridge connects Pakse to Vangtao, the border town.

I bought 10 DVD’s, but only got 1 Lao movie – “From Pakse with Love”, the sequel of the charming “Sabaidee, Luang Prabang” (the first film shot in Laos – in 2008 - since the country adopted communism in 1975). Though highly successful, this was only followed by sequels: “From Pakse with Love” and the 3rd parter called “A Lao Wedding”. This purchase would complete my trilogy collection. The rest of the titles at the DVD shop were either Thai films or Lao telenovelas (yes, they’re also plagued by teleseryes). At 5,000 kip ($0.63) per piece, I was happy with my stash.

I found Sedone Internet Café beside the market – 5,000 kip ($0.63) an hour – but the speed was so slow I finally gave up after an hour of trying. I later learned that the other computers in the shop worked better. But how would I know if I wasn’t told? In the vicinity, I saw Vinath Money Changer, a forex shop that didn’t deduct a service charge, thus you get a little more from your dollar.


At 7:20PM, I rushed back to Imoun and learned that I was to share this dinner with a Dutch girl and a French guy. Though initially wary, I eventually warmed up to my new acquaintances. We pulled our tables together while the dishes were one-by-one laid in front of us. Por was beaming from the selection and I was glad to be there. Over careful mastication, I learned a little more about my new “friends”.

Teske – aka Tess – hails from Holland. She’s a social worker who takes care of adolescent problems. She had been traveling for a couple of months and had seen India. She’s heading north of Laos from here before flying back to her homeland. Jean Louis is this exceedingly French guy who’s been traveling for a long while around Asia. He’s a bit bashful with his limited English, but is actually sweeter than most elder travelers I’ve met. The two has seen Wat Phu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site south of Champasak. Though one of his arms has been amputated, this has never stopped Jean Louis from engaging in activities most other able bodied backpackers can only dream of, and I salute him for that. He is a source of inspiration. It was also interesting to learn that one could visit Wat Phu for the day – on a motorcycle!

Conversation stretched on longer than expected. Tess regaled me with her adventures in India, occasionally annotating about her photos (she had a laptop with her). It was interesting to just listen most of the time. Jean Louis would flash his own amazing shots from places all over, including photos from Champasak and Attapeu. This is what makes backpacking journeys more colorful. At 10PM, we said our good night. Jean Louis will be departing in the morning, while Tess will be checking out Pakse. Meanwhile, I have booked for another day tour to the Bolaven Plateau – and I was so stoked with excitement. What could be better than a motorcycle and a driver at my beck and call? Tess and I planned on visiting the big temple together at the other end of the road when I get back from Bolaven.

Traveling friends - Teske from Holland and Jean Louis from France. The three of us occupied Imoun Homestay's only 3 rooms.

We shared the food. This vegetable dish was particularly tasty.

This chicken meal was delicious but exceedingly spicy.

A book store near the New Central Market (above) and some shops at the market (below)

After a quick shower, I headed back to my room and verified my itinerary the next day. I tried to sleep but there was thumping music emanating from the riverside bars. I couldn’t sleep no matter how I tried. The noisy music abruptly stopped at midnight - as though a switch had been turned off. Curfew. I drifted to a dreamless sleep.

It was 3AM when I woke up shivering from the cold. You just hate the clattering of teeth and the wobbly knee. I switched the electric fan to lower speed, but even that wasn’t enough. So I turned it off – and headed back to slumber. I successfully dozed and went to lala land this time.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

The Pakse street in front of Imoun at 7PM