Notes from the Road: Southern Laos

Every now and then we ask our Stray crew and passengers for their stories from the road. One of our passengers Rick kindly agreed to provide us with his travel diary from the Southern Laos part of his recent trip on the Lot pass.

When most people think of Laos, they think of Luang Prabang, the old French colonial capital, Vientiane, the current capital, and Vang Vieng, the party capital. Well when my partner and I set out to travel Southeast Asia we wanted to venture into the south of Laos, a relatively untouched part of the country that’s not easily accessible. Our awesome local Stray tour guide Chao (from Laos) really made this trip something special through his incredible knowledge of the region and his enthusiastic attitude.

DSCF4121We departed the capital of Vientiane and headed south for the caves of Kong Lor. Be warned: it’s a fairly long drive and the road is bumpy! However every bump is worth it for the spectacular views on the drive into Kong Lor village. I couldn’t help but be taken in by the karst mountains (a signature of southern Laos) towering around me in all directions, and hidden amongst them was the tiny village of Kong Lor with fields stretching as far as the eye could see. The renowned Kong Lor cave is a monstrous 7.5km long natural wonder discovered by a duck (true story!). We took a long tail boat operated by one of the locals through the cave, a thrilling experience that sent us crashing up and down small subterranean waterfalls with only a headlight to guide us in the darkness.

LongtailsFrom Kong Lor the next leg of the journey was to the small city of Thakhek. Whilst a very quiet town, it was a charming place to stroll aimlessly round the streets watching local life go by. The views across the Mekong towards Thailand are not to be missed. The local market is also a must see, rammed with all sorts of regional delicacies that you simply have to see to believe. Assorted chillies and native vegetables, various animal parts and unidentifiable aquatic creatures – I’m still not convinced everything on sale was 100% legal, but it made for a fascinating game of “guess what’s on sale.”

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DSCF4186A short drive south of Thakhek was our next stop, the remote Xe Champhone. Just outside the village is ‘Turtle Lake,’ a sacred lake that is home to over 400 soft-shell turtles with a small Wat in the centre. We bought turtle food at the gate and hand fed them – a mind blowing encounter! DSCF4202Not far from Turtle Lake is Monkey Forest which we entered well-armed with a huge amount of bananas. After about 5 minutes, no less than 20 monkeys gathered round and were taking the bananas from our hands or in some cases ripping our carrier bags open and stealing them. Truly a cheeky, but very friendly, bunch. Here in Xe Champhone, there’s a village homestay for the group, a truly authentic experience of epic proportions. We cooked our own mouth-watering dinner with fresh produce bought from a local market and settled in for the night with our hosts around their bonfire.

DSCF4283Pakse was next. Whilst it is larger than Thakhek and has a domestic airport, it still feels as remote as the Kong Lor caves or Xe Champone. Our visit was a short one, but the bowling centre is worth mentioning. One of only three bowling alleys in Laos and a 20 minute walk from the centre of town, it’s an old Soviet-style building on the outside. To look at it I would never have guessed it was a laser bowling alley or a hangout place for young Lao people, but once inside it felt like I’d travelled back in time. Pakse is also a good place to grab a massage after a hectic few days of travelling over bumpy roads or, as our guide names them, ‘bum massage roads.’

Our final destination in southern Laos was the laid back 4000 Islands, where our island of choice was Don Det. Before reaching Don Det, we side tracked to the UNESCO World Heritage site, Vat Phou, a temple built before the mighty Angkor Wat by the same Khmer people. Standing high on the mountainside overlooking the neighbouring village, a key feature is the distinctive animal carvings in the surrounding rocks as the temple was originally built to worship the Hindu gods before Buddhism took over.

DSCF4411There are two boat journeys to reach Don Det. On the first, the Stray bus was loaded onto a boat to cross the Mekong. Considering it’s made of old bombs and rotten wood, it was a nail-biting experience unlike any other. Half an hour down the road we reached the second, a long tail boat that took us (minus the bus) to the island and dropped us at a beach. By “beach” I mean a 10sqm bit of sand, but it was still great!

DSCF4447We relaxed playing tracaw on the beach and swam around in the Mekong. Then, we hired the oldest bikes known to man and rode the length of the island, about an hour round trip. There was an option to pay extra and cross the bridge to the next island but we passed on that opportunity in favour of watching the sunset from the bar. While the sunset was a stunner, the beach was even better after dark. The views of the stars were out of this world – I’ve never seen so many! Another great option in Don Det is to take a boat trip to the Cambodian border and go Irrawaddy dolphin watching. They are some of the rarest dolphins in the world and it is estimated that only 50 are left in Laos.

All in all, I’d say that if you visit Laos, definitely do the north but make sure you go south too. With incredible geographic wonders and few tourists around to spoil its charm, southern Laos is a genuine adventure travel paradise that can’t be missed.

Rick Tunbridge hails from the UK.  He travelled through southern Laos on the Lot pass in December 2014 and provided us with all photos as well as his travel diary.

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