June 19, 2003

taxis, waterfalls and returning to phnom penh


Friday morning I got up early and caught a tuk tuk to the nearby taxi station where I learned that the taxi I wanted would be leaving in a couple of hours. I decided to get a little breakfast at a nearby food stand while I waited. The owner of the little restaurant spoke great English and talked to me while I ate. He informed me that he had told the driver of the taxi I was hoping to catch to let me know when it was ready to leave. I guess there must have been some miscommunication though because when I went back over to the taxi it was just leaving and was already overcrowded. I didn't realize it was the taxi I wanted until it was too late, so had the pleasure of spending another few hours waiting for the next one.

The taxi I finally caught took around 3 hours to the bank of the Mekong River. Upon arrival I crossed the river by ferry and then caught another taxi for the 1 hour trip onwards to the town of Sayabouri. In Sayaburi I spent a few more hours waiting for another taxi to my destination for the day of Paklai. The taxi to Paklai left fairly late in the day and dropped off all of the other passengers along the way before we reached Paklai itself. We also had a flat tire just after dark, which made our arrival time even later. On arrival in Paklai I found a guesthouse and pretty much just went directly to bed. It had been a long travel day on dusty dirt roads, but some of the scenery was very nice with mountains towering above the Mekong. I also saw some heavily loaded cargo boats on the river and enjoyed an excellent sunset from the back of my pickup taxi.

In the morning I walked a few hundred feet from my guesthouse to the bank of the Mekong where I boarded a ferry bound for the city of Vientenne, which is the capital of Laos. The ferry ride was a nice change of pace from riding around in the back of pickups and it was also interesting because the water level was quite low. Some parts of the river were flowing quite swiftly as we sped down the river and in other areas we zigzagged back and forth to follow the barely marked deep water channel. Most of the time the "channel" was marked with pieces of floating bamboo which were anchored to the river bottom somehow. I sure wouldn't want to be a boat pilot trying to find my way through the many sandbars and barely submerged rocks during the dry season, but our captain seemed to know what he was doing.

monument in vientenne
We arrived at a boat pier several kilometers north of town early in the afternoon so I had plenty of time to find a place to stay after catching a tuk-tuk in to town. I ended up getting a bunk in a dormitory style hostel and spent the rest of the evening walking around town. The main highlight of the evening was the wide selection of good food available at the night food market. I tried several things including corn on the cob, cooked rice cakes of some sort and drinking yoghurt, which was imported from nearby Thailand. I also enjoyed spending a little time catching up on email at an Internet cafe before heading to bed.

temple in vientenne
In the morning I decided that I had seen enough of the city the previous evening so rented a motorbike so that I could get out of town. I first drove to a couple of famous sites within the city (a temple and an Arch monument), then headed north to a large hydroelectric dam and reservoir. I missed the turnoff initially as it wasn't really labeled, but enjoyed the drive since the wrong turn took me through some hills to a scenic river. I eventually found the reservoir where the water was a very pretty aqua color and there were boats available for trips out to some of the islands. There were also quite a few lakefront restaurants catering to the local Laos crowd, but I didn't spend too much time at the lake since there were other places that I wanted to visit.

hydroelectric reservoir
My next destination was the one and only national park in Laos. I didn't have a very good map and there weren't any road signs along the way, but I somehow found a back entrance to the park after passing the local Zoo. The scenery along the way was nice enough to be worth the drive on it's own with a winding river and rolling green hills. Near the park entrance I drove through a village where they were having a rocket festival. The area was packed with people, and many of them were carrying or launching home made rockets of varying sizes. Most of the rockets were constructed out of PVC pipe (for the "engine") which was attached to a long bamboo pole. I watched several of the rockets climb hundreds of feet into the clear blue sky while others fizzled and never left the ground.

national park
I eventually made it to the park entrance gate where a party complete with music, dancing and plenty of beer was in full swing. One of the party goers informed me that they were there for the rocket festival, but I didn't see any rockets around at the time. After talking to the party attendees for a bit I followed the park access road up into the mountains. After about an hour it leveled off on a plain with groves of pine trees scattered around. On the plain I followed a sign to a waterfall which turned out to be some rapids without any water in them since it was the dry season. I also saw a nice looking visitor's center, but it was closed and didn't look like it had seen much use in recent years. I also noticed quite a bit of logging activity on the way to the waterfall, which was disappointing since I was still in the "national park".
logging in the national park
Before heading back down the hill I followed a rather rough road a few miles towards a view point, but decided the road was getting too bad and the hour was getting too late so headed back down the hill towards town. The only other traffic I saw on the road inside the national park was a few logging trucks. I made it back to Vientenne well before dark and went to the home of the ADRA Laos director for an excellent Western style supper. It was nice to eat some more familiar home cooked food after several weeks of trying new things on the road. I also enjoyed getting better acquainted with the ADRA Director and his family before heading back to my guesthouse for the night.

unloading a motorbike from our bus
Monday morning I was up early yet again, this time to catch a 16 hour bus to the south of Laos. After reading in my guide book I had decided that there were more things I wanted to see in the south, so I opted not to stop in the central part of the country since I was running out of time. The bus ride was pretty comfortable until the last few hours when they picked up some extra passengers and had people sitting in the aisles on stools for the remainder of the trip. We got in fairly late to the town of Pakse where we (I had met a couple of other American travelers on the bus) found a guesthouse and went to sleep at about 1 am.

16 hour bus ride before it got crowded
The following morning I got up and caught yet another bus, but this time I only traveled for an hour or so before getting of at a waterfall resort area called Tad Lo. At Tad Lo I got a bungalow within earshot of the waterfall for $1 and got settled in before spending the rest of the day relaxing in a restaurant overlooking the waterfall. Once the sun had dropped low enough not to give me a sunburn I went for a long, refreshing swim in the waterfall. In the evening I relaxed in the restaurant again and visited with some other travelers before heading to bed.

tad lo waterfall
It would have been nice to spend a few days just relaxing at this waterfall area, as it was situated in a very small village with nothing around besides the waterfall, some lodging and a couple of restaurants. I was running out of time however, so headed on to my next stop after just one night. I had decided to visit another nearby waterfall that I had seen postcards of, but the route there was a little bit tricky since no taxis were going directly there. I first caught a ride with a road construction crew a few kilometers up the road to a junction where I waited for a taxi headed in my direction. While waiting I sat in a local restaurant and watched several people take turns drinking shots of a home brewed alcoholic concoction of some sort. My taxi eventually came and took me about an hour up the road to a town where I changed to a bus. I rode the bus on through the town of Paksong before getting off at the waterfall resort area called Tad Fan. This area was different from the place I had spent the night because it only had one upscale hotel and there were no cheaper lodging options available nearby. The waterfall was also very different in that it was a dual cascade which fell over 100 meters (around 300 feet) while the earlier waterfall was a much shorter but wider cascade. The view from the hotel was very good, and a short hike through the jungle brought me to another lookout point which offered an even better view. After snapping a few pictures I explored the trail a little bit more. The guys at the hotel told me that it went all the way to the base of the waterfall, but that it would take 4 hours to get down and 5 hours to get back up the hill. I was a little skeptical at first, but after following the trail for a while I realized that their estimate was probably quite accurate. The "trail" degenerated considerably and turned into a slippery climb through thick tropical forest. I enjoyed hiking around some, but definitely didn't have enough time to go all the way down to the base of the waterfall.

tad fan waterfall
After my hike I walked the 1 kilometer back to the main road and caught another taxi back to the town of Pakse. In Pakse I caught yet another taxi headed south to Don Det, which is an island in the middle of the Mekong River. On this part of the trip I rode inside the vehicle for the first time (not counting buses), sitting next to the driver and one other passenger in the front of the truck. The other passenger decided to buy some large beetles that had been cooked shish kabob style. He kept offering them to the driver and me but I politely declined to try them. The driver on the other hand seemed glad for the treat. By the time I got to the Don Det ferry crossing it was well after dark and the boat operators wanted to overcharge for the short trip to the island. It took nearly an hour of waiting around but they eventually came down to a price I was willing to pay (about half of the original asking price) and I enjoyed the moonlit boat ride to Don Det. On the island I quickly found a waterfront bungalow with a hammock on the balcony for $1 per night before enjoying supper in a restaurant overlooking the river.

abandoned railroad loading dock
After sleeping in a little I visited with some other travelers who I had met earlier in my trip and we swapped stories about what we all had been up to since we last met. Early in the afternoon I rented a bicycle and set out to explore the island. I couldn't believe how many restaurants and guesthouses there were stretched out along the shore of the island. They went on and on for several kilometers and there were even more on another nearby island which was connected to mine by a bridge. The bridge was built by the French as part of a railroad designed to bypass a series of rapids on the Mekong. They used to transport goods and sometimes entire boats past the rapids by train. Now the train tracks are mostly gone, but you can ride through the jungle on the old railroad bed.
dolphin viewing area on the mekong
I spent pretty much the whole afternoon biking with stops along the way to explore the old train loading platform, a dolphin viewing area (I didn't see the rare Irrawady freshwater dolphins on this trip) and some waterfalls. I talked to some other tourists who went by boat to see the dolphins and were able to see quite a few very close to their boat, but I had seen them before in Cambodia and didn't have enough time to do everything. In the evening I relaxed with other travelers and tried to cool down from a long day of biking in the tropical heat. I must have overheated a little bit because I felt extra hot the entire evening and didn't feel normal again until I woke up in the morning. Thankfully I was able to get some cold drinks with ice at a couple of the restaurants which helped some.

mainstreet on don det
The next morning I met up with two other travelers who wanted to share the cost of transportation to Cambodia. We had originally been planning to let a local tour guide make the travel arrangements for us, but since there were only three of us he raised the price beyond what we wanted to pay. I convinced the other two people that we could just go on our own and pay less than what the guide was asking. We did manage to save several dollars by doing it on our own and we also got to stop and at a large waterfall on the way to the border checkpoint. The waterfall was on a branch of the Mekong and was much bigger than I had expected it to be.

my $1 per night bungalow on the river
At the border itself we ended up having to pay the Laos immigration officials a little bit extra in order to get them to stamp our passports. I'm pretty sure that it was an unofficial "fee" but we managed to get a receipt and photograph of the people who collected it before actually paying. Next we spent nearly an hour trying without success to bargain down the price of a speed boat to the town of Stung Treng in Cambodia, we finally agreed to pay the inflated price of $10 per person for the 1 hour trip. I'm pretty sure that most of the money for this trip never actually made it to the boat owner, but was instead pocketed by the local "police". The speed boat first took us across the river to the Cambodian immigration checkpoint where we were delayed for nearly two hours while the officials tried to locate the proper stamp to use on my special type of Cambodian resident visa. They eventually got the proper stamp and we were on our way to Stung Treng. There were quite a few long waits and delays on the trip into Cambodia, but we knew that we would have to spend the night in Stung Treng anyway, since the boat we needed to catch from there onwards only departs early in the morning.
"rapids" on the Mekong
Knowing this, we weren't in a hurry so took our time to bargain and at least try to save a little money along the way. With all of the delays and waiting it ended up taking around 8 hours to cover the 60 miles or so from Don Det to Stung Treng, with actual travel taking less than 2 hours.

The boat ride to Stung Treng was an experience in itself. There were six of us passengers crammed into a small speedboat all sitting in rows with seatbacks, but no raised seats or leg room. We had an interesting ride down the river, as our boat pilot steered around rocks and through small rapids, mostly at high speeds. The scenery along the way was quite nice with very little sign of people living along the river banks for most of the trip.

mekong sunset in stung treng
In Stung Treng I found a hotel and got some lunch. It was nice to be back in Cambodia where I could use my limited Khmer language skills to order from street vendors and negotiate prices. After purchasing boat tickets to Kompong Cham for the following morning I walked around town a bit and then sat and watched a magnificent sunset over the Mekong River. After sunset I got something to eat and then went to bed.

The trip back to Phnom Penh was fairly uneventful with a smooth boat ride to Kratie. The river was quite low so in some places we actually doubled back upstream to follow the deep channel, but the boat captain seemed to know what he was doing and we had a safe trip. In Kratie we transferred to another slightly larger boat for the ride to Kompong Cham, presumably because the remainder of the river was a bit deeper. From Kompong Cham I caught a bus onwards to Phnom Penh and arrived early enough to drop off my stuff and get cleaned up before meeting my friends for a fun night of visiting and playing games.

channel markers on the way to kratie
Well, that concludes the report on my 30-day trip through Vietnam and Laos. It was a very fun trip overall and I certainly got to see a wide variety of interesting people, unique places and gorgeous scenery.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this travelogue. Feel free to post a comment or email me if you have any questions or want any more information about my trip. Otherwise, stay tuned for a report on my short visit to Thailand and Korea on my way back to the US.

Until next time,


PS Before writing in detail about this trip I first wrote a short summary with some statistics and a map of the route, which is available in an earlier entry if you haven't seen it yet or want to look at it again. Also, if you want to read more details about the border crossing from Laos to Cambodia take a look at the relevant entry on my travel tips page, which is linked from my home page.

Photo albums from this part of the trip include Southern Laos and Mekong in Cambodia.

Posted by andrew on June 19, 2003
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