I had a really bad night's sleep and as a result, so did Michael. The bed was hard, the bed linen a bit stinky and there were biting mosquitoes - not a great recipe for a comfortable sleep. We woke at 05h40 and were ready and waiting for the driver at the end of the hotel driveway at 06h00. We both said to each that we wondered what the odds were of him being on time, despite wanting to leave even earlier. We walked down to the main road and by 06h40 decided to start walking to the bus station feeling very annoyed that we had not only spent the $8 on the hotel, but were now going to spend about $20 on a bus. Just after 07h00 we were crossing the road and who drove up, Mr Jung. We had mixed feelings, annoyed he was so late, but glad he came in the end!
The drive back was pleasant, but I was really cold in the back with the air conditioning going full blast. Fortunately we did not have to endure endless rotations of the Uncle Ho tape. We saw more cattle tethered to the weighted poles ( a clever system to stop them getting tangled) and watched an endless stream of conical hat people on bicycles loaded to the hilt with goods disappear into the distance behind us.
Other notable things which flashed past us were the beautiful boats with arched covers of bamboo, skinny houses painted in a rainbow of colours. Never ending stretches of paddy fields which are so calming, disturbed only by the hooting of horns.
We arrived back at the border around 09h15. Everyone was keen to know if we had succeeded, but we told them we would only know on the 3rd. After much debate, Michael and I decided it wasn't worth waiting a further 6 days for the permit, especially as it was due on a Thursday, which would more than likely turn into Friday, then Monday. We were really disappointed as our brief taste of Vietnam had certainly whetted our appetites. We checked with the Laos border that they could issue visas on arrival, then we said our farewells to all at the Vietnamese border, left a thank you note for Mr Duong and headed to the Laos side. The process was swift and painless (although we had to pay a $1 passport stamping fee for crossing at the weekend, as disclosed in notices tuck up all over the building). We paid $60 for our two 15-day visas, completed entry/exit forms and the customs man stamped our carnet and that was that.
It was an incredibly hot day with temperatures exceeding 40°C! We chose to go on the scenic route along a red, dusty road. The first part was nothing much to write home about, with desolate expanses of dry scrubland and the odd dust layered village, but the limestone karsts began to appear a little later, making the journey worthwhile. We made a detour to a dam site along an incredibly fine powdery dust road, which was not our best idea. The dam was still in construction and although the forest en route was pretty, a lot of brush fires were burning to add to the intense heat and dirt of the day.
Back on the main, dust road we passed two cyclists. We stopped and waited for them at the top of the hill and discovered they (Graham and Dave) were both from the UK. We gave them each an ice cold drink and some water, which they were appreciative of. It was great to chat to them and we take our hats off to them, because it must be hell riding in all the dust!
We drove over a large bridge where we could see innovative villagers were using the river's power for mini generators. It was quite hazy as a result of all the dust and smoke. It is incredible to see the contrast between rice paddies which are fallow and dry versus those which are wet and lush and provide welcome break for the eyes.
We found a super little spot to camp away from the road in the cleared bush near a long string of pylons. Michael walked out to see if he could see Graham and Dave (and entice them with a cold Lao beer). He got to the road just as they were approaching, but they didn't see him despite his frantic screaming and jumping up and down in the road. He hitched a lift with a truck and caught up with Dave 1.5km later, who had just had a dust-covering fall off his bike. They chatted briefly but decided it was too late for the guys to stop, so he walked back to camp. In the meanwhile I had cooked up soya chilli con carne for dinner. We had hot baths while it was still light. A hunter walked past the camp and in fairness to him, he must have seen us both starkers, didn't say a thing, walked straight on and never looked back!
We got the last 25km of dirt behind us and reached Thakek at about 08h30 driving through the last of the dramatic karst scenery.
We parked Nyathi in the own 'square' and wandered across to see the view over the Mekong, with Nakhom Panom in Thailand on the opposite bank. We also got to see a group of people working in the paddy fields, their conical hats bobbing up and down above the carpet of green. Other than that, the town didn't hold too much appeal so we continued south toward Savanahket and on to Pakse.
The villagers must get so sick and tired of their houses and everything they own being coated in a film of red dust. I suppose they become oblivious to it, but if we lived there, we'd opt to have a house further away from the road to combat the dust a little. As it was a Sunday all the locals were relaxed and socialising with one another, including gathering at one person's house to watch TV. You know a house has a TV when you can see the cluster of bikes parked outside. This gathering was a very small one...
We stopped at Ban Saphay 15km north of Pakse as it a silk weaving village where, apparently over 200 women still use traditional thread spinning and weaving looms. Sadly we didn't see any actual weaving activity, although the village was thronging with people and the sounds of karaoke throbbing and squealing nearby. We arrived in Pakse just before sunset. Pakse is situated at the confluence of the Don and Mekong rivers, which give the town a calm feel. Just north of the Dong river we saw some lovely old wooden shop houses and a group of novices from the temple across the river were mending nets.
We waited our turn to cross the narrow bridge and drove around the perimeter of the town alongside the Mekong to see if there was a bridge and sure enough there was (if we have to cross here into Thailand rather than Cambodia, at least we don't have to pay a ferry fee).
The river was filled with people splashing about and swimming and they were playing football on the sandbanks near the river edge. The sunset was spectacular, so we sat and watched for a while and then we bumped into Carallyn & Doug whom we had met in Chiang Mai. It was lovely to see them and they led us back to their fancy hotel which had plenty of parking space. We managed to negotiate a shower/toilet fee of just under $4 and it was worth it. The car park was quiet and the shower was hot and there was even English TV!
We all went down to the Mekong for dinner and after trying to find chicken (instead of pork, fish or buffalo) at all the riverside food stalls we went down to a big restaurant boat moored on the river. The food and drinks were very reasonable (7,000 kip for a Lao beer) and we spent a thoroughly pleasant evening chatting and enjoying the beautiful location. The staff could speak no English, so a fellow patron helped with some translation, which was good of him A little later when I needed sugar for my phad thai (our translator had left), they couldn't understand that I was saying nam than (sugar). The waiter brought me coffee, then fish sauce and eventually I went down to the galley and with the chef's help rooted through her ingredients until I found what I wanted and she smiled with recognition and said nam than (only with correct tonal inflection) - hurrah! Embarrassingly when she was walking up the stairs closely behind me my heel knocked the sugar out of the bowl and all over the floor, so we both ended up in a fit of giggles and she got some more sugar.
We all got to bed close to midnight, which is late for us.
We had a leisurely start to the day with a great shower and delicious fruit shakes for breakfast. Then we both spent quite a while in the internet cafe. Michael downloaded the software to make the cordless mouse and keyboard work properly and I checked emails and researched the possibility of crossing from the south of Laos into Cambodia. From what we can see no vehicles have ever done it north- south, but Gert and Miranda did it the other way around, so we are going to give it a try. Michael fixed the keyboard and mouse and we had a tasty (but very chilli hot) lunch in the hotel restaurant for just 8,000 kip. The staff at the hotel have all been very friendly and I spoke a bit of Lao to the waitresses and they practised their English.
In the afternoon Michael went in search of radiator caps and I settled down to do journal catch up, but then the computer wouldn't start. I checked all the plugs, boards and cards were in properly and then the computer worked, but not the monitor, so I went to the internet cafe to research flights and a bit more on shipping. I wandered down to the temple overlooking the river where you could see monks doing wood work among other thing. I also sat in the hotel lobby and read for a while and the staff brought me glasses of ice cold water.
In the evening, when Michael tried the computer it all worked first time - Sod's Law! I spent three hours writing and then we went to Jasmin's Indian restaurant and had some excellent food there. Then we went for hot showers, watched a bit of TV and went to bed.
We enjoyed what will probably be our last hot shower for a while. I did some girlie primping and Michael watched some football. We had a delicious fruit shake for breakfast, stopped off at the market and bought some vegetables etc., filled up with fuel and headed south. As we were leaving town Michael spotted a nice mini mart which we thought would have my favourite strawberry yoghurt, but it didn't. When we got back out to the car Graham and Dave were there. It was great to see them again and spent quite a while chatting. I gave Dave some spare SPF35 cream and then we parted ways, although we're hoping to meet up on Don Kong island, or somewhere in Cambodia.
The temperature soared again today. At 07h00 it was already 28°C. We really feel for the guys cycling, they must go through so much water, because we drink copious amounts and we're in the relative comfort of a vehicle. We spent a pleasant morning driving through the stark, dry countryside. The road was fantastic, paved and almost pothole-free all the way to the turn off for the small village of Hat Xat Khoun, there the tar petered out into sand where it met with the Mekong and turned to run south and parallel, until it became a narrow track for Nyathi to pass along. The guide book said the car ferry leaves from here, but after walking the length of the village we could see absolutely no sign of car travel, nor ferries, there were just longboats to ferry passengers. It was in intense midday heat and the villagers had all wisely sought out the shade underneath their houses and slept in hammocks on simply on wooden or reed beds.
We took a detour at the next village south and it looked promising at first, but only led us past some mud smothered buffaloes and a disintegrating wat and a few wooden and bamboo shacks. Back on the main road we asked one of the local men (with the aid of our Pictionary-type drawing) where the ferry was and pointed south and said 1 km.
Sure enough there was a tarred turn-off further south to another village just called Hat and there we found the ferry. In fact, there were two. A smaller one which had just arrived on our side of the river and another, larger one waiting on the other side. Both ferry men tried to rip us off and we weren't having it, showing the second one photo we had taken of the Lao-script pricing board, eventually he conceded and we paid 25,000 kip for the crossing, one-way (we got a receipt to try and prevent any extortion problems on our return journey).
We drove around the north section of the island. It was a very laid back and felt mostly untouched by the outside world. It was however, very busy with never ending throngs of children on bicycles making their way home to the various small villages dotted around the island.
We found a really nice camp site deep within a disused quarry, surrounded by trees. Knowing we had a place to retreat for the night, we made our way back to the main village of Muang Khong for a drink and something to eat. On our travels we met a lovely Lao-Canadian couple (Thalo and Mali) who offered for us to stay in the grounds of their big, newly built house, but we were worried we might damage their new paving and we also realised we couldn't run our engine while parked their so we declined.
We stopped at Pon's Restaurant and watched the night sky creep over the Mekong while the fishermen navigated around myriad sandbanks lurking just below the water's surface. Carrallyn and Doug saw us and we ended up spending another great evening with them. I had a tasty lau-lao with honey, lime and ice - delicious, and then, a bit later, just one more. We parted ways and we drove the 12km back to our camping spot where I went to bed (rather sleepy from lau-lao) and Michael tried to send emails, but with no success.
It was the perfect, quiet camp spot. We only got up just before 08h00, which was a treat. I made us fried egg and cheese sandwiches for breakfast and we tried again, unsuccessfully to send emails using the satellite phone. We did get to speak to lots of friends and family and we called Ashley for her 21st birthday! We drove around the southern part of the island, which was a little more picturesque than the north, with more green rice paddies and the Mekong flowing close by the houses.
We drove back up to Muang Khong parked Nyathi in the shade of a tree and went to one of the riverside restaurants where we each downed two ice cold drinks in quick succession. After lazing for a while and watching the locals navigate the river, swim and catch fish, we went to catch the ferry back to the mainland. We spotted a group of monks who were quite intrigued by Nyathi...
This ferry owner was a complete different kettle of fish to the other two yesterday. He didn't question the 25,000 kip we gave him and he smiled, was friendly and took us across straight away. He also had pots of Christ Thorn plants to brighten up his ferry, along with beach umbrellas, which we thought was rather quaint.
We drove south to go to the Khone Phapheng Waterfall. Once again there was a tar road right up to the falls. We paid 10,000 kip each to get in. The falls were far more spectacular than we had anticipated. The water is channelled around islands and down granite chasms making for a thundering torrent of water and furious frothing and boiling down below. What as especially nice were the many splash pools and natural baths created at the top of the falls. We spent a very pleasant afternoon wallowing in the water to cool off. I donned my bikini, covered by a sarong skirt (following local custom). A group of local visitors thought it was terrific that we were swimming and asked if they could pose with us and take our photograph and then of course they were more than happy to oblige for me.
In amongst the falls on a higher piece of land an ingenious family has created and day-time shelter, where they can monitor their fishing cages and nets and relax in the shade. The two little boys were more than happy for us to take their picture while they sat in their mini-hammock and they were delighted when, a little later, we gave them the remains of our bottle of very sweet Fanta apple drink.
The locals have created all sorts of temporary, rickety walkways and ladders across the falls. However, in the wet season, they remove them to the safety of higher ground. We also saw a nifty little generator they had set up.
The noise of the various falls was quite deafening. Apparently the river spans 1km at this point, but further west there are even more cataract, not visible from the mainland. We spent the latter part of afternoon climbing the rocks above the water. Then we went back to the top where there are lots of stalls, bars and restaurants and we had a late lunch / early supper and some very welcome cold drinks. We watched some men bashing down an old washroom block. Michael gave them some advice on how to increase their pulling power when the last remaining wall wasn't keen to budge and then I got to video the action. Then we climbed downstream of the waterfalls and watched the sun sinking in the sky. We climbed back up for a last sunset drink and then we set off to look for a camp site.
We drove down a very dusty road and any idea of secrecy was out of the window because with the lack of wind, our dust hung in the air for almost half an hour afterwards. That, coupled with the smoke made it all a bit hazy, but the most dissatisfying thing was our first puncture with our "new" Firestone tyres! It was just one of those unfortunate things where we hadn't seen a sharp tree stump sticking out of the hard earth and it pierced straight through the sidewall with a very loud hiss. Still, it's pretty good going, 40,000km and our first puncture. So our deep-clean in the river was history. With the dusty roads and the ash-blackened soil, we were filthy by the end of the tyre changing, however, despite our lack of recent practice, we still hadn't lost of touch.
We had cool baths by moonlight, with only the wandering buffalo for company.