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May 11, 2012

Four Thousand Islands and Leaving Laos

laos local bus

Our busted up local bus – check out the front windscreen

After finishing the Thakhek loop, we continued our way north, taking a truly horrible ride on a local bus down to Pakse. The usual story – cancelled buses, overloading, time spent loading a motorbike and goats onto the roof, toilet or foods breaks every 30 minutes, picking people up and dropping others off – anyway, it meant the 360 km journey took close to ten hours (once we got going). Gone was the freedom of our motorcycles. In a country like Laos, journeys like this are going to happen from time to time, and a sense of humour and a girlfriend who never complains and lets you whinge at her make the journey pass much easier.

We had to stay in Pakse for a couple of days to get our Laos Visa’s extended – but we quite enjoyed it. We stayed in an old french colonial building with high ceiling and gigantic doors. Pakse’s other revelations included real mashed potato made by the young french chef at the Pakse Hotel (Asha guessed the chef’s nationality purely on the quantity of garlic and butter in said potatoes), plenty of good coffee and delicious kurbside pate, pork and pickled vegetable baguettes for 70 cents.

Well rested and fed, we jumped in a minivan and headed for our last destination in Laos – the alluringly named Four Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don).

The mighty Mekong – whose path we have followed since crossing this very river into Laos a month before – widens in southern Laos, and there are literally thousands of islands in the river (maybe not 4000 though) near the town of Si Phan Don. A number of the islands are inhabited, and a few of them are setup as a backpacker haven.

Islands in the Mekong, bungalows overhanging the swirling waters, staggering sunsets – you can imagine how beautiful this place is.

From the town of Si Phan Don, we took a small boat across to the island of Don Det, a island ringed by bungalows and bars overhanging the river. We swam, rented bikes and rode around the island and across to Don Khong to see some waterfalls, and generally just lazed about.

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Don Det was incredibly beautiful – I can see why people come here and lose themselves for weeks, or even months on end. After the hustle and bustle of much of south-east asia this must seem like an amazing escape from it all. But we were kind of coming to it from a different point of view – after 5 weeks in Laos, we were craving a bit of hustle and bustle.

We realised we were pretty Laos’d out, and travelling through Laos at the hottest time of the year was starting to take its toll on Asha and I. Most people I have spoken to about the 4000 islands think it is pretty much the greatest place ever, and I can see why, but we were ready to kick on to Vietnam.

After 4 days watching the Mekong swirl by, we took a minivan back to Pakse (another one of those drawn-out journeys where everything goes wrong), and spent a night relaxing before flying out to Vietnam the next day.

If there was one thing that had us excited about heading to Vietnam, it was the food.  Frankly, we were not very impressed with the food on offer in Laos.  Too often we found ourselves eating bland versions of western food for want of a better option.  The street food culture that we immersed ourselves in in Thailand didn’t exist here, and whilst sticky rice is available in abundance, in our opinion Laos’ culinary landscape lacks the depth and richness of its neighbours to the east and west.  We thought often the food tasted like less flavoursome versions of Thai dishes.  Yes, it was great to have baguettes back in our lives – but they were really hit and miss. Being a landlocked country meant we were reticent to eat any seafood – although river fish can be found in a lot of places.  The one meal that did standout was an incredible Laos sausage we had upriver in Nong Khiaw, but otherwise there weren’t too many standout meals.  With Vietnam looming large on the horizon, we knew that was about to change.

Ah flying, my old friend. Snacks and ‘Parks and Rec’ enroute to Vietnam

We had spent 5 weeks travelling Laos by land and by river, from Huay Xai in the very far north-west to the southern-most point around Si Phan Don. We were proud of what we had achieved and seen here – the scenery in Laos was almost always beautiful, even if travelling here wasn’t always easy – and we left for Vietnam ready for a new adventure.

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