I'm high on the joys of life today. We've been touring round the Bolaven Plateau near to Pakxe in Southern Laos today and it was possibly my favorite day of the trip so far. But I'd better start from where I left off!
I can't believe my last blog was from Sihanoukville... so much has happened since then!
We ended up in Phnom Penh for 2 nights as we had to wait for our Laos visas to be processed and I think Nathan and I both felt this was more than long enough given our tight schedule. The city had a slightly surreal feel to it. It was loaded with ex-pats, presumably due to the high presence of NGOs and International Organisations in the area but it still managed to hold a level of dinginess which seemed at odds with the obvious foreign wealth which existed (this was exemplified by the litter-ridden street which contained the residence of the British Ambassador). There was more of the same with regards to obvious sex tourists and although we always felt safe in the city, the edginess which prevailed in Sihanoukeville was not entirely diminished.
The first day was spent visiting the somber killing fields on the outskirts of the city where hundreds of supposed enemies of the Khmer Rouge regime were brutally murdered and the S21 prison where they were interrogated in unimaginably gruesome ways. It's hard to put that sort of experience into words and I don't think I was really capable of processing it fully... the sheer scale of the brutality that these epically misguided men had inflicted on an entire country is unfathomable. It was a trip I'm glad I did and one which I will remember for a long time! We also saw the royal sites of the city which allowed for a more relaxed stroll than those in Bangkok but barely added anything to our understanding of the country's history or to our experience of PP.
So once we had been handed back our passports we bopped off to Siem Reip - the life-support system for the temples of Angkor, and actually a rather fine little city! We stayed in the best hotel we had been in yet - "The New Riverside" which lived up to half it's name in that it had only been open for 20 days but it was nowhere near a river. None the less, we got air con, free wifi, a swimming pool, breakfast, two massive beds and a bath for the rather ludicrous price of $20 between us! I don't think it'll stay this price for very long!
We decided to get on with the business of temple viewing without any hesitation and saw the main Angkor Wat temple at sunset. The structure is mind boggling given when it was built but it was difficult to avoid the many hoards of tourists which slightly detracted from the majesty of it all. None the less, we returned in the morning to watch the sun rise and then went further into the forests to find the other, less rammed Wats. It's hard to remember the detail now, but we were most impressed by an extremely tall and treacherously navigable temple which allowed for some splendid views of the forest canopy below and the newly re-named "Tomb Raider Temple" in which Angelina Jolie would have seen what we saw - a Wat which had given way to the awesome power of nature and had been engulfed by gargantuan trees. We didn't adopt any kids here though.
Regardless of what the Rough guide would have us believe, 1 evening and half a day was plenty of time to see all we needed to with the assistance of our friendly Tuk Tuk Driver, Panath and we made it back in time to spend a bit of time in the restaurants and bars of Siem Riep. We decided that staying up late would help us sleep through the bulk of our horrendous (14 hour) journey into Laos which was planned for the next day and this certainly was a smart move as the first 6 or 7 hours were pretty much a blur to me as I caught up on some much needed (if dangerously uncomfortable) sleep. We paid our bus host $4 each to handle the border crossing for us which was a real bonus after the chaos of the Thailand - Cambodia immigration, and eventually made it to the small harbour town from which we were supposed to meet a boat accross to Don-Det, our river island end point. However, in the 7pm twilight we were forced to hand over another $6 to get a boat across the Mekong... not something we were happy about given the extortionate cost of our rather below par bus journey. None the less, they had us over a barrel and we gave in before stumbling into a rather grim hotel for the night where we had some food and then collapsed into bed, excited about what this place would look like i the morning!
It didn't disappoint. The 4000 islands, of which Don Det is just 1 (if a rather larger one than most), is a beautiful collection of islands in the middle of a wide section of the Mekong which straddles the Laos - Cambodia border. Sandy beaches and a collection of great restaurants and bars are the only thing of any note we found on the island itself, but it was in joining a boat and bus tour around the other islands that we discovered what this incredible part of the world really had to offer. We were very lucky in catching a number of glimpses of the very rare Irrawaddy Dolphin. Apparently there are only 300 of these mammals left in the world and possibly less than 10 in the region so, sadly, the excitement of seeing at least 4 of them was marred by the thought that future generations may not be able to! We also went for a swim in their back yard (slightly scary even though they have a reputation of being especially friendly towards humans) and to see South East Asia's largest waterfall which was a wonderful surprise having read in the rough guide it was "uninspiring"... I cannot understand how anyone can describe such a magnificent natural phenomenon as "uninspiring" given it's size (over 1km across) and the sheer quantity of water which pounded over the rocks.
Sadly, we had to leave these wonderful islands before we had intended to because there was no ATM anywhere in the region and we were steadily running out of cash. So we were forwarded a bus ticket by a slightly dodgy loan shark type (who had lent some girls we took the bus with over $100 at a rather unfavorable interest rate) that we were able to pay for once we had arrived in Pakxe and got out some money. We were told by someone somewhere (with the speed we are doing things, most social interactions seem to blur together) that Pakxe was an edgy and rather dull down. We did not find this at all. Infact, to us, it seemed rather charming... perhaps this was because it has been Chinese new year and much of the population is either in their houses celebrating or somewhere else visiting family, but we really did enjoy just strolling about getting a feel for a small Lao town! We had a rather weird meal last night in a floating restaurant on the Mekong which was massively popular with locals (I think there must have been atleast 80 of them in there) but which had seemingly never served a western person before. No one spoke even 1 word of English and all the waiters kept passing us on to each other to avoid having to serve us. We eventually got fed - in Lao time (see below) - but my fish tasted strangely of egg and by the end of it I wasn't sure why we'd bothered!
And now we come to today! And what a day it was! We booked a tour to go around the Bolaven Plateau which stands 600m above the town of Pakxe in a land of cool breezes, coffee plantations and waterfalls. It seemed a veritable Garden of Eden above the harsh dry lands below and the day just kept getting better and better. We saw a coffee and tea plantation this morning and got to try out some of their produce before making our way to a waterfall that looked like it had come straight off the set of Jurassic Park. At 100 meters high, the dual stream of water burst forth from an impossibly dense and wild area of jungle on the other side of a seemingly bottomless canyon, but was sadly out of reach. The second waterfall however, was not, and I decided to go for a dip, spurred on by the Rough Guide's reassuring lines that this was perfectly safe. I found out after we were safely back on dry land that the rough guide was talking about another waterfall so I really hope there was nothing sinister in that pool. But once we arrived at the waterfalls of Rough Guide fame, we really went for it. Nathan joined me in swimming against an incredibly powerful current towards the falls, which felt like a aquatic treadmill, and up onto the rocks beneath them. We were able to get behind the falls which is something I've always wanted to do and to generally explore the slippery rocks with extreme caution! Trying to get back across the gushing pool was even harder than getting out there as the current dragged us between two rocks which were the only protection from the rapids down stream! We both managed to cling on and pull ourselves clear of the water, exhilarated! It really was one of those moments and I'm so glad we made the effort to visit the Plateau which - unlike the bulk of our trip - is not on the typical tourist trail of Laos.
We've booked ourselves on a sleeper bus to the capital Vientiane tonight. It was originally the plan to stop off in one or two of the towns of South-Central Laos on the way up but given the time lost due to getting the visa in PP we decided that the 3 days getting this bus would save would allow us to get back on schedule and there are a few things in Northern Laos, China and Vietnam which we really want to do that a slower meander up the country would rule out.
I will refrain from saying much about the general character here in Laos until I have seen a bit more of the country but I have to say that the consensus that things here are done in Lao time (about half everywhere else time) and that Laos PDR does not stand for People's Democratic Republic but Laos - Please Don't Rush is an absolute truism. Also, this place is ALIVE! With bugs, lizards, and all sorts. Nearly every room has a swarm of some sort of bug and/or a lizard to keep you company!
So, we hope to chill somewhere in Vientiane for a couple of days and do tours from the City which will make a change from the stop-travel-stop-travel last week or so and may allow me to blog sooner than I have been doing! I have to apologise for the obvious haphazard, stream-of-consciousness nature of my blogs on this trip. I'm having to do them all in internet cafes due to not being able to get the blue tooth keyboard working that I used during the Middle East trip and this means it's all a bit of a rush. Thanks to those who've sent comments and messages - I love hearing from home and I'd be happy to receive your news too!