Laos, Si Phan Don

Take it e-a-s-y

It is Friday 13th of March when some French fellow travellers and myself take a bus from Thakhek to Pakse. We arrive there early morning and immediately take a local bus to Nakasang. At the pier, we have a coffee and take a boat to Don Det. After exploring the island on one side for about 2 hours I rest in the hammock for I do not know how long. Then I decide to find a place for my tent in the woods outside the village.

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Next days go by in a peculiar fashion. I am getting more and more relaxed as the days and nights go by. I wake up in the morning. Everything is so fresh!

I rent a bicycle and go to the big cascades on Don Khone, the adjacent island. Chris, a dready arborist from NZL, joins me. We relax at the big waterfalls and enjoy the afternoon. On the way back I get lost. Take a break. Settle down. Eat a good meal and continue the journey. Friends are there to help me.

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Liphi and Somphamit Waterfalls... too huge to capture it all in one panorama shot... I tried

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The other day I walk to the far end of the island and discover a great bathing spot.

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Meet an old friend there and two new friends. Take a bath in the Mekong river flowing north at this point, changing current in the middle to the south. Water buffalo joins us. Evening arrives soon. I go back and have a daal with rice. Some Indian food is always nice. A cool banana chocolate shake rounds it all up. In the dark I go back to the tent. And find somebody has cut it open and searched my luggage for valuables. Probly two boys. Nothing lost but 500kip (~5€cent) and a Buddhist medallion. I go to sleep and fix the tent the next day.

I check in at Phao Riverview bungalows. Nice. Quiet. Easygoing. I have breakfast and spend the day reading Jack Kerouac in a hammock til noon. In the course of the afternoon I find 6 other people to join to Phapheng waterfall, the ‘Mekong Niagara’.

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Sunset on the way back to Don Det

A funny thing is… I keep running into people I have met before. So it’s never ‘good bye’ but always ‘cya l8er’. One example. After a big portion padthai and a happy shake at Mama Piang I go to the Jungle Bar and meet Vincent with whom I have crossed the Thai-Laos border one month ago. Awesome to meet him at the end of my séjour en Laos. Another example. The very next day I stroll along a sunlit path with unknown destination. It turns out to lead to the old French bridge connecting Don Khone and Don Det. I turn right before the bridge because I am curious about the bungalows on the riverside. On a veranda of one of these bungalows I meet Thomas and Flo again, two guys I have met at Phosy Thalang on the Thakhek loop about a week ago.

It’s a very lazy time here in Laos. I sleep two hours in my bed early afternoon because it’s so hot and humid. Then again at the swimming pool bungalows in a hammock.
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I meet Zoe and Ssam on the bridge. We talk about Lao time and Lao way. Heading back at dusk. Pumpkin burger, padthai, potato salad, beerlao, banana in sweet coconut milk… a community feast.

Wanted to leave today but somebody (Phao) asks me to stay another day and leave tomorrow. Why not. I end up staying three more days, moving in a different bungalow. Sharing with a girl from Berlin. Austin celebrates his birthday so I can’t just leave, right?!

“Austin, Sarah, Loi, Suk, Chris, David, Edwin, Audrey, Mama, Papa…. equally empty, equally to be loved, equally coming Buddhas 🙂 “

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Laos, Thakhek

Canoe cruising in Konglor Cave

One of the highlights of my journey in Laos is the canoe trip through a big big cave. It is located in the middle of the loop around the town of Takhek.

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A lake greets us when we come to the Konglor cave

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The entrance to 7 kilometers of boat ride thru huge dark halls

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Stalagmites stalactites

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EXIT

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Daylight again (after about one hour)

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Laos, Thakhek

The Loop

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I'm going slowly... slowly down the road

As recommended by the many I rent a motorbike and go on the loop around Thakek 🙂 I don’t meet many people on the way east. And being who I am it’s not enough to go the traditional route. Non. Kimo doit essayer le graaand loop. What a fool I am sometimes. A friend said it’s possible to actually go around the lake and even though I normally don’t listen to other tourists this one seemed trustworthy. Or maybe only like minded… and because of this creditworthy enough to give it a try.

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I go like 40 km/h average. But as I go east and east I cannot find a good road to go north around the big lake with the many dams. I ask some people at the petrol station and at houses on the roadside. Some don’t know some say it’s not possible to go that way.

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Here I decide to u-turn... 50km to the Vietnamese border... I go back to the traditional route after trying out two dirt roads, both leading to villages and dense forest

I have to accept that I have GPS and also a quite a detailed map at hand but still there seems to be no proper way to pass the lake with dams (Nam Theun 2 alone produces about 6000GW/year, most of it exported to Thailand) on the east side – well maybe with an dirt bike, yes – and drive through Nakai Nam National Park. Since I am on my own and only equipped with a scooter I don’t do it and accept the fact that today I go 100 km in vain and remember the fact that the map is not the territory. Right said RAW.

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Slash-and-burn-slash-and-burn

The first time I come across the construction of dams is in fact when I intend to take a boat from Nong Kiaw to Luang Prabang. According to Lara at Kajsiab project (Huayxai, Laos) it was possible for more than a decade. When I finally get there a week or so later I am informed that now too many dams render the passage by boat impossible. Which means I take a bus from Nong Kiaw to Luang Prabang.

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My life as leisure monk is put in intermission. New life springs forth as a wandering wondering dharma bum about to hike PhouSi mountain in the distance.

At present I am going the loop with a scooter and I see lots of trees and thickets cut and burnt down to get (more or less) fertile land. To produce crops or to let cattle graze there? On short term people have sustenance. In the long run, though, deforestation and slash-and-burn method will lead to desertification and erosion and in the process to droughts and floods. Anyway, thoughting is provoked, stirred up. Me no care. Is not my mind. Is nature’s way.

I go to the Nam Theun 2 Visitor Center and help someone translate an English letter about tax declaration to the Ministry of Finance. It’s amazing what happens if you talk to people. Opening up all these opportunities to help.

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The next day I start off with the same group. We pass several towns wave to children on the way. Sabai dee sabai dee, indeed. In the afternoon we reach Baan Nahin. I decide to join another group. We go to Nam Sanam Waterfall together. Like the group i joined the previous day, they happen to be French as well. Nice. c’est bon faire une randonnée pratiquant cette langue mélodieuse.

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The next day I join a different group. Like the group i joined the previous day, they happen to be French as well. Nice. Et bon voyage pratiquant cette langue mélodieuse. We go to Nam Sanam Waterfall together.

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At around 5 pm we decide it’s a good time to return. The guy at the entrance wants some more money. Reason is unclear. I think he means it’s for taking care our motorbikes were not stolen. We light him a cig and wave goodbye. Kob jai lailai. La khon!

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We rest here. Good clean cheap rooms. Happy -and therefore friendly- owners.

We stay for the night at Baan Nahin cuz it is a
ready getting dark and we are hungry. There is no question about leaving the 40km ride to Konglor cave for the next day.

The next day we don’t quite make it for sunrise hehee… we leave at around 9am. It’s like that when you go with a group. Everything takes a bit longer. And that’s alright. Because firstly, we are in Laos. A and secondly, piano piano we va lontanoo, right!?

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Laos, Luang Prabang, Vientiane

Changing pace

Now I been a dharma bum on the countryside for a while me deems to go to da cidy once again see folks running round in circles chasing dunno what. Waterfalls maybe? Till they hear a song in the radio telling them they shan’t do it no more. Anyway. Arai go dai.

Now where was I? Yes. The cities.

I spend one night and one day in Luang Prabang. First thing is go to the Guesthouse Suan Phao. Jean recommended it to me. I leave my stuff there and take a stroll at the Mekong Quai.

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Quiet. Noble. And unhurried.

I took my time to orientate myself. It’s not a big city but big enough to get lost. In more than one sense. There is a lot to do and a lot to skip. The night market is not to miss. Alright, it has a slightly familiar déjà vu kind of taste to it. And yet, although I am in Lao, same same but different applies here as well.

Anyway, the way I see it is like, either I manage to avoid the masses or I walk confidently into their midst. The way it turns out, I get a lil bit of both. Suits me well.

I meet a travel compay at the Night market. He welcomes me to visit him in Berlin or in Leipzig. In summer. That’s very kind of you, Alex. Appreciated! You know whom to call when you’re in Austria, pal. I care to go mountaineering anytime.

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The Night Market. It is so long I don't go all the length. What's more, after one or two km i figured that what is offered keeps repeating every couple of hundred meters. Bright bags and jolly trousers, colourful lamps and kids clothes, textile watches and fluorescent light on shimmering bowls. A feast for the eye. I got a shirt.

I go to bed quite early because I intend to carpe the next diem. Getting up early is always a pleasure when u can make it. And do it willingly. Out of your own free will. Not because somebody else hassles you to do so. Be it parents, siblings, mentors or colleagues. Enough preaching, already.

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Street vendors on Sisavangvong Road. Near entrance to National Museum and Theatre Phalak-Phalam

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View from Wat Pa Houak

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Wat Pa Houak (built 1861) with murals inside. Bo ey!

I walk up some steps and come to a ticket booth. Willingly I pay 20,000 kip to climb another 192 stairs. Why not? Support the people you love. And remember Gurdjieff: Wenn wir schon schmausen, dann schmausen wir das Porto eingeschlossen.

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Halfway up the Phou Si mountain: Offerings, reminders, signposts, tokens of gratitude and appreciation.

Up there the view doesn’t give much. Too foggy, dusty, polluted. Not sure but i guess air breathing is not nice down there. Well, OK Bangkok is worse.

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National Museum and Mekong in the distance... from upnabove Undercover Hippy's song echoes in my mind: The human race is a race against time... everybody running and they don't know why...

Better stay up here for a while and listen to the heart beat. Cool Buddha statue in the shade. And a phriendly photographer in the smouldering heat. Thx buddy.

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Excellent view, bro

I go visit the temple on the hill and as well as the site of Buddha’s (huuuge) foot imprint and other ways in the city. Then I strolled around, went by bicycle with friends and went to a good restaurant to have lunch and read a small book about Lao kids learning English with BigBrotherMouse (www.bigbrothermouse.com).

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I like this guy, especially on Tuesdays hahaaa 😉

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Trying to follow in his footsteps ain't easy... it's certainly useful to notice aggrandizement when you come across it... and notice the frustration in comparing...

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The bell of Vipassana has struck

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Have a seat, please.

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If nothing else works you can always sell a toilet 😉

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I'd go anywhere with you...

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Oh Looorde ...won't you buy me ... a Mercedes Benz...

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Traditional storytelling theatre. http://www.garavek.com


I get a night bus to Vientiane. It arrives at 2 in the morning. The driver leaves me at the northern bus station. Tuktuk driver wants 80,000 kip just to bring me across town to the southern bus station. I am tired cuz I could get no sleep on the bus. I curse and I go. Go for two hours in the dark until I reach a park. My right shoulder hurts. Stinging pain comes and goes. On the way through the sleeping city I meet some sinister characters. And i am probably the most sinister of them all. One guy wants to give me a ride for $10 on his scooter. He thinks I cannot go to the bus station. Too far. 25 km, he says. I don’t believe him. I walk on. Dog barks at me. I tell him to fuck off. Dogs bark at me, are closing in. I shut up and continue walking in silence. Before I get to the park – it’s still moonshine time – a woman offers me a ride, but all she wants is money for copulation, really. I am not into that. Tell her that I just wanna get the hell outta here. This is bat country. Car industry and representative buildings wherever I look. Glad to walk along the riverbank of the Mekong. Take rest for 2 hours in the park. Then I get up. It’s 6:30 ante meridiem in Vientiane. I go for another half hour to reach the central bus station. I am lucky. There is exactly one bus going to the southern bus station. It leaves in about 30 minutes. I get a ticket and go to the morning market.

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Perhaps it does not look like it cuz folks move skilfully but it is crowded... or is it just my mind?

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Local bus due south

Buy water, a bunch of bananas and two carrots for the trip south. In about 8 hours in the local bus with the temperature rising dramatically during the day I arrive at Thakek in the afternoon.

At the ticket booth I meet some helpful warriors who just finished the loop. Simon gives me a ride to town on his clanking chinese scooter. We are glad it doesn’t lose any parts on the way.

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Baan Na, Laos

One more day, one more day, just one more day ok

When I come to the small village who is sitting on the veranda? Jean, my Macondo friend from Chiang Mai whom I have met before, in Muang Khua. We are happy our paths cross again.

In the following days I go to Huay Bo… a village which is about 40mins away from Baan Na. Walking barefoot through mud, rivers, dry rice fields, dirt roads… to another village called Baan Phone which is about 3 hours walk from what has become my homebase: Baan Na. Mama Kham is a heartfelt authentic Mama who takes care of everything. I really got that easygoing family feeling there. Children catching sight of me pointing at me ‘farang farang hihihi’ or just waving hello. Young crews fishing in the small rivulets using ‘guns’ with three metal poles. Men go hunting every day with long rifles. Women caring cooking planting weaving … chickens and dogs and cats fooling around til they become dinner and cows pasturing in the fields without knowing.

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One morning we leave Baan Na early in the morning and go with the crowded school bus to the local market in Muang Ngoi and have a spicy vegetable soup for breakfast!

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On the way to the next village...

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Our loyal dog always joining people who move

Nature! Nature! Nature!
Children playing on the ground.
Youngsters kicking a rattan ball over a net.
The older people sitting outside and watching village living its day.

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3-hours trek to Baan Phon

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Life in Baan Phon. We were served fresh meals and invited to have a siesta inside. The family was very respectful, the five children following their mother's example.

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Back in Baan Na, on the evening before I leave this peaceful place

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Goodbye, Jean! A bientôt mon ami.

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The last picture before taking the boat to Nong Kiaw

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Laos, Sharing

A week in a remote village

Stretched out in a hammock halfway between the villages Muang Ngoi and Ban Na, I listen to the river and the birds and gently stroke a tiger cat meowing his way thru this wonderful world full of wonders.

When I arrived yesterday by boat I put up my tent too soon. Two people invited me for some Lao Lao (rice liquor). It soon became clear they did so because they wanted to tell me to move to a guest house proper. So I did.

With Regis and Melanie I spent a couple of hours relaxing at the riverbank of Nam Ou. Water buffalos taking a bath and local children jumping off the cliff and a group of young fellow travellers chilling out came to join us.

The next day I left my backpack at the guesthouse and moved to the next village, Ban Na. It is approximately one hour on foot. Halfway between the villages is the aforementioned hammock. Next to Ms. Chan’s loom stall is Tham (=cave) Kang where people can go inside a couple of hundred metres with a headlamp. Some parts one has to swim.

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Washing off the sweat of the walk

Ahhhh… it is so easy to be lazy in Laos. So easy. So lazy. Have you ever been here?!

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Three buffalos and a fisherman

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In Muang Ngoi I see women assorting local produce. On the table over there that's khao niaw, i.e. sticky rice.

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Main street at Muang Ngoi

Resting during the day because it’s so hot. Resting during the evening cuz I’m so mellow. Resting during the night cause it’s dark and cosy.

Today I got a Lao massage before going to Ban Na. Soft soft.

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Laos, Nam Ou

Cruising down the Nam Ou

I stay for about a week in Luang Namtha. Three days I am in the jungle, hiking up and down and up and down the trail and along the stream. I remember being slightly off balance but never off the edge 😉 One evening we receive a bamboo cup. Another evening the guides go fishing in the small river after dark and come back with some mini fish. They are grilled over the bonfire and downed with lao lao. Mister Mii also produces special accessories for us and sings a song with natural percussions. After trekking we return to the town.

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Khmmu village embedded in nature

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Locals preparing dinner at Luang Namtha at the riverside

I remove my tent from Phou Iu ecovillage and stay at a guesthouse nearby to catch an early bus to Oudomxai and Muang Khua the next morning. The tuk-tuk is full with 16 people. Banana sharing.

What I remember from the first week in Laos territory…

Loudspeaker music on the bus. Koh tot bor seu: sorry no buy. A great trip to the jungle. The river 5 mins from my tent. Very funny and relaxed evenings at the night market. Local youngsters inviting us to drink with them, serving us Beerlao with a smile. An Italian guy so happy he has found his way to the Golden Triangle and incidentally freezing his ass off in the tuk tuk to the bus station. Forests so full of fruit. Valleys and hills and valleys again. Landscapes with at least 40 different shades of green. Rice fields. Banana trees. Coconut palms. Monks going for alms chanting their blessings. Old women carrying basket silently walking on the side of the road with their children. Plastic bottles and nylon bags everywhere. Clay huts with dry fern roofs. Cutting my left hand when helping a woman take the bamboo bundles out of the river to let them dry and crispy on the riverbank.

Whatever this journey may become, it is transformative. I urge everyone, and in particular you who are reading, well, I don’t urge, no, I highly recommend you to ask: ‘Why am I here?? Why am I on this trip??’ And I suggest you take this question to heart and let it sink in for a while. It will result in your being more in accord with your general intention. Your aim will be clearer. Or at least it will teach you about your current state of confusion. In the end, it amounts to the same: self-knowledge.

Being confused about one’s clarity, thinking ‘I am clear’ when one is not and making assumptions about one’s accumulated life experience and one’s so called attainments reminds me of a saying of what Ajahn Buddhadāsa once said: ‘The stupider you are, the cleverer you think you are.’ Similarly, knowing about your own ignorance accounts for a solid insight and reminds me of what Socrates once said: Εν οίδα ότι ουδέν οίδα.

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At the pier Muang Khua

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Sitting in the banana boat on the way to Muang Ngoi (14 pax/100,000 kip each)

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