Posted in travel

Summer 2016 – Backpacking SE Asia

I’m incredibly lucky that, in my present job as a university lecturer, I have a great deal of free time during the summer and winter months. That has allowed me to visit amazing places like North Korea and Southern Africa over extensive periods. This past summer I decided to do my CELTA in Chiang Mai, Thailand, before spending a month wandering freely around Southeast Asia.

Upon completing the CELTA (with a pass!) I flew to Ubon Ratchathani, then took a bus over into Laos to visit the little town of Pakse. The following day, I bused down to Don Det in Si Phan Don, where I spent almost a week relaxing on the Mekong River. I then followed the Mekong south into Cambodia, where I watched the Irrawaddy dolphins and explored the area around Kratie, in the north of the country.

I spent a bit of time in Sihanoukville, catching up with old friends, before flying down to Malaysia for a week in the Perhentian Islands. It was not an easy journey. After that, I journeyed through peninsular Malaysia to Kuala Lumpur, and then flew to Bali, where I spent a day on a motorbike, exploring an island I visited many years ago.

Next, it was on to Gili Trawangan, on the coast of Lombok, for a week of snorkelling and hanging out with some friends on the beaches, before a long, pleasant adventure on the high seas as I sailed for Komodo National Park. Finally, I wound up on the edge of the world, looking for a way home.

It was a brilliant trip, and I look forward to the next one, wherever that may be… Here is a crude map of my journey:

map

 

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Kratie and the Irrawaddy Dolphins

I went to Lao to see the incredibly rare Irrawaddy Dolphins and yet in the end I had to leave the country before I was able to catch a glimpse of the bizarre purple mammal. The Irrawaddy Dolphin is distributed in discontinuous populations throughout South and Southeast Asia, with the Mekong having one of the larger and more accessible populations. Some viewing can be done above the border, in Lao, just near Si Phan Don. But the best viewing is in Cambodia, north of the town of Kratie (pronounced kra-chay).

I woke early and headed for Don Det’s north beach, which serves as the island’s port, and waited around for half an hour with a group of travellers until the boats were ready. It was only the first of many irritating periods of waiting that day. The next would come on the other side of the river, on the mainland, when we had an hour and a half to wait for the bus to the border. Of course, this is perfectly normal in Lao. It is incredibly rare for a vehicle to leave or arrive on time, and there is, of course, never an honest explanation given. The journey from Don Det to Kratie took some eight hours, and yet there was only about three hours of actual travel time.

So it goes in places like this. I spent the past winter in Africa, where everything moves at a leisurely pace. But at least there they have the decency to say, “We’ll leave eventually. There’s no rush, man.” In Southeast Asia they’ll always try to bullshit you.

Despite the extended periods of unnecessary waiting, and being ripped off at the border by corrupt officials, the journey went largely as expected, and I alighted from the bus at 4pm on the scenic riverside of Kratie. Once again, I was standing on the eastern bank of the mighty Mekong. The nearest hotel was Oudom Sambath, and I checked in for $7 per night. I knew I could’ve gotten a better deal someplace else, but sometimes you have to wonder whether it’s worth it for what would’ve ended up being only a dollar or two.

I love hotels in Southeast Asia. Outside you so often have a French Colonial exterior, and inside there are remains of the original building – ornate windy staircases and intricate cornices – but then of course it’s also fused with the local flavour, and all too often left into a state of total dilapidation. The rooms are invariably dingy and unclean, yet with just a faint reminder of former grandeur.

**

I woke up at six o’clock without an alarm and headed down to the lobby to negotiate the hiring of a motorcycle for the day. I managed to rent a Honda Dream for $7 and soon I was flying up the road towards Kampi – the little village where the locals thrive on dolphin tourism. It felt exhilarating to be back on a bike again. Between 2013-14 I lived in Cambodia and rode my motorcycle all over the south of the country. By that point I’d been riding motorcycles for seven years across countless countries. You see, I have a major addiction to these machines, and the only reason I don’t ride them anymore is the fear that perhaps I like them too much… There is no greater thrill than pulling back the throttle and bolting along the road, overtaking trucks and dodging cows, potholes, and the like.

I rode a bike last year for a few nights in Thailand, but I was on a small island and I hardly had any use for it. I would just take it out after a few beers and feel the chill night air rush by, taking dark corners and blind hills with the confidence that comes from being on holiday in a strange land, feeling invincible. Here, though, on the banks of the Mekong River, I started off slowly. I had a lot of road ahead of me and after a few kilometres just getting a feel for the bike, I opened it up and started to enjoy myself. Periodically I would slow and take in some of the sights, but the experience of the bike itself was enough to keep me entertained. Roads in Cambodia are notoriously dangerous. Where do you even start in describing the dangers – the dry dust and the wet mud are equally fatal; the drunk drivers, the herds of cows wandering unchecked; the children and adults alike sauntering into the streets; giant potholes and bridges with slats rotted through… I could go on. When I lived here, I’d hear nearly every week of someone who’d died on these roads. Yet a mix of caution and confidence makes these stretches not only rideable, but fun.

Fifteen kilometres north of Kratie I found the dolphin boat dock. It was not signposted, nor did it make itself at all visible. There was only a large empty parking area, which attracted my attention, and then a small stone dolphin. Once inside, I had to ask around, but was eventually pointed to a man in a little yellow boat. He didn’t speak a word of English except for “hello,” which was used every time he wanted me to do something. His long boat was painted bright yellow, with the number eleven painted on the front. I gathered that in the high season, or perhaps even later in the day, there were enough tourists to fill at least that many boats. For now, though, it was just me. I had come early because I figured that’s when it would be best to see the dolphins – on a tranquil river without other boats.

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We puttered out onto the river and headed north for forty-five minutes against the fast flow of the water. It was an overcast day, but beautiful in its way. Ominous clouds hung over the trees on either side. We saw men fishing with large woven baskets. The river seemed high – I suppose this is wet season, after all – and there were seemingly tall trees only just sticking out above the water level. The fishermen used these to anchor their boats or baskets.

Eventually my boatman pointed and shouted “Hello!” which I took to mean there was a dolphin. Indeed, as I stood and steadied myself, I saw a large purple shape briefly protrude above the water’s surface and then slip back into the thick brown water. I hurriedly snapped some photos, but fortunately the dolphins – I believe there were three or more – stuck around for several minutes. The boatman said “hello” again and waved me to the back of the boat, from where I could see clearly. These odd alien creatures took turns breaching and making snorting sounds, then disappearing. Unlike their oceanic cousins, the Irrawaddy Dolphins are shy and don’t seem at all playful. They look more like small, purple Orcas with their bulbous protruding foreheads than dolphins. Sadly, these weird and ethereally beautiful animals are endangered and badly in need of protection. I felt privileged to have seen them in their natural habitat before it is too late.

The boatman seemed content that he had successfully delivered a dolphin – actually, at least three of them – and took me quickly back to shore. It was still early and I had achieved my goal for the day.

So what next?

I point the bike north and continued up along the eastern bank of the river, mostly going slow and admiring the beautiful wooden homes on high stilts, sometimes painted blue, and always in a flurry of activity. Kids, chickens, old women, and cows came and went freely, though all careful to keep out of the rising sun. As I headed north, the roads became quieter and yet more treacherous, in their own way. Though hardly perilous, the thick, wet mud made it a challenge to keep the bike upright, and made the going slow. On several occasions I had to support myself with my feet just to keep from falling over, and my legs were covered with mud up to the knee. I never strayed from the road, yet it was at times very much like off-road biking.

Sometimes, though, I was able to unleash the power of the little bike and whip up the road with the wind in my face, causing streaks of tears beneath my sunglasses, which dried in an instant. There were great big dragonflies in the air and periodically they smacked into my face. Once one got stuck under my sunglasses and nearly blinded me for a moment, and elsewhere, when going fast enough, one crashed into my head just beneath the helmet, and left an small, dark bruise.

I passed through small villages and towns and eventually came to Sambour, where I took some backstreets and ended up at a small temple, called Vihea Kaok. There was a mighty tree stretching in all directions, giving much needed shade to weary monks retiring from the heat. Many child monks were practicing in a building nearby, and a huge golden Buddha sat upright in the main temple building. I moved on quickly, finding another temple – this one evidently more important than the first. Whereas Vihea Kaok was sleepy, this temple was positively buzzing with activity. This was the “100 Pillar Temple,” so-called because there were many pillars holding the building up. A swarm of children begged me for money but quickly gave up and fought each other over a coconut.

I had an early lunch at a street-side restaurant near the temple, where, miraculously, the proprietor spoke enough English to take my order, and then I took off once again, heading further north. The road continued endlessly along the bank of the Mekong. Sometimes it was possible to ride fast, and at other times it would’ve been suicide. Sometimes there were just empty fields or trees, and sometimes more houses on stilts. Always, though, the big brown river to my left, the red road underneath me, the blue sky above, and dark green to my right.

I began to feel the sun had taken its toll on me and, at a random bridge – just one of many I’d crossed that day – I turned and headed back. The thought struck me to put my GoPro on my helmet and film the ride. It had been pleasant – scenic, even – on the way up. I stuck the camera on my head and took off back down the road. Halfway down, I realized it was pointing up at the sky, and then it flopped down and filmed my forehead for a while, but eventually I got it filming straight ahead. Driving in Asia has become so normal for me in some ways. I wonder if in 50 yrs I’ll look back at the insanity and laugh…

My ride came to an end when I pushed the bike too hard on an empty tank and it sputtered and died on another rickety bridge. I was able to roll it off and then push it to a nearby shop, where an old woman sold me a litre of petrol. The bike still wouldn’t start easily, and I had to kickstart it into action.

I intended to go all the way back to the hotel without stopping, but I spotted an interesting pagoda – Sombok Pagoda – on the only hill for miles around, and had to stop and take a look. I brought my bike to the bottom of a flight of about a hundred stairs and climbed very slowly to the temple. It was eerily quiet – or at least it was eerie until I spotted a sign that said this was a place of silent meditation. In any case, there were no people around. I wandered about and climbed yet another two flights of stairs to the very highest point for many miles around – a small pagoda with a few stone buddhas littered about. The view was obscured by trees growing from the hillside, but through their branches you can see for miles over the flat lands surrounding Kratie, and across the vast Mekong.

After the pagoda, I finally returned to my bike and gently encouraged it back to town. It limped and whined and eventually rolled up onto the pavement outside Oudom Sambath, completely empty of petrol and encased in solidified mud. I had dinner at Red Sun Falling and then watched the sunset from the roof of Silver Dolphin.

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Been There, Don Det

In the middle of sleepy downtown Pakse, I managed to find a small travel agent who booked me on a morning minibus south. The journey, he said, would take three hours. I didn’t believe him, because in Lao there is a terrible tendency to lie about the length of a journey. I remember it from my first trip here, five years ago. An eight hour bus ride turned into fourteen hours. Granted, it was partly because our bus was caught in a mudslide and nearly lost over the edge of a cliff, but this is not merely my own observation – this is the consensus among travellers to the country: Make yourself comfortable, get a good book, and prepare for a long, bumpy journey.

At eight o’clock the following morning I was standing outside my hotel in the baking sunlight, waiting for the minibus. I was prepared for a ten hour ride, squeezed in to a grossly over filled vehicle between sweaty, hungover tourists. Half an hour later, though, I was still standing there, quickly turning red from the obscene sun that simply shouldn’t have been so strong at such an hour.

“Had this been another scam?” I pondered. Was I doomed to stand here half the day, only to find I had been sold a bum ticket?

The little bus eventually showed up a half hour late and it was indeed crowded beyond capacity. I was the last in, which is usually a vile curse, but this time I was given the cherished front seat, and enjoyed my ride in comparative luxury, listening to loud music from my iPhone to drown out the groans from the back. Southern Lao slipped by in all its laid-back glory, and, amazingly, the bus pulled into the small ferry village on the banks of the Mekong at exactly the forecasted time.

Soon we were zipping across the muddy waters towards a tangle of islands. Si Phan Don (that means 4,000 Islands) is located right above the border with Cambodia. Here, the mighty Mekong river can reach 14 km in width and rises and falls between 5 meters from season to season. At its lowest, it is said there are four thousand islands here, hence the name. Accepted wisdom, however, is that four thousand is a generous figure on a particularly special day, and involves counting any rock protruding above the waterline for a moment or two between ripples as an island. But it is wise not to question an Asian nation’s interpretation of an island these days. Between the Koreas, Japan, China, and the Philippines, the smart gambler would bet on the apocalypse beginning right around this part of the world, and on a matter as seemingly trivial as asking what exactly constitutes an island.

When we arrived on Don Det, I hopped off the boat and marched quickly up the small beach. In Southeast Asia, you have to assume that when you disembark from any mode of transportation, you will immediately become beset by an army of tuk-tuk drivers, women selling bananas, beggars, and kids looking to rifle through your pockets while you find your bearings.

There were, however, none of the above. I marched up and off the beach and into “town” – which was a small, unpaved street with a few businesses along either side, all of which appeared to be closed or open but unstaffed. I kept walking south at a brisk pace, partly looking for a place to stay and partly just getting a feel for the island. I really didn’t know what to expect. Some places you can get a good feel for even from guide books, blogs, YouTube videos, and countless other second hand reports; most places, however, are impossible to understand until you’re there.

I passed a few bars and many little convenience stores. It all looked run-down, sad, and dingy. I didn’t have a particularly good feeling, but I was more interested in the island itself – the beaches, the jungle, the hills. I had come here to unwind, to decompress from a month-long CELTA course. I didn’t care what the “town” looked like. All I wanted was a hammock.

After a few minutes of walking down the east of the island, along a little mud path in which I sunk about ankle deep, I was accosted by a voice. A tall, thin white man was leaning over a spade in a garden. “Lookin’ for a room?” he asked in a thick Yorkshire accent. Before I could reply, he continued, “I live with this here family and, if you’re interested, they’ve got a few bungalows right on the water here. Basic backpackers fare, like, nothin’ special. Does the job for me.”

I said I was interested, and he slowly started to move in my direction through the thick red mud. He complimented my Bob Dylan t-shirt. “You like Bob Dylan, do you?” he asked, which I thought was a slightly redundant question. But I suppose there are any number of people wearing Rolling Stones and Ramones t-shirts right now who’ve never knowingly listened to a song by either band.

He showed me a very basic little bungalow – a dirty looking bed, walls covered in hundreds of blood splatters, and an unspeakably evil-looking bathroom. The place seemed to have never actually been cleaned before, and had only ever been swept out once the cobwebs made living there unbearable. There was, however, a little balcony right on the water, with two hammocks and a little table and chair looking out at the Mekong as it slowly wound past on its way to Cambodia. A wifi password was scrawled on a wall in blue marker.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

The man nodded and shambled off in search of the register. He came back with a jumbled pile of papers five minutes later, and took long drags from a joint as I filled in my details. “If you like weed, you’re in paradise,” he said. “You can find it anywhere here. Can smoke it anywhere, too. No hassles on this island.”

I gave Adrian, as he later introduced himself, 40,000 kip ($5) for the room and he shambled off again with the register, muttering something incoherent about coffee. Southeast Asia is full of men just like Adrian. It’s either booze, drugs, girls, or a combination of those three that brings them here and keeps them here. Within a minute of meeting him, I could tell Adrian had been wandering this part of the world for more than a decade, and had burned himself out on near infinite quantities of cheap bushweed. He walked around shirtless, his skin a rough tanned leather from the tropical sun, with the unmistakable confused steps of a man who’s spent several decades getting stoned. When he spoke he did so with conviction, yet rambled incoherently before fading out mid-sentence.

I took a walk down the east side of the island to what Adrian had called “the village” – a sign that said “Don Det” and a half dozen wooden houses. The path there was narrow and muddy from the night’s rain. To my left was the impressive river, or at least a small sliver of it, and beyond it more islands and mountains. On my right were rice paddies and people’s homes on wooden stilts. There was a distinctly unfriendly atmosphere. After leaving Chiang Mai, where in every village it seemed I was greeted with shy smiles and bows, here it was frowns. I’d read online that relations between the locals and tourists had been frosty for a few years, but I didn’t know exactly why. It’s not hard to guess, of course. Don Det has worked its way onto the so-called “Banana Pancake Trail,” and everywhere that trail winds, there follows an attitude of irresponsibility, entitlement, and unbridled hedonism.

Or was that really it? As the day went on I explored more of the island on foot, and found more unfriendly faces. Even in restaurants where I stopped for food or beers, I was greeted with abject coldness. It ranged from a complete disinterest to outright unpleasantness. This was not the Lao I remembered from my previous trip, five years ago, to the north of the country. There were many differences between northern and southern Lao that I could see, but in terms of tourism I did notice one thing that made me wonder: there were innumerable bungalows fallen into disrepair, bars clearly closed for several years, and even in the businesses still open and with a handful of customers, everything seemed dilapidated. Could it be that relations turned frosty when Si Phan Don failed to capitalize on its tourism boom? Did these islands ever prosper from the tourists who’ve caused so much change to this place? On Don Det there is nothing to suggest any wealth was gained here. The people seem impoverished. Businesses are merely hanging on. The resentment in the air, it seems to me, is the same as is felt throughout dozens of towns and villages in Thailand and elsewhere, whose way of life was irrevocably changed by an influx of young Western hedonists, yet in this case there are few benefits to temper the displeasure that arises from the clash of cultures.

Still, it takes more than a cold shoulder to make me feel put out. After a long day of walking in the hot sun, I settled at a small restaurant on the west side of the island to watch the famous sunset. The sky changed colours every few minutes for an hour, as the sun dipped and eventually slid behind the horizon, far over the Mekong and the jungles of Thailand. It started a light yellow, became a fierce orange, and then an impressive purple that took over the whole sky until darkness fell, and thousands of stars shone faintly in the dark jungle night.

*

In the morning I awoke early and sat reading on my balcony in the calm morning air. A voice called from the hut two down, “So you like reading books, then?” If I hadn’t guessed from the Yorkshire accent, the ridiculousness of the question told me that it was Adrian.

He didn’t follow up with anything conversationally useful like, “What are you reading?” but instead he told me that he’d written a book and that he was selling copies. “Come over here and I’ll tell you all about it,” he said. It was an invitation, but somehow not entirely optional.

I walked around to his little bungalow – different from mine only in that he had plants on every conceivable surface – and he told me immediately to sit down. He broke into a long sales pitch, not even hiding the fact that his story was recited from memory. “This is the most unique story you’ll ever hear,” he said. “It’s the most original idea you’ve ever heard.” He went on and on, stopping to tell me things like, “it only took me six hours to write it,” and “writing’s so easy,” and “the grammar may not be, y’know, entirely accurate but you’ll know what I mean.”

I awkwardly flipped through the book, wondering how I could get out of buying a copy. It was absolutely unreadable and, as far as his originality went, as an editor I’ve seen hundreds of these books pitched at me from people who care too much for their own story and too little for the craft or business of writing. He then showed me a small folder in which he’d recorded a copy of every book he’d sold over fifteen years – allegedly a total of more than 7,800. “I even sold one to a Scottish person one time.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just bought a load of books in Thailand and I really can’t buy any more. This looks great though…”

He immediately stood up and stormed off the balcony and into his room. “Alright, then, well you’d best be going. I’m a busy man.”

That awkward encounter expedited my decision to get out and explore, and so I found the nearest bike rental, and rented a small, fixed gear bicycle with two flat tires and a loose chain. The seat may as well have had serrated edges, the basket at the front was torn almost in two, and when the bike moved it let out an ungodly squealing that warned the children on the path to get out of my way, which was probably for the best because the brakes did absolutely nothing.

Although it was hot out, I knew it would only get hotter, so I set off along the east of the island and cycled all the way to the long concrete bridge that leads over to Don Khon. I paid the 35,000 kip admission to the island, and then fallowed a sign for a waterfall. Don Khon is bigger than Don Det, and emptier, too. Like Don Det, it lacks paved roads, and it has only one wide dirt tracking running through the very centre of the island, with a series of small paths running up the east and west coasts. I started down the west, as that’s where the waterfall was located.

When I parked my bike at the waterfall, I wondered about locking it, as I’d been given no lock at the rental shop. I looked around and there were a few other bikes, none of which were locked. I supposed that in a place like this it would be too difficult to get a stolen bike to the mainland. It probably just wasn’t worth the effort.

The Tad Somphamit Falls are not breath-taking, but they are impressive. All around the Mekong moves sluggishly, but here a huge volume of chocolate brown water is forced between the island of Don Det and a few smaller islands, where there is a modest drop, crashing furiously down in a large horseshoe before seemingly collecting and moving on at its own leisurely pace once again. From a few close viewpoints the sound is deafening and the power of the water awesome, yet soon it is back to tranquillity. I stopped for a beer nearby at a small beach, only 100 meters down river, and watched the water roll by slowly, as though its path had been completely unbroken.

I cycled around the rest of Don Khon very slowly, stopping several times to have a beer, take some photos, or, more often than not, fix the chain on my bike. Then I took an unfortunate trek up the east of the island, thanks to my reliance upon the GPS app on my phone. I suppose when tourism to the island was greater, this track may have been suitable for cycling, but now it was tremendously overgrown, and some of the bridges had become downright treacherous. On the absolute worst bridge on the route, where most of the boards were rotted through, I tried to go fast enough that my weight didn’t bring the bike down through the missing and broken slats and into the jungle below, but unfortunately my provocations caused the bike’s chain to slip again and I was stopped, balancing perilously.

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When I emerged from the path less trodden and crossed back to Don Det, I found a small restaurant called Crazy Mama Piang’s. Here, I was finally greeted with smiles and friendly service. I ate a small dinner and watched the family sit around watching a Thai drama on TV. The two small boys played with the family of cats which lived there. They ran around carrying two very tolerant kittens, whose mother looked on sleepily from under a wooden table.

When I stepped outside, ready to return to my bungalow for the evening, I found that the bike was missing. The friendly old woman – who I assume from her wild, unpredictable laughter was the Crazy Mama Piang, or at least one of her equally crazy relatives – told me that someone had just left and had taken my bike by mistake. She showed me the other man’s bike, and it was pretty much identical, except that it had a sign saying it was from a different shop.

“Same, same,” said Crazy Mama Piang. “Bike just same. You take it no problem. Shop not care”

I had little choice, so I rode this bike back to the shop at the north of Don Det. It was the same colour as the first bike, and a similar design, but it was a far better bike. If only I’d had this one on my long ride around Don Det and Don Khon. I cycled it to the door of the shop where I’d rented the first bike and walked hastily away. I saw a woman come out and acknowledge the bike with indifference. I could see on her face that she was thinking, “Same, same.”

After that I returned to my bungalow, where I was met with a familiar voice. “D’you like fishin’?”

I turned to see Adrian standing on his balcony with a fishing rod in one hand and his joint in the other. “Er, yeah…” I said.

“Well I lend me fishing gear to anyone who wants it, like, but y’know I can only really give it to ones who’ve bought me book.”

I laughed and turned to go inside for the night. I could still hear him talking as I closed the door: “So y’know, as much as I’d love to give it to ya, I really can’t. There’s lots of people round here would love to do a bit of fishin’ but I just can’t be givin’ it to everyone and so y’know…” He went on as I turned on the noisy ceiling fan to drown him out.

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Arriving in Lao

I crossed the border into Lao late this morning. It was the first time I’d set foot in the country for exactly five years, but only my first time in the south of Lao. Last time around I crossed the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to Vientiane, and then saw Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. This time, however, I’d crossed from Ubon Ratchathani by bus into Pakse, down in the far south, near the border with Cambodia.

It started with an alarm clock at 3:30am back in Chiang Mai, where I’d only just completed my intensive month-long CELTA course. Soon I was flying across the country to Ubon with Kan Air – a company I’d never heard of until I found their ridiculous discounts on Skyscanner last week. From there it was a hop, skip, and a jump to the border on a Nokchaiair bus. Sadly, though, this seasoned traveller was foolish enough to fall for the Oldest Scam in Siam. At the border post, I agreed to pay my visa fee in Thai Baht instead of US Dollars, and consequently overpaid by $6. It’s hardly a crippling financial loss, but embarrassing nonetheless.

By midday I was at Pakse Southern Bus Station, getting fleeced by a tuk-tuk driver for $12 just to get into town. But there was little I could do. I was too far out and too tired to walk. Needless to say, by the time I arrived in Pakse and began looking for hotels and bus tickets to the next place I was feeling like a novice on the road once again.

Pakse is an odd little city spread out across a stretch of land squeezed between jagged mountains and might river. There’s a sleepy little centre to the town where the Xe Don River converges with the big muddy Mekong as it slowly rolls towards the Cambodian border. Here, the European influence is felt in the colonial architecture along the veranda-lined streets of cafes. Elsewhere, the city more closely resembles other parts of Southeast Asia in its mix of traditional Asian and modern cement buildings. Overall, Pakse is markedly different from and more modern than the towns and cities I’d seen in the north.

After walking around a while I settled on the Lao Chaluen Hotel, which offered filthy but air conditioned rooms for about $15 per night, and then had lunch across the street at Xuanmai Restaurant, where I tried the lap lap (or laap?) chicken and a Beer Lao. Beer Lao has long been one of my favourite Asian beers and here, naturally, it is ubiquitous and inexpensive.

After lunch I took a walk around Pakse in the blazing 2pm sun. There was no one else foolish enough to be on the street at this time, and I had the city to myself. Along the banks of the might Mekong, cars had pulled up under the shade of large overhanging trees and drivers awkwardly slept with their feet dangling out of windows and doors flung open here and there. I stopped periodically to stare out over the enchanting brown waters to the mountainous jungle on the other side.

I considered staying another day in Pakse and renting a motorcycle to explore the surrounding countryside, but instead elected to move further south. Although Pakse is small and quiet, it is still too much a city for my provincial tastes. I booked a bus/ferry ride to Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands) for $7, with an alleged 8am start. After four weeks of relentless CELTA studying, I’m looking forward to relaxing in the sleepy environs of remote rural southern Lao. Besides, although Pakse isn’t without its charm, there isn’t much here to keep someone sticking around more than strictly necessary. It’s economy, for one thing, seems centered around transporting people to other places.

After an afternoon nap to escape the remainder of the heat, I ventured out for dinner and found a small hole in the wall called The Lao Restaurant, where I tried a beef and ginger dish that was simply described as “tradistionional Lao food.” I enjoyed it thoroughly, and several Beer Laos, before retiring to my hotel for the evening. On the way home I stared up into the stars, which were far more visible here than they had been in Chiang Mai, and tried to pick out a few constellations. It feels good to be in a place where a man can meander in the streets at night, staring lost into the depths of universe, without reprise.