Sunday, October 01, 2006

Trip: Lao PDR
Date: September 28, 2006
Place: Don Khon

So far my attempts to take the Mekong down through Lao have been unsuccessful. If I had been willing to pay more, I could have done it. It would have cost me $30 to take the boat from Pakse to Champasak and $100 to take the baot from Champasak to Don Khon. By contrast, I paid (a heavily negotiated) $11 from the airport in Pakse to the ferry just across from Champasak; 5,000 kip (which sounds like a lot of money, but 10,000 kip = $1) to take the ferry to Champasak; and then 3,000 kip to my gueshouse.

The commute from Pakse to Champasak was actually a bit of an adventure. First, the tuk tuk picked me up at the Pakse airport (I have learned not to take taxis - especially the "official"taxis - because they cost much more.) He absolutely refused to negotiate down the $5 price from the airport to the wharf where I wanted to get the boat to Champasak. ($5 is actually VERY high for a short trip over here. It should have cost $1-$2...) He claimed there was a $2 airport fee. He did give some guy a ticket, but wheter or not there was an airport fee and whether or not it really was $2, who knows...

Anyway, we then proceeded to the wharf over the worst roads you can imagine. Picture a dirt road completely filled with potholdes ranging from 1.5 m to 10 cm in diameter and up to 20 cm deep. Now picture this same dirt road after a night of torrential rain. Yes, it was mud up to the middle of your calf in some places! The driver was going pretty fast too. I consider it a small miracle that we did not tip over! We finally got to the wharf and he went to talk to some of the men on the pier. I imagine that he was telling them that I was a rich American who could afford to FLY into Pakse, so they should charge me as much as possible... The guy from the boat came back and said that he wanted $30 to Champasak. (The guidebook said it should cost $6.) He wouldn't negotiate down, so I told the tuk tuk guy to take me to the bus station instead. He said he would drive me to Champasak. I asked how much and he said "$20" (this in addition to the $5 I had already paid.) I said "no, that I could get a bus for $5. He just refused to take me to the bus, so I spent the next 20-30 minutes (no exaggeration! I was really frustrated!) negotiating with him. I finally got him down to $11 including the $5 from the airport. (You know, it really isn't about the money - I obviously could have afforded a $25 ride - it was that I really didn't like being taken advantage of!)

So we drove back through the muck to a semi-paved road. Then, the motor died and the driver had to change the battery and tinker around with it a bit. At this point, however, I was just amused by the whole situation. The man's 5-6 year old son was riding in the back with me and the father (driver) kept yelling at him to hand him things like wrenches, etc. He finally got the tuk tuk fixed and we did make it to the ferry station in tact.

Coincidentally, the guy who took me from the ferry on the Champasak side to Anouxsa Guest House (on his samlo! See the pictures!) was the cousin of the owner! He was a very nice guy named Nom. I liked him as soon as he told me it was 3000 kip to the guesthouse. It was an honest price and he wasn't trying to "gouge the tourist" - a welcome change! His English was quite good and we visited for awhile at the guesthouse. Anouxa gets its name from the owner's only son. He had five daughters and then he finally got a son! The owner is a Lao native who lived in France for several years. The guesthouse is a charming little place set right off of the Mekong.

Champasak is a terrific little town. According to Nom, Champasak province, which is made up of 10 districts and 90 villages, has a population of 35,000. You would never know it was that big, however, as they only have one main (paved!) road in the town! The day that I was there I rented a bicycle and biked to Wat Phou which was about a half an hour bike ride and 12 villages (!) away. It was an absolutely gorgeous ride! I passed small wooden houses on stilts, rice paddies where people were harvesting rice, water buffalo cooling themselves in mud, and ponds filled with pink flowered lily pads. Small yellow and white butterflis flew across the road every 10-20 feet.

I happened to be biking just as school was letting out for lunch. (Lao children go to school from 8am-11am, then they are home for lunch, then back to school from 1:30pm-4pm.) There were hundreds of children on bicycles and they seemed delighted to have a foreigner peddling along with them. They would wave and say "hello"or "sa bai dee!" A couple of children practiced their English by asking me where I was from or what my name was. One little boy (who was maybe 3 or 4) ran out into the road as I was biking by. (I almost ran over the little guy!) He held his hand out and I thought that he was waving, then I realized tht he wanted me to give him "five". It was sooo cute!! Then his little sister ran out and she wanted "five" too! I gave them both "five"(a few times) and then I gave them pencils too. Lao children are ADORABLE!!

Mom kept teasing me about all of the presents that I bought for kids, but I have almost run out already of the things that I brought to Thailand with me. The biggest hit has been the tiny foam airplane gliders that I brought. (I REALLY hope that I did not bring them all with me on the road and that I still have more in my suitcases in Thailand...) When I went to the waterfall in Luang Prabang there was a small market in front of the entrance to the falls. There were several kids there and when I stopped to get a fruit shake, several of them came up to me and said "sa bai dee!"" I said "hello" back and then gave the girls some glitter pens and the boys the airplanes. It was clear the girls wanted airplanes too, however, so I assembled some more for them. Unfortunately, I ran out of airplanes and one of the older (maybe 7?) girls didn't get one! (I counted the airplanes before I handed them out to make sure there were enough, but another little girl came after I had counted them...) She was so sad! I felt terrible! I gave her another glitter pen and some colorful erasers, but it was clear that what she really wanted was an airplane... About half an hour later I saw the kids running through the market playing with their airplanes. Thankfully, the other kids were sharing their airplanes with the girl who didn't get one. They were so cute!! I took a little movie of them playing...

So Mom and Heather, I suggest bringing airplanes when you come to visit me in Bangladesh! They are light, small, and easy to pack. I think it only cost $5-$10 for a box of them and the kids LOVE them! Heather's idea of bring small stuffed animals is good too. The children here don't have many toys ( I have seen a couple of girls with dolls and one boy with a toy car, but if they have toys they may have 1 or 2, not an entire basement filled with them like American children) so they are really appreciative of them!

Anyway, this morning I left Champasak (there was no internet there, so I couldn't blog sooner) for Don Khon. I really wanted to go by boat, but as I said it was $100 to charter a boat. I tried REALLY hard to find other people to share the boat with (I shamlessly approached every foreigner) and I did find four other people who wanted to go, but they didn't want to pay $20. Nom did manage to find aother group of tourists who were going south by boat and I would have gladly paid the $25 (there were four of us), but they were going to Don Khong, not Don Khon. (Don Khong, whose name is annoyingly similar to Don Khon, is 15km north of Don Khon.) I backed out after Nom told me that it would probably cost me $30 from Don Khong to Don Khon. In hindsight, I probably could have found a cheaper boat, but it was definitely a risk. As a single traveler, you need to pay the price of the whole boat if there is nobody else traveling with you and I am on a strict budget!

I ended up taking the songthaew instead. On the songthaew I met four other travlers who wanted to go to Don Khong. We thought the songthaew would drop them off at the town across from Don khong and then continue on to Nakasang, the town across from Don Det and Don Khon. ("Don"means "island"in Lao by the way...) Unfortunately for them, the songthaew just went directly to Nakasang. We saw a sign for a ferry that said Don Det/ Don Khon. The four of them wanted to stay on Don Det and I wanted to go to Don Khon. The ticket guy said that the ferry would go to Don Det and then Don Khon. After we crossed the Mekong, however, the guy dropped us off at Don Det and then refused to take me to Don Khon! He said I should walk! (It was at least a 45 minute walk and I had my large backpack and small heavy carry-on with all of my computer equipment in it with me. Plus the path was incredibly muddy!) I was really angry! The boat guy on the island said he would take me for an additional $5 (the ferry cost $1.50). I was really mad because they were clearly tryng to take advantage of me, so I told them that I would walk. I then passed another guy who said he would take me for $10 which made me more angry! After 10 minutes of sloshing through the mud with two heavy bags, I met a guy who said that he would take me for $3. I agreed and he dropped me off at my guesthouse, Salaphae. Salaphae is actually right on the Mekong, so he pulled the boat up to my front (back?) porch and unloaded my bags.

Salaphae costs about four times as much as the other guesthouses around here, and I am still trying to decide if it's worth it. On the one hand, the fact that the bungalows are really rafts and are right on the water is great! On the other hand, I saw several other bungalows that were on stilts that still had a water view. Salaphae is an eco lodge, which is good in that I am not polluting the environmet, but the electricity does not come on until 6pm. The room is large and it does have a nice sitting area, but like most places around here the construction and maintenance is really at the same level as the backpacker level guesthouses. Regardless, I am a day ahead of schedule, so I think that I am going to stay here for two nights. Today I will just relax, tomorrow I will see the town, and then Saturday I will head on into Cambodia... (Hopefully by boat!)

One good thing about Salaphae is that they take credit cards! I am running out of cash and from what I hear the closest ATM is in Phnom Penh!

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