Friday, July 23, 2010

Pakse - An Introduction To The Land Of "Please Don't Rush"

Pakse was the first stop in our visit to the Lao People's Democratic Republic. This is abbreviated to Lao P.D.R, but the joke in Laos is that this actually stands for "Lao, Please Don't Rush." With only a few days spent so far in this country, we can see that this title is far more fitting as it is one of the most laid back places that we have ever come across. It is nearly impossible to get stressed because everyone is super relaxed. I usually hate slow walkers, but within a day of arriving I have become one of them!

I was slightly apprehensive about going to Southern Laos, because it is one of the least developed areas on our itinerary. As a result, it was difficult to plan ahead using the internet, we couldn't even organise accommodation as none of the hostels had online booking facilities. I guess that this is what backpacking must have been like before the advent of the internet, definitely not my favourite way to travel!

Fortunately, finding accommodation was not a problem, in fact we ended up landing one of the best deals so far. After getting a very expensive taxi from the tiny airport to the centre of town, we were dropped off outside the Royal Pakse Hotel. We were tired and didn't want to be wandering around in the heat, so when the owner said that the rooms were only $8 a night we were pretty much resolved to take it as long as the room was liveable. To our surprise we found air conditioning, a TV, bar fridge and private ensuite with hot water! Bargain! In addition, I recognised the downstairs restaurant (Nazim Restaurant) as being recommended in the Lonely Planet for some decent Indian food. Turns out that it was much better than decent as we ended up eating there three nights in a row. The chicken tikka masala was delicious and the lassi was the best I've had next to my own.

That afternoon we checked out the centre of town, which took all of about 10 minutes, and went to a guesthouse called Sabaidy 2 to organise a day trip to the Bolaven Plateau. We were initially going to do an overnight trip, however the only one on offer was a motorbike tour, which we were not too keen on.

That night the power cut out at about 1am, so we did not get much sleep. The next day we went on what was possibly the worst tour that we have been on during this trip. The Bolaven Plateau itself was very beautiful and much cooler than Pakse, being over seven hundred metres above sea level. However, the tour guide was a bumbling fool, who would have been suited to wearing a jester's hat. His lame sense of humour and crazy laugh were amusing at first, but after about 5 minutes everyone was looking forward to seeing the first waterfall so that we could push him off the edge, or at the very least have the roar of the water drown out his lame jokes. It was not until he brought out his scrapbook of foreign currency and proceeded to show us every page that I seriously began to question his sanity. When he took us to a school and started reciting the Laotian ABC people just started ignoring him. He did not really tell us anything interesting about the places that we were taken, so Michael coined it a 'photo-taking tour'; a tour where you are taken to various places for the sole purpose of taking photos. This was extremely uncomfortable at the villages that we were taken to, where we would stand and stare at the villagers and the villagers would stand and stare at us, while we all waited for our guide (he never told us his name, that's how professional he was) to either say something interesting or get us the hell out of there.

We first went to a tea plantation and then a coffee plantation, where we got to try a cup of each. At the coffee plantation we saw the cutest little gibon being kept as a pet in a horrible little cage, suspended from a tree. We contemplated planning a break-out, but due to the lack of a bald-headed person covered in cryptic tatoos (see Prison Break), decided against it and contented ourselves with feeding him bananas instead. Then we went to three waterfalls which were very picturesque. I chickened out on the third and final waterfall, as we had to cross a rickety bamboo bridge that I did not like the look of, but fortunately Michael got some good photos.

After that we visited a couple of villages, a school, a library and a couple of 'ethnic markets'. As previously stated, I found these visits very awkward and I'm certain that the villagers felt the same way. On the way to one of the villages we had to slow down due to a hold up on the road. Unfortunately it was another motorbike accident, which we figured out when we saw a broken handlebar in the middle of the road. Our tour driver popped his head out to find out what the deal was and he said that the motorbike driver had been drink-driving. That brings our count of accidents witnessed up to four in two months, with at least one of them being fatal. The high risk on the roads while riding a motorbike in SE Asia made the decision to part ways with our motorbike helmets all the much easier back in Cambodia.

The school and library were both built using overseas funds. The school building was funded by the Japanese and the library was a joint effort between a few countries, one of them being Australia. Particularly in Cambodia, we have found that many of the roads and some buildings are contributed by overseas countries. Japan is by far the most generous country so far, paying for roads, schools, bridges and restoration of monuments all across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The only funny joke that our crazy tour guide told us was that the Japanese only build roads in SE Asia so that they can sell more cars :-) We tried not to laugh too much because we didn't want to encourage him, however we secretly agreed that he is probably right. So far we have come across two Australian donations, the library in Laos and a bridge in Vietnam. It is good to see donations from our country directly helping the people, such as the bridge in Vietnam, which made a certain section of the country much more accessible and eliminated the need for people to wait ages to take a ferry across. We were told by Sarom that the US offered to build a road in Siem Reap and the Cambodian Government refused! Instead they requested that the US just give them the money (usually the donating country provides the money and engineering) and they would do it themselves. Of course they ended up with an inferior road but maybe they just didn't want Americans in the country, and who can blame them!?

After our tour we returned to find that the power had come back on, so I celebrated by having a lovely long hot shower. We ended up staying for one more day, since I was not feeling 100%, while deciding whether to go to Si Phan Don or Savannakhet. Si Phan Don was originally on our itinerary, however we discovered that it is supposed to be where everyone goes just to get stoned. This is not really up our alley, so we were looking at going to Savannakhet instead, where Michael was eager to see the Dinosaur Museum. Apparently five dinosaur sites have been uncovered in this area, and our idiot tour guide told us that one of the dig sites can be seen inside the museum, like the Terracotta Army. Of course this turned out to be incorrect and due to the fact that there is nothing else to do there, we settled on Si Phan Don, in the hope that we could find enough to do to amuse ourselves until our flight to Luang Prabang.

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