Life is funny how it twists and turns. If you could visit yourself with a time machine 15 years ago and say “oh by the way you will be doing this in the future” I would never believe myself.
My wife's brother went traveling in the far east to Laos and found a small island called Don Det. It is part of a mass of broken land on the Mekong river creating a delta at the bottom of the country, bordering with Cambodia. This particular island is very popular with backpackers, with a few decent bars and restaurants. The Island’s simple guest houses, its remoteness and quietness, was particularly appealing to people who really wanted to get away from it all, but still have a bit of a party.
My brother in law fell in love with the island and the people, and got a job at one of the local bars. He was a publican in the UK so the work came naturally to him, and he was also very good at dealing with Western tourists. After a few years one of the bar owners was moving away and offered him the bar. He jumped on the opportunity, and became a bar owner on the island.
Then there was this girl! One of the local girls who he had worked with before, and always had a secret crush on, finally plucked up the courage to do something. Sounds simple, boy meets girl and all that. Well no. You see he had to ask permission from the local police to date a local woman, not to mention getting the green light from her parents. The country is very relaxed in many ways, but is also very strict and conservative in others. They saw him as a respectful Westerner helping the local economy, and all parties were very happy that the couple was very much in love.
Let's move this on. There was a wedding. There was a baby, then there was another baby. They got Busy! So now I have family in south east Asia. My wife has been to visit them twice, without myself and our daughter. Last year, trying to decide on a summer family holiday, the idea was raised: why don't we go to Laos? Why don't we indeed!
Ok, this is a totally different ball game to a package holiday on the Med. We need a checklist here:
- Jabs, all of them
- Antimalarial tablets, the good ones
- Really good holiday insurance.
- 100% deet spray as a mosquito repellent (melts plastic and stings the eyes so you know it's good!)
- First aid kit (A good one)
- All the creams (stings, cuts, etc)
- Plus general holiday stuff
Now we are good to go. The flights were very expensive for the 3 of us, the same price as a week in the Mediterranean since the schools where off, a time when everything holiday becomes gold plated. But when you get there life becomes very cheap.
We flew into Bangkok and met Adam - oh yes, his name is Adam - and his wife Py, pronounced pee. It was wonderful to have someone meet us who could speak Thai. I am told the language spoken in Laos is very similar to Thai. We were ferried across Bangkok to a local airport where we caught an internal flight to a place called Ubon Ratchathani, on the eastern side of Thailand. After a night in a cheap hotel we disappeared across the Laos border!
Border crossing in Asia are a very different affair. Lots of hanging around, going to different small windows seeing your passport disappear for a while and handing over sums of money, the amounts of which change daily.
So here we are, deep inside communist country of Laos. We have a mini van to take us to the island and an overnight stop in a place called Pakse. In the towns and cities you start to notice the buildings have a distinct French colonial look about them. It's a weird mix with the bustling motorbikes and scooters, and crazy wiring on the lamp posts that looks like black spaghetti. Faded old buildings with a hit of grandness, complete with unused, tatty stuccoed terraces.
I loved the buildings
As we headed down though the Laos countryside we began to realise how beautiful this place is. People getting on with their lives, shopping, working, farming. Kids playing, dogs milling about. This is the rainy season so everything is green and lush. A lot of the roads are quite good, with a dirt run-off either side for the slower moving traffic and food vendors. The rules of the road seem to be ‘do whatever you want!’... but do it slowly, and keep tooting your horn. It's a bit of an eye opener at first but you soon get used to it.
Many of the roads in Lao and Cambodia are like this.
We checked out some stunning waterfalls en route and then carried on down to the island. It was dusk when we arrived to Nakasong on the mainland, at around 6.30.
It all got a bit scary.
Things got real as we dragged our cases down the slipway to a waiting boat. Shoes and socks off at this point and on with the flip flops. The Mkong water was up to my knees loading our cases into this very narrow wooden boat with a corrugated tin roof and a motor with a long shaft going into the river, and a propeller at the end. We set off and now it was dark - it gets dark really quickly. As the engine was shaking the whole boat, I looked back at the driver, a very serious Asian man who obviously knows the waters like the back of his hand. We were told to sit still and keep low so he could see in the darkness. And definitely don't shine a torch, as it would ruin his night vision. Yeah sorry about that (idiot tourist).
We chugged past other islands and clumps of vegetated land jutting out of the brown water, rounding one of them to see, in the distance, bright lights. To the side on the horizon there was a lighting show with no sound and above us the stars were out against a rich, dark navy sky. As we approached the engine was cut and we drifted to the silp, then Adam jumped out, pulled the boat in and tied it off. Later I found out the driver was Py’s dad and he can’t speak English, unlike Py. Like all Laotians he is very shy and not forthcoming. Many take this as rudeness, but it is not.
We had arrived on Don Det. We dragged our cases with the little wheels and the extending handle at the top, over the muddy bumpy half finished concrete path, the main street on the island. There were people in bars and restaurants, music playing, dogs mooching about, kids running around and some bored shopkeepers looking at us. We got to our hotel and checked in, then went back out to meet Adam at his bar. Then it rained. My god did it rain. Sitting in his bar with a beer in literally the middle of nowhere, enjoying a beer with my new extended family, looking at the rain dripping over the neon lights of the other bars and shops, I felt like I was in that scene from Blade Runner. Without the murderous Androids, obviously. But the most striking thing was how familiar if felt and how warm everybody was. Like you had just popped over in the next town to see some family.
Don Det main street.
After a week of relaxing on a very hot and sticky Don Det island we moved on for an extended family holiday to Cambodia with Adam and Py and their older son. We mini-vanned down to the border, met Jami the border fixer, and he helped us with all the bureaucracy. Then it was a very long drive down to Siem Reap. Cambodia has no real public transport to speak of, so it’s minivans for long distances and tuk tuks for short ones. You think of a journey in the west, then triple the time it takes. But this was great - you see so much of this amazing country, including the many ingenious ways the locals transport everything.
We arrived in Siem Reap and checked into our hotel. As it was rainy season the hotels were amazingly cheap, around $25 per night. Trust me, it was a nice hotel and we were not slumming it. Rainy season seems to be the low season. But the weather is really not that bad. Still crazy hot, just with the added massive rain shower every now and then. I felt it was a blessed relief from the heat. And the thunderstorms were amazing sight.
See! Not bad?
Siem Reap has a really good nightlife. The main street where all the action seems to happen is called pub street. It was a heaving throng of people and tuk tuk drivers desperate to give you a ride somewhere. Constant loud music coming from street vendors selling food and shots of booze. I was happy to arrive and happy to leave - after a while it gets a bit much. All over the city there are loads of good restaurants, all good value. And wine - yes they all had a good wine selection, very reasonable. Who knew?
Pub Street Siem Reap Cambodia
The real reason for stopping in Siem Reap was to visit the temples, home to some of the oldest temples and places of worship in the world. The main ones are Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, both featured in the video game Tomb Raider. The temples are spread over a massive estate and we had to hire a tuk tuk driver for the day to get us round.
Angkor Wat temple Siem Reap Cambodia
Built nearly one thousand years ago then abandoned and lost to the jungle, the temples were rediscovered by missionaries at the end of the 18th century. It was truly an amazing experience to visit this place. One of the most fascinating things was the way the trees and jungle had reclaimed the the land. After clearing away the worst of the jungle cover it was found that many of the trees had rooted on top of the temples walls and rooves, and grown into massive oaks, the roots finding their way down the side of the buildings to the earth.
Tree grown on top of a wall for the last couple of hundred years!
Onwards! We headed down to the coast of Cambodia via Phnom Penh, the country's capital. We did not stop, just drove through,, past the main international airport and onto highway number 3 heading out of the city. Drinking in with my eyes all the amazing sights like the roadside food vendors. As the city dwindled away I started to notice more and more faceless massive modern warehouse buildings. Most did not have a sign at the entrance or by the security gate. They had huge ventilation ducting and vents for some very big fans on the side. My curiosity was aroused as we past more and more. It clicked when we past one of the them with a sign half in Chinese and the rest read garment factory in english. Sweatshops! My god, you should've seen the size of these buildings. I don't know who was in there, or what they were making for whom. Or even if these were the ones where the real suffering occurs. But the scale of it was biblical. I know the far east is often referred to as the factory of the world. It's just when you see some of it for real, it’s such a polarizing moment.
We arrived at the coast in a place called Otres Beach. The going was very slow as the roads narrowed, without much passing of slower trucks. Once again we had a great hotel for not a lot of money. The sea - the Gulf of Thailand - was beautifully warm, like a bath. As usual nice bars and great restaurants, all stocking good wine. This was the beach holiday part of our trip and it was very welcome. We were all drained from the traveling and the heat.
This section of the coast is very popular with backpackers. A little further down the coast is the Serendipity beach, where you can find the cheap bungalows and cut price bars and restaurants. I never checked how much as I was so pleased with what we were paying for ours. Plenty of hawkers patrolling the beaches trying to sell you something and lots of sleepy backpackers.
Otres beach was very quiet and the cloud gave us a break from the sun.
Otres beach was a little quieter and a bit more refined, Cambodian style. On the main drag behind the beach you would find the worst road with potholes you could lose a small car in, and then a really fancy hotel that would not be out of place in Saint Tropez: fantastic restaurant and bars with great food and wine. A couple of days were spent by the pool and beach, then it was time to move on:
We headed back up to Phnom Penh to the airport, where we said a very sad good bye to my new larger family. Py, who would not even look at me when I first arrived, gave me a hug to say goodbye and said something very funny. I can't remember what is was when writing this, but I remember she has a wicked and brilliant sense of humor, mainly aimed at Adam, quite difficult to follow because of the Lao accent. Eventually we jumped on our flight to Bangkok, where we would connect with our main flight home.
Back in Brighton the obligatory photos were shown, and while people seemed so show an interest I always felt frustrated that I could not get accross the magic. I’m probably still not doing it justice in this blog, it's strange, maybe it's because things can look a little scruffy and run down in photos, but Laos is a poor country. Maybe we are too programmed to see the material things in life, and not look for the experience. Either way I loved the whole thing, start to finish, and that part of world stole my heart. I can't wait to go back.
If you fancy going, here are the places we stayed at with three children:
Here are a few more snaps.
One of our many boarder crossings.
On the boat leaving Don Det (In the day)
The Rain was Crazy!
Tuk Tuk mobile booze and shots service in Pub Street!
Cambodian Tuk Tuk is the best!