Migrating south for the winter


Kazoos at the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls

I’m writing this while in the bus station in Pakse, a dirty, dusty enclosure on the outskirts of town. We’re sitting on our bags on the grey concrete having arrived soon after dawn from Vientiane, now waiting for our onward transport to Si Phan Don, three hours away. The ground around us is spotted with oil marks from the passing vehicles, and there’s litter strewn across the dust; the sleeper bus that brought us here just departed on the return journey, but before it did, the driver kindly tipped out a basket of ticket stubs onto the mud, which have added to the mess. Around us, rickshaws come and go, as do motorcycles with sidecars (a new one for us), and the odd sparkling new car, all Ford Kias for some reason. The stalls around the perimeter are opening up for breakfast; the one next to us is serving steaming noodle soup, and there’s someone barbecuing meat in the distance. You can feel the day’s just getting started, following a familiar routine – the ice man comes round with a flatbed loaded with bags of frozen slush, shovelling them out into buckets for the stalls; a poor mother and her two sons wheel through their cart laden high with woven bamboo baskets each full of plastic to be recycled for a pittance; and a loudspeaker in the distance make some echoing propaganda claim about a candidate in the upcoming election before the music picks up again and relative laziness of Lao resumes.

The bus last night was probably our craziest so far, its interior a sixties throwback of brown faux marble, studded multicoloured gemstone lights, and windows with a pink tassel fringe. It was certainly cosy too, with what were effectively small double bunk beds each side of the aisle, Laura and I having just one to share. The suspension didn’t exactly make it an easy ride, but we both appreciated having a fully flat bed, even if seatbelts and more room to move would have been a bonus!


Our bus out of the 60s

After Nong Khiaw, we stopped for a couple of days fun in the cultural playground that is Luang Prabang. Quietly pottering between Wats and then soaking up the sunset is a great way to spend time. Each morning at dawn, monks pour out of their monasteries and down the streets for ‘alms giving’, an age-old tradition where locals line up to give each monk a small food offering, them making a religious contribution and the monks demonstrating that they are leading a devout life without possessions. The monks collect the alms in metal pots, eating the food when they return to the monastry. There are a lot of monasteries in town and so this is a big daily event, with the streets full of monks draped in bright orange, processing in groups down prearranged routes. However, I don’t think we’d quite prepared ourselves for what a tourist spectacle it has become, with the opportunity for a photo opportunity very much overriding the religious devotion. Our guidebook provides a stern warning not to participate unless you’re actually Buddhist, and then to be very respectful in what you do. Sadly this didn’t seem to have got through to a lot of tourists, many of whom had plenty of flesh showing and were buying cheap rice from the roadside stalls before queuing up to be photographed making a show offering. We’d read that in the past monks have protested against this pollution of their religious ceremony, but that the authorities had instructed them to continue as it’s an important tourist draw to the town, threatening that otherwise they’d be replaced with a false procession just for show. Who knows how true that is, but this is certainly the bad sort of tourism!

Monks receiving dawn alms in Luang Prabang

We also took a trip to the Tat Kuang Si falls, a truely tropical set of cascades and shimmering turquoise plunge pools. The beautiful sunshine re-emerged, and it felt like a glorious summer’s day back home, with the ice cold water refreshing if slightly shocking when we both went for a quick swim. The water was a brilliant shade of blue, and we had a peaceful ten minutes soaking up the atmosphere, and floating near the small rapids. The falls were home to crowds of picnicking locals as well as tourists and it felt like we were back in a National Trust park, although with one exotic addition – bears! There’s a bear sanctuary at the park in an effort to protect the local furry population from poachers. They had lovely outdoor enclosures and we watched from the viewing platform as a huge bear stood on his back feet and turned a drum with his front feet to extract food.

We swam in the pool at the back

We stopped at a Hmomg minority village on the way back, a ‘village experience’ so customised for tourists that a well made concrete path led us on a route through the bamboo houses, lined on both sides with stalls staffed by local children selling handmade craft goods. Although we didn’t buy anything, we did spend a great 10 minutes afterwards playing with the kids, Laura spinning round with the girls clinging on to her arms, and me trying my hand (or more correctly, my feet) at Kataw, a hackie-sack keepie-upie game using a woven rattan ball which is as hard as it is hollow. Needless to say, my young instructor was a lot better than me, but I think they appreciated our enthusiasm!

Playing with the village kids. The ball is made of woven rattan

Having learnt the key moves, we thought it would be time to see how it’s done properly. Luang Prabang is currently hosting the Laos National Games, a four-yearly competition in 25 different sports. We popped our heads into the Kataw venue and saw a couple of frantic matches, played a little like volleyball, but where only the feet and head can be used. Most spectacularly there’s a move involving the front player (it’s two-a-side) doing a forward somersault during which they kick the ball downwards on the other side of the net. I still need to do a little more practice before I master that one!

The real thing - Kataw in action

We spent our final day hiring a couple of bikes and cycling around some of the sights further out. A real highlight was a visit to the weaving centre at OckPopTok, where they have a demonstration on how the complex patterns are made and what natural dyes are used. Unfortunately most of the weavers were out while we were there, so it was a bit of guesswork; reading up on how it’s done via Wikipedia is now on our to-do list!

As we left town for Vientiane, fireworks were filling the sky, marking the opening ceremony for the Laos Games. It was an impressive display, all the more so for us as when it finished with deafening screamers and a huge finale of rockets we were in a rickshaw about 50m away from the ridge they were being launched from! Only seven months until the Olympics and London will be doing the same thing – although I’m guessing Kataw hasn’t made it the list of sports quite yet.



A final sunset over Vientiane