Do Go Chasing Waterfalls

Here is Part III of my road trip in southern Laos, as published in the Gold Coast Gazette !

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We had been driving for days, stopping at some of the most spectacular sites southern Laos has to offer. I wished for a rental car many times during the endless and unpredictable bus rides of our journey. Once I vocalized this thought, a plan fell into place too easily, and suddenly we were setting off in our Ford SUV for a road trip to the south.

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On the third day, after spending the night in the town of Paksong, we tried for the second time to reach the Tad Lor waterfalls, known as the most impressive in the country. The day before, we unknowingly took a route down an uncompleted road; our map contained many routes that turned out to be under construction or impassible during the wet season. After staring longingly at the half built bridge for a few minutes, we reassessed our plan. The path from Paksong, only an hour and a half from Tad Lor, luckily consisted of passable roads, which I confirmed with a monk I met the night before. On the way, we did take one sign too seriously, ending up in a tiny village consisting of a single 60m/200ft mud road. Stuck in the mud, I attempted a three point turn on a “road” the same size as the SUV, while an elderly woman with long silver hair jovially laughed at my effort.

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The Tad Lor waterfalls (pronounced Tad Lo) are a group of three, in order of size: Tad Hang, Tad Lor, and Tad Soung. We reached the village of Ban Saenvang, which sits at the base of Tad Hang, hoping to book an elephant trek with the Tad Lor Resort. Unfortunately, these only run during high season, and the only person we could find on the resort was asleep in the restaurant. The entire town was nearly deserted which came as no surprise, considering throughout our road trip we had been alone among nature and a few locals.

Since the elephants were off limits, we began trekking into the jungle toward Tad Lor and Tad Soung. There was only one discernible path down to the riverside, but after scaling the rocks for a while, we could not find a way forward. This happened a lot throughout our adventurous drive, as many paths were drowned from the monsoon season. We were on the verge of abandoning our trek when a Lao man carrying a machete appeared in the forest. He pointed us up the hill, where he had cleared a very steep, muddy, and unstable path which we had no choice but to climb.

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We trekked alone through waterfall, mud, and fields for a few hours, trying to remember our path through the jungle and keeping the river on our left. Locating Tad Lor was relatively straightforward, and we stopped to cool down in its waters. After our swim, we sat in the shade and watched as a local went net fishing. When we resumed our trek, the discernible path split into many and we found ourselves going in circles. Eventually, we crossed a village where every hut had laid out big baskets of red chillies to dry in the fiery sun. The foot path to Tad Soung, we learned from the villagers, had been flooded. Disappointed but exhilarated from the morning trek, we made our way back to Ban Saenvang. There, we learned of another, drivable path to Tad Soung. Though we could have cut a three hour trek into a five minute car ride, the adventure of the morning was well worth it, as walking off the path tends to be.

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As a light rain began to fall, we parked the car outside another small village and walked toward the largest of the waterfalls. At the base, a young boy asked if we knew how to swim and gestured for us to follow him. He guided us through the jungle, climbing the mountain with ease as we slipped in the mud. When we reached the top of Tad Soung, the boy and I stood on a small cliff against the rocks, two tiny figures compared with the massive falls that misted us. We looked down the steep descent to the rocks and river below, and I felt a sense of calm amongst the roaring of the falls.

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To hear more about my road trip in Laos, check out the series at mleaciampi.wordpress.com.

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Laos: Land of the Wholehearted People

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This slogan for the country’s beverage of choice, “Beer Laos: Beer of the wholehearted people”, says it all. Laos, a gem of a country, tucked away into the center of Southeast Asia, offers the best beer and most wonderful people in Asia. Before beginning my journey, the little I knew about Laos consisted of whispers of bowling parties and real pizza in the northern city of Luang Prabang. We expected to spend two weeks in the country, and ended up spending nearly that in Luang Prabang alone.

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The word “city” is used loosely in Laos. The country’s major city, Vientiane, is easily seeable in one day and is almost laughably small for a capital. It’s size is not to the city’s discredit though; Vientiane is a fun and welcoming place, though most tourists seem to overlook it in favor of the obviously charming Luang Prabang. Especially during non-tourist season and after a month of trekking through Vietnam, Luang Prabang’s laid back atmosphere did become very hard to leave. This isn’t to say the only thing to do there is to lay on lounge chairs overlooking the MeKong and drink Beer Laos (though I did spend many an afternoon doing just this). The wilderness surrounding Luang Prabang offers a wide variety of activities for nature enthusiasts; I climbed (and fell down) a waterfall, rode elephants and went on a two hour kayaking trip through rapids.

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Vientiane has its own sites to offer, most notably the Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), a sculpture garden of ancient looking Buddhist Figures. Julia and I explored the grounds primarily alone, arriving with locals by tuk-tuk. The large mouth (pictured below) at the front of the park symbolizes the devil, and visitors are meant to ascend from the bottom of the sculpture, hell, to the top, heaven. Unaware, I quickly made my way to the top, and then descended the center spiral staircase to the dark caverns below. Even before knowing the symbolism, I understood the intended effect by the eeriness of my descent.

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Also worth a visit is the Ang Nam Reservoir, 1.5 hours north of Vientiane. The water was very clean and warm, and the entire reservoir is circled by large limestone masses similar to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. In this case, we had an oasis to ourselves, and our weekend was spent swimming, hanging out with some French students, eating at floating restaurants and just relaxing. It was extremely beautiful and secluded, and we had a view of the sunrise from our room’s balcony.

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The Laos pizza rumor turned out to be true – not just in Luang Prabang but in Vientiane as well. The first real pizza we had in a month was from a French Canadian with a nameless restaurant, currently ranked #1 in the city. The backyard, wood oven spot is outdoor seating only and is not viewable from the street. To find it, follow the white “PIZZA” sign hanging in the driveway. Certainly not New York style pizza, but the speciality pies, especially the bacon and onion, finally quelled my craving. In Vientiane, Le Provencal, a quaint French restaurant on the far side of the fountain, gave us our second taste of home. Though I would normally attest to the fact that only Italians and New Yorkers know anything about pizza, I must say, in Laos at least, the French are doing something right.

The French influence from the colonial period lent to the delicious western food we were able to find in Laos, but luckily the French, in this case, let the Laos keep their own culture as well. Laos food is both unique in Asia and also incredible. Julia and I took a cooking class with Tamarind Restaurant, and had the privilege of learning to create this delicious food ourselves. My favorite, Koy/Laap, consists of medium rare or rare ground meat (pork, beef, fish, bison), and a wide variety of herbs and spices, including Lao garlic, spring onion (scallions), lemongrass, mint, and three kinds of basil, which you mash together with fish sauce and lime/lemon juice. The Lao typically make their Laap, like most of their food, extremely spicy with fresh chillies, the way I always prefer my food. Laap is to be eaten with sticky rice, Lao style, which is to ball the rice up into bite size pieces and dip it into the sauce. Sticky rice is a staple on all Laotian tables, and accompanies almost ever dish.

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The night markets in both Luang Prabang and Vientiane are the best I’ve seen, especially for food. The grilled whole fish stuffed with lemongrass and topped with fresh lime/lemon juice became our cheapest and favorite dinner. Of course, no meal is complete without a big Beer Laos for sharing. Our most adventurous eating experience at the markets was to eat chicken hearts; served at almost every stall in Vientiane and grilled to perfection, these little muscles just taste, as should be expected, like chicken. Julia and I both enjoyed our first heart, and went back for seconds.

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Being in Laos also rekindled, probably for the worse, my love of dessert. In Luang Prabang, the most incredible thing we ate at the night market are coconut custards- piping hot, with a crusted outside and gooey inside. In Vientiane, the pancake stands sent Julia and I on nightly hunts – they are similar to crepes but made from balls of dough and flattened out even thinner. The cart owner then slathers both sides with butter, fills the center with either banana or an egg, folds it up, adds more butter, then takes it off the grill and tops it with sweetened condensed milk and sugar. This is how I left Vientiane 5 lbs heavier than when I arrived from Vang Vieng, where all bad food goes to die.

My greatest advice on Laos, however, is not on the food or the sites, but simply this: get here before the magic of the country is gone! Unfortunately, Laos is being turned in to a Chinese tourist destination with a new railroad being built all the way through the country. In the next year, Laos will likely be overrun with foreigners. The Lao locals I spoke to were not thrilled, to say the least, and I cannot say I am either.

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Though our plan following a stint in Vientiane was to head to Cambodia, we decided, an hour before our flight, that the extreme flooding experienced there made a visit unwise at best. So, we got a refund on our ticket (thanks to a little help from a miracle worker) and spent the afternoon remapping our plan. We had flights booked all throughout November, and had to be to Langkawi by Nov 19th to meet my cousin Fiona. Myanmar, which only recently reopened to public tourism, was our first thought, but there are no ATMs throughout the country and getting a visa is more involved than we are capable of from Laos. The only bills you can even possibly trade for are crisp USD from 2006 or after, which we did not come prepared with. I’ve come to find in general that having US dollars in this part of the world is like carrying gold. You often cannot get through borders without it, but the banks here only buy, they do not sell. When we need bills for the border, we have to go to the black market – oddly a common practice here.

My number one choice was something I had mentioned as wishful thinking a few days before – to rent a car and take a road trip down the south of Laos. I had heard from many locals that it is the most fascinating and remote part of country. It holds one of Southeast Asia’s largest caves, some very small and authentic villages and Si Phan Don, the “four thousand islands” – a group of very beautiful islands that are closed off by mountainous surroundings. The water is meant to be very clear and we plan to go fishing and climbing with some locals. By now, my love of Laos has run so deep that I wanted any excuse to stay. So, let the road trip commence – it will be our greatest adventure yet!

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