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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Freedom Angels at the Floating Markets

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Check out my article that appeared in the most recent issue of the Gold Coast Gazette !

Kilometers away from the smog of Saigon and my jet lag finally receding, I reached the Mekong Delta’s city of Cân Thó. My travel companion, Julia, and I met a local woman named Hà who agreed to take us, along with a newlywed Israeli couple, to the floating markets the following day. The city is famous for them: around 6am every morning, merchants meet on the river (large boats for selling, small for buying) to bargain on goods, namely fruits and vegetables. The experience is worth hiring a boat for, and Hà and her sisters have been guiding tourists through the river for years. Their boats fit up to four people, so the tours are intimate and authentic; the women are proud to share their vast knowledge of the city’s markets, waterways, factories, and produce with travelers.

At 5am, we walked along the river with Hà’s sister, Rose, our guide for the day’s journey. Our group followed her down an alleyway in the dark, where the strong, buttery aroma of Vietnamese coffee woke us from our predawn daze. The Vietnamese begin their day early; from my guesthouse balcony, I saw groups of locals exercising around the Ho Chi Minh Statue as early as 4am. For the markets, it is necessary to begin early for the top choice produce (and for us to beat the tourist crowds).

The four travelers were seated in a simple boat with a three blade, coconut sized propeller connected to a wooden paddle. As the sun rose over the Mekong, Rose pointed out the different types of boats that passed by and made us jewelry out of freshly cut bamboo – a lovely gimmick of the sisters’ tours. Rose asked about New York and the “Freedom Angel” (Statue of Liberty), while telling us all about the culture and superstitions on the river. The many boats with painted red eyes were an old tool used to fool the crocodiles that once inhabited the waters. Upon seeing an owl just before sunrise, Julia’s hoots were scolded by Rose. “That is very bad luck, you cannot make the sound of the owl!” she said. The fisherman believe that if the owl hoots at them, they will have an unlucky catch. Thankfully, our day continued on without a hitch.

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After a quick stop for fuel (Rose called it the boat’s beer), we were at the city’s largest market, Cá Rêin, by 6am. Truly, we were alone among locals, acting as on lookers apart from a few pineapples the Israeli’s purchased for 10,000 VND (about 50 cents). The hoard of boats was unlike anything I’d seen, a site so unexpected and warming that it was hard to do anything but sit in awe. The peaceful way the Vietnamese exchanged goods was reminiscent of old friends meeting over a (very early) morning coffee.

Rose had much more planned for us, as we had paid $15 USD each for seven hours with her as our guide. The driver expertly navigated through thick jungle full of tiny river pathways which our boat could barely fit down. Apart from a local who drove by with three spotted pigs in the bow of his ship, we were utterly alone. With the motor cut, the
silence within the sounds of the swamp hummed our insignificance. We pulled up to the dock of a family owned noodle and rice factory around 7am, where production had been in full swing for hours. The rice patties drying in the rising sun fulfilled a quintessential image I’ve always held of Vietnam, and to have it validated was comforting so far from home.

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As the morning progressed, we disembarked from the boat and walked through jungle and rice fields. To shade my face, the driver gave me his conical hat, made from the leaves of the coconut trees that surrounded us. Our late breakfast was served at a family home deep within the jungle, where Julia and I ordered coconuts to drink. After sharing shrimp rolls wrapped in rice paper and fried tofu with sliced cucumbers, we all napped in hammocks before returning to our boat for the hour long return.

Back on shore, we settled up with Rose and our fantastical morning came to an end just before noon. On the walk back to our guesthouse, a small child ran after me, asking for the bamboo cricket Rose had made for us, a token he seemed used to receiving from Hà’s guests. To find Hà and her sisters, visit the Tây Hô guesthouse, where they are well known.

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