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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On the Road: Part II

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We arrived with empty stomachs in Thakhek and stopped for Laos BBQ, one of the best traditional dishes of Laos and a slight variation on the Vietnamese hot pots we had become accustomed to.

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In Laos – instead of a full pot of boiling water as in the Vietnamese hot pot above – a small, circular grill (resembling a bunt pan) is brought to the table and placed on top of an open coal clay pot. Boiling water is poured into the base of the grill, which is used to cook the wide variety of raw greens that come with the dish, including cabbage, lettuce, basil, Lao mints, and enochi mushrooms. Many restaurants also provide glass noodles and an egg for cooking. The menu had a variety of meats to choose from, including our beloved chicken hearts. Since we just had our fill, we chose beef instead, a safe choice when we were spending the next few days living out of our car. The meat is brought to the table raw, and the conical, “bunt” part of the grill is used for cooking it. After basting with the cubes of fat provided, you stick the thinly sliced meat on the grill. Both the greens and the meat cook quickly, and a good variety goes in your bowl. Each Lao BBQ restaurant makes their own special sauce to top the dish off, which can be doctored with extra chillies, lime, and garlic. Of course, a few Beer Laos were also necessary after a long day on the road.

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We slept in our car that night, as finding a decently clean place to stay came at too much of a price. The rising sun woke me from my surprisingly good sleep, and we continued our journey south in the early morning. I drove for many hours through mountainous terrain, open rice fields, and tiny, one road villages. Following our not so trusty map, we took a route of dirt, muddy roads that even Ginger had trouble getting down. It would have been hard to navigate regardless of the map, since there were no road signs or highway markers.

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Searching for the Tad Lor waterfalls (pronounced Tad Lo), we hit a road made exclusively of rocks and realized, an hour later, that it had not yet been completed. We stared at the broken bridge, while a group of locals stared after us, amused. Further down the river, there was a running ferry for motorbikes, supported merely by three canoes. Pointing to our car, we asked if there was any way to get it across. The ferry operators laughed, pointing across the river to a car dock that was still being built. Turning around became the only option, but it meant we would not get to Tad Lor before sundown. Instead, we drove straight on to Paksong, a town a bit south of the waterfalls and high in the mountains. With the altitude change, I had my first taste of cold weather in nearly five months, such a shock to my system that I wore a sweatshirt and pants at the open air restaurant of our guesthouse. We stayed at a haunted house on a hill with a steep winding driveway, which turned out to actually be a nice hotel called Phuthaveda. Though we did not plan any accommodation ahead of time, the entire south was so empty that this was never a problem. Paksong was a charming mountain town compared to the filth of Thakhek, and having a taste of fall was a pleasant surprise.

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Before bed, I went to ask the owner about the roads on our map to ensure we would not get stuck again the following day. He could not speak English, but called to a man staying there who, I found out, was to become a monk in the morning. He was born and raised in Laos, but had spent many years studying in Chicago. From him, I heard of the terrible Pakse plane crash that had flown right over our heads without us realizing – we had been out of wifi for many days and so were completely disconnected from the world outside of our car. The monk also helped me understand our map, pointing out which roads we could actually drive down, and I felt confident in reaching the waterfalls in the morning. We went to bed in sweatshirts and socks, ready for another early morning drive.

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