Saturday, May 9, 2009


1. Day 13 and 14 were 9 and 10 May respectively. Our plan was to spend about 2.5 days in Southern Laos before crossing over to Cambodia on 10 May afternoon. Day 12 was spent travelling and visiting Wat Phu Champasak. This is how we spent the remaining 1.5 days in Southern Laos.

2. Our car had not been properly washed since we started the trip. This time, we really needed to get the car washed, as it looked embarassingly dirty from the previous day's trip to Champasak. With the help of the hotel staff we located one in Pakse and after checking out of the hotel proceeded to look for it. We had no regrets. This was the most thorough car wash I had seen in my years of owning a car, in what looked like a service run by the family, parents and kids. With the car parked up the ramp, they used a power jet to wash the whole car, including the under-carriage, vacuumed the inside including every nook and corner, cleaned the seats, blackened the tyres etc, all for US$4. For a while (until it got dirty again, which would be quite soon), our car must be the cleanest car in the province of Champasak.

3. We spent the morning travelling up the Bolaven Plateau, which was located just to the East of Pakse, to look for a couple of waterfalls. At the height of some 1200 m above sea level, the area is famous for its cool climate, dramatic waterfalls and coffee plantations. It is reputed to produce some of the best coffee beans in the world. At Paksong, which was the main town on the Plateau, we were hoping to visit some coffee tasting outlets (which would have been a very natural thing to do), but were disappointed.

4. Our first stop was Tat Yuang waterfall, a twin waterfall, some 40 m in height. Entrance fee was 5000 kips (less than US$1) per person. The waterfall is popular with locals and Thai tourists making short trip from across the border, and there we saw a number of tour buses, probably Thai tour groups. Sunny and I were prepared to take a dip and we brought our swimming trunks. Together with our director chairs, we descended carefully, one step at a time, to the bottom of the waterfall. The steps were made slippery by the spray from the waterfall. Before we reached the bottom, we were already wet. When we did get there, we found that we were the only ones. The rest of the visitors would just stop at the platform midway down the slope to see the waterfall and had their pictures taken. From this position they could not see the bottom, giving us the feeling that we were entirely on our own. Changing into our trunks, we proceeded to take a dip. This is a chance to see Sunny's golfer legs.

5. Our 2nd stop was Tad Fane Resort and to see Tad Fane waterfall. From the resort, we could see the waterfall plunging some 120 m, a spectacular view. We met 2 new friends there, Tatsuo Fukuoka (a medical student from Japan) and Chow Chin Yee (a Malaysian working in Poypet, Cambodia) who told us that it was only possible to see the waterfall from around the midpoint, and it was too dangerous to get to the bottom. In fact, Tatsuo just fell and had to be rescued, and losing some of his belongings. He was backpacking for 9 months, and before reaching Laos was in China and Vietnam. We had a nice chit-chat over a cup of Laos coffee.

6. After the waterfalls, we drove along Highway 16E to Paksong to look for lunch and Laos coffee. As it turned out, there were few eating places along the main road and we decided to try out a nice looking hotel on the hill, Pakxong Thevada Hotel, owned by Mdm Guo. We reckoned hotel must have food. We had a good Chinese lunch, almost like home cooked food. Hotel was developed on land leased from the government, and was well located to serve Vietnamese, Thais and Cambodians passing through Southern Laos.

7. After lunch, we proceeded South along Highway 13 to Ban Nakasang to take a boat ride to Don Det or Det Island. Don Det is located in a area called Si Phan Don or Four Thousand Islands. Located just before the Laos border, it is a cluster of many islands, big and small. Don Det is a major backpacker hangout, and as it expanded the development spilled over to the Don Khon, a bigger island to its South linked by a bridge. Other attractions in the area include more waterfalls and watching of dolphins. Sunny and I thought it would be interesting to have a taste of this popular backpacker hangout on Don Det. We left our car at Ban Nakasang, took a boat to Don Det for a one night stay.

8. Although it was low season, Don Det was already fairly crowded with many young caucasian backpackers. I could not imagine how packed the place would be during peak season. We could see some of them sun tanning at the boat landing area as we were coming in to land.

9. The backpackers go there to chill out, hang around with fellow backpackers, with some cycling around the islands in the day. Hotels and guest-houses lined the Northern coast, with supporting amenities like restaurants and a couple of shops providing internet and emails. The main street (if you call it street) is called Sunrise Boulevard.

10. The island is basically bursting at its seam, especially in the North, with the every inch of the Northern coastline taken up by hotels and guesthouses etc. Power was only available between 7 to 11 pm in the rooms, meaning no lights, no fan, no aircon in the room outside this window. And of course, definitely no internet. Think we were the only crazy ones who brought our laptops there.

11. We checked into Little Eden, a small guest house, for US$12 a night. As there was no twin sharing room, Sunny and I took up separate room for the first time since we started the trip. Of course, we slept early. Next morning, did qigong and after breakfast hired a bicycle each and cycled to Don Khon after crossing the bridge linking the 2 islands. Tracks were full of stones and pebbles, which made it very hard for the bump. Sunny said he had not sweated so much for a very long time.

12. After a quick wash up, we checked out of Little Eden, took a return boat ride and got back to the mainland by about 11 am. Before we crossed the border to Cambodia at about 2 pm, we decided to visit the nearby waterfall at Khon Pha Pheng and eat our lunch there, overlooking the waterfall. We took our barang barang (director chairs, portable stove, maggie mee, sardin etc), and followed a track down to the water not far from the water fall. Sunny did the cooking and we both agreed that the maggie mee had never tasted so good. Near to our spot, a fisherman was fishing with his net, and in less than half an hour must had caught some 7-8 fishes. Of the 3 waterfalls we saw in Southern Laos, this is the most spectacular.

13. After lunch, we took a dip in the water. At about 1.30 we packed our things and were quickly off the road to the Laos/Cambodia at Voen Kham/Dom Kralor and got there at about 2 pm.

Friday, May 8, 2009

To PAKSE, DAY 11 & 12

1. With our base in Pakse (we stay at Pakse Hotel), our first full day (Day 12. 8 May) in the Champasak area was dedicated to the visit of Wat Phu Champasak, a World Heritage Site.

2. Located some about 30 kms South of Pakse, Wat Phu is usually reached by travelling South along Highway 13 to Lak30, then turn right and travel a few kilometers to a ferry point. As Wat Phu is on the Western side of the Mekong River, people and vehicles are ferried across from here. Other than some waiting at the ferry point, the trip to Wat Phu should be straightforward, as pointed out by the hotel staff in Pakse Hotel.

3. However, our map shows us that we could cross the Mekong River by the Lao-Nippon Bridge at Pakse, travel West along Highway 16W (towards the Thai/Lao border crossing), and turn left at the vicinity of Phonlong and travel another 50 kms or so to Champasak and Wat Phu. Pointing out that the road to Champasak on the Western side of the Mekong is still largely laterite, staff at Pakse Hotel did not recommend this route.

3. With our Pajero we decided to give the Western route a try. The laterite tracks that we travelled (when we ventured away from Highway 13) on the previous day were not too bad. As it turned out, this Western route was really quite bad, with many potholes along the way. The trip took us a good two hours, covering some 60-70 kms. We only managed to reach Champasak for lunch at about 12. Midway, we decided to take a break. Hoping to make hot tea but we were disappointed that we had left the lighter and matches in the hotel. We settled for a relaxed moment in the shade of a tree and drinking bottled water from mess tins.

4. Until it is paved, the Western route to Wat Phu and Champasak is not recommended unless you are looking for fun with the 4 wheel drive.

5. After a quick lunch at Saythong Guest House and Restaurant which has a great view to the Mekong River and the Don Daeng island, we drove a short distance South to see Wat Phu. Declared a World
Heritage Site in 2001, parts of this temple could be traced back to the 5th century AD. Built originally as a Hindu temple, it was built, rebuilt and modified and like many other temples were converted to Buddhist temple 13th century. What we see today are remnants of the temple built around the 11 th century when it was part of the Khmer Empire which had its centre to the West at Angkor Wat.

6. Built with 3 levels at the foothill of Phu Kao, there was a fair amount of climbing up the steep staircases. Sunny said that the trip should be marketed to tourists as a fitness programme.

7. There was a good crowd of tourists visiting the site today, even though its the low season (we can understand why, its very hot), but mostly locals (could be Thai too, as I have difficulties differentiating them) and a handful of "falangs".
We asked for a tour guide to show us around the site but was told that such service was not available. As there was also no explanation boards on site, it would be useful to have a Lonely Planet book or its equivalent at hand.

8. The source of the sacred water is in the cave behind us in the photo on the immediate right. Washing with this water would bring good luck we were given to understand. Of course, we followed the locals and freshened up with the sacred water.

9. We left the site early at about 3.30 pm in order to catch a ferry to the Eastern side of the Mekong so as to avoid having to back track the tortuous 60-70 kms of dirt track. Heres the picture of the raft that carried us across the Mekong. (Our cameras were both flat, so we couldnt take a picture of the car on the raft. Pity)

10. The day before, Day 11 (7 May), we checked into Pakse Hotel (at about US$40 a night) at about 4 pm, some 200 kms South of Savannakhet. Travel along Highway 13 was easy, much like the earlier leg from Vientiane. We lost some time looking for a reservoir, traversing kms of dirt track off Highway 13. Surprising quite easy and enjoyable driving too. After a day of hard driving, our bodies needed rejuvenation. We had our 4 hands massage opposite Pakse Hotel for US$10 each.

11. Early morning, before we checked out of the hotel at Savannakhet, we went fishing at the Mekong River. Here you see 2 postures: an expert and an novice. Dont think you need to guess to see who is which.

A year ago, I would never have imagined that I would be fishing for the first time in the Mekong River. We did not catch any fish. You could see the director chairs that Gemma (Sunny's tai tai) bought which were put to good use.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


1. Set off this morning, 6 May, Day 10 of the journey, from Vientiane to Savannakhet, Central Laos. At about 400 km away, it is about mid-point to Pakse, our final destination in Southern Laos before we crossed over to Cambodia on 10 May. Highway 13 is a 2 lanes paved road, going down South all the way to Savannakhet. The road was surprisingly good, better than expected. We could see work has begun for it to be expanded to 4 lanes. Long stretches of dry padi field flanked both sides of the road, with small villages or isolated houses scattered along the way. Driving along this road would requre full attention as we encountered school children walking or cycling to schools, children playing near the road, and cows taking a morning walk.

2. We made a couple of stops along the way. At Ban Na, 82 km from Vientiane, we saw hype of activities at an open area near the road junction. Stall keepers in temporary tentages were busy preparing their food, games and retail stalls for some form of celebration later in the day. We took a stroll among the stalls. At the fruits stall, we just could not resist the durians there and bought one for 28 000 kips (about US$4). You could see Sunny about to try the durian here. Like the Thai, the durians are eaten when they are still dry, not quite as ripe as those preferred by Singaporeans. Sunny took a picture of this small boy and printed a copy for him. The kid looked a little lost but his parents were certainly thrilled.

3. We stopped at Tha Khaek for a quick lunch. This sleepy town was almost like a ghost town. Even the central Fountain Square looked empty (as you can see on the right). With some restoration and better maintenance, this square could be very charming. We had lunch at a corner "coffee shop", and Sunny demonstrated how a fried cricket should be eaten.

4. At about 4 pm, we reached Savannakhet and, after some hunting, found this new beautiful resort that we are currently staying, Daosavanh Resort & Spa Hotel, just opened a few months ago at US$50 a night. Located next to the Mekong River and facing West, it has a great sunset view of the Mekong.

5. We found time to take a dip in the jacuzzi while enjoying the sunset view. I can assure you that the 2 persons in the pool were Sunny and I and not any other combination.

6. Yesterday, Day 9, in Vientiane, Sunny and I carried a small back pack each to go sightseeing, using the Lonely Planet walking tour as a guide. No driving for the day, for the first time.

7. First stop was Patuxai, Vientiane's most prominent monument, sort of like the Arc de Triomphe of Paris. Some would describe this as "good from far but far from good". Built in 1962, the monument had deteriorated. A plague on the wall honestly said, "From a closer distance, it appears less impressive, like a monster of concrete". We climbed more than 200 steps (Sunny counted, I got distracted) to reach the top, to get a wonderful view of the city. Here, you could see the opening to the top and Sunny and I at the top of the monument. If given a good facelift, this monument could be attractive, befitting its status as the most prominent monument in Vientianne.

8. Another stop was the Morning Market. A huge complex; buzzy, crowded, and somewhat chaotic place, selling gold and jewellry, shoes, dresses, electronic goods etc. One stall that was particularly crowded was this one below. Guess what it was selling. GOLD jewellry. I supposed its a good way to hedge against
currency devaluation.

9. Another interesting stop we made was Sisaket Museum (or Wat Si Saket), temple with thousands of buddha figures. This was the only building left undamaged after Siamese forces completely destroyed Vientiane in 1827-28. Though it had deteriorated over the years, one could still see the sheer beauty of the buildings and the buddha statues. We sat in the sim for a few minutes and enjoyed the quietness. Overall, it was a solemn and sobering experience visiting this place, even for a foreigner like me.

10. We ended the day with a dinner at Kua Lao Restaurant, which
served wonderful Laotian food (and live cultural performance), and a drink at Khop Chai Deu Restaurant & Bar at Nam Phu Square where I had dinner with my STB colleagues some 5 years ago. It was just as crowded.

11. Day 11 (7 May), we will be off to Pakse to spend 3 days there; about 200 km away. There, we would see Champasak, a world heritage site, waterfalls etc.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


1. Other than getting the car ready for the trip and carrying the necessary car parts, carrying the appropriate items would also ensure a successful and enjoyable completion of driving trip. In drawing out the packing list, I consulted Jim Rogers books and of course the few rally friends I have. As I did not expect to traverse over large tract of uninhabited areas, there was no need for me to carry items for camping out. The main items carried are:

(1) Navigation items. Here GPS is crucial. I bought a Garmin 255W at cost of about S$450, inclusive of maps for Indochina and China, from from Dennis Lee of Cool Asia, Thomson Road; a friendly and helpful chap. With a set imported from Taiwan, he reckoned there would be less compatibility problem with China map. The more advanced model is 760, which would cost about S$800, with route planning, blue tooth and MP3. As I do not need blue tooth and MP3 and route planning is a good to have, I could live with a cheaper model and save the money. GPS is a very useful tool to navigate through cities, and I would consider it a must have. Having said this, traditional maps and compass are still essential, as GPS does not really provide the big picture, and they are important back-up should the GPS fail.

(2) Laptops, for posting of blogs, emails, search etc.

(3) Steering wheel lock, anti-theft.

(4) Torches and fire extinguisher, for emergency use.

(5) Medical supplies. Had flu and typhoid jabs (Sunny is additionally taking malaria tablets) before departure. Carried medicine for headaches, fever, diarrhoea, colds etc, as well as personal daily medications.

(6) Documents. Carnet, international driving licence, visas, and support and facilitation letters from Embassies.

(7) Music. iPod with iTrip and some CDs.

(8) Travel guide books. We have the necessary Lonely Planet books.

(9) Souvenirs and gifts. STB souvenirs (caps, merlion key chains, and bags) courtesy of STB, and US$1 notes.

(10) Cameras and portable colour printer, for on the spot printing (belonging to Sunny).

(11) DC to AC convertor, for charging of electronic equipment, e.g. iPod or camera, using the cigarette ligher port; loaned from Leslie Chang.

(12) Portable stove, for cooking instant noodles etc, with 2 foldable director chairs

(13) Many copies of passport size pictures and additional copies of important documents, e.g. passport, vehicle log card etc.

(14) Tool kit, spanner, razor, screw driver etc.

(15) Fishing rods (its Sunny's hobby), golf shoes ( for game of golf when we can find time).

(16) Satellite Phone, courtesy of Michael Ma who had kindly loaned it to me for the duration of the trip, plus many other outdoor items.

(17) Makan stuff, biscuits, chips, sweets, instant noodles etc, to keep ourselves awake while driving.

(18) Personal items, shirts, pants, shorts, shoes, sun glasses, reading glasses, sweater, toiletries, insect repellent (bought one that works on frequency).