Perhaps it’s only because ‘Savanakhet’ sounds like ‘Savannah,’ but it reminded me of a slow, Southern town in the States. On the day I visited, the streets were nearly empty, the pavement hummed in the constant heat, and people lurked around in what shady nooks they could find. I tried to locate the local museum (Savanakhet also has a dinosaur museum, which is hilarious to me, though I didn’t attempt to visit it). I’d heard the museum was an old building with goats in front, and you had to turn on the lights for yourself. But there were several buildings in the area fitting that description, and the heat annihilates my sense of purpose. If things don’t work out immediately, I think to myself, ‘Well, why would I ever do this? It’s not easy.’ And I give up right away.
As I was listlessly looking for the museum, I found myself sucked into a Laos…well, I eventually managed to establish that it was a Laos housewarming party. I was there for about two hours, dancing endlessly and doing shots of beer (yes, they do shots of beer in Laos – China, too). Laos dancing is as relaxed as everything else in Laos, and involves a lot of rocking back and forth and paddling your hands in the air in front of you. Two young girls adopted me and taught me how to dance, and a pretty cute guy who said his name was Tiger (I don’t know about that) sat by me and asked me the same question all day long. I never did understand him, but he never gave up (it sounded like, ‘You making hum for one?’). Every so often, I’d get to sit down for a minute, but then the band (a keyboardist with speakers) would call me up to lead off the dance again, and away we’d all go. After I’d been there about an hour, a very tall fellow from Portland happened by and was absorbed. Everyone assumed we were together, and when they learned we weren’t, they all thought we ought to immediately get together, because, as Tiger explained, ‘Two Americans in Laos!’ Just as I was beginning to wonder how I’d ever get out of this party, one of the girls turned to me and said, ‘You go to your guesthouse now!’ And that was that.
That night, I met a British gal named Louise at my guesthouse, and we agreed to travel together to Champasak the next day. Sounded simple enough, but that simple decision was the beginning of two days of confusing, exhausting travel on jam-packed, constantly stopping public buses, ferries, tuk-tuks and trucks. Each mode of transport had to be (1) located (no small task) and (2) haggled over endlessly in the hot, hot sun.
‘One dollar, one person.’
‘One dollar?! That’s crazy! We paid less than that to come all the way here on the bus.’
‘Bus have many people, I have only twelve people in truck. One dollar, one person.’
‘It’s only three kilos!’
‘Then I see you walking.’
‘Come on, be fair. One dollar, two people.’
‘One dollar, one person.’
‘No. We’ll sit here all day.’
And so forth. At some point in all this traveling, Louise and I were joined by Portland from the party (Jason) and an Irish construction foreman named Aidan. The four of us stayed the night in Champasak, a very small town with the very ancient ‘Wat Phu’ not far outside it. The next morning, we cycled to Wat Phu, which is a Khmer wat built from the 6th to 13th centuries. It’s Laos’ second World Heritage sight, and it was worth the stopover. A long, crumbling road of flat stones leads to the first terrace, with a ruined “palace” on either side. Steep stairs lead from there up the mountain side to the main sanctuary, and behind that is a spring and some small shrines in the cliff face. There are many depictions of Shiva, Vishnu and other Hindu gods on many of the Buddhist temples in Laos (and Cambodia) because they began as Hindu Khmer structures.
After viewing the wat, we began day two of our traveling marathon, down to Don Khong, which is the largest of the islands in the Si Phaen Don, or 4000 Islands, area at the Southern tip of Laos. The traveling was just as arduous on day two, but we did manage to hitch a ride in the back of an Australian expat’s truck for a good ninety kilos, and oh, it was bliss – no stopping, no slowing, no live chickens under my feet. We got to Don Khong just in time to meet up with four Canadians and four Irish guys at a restaurant. Our party then drank every single beer in the kitchen, creating a terrifying glass forest on the table top. I left the group around 11, thinking they were hilarious and great fun. An hour later, the party relocated to a table just outside my open guesthouse window and raged on until 3:30, as I laid under my mosquito net thinking how much I hated them all and how not at all cute they were, and how Irish people and Canadians in general just suck.
Next morning, we all relocated to Don Dhet, which is a smaller, quainter (and thus more touristy) island south of Don Khong. I spent two and a half days there. It was lovely – I had a hammock on the porch overlooking the Mekong just outside my guesthouse door, and there was nothing to do all day but lie in it and read. At night, the town runs generators from six to about ten, and I’d shower and then walk up the pitch-black main drag and peer in the occasional lit bars clogged with Westerners until I found the Irish lads (who became funny again once I’d slept a full night). I’d have dinner and a drink or two, and then tiptoe back to my guesthouse (which had a ten o’clock curfew) and climb over the porch rails and down into the center courtyard. Every morning, the woman who ran my guesthouse would grill me, trying to figure out when I’d gotten back and how I’d gotten in.
‘Last night, you walk walk walk walk? You open gate yourself? You come in through gate? Walk walk walk…down there? What time?’
‘I don’t know. Must have been before 10 – gate was open.’
On Wednesday morning, I got on a minibus to go to the Cambodian border. The road there was…well, it wasn’t. It was not so much a road as a great deal of holes strung together, and before we’d gone very far, the driver jerked off the road into a muddy ditch, tipping the whole minibus over to a terrifying angle and miring it there. We all got out. A public bus happened by. The public bus was waved over and a rope was tied from its rear bumper to something under the minibus. The public bus was so rusted and ancient, you could see right through it to the other side of the road. It started up and drove forward, and whatever the rope was tied to immediately broke off and fell in the road. The public bus took its rope back and drove on. Another minibus was brought and bags began to be unloaded. A long, long time after that, we arrived at the border, and another day of hard traveling officially began. I’d paid ahead to go all the way to Siem Reap in the Northeast, as traveling in Cambodia isn’t too simple. We drove (in various minibuses) until 9 last night over the most unbelievably terrible roads. The minibus could only go about 20 mph and had to weave all over the road continually to avoid the worst of the potholes, and every so often it would veer to the edge and tip precariously. And then the oncoming traffic and the dogs and the nighttime driving…I kept my hands over my face most of the time. We finally arrived in Kompong Cham (we had to go nearly as far South as Phnom Penh on the ‘new’ highway (!) and then back North to Siem Reap, because the roads going straight West from the border to Siem Reap are too bad to travel on. We spent the night in a very filthy hotel and then got on a bus to Siem Reap this morning.
I am very glad to be here. Siem Reap is the city outside Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s number one (and pretty much only) tourist attraction, and nearly everyone in Cambodia has descended on Angkor trying to get in on that gravy train. Getting off the bus, we were all swarmed by dozens of moto drivers waving signs and banners, and our bags which they were carrying off and putting in their motos. It was beyond alienating. The deal is, they give you a free ride to whatever guesthouse in hopes that you’ll then hire them to drive you around Angkor for the next day or so. The trick is to find a good driver who speaks English well, and who won’t screw you. I have joined forces with a Canadian girl named April, who is also traveling alone and wants to do three days in Angkor, and we found a really cool moto driver. Actually, he found us – as soon as we’d grabbed our bags, it started pelting down rain so hard we were in his moto and under the rain flaps before we knew what was up. We’ve hired him for tomorrow, and are supposed to leave for Angkor at the terrifying hour of 5 a.m. to see the sunrise over the wats. I’ll let you know how that goes.
(Click here for more photos from Savanakhet, Champasak and Si Phaen Don.)