Tuesday, April 17, 2012

From Champasak to Don Khong, Siphandon - The Journey, Not the Destination

It was the morning of my departure from Champasak. The images of 4,000 little islands started flashing like a slide show in my mind. Destination Siphandon, the riverine archipelago south of Pakse. I was headed towards its biggest island, Don Khong.

I waited with my baggage outside Champasak Guesthouse. My bus voucher says I was supposed to go to Inthira Hotel where the mini-bus would depart, but my guest house host told me the bus was gonna come to pick me up. The minibus – a van, actually, came at 8:15 bearing 3 French couples which included a touchy-feely gay lovers. Honeymoon, perhaps? I was the last pick up. The lone passenger seat was reserved for me, thank heavens. 

We proceeded to Anouxa Guesthouse at the next village of Ban Mungsen where a boat would take us across the Mekong to Ban Muang at the east coast. We descended down a steep stair until I saw the other travelers, one of whom was the Swedish guy I avoided yesterday; the one who loved the Thais because “they’re very open” – and by that he meant they were welcoming to sexually-starved foreigners. Shivers! What’s worse, I had to sit behind him. Though I avoided conversation, he soon started chatting away and I was too civil not to reply. God forbid that he starts getting plans of heading towards the Philippines and feast on my compatriot’s “openness” as well.

Morning traffic at Champasak. This is one of their very few commuter trucks.

Taking the boat at Anouxa Guesthouse's jetty to Ban Muang at the east coast of the Mekong.

In Ban Muang, we had to wait for 15 minutes for our next ride to Hat Xai Khun, said to take 2 hours. Our mini-bus was a van that came at 5 past 9 AM. I took my seat beside the door and my baggage was thrown alongside a gigantic rubble of backpacks. We were packed. Mraz’s “Mr. Curiosity” was humming inside my head like the virtual thief in the night. The tune calmed me while we traveled for 1 ½ hours to our ferry stop to Hat Xai Khun, the village where boat rides to Don Kong could be taken.

Upon arrival, a vibrant old guy named Mr. Phoumy – of “Villa Kang Khong”, he would emphasize – zeroed in on me. It actually sent red flags, but I was open to whatever offers he had to say. He was peddling day tours to a waterfalls that, until then, didn’t catch my radar – Khone Pha Phaeng. In situations like these, one has to be very cautious, nay vigilant. But this doesn't mean you have to shut your mind altogether. What if this were legit?

We paid 15,000 kip for our boat (catamaran) ride to get to Don Kong west of Mekong, which was cheaper by 5K from our river cross to Champasak. While floating away on the murky river, I noticed various temples perched on a hill, including a gigantic Golden Buddha staring down on us. I was pleased. I have indeed read about this gigantic statue that rose from a temple on a hill overlooking Hat Xai Khun and the environs. I love it when these images materialize from didactic readings. Objects, people, places come to life right before your eyes. This is why I document transits like these. In all my travels, I have learned that it is the journey that truly matters, not the destination. It is the journey that takes people to their destination – then it’s downhill from there. Everything else becomes icing on the cake.

My boarmates from Ban Mungsen from the west coast to Ban Muang at the east coast. The Swedish guy is the silver haired gentleman 2nd from left.

Mini-bus aka van carrying travelers from all over! This was essentially a Caucasian ride and its lone Filipino guest - moi! :)

The mini-bus from Ban Muang to Hat Xai Khun.

Waiting room at Hat Xai Khun, the village across Don Khong.

Mr. Phoumy sells days tours to Don Det, Khone Pha Phaeng, etc.

Serene Mekong

Don Khong was poster child of lethargy at 10:30 AM. I clambered up a steep mount of hill to get to the main street of the village which had more establishments than Champasak, but the somnolent atmosphere was similar. I finally saw the bridge I was to cross, and it wasn’t even 10 steps to get to the other side. From there I was ushered into a row of guesthouses that, on fast glance, looked deserted unless you looked closer.
Mr. Phoumy succeeded to lure me to a day tour that afternoon. 

To this day, I keep wondering why out of all the travelers in the boat, he had to stake his business savvy on me. Heck, Caucasians surrounded us; they had dollars, euros, kroners and zlotys painted on their faces. I was proudly third-world economy, with my measly Philippine peso. I hardly look affluent with my worn out jeans, crumpled shirt and worn (but expensive - excuse me - pair of shoes). Mr. Phoumy was indeed legit! I asked around to be sure. But sometimes, it’s the vigorous peddling that gets your defenses up.

This leg of my travel was the only place I did not book for an accommodation, and I miss days like these. It was exciting yet things were bound to unravel in the most unexpected way. Agoda didn’t seem to have hotels in Don Khong. LP listed several guest houses and I wanted a name that’s quite respected in their trade – Pon’s River Guesthouse. This establishment offers inexpensive transfers and day tours to contiguous areas; even private rides back to Pakse and beyond. They would never scam tourists, was my impression. Heck, I’d stay here!
Turns out, Pon’s River Guesthouse has opened another swanky new hotel a few meters north of here. This was for the well heeled, and I am just on rubber shoes! ;)

Don Khong's enviable jetty under the tree.

Fried rice with vegetables and chicken at 20,000 kip.

Don Khong's short bridge leads you to a row of guest houses and riverside restaurants northwards including Pon's River Guesthouse (below)

I got a room at the 2nd floor and chose the 80,000 kip AC room – or 160,000 kip for 2 days. Non-AC was a measly 50,000 kip and since I never paid for any accommodation since I started my travels in this leg, I didn’t mind a wee bit of “luxury”. I got Room 9 – a spacious spotless television-free, mosquito net-bearing room with 2 single beds: one for me, one for my baggage. :)

The sun had been blaring its heat for the past week so I knew an AC would comfort my tired feet. After a quick shower and a 15 minute nap, I hopped out and went to the riverside restaurant of my hotel, amusingly labeled “Pon’s Liver”. I ordered “fried rice with vegetable and chicken” (20,000 kip – curiously 1/4th the price of my room) and a coke (5,000 kip – the price of my Mekong crossing). I was to meet Mr. Phoumy for my foray into Khone Pha Phaeng which is said to be Asia’s longest riverine cascade. It dawned on me that I saw a painting of this river cascade back at Saythong Restaurant in Champasak. I started to get excited.

I was to meet Mr. Phoumy by the tree beside the bridge at 1 PM. My afternoon adventure starts there.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

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