Some of the best experiences come unplanned, though most times you end up wishing you knew more before embarking on them. These experiences end up hastily seen and enjoyed, but a little less worth the time - or money - you allot for them. This is why planning is imperative in my journeys. However, when you're on the road, things aren't always ideal.
Upon my arrival in the big island of Don Kong, I readily prepped myself up for an afternoon adventure. After the requisite trepidation, I was finally convinced to get one of the day tours offered to me by Mr. Phoumy (see previous post) who peddles these trips from Don Kong.
TIME IS RELATIVE
By 1 PM, after checking my mails at the nearby internet cafe (one of the most expensive rates in Laos - at 20,000 kip an hour), I waited for Mr. Phoumy at the big tree beside the bridge. Just below this perch was a patch of mudground that subs as a jetty. It turns out that the concept of time is relative in this place. 1 PM was similar to 1:30 or 2.
Three blond girls arrived, with their teutonic noses up the air and crumpled shirts that haven't seen the laundromat for a couple of months. While I understand the realm of backpacking, I could never go around smelling like there's a dead rat clipped down my backpack. In fact, I usually end up showering more often when away than when in Manila. I am allergic to the stench of dried perspiration. And there was this lingering stench I had to endure as I complacently sat on the boat beside these girls as we plied back to the village of Hat Xai Khun east of Mekong.
My destination: Khone Pha Phaeng Falls
Khone Pha Phaeng (Khon Phapeng in LP) is a system of cascading water in a 13 kilometer stretch of powerful rapids that's more impressive on aerial view than when on-site. It's considered the longest riverine cascade in Asia, though this could be contentious. In my mind, the beauty of waterfalls don't rest solely on their graceful tumble, but the "pure unrestrained aggression" as the waters rush towards nearby Cambodia. More than that, it holds a significance among Thais and Laos who believe that it is a "spirit trap"- thus keeps the bad spirits away from their karmic existence (much like a "dream catcher" ensnaring evil spirits and bad dreams). This makes Khon Phapeng a venerable sight. This also makes Mr. Phoumy's suggestions hard sell, irreverent and misleading: "You can swim there," he enthused with unbridled gusto. "Pha" in Lao lingo means "venerable" and if you're insensitive enough to test the local customs, a dip in the torrent is quite possible.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Another boat ride from Don Kong to Hat Xai Khun
One of the advantages of solo travels is that I always get the special seat, as in this case. After a 10-minute Mekong crossing, a van (they just call it a "mini-bus") was waiting at the other side. I took the front passenger seat while the skanky blonds - two Germans and a British - were thrown at the back. I couldn't imagine them up front while the whiff of cold air blew from them to me. It would be an olfactory assault, to say the least. Some backpackers need to take heed of their hygiene, heavens! It's not always an excuse that you're backpacking through Asia and carry a measly $20 on your pocket that would last you for a week. In fact, if a guesthouse's bathroom is not available, the Mekong has an expanse that's ample for a good bath for 3 blonds and even 30. I could generously lend my shampoo and soap as well. I suddenly remember Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) eternally singing "Smelly cat, smelly cat..."
This was supposed to be a solo tour - I paid THAT much, now I am stuck in a van with several others. From Hat Xai Khun, we plied Route 13 and headed south. In 30 minutes, we were at a jetty in Ban Nakasang, the drop off point for trips to party-island Don Det and its sedate twin Don Khone. Why was I here? Phapheng Falls isn't in Don Det, is it? I didn't need to cross the Mekong for that. I hopped out of the van and waited - and waited - and waited!
The driver left without saying anything and even Skanky Girls (SG) were in their trident cloud of confusion. It turned out, we were waiting for a group of people from Don Det who would join me for my ride to Phapheng Falls, while SG's were waiting for their boat ride to Don Det to flash their pungent excrescents. How predictable indeed.
I took a walk outside in the midst of a harshly blaring sun. Across the street was a shop playing a jazzy dance tune, atypical of the novelty-style music of Laos. I crossed the street and inquired if they sell that CD. They didn't; it was a shop selling phone cards, not a music store. But here I was naming my price. Isn't that awful? :) The street itself is lined by oodles of shops selling China and Taiwan-manufactured shirts with "Tennessee" written on them; others sold drinks, bicycles, hats, sunglasses, etc. As you head closer to the river, the stalls turn into a vegetable and fish market.
The riverside is littered with cellophane and used paper. There were no catamarans here, just long boats that transport people to the nearby islands. Ban Nakasang is quite popular - more than Hat Xai Khun and Don Kong or Ban Muang and Champasak. In Don Det, backpackers hang their hats in dirt-cheap cottages across shallow waters, with lazy water buffaloes as neighbors. There's nothing to do but sleep and party sometime at dusk. Much like Vang Vieng, cannabis and its ilks have made their way. In some fogged perspective, this could be heaven on earth. In fact, browsing through flickr photos of Don Det would get you this redundant term "heaven". Some people could be so impressionable.
The main street in Ban Nakasang
WAS I INDIAN?
I was chugging on my second bottle of iced water when a charming silvery haired septuagenarian lady suddenly called my attention. "You're not from India, are you?" That was odd. I've often been mistaken for a Japanese, a Thai, a Lao, a Malay, an Indonesian, a Burmese, but an Indian? I momentarily forgot I was wearing a shirt with the Indian flag emblazoned boldly on my shirt - with a mark that read "India"! The lady wore a wide grin and earnest eyes as she stomped a cane on the ground. I smiled at her: "I am from the Philippines." She laughed in spite of herself. She was German and was on holiday with her family.
Germans aren't the warmest travelers to meet on the road - unless they're from Hamburg (who are unusually cordial, even affable). I told her I was concerned why I was still in Ban Nakasang after an hour of wait when I should be gazing at some cascading water falls. "Lao people have a time of their own," she inferred. "You're in the wrong place," she added, then called her teenage grandson - a young, lanky, tall German guy. They spoke for a second then he turned to me and said, "You're supposed to take Route 13 and head further south. We're going there ourselves. If you make it there, we'll see you later." I nodded and said my thanks for the information I already knew. I don't mind confirmations of my whereabouts.
EXPENSIVE WAITING GAME
I knew that much, but what was I supposed to do? Hike all the way to the Kong District on foot? When I finally saw the driver (who looked as flustered as I was), it was time I gave him the disamused word of a paying customer! "Almost two hours and I am just waiting here!" I realized then that I was pissed off, when most times I keep my temper under rein. But I paid good money NOT to wait for people. Their itinerary wasn't of consequence to me, not when I was shelling out considerable amount of kip. I might as well join a group tour - which this trip was turning out to be, only with a much longer wait.
Finally, after 1 1/2 hours of waiting, some elderly French people arrived from Don Det. They came to join me in the van. Off to Phapheng Falls which was 30 minutes from Ban Nakasang. Somewhere on Route 13, we made a right turn. It was 2 kilometers to the parking grounds of Phapheng Falls. I paid my $1 fee then made a dash towards the viewpoint. "One hour then come back," the driver reminded us. I was actually seething with rage enough to re-enact a scene from Stallone's "The Expendables". I had to endure 3 hours of long wait and travel just to see something I could enjoy for a measly 1 hour?
The jetty in Ban Nakasang, the drop off point for travels to Don Det and Don Khone.
A waiting shed and a chess table beside the jetty in Ban Nakasang.
Petrol station in Ban Nakasang
The grounds of the "resort" opens into a soporose row of shops: garments, souvenir items, and a few more interesting objects that I shall talk about at my next post. There were restaurants with hardly a customer in sight. The pathway ultimately narrows into a "talipapa" (several little shops in cramped space) before it leads to a wooden bridge. From there, it's a short walk to the wooden pavilion where a view of a part of the waterfall cascade is seen.
Though the sight isn't as impressive as the vertical grandiosity of other waterfalls - this was just a "cascade" more than a waterfall - there's something hypnotic about the mad rush of water that can't be stopped by elements from the earth, stones and craggy boulders. There are things in this existence that cannot be stopped - inevitable, inescapable even, and that to me is very comforting.
It doesn't really take long to enjoy the view of Phapeng. In fact, 30 minutes would suffice. After truly optimizing what I could see from that pavilion, I walked a few meters until I saw a clearing hidden by hedges from the riverside. And it ushered me into boulders of sharp edged rocks that make an uneven pathway to bamboo scaffoldings and little makeshift bridges that directly lead into the raging waters. These wet spurts seem to come out from every direction. It was a lovelier, dreamier place to be standing on - a whole lot better than the boring pavilion. This was where I could actually touch the waters of this seemingly venerable site. But when the water goes up, this could easily spell death in one clean sweep.
For 15 minutes, I must have sat on a rock beside the river just gazing at the scramble of these expeditious waters. Mekong has constantly been in my presence for a good part of my journey. When everything else was new, strange and alienating, the Mekong provided solace for being a familiar presence - from as far as Luang Prabang and elsewhere. It was time to head back to the van. My one hour was nearly up. I was ready to go.
This is the Eye in the Sky!
Wooden bridge to the lookout pavilion.
Wooden Pavilion - the lookout shed for Phapeng Falls. Below is the miniature scale's aerial view of this part of the Mekong and the 13 kilometer cascade.
Khone Pha Phaeng (Khon Phapeng Falls)
Mad rush of water to Cambodia.
Some of the bus-loads of Thai tourists.
Opps, I found a clearing partially hidden by hedges that leads down into the waters.
Uneven rocks lead closer to wooden rickety bridges beside the river.