Sunday, May 20, 2012

Goodbye, Don Khong! - From Riverine to Palace Living

On the morning of my departure from the island of Don Khong (Siphandon, South Laos), I woke up to catch my last sunrise on the island. Life seemed to move on, impervious of the temporal lives that its serenity has touched. There will be no tears when I bid my adieu, but I shall bask in the glory of its serene beauty.

I headed to the bridge and watched the sun gently rising from the horizon. Its golden crown peeped in seductive splendor. A few minutes later, the rest of Don Khong awoke - and life went on. The monks paraded for their morning alms. The few tourists on the road stretched in their chilled out state. I headed north and saw the empty fish cages awaiting use. On my way back, I caught a few children opening the shutters of their elementary school. I ordered breakfast - Fried rice with chicken and vegetables - though I wasn't particularly hungry, but I was getting ready for a long day. It was time to head back to Pakse, the capital of Champasak Province. Same time tomorrow, I'd probably be sitting on a bus for my crossing to Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand. Transits, for me, are always exciting and a wee bit nerve-wracking. It's like performing a song before a crowd: regardless of how many times you've done it, you always experience a degree of anxiety.

After a fast shower, I gathered my stuff and carried them to the hotel lobby. My ticket voucher read: Pakse, public bus, 7:30 AM, 60,000 kip ($7.50 or P325). This trip covers 140 kilometers. A public bus from Pakse's Southern Bus Terminal would cost cheaper at around 40,000 kip ($5) but since I had to book my bus from my guesthouse (there are no bus terminals in Don Khong), I guess 60,000 kip is acceptable. At 7:10 AM, I was ready to be whisked away, but my host (the hotel owner's son) suggested that I take a walk around first. That was odd considering the time. I've done my morning walk. I carried my stuff in front of Don Khong Restaurant where I was told to wait for my bus. I sat on a concrete bench under a fruit-bearing tree that had little round red fruits. A British couple sat beside me. I asked Kham, my bike driver yesterday (who's back in his restaurant post as waiter), what they call the fruit. "Maktakhop," he replied. The British guy joined in, "They call it Water Cherries in Vietnam," he offered. In my country, Water Cherries are called "macopa". These fruits are called "mansanitas" or "little apples" south of the Philippines. They are sweet and juicy.

The bus didn't come at 7:30. I was growing impatient because no one was telling us - myself and the British couple - what we were supposed to expect. We couldn't wait all day, could we? At 8:30, the British guy was already raising his voice: "We have a flight to catch at 11 in Pakse." Boy, they were in trouble! Later that day, I asked them if they really had a plane to catch. They laughed. Of course! 

Sunrise in Don Khong

Morning alms ritual of the monks.

Fried rice with chicken and vegetables at Pon's River Restaurant.

Children opened the doors and windows of this grade school north of my hotel.

Fish-catching baskets

Emo time at a Don Khong beach.

A cat makes a comfortable bed out of my luggage.

60,000 kip bus ticket to Pakse

Water Cherry or maktakhop or mansanitas


The bus didn't come at 9 AM so I was getting wary. A two-hour wait is just ridiculous, even by Laos standard. My host was getting restless because I was getting cross. Wouldn't you? Five minutes later, my bus sauntered towards me. It was a non-AC van filled with farm supplies. There were agricultural produce on top of it, and sacks of rice plopped down on the aisle, I had to hop carefully to get to the last row - the only available seats for me and the British couple. Every one else was local sneaking glances our way. I took the right window seat and placed my luggage beside me. Even the floor was small enough for our backpacks. I saw the British girl smile and I nodded. It felt like winning a minor price in a lottery for having made it in this bus.

The bus plodded smoothly as we headed south, passing through Kang khong, Phoxay and Ban Na, until we reached Ban Houay, the southernmost village that hosts the jetty (which isn't really much). I could see signs welcoming people to Don Khong, as well as directions to the northwest village of Hinxiao, the "Sugar Palm and Handicraft Village", it read. I didn't feel like socializing. Not all Asians love to fraternize with every Caucasian he meets along the way. I planned on taking a nap. I knew I'd be covered in grime and dust by the time I reach Pakse, but I liked the steady rush of wind on my face.


We reached the ferry and came across several other mini-buses. We also saw huge trucks and one gigantic public bus, the AC variety that's common in Metro Manila. My mouth was agape when we saw the ferry. Would we fit on that small rectangular floating object? "Something to tell our friends back home," laughed the British girl. I had to chuckle. In my mind flashed news headlines declaring, "Filipino drowns in ferry crossing in Laos." I wasn't scared but things could get hairy in this set up. To our surprise, we would share our ferry ride with the gargantuan bus! Oh my angels!

There was a 30 minute wait at the queue before we could finally take the ride. Meanwhile, I hopped off our bus and took a stroll along the row of little stores that sold candies, toiletries, snacks, and drinks. When it was finally our turn, I rushed back to my seat and kept my fingers crossed. There we were on board this small ferry - and there was the bus behind us. Unexpectedly, we floated easily and in less than 30 minutes, we reached Ban Hart east of Mekong, a village I haven't read about.


Between short naps, I noted our progress. 9:30 AM in Ban Hart. 10:30 AM we passed by Tomo and Pathoumphone, including the gigantic Golden Buddha that sat on a hill. At 12 noon (or midday as the Brits would say), we reached Pakse. I was mildly surprised. In fact, I wasn't sure if we were indeed in Pakse. I had to ask several people for confirmation. We were at the big terminal called Southern Bus Station along Road 13. It is just a patch of dirt surrounded by wooden stalls known as the "8 km Market". It's just on the other side of the junction with the road to Veun Kham. There was a huge building with different windows selling tickets. Long distance buses park at assigned station bays, just like in Ubon Ratchathani. I had to look for a local transport that will take me to Champasak Palace Hotel.


I walked around to check out the options. And when you're alone - and carrying a huge baggage - you are bound to attract attention; stick out like a sore thumb, is like. There were several smaller trucks, buses, jumbos, tuktuks, whatever they call them here. I went to one that didn't seek me out. After agreeing on a 20,000 kip ($2.50) fare, I hopped into my ride to Champasak Palace Hotel. I have been looking forward to this - staying in a real palace. The royalty who founded the establishment has long deserted his grand residence when Laos turned into a communist nation.

The ride was not walking distance. Considering I had to pay 40,000 kip ($5) upon my first arrival in Pakse to a distance half this route we're taking, I was smug. This was a good deal. A bike with a sidecar will cost even cheaper at 5,000 kip, I learned later. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We arrived in front of the sprawling lawn of the hotel. A fountain greeted me with lavish water dances. The wedding-cake style infrastructure, painted in immaculate white, reminded me of the state houses of Louisiana and New Orleans. I felt I was somehow home. I was billeted in huge Room 203 at the 3rd floor, a room with a veranda, facing the hotel. I couldn't wait to roam. I had a big smile on face.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

My bus came at 9:05 AM when it's supposed to be there at 7:30 AM.

Sacks of rice and agricultural produce all over the bus.

A queue to the ferry ride to Ban Hart

Ambulant vendors at the ferry in Ban Houay

Ban Hart across the Mekong

Rows of little shops at the Ban Houay Ferry

The British lady I sat with at the bus.

My bus ("van") from Don Khong to Pakse

Into the ferry

I was holding my breath while the huge bus made its way into the ferry. We were right in front of it.

Arriving in Ban Hart and on to Route 13 going north to Pakse.

Images in Ban Hart

Gigantic Golden Buddha on a hill along Route 13.

Southern Bus Terminal in Pakse

Bus platforms at the Southern Bus Terminal in Pakse. This one was headed for Savannakhet and Vientiane.


Distance from Don Khong to Pakse: 140 kilometers
Public Bus from Don Khong to Pakse: 60,000 kip
Morning breakfast in Don Khong: 60,000 kip
Duration of travel from Don Khong to Pakse: 3 hours, but allot a half day for the whole ride including the 30-minute wait at the ferry, the 30-minute ferry ride, and all the other stops.
Tuktuk from Pakse's Terminal to Champasak Palace Hotel (central Pakse): 20,000 kip

My 20,000 kip tuktuk (jumbo) from the terminal to Champasak Palace Hotel.

Champasak Palace Hotel - a real former palace!


R.Ramakrishnan said...

Lovely pics of sunrise and the rituals of monks receiving alms.Interesting descriptions of the bus/van & ferry ride. You sure must be relieved to check into the magnificent and plush Champasak Palace Hotel to rest your weary bones:)

eye in the sky said...

@ Ram:

I was looking forward to the Champasak Palace Hotel because I was curious of its interiors. It reminded me of the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur because the latter was also turned into a hotel. :)

Ola said...

How it is like that life always concentartes by the rivers? Wonderful sunrise and wonderful shots of a local life!

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Twin said...

I like the details & use of photos

eye in the sky said...

@ Ola:

The Mekong is a major player in the lives of the Lao people. It aids in uplifting life, but occasionally takes it when the raging monsoon comes. That is why some consider it quite a holy entity.

eye in the sky said...

@ Twin:

Thanks. Love writing little stories of transits like this one. :)

NRIGirl said...

It feels like I have just arrived too! The way you tell the story is so 'real life like'! Thank you.

eye in the sky said...

@ NRIGirl:

Thanks for your nice words. :)

Saigonbabe said...

Amazing capture of the Champasak Palace Hotel -- such grandeur!!! I always look forward to your's an adventure series that you so unselfishly share with your readers. Thank you. :)

eye in the sky said...

@ Saigonbabe:

Thanks for the kind words. Unfortunately, the intentions here are less altruistic than they seem haha. But through the years, I've realized that there's a way of "making things happen" when there's the will of the spirit... like documenting my travels and recapturing the specific moment and mood of my trips so I don't forget them when I am old and grey.

I wish I could write daily and as fast. But thanks for somehow "joining" me in these solitary journeys. :)

Trotter said...

Hi Eye! Finally the comments' feature came back... Or at least I managed to find it... ;)

Wonderful post! I'm so dispointed of being stuck here rather than travelling SE Asia... ;)

And it seems nobody is interested in St. Kitts... ;) Blogtrotter Two has it. Enjoy and have a great weekend!!!

eye in the sky said...

@ Trotter:

Who isn't interested of St. Kitts, I wonder. :)