24 Jan TUE
It was quite difficult to find a travel agent who sold tickets to Savannakhet (only to Pakse and Thailand, Vietnam). Eventually I found a one-eyed guy in an internet who offered tickets for 7.5 USD. He had his hare for sure as a ticket on the bus station was only 5 USD, but the bus station was 9 km of the centre so a tuk-tuk drive could have been the same. The bus route was surprisingly smooth, no muntains at all. We did almost 500 km in 8 hours! Arrived at around 4 p. m. The route followed the country border of course (not as showned on the map)
The most important trading and administartive post south of Vientiane in French Indochina. Now a sleepy riverside city with an even more laid back atmosphere than at any other places before. The main attraction is trekking in the area, but it is worth wandering around in the afternoon, men playing petanque in cafes, Lao family dinners in the street and the usual "sabaydee!" everywhere.
It was a bit of pain to find an accomodation. We searched together with a Swiss couple we met in the tuk-tuk. Sayamungkhun hotel didn"t look too good (no flush toilets, only plastic barrel, it didn't pass at Klara), Saisouk guesthouse was full so we desperately took a hotel at Phonevilay hotel (5 USD with fridge,TV). It came up later that it is much less cleaner than it seemed: hair and blood stains on the sheets, sewage problems etc. We survived in our sleepinng bags.
Evening: organized trekking, average dinner at Lao Paris restaurant, internet.
25 Jan WED
TREKKING Day 1
Originaly we wanted to visit an Eastern tribal village with special religion based on spirits but they only had 3-day trek in that region. Moreover it was 110 USD/p, while 2 days 45, 1 day 25. We chose a 2-day trek with homestay at villagers. A tuk-tuk arrived with our guide at 8 a.m.
Our guide introduced himself as La, though his name card showed a 15-letter first name. He was 23 and one-eyed (agin). We met a local guide in the forest who joined us. 18 km walk was promised, but my pedometer showed only 13 km when we got there around 2 p.m. We had a forgettable lunch with cold vegetable omelette, rice, grilled fish and sun-dried fried beef (the latter only for me). The guides prepared spicy papaya salad as well (Lao national food) but we saw the ominous small plastic bag (which was familiar from the market in Vientiane, see 23 Jan), they used paa daaek.
The forest was much more dense than the one we crossed in Luang Nam Tha. The vegetation was similar but more birds were singing. We saw butterflies in all ages, the set of the final stage was quite dramatic: thousands of butterflies were having their rests on a small cluster of trees. They flew away on our arrival (our enthusiastic guides helped them by shaking the trees although we told them not to) so we walked in a butterfly forest for a while. They offered us to taste all kind of plants from the forest, we knew from earlier that we can only expect bitter taste. (It is funny because they like everything sweet). All our guides so far had a wide knowledge of herbal medicine, learnt by word of mouth. This society heavily relies on natural products; apart from rice dishes, 70 % of food on Lao tables is produced by the forest.
Our homestay village (Ban Phosim???) was a huge one, est. 5000 inh. Our host family ran a small shop in their house. The host was a kind Lao man in his 60s and spoke very basic English. His wife was a bit younger but no English (they could both speak French...). Apart from them: kids from all generations, 3 dogs and a cat (not counting the livestock). The family was richer than the average in the village. However, this village was definetely wealthier than Namyong in Luang Nam Tha NPA (see 13 Jan). We walked around the village in the afternoon, watching men playing petanque in the cafe, meeting a few locals and many animals wandering in the streets (water buffalo, cow, turtle, dog, duck, rooster, chicken). The highlight of the evening before dinner was a Baci ceremony, a traditional Lao greeting-fiest held to foreigners. Many senior people from the village was invited and the men and Klara sat around a small altar on the ground (the women were surrounding us). Even a chicken was sacrified and grilled for us on this occasion (quite a bad kharma). The oldest men started to speak and gave his blessings by knotting a cotton cord on my wrist. This procedure was performed by all the men and some women on both of us so we ended with enormous cotton bracelets (which should not be removed for 3 days). Everyone had something to say, we didn't understand a word but their tone was very warm. We were sitting in the living room watching TV as conservation died out when our host fell asleep. We immediately had to go to bed as the host can't go bed till we are awake (it was only 9 o'clock!). The funny thing was it was only our obligation to pull our pijamas, the loud TV was on for a few more hours. Gender-segregated mosquitonets were installed in the upper level: a single for Klara and a nice double for me and La. The local society doesn't allow poeple of the opposite sex sleeping next to eachother, even if they married.
26 Jan THU
Trekking Day 2
We were supposed to be woken up by our guide, La at 5:30 to go to the wat to give alms to the monks. As he got up at 2 a.m. to watch a MU match live, he overslept and we left only at around 7. The alms-giving were still going on, they showed us how to offer the alms to the monks (crisps, instant noodle soup, fruit) and the whole ceremony was very interesting.
Traditional Lao breakfast: noodle soup. Coffee at the main square in the cafe. We walked around the village again, this time we saw what people do for living. Mincing and threshing rice, (I tried the latter one), weaving doormats, making instruments (khaen) or torches (from oil they got from the tree, we saw the excellent technology on the way here). We had another 6 km fine walk in the forest then we got to Turtle lake. It is a fairly big lake (regarding the dry season). We attempted a boat trip but the longtail boat seemed very unstable and a leaking problem was suspected. Klara got off with our valuables and we had a short ride in the very shallow water (picked some lotus buds). Our lunch was under one of the thatched bamboo structures on stilts in the water. The lunch was the boring staff from yesterday but the scenery was astonishing. Bathing and playing children in the water, together with a dozen of adult water buffalo pasturing tang around us. That is again something you envisage of SE Asia.
Tuk-tuk to another village, he introduced his girlfriend. Visited That Ing Hang, a 400 year old, 9 m high stupa (women were not allowed to enter the inner circle). We had a tuk-tuk back to Savannakhet with an Anglo-Saxon couple (Australian girl, English boy from near Manchester). They were in Vietnam a few weeks ago and they loved it. We"ll see.
This was an interesting trekking, we had a good chance to interact with the local people and the scenery was superb.
We still had to find accomodation and Phonevilay was out of the question. Checked Saisouk guesthouse (no hot water) the we returned to Sayamunkhum guesthouse (our first viewing 2 days ago) This time a better room was showed for 7 USD, we took it. Clean if a bit worn, a/c, fridge, TV, fair value.
Lao Paris restaurant again, surprised us with a few glasses of wine.