I still manage to make my bus to Khon Kaen but the ticket person informs me that because its a holiday (weekend) the buses are overbooked and i have to stand for the first hour. I stand in the aisle of the bus in front of a monk and behind a caged chicken. ahh traveling. All the guidebooks said there's not much to see in Khon Kaen but its on my route so i go anyway. And guess what? There's nothing to see there. I hop on a bus the next day and head to Ubon Ratchathani for the candle light festival, a famous celebration to mark the beginning of Buddhist lent. Each community makes a candle to give the monks light in the months of winter solstice to come. When i arrive, no one knows where my hotel is (never a good sign) and that's because its outside of the city. There's no way to get into town except for hiring a cab and the drivers don't speak English anyway. I decide i've had it with central Thailand, i was ready for Laos.
The international bus to Laos was relatively painless, even though they rip you off at the border, everytime i thought i was about to get my visa, they asked for 1000 more kip. I had every intention of staying in Pakse, but somehow, the minute i arrive i have other travelers asking me if i wanted to split a cab to the other bus station, they were headed to the 4000 islands. Hmm, sure why not?! In an hours time i find myself on a "minibus", which was actually a large enclosed wooden crate on the back jam packed with 26 Laos people (no exaggeration there). Over the course of 3 hours, the driver would let some off, pick up more people, pile on packages, even farm animals joined our journey. The driver stopped a few times to allow cows to cross or dodged pigs who lay down in the middle of the road. We arrive at a "port" which is a muddy pit with a rickety wooden boat attached.
Don dhet surprised me, when I heard 4000 islands I was picturing the Thai island equivalent. However, they are much less developed, and give a much more genuine experience into the local culture. The islands get their nickname (4000) due to the innumerable sand islets that appear and disappear with the water levels, according to rainy and dry seasons. They once served as an important link for supply lines between Saigon and Laos during the french colonial era. Don dhet is a fascinating place, I rented a bike and rode around the island. The path led me along the river at first through small village communities where naked children ran around in the mud with chickens, and waved at me as i rode by. After awhile, I was completely surrounded by rice fields for miles on either side. The monsoons had arrived, flooding the fields and filling the rice paddies with water. Workers bent over planting seeds or plowed oxen through the mud. The fields had the most intense variation of green I had ever seen. I crossed over a bridge between two islands, which used to serve as a railway link. I ended at the Tat Somphamit and Khone Phapheng, the largest (by volume) waterfall in southeast Asia. The incredible sheer force of the water over large boulders and the expansive size of the river was breathtaking. On my way back, i was stopped by a group of villagers. An older man explained to me, in french, that a tree had fallen over the road and no one could pass until they picked it up. They invited me to come sit with them and drink Lao Lao, an illegal rice whiskey used in small villages to welcome outsiders. So I sat on this fallen tree, on an island in the Mekong, with a group of Laos villagers, drinking whiskey, and marveling at my long day.
After the islands, I made a quick stop in Pakse to plan my next move. I decided to rent a semi automatic bike, was given a 5 minute tutorial on how to drive it and a small blurry map of my route. I was off to explore the Bolaven Plateau in the middle of monsoon season! All i had with me was a rain jacket, a compass, my map and an extra set of clothes. By far the scariest thing id ever done. The plateau is famous for its incredible waterfalls, rich coffee plantations and insight into village life. It poured my entire ride but i was thoroughly entertained by all the children who ran out to the sides of the road naked and rolled around in the mud. About an hour into my drive i saw a sign for "coffee" and id heard that one of the things you should do is pull into the coffee plantations and sample their coffee. I turned off the road onto a muddy path and cut through a village. The next thing i know, i was thrown off my bike into a giant puddle of mud. My bike had skidded over a mound and turned over! I wasn't injured, but covered head to toe in a thick layer of mud. I could see pairs of eyes peeking through the open doors of the huts surrounding me, curious to see what the silly falangs were up to. When i finally checked into my bungalow in Tad Lo, my clothes were still caked in mud and the thick streaks across my face turned heads. Tad lo has an incredible waterfall surrounded by jungle scenery. I sat at a restaurant and watched as young kids swung from a vine into the lagoon that formed at the bottom if the waterfall. The next morning, i was up by 6am, and hit with a monsoon by 7 am. I stopped in a coffee shop (without falling) and managed to warm up next to a bucket of hot coals. The owner took raw coffee beans that came from a nearby plantation, and roasted them in a skillet on his stove. He then manually pressed and filtered them. Probably the freshest coffee Ive ever had! I managed to hit two beautiful waterfalls on my ride back to Pakse, in time for the night bus to Vientiane! I was supposed to go to Vietnam, but southern Laos was such an adventure i want to see what the north has to offer!
Vientiane- Vang Vieng- Luang Prabang next!