Sunday, December 12, 2010

Getting to the 4000 Islands

After we left the cave, it was already 5pm and the park was shutting down. We thought the Tuk Tuk driver who brought us there would be waiting for us or at the very least there would be another Tuk Tuk we would be able to take back to our guest house. As we left the park the parking lot was empty and not only was our driver nowhere to be seen but neither was any other Tuk Tuk. We had no choice so we started walking. Driving in we had seen a small village (which in retrospect we should have stayed at) and we thought we could probably get a Tuk Tuk from there. After 20 minutes of walking we arrived at the village and found a parked Tuk Tuk. We went inside the restaurant to inquire, but it was deserted. We found the owner and after asking about the Tuk Tuk he said, No. So we started walking again. We were walking for around 10 minutes when we heard a car approaching. It was a large dump truck so we hailed it down. The guys agreed to drive us the 42km to Ban Nahim as they were going that way as well. After driving for some time the driver pulled over and stopped at a shack on the side of the road. I was a little nervous about stopping at a shack in the middle of nowhere but there were 3 other dump trucks there and it turned out to be a bar. It was family owned and they immediately poured us a glass of beer each. Everyone was very friendly but they no one spoke English and we didn’t speak Laos so the communication was very limited. After 20 minutes or so our driver told us that another truck driver would take us the rest of the way. We were happy to be on our way as it was getting dark outside and if we were forced to walk any further, for any reason, it would be hard in the dark. The cabin was actually quite spacious and the truck surprisingly quiet. We were dropped off right outside of town 45 minutes later after being told by the driver that we were lucky.

We got to our guesthouse and went out to eat. We had found a great family run restaurant earlier in the day that offered cheap delicious food. With the help of a local man who was eating at a restaurant, and whose English was better than the waitress, we ordered fish soup with a side or rice. The meal was delicious, but we noticed the man eating fish made differently. Andrew asked him about it and it turned out the fish was steamed and it was not on the menu. We ordered the same thing, and while waiting for the food we started chatting with him. He works on contract as an engineer at the hydro plant just outside of town. He usually lives in Vientiane but was called in to help out with a project. We spent the next hour chatting with him while enjoying the delicious steamed fish. He told us the next day we could catch a bus directly to Tha Khaek and from there catch another bus to Pakse. From there it would be no problem to get to the 4000 Islands on the border with Cambodia.

Because of the early day and the cold weather we experienced while on our way to Ban Nahim, I started developing a cold. By the next morning I was sick. But we had to keep moving and I really didn’t want to stay in that town, as it was quite small and there wasn’t much to do. I wasn’t up to getting breakfast so Andrew went out to eat and found out there was a 9am bus we could catch directly to Tha Khaek from the bus station in town. We made it to the bus station by 8:40am, but my throat was dry so I asked Andrew to pick up some lozenges for me. As soon as he left a large Tuk Tuk pulled up and all the guys at the bus station started telling me this is the bus to Tha Khaek. There was another couple on the Tuk Tuk already. I asked them and they confirmed this was the bus. I was a little confused and my skepticism kicked in as it was only 8:45, but what do I know? I saw Andrew walking back, I called out to him and he jogged over. He was also surprised and we asked a couple more people and all told us this was the bus. We asked, what about the “big bus”? No, this is the bus. So we got on along with 20 other people, pig feed, chicken feed and a whole bunch of baggage. Since I was sick I was not in the mood to sit on a hard bench, squished by too many people for the next 3 hours. We sat at the end of the pickup truck so we were at least able to hang our legs over the back of it and rest them on the steps right below. As we pulled away, the driver started driving at 10 km/h and honking. I was not happy because I really couldn’t see how we would fit any more people but somehow we did. I was at this point convinced this was not the bus but that we got conned by the tuk tuk drivers, and I said as much to the other backpackers who just smiled. I could tell they thought this was the exciting part of their travels, riding in the back of a pickup with 30 other people. I was sick and wanted a comfortable chair on a normal bus. My suspicions were confirmed half an hour later when the “big bus” passed us. It did nothing to help my mood. For the next 3 hours we were stuck in the back of the pickup. But at least I could turn my back on everyone and stew in silence with ample leg room. It still wasn’t comfortable as all the pot holes kept us bouncing and my foot kept getting shoved with something. For the first hour or so I ignored it but then I looked down and saw a plastic bag lying a there. I couldn’t tell what it was at first, but very soon discovered it was a live baby pig which had been packed up in the bag with a hole cut out for its snout. It kept hitting me because I was resting my foot on it. I was mortified. I couldn’t believe animals were transported like that and that I had spent the past hour tormenting it even more with my foot. There was nothing I could do but not rest my feet on it any more.

We arrived in Tha Khaek and found out a bus to Pakse was not leaving until 4pm, and it was a 7 hour bus ride after that. We didn’t want to wait that long so we took a bus to Savannakhet, which was on the way, and we would try to catch another bus from there. After we arrived in Savannakhet we were told a bus to Pakse was leaving at 6:30pm that night and it was a 5 hour drive. We could either spend the night in Savannakhet and leave first thing in the morning or take the 6:30pm and arrive at 11:30pm. We opted for the latter as I didn’t want to waste time in a town we never planned to spend any time in. As the time drew near we went over to our bus to get good seats. Andrew prepared me that we would be taking the worst bus on the whole lot but I didn’t believe him. But sure enough, we would be taking the worst bus on the whole lot. The whole front windshield was cracked, and it looked like it had a head on collision at one point. It turned out it did have a head on collision with a motorcycle driver whose head had bounced of the windshield (hence the cracks). This was all described to Andrew by a very animated guy who showed him in detail how the “vroom vroom” (hand motion to indicate a motorcycle) had “screeched” and “crashed” (two hands smacking together and the guy pretending to hit his head on the window). This was all said with a wide grin and a laugh at the end. We couldn’t find out if the motorcycle driver survived but I somehow doubt it. Once we boarded the bus we discovered the whole aisle (all the way from the beginning to the end) was loaded with full animal feed bags, 3 stacks high. We had no choice but to walk on top of them (which caused me to hit my head on the light above). We found the only seats with no bags under the feet and settled in for the ride.

The ride itself was pretty uneventful and we actually arrived in Pakse ahead of schedule at 10:30pm. We were approached by a tuk tuk driver asking if we wanted a ride into town. We said yes, how much? He said, 70,000 kip per person. I literally choked and told him he was crazy. That’s $7 per person! We were willing to pay $4 for the both of us. He informed us it was 10km to town and that it was night time. That was supposed to explain why the price was so inflated. We again informed him he was crazy and told him we would walk.

We started walking (obviously with the hope of another tuk tuk showing up and us getting a better deal) but after 4 or 5km’s there was no signs of any tuk tuks and it didn’t look like we were anywhere close to town. Finally, after another 10 minutes a lone tuk tuk was driving and pulled over and asked if we wanted a ride (which we obviously did) and offered to drive us for 10,000 kip each. We gratefully agreed. He took us to the hostel of our choice but we found out it was full. Andrew left me there while he went to look for a room. He came back after 30 minutes with a room key to a guest house 5 min away.

***Side note: we have now learned the distances provided in the Lonely Planet guidebook are completely inaccurate and the maps are not to scale. Either that or all the bus stations have moved 5-10km further from town than where Lonely Planet claims they are.

Our room was basic but we were spending only 1 night so I didn’t really care. That is until I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and saw a big black cockroach crawl out of the wall. I freaked out and ran away while Andrew killed it. Then Andrew went to buy some water and I went into the bathroom again only to see another one crawl out of the hole but then crawl back in. I was completely grossed out but being that it was 12:30am we didn’t really have much choice in a guest house. We didn’t trust the bed sheets either so we took out our silk sleeping bag liners, which we had bought at MEC in Toronto and hadn’t really used yet, and slept on top of them. I did not want to touch anything in that place.

We woke up early the next day to catch a bus to the 4000 Islands. We arrived at the bus station only to be pointed to another pickup truck. Hell no, was my reaction. There was no way I would be spending another 3 hours in the back of a pickup. Hell no. After asking multiple people, even the official bus office, we were told there was no bus to go where we wanted to go to. What about tomorrow? No. The day after? No. Ever? No. So we got in and made ourselves as comfortable as possible. I guess this route isn’t as popular as other routes as since there weren’t a lot of people on it. We survived the 3 hours, and arrived at the ferry which would get us across to the Don Det island.

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