Risking life and limb...AGAIN!
15.02.2010 - 19.02.2010 33 °C
If you're a lone traveller who, like me, likes his own space then the overnight bus from Vientiane to Pakse probably isn't for you. It was all going so well with the guesthouse taking payment and organising the entire journey, including pick up from the hostel, that I thought what could possibly go wrong. Well, when arriving at the bus station I saw exactly what could go wrong. Our bus wasn't the ordinary VIP bus I was expecting, it was a sleeper. What's wrong with this I hear you ask? The fact that a tiny five foot by three foot bed awaits, not only for you, but to be shared with a random stranger. Luckily I was put with another westerner as I've heard the locals are quite used to close proximity with strangers and don't shy away from physical contact. The westerner I was with however seemed just as put out by the sleeping arrangements as I did and so the unspoken rule of "I'll lie facing the window, you lie facing the aisle" was quickly adopted.
It's funny how you fall asleep so easily every night with no thought to how you fall asleep, and yet when you concentrate on trying to sleep it all suddenly becomes so much more difficult. You realise, strangely, that your arms seem in the wrong place to lie on you side, your shoulders constantly get in the way, your legs lie restlessly upon one another causing one or the other, or both, to go numb and tingly, and even your hands seem out of place, as if there's suddenly no where to put them that feels comfortable. Instead you lie wide awake wondering how it is that every other night you lie down in seemingly the same position as you now find yourself and without a single thought quickly drift off to sleep. I was now too aware of how uncomfortable I was but also painfully aware that I couldn't move without snuggling up to a complete stranger, so finally accepted my sleepless fate and lay watching the lights flash past the window.
Upon arrival in Pakse I needed to get to the South bus station for a bus to Tadlo. No matter how many times I repeated Tadlo or South bus station to the tuk-tuk driver he still didn't understand. A French family were heading to Champasak, also in the south, and so asked if I wanted to share with them. What the guide book doesn't tell you however is that there is another bus station for Champasak to which I was taken. I once again tried to tell the driver "Tadlo" and finally, with an overexagerated "OOOHHHH", he shakes his head and says "not here, 8km away, 40,000 Kip". 40,000 Kip!!! That's double the cost of the ride to Tadlo which is 90km away. I shake my head and he then demands 15,000 Kip for the journey to the bus station I now stand at, even though it is the wrong one and I never wanted to come here in the first place. In the end I relent and pay the 40,000 Kip. Just as we pull off though he spots a friend of his who is going in that direction anyway and shoves me out and onto his tuk-tuk instead, a ride which had I caught on my own would have cost 10,000!
The bus journey to Tadlo was due to take one and a half hours, departing at 7.30am, the ticket salesman even wrote 9am arrival on my ticket. Amazingly the bus depated on time but you can imagine my worry when at 10am I still hadn't been told to get off. I asked a few times, annoying the ticket inspector who kept waving me off as though I were a pesky fly hovering over his dinner, and decided that if I were to ask any more he would probably deliberately forget just to spite me. Luckily just after 10 o'clock I saw a sign for a waterfall and jumped up asking "Tadlo? Tadlo?". The ticket inspector almost looked disappointed that I had noticed and called the bus to a halt.
One of the many Tadlo waterfalls
Tadlo itself is a really nice, peaceful, quite place. My hostel however was far from it. Every morning at 6am sharp the entire family, adults, kids, babies, seemed to gather outside my room chatting, laughing, shouting, singing, coughing, spitting, meanwhile a rooster called over and over beneath my window and the family pig snorted and scraped outside my door. To add to the cacophony motorcyles seemed to come regularly and be left running while the owner disappeared for 10 minutes, causing the dogs to bark, the chickens to skwark, and all the time the waterfall rumbled away in the background. I'm not sure if ghekos are supposed to make any noise but I'm certain that here even they join the chorus of noise with funny squeeking sounds. All in all, not the most peaceful of wake up calls.
My first day was quite an adventurous one, to say the least. I decided to head out of town to the elusive Tad Suong waterfall around 10km away. I was quite surprised when a few minutes down the road I caught sight of it in the distance tumbling over a great cliff and wondered how elusive could it be? I was soon to find out. Reaching a small village close to the base of the falls I was immediately surrounded by a dozen children and calling "waterfall, waterfall". Knowing that it would cost me money, and probably to each and every child if I decided to accept I instead shook my head a walked off. Shaking the children off wasn't quite so simple as they all followed me, often having to run to catch up, still calling "waterfall, waterfall". I fear in my haste to shake them off I may have missed the turning taking me to the waterfall and so ended up following the road out of town for quite a way, gradually getting further and further from the falls, before finally deciding enough is enough. My instructions said to follow the road until it ended but I figured the instructions may have been older than the road I was now walking on. Instead I decided to head towards the top of the mountian any way I could. I quickly cut across a burning field, keeping a close eye out for any owner who may not appreciate me trespassing on their land, and found a small moutain pass. Following it up hill it became less of a pass the more time that went by and I continued, seemingly oblivious to the very real danger of tripping, falling, snakes, spiders, oh yeah...and UXO (that's unexploded bombs, of which millions still litter the area)!
I finally reach the top of the mountain and head off in the direction I believe the waterfall to be. After about half an hour I wonder why I haven't come across it and instead find myself emerging into the midsts of a tiny village. I feel extremely self conscious as I wander through people's land trying to find the road running through the village, and just smile despite the suspicious looks I'm receiving from all around. I find the road and once again head off in the direction I believe to be correct, although by now I am so lost I have no idea if I'm on the right track or not. I follow the road hoping to somehow stumble upon the waterfall, or at the very least the river that leads to it. I do find a stream and despite there being no path alongside it I clamber over the rocks and boulders, following its path downstream. When it begins to head off in the wrong direction I decide that following it any further into the undergrowth, with no food or water, is probably not a good idea, so I head back up to the road. After a further 10 minutes walking I suddenly come to the friendliest little village in Laos. Consisting of perhaps two dozen little bamboo shacks and a small dirt track through its centre, every man, woman and child come rushing from their houses to say hello, fathers pick up their infant children and quickly run to the windows of their shacks to wave their babies hands, a large sign welcomes you to the village and the entire dirt road is lined with long sticks of bamboo adorned with bright purple flowers, almost like the burning laterns down the street in a Charles Dickens novel. Amazingly these blossoming purple lanterns continue through the village and out the other side until the road ends, and there, as if by magic, lays the waterfall I'd been searching for all along!
Standing at the top of 100 foot cliff with a light refreshing breeze blowing a fine mist of water back in face, causing huge rainbows to be thrown off into the distance, I decide that the struggle had been more than worth it.
Getting back down again I suddenly found myself in a dilemma. Not wanting to return the way I'd come, and very much doubting that I would even be able to find it if I had wanted to, I foolishly choose to take the quickest and most direct route to the bottom. No, I didn't simply throw myself over the edge, although that may have been quicker, but instead decended down the sheer mountain side just off to one side of the waterfall. Finding what looks like an old trail I follow it in the hope that it was once used as a way to get up and down the mountian, although the amount of vines and bushes now growing over it, it's quite clear that it hasn't been used for a very long time. Clambering down steep drops, clinging to any twig or branch or rock I can get a hold of I finally find an old wooden ladder leading down a long vertical drop. Creaking and groaning at every step, the rusted nails barely clinging on to the rock face to which they're attached, I manage to make my way to the bottom, but then stupidly see a cave hidden behind the waterfall to my left and think it would be a good idea to go back up and explore it. It's at this point, half way up the rotting ladder, that the entire thing collapses, one rung at a time, sending me sprawling in a heap to the bottom, forever sealing the fate of this long forgotten path. I look up knowing that I will probably be the last person to ascend or decend this way in a very long time. I almost expect to reach the bottom and find the decaying remains of past travellers stupid enough to attempt the steep climb down.
Trail no more
Finally, battered and bruised, I reach the solid ground below and scramble over the rocks towards the waterfall. Removing my bag and shoes I carefully step across the slippery, jagged rocks to where the water is falling down, stopping just short of it's actual base. Little did I know that the wind was currently blowing away from me, pushing the waterfall off to my left. Without any warning the wind suddenly changes direction and the waterfall comes crashing down upon my head. Much like the theory that a penny thrown from the Eiffel Tower will kill a man at the bottom, the water falling from 100 feet will easily pin a man to the rocks below. What started off as quite thrilling and fun ended up being far from it. Now cold and shivering in the shadow of the chasming cliff, unable to move due to power of water crashing down and fear of slipping on the sharp and slick rocks below, all I can do is wait. Finally the wind returns and for a brief moment the water moves off to my right allowing me a few small, carefully placed steps away. I watch as the water sweeps round in front of me, almost stalking like a living beast, before rushing towards me once more. I brace myself against the rocks, my senses lost to anything but the fury of water coming down, deafened by it crash, blinded by its intensity, numbed by it power. For the next 10 minutes this continues as each gust of wind allows me a brief window in which to escape before I finally make it away and back to the blissful warming sun.
If I thought that the following day was going to be any easier I was sadly mistaken. Fully intent on a relaxing day by the river I begin following it upstream looking for a nice quite spot. I then begin to wonder if I can follow it all the way to the waterfall I'd visited yesterday, so following a well trodden path I head off. After a while the path ends and the only way to proceed is to cut across the private land of a posh resort. I do so, keeping as close to the shelter of the river bank as I can. I then see that there is a small path the other side of the river so wade across a strech of shallow rocks to reach it. The path continues for a while, every now and then seeming to disappear until a few jumps across a few well placed rocks gets you back on track. Slowly though the river begins to swell and encroaches more and more on the path making it harder and harder to follow. At one point the water covers it completely and I see the only way to get past is a few hanging branches, swarming with large red ants, and a narrow rock ledge hosting an enormous spider nest of thousands of spindly, lurching creatures. I should have made a choice of one or the other but not wanting to touch either I end up slipping and having to grab hold of the branch above my head, showering me in ants, and step right into the middle of the spider nest, just to avoid sliding headlong into the rushing river below. I quickly jump to the next section of path and furiously shake myself off. I look back at the spider nest which looking like an enormous ball of hair has now detached itself into a million crawling legs lurching off in every direction. I shiver with the thought of it. What's even more infuriating is the fact that just up ahead the path ends for good and I'm forced to clamber up the steep river bank, something I could have done before getting covered in a million biting ants and creeping spiders.
At the top of the river bank there's no path and I have to fight my way through thick bushes and tangled undergrowth in an attempt to find some sort of way forward, all the while the warnings of every guide book I've ever read "stick to the well worn paths!" constantly echo in my mind. Walking through a patch of thorn bushes with small prickly balls that attach to anything they come in contact with, which brush easily off clothing yet stick firmly to the hairs on your legs like super strong balls of velcro, I get to another burning field. Unlike the one yesterday though this one is still aflame in parts and as I walk through I feel the heat thrown at me like walking before the open door of a furnace. It is at this point that I hear a shout to my left and turn to find a man emerge from the bushes with a long barreled gun casually slung over one shoulder. I tense up but nod politely and make a gesture as if it's really hot and I need to go down to the river for a swim, hoping that he won't think anything strange of a tourist wandering for 3 hours in the middle of nowhere to go for a swim in the river. I pass him and wait down by the river for a good 20 minutes hoping he will be long gone when I go back. Thankfully he is and I manage to find a path leading off into the forest. Just as I enter the shade of trees however I spot the man with the gun up ahead watching me as I approach. Once again I nod as I pass and terrifyingly hear him fall in step behind me. I resist the urge to look back and try to act as natural as possible, almost expecting to hear a loud boom at any moment. I'm relieved when a stream cuts across the path ahead and I'm forced to stop to remove my shoes. I stand to one side and indicate for the man to pass. I then stand still listening to the fading crunch of fallen leaves as he wanders off into the distance. I give it a few minutes before proceeding and then slowly follow the same path.
Eventually, after 4 hours since leaving the guest house, the path widens and I find myself in the midst of a village. Much like yesterday I try to ignore the suspicious stares of the locals who are all wondering why I'm walking out of the forest and through their property and make my way to the road. Tired and thirsty I look for a shop or restaurant and finally find something resembling one with a couple of tables outside. I enter and look around for any signs of life. It is at this point that the owner walks out, and to my surprise it's none other than the man with the gun! I smile a little awkwardly and ask if I can get a drink. Anyway, one thing leads to another and before I know it the man has sat himself beside me with a few English text books and a large Lao-English dictionary and has me translating phrases and explaining all about the English weather. I never do pluck up the courage to ask him why he was in the woods with a large gun, but then I guess as long as it's not for shooting stupid lost tourists wandering through the forest then I don't really need to know.