It was rather easy to see my day yesterday as being a flirtation with transport of many kinds. It was extremely hot (well into the high 30’s C) and my favourite form was easily the air conditioned car in which I travelled for most of the day.
The first part of my day was in a long and narrow boat in which I travelled down the river for an hour and a half to a group of islands in the Mekong River. We passed a variety of villages and could see water buffalo, a festival in one village and people just going about their daily life. The river flows swiftly in this part and we followed the old French navigation markers as we went. Many of the colours are faded but we seemed to follow a different system to the one that our boats navigate by (keeping the red markers to the right, or starboard rather tun to the left as we do).
Every time that I got on and off the boat, my tour guide would tell me to watch my head,. I told him that ‘You tell me that all the time’. He replied ‘ If I stop gelling you, then you will hit it’ Sure enough, he was right. I now have a little indentation in my skull from the canopy of the boat.
On the island, we walked through a little village that was quite touristy in a backpackers sort of way. You could rent a bicycle for about $1.20 per day. There were lots of guest houses and small inns and each one seemed to be occupied by a few westerners. I assume that were priced proportionally to the bicycles. Perhaps this is ‘backpackers paradise’. If it wasn’t so darned hot, it could have been a lovely place to spend a few weeks (or months).
The main road of the village used to be a railway line in the colonial days. A little train used to carry goods from one end of the island to another, The French used a system of river boats to carry people and supplies along the river (hence the navigation markers). The remains of one of the little locomotives was recovered from the jungle and is now on display as a relic of the those days.
The cluster of islands at this point in the river are caused by a significant drop in the river level which has created a number of large waterfalls. Between them, the river drops five metres, hence the reason for the little train. The river boats would pull in below the water falls and rapids, transfer their gods onto the train and then reload another boat above tthe falls at the other end of the island. It was instantly clear to me as to why you cannot travel by boat down the full extent of the Mekong River.
My lunch was in a little shack by the roadside in a village in a National Park. By local standards it was a nice restaurant – it even had a fan that blew warm air on me as I ate my meal of sweet and sour chicken, pan fried vegetables and rice. Three geese looked from outside and a little black kitten went to sleep at my feet.
Now it was time for the most unique form of transportation for the day – a ride on an elephant. Elephants are used for hauling logs in Laos but the six or seven in this village are used for providing rides for tourists. I’m not sure whether it is politically correct to ride on an elephant but it generates tourism here and provides an income. These people seem to be very basic in their animal husbandry. They do not know how to breed elephants so these ones will just eventually get old and die. Their training methods seem to be very basic. On a number of times when the elephant deviated off the track to rip some leaves of some bushes to eat, it received a god whack from the Mahmut.
Riding on an elephant is not easy. They are not very smooth animals on which to ride (unlike a camel, for example). I have a theory that it is almost impossible to take a good photograph from a moving vehicle. This applies doubly from the back of an elephant! We traveled about 2 kms up a road, that was quite steep at times, to an old temple site at the top of a hill, It had latterly been used as a a fortress in the civil war of the 1970’s and was now a tumble down pile of old rocks. When we returned to the village nearly two hour later and a young man instantly appeared out of nowhere with a bunch of bananas for me to give to the elephant. Of course they cost 5000 Kip (about 60 cents) but you need to make a living somehow.
The final part of my day was a 90 minute drive to my hotel in Paxse (or Pakse). it was Sunday so there wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road. We passed many people travelling locally and also a few tour busses full of Thai tourists who come to Laos across the border to see the waterfalls. Once or twice we passed heavily loaded trucks that were goin to some place or other with their goods and products. In Vietnam, you usually see motorcycles that are vey heavily laden, but here it seem to be the trucks and local busses.