When Italy native Mario Difra packed his bags and hopped on a plane to southern Laos – his third-place prize in the Mynatour Ecotourism Contest – he knew he was diving into a great adventure, all made possible by Teamworkz and whl.travel. On his seven-day journey on the waters of the Mekong River and through the treetops of the Champasak jungles, however, Difra recorded a parallel journey that takes travellers into the heart of local Lao life.
Lao Life at the Border
My journey starts here, on the border of Laos and Thailand. It’s impossible to get here by plane, and anyway, we didn’t want to miss the delight of a local night train from Bangkok to Ubon Rachathani, at the western border of Laos. So we arrived at the border by train, picked up our bags, opened our passports to receive our umpteenth Thai exit visas and went on foot along the stretch of road separating (or joining) the two countries. In those 500 metres, I felt as if I was in no-man’s land. I felt the sunshine, neither Thai nor Lao. Just sun and the green plants shining as much here as in the place left behind. That was the exact moment when I understood that, though maps aim to divide, they are hopeless against uniting nature.
The first thing I do when I cross a border is drink, sometimes a welcoming cup of fresh milk or steaming water. But in Vang Thao (in Laos), the first liquid I found for sale on the side of the street was the local, fiery red grappa, which tasted pleasant so early in the morning.
From there I continued to Pakse, the region’s main city, travelling by tuk-tuk, the typical local mode of transport. The modified trucks welcome passengers to enjoy the wind directly on their faces. It’s especially fun if one of the tuk-tuk’s many mechanical pieces breaks down during the trip. As we drove, we noticed the axle shift detaching. The driver got off, saved the pieces in his pocket, stopped a taxi passing by, put us on it and waved us a blessing for the continuation of our trip, a big smile on his face.
A First Glimpse of Local River Life
I spent the second day in Pakse preparing for the start of my cruise on the Mekong River. The journey started with a tiny, speedboat that carried me to the larger cruise boat. On the way, I felt myself penetrating into the magic net of islets the river is known for – the region of 4,000 islands. Every little island looked like a world by itself, each one organised around one or two villages.
The railroad connecting these islands, one of many colonial relics from the times of the French presence in Indochina, carries new boats from the lower part of the Mekong to its northernmost origins. Boats are dismantled, transported and, once they arrive at the final destination, reassembled; waterfalls in the region prevent boats from sailing the full length of the Mekong.
Learning about Village Life
On day three, as we sailed up the Mekong, we passed dozens of small villages. Ban Deua Tia was one of the most characteristic. Men were throwing fishing nets and giant crates for catching catfish, women were taking care of the rice fields and children were playing.
Amidst the daily chores other activities were taking place, such as women weaving colourful mats, a family tradition passed down through the generations. We smiled at the villagers when we arrived, exchanged a few words, and I soon found myself sharing in their daily activities. I tried to practice weaving and making fruit decorations with the local women.
Experiencing Local Religion
On the fourth day, still on the cruise, we visited Wat Phou, the grand temple complex of Champasak. Lying in the hills south of Pakse, this ancient city is a holy site where, in 1200 BC, local populations built an array of temples in the Hindu style. The site was chosen in the mountains, near a source of spring water so fresh and crystal clear it could not have come from anywhere except the heavens.
In the following centuries, the site was retaken by Buddhist monks and today is considered one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the country. In February, during the full moon, Theravada Buddhists – the largest sect of Buddhists in Laos – organise a week of feasting, prayers and music.
We began our trek to the site alongside two enormous ponds filled with lotus flowers. We bathed and purified ourselves before going up the mountain. At its base is a path up a steep staircase carved from rock that leads to the temple. Shaded by thick vegetation and underneath a sheer rock wall rests the temple, with arched doors richly decorated with Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Glancing through the doors, I caught a glimpse of the central hall, where I saw a beautiful statue of Buddha. It was covered in long orange drapes, half buried under votive offerings, rice bowls, incense sticks, banana leaves, flowers and candles. The image was sublime and breathtaking, and I understood why locals feel driven to purify themselves in the pure spring water that flows beneath the temple.
Encounters with Local Wildlife
Upon finishing the journey on the Mekong, on the fifth day I entered the jungles for the second half of my journey. During this time, I got to know Home and Ham, my local guides. Home was a tech-savvy, fluent English speaker, keeping up to date with his Facebook page whenever possible. Ham was shy but always smiling, confidently overcoming all jungle obstacles while wearing flip-flops, as if they were the latest model of trekking shoes.
Our forest trek started on the edges of Stone Khelee Vongkot Park. After about a half hour of walking through the famous local coffee fields, we entered the jungle. The cultivations disappeared, replaced with a tangle of giant bamboos, ferns and tropical plants.
After six or seven minutes in the jungle, Home screamed and jumped off the path. “It’s a cobra!” he shrieked. For a brief moment I wished we could have started off spotting a monkey, but I knew we were very lucky to have such a close encounter with a cobra – not such a common occurrence. After I relaxed my paralysed body, I watched it. It granted us a five-minute show before sneaking away.
Living Among the Waterfalls
I woke up on the sixth morning of my trip in a treehouse, sheltered by mosquito nets and 20 metres up in the air, surrounded by lianas and other climbing plants. The treehouse complex is a wonderful, tiny village – completely self-sufficient in terms of water and electricity. An array of pipes hidden among the trees channeled water from the waterfall upstream and, thanks to gravity, channels it to the bathroom. The restaurant area is built in a wooden shed and is also a kitchen. It’s a magical place at the foot of the last of the seven cascades of the Tiger Waterfall, among the sparkling whirlpools and mist shining with thousands of rainbows.
Lunch was by the river, on a rock that welcomed our banana-leaf place mats and hundreds of fish rolls and sauces. Diving into the natural pools beneath the waterfall, hearing the roar in my ears and walking through a rainbow were experiences that made the trek through the jungle well worthwhile.
Integrating Tradition and Modernity
I have mixed feelings on my last day in Laos. Leaving the treehouse, I headed back to civilisation, toward the city where nature moved over to make room for manpower. Yet without modernity – without the airport with the plane that brought me here, without the factory that made the steel cables for the zip line and the tree houses, without my climbing gear – I would never have been able to experience this enchanting side of Laos.