Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

A quiet corner of paradise

01.06.1998 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Travel ::

When I saw the height of the winding red dirt track we were going to have to traverse, I threw down my pack in despair.

That was December, and not unusually for the time of year, the water was too rough to take a longtail to the bay from Mae Hat, where boats from Chumphon, Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan land. As taxi-drivers and motorcyclists generally retain too great a portion of their sanity to attempt the pothole-ridden road, walking is theonly option. I thought a second option might simply be staying somewhere on this side of the hill, but my partner was determined.

He arrived back with cool water, and we trudged off and up… and up. Upon reaching the summit we were rewarded with a cool breeze and a hint of the view that was to be enjoyed once we were there. Heartened, we headed down… and down.

In less than half-an-hour overall – unfit people can be melodramatic about physical activity – we arrived to a warm welcome at Hin Wong Bungalows. To our delight we discovered we’d be the only guests, and had our choice of one of their eight basic wooden bungalows that go for 100 baht a night, a fact which dispelled the myth of it being difficult to find a piece of quite paradise to yourself on Ko Tao– afterall, it’s now busier per square metre than Ko Samui.

While the western side of Ko Tao contains great stretches of smooth white sand, it also features a great number of dive shops, which, depending on your appreciation of peacefulness, are not so lovely. Hin Wong is markedly different. Giant round boulders have collected in the bay over the millennia, and form what may well become a beach – in a few millennia more. For the moment, however, the steep and lush green hills on either side of the bay give way to wild-looking boulders and then the deep blue Gulf of Thailand. And there’s not a dive shop in sight.

We strung up our hammocks, relaxed, and enjoyed the view. The wind picked up, and as the white-capped waves pummelled the rocks ferociously, our hopes of snorkelling within the near future were dashed. It’s difficult to remain distressed about small disappointments in such a pretty place, however, so we consoled ourselves with a trip to the restaurant.

The food complemented the view, and considering the hassle of lugging supplies to Hin Wong in such weather, it’s competently priced as well. In fact, the food, the view, a couple of good books and conversing with the family who run Hin Wong was enough to keep us satisfied for the three days we had to wait for the weather to settle down sufficiently to go for a snorkel.

Finally we were able to plunge into the water. Within a couple of seconds I spotted one of the largest groupers I have ever seen, along with parrot fish, damsel fish and an array of stunning coral. It was astounding. Why bother going to the hassle and expense of scuba diving when there’s so much to enjoy just below the surface?

With time ticking away, we decided to continue our search for out-of-the-way resorts. We found ourselves at Ao Thian Nok, a small beach located on the southeast of the island. Far more tranquil than the nearby Ao Chalok Ban Kao or Hat Sairee, there’s only one resort – and one dive shop – so you’re more than likely to find a piece of quiet beach to yourself to relax on.

We settled in to a white-stuccoed bungalow at Rocky Resort, rather pricey at 350 baht per night, but with a faultless view of the beach and two friendly large blue geckos in the bathroom we were content. With white bed linen, white walls, wooden shutters, and a view of the sunset literally from the bed, I couldn’t help but consider for a moment whether I might not be on Italy’s Isle of Capri. A trip to the restaurant, of course, fixed that.

Our hill-climbing days on Ko Tao were far from over – with the John Suwan viewpoint a mere half-hour’s walk away, it had to be done. By the state of the track, it became quite clear that bushwalking is not generally a second sport favoured by divers! We met not a soul clammering to the peak giving a breathtaking view back over the peninsula, nor on our return. If you can drag yourself from the beach, the viewpoint is highly recommended, particularly in the early morning.

You may, in fact, develop a taste for hiking up hills while on Ko Tao. We took the obligatory day trip to Ko Nang Yuan, famed for being the only place in the world where three islands are joined by beaches. The walk to the viewpoint here is clearly more popular than that of John Suwan’s – cement steps led all the way to the summit! Yet again, we found we had the top of the world to ourselves, and as we took in the only view of its type in the world, we realised the sweat and swearing was all worthwhile.

So when your boat pulls in to Mae Hat and you’re approached by touts from fifteen different dive shops at once, don’t despair – just tell them where to stick their O2 tanks! Then take a deep breath, make sure your shoes are comfortable, and get away from it all. And if you’re heading to Hin Wong, remember a bottle of water.

Information

The most ideal time of the year to travel to Hin Wong is May through to July, when the weather is reliably calm and snorkelling is the daily activity.
At Hin Wong, masks, snorkels and fins can be hired, but it’s recommended that you take your own, both to save some extra cash, and to be assured that you’ll get the quality you’re used to.

Lak Sao: Road to nowhere

01.06.1998 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Travel ::

If the world was flat, this town would surely be at the very edge of it. A tumbleweed or two blowing past wouldn’t be out of place, while a bar with wagon wheels adorning the facade would fit right in. It’s dusty and blisteringly hot; it’s full of ancient trucks, noisy tuktuks and disabled buses; the folorn thatched shops skirting the main square sell meagre odds and ends; and there’s a kid spraying a chicken to death with insect repellant right under my nose. This is Lak Sao. We console ourselves with the impressive limestone mountains in the distance.

‘Lak Sao is very beautiful!’ a Luang Prabang resident had told us. ‘Oh, you must visit Lak Sao,’ the men we met in Pakxane had insisted.

We’d heard only intriguing snippets about Laos’s Lak Sao, located in eastern Bolikhamsai province. Our guidebook describes it as being the ‘development’ project of a company called Phattanakhet Phu Doi, headed by a Lao general. The company is meant to have transformed Lak Sao from a sleepy village into a thriving metropolis (for Laos!) of 24 000 people. The guidebook also writes that the market is renowned for the sale of wildlife, some of it endangered.

Christopher Kremmer, in his travelogue Stalking the Elephant Kings, mentions Lak Sao when discussing the growing power of the army in Laos. A company based there and headed by General Chang Sayavong, he writes, employs a large number of the town’s population in ‘agriculture, forestry, building, infrastructure, handicrafts processing, tourism and, allegedly, cattle smuggling’. Kremmer writes that the General was meant to have started a zoo staffed by foreign experts, ‘constantly replenished with wild animals fleeing his company’s own logging activities’.

As if that wasn’t enough to make us curious, George Negus covered Lak Sao for Foreign Correspdondent! We had to see for ourselves.

Arriving at Tha Khaek’s outer bus station in the liquid-gold light of morning, the colours of the hand-painted Isuzu truck-buses are intensified, and the produce and wares for sale in the sprawling market next door take on magical hues. The bus to Lak Sao leaves at eight, but we’ve long since learned that in Laos you need to be on the bus in your seat at least an hour before it leaves to be sure of getting a seat at all.

With time to spare, we take a seat at a stall for a cup of kafeh thong, freshly brewed Lao coffee. As the stallholder stokes the fire, we watch the madness escalate. Rooves are loaded, tuk-tuks skidding to a halt spew forth scarve-cladded women clutching babies, whole families zip by on motor scooters and people queue to buy baguettes stuffed with meat, cucumber and chilli sauce. A steamed bun vendor pushes his bike past, tooting his horn loudly.

Armed with water and baguettes, we find our bus and claim seats with legroom more suited to Western infants than adults. Space is further reduced when a few boxes of fish sauce are shoved under our feet. The roof is being piled high with everything from baskets of live chickens and electric fans—we count fifteen boxes on their way up—to saucepans and sun-dried tobacco.

The rope tying all the cargo groans and creaks so ominously as we depart that at first I think it’s the roof caving in. We stop every hundred metres or so out of town to collect more people and soon we’re sitting six to rows meant for four. We don’t panic, however, as it’s only 90 kilometres to Nam Thone, the turn off to Lak Sao. Then, according to the very name Lak Sao which means ‘Kilometre Twenty’, we have just another twenty kilometres to go.

We pick up more people at the turnoff, and the bus becomes crowded, even for Laos. An hour passes. And another. An old woman two seats in front is spitting betel nut juice out the window, and great flecks of it are flying back on to my face and arm. There’s a sudden muffled thump followed by squawking; a basket of chickens has of course fallen off the roof. We back up, throw it back onto the roof and continue on our way.

The road is quite good, we pass numerous trucks hauling logs each at least the girth of a fat man’s waist, and still we push on. Then it dawns on my partner: the Kilometre Twenty Lak Sao derives its name from must refer to its location twenty kilometres from the Vietnamese border, not twenty kilometres from the Nam Thone turnoff.

Another few hours pass, during which if I hold my breath, crank my neck and stick my head out the window, the scenery is really quite lovely, with spectacular jagged mountains covered in primary-growth forest punctuating the distance. Finally, when I’m very close to throwing the boxes of fish sauce out the window after shifting my legs around them for seven continuous hours, we rumble into Lak Sao.

We carefully unfold our limbs and gingerly crawl out of the bus to wait for our luggage. The chickens are first off the roof, the fallen basket containing some rather stiff bodies. This is where the curious kid with a can of insect repellant takes particular notice of one chicken clearly struggling for breath. He sprays its head and it immediately keels over in possibly a kinder death than it was otherwise facing.

A tuk tuk takes us to Lak Sao’s sole hotel, the Phu Doi, located two kilometres from the bus station and market area. If you could get further from the middle of nowhere than where we had just been, then this would be it. It’s a spectacular example of bad architceture, but for a reasonable 10 000 kip we have a room with a fan, complimentary water and soap, and a share bathroom.

Twilight arrives early in Lak Sao, with the mountains to the west eating the sun by 5pm. Narrowly avoiding scores of flying bugs, we eventually make our way to the thatched reception hut where we ask the attendant about the possibility of hiring motorcycles. ‘Baw dai!—It’s not possible!’ he replies, and he knows nothing about a zoo, either. I flick the menacing cockroach crawling across his collar off in a gesture of goodwill before leaving anyway.

We’re the only patrons in the hotel’s restaurant for dinner until a tour group of eight destined for Vietnam arrives a little later. The English menu features ‘baked scaly anteater’, ‘sour lionsnake soup’ and ‘wild bleeding boar’ along with French champagne, Italian red wine or Australian Swan Beer. While wondering if I should take my feminism as far as ‘male cooked in hot ash’, the local Lao guide leading the group saunters over to say hello.

‘Have you come from Vietnam?’ he inquires.

‘No,’ we reply.

‘Oh, so you’re heading there tomorrow!’ he says.

‘No, we’ve just come to see Lak Sao.’ He’s speechless, so we explain about wanting to see the general’s operations, the zoo and the market. The penny drops and he shakes his head.

‘Oh! The General has been de-posted!’ he exclaims. ‘I think perhaps he cut down too many trees!’ He explains that the zoo has been closed, and the government has largely taken over other operations. He offers us a ride back to Nam Thone in his otherwise empty airconditioned mini-bus tomorrow. We accept, incredulous at such luck.

The following morning we’re up with the sun to take a walk to the market and around town. After fortifying ourselves with karfeh thong and stuffed baguettes, we wander through the open-air aisles, taken aback by the array of vegetables for sale, and the especially fine colours of the women’s pha nungs, or embroidered skirts. A baby monkey in a thatched cage chatters when we stop for a peek, and some lizards lie out on display. That’s apparently it for the wildlife, unless you’re in the know, we presume. As the market appears to be town, we retire back to our hotel.

Heading back to Nam Thone by minibus later in the day, we actually get a chance to see all the amazing scenery we missed on the way up. It’s spectacular, and we’re viewing it in air conditioned comfort—but somehow we find ourselves missing the squawking chickens, the scent of dried chillies and tobacco, and the wind in our faces.

Information
Currency: US$1=2500 kip. Baht is also usually accepted.
Visas: Are available from Laotian embassies for 30 days.
Getting There: Thai Airways flies daily to Vientiane from Bangkok for 6745 baht return. Several buses leave Vientiane and pass through Tha Khaek daily. The bus to Lak Sao leaves from Tha Khaek at eight am. The ride costs 6000 kip.
When to go: The Laos is pleasant to visit during the dry period from November to May. Although days are hot, temperatures can drop to 15 degrees Celsius at night, so do take warm clothing.