For reference: $1CAD = 6000kip – $1USD = 8000k
We booked our ticket to Pakse through Mr Vai. He charged 50,000 kip but it included both our boat to land and bus. At the Pakse south terminal, we hopped off and found a local bus going to Tad Lo for another 40,000 kip. Busses here are expensive… and they’re not even nice busses.
We left Don Det at 11am and arrived at the Tad Lo market around 6:30pm. A 1.5km walk had us at the Palamei Guesthouse which was recommended to us by friends. It was full when we arrived. Back to the grind of searching for a place. We ended up at Sabai Sabai Guesthouse which was 35,000k for the night. The room was basic, the bed was bamboo with barely any cushion and the shared toilets were near unusable. I don’t have a problem using a shared toilet, I don’t even mind using the toilets at the bus station. These were a totally different level of disgusting. One was completely clogged and the other looked like it had never seen a cleaning product.
We ate dinner across the street at a small local place. 12,000k for a big bowl of vegetable & noodle soup. Well worth it.
That night we found out that we were also staying in a party hostel. Not that there’s many people here to party with but loud music accompanied by 10 drunk people talking gibberish and our bamboo walls don’t mask much sound. Needless to say we didn’t sleep much.
The following morning we went back to Palamei to see if they had rooms open up. They have! For 70,000k we stayed in a big bungalow overlooking the rice field with our own toilet which was spotless. We had a nice balcony with a hammock and realized this is one of the nicest rooms we’ve had in Southeast Asia.
Mr Bah, the owner offers half day tours around the area. According to my copy of the Lonely Planet, it would be 45,000k each. I anticipated this price to be double since that is usually the rule when dealing with the Lonely Planet.. When I asked about the tour… 250,000k per person! WTF! I guess we’ll find our own way around.
Turns out the Tad lo waterfall is actually quite close and easy to find. A 1.8km walk along a dirt road takes us right up front of it. As many of you know with traveling… timing can be everything. Well it’s dry season so the waterfall isn’t nearly as big and menacing as it is in all the Google searched photos. That’s okay. It’s still really cool. Our bad timing happens to be that for the first time since they built a dam up top, they are cleaning it. The result is the normally crystal clear mint green waters are now diarrhea brown. This is the water the town uses, they cook with it, shower with it, etc. Turns out they’ve been working on it for over a month now and it was supposed to be complete.
We opted to skip on the waterfall that was 8km away as it is reduced to next to nothing in the dry season. However, we quite like the town. Our bungalow is beautiful and we met some interesting people. Palamei has a “cook with the family” dinner option on their menu. Reminiscing about our time in Dalat we signed up for this our first night. Around 6pm, a few of us are gathered around. Mr Bah comes up to me with a big smile and asks, “Do you like pizza?” Kind of taken aback by this question, I stutter out a, “y-y-yes?” I didn’t think his smile could get any bigger, but it did, “Okay! You make pizza! Just tell me what you need!” I stand there slightly confused, “I don’t know how to make pizza. Do you have the number for Dominos?” He laughs and tells me to Google it. Guess I’m making pizza.
We found a recipe for pizza dough and asked for the ingredients. They don’t have measuring cups here, only 1 giant liquid measure. Kristi was worried I would screw everything up so she made the dough while I cut up some veggies for it. I prefer my pizza with meat on it but there were vegetarians in the crowd so I guess we’ll be respectful of them.
Meanwhile, as we were doing this, half of the people were sitting around looking for things to do. There didn’t seem to be any organization or anyone to give direction. We convince a German girl to shred the cheese for us and there is a guy in the kitchen cutting vegetables. The other five people are just sitting around not really sure what’s going on as Mr Bah is preparing something on the BBQ.
When the food is ready, there is a mix of variety. Cooked vegetables, vegetable soup, tons of sticky rice, BBQ fish wrapped in banana leaves and of course, our pizza. Which surprisingly turned out to be quite nice. Kristi made sure everyone knew that I had a minimal role in the pizza. I was okay with this because if it was a disaster then I could say my hands were clean.
The overall experience was interesting. They call it “cooking with the family” but you don’t seem to do any actual cooking with the family. I would have loved to see how the fish was prepared and done. I didn’t need to learn how to make pizza. I could have Googled that at home where my WiFi connection is reliable. I don’t know if I would do it again here but there is another option across the street at the Fandee Guesthouse. They offer the same thing for slightly less. I don’t know if the experience is much different but being that it’s run by a foreigner, I imagine it’s a much more hands on and learning experience.
The Fandee Guesthouse has a table set up with all local products. They give some of the money directly to the person who makes it and they put the rest into the village. They look after about 7 kids and make sure they have proper clothes and go to school everyday. Kristi and I bought a couple bracelets. Turns out they were made by a couple of the kids. Seeing their faces light up as they realized, “You picked one of mine!” was great. It’s nice to support the local community when you can and it’s refreshing to buy something that you know wasn’t made in China.
Further up the road is the Tad Lo Lodge where they have 2 elephants. They offer 4 time slots per day for elephant rides which left us skeptical about how well they are treated. However, at 4:30pm they take the elephants to the river for bath time and that sounds like it could be good. The manager of the hotel happened to be there when we showed up and started telling us about the elephants. The care, the treatment, the mahouts, anything we wanted to know. They don’t allow the mahouts to use sticks or hooks. If they can’t make the elephant listen by talking to it, then they don’t keep their job. The manager made it very easy for us to relax and know that these elephants are well taken care of.
We learned that there are less than 2000 elephants left in Laos which is called “land of a million elephants”. It’s estimated that 1200 of those are in captivity and the other 800 are “free” though he says that is a loose term.
He said in the daytime, they have to chain up the elephants. Not to be cruel but to keep them from wandering up the road to the village and eating all of the farmers crops. This happens to be near their harvest season so they have a duty to make sure they elephants stray as the villagers rely on those crops to make a living. Kind of like how you shouldn’t let your dog shit on someone else’s lawn.
They let you get right up close to the elephants. You can feed them if you want. The manager likes to walk up and hug them right around the trunk and tell them he loves them.
The elephants have lots of sugar cane to chew on and eat. When we walked up on day, we see the elephant eating sugar cane and the Mahout sitting below her also chewing on a piece of sugar cane. The sight was too hilarious.
Though we may not have explored too much of the Bolaven Plateau or spent time bathing in crystal clear waters below or above a waterfall, we had a great time in Tad Lo. We met some great people and I would happily return here again one day. How could we have a negative experience? I got to pet elephants and make pizza. Tad Lo is a cool, laid back town and they have pigs running all over the place which makes Kristi smile.
It is time to move on. There’s a lot to see in Laos and less than 30 days to do it. We are in for a long journey to Tha Khek.