A Pakse of Four Thousand Islands


Champasak lends itself well to superlatives.

The southernmost province embodies such awe-struck descriptions as “most beautiful” place in Laos with the “best coffee and goi pa/ກ້ອຍປາ” and astounding sunsets.

Starting from Champa’ and traveling west, you would encounter the region of Isaan within the country of Thailand. Turning east toward the rising sun, ascending the Bolaven Plateau, and keeping onward, you would find yourself in the wet heights of Attapeu or Sekong Province. Southward to the Cambodian border, you would come across four thousand islands carved by waters that came all the way from Tibetan elevations.

Pakse, the capital of Champasak Province and second-largest city in the country, is often the beginning and end point to exploring the rainy, coffee-growing region. It also serves as a jumping off point for trade and travel to Cambodia, Vietnam, or Thailand. Like many large cities in Laos, Pakse lies along the Mekong; unlike every other large city in Laos, it’s divided into two by the southerly meander of the Nam Xe Don tributary.

The city offers some fairly impressive views of both rivers and their confluence. One of those views — from the hill across the Lao-Nippon Bridge — is intended for those prepared to handle some dilapidated wooden stairs (and just stairs in general). The lookout near Wat Phu Salao and its Golden Buddha offers an expansive view of the City-split-in-two:

However, Champasak’s main tourist draw is its plentiful waterfalls.

Assuming you know the road and have a motorbike, you could visit at least three in a day. Some waterfalls are encircled by restaurants and small-ish resorts, meaning that no trekking is required. Others require a little more from their would-be visitors (and offer more in exchange). Tile 2’s Tad Gneuang Falls, for example, first transforms its visitors into unwitting worshipers. Then it drenches them in a mildly holy mist as they clamber down a path of slick and steep stone stairs to snap a shot in fleeting wonder.

The Khone Phapeng Falls (ນ້ຳຕົກຕາດຄອນພະເພັງ) just north of the Cambodian border are a veritable apotheosis. Over 11,000m³ of water pass over these falls every second, making them one of the largest falls by volume in the world — a full four times larger than Niagara Falls and ten times larger than Victoria Falls.¹ The falls consist of a network of narrow channels and steep cataracts that spans 10km altogether, making it the widest waterfall in the world.

About 40km upstream of the Khone Phapheng Falls, the Mekong already begins to stretch itself out into a patchwork of waterways and rapids patterned with proliferate islands. Together, they form the eponymous archipelago of Four Thousand Islands//Siphandon.

img_0671_edited

The challenging river terrain once stymied French colonial traders seeking to connect the then-colony of Indochina with China at the Mekong/Lancang headwaters. Khone Phapheng’s rocky rapids forced them to build a small-gauge railway between Don Khone, the largest island, and its neighbor, Don Det, to circumvent the impassable falls. The railway eventually fell into disuse in the 1940s, but was, for a time, the only railway built in Laos until Thailand’s Northeastern Line was extended from Nong Khai to Vientiane in 2009.

Nowadays, the islands are still just as split-up and surrounded by the Mekong as they were a hundred years ago. Bridges and ferry boats connect the islands across the copious channels that flow between them. These channels act as a natural funnel for the river’s fish, making some areas — like just downstream of Khone Pasoi Falls, for instance — ideal fishing grounds.

Champasak isn’t just the sum total of tourist descriptions of waterfalls and dreamy islands, though.

Sure, many of Champa’s observable features could be recorded and told in denotative language, but they’re often meaningless without an underpinning of value. Frequently it’s the things that are less observable that inspire that value. However, those less-observable things are themselves the product of some sort of secret summation based on physicality and straightforward perception.

So, with some simplification, Champasak is a place where things occur and continue and are built upon or removed. Lumber and steel and clay bricks have been arranged here. They’ve been moved just as much as the black opalescent butterflies and dalmatian clouds glide northward to Salavan. This space is where ant colonies function. In July, a new crop of glutinous rice will be transplanted, then grown, harvested, processed, and cooked.

In Champasak, families build houses and share meals and peer across the table at one another. Here, people walk across somewhat reddish soil that, when trenched into paddy and inundated by seasonal rain, appears more brown than its un-wet color.

In juxtaposition with the sky and its green-leaved downstairs neighbors reaching into the upward open, the dirt path and side-of-the-road wooden fences are quite content to stay put.

And that’s alright, here is both.



Beginnings of things might be when the-other-way-around comes rightside-up.
For example, watching some birds and bats and airplanes fly upside-down outside the window then sitting up to see them cruising the typical way.

Ends of things might be when they slowly topple down head-first or their physical becomes something else’s physical.
Example: when Pakse drifts off to some southern and eastern place and then, one year later, starting to wonder how long the distance has been.

Because of those upwards and downwards, and because the evening can slowly turn purple to pink Navel orange,

Earth heals.

It stitches them together as if it’s “been there” too — starting out/settling down.
Water listens before anything else, even when stepping into the warm rain bathing (brown) in this rice paddy,
and the sky feels breath-heat, making space.

Green things are a cure. Seriously.
Which is why it’s alright to watch things upside-down, wonder about four thousand islands in Berlin, and still have muddy toenails for many days.

<<<<>>>>

For Vientiane, history, and the humans of Moutern Village


It wasn’t too long ago that Vientiane laid down its silken fabrics along the Riverbank.

Later, folks would sell these and other wares under moon- and floodlight. Real and fake sandalwood prayer beads would be presented alongside the pa-biang/ຜ້າບ່ຽງ scarves, laid out from left to right, overlapping, like a textiled rainbow.

Continue reading “For Vientiane, history, and the humans of Moutern Village”

How Vientiane Is an Analog for the World


I complained about the weather, walked the backstreets, and ate cheap.

This time the bus was a large, cyan blue thing with leather sleeping berths and cotton blankets. Upbeat folk music and the neon lights mounted above every bed gave the whole thing a strange feeling — as if I had somehow fallen asleep in a gaudy Lao nightclub. But none of this is to say that the overnight journey to Vientiane was uncomfortable. It wasn’t. It was like sleeping on a very peculiar southbound cloud.

Continue reading “How Vientiane Is an Analog for the World”

Phonsavan, Laos


Phonsavan, Laos — small town of Xieng Kouang county in Lower North Laos with residents who own hotels, restaurants, and businesses. The town’s central road is lined with auto parts stores and repair shops servicing the big rigs, trucks, and vans bound for the dusty distance. Cheap and delicious bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwich) made with fresh baked bread is available near the long-distance bus station.

Plain of Jars — where enigmatic past meets ever-changing present. Thousands of Iron Age stone jars dot the landscape just as bomb craters and trenches mar it. If it was a race of giants that made the jars or if the jars were fired in a nearby cave/kiln, scholars haven’t yet decided.¹ The Plain is surreal in its beauty: an endless parade of dreamlike clouds float above the thin dirt paths and hazy hills. Sparse, knotted trees and goldenrod low-brush complete the scene.

UXO — unexploded ordnance. That is: bombs, cluster munitions, shells/artillery projectiles, grenades, missiles, etc. that “did not explode when they were fired or dropped and still pose a risk of detonation, even many decades after they were used or discarded.”² Countless of these deadly weapons still linger in the towns and fields where they fell, left to decay and incapacitate innocents. Unexploded ordnance is the traumatizing legacy of American bombing raids during the CIA’s “Secret War.”

Amputated limbs and mangled bodies and literally millions of bombs indelibly and profoundly scarring the landscape might not be the first things one thinks of when visiting this place. Sleepy Phonsavan is surrounded by slow hills and plains that hyper-contrast the pastel blue sky. These plains are captivating. They defy definition.

But clouds as thick as memory pass overhead; many farmers in Laos continue to work in the same fields where bombs crippled them and blinded their children.

The Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO LAO) and Mines Advisory Group (MAG) work to make it possible for locals to live on their land safely. As of 2016, UXO LAO has removed over 1.4 million UXOs throughout the country and MAG has cleared 47 million square meters of cluster munitions and other ordnance leftover from US bombing during the Secret War. MAG estimates it has helped over one million people directly.

The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (more commonly known by its acronym, COPE) and its medical partners do incredible work custom-making prosthetic limbs for victims of unexploded ordnance. The COPE Visitor Center in Vientiane is a worthwhile visit with thoughtful exhibits and excellent informational videos about the ongoing UXO problem in Laos. The Center hosted President Obama during his visit to the country in September 2016.

In a nation characterized by its confluence of plains, hills, rivers, and peoples, the Plain of Jars is particularly striking. Parts of Laotian legend persist in these monolith vessels. Despite the place’s undeniable beauty, however, I wish I had been more cognizant of the UXO issue when I visited. Laos has the unfortunate title of being the most bombed country in the world per capita,³ but I was too enraptured by the dream of being there that I forgot about the nightmare that so clearly lingers.

Given the history of US military involvement in this region, I hope to be more purposeful in my actions as an American traveler. I ask my readers to join me in honoring victims of war by acting with intention and making a small donation to UXO LAO, MAG America, or COPE.

Thank you for your support.

The Two Rivers of Luang Prabang, Laos


Evening, approaching the Mekong/Nam Khan confluence.

Tucked in the far back corner of an outdated sleeper bus headed toward Luang Prabang, an impatient American passenger searched through the dirty window for a sign — any sign — that might suggest an end to his 27-hour journey from Kunming, China.

Bumpy, unpaved dirt roads had led him here: cramped and sweaty, peering into the darkening of North Laos. His bus, now hurtling at about 45mph on a thin, one and a half-lane highway in dusk, couldn’t arrive fast enough. A series of yellow-white lights off the left-hand side of the bus peeked through the blanket black night; the passenger blinked back at the shy lights. Air whistled through his opened window, damp like breath. Two left turns separated by a stretch of road resulted in a bus station where he alighted.

Shoving his shoulders back and stretching his arms into the sky, he stepped into the blacked-out indigo-blue of Luang Prabang.

Continue reading “The Two Rivers of Luang Prabang, Laos”

In One Month


A month of sights, meals, and places.

This past month of travel throughout China, Laos, Thailand, and Hong Kong was incredible. I find myself at a lack of words to describe how grateful I am for the opportunity to visit four stunningly diverse locations.

From city to desert to rivers, hills, and plains, much of what I saw and experienced still needs to be fully cogitated.

As such, writings over the coming weeks will focus on my recent travels. I will highlight some locations with full posts, and upload photo galleries for the rest. Having visited eleven cities, it will take a little while to complete. Thanks for your patience.