Riding the Southern Swing: Wait… Where Are We?


Dinner in Tat Lo is a leisurely affair, even more so than the rest of Laos. After we’d ordered our food and beers, Mama (as we’d named the owner) snapped into action, shouting at various family members and making phone calls, stirring up a tiny storm of activity.

Mama knew instinctively that cold beer would be our first priority and soon her husband was walking down the road with three hot Beer Laos clutched to his chest. He swapped them for cold ones from a competitor and returned with a huge grin on his face. As Christina, Stu and I enjoyed the beer, various family members came trickling in, each carrying part of our dinner — a sulky teenage girl in her school uniform delivered the frozen chicken, while a young boy brought the pork.

Papa ran out again and returned with a bag of charcoal to feed the cooking fire, then a sack of rice and handfuls of herbs and vegetables arrived, vanishing into the kitchen where Mama was hard at work. In Laos, it takes a village to feed a farang.

Riding the Southern Swing: Wait... Where Are We?

Their on-time inventory management system worked well, albeit slowly, and after 45 minutes or so, we were happily digging into our meals. I really enjoyed my stir-fried chicken with ginger, despite the fact that I’d ordered beef, and Stu seemed pretty pleased with his pork dish. Craving something sweet, we returned to our hotel’s restaurant where we’d earlier spotted an intriguing dish on the menu: banana lao lao.

The bananas were split in half and pan fried with enough rice whiskey to kill a horse — a very large horse. As the waitress delivered the plates, the owner shouted for us to wait and rushed to the table with a glass of even more of the evil moonshine, which she splattered over the plates and lit with a match: banana lao lao flambe.

The bananas were split in half and pan fried with enough rice whiskey to kill a horse

Stu and I managed to finish our servings, somehow — there was at least a pound of bananas on each plate and the fumes from the whiskey syrup brought tears to my eyes. Our bungalows’ balcony was only twenty feet away and I was damned grateful for that, as I couldn’t quite feel my legs by the time we finished. It was the best $1.25 I’d spent in a long time, or so I thought at the time…

The following morning, we didn’t quite get off to the early start we’d imagined. (I’ll give you a moment to work up a look of surprise. Go ahead, take your time.) Neither Stu nor I felt too sharp — I think the bananas were past their prime.

We were headed to our next destination on the Loop, the town of Sekong, which really didn’t seem too interesting but was a convenient stop on the way to Attapeu. The plan was to stay a night in Sekong, continue on to Attapeu and stay a couple of nights, then hit Paksong and make our way back to Pakse, completing the classic Loop route.

But Sekong was only 74km away, so we weren’t really in a huge hurry. We rolled out of town and passed through fields thick with banana trees, corn and dozens of plants I couldn’t identify. The fields looked wild and uncultivated, but it was an illusion — everywhere we turned, we saw people hard at work harvesting produce from the seemingly feral plots.

Riding the Southern Swing: Wait... Where Are We?

Coming around a bend, we found three teenage boys harvesting someone else’s produce, judging by the panicked look on their faces as they saw us. Once they realized we were foreigners, their concern faded and they hurriedly wrapped up several large gourds in a cloth and strapped them to their bike.

The road was much the same as the day before: well-worn tarmac with an occasional pothole to keep us honest. We passed through several villages with basic bamboo huts, surrounded by small plots of corn and coffee plants. Passing a fancy coffee plantation, we turned around to investigate and try one of coffee tastings we’d read about in guidebooks.

Riding the Southern Swing: Wait... Where Are We?

Traveling in the slow season has it’s rewards but also offers its share of disappointments — there was no coffee tasting to be had, due to lack of tourists. The grounds were lovely, maintained by at least a half dozen workers, and we spent a half hour touring the grounds and taking photos, then hit the road again, keeping a wary eye on the heavy rain clouds ahead.

Coming into a small town, we spotted a large market and stopped to look around. Stu and I had once discovered some amazing, spicy grilled sausage at a market in Thalat and had since stopped at nearly every market we saw, hoping to find more. I spotted some bright red sausages on a skewer and sampled one for 2,000 kip ($.25), but it was sweet and rather bland.

Riding the Southern Swing: Wait... Where Are We?

The market was the usual Laos affair: a muddy field packed with small wooden stalls, selling everything from fresh fish and vegetables to cell phones to knock-off, high-end stereo equipment. But no spicy sausage. What we didn’t realize then was that this was the town of Thaleng, where we were supposed to catch a turn to Sekong — so, we continued straight when we should have turned left.

Imagine our surprise, then, when we pulled into a town a couple hours later that we were sure was Sekong, only to find a road sign that said “Sekong 86km” pointing back the way we came. We were actually in Paksong, the intended last stop of our tour and high on the Plateau. We were further from our destination than when we’d started. How the hell did that happen?

We were further from our destination than when we’d started. How the hell did that happen?

After checking with a local man who was convinced that we were completely insane –“Are you sure this is Paksong?”– we huddled together to decide what to do. It was now 4pm, rain was threatening and we were at least three hours from Sekong.

The decision was an easy one — none of us was too excited about Sekong anyway, so we decided to stay the night in Paksong and head out for Attapeu in the morning. Looking for shelter, we tried the Bolevan Hotel first, which was nice and clean, but overpriced. On the plus side, they had a pet gibbon that hung out in the back yard near a sign that read “Danger: Monkey”, but the downside was that they wanted 80,000 kip ($10) for a room with a hot shower (60,000 for one without) and they were well out of town. I seriously wanted to hang out with the Danger Monkey but hid my disappointment.

Instead, we ended up at the Green View Guesthouse, where we bargained the clerk down to 60,000 kip for large rooms with hot showers, refrigerators, and satellite TV. There was a large balcony at the back where we could hang out and watch the lightning show as the storm finally broke and rolled in.

What we didn’t know, at the time, was that the karaoke bar next door was a brothel and that the atonal screeching of Laos’ finest drunken performers would keep us up for much of the night.

Next: The Search for the Ancient Stone

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael September 27, 2010 at 7:55 pm

did you stumble on Koffee, the Dutch cafephile of Paksong? I believe he may have brewed one of the finest pots of coffee I’ve ever had the pleasure to sample


wes September 29, 2010 at 8:59 am

Yeah! That guy is a bit of a weird-beard, but we had fun. And, it’s the only wifi we could find AND it was free. Not sure he’s thought his business model through too well :)


Michael September 29, 2010 at 9:28 am

ha! weird-beard indeed


Andi September 28, 2010 at 1:53 am

Great pics as always. That bridge shot is gorgeous!!!
.-= Andi´s last blog ..Planning Netherlands &amp Spain =-.


Marie September 28, 2010 at 7:34 am

Damn bananas! They’ll get you every time.

I followed a link from a Twitter pal here and I like your writing style.
.-= Marie´s last blog ..I Love… =-.


wes September 29, 2010 at 8:59 am

Thanks, Marie! The bananas here are small, but potent ;)


Pirate63 September 28, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Great report againWes,We always find the best parts of our trips are when we are lost


wes September 29, 2010 at 8:48 am

Agreed! That’s where the magic happens.


Christy - Ordinary Traveler September 30, 2010 at 4:12 am

This story made me laugh out loud. I just found your site also, and happy I did! I have memories of sleepless nights in Vang Vieng due to loud music, but that should be expected considering it’s a party town. You must have been surprised to find that out in the middle of nowhere.
.-= Christy – Ordinary Traveler´s last blog ..Worship and Waterfalls in Laos 4 =-.


wes October 2, 2010 at 9:48 am

Thanks, Christy — glad you’re enjoying the site. Yeah, Paksong was the last place I’d expect such a scene — it’s a quiet, sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere…


Sheena October 2, 2010 at 6:35 am

The bridge shot is fantastic! I hope we could have a trip to Asia, my travel bug always bite every time i see wonderful pics like this=)
.-= Sheena´s last blog .. =-.


wes October 2, 2010 at 9:47 am

Thanks, Sheena! Hope you get to visit Asia soon :)


Phil January 31, 2012 at 1:44 am

Wow, nice story. Thoroughly enjoyed the whole series. Hope to do it in the next 24 months :=)


Kevi Naleo Mor May 26, 2012 at 12:44 am

Really enjoyed and laughed too. You are very funny and entertaining