Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ride to Tad Lo Waterfalls

Really? Down that?
From Savannakhet, we rode to Tad Lo. Our Laos map is very basic, and for some reason, this part of the country is not included in any detail in the GPS. The first part of the ride was uneventful, not very scenic, and actually rather boring. Until we turned onto the dirt road at Kong Xe Don. 

Don't worry, it gets worse
 I believe I earned a new riding badge after completing this leg of the journey without incident. Tip: never think that the nice, smooth, solid dirt road is going to be just fine, because it will get worse. The smooth dirt became rutted, with deep, slippery fluff at the edges. Then, where they were working on bridges, the path (it no longer qualified as a road) ended at a sawhorse and turned down to the level of the river and a rickety, wood-decked bridge. The path surface was more of the deep fluff over top of large rocks at a grade of somewhere around 75 degrees (okay, 20 to 30, but it looked much steeper). This went on for 50 miles before we came to an unmarked dirt crossroads. Since the GPS still wasn't offering us any assistance, Colin, using a combination of common sense and his internal compass, turned right onto one of the paths. We followed it through teensy, tiny villages and fields, past kids playing in the river (we were sorely tempted to join them, as hot as we were), and sure enough, after 10 miles of rutted out goat path, we ran into the highway!

Look Ma, there's water directly below!
Shortly thereafter, we arrived at Tad Lo, which is a series of waterfalls with a very tiny village next to one of them. We rode through the village and toward the river, looking for a place to stay. Not seeing what we were looking for, we continued to the river and the bridge across it. Many of the bridges in Laos are wood-decked, with planks running perpendicular to the length of the bridge, and more planks on top of these which run lengthwise in two strips, spaced roughly to the width of 4-wheel vehicle tracks. It's usually best to ride on one of the strips. Except on this bridge. Colin was in the lead, riding on the left most strip, with me following. He apparently swerved to avoid a hole in the bridge and nearly hit the metal rail. He came very close, within a couple of inches of becoming entangled in the rail (if lucky) or going over the edge (if it gave way). It was scary to see, and I'm sure, terrifying to do. 

Tad Lo waterfall
Once we were both across, he sat, wide-eyed, for a moment to recover from the adrenaline rush, and I found a bungalow just up the hillside from the waterfall. We carried our bags up the steep, stone steps to the bungalow and sat for a while, listening to the cicadas buzz all around us. When I first walked up the hill to look at the bungalow, the noise was an absolute cacophony of high-pitched insect song. I've never heard anything like it. Once we settled in and got cleaned up, we headed back across the bridge to find some dinner. We ate at Mama Paps, a very basic place with three long picnic tables and the most unstable benches I have ever tried to balance my butt on. But the food was delicious and cheap, and the warm, motherly service was also a treat. After eating our fill, we headed back across the bridge and to the bungalow to bed.

Waxy, wacky protea in garden of bungalows
Tad Lo was a really nice, calm place, and we ended up staying two nights. The waterfall was much different from the ones we've seen in northern Thailand and Laos- it's not limestone, so the water lacks the milky blue color, and the water at this one moves fast. We spent most of one afternoon sitting in the river, starting out plopped just at the edge. But that got boring, so we decided to cross the river to climb up the rocks to the falls. The current was so fast, and the rocks so slippery with greenery, that our crossing was less than graceful. I more or less, crawled across, keeping bigger rocks to my left side to block my downriver slide. Colin, on the other hand, chose the scooting method. Once across, we climbed up to investigate, finding deep holes in the rock that were just large enough for one person to stand in, some of which were actually too deep to touch bottom. The water was warm and clear, and we sat and talked while we watched a group of local kids try to catch fish with makeshift fishing poles and small spearguns. As we stood in the deep holes in the rocks, the sky clouded over, and the water level began to rise ever so slightly. Soon, we heard thunder, and the wind picked up. We decided at this point that it might be time to get out, so we climbed back down the falls and scooted across the river as the raindrops started to fall (we'd hate to get wet, you know). Well, we made it back to our bungalow just before the storm. It didn't last long, but the storm blew away some of the heat. 

That evening, we went back across the scary bridge for a dinner.  We decided to branch out and try Jom's, which is across the road from Mama Paps for one meal during our stay.  The food was delicious and came with free entertainment (between the overheard conversations among some very drunk,very young travelers carried on behind us, and the owner's toddler son playing soccer with a little French boy in the middle of the restaurant, we laughed a lot). On our walk back after dinner, we saw several people huddled around a motorbike near the bridge.  None of them had a flashlight, so they were working by the light of a cellphone.  We  dug the headlamp out of my pack to at least provide a little illumination and asked if they needed a hand.  It was a western couple on a rented motorbike, and they were riding across the bridge during the storm earlier in the day.  When they got to the end of the bridge, they hit a deep pothole and fell.  In the fall, they got a few minor scrapes, but the bike chain dragging on the case and making noise, and the nut holding the top of the case on was misthreaded.  Two local men were trying to fix the problem, and since we didn't have a file, there wasn't much besides additional light that we could offer.  When they had everything buttoned up, we wished them good luck and headed back to our bungalow for the night.

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