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677: The Little Island
Escape the late-winter blues with a tropical blast from the past
675: Scenic Spirituality
Commune with religion and nature in an ancient land
673: Aoni Onsen
Return to a forgotten time at one of Honshu’s most remote getaways
671: The Golden Rock
One of Burma’s many splendid attractions hangs by a hair
669: Hida Takayama
For personal trips gentle to the soul, seek out the old-time charm of Hida Takayama
665: Okayama
A serene stroll through history awaits at this seaside retreat
663: Cruising the Bay
Ha Long Bay offers a breath of calm away from Vietnam’s urban rush
661: Agamachi
Fox fires and bar codes help a rural Niigata town reinvent itself
535: Hotel California
Mark Parren Taylor kicks up the desert dust in Palm Springs, the perennial Hollywood star retreat.
531: Race through time
The Xterra Saipan triathlon journeys through tropical jungle, up steep mountain paths and across the sands of history. Tama M. Lung joins the chase.
527: Bohemian rhapsody
No visit to Paris would be complete without taking in the Montmartre district. Bon vivant Simon Rowe dusts off his French to go exploring.
523: Slow Motion
Mark Parren Taylor touches down in the timeless former seaport of Lukang, Taiwan.
519: Rock of ages
From ancient times to the present, Gibraltar has always been an island of legends. Stephen Mansfield sifts through its history.
515: Go west, young man
Simon Rowe takes in the big skies and dust trails of Western Australia's East Kimberley region.
511: All mixed up
Mark Parren Taylor makes land on Macau and finds an enigmatic blend of cultures, cuisine and heated competition.
505: Earth, wind and fire
A historically imperiled town in Papua New Guinea holds the keys to a magical getaway. Carlo Niederberger splashes ashore.
501: Off the rails
Braving the 2,010 kilometers of Vietnam's Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is quite the adventure. Simon Rowe goes along for the ride.
493: Rites of passage
From firecrackers and cheek piercing to divinations and buffalo races, Thailand's most colorful customs come alive at two annual festivals. Mark Parren Taylor joins the crowds.
489: Paradise found
Beaches, battlefields and a colossal casino provide tropical pleasures on the Pacific isle of Tinian. Carlo Niederberger touches down.
485: Through the grapevine
Stephen Mansfield drinks up the delights of the Château Monbazillac in southwest France.
481: Pleasure island
Saipan awaits the young and young at heart with its pristine beaches, pointy peaks, and perfect amount of entertainment. Carlo Niederberger checks in.
477: Reservoir of dogs
Simon Rowe visits the Kingdom of Tonga, where storms burst without warning and wild canines rule the night.
473: Into the bat cave
Sarawak’s Niah Caves are home to hairless bats, birds on the brink of extinction, and lots of bugs, according to Simon Rowe.
469: A fork in the river
Laos’ ethnic minorities battle the forces of time. Stephen Mansfield goes upriver in search of them.
465: Action scene
Sick of the short, humid Japanese summer? Tired of the winter? In NZ it’s summertime and the living is easy, the food and drink inexpensive, and the evenings long and lazy. Mark Devlin heads south to explore and party.
457/458: In living color
Simon Rowe soaks in the glow of Samoa's kaleidoscopic streets.
454: From Jamaica with love
Michael McDonagh soaks up the atmosphere in James Bond's balmy birthplace
449: See worthy
Dan Grunebaum drops oar in the stunning caves of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay
445: Great heights
Simon Rowe packs his hiking boots and sets out for Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu
441: Split personality
There are few cities with such an exacting dividing line between past and present as Lijiang in China's southwestern province of Yunnan
438: Fierce creatures
Simon Rowe introduces us to the untamed charms of Australia's Kangaroo Island
434: Leap of Faith
Simon Rowe dives into a tropical island paradise of waterfalls, reefs and bush rugby on the Fijian archipelago
430: A week in Provence
Stephen Mansfield explores the historic festival city of Avignon, a medieval diamond in the south of France
426: Outer space
Surreal sites, lunar landscapes and UFO sightings go with the territory in Chile
422: The Big Easy
The Moorish streets of Granada, Spain are alive with a new Bohemian rhapsody
418: Small awakening
Japan's microbrewers
414: Fowl play
The animal kingdom comes alive in the Galapagos
410: The river of spirits
Wading through soulful waters in Varanasi, India
406: Heading north
Marching to the beat of a modern drum in North Korea
403: Santa's lap
Santa's lap - enjoy saunas, Santa and sightseeing in Finland’s Lapland
399: Shanghaied
Seeking the past in China's megacity
395: Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatia’s phoenix city, Dubrovnik.
391: The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
387: Prague
World heritage site
383: South Africa
Land of hope
381: Hawaii
Pearl Harbor
377: Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
374: China
Suzhou and Hangzhou
370: The Nile
The river mild
367: Tibet
Top of the world
363: Laos
Memo from the Lower Mekong
360: Cuzco, Peru
Lost cities
357: Namibia
Call of the wild
354: Southern India
Mad about Madurai

ISSUES 349-   

A fork in the river

Laos’ ethnic minorities battle the forces of time. Stephen Mansfield goes upriver in search of them.

Sunset over the Se Kong River.

Over the terrified squeals of a pig tethered to a motorcycle, I tried to concentrate on my dish of baked fish and lemongrass from the veranda of a café overlooking the fork of the Se Kong and Se Kaman rivers. A purple ink wash of mountains, jungle, fishermen in shallow pirogues, and the torn hull of a ferry put out of service by a US shell over a quarter of a century ago captured the twin sensations of beauty and unease one feels in Attapeu, a remote, rarely visited province of southern Laos.

A woman watches over a paddy of ripening rice.

Because of its proximity to the Ho Chi Minh trail, the area was brutally targeted during the Vietnam War. Unexploded ordinance has turned the jungles and mountain trails into death traps, making the use of a guide essential for any form of trekking or exploration. But for the curse of malaria, Attapeu, with its enfolding foliage of fronds, its lanes of overhanging greenery, and its gardens of banana and bougainvillea, would be a very agreeable place to live.


Local color
Aside from a mildly interesting temple and the morning market, Attapeu’s appeal owes less to physical sights than to atmospherics. My hope was to trek into the interior in order to make contact with the minority populations of the province. There were no roads as such, and what trails there were were often smothered by undergrowth. Boats and hunting tracks would be an option I was told, but I would need a reliable guide to negotiate the route and to avoid areas where unaccounted ordinance still lay in wait. A notice on the wall of the town’s Souksomphone Guest House advertised a French- and English-speaking guide familiar with the region.

Mr Thanom, a Lao in his late 50s, turned up five minutes later. We agreed to leave the next morning by boat, a narrow, motor-driven pirogue that would take us deeper into the province, where we would have to depend upon the hospitality and goodwill of local headmen for a roof over our heads. There were no other tourists on the Se Kaman River when we arrived a little after dawn. The river banks, steaming with mist, were beginning to stir into life: locals preparing their produce for market, women irrigating kitchen gardens cultivated along embankments, children hand fishing with cheap Chinese-made goggles.

Villagers gather around a jar of Lao-hai, a strong rice-bran beverage.

Aside from groves of common bamboo and the cultivated stands of betel palm, coconut and banana that have been planted on the riverbanks by villagers, we soon spotted clumps of valuable teak, sandalwood, hornbeam and rosewood trees. Further into the forest, green loops of vine and giant lianas hung from branches. As we drifted further upriver, trees with charred trunks indicated the place where sap had been removed from their bases and used for caulking the narrow pirogues that passed by.

A village has been hewn from a jungle clearing in the heart of a rainforest.


Dose of reality
At an Oi minority village where we disembarked in order to begin hiking into the jungle proper, the twang of a khen, a Lao wind instrument resembling pan-pipes, and the smell of Lao hai, a strong alcoholic rice-bran drink sucked through a long straw placed in a stone jar, greeted us. Thanom visibly brightened at the sight of the beverage. Knowing that it was not unusual for celebrations like these to go on for several days and nights, I was keen to be moving on. Thanom was already crouching at the jar, however, cheeks distending like the air-sacks of a frog.

The bored ears of this local Oi woman would once have been plugged with a jade or amber ornament.

We left a little later, the question of navigating a straight path through the jungle in some doubt. After an hour, Thanom’s pace was flagging, a lifetime of good health decimated by just a few short years of access to booze and tobacco, care of the trickle of recent visitors to the town and the money they brought with them. Five days into our trip, it was already apparent that the government had accomplished the same ends practiced by the Christian missionaries it prohibited from entering the country: the stripping of the minorities of their tribal identity. A few trophies remained among the tribal villages we entered: bronze drums that had not yet been sold to antique shops in Vientiane or Pakse, a few old fishing traps, the hollowed earlobes of village elders, empty of the jadeite plugs that would once have pierced them.

Travelers expecting to find vibrant microcultures in the depths of Attapeu will be disappointed, but they’ll be consoled by a rare wilderness of trees and wildlife. They just shouldn’t wait too long to see it.


Getting there
There are no flights to Attapeu, the nearest airfield being at Pakse. From Pakse there are regular buses and passenger trucks to Attapeu, a journey of 6-8 hours.


Where to stay
The friendly Souksomphone Guest House has simple rooms with fan and shared bathrooms for $3-5 a night. All beds come with mandatory mosquito nets. The Yingchokchay Hotel, with spacious and spotless rooms, each coming with aircon, TV and a hot shower, is a remarkable value at $10 a night, including breakfast.


More information
The best time to travel in this region is during the dry season from December-April. Take a strong mosquito repellent and a stock of coils to burn in your room. The morning market is good for Lao- and Vietnamese-style noodles. Thanom, my guide in Attapeu—$20 a day—can be reached through the Souksomphong Guest House. The “Lonely Planet” and recently updated “Rough Guide to Laos” are first rate. Visitors interested in the Lao people and their customs should refer to “Culture Shock! Laos” or “Lao Hill Tribes: Traditions & Patterns of Existence.”

Photo credit: Photos by Stephen Mansfield