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Lazing in Lao: Lao Pako Eco-resort

By Peta Bassett

A crackle came over the radiophone.

"Is this the Lao Pako Resort run by an Austrian and a German?"

"I am the Austrian," an accented, gruff male voice intoned. "The German left two years ago."

"Ah, well…are you still open?"

"But of course!"

That was all I needed to know to head out of Vientiane, Laos for what I was told was the most idyllic retreat in all of Southeast Asia. Not a real "resort" by wrist-band Western standards, the Lao Pako was a rustic eco-retreat more along the lines of a jungle lodge cum river camp.

From my perch on the landing beside the Nam Ngum River, about 50 kms from Vientiane, a commanding view stretched both up and down stream. There was nothing but forest as far as the eye could see. The foliage was so dense, it grew right to the edge of the water. The longboat that had delivered us here from the village of Som Sa Mai gently pushed out into the current and floated away. Nothing but a restful weekend lay ahead.

A booming welcome shattered the quiet. It was the same voice that spoke over the radiophone. As we were ushered to our own spacious, Lao-style thatched bungalow among the trees, it became clear that despite his phone manner, Walter Pfabigan, the managing director, was a perfect host. Laid back, but full of information about the surrounding region, its flora and fauna.

But an entertainment director he certainly wasn’t. Karaoke machines don’t feature at Lao Pako. There are no TVs, no neon signs and no phones either. The only diversions are the board games available for the energetic! Bliss.

With the heat of the day gone, and more rounds of limejuice on the way, relaxation mode was already kicking in. A few old magazines lay on tables in the communal room, and interesting articles were clipped and pasted to a notice board. Flicking through the out of date "Newsweek" copies reminded me of how short our attention spans are and how quickly issues drop from our consciousness. With nothing else on hand, you are forced to actually read rather than skim all the news that escaped.

A stroll before dinner was mentioned. Definite arm-twisting was required. I had visions of an afternoon drink on the spacious balcony, watching as the sunset silhouetted the treetops. I tried to argue my point. But the mention of an herbal bush sauna sealed the deal. A walk it was.

With a hand drawn map to follow and a well-marked trail, we set off into the light, scrub forest. 10 minutes later we arrived at a natural spring. Nearby a boiler, brimming with eucalyptus leaves, bubbled away as it fed steam uphill and into a small thatched hut perched on stilts. Who said backpacking couldn’t be a 5-star affair?

In we went. I could feel the layers of sweat and urban grime sliding off and a few minutes later, with our sinuses now permanently unblocked, we dashed down the slope to dip in the chilly pool below.

The treats didn’t stop there. Dinner was next on the agenda (what agenda there was). Lots of coriander and lime flavors, beef laab (minced) and sticky rice made the perfect meal. In the dim lamplight, it was also possible to put faces to the voices we had heard in the sauna. The large open-air dining hut took on a summer camp feel with more participants joining in an increasingly lively conversation. "Danger Girl" was the winner. Her stories commanded respect on the travel hierarchy. A KLM stewardess at home, she had a gun held to her head in Phnom Penh, narrowly escaped drowning the week before, and had survived numerous other near misses. All hats were off to her, but no one was keen to share a boat with her the next morning.

But…we all did. A long tailboat ride upstream took us to visit Tha Sang (Elephant Landing) Village. No elephants were sighted--just a large reclining Buddha and lots of lunching monks. As we finished off their food, which they shared eagerly, a number of young novices played cat and mouse with large drapes that hung from the ceiling of the hall.

Oblivious to the "foreign invasion," two artisans fashioned colored play dough into mould designs for cement ornamentation. They somehow managed to ignore all the fuss.

The option of a trek back to Lao Pako or a leisurely return in the longtail boat wasn’t a hard choice. Relaxation was the key factor. Three more days of this lay ahead.

But, all good things come to an end and often all too quickly. We had been relaxed to near perfection and even the local bus ride back–complete with dusty seats, poor suspension and crowded aisles--didn’t seem so bad. No, if all the chickens, gorgeous wide-eyed kids, and the bossy matriarch who seemed to control when and where the bus stopped were all on board, it would be an entertaining return to civilization. Granted, it would be a shock after the calm of the past few days, but one that was bound to make us treasure the serenity of Lao Pako and make plans for another trip in the near future.

FOR MORE INFORMATION Lao Pako Resort
14 Fangum Road,
P.O. Box 3773
Vientiane, Laos
Tel: +007 22 2925

GETTING THERE

From the Vientiane central bus station take local bus No. 19 to Paksap. After about 1 hour, get off at Som Sa Mai. Boatmen will be waiting. The ride upriver lasts approximately 25 minutes. Total cost: under US$10 for 2. The alternative is to hire a private car and driver from Vientiane--advertised prices are US$75.

LODGINGS

Separate Bungalow (2 people)--150,000 Kip (Approx. US$20) Double in the longhouse with ensuite bath--100,000 Kip (Approx. US$13)

Dorm with shared bathroom--60,000 (Approx. US$8)

 

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