Friday, February 23, 2018

Champassak and 4000 Islands


After the most dangerous minivan we've ever experienced, complete with psychopathic driver and near death experiences, we celebrated with an excellent hotpot along by the Mekong in Vientiane and on the way back helped a young traveller who had twisted an ankle. Thankfully we only had to endure one night in yet another substandard room and spent the following day visiting COPE. This impressive charity provides prosthetic and orthotic services to the many still falling victim to unexploded ordnance scattered throughout Laos, the most bombed country by population thanks to cluster bombs dropped by the US during the Vietnam War. The statistics laid out at the visitor centre were shocking and sobering.


An entertaining night bus from the capital arrived at Pakse in the early hours just as the busy market was opening up. From here on we were following in reverse the trip I had made solo in 2016. It was so good to have Karen with me this time around.

After some breakfast noodles here we took a songthaew to the little town of Champassak and were in our accommodation on the west shore of the Mekong by 9am. Temperatures had been rising since Vientiane and much of our three days here were spent in shady hammocks by the river. The views and great food made for a very pleasant stay.

Blue Nawab Polyura schreiber
Butterflies once again provided a welcome distraction. Blue Nawab, Grey Pansy, Lemon Emigrant and Common Birdwing. Brown-throated Sunbird was about the only bird of note however (also seen in Vientiane).

Si Phan Don (4000 Islands)

The journey to Don Khon involved a local boat transfer up river to the eastern dock of the Champassak ferry where a songthaew took us to the main road. A slightly nerve-wracking wait here in the middle of nowhere, but a bus duly turned up and took us the hour or so to Nakasong where we took the fabulous, scenic longtail boat to the island seeing a Shikra on the way. Door to door the journey took around 4 hours.

The Mekong is five mile wide here and splits into myriad channels to plunge over many waterfalls and rapids. This is one of the most beautiful places I've ever stayed and it was a shame Karen was down with a cold at the time, especially as it was getting even hotter. We did manage to get out and about though and walks around the north of the island to the tops of the waterfalls revealed common birds and insects: Large-billed Crow, House, Tree & Plain-backed Sparrows, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Dusky Warbler, Asian Palm Swift, Barn Swallow, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Common Myna, Common & Dark-necked Tailorbirds, Olive-backed Sunbird, Black-naped Oriole and Shikra, Common Mormon and Common Grass Yellow butterflies.

Grass Yellow Eurema sp.

Li Phi Waterfall

Yellow-spotted Keelback Fowlea flavipunctata
An early morning trip to Li Phi falls on the western side of the island was very entertaining. Good views of a Yellow-spotted Keelback here in the water at one of the pools provided for swimming. A harmless species but potentially alarming to some across if you were swimming there. Common Oakblue butterfly, Slender Skimmer (aka Green Marsh Hawk) dragonfly and an Argiope spider photographed and the following birds seen: 3 Indian Spot-billed Duck, Greater Coucal, Asian Koel, Little Cormorant, Little Egret, Chinese Pond Heron, 1 Osprey, 1 Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Coppersmith Barbet, Large-billed Crow, Dark-necked Tailorbird, 1 Barn Swallow, 2 Wire-tailed Swallow, 2 Striated Swallow, Taiga Flycatcher, Olive-backed Sunbird.

Common Oakblue Arhopala micale

Slender Skimmer Orthetrum sabina

Dang's Cross Spider Argiope dang

On my previous trip I'd gone to see the Irrawaddy Dolphins from Kratie in Cambodia, so we thought we'd try for them here this time. It involved an early morning sidecar tuktuk along the old French railway line to the far south of Don Khon and the small port of Hang Khon. We then started looking around for a boat trip and bumped into the very same young woman we had helped in Vientiane a week before. She and her partner had hitched up with a Dutch couple and so we hired a boat between the six of us bringing the cost to less than a pound each!

We saw at least 3 (probably 5) River Dolphins including a mother and calf but not well enough to photograph. Views were better in Cambodia but this perhaps a more laid back experience and certainly not disturbing the dolphins much at all. The boat was out for about an hour.

Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius philippensis 
Bird life much as expected, including: 1 Green Sandpiper, 3 Oriental Darter, 4 Little Egret, 2 Chinese Pond Heron, 1 Intermediate Egret, 1 Osprey, 1 Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, 1 Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, 2 Black-headed & 2 Black-crested Bulbul. Butterflies included Common Birdwing, Lemon Emigrant, Great Orange-tip and a Rose sp.

Our final day here was spent around the small town only adding a male philippensis Blue Rock Thrush to the bird list here, which finished on 49 species.

Indian Spot-billed Duck
Red Collared Dove
Spotted Dove
Zebra Dove
Greater Coucal
Asian Koel
Himalayan Swiftlet
Germain's Swiftlet
Asian Palm Swift
Green Sandpiper
Oriental Darter
Little Cormorant
Great Cormorant
Little Egret
Chinese Pond Heron
Eastern Cattle Egret
Intermediate Egret
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
Coppersmith Barbet
Black-naped Oriole
Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike
Ashy Drongo
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
Large-billed Crow
Common Tailorbird
Dark-necked Tailorbird
Barn Swallow
Wire-tailed Swallow
Striated Swallow
Black-headed Bulbul
Black-crested Bulbul
Yellow-vented Bulbul
Yellow-browed Warbler
Dusky Warbler
Common Myna
Great Myna
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Oriental Magpie-Robin
Taiga Flycatcher
Blue Rock Thrush
Brown-throated Sunbird
Olive-backed Sunbird
Scaly-breasted Munia
White-rumped Munia
House Sparrow
Plain-backed Sparrow
Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng

Luang Prabang

After the shock of getting what we actually paid for on the journey from Nong Khiaw and being dropped at the door of our hotel it was back to business as usual again with a truly shit room. Barely divided from a corridor, really noisy, dirty, plastic on the mattress (which we removed!) and a terrible toilet and shower room. The staff were absolutely lovely but we still opted to move the next day.

After the bitterly cold conditions of Nong Khiaw it was good to be back in more typical tropical heat and Luang Prabang is a lovely UNESCO World Heritage town with a fabulous setting on the Mekong River.

Mainly common birds seen while wandering around the town but while walking around Phousi Hill (a small island of forest among the buildings) came across 2 Black-throated Laughingthrush and 4 White-crested Laughingthrush. They were feeding together in dense cover but very close to civilisation and I suspect they may be of captive origin, although there are reports from others years.

Black-throated Laughingthrush Garrulax chinensis

White-crested Laughingthrush Garrulax leucolophus

The only pond heron I saw here was starting to moult into breeding plumage; the deep maroon colour indicating Chinese Pond Heron; the default species according to distribution maps. See here for a brief discussion of winter pond heron plumage.

Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus

Otherwise the butterfly life was superb here. Painted Jezebel, Dark Blue Tiger, Glass Tiger, Chocolate Tiger, Great Eggfly, Common Castor, Common Jester, Common Fivering.

Baron sp. Euthalia

Chocolate Tiger Parantica melaneus

Common Castor Ariadne merione

Common Fivering Ypthima baldus

Dark Blue Tiger Tirumala septentrionis

Glassy Tiger Parantica aglea

Great Eggfly Hypolimnas bolina

Painted Jezebel Delias hyparete

Oriental Garden Lizards were also quite common.

Oriental Garden Lizard Calotes versicolor

Really enjoyed our time in LP. Highlights were the extremely cool Utopia bar, set overlooking the Nam Khan river (and inspiring a song that would go on to appear on my album "Fear The Flames") and the young lads at Viengchalern Guesthouse who invited us (who could have been their grandparents) to join them celebrating one of them finishing college; an amazing evening.

Vang Vieng

The seven and a half hour journey to Vang Vieng was one of the better ones in Laos. A half decent bus, frequent breaks including a stop for reasonable food included in the price, spectacular mountain scenery in the main and the now familiar juxtaposition of extreme poverty and expensive Chinese infrastructure projects. A Crested Serpent Eagle was about the only notable bird seen though.

Annam Limestone Babbler Gypsophila annamensis
More opportunity for birding from the town here and I mainly explored the base of the karst outcrop west of the Nam Song river around the Tham Chang cave. Best here were 3 Annam Limestone Babblers (at the time still called Limestone Wren-babbler prior to the three way split to Annam, Rufous and Variable Limestone Babbler) feeding around the ticket booth near the base of the steps up to the cave, possibly on food provided for them. I also saw what may have been a Pale Blue Flycatcher but views were not sufficient to be sure of excluding Verditer Flycatcher. Crimson Sunbird, Indochinese Yuhina, Pin-striped Tit-babbler and Common Iora were among the other species present.

We also took a walk around the northern and western edge of the outcrop along a tributary where Blue Whistling Thrush and a Dark-sided Thrush were along the stream. Taiga Flycatcher, Black-naped Monarch and, high on the cliffs, a Blue Rock Thrush also seen.

More good insects here with Common Birdwing, The Clipper, Red Lacewing, Restricted Demon, Grey Pansy, Red-base Jezebel and Stream Glory (demoiselle), plus a spectacular Giant Golden Orb Weaver.

Grey Pansy Junonia atlites

Red-base Jezebel Delias pasithoe

Red Lacewing Cethosia biblis

Restricted Demon Notocrypta curvifascia

Stream Glory Neurobasis chinensis

Giant Golden Orb Weaver Nephila pilipes

We only spent two nights here before moving on to Vientiane via one of the most dangerous minivan journeys we've ever experienced. A long sorry tale but we made it to the capital ok in the end.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Luang Namtha and Nong Khiaw

We'd made our choice and decided to explore the far north of Laos starting with a gruelling 4 hour minivan to Luang Namtha. We had a lot to learn about travelling in Laos. First lesson was the tuk tuk from the hotel to the bus station. 50,000 kip (c.£4.50) seemed quite a lot but we were used to bus stations being well out of town in Thailand so thought it was ok. Turned out to be virtually walkable! Then the promised big bus at 12:30 turned out to be a fabrication and instead we were presented with a 12 seater minivan, which was then packed with 17 people and set off at 12. Lesson number two; transport may vary wildly from that advertised. Further pickups took the total on board to 20 as we headed off into the mountains where half the locals started throwing up and all the babies started crying.

The hills were mainly cleared forest with many rubber and banana plantations but the villages we passed through looked extremely poor with few substantial houses, children working or at play and no signs of schools and many drying reeds by the roadside to make brushes. Roads potholed and often unsealed but passing ultra-modern Chinese high speed rail and hydro-electric projects, the latter even on rather small river systems.

A long 4 hours later saw us arrive at the outpost of Luang Namtha. Just a few kilometres from the Chinese border and with that edgy feel that often accompanies border towns. The tourists here were few and far between and either passing through like us or here for the exciting looking trekking in the nearby Nam Ha Conservation Area. We decided to take a day to explore here so stayed two nights and rented bikes to cycle to the Nam Dee waterfall about 5km to the NE.

The route took us across a local landmark, the alarming scooter bridge constructed entirely from bamboo. The uneven surface made cycling across a dangerous prospect, so whereas locals were zipping over on bikes and scooters we gingerly pushed our bikes across.

We rode past rice paddies and small settlements where the welcome was often not warm at all, despite our friendly smiles and waves. Small children would point pretend guns at us (and one actual handgun or convincing looking replica!) and older children pull away toddlers who waved back. Older adults looked away or had an openly hostile look on their faces but when we got to the waterfall and adjacent 'cultural village' tourists seemed to be more accepted and we had a pleasant walk on the jungle trail along the river.

Birdlife across the rice fields included apparent Common House Martin, Striated Swallows and Red-throated Pipits. At the waterfalls and nearby were Long-tailed Shrike, Greenish Warbler, Brown-cheeked Fulvettas, Black-throated Sunbird, Scarlet Minivet, Plain Flowerpecker, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Black-naped Monarch, Verditer Flycatcher, Blue-winged Leafbird, Streaked Spiderhunter and decent flock of Asian House Martins.

The Clipper Parthenos sylvia

Common Jester Symbrenthia lilaea

The following day we bought a 'VIP bus' ticket to Nong Khiaw but after the mini-songthaew to the bus station found that no such bus existed. There was a dreaded minivan going direct but we opted to stick with the small local bus that would take us as far as a junction at Pak Mong some 30km short and try our luck from there. With 30 people on board this was full but still better than the minivan, and despite the ominous sick bags handed out at the start and the winding mountainous roads stomachs remained much more settled on this 5 hour journey. The roads through the deforested hills were sealed all the way and in reasonable condition. The main hazard seemed to be the lorries that plied the route as we passed two on their side on bends; one narrowly missing a house and the other blocking ours and everyone else's path for a good 40 minutes while a crane was summoned to clear the wreckage.

We talked our way into a shared taxi for the final leg and arrived in the stunning river crossing town of Nog Khiaw at about 16:30. Found a place to stay easily enough, had some excellent food and hit the bar. Here we bumped into several travellers we'd met along the way, one from a village right next where I was brought up and then astonishingly Amber and Rico, the friends we'd been out with in Chiang Rai, walked in! A battered guitar appeared from somewhere and we all sat around the fire set in an old American cluster bomb casing! A few songs, travel tales and plenty of beerlaos and rum made for a wonderful evening.

The views of the mountains and Nam Ou river here were stunning but weren't to last. The first morning dawned cold, grey and misty and was a factor in us staying only three nights here. Temperatures down to 6 C were uncomfortable in wooden walled accommodation and we spent more of the evenings around the fire in the bar. It's normally much hotter here but a few days like this are expected at this time of year and it can last for about a week. A shame because the birding here was pretty good. Among the more expected birds were Dusky Crag Martins (at a cave complex used as a war hideout), Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Grey-crowned Warbler, White-browed Piculet, Purple-naped Spiderhunter, Rufescent Prinia, Violet Cuckoo, Indochinese Yuhina, Grey-backed Shrike, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta and Rufous-capped Babbler. I'm sure I would have turned up far more given time.

Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius

Brown-cheeked Fulvetta Alcippe poioicephala

Common Iora Aegithina tiphia

Grey-crowned Warbler Seicercus tephrocephalus

Indochinese Yuhina Staphida torqueola

Violet Cuckoo Chrysococcyx xanthorhynchus

We'd chosen this route partly so that we could take the river boat trip from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang but just two months previously a major Chinese hydroelectric dam project had been completed downstream and the through boat was no longer possible. We were offered a more expensive combination of a boat to the dam and car from there to the city. Sharing this with a couple of young Swiss travellers made it affordable and it proved to be very worthwhile. For once a 'VIP' service that actually did what it said it would, right down to delivering us to the door of our accommodation in LP.

Wildlife was sparse during the 2+ hour trip, which passed by some fascinating and extensive rock art estimated to be around 3000 years old. White-throated Kingfishers, Dusky Crag Martins, Striated Swallows, Cook's Swifts, a Striated Heron and some unidentified raptors were about the size of it.