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We’ve covered a lot of ground the last few days, most of it via motorcycle.  From Don Khon, we drove (and, by “drove,” I mean Derek drove and I lazed on the back of the bike) north to the Kingfisher Eco Lodge in Kiet Ngong.  We haven’t been to Africa yet, but I’m pretty sure that the lodge gave us our first taste of what an African safari is going to be like.  From the balcony of our bamboo bungalow, we watched elephants1 munching on impossibly green grass in a field a few hundred feet away.  We climbed aboard one of their peers for a trek up a hill to the archaeological ruins of Phu Asa.  Sadly, we never made it to our destination: our ride took one look uphill, turned around and headed right back home.  I guess that explains why transport via elephant isn’t all that common these days…
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Although we never saw Phu Asa, we did make it to the nearby town of Champasak to see Wat Phu, an ancient Khmer temple complex that’s often compared to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.  Frangipani-lined walkways led us through the wat’s tumbledown structures, which–even under the glare of the harsh, midday sun–exuded an almost mystical air.

We turned in our motorcycle and boarded a bus bound for Attapeu, a town near the Laos-Vietnam border.  After a night there, we hopped on another bus, this one headed for the Laotian border town of Bo Y.   We had read that it was now possible to cross into Vietnam from Bo Y but, so far, few Westerners have tried it (they usually cross at a place farther to the north).  (I have to admit that I felt both cool and adventurous to be making this attempt, particularly because it’s not yet detailed in the Lonely Planet…)  The bus dropped us off on the Laos side of the sandy border town, which had a decidedly Wild West feel to it, and we walked into Vietnam, where it picked us back up.  Piece of cake.
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Next, it was on to Kon Tum, which boasts a well-deserved reputation as one of the friendliest cities in congenial Vietnam.  We procured both a motorcycle and a guide and set off to explore the area, which was the target of an American bombing raid in 1972.   Our first stop was the Vinh Son orphanage, where I once again fell in love with–and resisted the urge to kidnap–one of the little girls I met.  Although this orphanage was far cheerier and better equipped than the one we visited in China, it was somewhat more depressing, in that many of its wards are never adopted; they live out their entire childhoods in the orphanage.  Of course, this is a much better fate than the one that some of them would have faced had they not been put up for adoption: some of the children are part of an ethnic minority group called the Jarai that, until a recent government clampdown, was known to bury live babies along with their dead mothers.  This horrific practice apparently stems from a time when there were no alternatives to breast milk, and so the death of a mother necessarily meant the demise of her baby.
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Waving goodbye to the children, we rode to a Bahnar village, where we saw our first rong house.  Kind of like village community centers, rong houses have towering roofs, the height of which is said to indicate the wealth of their villages.  (I wonder if every village strives for a rong house roof higher than the one of its neighbor…)  We left our motorcycle in the village and set off on foot through jungle landscapes and fields where cows grazed under banana trees.   We floated back to the village in dugout boats, one of which was captained by a boy who could not have been more than six years old.  Although we had nearly as many flat tires as we did days on our motorcycle, two-wheeled travel took us to places–and led us to people–that we never would’ve encountered had we rented a car!

  1. Kiet Ngong is one of the few places where elephants are still used to help with farm work. []