Chapter 39: Si Phan Don

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Where I stayed
villa Kang Khong
Langkam hotel

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Thursday, May 20, 2004

Our last night in Vientiane was quiet, because we had to catch the 7am VIP bus to Savannakhet the next morning. I stalked a couple of cute Swiss guys we kept crossing paths with, screwed around online, and hung out at the guesthouse. Christian, Jonas, and I decided to try a French Restaurant for dinner (Cote d'Azure?); I'd been saying for a few days that I wanted to try French food in Laos. It was tasty but something of a wasted effort since there was nothing especially French about the pizza I ordered.

I don't remember a thing about the 7 hour bus trip to Savannakhet, so it must have been nice. I had two seats to myself again, and I think I slept the whole way thanks to a combination of motion-sickness pills and generic valium. "Savan" was a little disappointing as a stopover... we'd heard from some fellow travelers that it was pleasant, but it seemed small and dead (even compared to other cities in Laos). The concrete cells we rented for the night at Savan Phattana Guesthouse weren't inspiring either, but they were cheap. They also came with free bedside condoms, which led us to wonder if most guests pay by the hour...

That afternoon we walked along the Mekong and got pestered by children and old women for money; that's something I hadn't experienced yet in Laos. We had lunch (and dinner) at the Lao-Paris cafe, which was heavy on the "Lao" and light on the "Paris." The old Catholic church was mildly interesting, and there was a pretty wat in town... but mostly I was happy to press on south the next morning.

We took a 7am local bus to Pakse on Thursday, and the 4-hour ride was much less comfortable than the previous day's journey (though admittedly I was using an inferior valium knock-off). Since we arrived in Pakse so early, we decided to push further south and try to get to the Si Phan Don ("4,000 Islands") region that afternoon. Si Phan Don is an area of the Mekong near the Cambodian border which is famous for waterfalls, beautiful river scenery, and Irrawaddy dolphins. It's so-named because during the dry season (now) the water level is low so there are thousands of sandbars and bushes and small islands in the river.

There are 3 main islands in Si Phan Don: Don Khong, the largest and most developed, Don Det, the lush backpacker bungalow haven, and Don Khon, which is similar to Don Det but has a few more attractions. We took a sawngthaew from Pakse to Hat Xai Khun, and then found a boat owner to ferry us across the river to Don Khong for 50 cents each. It was a comical ride, as we drifted in the Mekong reeds for 15 minutes while the guy tried to get his engine running.

As soon as we got to Don Khong, a French-speaking local (there are a lot of them down south!) met us at the riverbank, started talking to Christian (being Swiss, he knows some French), and led us up to the Villa Kang Khong. It was an atmospheric old teak mansion-turned-guesthouse, and Christian took a very nice room there... but I didn't like the lack of privacy in the doubles (they were right on the reception area), so Jonas and I moved next door to the Don Khong Guesthouse. It was slightly nicer (flush toilets!) but more sterile.

We relaxed all afternoon, and then went to Pon's Restaurant down the road for dinner. The food was OK (all the food in Si Phan Don was mediocre at best), but the house drink - Lao Lao whiskey (moonshine) with lemon & honey - was delicious. Unfortunately the flies buzzing around our heads from the hanging lights were enough to drive us quickly back to Christian's guesthouse porch, where we drank beer and played cards for a while. At 10pm or so Jonas and I returned to our guesthouse - to find it locked for the night! We banged on the doors & windows for a while, but no one came. While we were pondering our limited options, a drunk Dutch guy approached and offered to bring us to his guesthouse so that the owners could maybe phone our guesthouse... but this turned out to be a ploy to make us drink with him, as his guesthouse was no help whatsoever, and he kept repeating "Sit down... drink!" We returned to our place, climbed the outer wall, and broke in through the balcony.

Jonas and I rented bikes on Friday and explored Don Khong. It was a pretty ride: riverside villages, rice paddies, forests, and of course the Mekong. The bikes were laughable, though - "Crocodile" brand grandma bikes with lacy plastic designs around the wheels, broken bells, and sad old handlebar baskets. Every kid we passed on the road had a much better bike, and I got jealous fast. Along the way we were greeted with numerous waves and calls of "Sabaidee!," which was sweet and reminded me of Myanmar.

On Saturday we took a boat down to Don Det at 8am. It was raining a little, but the boat was covered and the 90 minute trip was peaceful. Jonas and I plugged in to the i-Pod, which was spitting out a weird mix of 80s hits (Genesis, Duran Duran) and moody UK rock (Doves, the Verve). We hauled our stuff up Don Det's "beach" and started walking down the east coast past numerous identical bungalow operations. After a while we got bored and/or tired and settled into Sidae's/Tarzan's (there were 2 signs) Bungalows for $1/night. Don Det was simple and relaxing; there is no electricity aside from a few generators, and the thatch-roof bungalows each come with only a grotty old bed, a mosquito net, a riverfront porch, and a hammock. The bathroom facilities were dark and lo-tech, but at least they existed.

We jumped on a wacky tour of some of the major sights at 2pm that afternoon. There were a number of friendly people along with us, including Tessa (a Dutch girl who liked rats), Katie (from Melbourne), and a few couples. First we took a boat to Ban Nakasang on the "mainland," and then a sawngthaew drove us down to Ban Thakho, where our gruop of 12 or so boarded two covered boats. The boats took us down river to the Cambodian border, where we spotted several rare Irrawaddy dolphins scooting around on the surface. Then our boatload got dropped off on the Cambodian shore for 1/2 hour... just for the fun of it, I guess. There was a funny dilapidated building that used to serve as a border checkpoint, and a guy was selling Cambodian beer (and Coke) from a cooler, but that was about all there was to see. We DID run into Lawrence and Glenl (they were on another tour), though, which was amusing.

We rejoined the other boat back in Ban Thakho (they were jealous that they didn't get to visit Cambodia), and then another sawngthaew drove us to Khou Phapheng waterfall, which is supposedly the "Niagara Falls of Southeast Asia." Maybe it's bigger and more impressive in the wet season, but it didn't seem so huge. Definitely scenic, though, and worth the visit. Back to Ban Nakasang, then, where we waited for 30 minutes for a boat to bring us back to Don Det. The sunset on the way back was breathtaking, and it was made all the moreso by the crazy lightning storm on the other horizon.

When we returned I took a quick flashlight shower in the rustic bathroom, and then we met up for dinner at 7. The food was naaahrsty, as Christian would say, and the waitress misunderstood my drink order, so somehow a full bottle (60 cents) of toxic 100-proof Lao Lao ended up on our table. We had no choice but to drink it, because the torrential rain kept us trapped in the bug-filled restaurant for what seemed like (and probably was) hours.

Sunday was another bike-rental day, and this time my bike was exactly like the last one - except it was falling apart as well. We rode down the east side of Don Det and crossed the old railway bridge to Don Khon. The abandoned train track was the only one ever built in Laos, and it ran 14km on Don Det and Don Khon. Where the track used to be on Don Khon there is now a trail, so we decided to try it with the bikes. It proved torturous, as the bikes were barely able to cope with the track full of shrubs and gullies and huge rocks. We made it to the old French dock at the southern end of the island, though, and we could look across to the spot where we'd stood on Cambodian soil the day before. On the way back to Don Det we stopped at another scenic waterfall: Li Phi Falls. When we got back there was no water to use for a shower, and I was exhausted after the bikeride, so I spent most of the night in my hammock.

There was still no water on Monday morning, so I was grumpy when we met at 7am for the boat ride back to Ban Nakasang. The boat was late, so we missed the 8am bus up to Pakse, and had to sit around for two hours waiting for the next sawngthaew to fill up. In the meantime we were accosted by a crazy drunk local who tried to make Jonas and I drink Lao Lao while he babbled at us in French/Lao/drunk-speak. When the bus was finally ready to leave at 10 (lots of foreigners showed up), the drivers decided to fill every inch of floorspace (and most of our legroom) with big baskets of dead fish! Half the tourists escaped to the roof, but for those of us that remained inside, the next three hours on the hot, arrow-straight highway were, well... tolerable.

We got to the Southern Bus terminal in Pakse, then shared a tuk tuk downtown and had lunch at Jasmin Indian Restaurant with a cute Dutch guy named Brem. Christian, Jonas, and I checked into the Langkam Hotel across the street, and then looked at the tours of the area that Jasmin [randomly] offered. That night we met a nice Swiss couple and another Dutch guy, and the 6 of us agreed to do a full-day tour of the Champasack region on Tuesday for ~$7 each. We ate dinner at a Thai Restaurant, checked e-mail, and crashed easily that night.

The next morning I felt awfully stomach-sick. Maybe it was the seafood pad thai, or maybe it was the Indian food... but whatever it was had me hurling halfway through breakfast. I tried to go on the tour, but couldn't leave the tuk tuk at the first stop because I felt too nauseous, so the driver dropped me back at the hotel, where I promptly threw up again. Tuesday was a write-off, then, as I mostly spent the day in bed. By evening I felt better, so I joined the tour group for dinner at the Pakse Hotel. At least it didn't sound like I missed that much on the tour...

Wednesday was a "relax" day, so we sat around writing in our journals, eating at the excellent Delta Coffee House, and playing games. Today (Thursday) the Swiss couple and the Dutch guy had set up a tour of the Bolavan Plateau with the driver from Tuesday; Jonas and Christian decided to go (along with Tessa and Katie who had arrived from Si Phan Don), but I was tired of sights and decided to hang out in Pakse instead. That was probably a mistake, because Pakse isn't very exciting... but hey, at least I got another T-Pod entry done!

Well, our Laos visas are about to expire (30 days went so fast!), and tomorrow we're going back to Thailand. Laos is one of my favorite places I've ever visited, and I'll have to come back someday. Hopefully it'll still be the same friendly, relaxed, beautiful country that I experienced this time. Thanks for the continued e-mails and kind words from afar... I'll try to write back (or at least get on IM) this weekend in Bangkok. Talk to you soon!

- Tim
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