Island Life Laos Style
Trip Start Aug 04, 2010
54Trip End Feb 04, 2011
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The ride to Stung Treng was a bumpy, muddy mess - I was seated next to a woman who was a cut-up. As soon as she got on the mini-bus she started cracking jokes and everyone on the bus was laughing. She tried to include me in the fun as well because she kept talking to me in Cambodian and she liked to play with my bracelets
Once we arrived in Stung Treng we were quickly made aware of the fact that we were scheduled to be on a bus at 1:00pm, but since this bus doesn't always go to Laos we may have to wait until another bus arrives at 3pm. We were a little worried because we had heard travel stories of tourists being dropped off in Stung Treng and being asked to cough up a lot of extra money to get across the border, even though they had paid for a ticket all the way through. We decided to trust that one of these modes of transport would work for us and we sat down to have a bite to eat. Nothing exciting to report as far as our meal, but we did meet a new friend named "Steve" during our lunch. Steve is a British ex-pat living in Dubai. He recently retired from the construction field and decided that he wanted to travel for 7 months. So he had his Range Rover shipped over to India and off he went. The most impressive part of his trip thus far was his drive through Mongolia, it sounded pretty amazing and ulimately he will find his way to the piece of property he owns in Malaysia. He is contemplating his options of retiring in Britain or Malaysia - tough decision!!! So anyways after we finished our lunch and wonderful chat with Steve we bid him farewell, checked on the 1pm bus, and were told that we would have to wait until the 3pm bus arrives
We were walking along the river front when we saw our new friend Steve coming out of his hotel. He was heading to a local silk farm and asked if we wanted to tag along - heck yes!! We climbed into his home away from home and were off to explore the operations of the Mekong Blue NGO.
When we arrived we were warmly greeted by one of the program administrators. We sat under a shaded area that doubles as a local store selling silk products and a cafe. This NGO was started by a Cambodian couple who wanted to help the women and children of the local villages surrounding Stung Treng. The program teaches the women the art of making silk from cultivating the Mulberry trees (they use the Mulberry leaves to feed the silk worms), to raising silk worms, to collecting, spinning and processing the silk, as well as dyeing and weaving the silk threads. It was an amazingly inspirational organization that provides vocational skill-building opportunities for the women, an on-site school for the women's children, a cafeteria and housing for some of the women who live too far away from the center to travel on a daily basis. The products are amazing, but were a bit too pricey for our budget. They work with an importer in the United States so if anyone is interested in supporting this program you can purchase some of their products online - just google Mekong Blue. Unfortunately our visit was a bit rushed because we had to get back in town to hop on our 3pm bus....we bid our friend Steve farewell (hoping our paths might cross again and they do we saw him again in Vientiane :)
As soon as we arrived at the bus one of the bus attendants aksed us if we had small US dollars, when we said No he made us change some money at the local market so we could pay the "bribes" we needed to pay at the border. This was the first time anyone had openly talked about paying bribes, so we were taken aback a bit. Apparently all tourists have to pay a "stamp fee" $4 to the Cambodian officals to provide an exit stamp on our passport and $4 to the Laos officials to provide an entrance stamp....hmmm!! According to the other travelers this is commom place, but not something we had experienced anyplace else. Note to self this may not be the last time we are asked to pay an additional fee!!
The bribes seemed to work quite well because we sailed across the border crossing without any issues. 10 minutes after the border corssing we were then passed off to another driver in a mini-bus....we were told that the money we paid for the boat to Don Khon was being given directly to the mini-bus driver and he would take care of the rest of the voyage - OK we are set!! NOT Quite!!
When arrived at the port to get on the boat it was dark, raining and a bit chaotic. There was a group of us travellers who were all trying ot get across to the islands to settle in for the night. We couldn't all stand under the covered platform so 3 of us had to stand to the side while the minibus driver made arrangements with the boat men. We watched as the crew who were under the covered platform piled into the boat (we thought that they were going to a different island, so we waited a bit longer). Then a VERY large lady came over to us and told us that we had to pay if we wanted to get on the boat with them
Each boat was only equipped to take 4 travellers, but they crammed all of us on 1 boat. We were all really worreid that the boat might sink becauxe of the weight of all 10 of us and our luggage. The boat man stopped at the first island Don Det to let off the first group of travellers. He slid the boat up on a really muddy and steep embankment. The boat man had no flashlight (he had to borrow ours) so one of the dutch girls (she had WAY TOO MUCH luggage to handle) promptly fell on her ass as she tried to navigate the steep hill. She laughed it off and the boat man left her there in the dark - it was all a bit crazy. We were then jetted off to Don Khon, once again we arrived to a muddy, but not as steep landing. Because it was raining and dark we checked out the first guesthouse that we came across and settled in
We really lucked out because the woman that owned the brand new guest house was lovely. Her rooms were clean and the food was terrific. We paid 35,000 kip for a room whcih is approximately $4 or so.....the bed was a bit springy, but the fan worked well and the bathroom was clean. We dined on our first Laotian meal of fish laap and sticky rice. Laap is a cold salad dish that has chunks of fish marinated with all sorts of fresh herbs like basil and mint. It is served with sticky rice. What you do is take a chunk of sticky rice ball it up in your right hand dip it into the laap and shovel it into your mouth.....so good and the best thing we have eaten here in Laos. After filling our bellies, we went to bed.
Before I go on let me give you a bit more information about the islands I am talking about. Si Phan Islands more commonly known as Four Thousand Islands is a group of islands on a scenic 50 km long stretch along the Mekong River. Tourists come here to enjoy the laid back river life, read books, nap in hammocks, eat good food and drink lao lao (Laotian whiskey). There isn't a lot to do other than chill out, exactly what the doctor ordered after a\our crazy trek through the jungle.
Up the next morning feeling a bit frazzled from our long jorney the day before, so we decided to just embrace the island's lifestyle and chill out for the day. We had breakfast and drank coffee right out in front of our room on the balcony overlooking the river. Tired from scooping breakfast into our mouths we took naps on the hammocks that we set up on this same balcony (thank God we didn't have to move too far). After our naps, we read books (Les picked up a cool book at the guesthouses' library called Siddhartha by Herman Hesse - this is a book that both of us have on our must-read lists but never had the chance in our frantic world in the US. We were both able to read this entire book while we stayed on Don Khon, cool!!!). Feeling like we needed to move our bodies a bit more we sauntered down the road to the closest bar (just a few paces away) for a liquid supper of lao lao cockatils mixed with beer lao and a fierce card game of gin rummy. Beer lao is good and cheap, but the lao lao cocktails stole the evening. Lao Lao is the local brew and it really isn't very strong. They mixed it with fresh herbs (mint we think) and juice...so good we had 2 of them. Lovely evening!!
Next morning, breakfast on the balcony (I befriended a local kitty by feeding her pieces of my omelette) again as we put together a bit more active plan for the day. We rented bicycles to explore the island and beyond. We rode our bikes to the biggest attraction on Don Khon - the waterfall. Being that we are here during the rainy season the Mekong River is flowing at full capacity and at raging speeds...so the waterfalls were pretty fantastic. They didn't necessarily plunge from a high elevation they just roared with such a force over some enormous rocks - breathtaking!! Wanting to get a bit more exercise in we opted to try the long railway hike that took us past rice paddies, small villages and old abandoned locomotives from the time of the French occupation. The road was lovely, but not really well marked, so we ended up going a bit farther than we had planned. This became a bit problematic because the chain on Les' bike fell off 5-6 times and just when he thought he had it fixed the pedal fell off as well. We thought that someone might have been sending us a message so we limped back to the guest house to re-group.
Believe it or not we weren't as discouraged as we thought we would be, so we got another bike and headed off for a bite to eat across the bridge to the nearest Island of Don Det. We found a cool restaurant overlooking the river on Don Det and ordered spicy papaya salad with sticky rice again. The woman preparing our meal went downstairs and plucked off a papaya straight from her tree....you can't get much fresher than that. We were also served a plate of greens and seed pods that were brand spankin new to us. They came off a tree that we had passed along the way we were sure or maybe it was a species we saw on the river, nonetheless it was new to us. Of course we tried everything, but in the end weren't quite sure about the greens and seed pods, they didn't have much flavor, but the papaya salad was TERRIFIC!! After lunch we asked how far it was to the main town of Don Det and when the restaurants' owner said 5 kms we opted to head back to our guesthouse for a nap instead since we had already done a long bike ride of 5kms+ around Don Khon.
After our nap as just as we were getting ready for supper we started talking with a new couple who had just arrived at the guest house. They were from Colorado and had been teaching English in South Korea for 6 months and were now traveling for a few months before returning home. They shared with us a traumatic experience that they had just had on their way from Vientiane (the capital of Laos) to Pakse. They were on a night bus (the bus here are incredibly tall, so they look to us to be a bit unstable anyways) and around 3am they think the driver fell asleep - the bus being so tall and top heavy swerved and rolled over. It was a horrible accident that shook both of them to the core. They came out with only minor bruises, but others didn't and it REALLY scared them. We listened as they described this expereince and silently said a prayer for them that they would heal. I heard the young woman crying in her room the next day so I know they will feel the effects of this for quite awhile. Thank God they have each other for comfort!!
We all met up at the restaurant after for a bite to eat and some more Beerlao. We all felt very blessed that we were whole, felt rested from our naps, enjoyed a magnificent sunset and were sharing in this island experience together. We dined on a supper of steamed fish in banana leaves (not quite what we expected since the fish was ground up, but the flavor was good), sticky rice and long bean salad (yep mom these are the same long beans that you ate in Suriname - we love them!!!).
We fell into bed exhausted physically and emotionally and prepared ourselves for the next adventure in Laos...Pakse.