Been There Don Det

Trip Start Jan 15, 2014
Trip End Jan 10, 2015

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Saturday, May 24, 2014

At the southern tip of Laos at the Cambodian border sits Si Phan Don or the 4000 Islands. A prequel to the Mekong Delta where bungalows line the shores and life is slow. The worry is that the islands will inevitably become Vang Vieng, but for now they remain undeveloped with the exception of a hammock or two.

Mr Koffie almost wouldn't let us leave until we'd allowed him to book us in with his German friend Lutz at his Mama Leuah Guesthouse on Don Det - the smaller of the three largest islands and the biggest draw. Our bus stopped at the mainland with little onward instruction. Our new bus friends included Vera (Previously Vang Vieng) & Laura (Germany), Juliette & Jonny (Brittany), and Amelia (UK) - despite some near misses we'd managed to evade Rosemary. We walked the group to a boat and directed it to Taka Pan. The main boat stop is at the north of the island, there's a mound of sand thats passed off as the 'beach' and as it's nowhere near our bungalows, we had to pay a whole 5000 Kip (35p) over the odds for the slight detour halfway down the east coast to the now abandoned French railway loading stop.

Tuesday lunchtime and Lutz met us at his bar and surprisingly had room for everyone, an ensuite bungalow at the waters edge at 60,000 Kip (£4.40) would be our new home for 10 days. Accommodation can be found for as little as £1.10 but we wanted to be away from the Northern tip where the majority of the bars and noise are. We cracked open an icy cold midday Beerlaos before sleeping off our lunch time mistake.

Water is pumped directly from the river to the showers here and in the river is shit - that is pumped directly out. You can see the brown foam float by from your hammock and the current is strong, neither thing deterred the Europeans from a dip to cool off the oppressive sun. We stayed put for dinner and we were glad we did, large portions, tasty food and a beer fridge within leaning distance. Before long Lutz joined us bringing with him complimentary shots of Laolao and a story or two. He has been on the island for 8 years, before meeting his wife another family adopted him as their son as they had none. The Business belongs to his wife and her family and before he is accepted he must pay a dowry for her hand. Its unusual that he has been allowed to live married for so long before paying, he wouldn't say how much just that it was a lot. Children are out of the question until he pays.

Wednesday we thought we should explore our new island home. We teamed up with Juliette, Jonny and Amelia and rented some bikes. In a bit of an anticlimax Amelia turned back after her front wheel no longer pointed ahead and Emma was sick with stomach cramps, not a complete loss though - Emma (unaware of popular bike idiom) learnt that sticking your legs out as far as possible when navigating bumps doesnt necessarily keep you in the saddle, or move people out the way. We left the French and turned round for home.

We were nearly home and mostly recovered when Chloe (previously most places) & her new friend Dannielle (Liverpool) waved us into a bar where they showed off their new wounds. They'd completed the Boomerang and unfortunately got into a fight with a Goat. The Goat is ok but the girls slid their bare legs along the rough road where they left most of their skin. They say locals stopped to help, gave them iodine and sent them on their way. Impressively they completed the route with pants sticking to raw flesh and between iodine, fresh aloe vera from the road side and Amoxacilin they are on the mend. For those who are considering backpacking alone, don't worry. You will meet people, and then continue to meet them repeatedly wherever you go. A good thing I think. We sat on Mama Mon & Papa's deck where food is cheap and the service stoned. You have to catch Gabby the travelling waitress between puffs if you want your order within the hour, or at all.

There's a little girl at Mama's, she looks about 5. She is excited all day and runs around the bar playing while her mum runs around the kitchen keeping us tourists happy. She removes her clothes at every opportunity and I've seen her rescued from the Mekong on at least one occasion. She has Downs Syndrome. A boy further down the island has Downs too. Other than those affected by ordinance we haven't seen any disabilities anywhere on our Laos journey. A teenage boy with severe learning difficulties hangs around the centre where he touches foreign girls, sometimes a hug, sometimes not. It seems disproportionate on sparsely populated Don Det, it makes us hope they are not shunned here. Maybe gene variety in the small community. There is certainly no provision for their care or nearly enough time from their families.

Apart from being a stoners paradise - Lutz's family have an 'Organic' farm behind their house - this area is famous for incredibly rare dolphins, the most violent rapids in SE Asia and secret day trips across the border into Cambodia. We booked an all encompassing tour minus the weed and were collected on Thursday morning with the rest of our bus by boat in front of our Bungalow. A crap breakfast was followed by a long Kayak to the start of 13km gauntlet of white water. The locals have constructed a ski jump like structure out of bamboo for lazy fishing. There is nothing lazy about the construction as it sits amongst the roll and boil beneath the first falls, there must of been deaths. Incidently Cannabis was made illegal in Laos as late as 2009, there is a mandatory death penalty in certain cases. It is sold and smoked freely though and can be found on most of the menu's on Don Det. They say 10 Grams costs around £4.40.

In blazing sunshine we returned to our boats for the long paddle to Cambodia - or at least a small island just over the border. An included $2 fee negated the need for passports and visa's and as there was no flag we claimed it for the British Empire with a hastily made pineapple chunk pointy stick arrangement. Our American friends said we shouldn't worry about the natives and named their Kayak the Mayflower. We ate fried rice and kebabs in Cambodia before heading on. Now either Emma wasn't pulling her weight or 4 months of travelling has me out of shape. Our route took us around 20km and all day, by the time we arrived we'd had enough. Despite the sunscreen, heads and shoulders, knees and sandal marks were nicely pink. I offered to help lift one of the kayaks up the beach and into a waiting Songthaew where I managed to break my shoes and my back. I was quickly out done by the 5' 2'' guide who cooly hitched one onto his back and ran up the slope without breaking a sweat.

There are around 100 Irrawaddy dolphins left in the wild. They are limited to a deep pool known as Boong Pa Gooang predominantly in Cambodian waters and remain there away from the fishermen's nets. We stopped just off our island and watched either many separate or one hyper dolphin breaking the water. It was disheartening that the group were more interested in kebabs than watching the rare sight even if it was from a distance.

The Songtheaw took us to the impressive Khon Phapheng falls. Millions of litres tip over the edge every minute. More violent rapids than majestic falls. The Thai's believe bad spirits get caught here and have made it a top tourist destination. The daredevil fisherman say they have a pact with the spirits. Theres a piece of wood in a box and several viewpoints. We swam in a pool to the side where the current is strong enough to put you back on the shore, but not over the edge. We stopped for ice cream, it turned out to be corn flavour- interesting.

The Kayaks awaiting us at the boat dock were an unwelcome sight, with the sun going down and aching shoulders we paddled our last 30 minutes back to Don Det. Not wanting to wait for our boat taxi we walked from the northern beach back home, enroute we found a lady with a sewing machine and a hammock full of kittens. She agreed to fix my shoes for 70p if Emma agreed to give her her tiny fur-balls back.

It may have been the sun, or breakfast, or a mouth full of the Mekong but I spent the night being sick and running to the toilet. Friday day wasn't much better with symptoms something like the hangover that kills you. We'd planned a hammock day so hammock's it was.

On Saturday we said goodbye to all of our bus but Vera, and read a book until a bike pulled up at our balcony with Chloe on board. We made our way to Adam's bar where the drinks are over priced and the happy menu extensive, we saw the last 30 minutes of DeNiro's Limitless - seems ok but probably a pointless watch now (he alters the pills in the end). We moved on to Sunset bar for a better view and bigger breeze. On the Northern tip of the island the appropriately named hangout has arguably the best views of the evening. A cool place to sit, it's decorated with some too common to still be profound graffiti. St Augustine, Wilde and alike. The first green and purple sunset I have ever seen led to a full recovery Beer Laos, which of course led to another, and one after that. We left the group at Mama's & Papa's afterwards and headed home by bike in the pitch black. Emma did well while I took an imaginary path into a surprise fence. I was awoken that night by Emma who was awoken by an almighty storm. It strobed through the cracks of our bungalow like an alien abduction, the lightning was relentless as was the rain. Its a nice feeling wrapped up under a mosquito net while the world ends.

Our sunday morning plans to explore our nearest neighbour Don Khon went out the window with most of my hair. The terrible stylist in Luang Prabang and a drought of mens barbers in Pakse meant my lack of options left me with just one. Off it came, courtesy of Emma and an undependable beard trimmer, a low maintenance, somewhat cooler head almost makes up for the white tan lines and fringeless Moomin result. We wonderfully wasted the rest of the day and just after dark the power went out. With no moon and bright stars we watched two distant storms illuminate the horizon either side of us, a satellite flew over head and a firefly made our table its mate seeking perch where it danced with its flashing LED arse in the air. A water buffalo stomped into the garden and stubbornly made the flower bed its home and supper for the night. Only with some fairly harsh kicks from Lutz and family did it move. We moved from bar, to hammock's to bed.

The morning was overcast and perfect for a bike ride to the Southern tip of Don Det before crossing the French bridge to Don Khon. The railway that linked the two islands and by passed the network of rapids and waterfalls has long since closed, rusted and been recycled into the island. The clouds burnt off and my head that was virginal white is now turning a salmon pink. The ride to Somphamit Falls takes under an hour and there is a 25,000 Kip Falang troll fee at the bridge. One of three rusted French locomotives has been rescued from the jungle and sits en-plinthed for the tourists. We sat with a fruit shake and watched the torrents and waited for a fisherman to lose his footing. Despite being larger than Don Det by at least half, Don Khon is a quiet place and we saw just two other traveller's at the falls. Early afternoon we cycled back and on to Sunset Bar. We'd stopped at Mama's but the generic beat of a Canadians immemorable iPod playlist motivated us to move on for a Sunset. We settled for the evening and said our goodbyes to Chloe & Danny who move on to Cambodia. A day for goodbyes as Vera left for Vietnam at breakfast too but not before leaving us her guitar. The two of them should be reunited in Hanoi.

With no moon and little breeze bugs arrived like a plague from the book of Genesis. Locals coat plastic bags with oil which they hang from a lamp and trap them by the thousands. We were told they crack an egg over the contents for a sort of protein omelette. This maybe rubbish, we didn't see it. Any illumination at all after dark with result in a light peppering all over your body and Lutz followed us around his bar unscrewing the lights as we went. We removed three giant cockroaches from inside our mosquito net and a leech from the bathroom. Travellers problems.

We spent the rest of the week somewhere between a Hammock and a sunset, a holiday within a holiday, 4000 islands has been exactly what we wanted as our time comes to an end. A lazy goodbye to a laid back Laos.

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judith irvine on

Really enjoying all your stories , I love the descriptions of the characters you`ve met along the way Rosemary for one, you make it fun to read, keep enjoying your selves and stay safe, love Mum.xx

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