Dondet - A laid-back week on the Mekong

Trip Start Sep 09, 2008
Trip End Aug 17, 2009

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Monday, July 20, 2009

They call this area four thousand islands, a small region of southern Laos were the mighty Mekong river hemorrhages into a number of smaller, fast flowing waterways, before they re-group and enter Cambodia in the south. Looking at our map of the area we decided on the island of Don Det and took a short ferry ride there from the mainland. Our little boat had to work hard against the powerful Mekong current but we eventually arrived, safe and dry.
Luckily for us, our friends Jack and Alice had arrived a few days earlier, reserving accommodation for us all. Their directions on how to find the place were completely useless though, as we had been dropped off at a different location to where their ferry had dropped them. We wandered around with our backpacks, cursing their directions, as the sweat poured from our bodies. Luckily, Don Det is a small island and we managed to find the guest house before we all collapsed with heat exhaustion.
For many people, Don Det would not seem like an attractive place to stay. There was no real infrastructure on the island, no roads, running water and only four hours of electricity each evening. Each day we showered in dirty brown water pumped from the Mekong, our clothes suffering the same fate, often coming back with a strange cream tint. All that said, forgoing such luxuries wasn't such a mammoth test of endurance. Far from it, we enjoyed the basic conditions that came with it such isolation.
Don Det is still in it's infancy as a tourist destination and I was pleased to see that it was a place that still held strong to it's traditional values. Touring the island on foot and bicycle, we were able to get a closer look at the islands rural side, watch men ploughing fields with water buffalo while women sowed their rice. Children ran naked like wild animals, splashing around in the water-logged fields without a care in the world. This was Laos, laid back and at it's most natural, just as we had seen on the Bolaven plateau. Staying there as a tourist, I couldn't help wonder how long it would take before all this was lost to the heavy handed grip of tourism. I have seen for myself  that tourism isn't a bad thing, but when the balance is tipped, problems occur; too much tourism destroys the very fabric of an area and slowly everything becomes just 'same same'.
The larger island of Don Khon was connected to our island by an old stone bridge and we rode across this one afternoon in search of the Somphamit waterfalls. I can honestly say that I have never seen such spectacular waterfalls in all my travels. This was the Mekong at it's meanest, a torrent of angry, brown water, tumbling and crashing it's way over an assort course of jagged rocks. Oh, and who said Laos didn't have beaches? Just downstream from the waterfalls we stumbled upon a beach, sand and all. It even had waves, created by the falls further upstream. It was a bizarre sight, a beach on the Mekong river.
It was on the cards from the moment we arrived but it took us a few days before some of us decided that it was time to brave the murky water. The current was far stronger than any of us had expected and we had to cling on to a half submerged log to stop us being carried away downstream. Ten minutes later we all let go anyway and were carried off along with all the floating debris. As we floated off downstream we could here the distant rumbling of the waterfall but managed to find a safe place to haul ourselves out well before we reached, what would have been, certain death. Walking back to our guest house, we jumped back in and this time waited for a large log to float past before scrambling on top of it. Who needs tubing, we had just invented logging on the Mekong! It became a regular pass-time over the next few days.
Having missed the tubing in Vang Vieng, we couldn't resist the temptation of hiring a tube on Don Det. We were taken a few kilometers upstream by boat, dropped off and left to float back down to our island. For the most part, there was minimal effort required, the current quite happy to do all the work for us. Then came a frantic ten minutes, the point when we all had to paddle like mad to reach the correct side of the river before it split into two around our island. Mish and Rob didn't make it, but managed, through hard work they later told us, to reach the dock and pull them selves out before they being swept further downstream. Our Vang Vieng ghost had finally been laid to rest. Our T-shirt would be unique, "In the tube, Don Det!"
It was Robert's birthday on the 19th and we celebrated both on Saturday and Sunday, first with a BBQ at our guest house and then at the fanciest restaurant we could find on the island, which wasn't very fancy at all, but what choice did we have? Juliet had a cake made by a baker on the island, on which, written in icing was the message "Happy birthday Lob". South east Asians find it hard to pronounce the letter R, generally replacing it with an L, hence Rob often became Lob. He had a great birthday, drank himself into the ground and was a great source of entertainment later that night when we played a host of games around the candlelight. He wasn't too bothered, it was his birthday and he sat there confused and blurry-eyed while we tried to explain the various rules. He had had a good night already!
So, our Don Det days were numbered, and we said our goodbyes to Scott, Claus, Pierre and our fabulous hosts mama Sae and Oy. We would miss them all and especially Mama's cooking. It had been a fantastic group of people who were now going off in different directions to continue their own journeys. Mish and I left with Robert and Juliet and headed for the border with Cambodia.
I would recommend Laos to everyone. It's a jewel in south east Asia's crown and reminded me very much of Guatemala in Central America. If you are planning on visiting, do it sooner rather than later, before it loses some of it's shine.

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