Laos. Been ‘dere, Don Det.

21 Mar

(sorry – saw that on a T-Shirt)

Have you noticed a pattern emerging – these blogs always seem to start with ‘onto a another bus’. One day, I will write ‘onto yet another Chieftain Tank’ and see if anyone notices.

Friday

Anyway, it’s onto another bus, across the river, onto another bus, drive for two hours and then stop. They’ve dug up the road. The driver makes a valiant (if stupid) effort to keep going down a bit of road that even I can see isn’t wide enough.. I’m not panicking, but I am busy working out what to hold on to if the bus does topple over the edge.…. eventually discretion has the better part of insanity and we walk the last half mile…and here we are.

Final walk to Ban Nakasang (1)Final walk to Ban Nakasang (2)

Si Phan Don. The Four Thousand Islands. I doubt anyone has counted them, but it’s a reasonable number… a score of larger islands like Don Det and Don Khone, thousands of little islands, some of which are no more than a piece of rock poking into the air – and some that haven’t got that far, and in a fit of pique at not being sufficiently above water level to be called islands sit around all day lurking just under the surface, ready to trap the unsuspecting fishernan. I think some of them are just trees, pretending to be islands (and, I have to say, looking pretty convincing)

Across to Don Det (9)Don Det (17)

And then a final boat ride into Don Det, my home for the rest of my stay in Laos. This is a backpacker paradise, full of fa rang who have washed up here in search of a little peace and quiet. And since there is an 11pm curfew and island wide ‘lights out’ they probably won’t be partying too long!

Thondon LodgeThondon Guest House

The island is full of little guesthouses, mostly with little cabins built over the river. Mine isn’t – mine seems to be built over two cockerels. This should make for an early rise in the morning. But I wander the island, finding little communities hidden away behind the resort, a vegetarian restaurant in the middle of nowhere that even I  can’t be bothered to walk to, a massage parlour in a tin hut, and herds of water buffalo and cattle roaming the dried up rice fields. I doubt I could stay a week here, but three nights is going to be just fine….and Mama’s spring rolls are amazing…as I eat, I watch a couple tubing up the Mekong (normally, you tube down river, but here the Mekong is so slggish that it’s possible to swim against the flow. Looks like bloody hard work though, and unlike Vang Vieng, there’s no one to throw you a rope and offer you a cold one.

Don Det from Thondon Lodge (3)Don Det (18)Don Det (26)Don Det (32)Don Det (44)Don Det (6)

The sunset is muted tonight – it’s been a dull day, and rain has made one or two attempts, largely unconvincing. But when curfew falls… it all goes silent. Even the cockerel and the cicadas go quiet, and an unearthly peace settles across the island (unless you happen to be at the Monkey Bar, where everyone is celebrating St Patrick’s Day. Everything is still, everything is silent. Until, that is, the English girls next door turn up at 2am (apparently the curfew has been lifted for St Patrick’s Day) and break their key in the padlock. In a demonstration that the age of chivalry is not dead, two of the other guys apparently spent the night in hammocks so the girls could have their room.

So, it’s just me up early then – when the cockerel planted underneath my room wakes up. At 4am. I doze until 6 though. I’m convinced that there’s an ocean running under the hut – I can hear water crashing on the beach. Eventually the sound is traced to a washing machine outside my door.

Saturday

Time to hire a bike and tour Don Khon – the island is attached by an old railway bridge, so I cycle down Don Det to the bridge and across, paying my 20.000 kip toll (Lonely Planet says 9,000) and cycle off to the waterfall. Which, it turns out, is an understatement. It’s actually hundreds of waterfalls, created by the Mekong carving its way through the hard, hard rock and creating dozens of routes through, each one forming its own series of falls and pools, some foaming and others pouring in a smooth cascade over the edge. Walking down the path reveals a different view and a different set of falls at every view point.

Tat Somphamit (53)Tat Somphamit (37)Tat Somphamit (28)Tat Somphamit (27)Tat Somphamit (21)Tat Somphamit (14)Tat Somphamit (11)

I’m also convinced that there’s a pterodactyl on top of the rocks – what do you think?

Tat Somphamit (17)

And at the bottom there’s a sea serpent, I’m sure – isn’t there?

Tat Somphamit (52)

Further down, the river gathers itself together again, ceases its midlife frolicking, and resumes its slow, purposeful journey south. I, on the other hand, stop for fresh spring rolls and banana & coconut shake and nearly pass out with sensory overload. These spring rolls, full of crunchy fresh vegetables wrapped in a lettuce leaf and held together with such a thin pancake that it looks like cellophane. And the peanut and chilli sauce.. and the shake… In fact, I do fall off my chair while offering one to the French Canadian couple next to me. Incredible (the food, not the falling off the chair).

And so off to the southernmost point of the island, along the old railway line, past scrub burning and palm trees, trying to avoid being run over by a motorcycle driven by a 10 year old (or so it seems to me – maybe I’m exaggerating and he’s only 8 or 9. From here you can see Cambodia – and the rare Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins. I’m thinking of taking a boat to see if I can spot any, but decide I will do it tomorrow – until I am approached by the lovely Fumiko (hope I spelled that right – I did check twice) from Osaka, who is looking to split the cost of a boat. Sounds good, so we find a boatman and set off in pursuit of dolphins.

Dolphin Watching (8)Dolphin Watching (11)

They’re out there, alright – sometimes just a splash as they surface and slide back below the water again. Other times we are treated to them leaping part out of the water, and in one glorious moment three of them leap in synchronised grace

Dolphin Watching (7).Dolphin Watching (13)

The trip is worth the 60,000 kip just for the views, and the dolphins make it special – although I am convinced that most of them are behind us, making faces and snickering.

Fumiko and I cycle back – or at least we do until a huge explosion from my rear tyre heralds a catastrophic puncture. Graciously, she walks with me, and we chat about her family (all safe after the earthquake), her travels, and where she learnt her excellent English (Europe, apparently).

Fortunately, at the top of Don Khon we find a little old man engaged in cycle repairs, who agrees to the extortionate sum of 10,000 kip to fix the puncture. Or around 80p. We play with the cutest kitten I have ever seen while we wait – not only has the inner tube burst, but the tyre has shredded too, and the valve is leaking. I pay him 20,000 kip… I simply can’t face paying less! It feels like that a lot over here – I find fa rang arguing over the equivalent of 50 cents, and am tempted to follow the approach of one friend, who tended to bargain upwards….”How much? 50,000? That’s outrageous. 80,000 and I won’t pay a penny less” – his perspective was that he was (by comparison) wealthy and so he wanted the chance to give a little bit extra back to the communities he was visiting.

Cycle repair (1)Fumiko & kitten (3)Fumiko & kitten (2)

Anyway, all is fixed, and we ride off into the sunset. Then turn around because we’ve gone the wrong way and can’t climb up the side of the bridge…

It’s been a fabulous laid back day…

Saturday

And so to my final day in Laos – time to plan where I am going in Cambodia – and how I am getting there..but before the afternoon is out another surprise – Kerry, who I last saw getting on a bus going North, is now in Don Det – having come back South. And she’s brought Scrabble.

And for a final adventure, and in lieue of a shower, I swam half way across the river to one of the islands (only 3,997 to go, now. Tomorrow – Cambodia.

Don Det (17) Swimming to this island!

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