Monday, 7 November 2011

What a difference a border makes, Don Det, 4,000 Islands – 26-29 April 2011

I've only been in Laos for a few minutes but I'm already loving it. Thoughts of our arduous journeys over the last couple of days in Cambodia are fading away as our minibus takes as towards Don Det, one of the popular islands that make up Laos' Four Thousand islands that sit in the middle of the Mekong river as it widens in the south of the country.

It's now early afternoon and the sun is high in the sky. I rest my head back on the chair and close my eyes as the breeze through the windows cools my mind. The roads are deathly quiet and no one was working in the fields as we passed by. The minibus slowed and bumped along the pot holes that scattered the poorly repaired roads until we reached a small town that consisted of a row of businesses whether they were restaurants or workman providing services of all kinds. The driver manoeuvred the minibus into a tiny driveway between two vertical columns holding the roof up and a wall, there was no more that four inches leeway on each side.

Having stopped, the cooling breeze that I had become accustomed to had also ceased and the afternoon heat swallowed us and demanded perspiration. There's no time to worry about that here, you have to accept it and get moving. The driver opened the tailgate and began removing the bags with determined speed. As always, the passengers become his assistants and help him to retrieve the bags. With our bags strapped to our backs we begin to follow the driver down the road, past the tradespeople, to the quay where dozens of long, thin wooden boats wait to take people to any one of the thousands of islands that litter this area of the Mekong.

After climbing over concrete pipes, rubbish and negotiating sandy traps across the beach, we climbed aboard our boat which was waiting to take us to the magical island of Don Det. The boat skimmed across the water and made its way through the maze of islands of differing sizes. Fishermen clinging onto their fishing rods in an attempt to catch those unlucky fish that swim too close to their bait. Although the engine made a terrific noise, it was a very peaceful and calming ten minute trip to the island. We were warned before going onto the island that we should take enough cash with us for our stay as there aren't any cash machines, they have only just got electricity in recent years. The skipper launched the boat hard into the sand bank which led up towards a small beach where a handful of people were lazing around catching some rays. I jumped off the boat a little prematurely and ended up knee deep in cool Mekong river water.

We arrived on the island with no idea where we were going to be staying. This has become second nature to me and is part of fun of travelling. We had no idea as to what we would find as we hadn't been able to access the internet in Banlung, nor did we have a guidebook. Most of the island is littered with bamboo shacks and very very small amount of brick buildings. As we made our way up the beach and onto the main strip of restaurants and shops, we took a right as we saw a sign to some accommodation and at the end of a narrow pathway stood eight bamboo shacks circling a piece of grass. There seemed to be no signs of life.

"Hello?!" We called out in a louder than usual voice, but not shouting.
"Hello?" A small petite Lao lady picked her head up from the hammock that she'd been sleeping on in the middle of the grassy area. Her eyes looked dazed and her posture lethargic.
"Have you got any rooms free?" We enquired.
"7, 8, 9" She threw her arms out in the general direction with great effort as she battled against falling asleep.
"Excellent! How much?" We asked.

Dusty path around Don Det
Nothing. She gave up. Her battle against tiredness overthrew her as she sighed and collapsed back into her hammock and slept. Nicky, Tom and I stared at each other not believing what we had just witnessed. It's a complete reversal to how the Cambodians and Vietnamese act. We were used to being hounded the moment we stepped off a bus or train and not left alone until we handed over cash. Here, the lady couldn't even be bothered to speak to us. This is heaven although we didn't end up staying there as she went to sleep and didn't wake up again.

It didn't matter too much as there were plenty of places to sleep, mainly bamboo shacks that we could choose from. After walking a couple of hundred metres down the dirt track that led through the main settlement of restaurants, bars and shops, we came walked passed a lady who asked whether we needed a place to sleep. Of course we did, so she showed us to her bamboo huts that overhung the river. We took a hut each. The basic huts, had a double bed, mosquito net and a fan. The bathroom was a small concrete hut with a hose pipe and a traditional squat toilet. Thankfully these were in separate sections so you didn't trip whilst taking a shower and ending up with you foot in the bog.

A few hours later we had forgotten about the morning's journey from Banlung and were submerged in the life of Don Det and that is complete relaxation. Tom, Nicky and I were cooling off in the river whilst tiny fish nibbled on your feet, throwing Tom's ball around like children. That evening we went out and found a restaurant and bought a burger and a few drinks whilst playing pool. When all of the bars shut up at eleven, everybody heads to the beach where to sit round a bonfire and continue drinking and laughing. Walking home from the beach is certainly an experience, especially when you've had a few drinks and not quite sure where you actually stay because as soon as you leave the main strip, the lights cut out and you cannot see much. I was walking alone as Tom and Nicky had already gone back to bed, however, I felt that someone was with me. I looked round but couldn't see anyone. I shook off the feeling as paranoia and continued cautiously along the path back to my hut. Suddenly I jumped and quickly turned as something brushed against my leg. It was a dog, now in front of me but had slowed to join me for my walk home. My next issue was, which hut is mine? They all looked the same to me. I went up one set of steps and discovered someone else's clothes hanging over the banister which confirmed that this was not mine, so the dog and I turned and continued up the path eventually finding the my hut.

View from my riverside hut
FLASH....BANG... Eyes sprung open. What the hell is that? Rain began pounding hard on the roof of my hut as the heavens fell in huge buckets. I fought with the mosquito net as I jumped out of bed and headed outside to see nature's light and sound show. The whole sky was lit up every few moments shortly followed by excruciating cracks of thunder. Staying in a hut made from bamboo with a corrugated metallic roof during an electrical storm is certainly an experience. The deafening sound of the rain hitting the roof was immense.

We stayed on the island for three days, however, our plans to walk and cycle round the island or kayak down the river were not fulfilled as Laos' heat and humidity had overwhelmed us into a lazy Laos stupor. Having spent three days lazing around watching films in the bar, playing pool, eating food and having the odd beverage it was time to push on further into Laos. Next stop Pakse.

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