Si Phan Don
Si Phan Don (the Four Thousand Islands) is an area where the Mekong river becomes very wide at the point that it exits Laos and enters Cambodia. Some of the islands are real and some are just little tufts and sandbanks that only exist when the rainy season is far away and the river's height recedes.
The bus to Pakse had put us by the road side somewhere and we walked into the centre. Fiecke and Catherine led the search for accommodation and I realised that it was not my place to be interfering in this task. On the way we picked up Eero, a guy from Finland. He and I then got separated from the girls as we endlessly walked the streets and ended up finding our own beds for the night, meeting for dinner afterwards. It was only a small town and although I correctly guessed where we might find the two girls, they were not there whenever I checked.
Eero has been cycling around Laos with a German guy he met up with. The two of them are on very tight budgets and often sleep in raised huts they find in the fields or at the kindness of hosts who agree to take them in. This was a rare night in a hotel for him. His friend was still a day's ride away whilst Eero had decided to go on ahead by bus to escape the long, straight road in the hot sun for a day. He told me over dinner of his ambitions to open a chain of soup restaurants back home in Finland, exploiting what he saw as a hole in the local marketplace.
The next day I agreed to a bus to Si Phan Don via a restaurant doubling up as a small tour operator. It didn't leave until two-thirty, which was later than I had planned, but it saved me messing around getting to the proper bus station and was only three hours away. When we set off though, the other eight passengers were an internationally-mixed group of westerners who were all together. They needed to go via the police station to collect their passports, which I assume were having their visas extended. When we got there they were told to come back at four O'clock, which meant our whole bus had to wait as well.
The upshot of this was that the sun had disappeared when were arrived at the shore of the river and was only reminding us of its earlier deeds via the milky-coloured sky on the western horizon. By the time we were transferred to a little boat and taken across to Don Det island, the evening was alone in its darkness. The northern tip of Don Det is fairly touristy so I wanted to walk around to the southern side and then across the bridge onto Don Khon. The map in the Lonely Planet had this down as about a kilometre, but the scale markings were completely wrong and it was actually five times that. Throw in the fact that I was walking with a heavy backpack on a rough path I didn't know through total darkness and it was very hard work indeed. It was also still very hot and I was very hungry and thirsty.
The whole exercise took me two hours before I had got to Don Khon and then found somewhere to sleep which I was happy with. I had a bed with a mosquito net in a raised wooden chalet with a hammock outside. Electricity would be turned on for a few hours in the evening, but I found the lights just attracted flies then so it was better without it. There was a little bathroom with a cold water shower that became fairly warm if you used it at the right time of the afternoon when the little water tower had been sitting in the sun long enough and when your own hot body was happier with the idea of cooling down.
I was paying forty thousand kip a night for this, three or four US dollars worth, which wasn't a bad price. Other people were paying about the same although one person in the less-populated area on the south side of Don Det told me he was paying fifteen thousand. Funny then, to hear that the older package tourists staying in one place were paying thirty five US dollars a night. I mean, I'm sure they had nicer rooms than me, but did they realise just what a bad deal they were getting?
The two islands have an old railway line running from the southern tip of Don Khon to the northern tip of Don Det, linked by the old railway bridge. It was built by the French when they were the colonial masters of this part of Asia. Although the tracks themselves are no longer here, the rocky path is still in evidence so I used it the next day to stroll back up to the top of Don Det. I was able to make rare use of the internet via one of the little satellite boxes that some of the places had. It was a nice enough area, but was basically young westerners floating about in the river having an exotic beach holiday.
The group I had travelled with on the bus the day before summed this up well, particularly a young French Canadian guy I had sat next to. Big blonde dreadlocks, he was a lovely person but essentially clueless. Vang Vieng is the western tourist hotspot in Laos, loathed by the indigenous population and avoided by many travellers. He was telling me how it was the best place in the world because it was full of western people sitting in bars, drinking beer, singing songs, playing guitars, chilling out, doing bungee jumps. "It's not really the real Laos though" I told him. "Yes it is" he replied, "It IS the real Laos!".
I think they had been attracting some notoriety though. I mentioned him to two other people the next day. Both of whom had seen him/them in other towns in Laos and instantly knew who I was talking about. One of them told me "I saw him again today by the waterfall and recognised him. I quickly left before he saw me". Don't get me wrong though, lovely guy. Had a heart of pure gold and a brain of pure balsa wood.
I saw him in a bar that night and he had come over to chat to me when a song he recognised came on the stereo. Instantly he picked up his guitar and gave an impassioned version of his own. I admired his energy and enthusiasm, but other people were looking over and wincing. Luckily, he had shut is eyes to feel the utmost emotion of the music and didn't notice. I walked with him around the island at the end of the night, his place being halfway along. So, after he had gone, I was once again walking back in the darkness.
At one point, nearer the bridge, I passed a local man going the other way. All I really saw in the black was a pair of baggy white shorts he was wearing. We exchanged a quick 'Sabaidee", but a minute later he was back to say hello again. He asked me where I was from and told me how he was waiting for another English guy from London, which may or may not have been a bit of a 'coincidence'. Apparently they had met earlier in the day and the Englishman had promised to return for dinner later. "I heard someone coming and thought you might be him" he told me, "although it is probably too late now".
"Do you have girlfriend?" he asked me. Then "Have you had girlfriend before?". It was funny to watch where this was going as I was propositioned by a pair of white shorts in the darkness, him so desperate and yet too shy to openly ask for anything. "I used to have girlfriend" he told me, "but now she is married to another man and I am heartbroken. Now I don't know whether I like man or woman. I think maybe I want to try man to see if I like. When I meet this Englishman, he thinks maybe he want to try also.". "But now he doesn't come", he added sadly. He went on to talk to me about attitudes to homosexuality in Laos, how it is more relaxed in the cities and easier to find someone and of his hopes for this to spread to the countryside in the future. I tried to sound as optimistic as possible as I assured him that everything would work out for the best in the long run, but the white shorts seemed very despondent as I bade them farewell for the night.
Back on my island, my bed was only five minutes from the bridge. Everyone had now turned in for the night. Electricity is not used unless necessary here so it was total darkness and I walked a long way passed my chalet before I realised my mistake. It took careful searching with my torch through all the barking dogs I disturbed before I was able to locate it.
I tried to make sure I used the next day to be as relaxed as possible, including making full use of the hammock. But, I found myself working hard in my brain to remember to fit in all the relaxing activities like eating, lying down etc, that it wasn't totally dreamy. At dinner, while I was sharing a table with a couple of Finnish girls, I noticed Fiecke and Catherine walk in as part of another group and sit at the next table. I went over to say 'hello'. It was all very friendly but I got the feeling that they were still pretty pissed at me/us for having got separated three nights earlier in Pakse. Apparently they had found us a room and had waited on the street for ages for us to catch them up.
On the final full day, I set out to walk around Don Khon. The path took me through a wat, a coastal village and along a path by the shore where the river became very narrow over to the next island. After some kilometres I arrived at the southern end where a wide expanse of Mekong lay under the fiery sun as I looked across it to Cambodia in the distance.
I took some lunch at a 'cafe' on the edge of a nearby village. Public breastfeeding is common in Laos and you have to learn to look the other way while the woman next to you on the bus does it for most of the four hour journey etc. I hadn't realised how much of it there is. I assumed babies fed this way just got three meals a day like the rest of us. Apparently not. My English sense of unease with the situation was even more tested here as the woman running the eaterie cheerily called me over, pointed me to a table and asked what I would like to eat, all the while with a little one nuzzling at her teet.
Walking back up through the middle of the island along the rocky path of the old railway line, coming the other way on his bike was Eero. He had cycled down here with his German friend who was currently elsewhere on the island nursing a flat tyre or some such minor technical damage. We agreed to meet for dinner and I agreed to let him drop his bag at my chalet for the night while he went in search of somewhere like a beach to sleep on. Afterwards, my walk back took me via a waterfall on the west of the island which was highly regarded. It was OK.
That night, Eero and I had dinner with Johannes, his partner in cycling crime. We went back to the place I had eaten on the first night, which I quite liked. They had no electricity at all tonight and the whole place was lit by candles. When I went to the toilet, I found myself in total darkness and wasn't sure if I had enough faith to just pee blindly and hope it landed somewhere hygienic. After a few seconds pondering my options, the door opened slightly and an anonymous hand pushed a candle inside for me, lighting things up sufficiently.
After dinner, the boys left their bikes underneath my chalet and their bags inside. They took just the bare essentials and the three of us headed into the countryside to try to find somewhere for them to sleep for the night. I took them along the same paths I had walked earlier in the day, this time taking much longer as we made our way in the darkness, stopping to investigate empty-looking buildings or pieces of flat ground. They wanted somewhere above the ground out of reach of animals and out of sight of human eyes who might object to foreigners sleeping rough. Progress was even slower when Johannes broke his flip-flop and had to hobble along without it, hurting his foot in the process.
We walked for an hour and a half in the end, some of it feeling a bit creepy, before they found somewhere they were willing to compromise on. It may have been cheap, but I don't think I would have wanted to go through this every night. They assured me that it was normally easier than this. I then had to walk all the way back by myself, although this was much quicker and I was in bed by 1am.
In the morning, I had some breakfast and the guys came by to collect their stuff. Apparently they were awakened by the sun shortly after five, and then got another hour's sleep nearby. Is it really worth the money they're saving? Perhaps so, if the only option is not to travel at all. They told me that most days they live on nothing but sticky rice and bananas because it's all they can afford. Ordering the cheapest option from the cheap restaurant with me the night before had been a big outlay for them.
I had a bus ticket to Attapeu, which included the boat to get me off the island. Our little skiff took me and one other person through the clusters of 'islands' and across the open expanses of the Mekong back onto the mainland. There, I was taken to Pakse for a connecting bus. I had been told to write out my ticket myself when I bought it, I think because the woman who sold it to me at her restaurant couldn't write in English. This did make me think that I could just as easily have written any old ticket to any old place myself, but it seemed to work and I was accepted on board.