Pakse, Lao Peoples Dem Rep
Previous entry now updated with photos. (I’m not in Pakse, but once again the good people at Travelpod haven’t found time to add Si Phan Don / Don Dhet into their list of destinations….) I departed Tha Khaek for horribly bland and overpriced Pakse on January 2, 2009, and then on to Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) in the far south of Laos. As I’m trying to take as many forms of transportation as I can find on this journey, I opted for the local bus to SPD instead of the VIP tourist mini bus. Half the price and twice as long, but what the heck. The best way to repliacate the bus ride, which I know you all really want to, is to do the following : Get three planks long enough to comfortably seat about 6 people side by side on each plank. Place the planks lengthwise approximately 6 inches apart. Sit on one of the benches. Cram 6 of your friends on each side of you, 8 on the plank 6 inches in front of you (it’s up to you to sort out who’s knees go where), and 15 on the other plank. Under your feet, place many sacks of vegetables, 4 clay pot bbq’s, a rooster (still alive) and a pig (still alive, but in a bag) and a bunch of other random stuff. For four hours, drag the planks over a dirt road with the most potholes you can find, and make sure all of the other people are staring at you the entire time (but not speaking to you, as you don’t speak the same language). Honestly, it was kind of fun (but I did opt to take the VIP bus going the other way). In describing the islands of Don Dhet and Don Khon in the Four Thousand Islands, The Lonely Planet guidebook offers the following: “Life on Don Det and Don Khon feels so laid back that you could imagine the islands just drifting downriver into Cambodia with barely anyone rolling out of their hammock in the process.” Perfect. The islands are reachable only by boat. There are no cars, and only a few scooters. There is no electricity. Generators supply power from sundown until 10 or 11 pm, when everything shuts down and the only visible light is from the moon and a billion stars pressing down on you. No airplanes fly overhead, and no cargo ships pass by on the water. Everyone is peaceful and friendly; both residents and tourists alike. This is primarily farm country and these are farmers by trade. Tourism has arrived, but it is a measured tourism; the residents know what a special place they have here, and they’d like to keep it that way. Most of the land is covered in cultivated fields, grazing animals and wild unkempt brushland, with rickety bamboo or wood tourist bungalows teetering along the edges of the river, looking for all the world as though they might topple into the Mekong if the wind blew a certain way. I sleep in a $7 a night hut on the “sunrise” side of the island of Don Dhet. I have a bed (no mattress, just a wood plank with a small mat and a mosquito net), and a hammock on the balcony. There is no hot water. There is no flush toilet. There is no sink. Sharing my bungalow, but as yet not paying their share of the room charge, are geckos (so loud!), some spiders and so far only one cockroach (I leave the screenless windows open at night). Under and around my bungalow are roosters, chickens and baby chicks, dogs, cats and cows, all making sure I get as little sleep as possible. It is my favourite accommodation so far on this voyage. In fact, it just might be my favourite destination so far on this voyage. Life moves at a positively glacial pace here. It can take an hour to get a baguette and a cup of coffee in the morning (I am personally quite charmed by this, as I am convinced that as soon as you place your order they send one of their family members off to the market in search of the ingredients). (I quickly learned to order long before I got hungry). The most entrancing aspect of life on the islands is understanding how the Mekong is the master of all. We all hear bout the necessity of villages being built near a water source, but to actually be here to witness in, in fact, to participate in it – is awe-inspiring and humbling. The Mekong rules. It carries the boatmen to and from their wooden fish traps every day, and the tourists to and from the mainland. The locals bathe in it (this is my favourite time of day to go for a walk along its banks); it irrigates their crops and hydrates their livestock; it is the water that comes out of my shower. . My clothes are handwashed in it. Water is life and no place on my voyage has it been more evident that here on Don Dhet. Based on all of that preamble, it’s probably not too hard for you to guess what I’ve been doing a whole lot of since I arrived. But actually it’s been surprisingly active, as its over a 1 km walk (probably more like 2) to the “sunset” side of the island where my German friends Pascal and Melanie are staying. That’s also the side of the island that is most heavily developed for tourism (a couple of internet cafes and travel agencies, etc,.), and where you pretty much have to go if you need anything more complicated than drinking water or toilet paper. I make the trek a couple of times a day; the locals are getting used to seeing me now and I enjoy checking on the progress of their little box-crops of spring onions and lettuce, as well as the size and fluffiness of their baby chicks, each time I pass. Pasc, Meli and I (and my Aussie friend Jane from the trek, up until a couple of days ago) have a standing order to meet at the aptly-named Sunset Bar every night at 5:30 to watch Nature do her splendid stuff, while we quaff $1.00 lao-lao mojitos (seriously, $1.00. Canadian.) It’s sheer paradise. P and M and I eventually got ourselves moving enough to head out on an all-day kayak trip, taking in the spectacular Li Phi and Khon Phaphong waterfalls as well as spotting a good sized herd (are they called herds?) of the heart-wrenchingly endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. Topping this off with our usual sunset enagement followed by some cheesingly delicious pizzas (with REAL cheese!), we all agreed that it was a particularly perfect day that we’ll remember forever. We frequently fall into discussions about the changes that are making their way to the islands – they will be on the power grid within the year. We sort of fold time in on itself, both living in the present and looking back on it as the past at the same time; we realize and express our gratitude for being here now, before the sound of generators is gone forever. We say, “Remember when we were on Don Dhet? Back then there wasn’t even electricity, or an ATM.” I feel as though I’ve stumbled upon something rare and precious: a place not yet completely spoiled by tourism. I didn’t really know how long I would stay when I arrived, but my usual seems to be about 3 to 4 days. I’ve been here for 5 already, and I have no intention of moving until my kip run out (as mentioned, there is no bank or ATM on the island – which in itself made for a very adventurous half-day for Pasc and I as we manouevered our way to the mainland, on to a scooter we borrowed from a guy, and to the tiny town of Ban Kimat, where there was a sort of bank). I have fallen completely and totally in love, and his name is Don Dhet. It will be difficult to tear myself away, but my visa’s up on the 15th, and I’ve got a flight to catch out of Bangkok. Island-dwelling update: Jan 15: Alas, I had to move on from the island just a couple of days later, as the kip had dwindled drastically. I will miss Laos terribly. While there are things about it that I won’t miss, like horking (everyone, everywhere, all the time; obnoxious, nauseating, yet somehow completely socially acceptable here) and karaoke (everyone, everywhere, all the time; obnoxious, nauseating, yet somehow completely socially acceptable here), there is so much more that I will. I can’t even begin to list it all. I am under the spell of this little place, this peaceful country with a population smaller than that of the city of Bangkok. It’s baffling to think that this quiet, unassuming, poor and enchanting country remains the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of warfare (more than 2 million tons of bombs at a cost of US $2 million per day for 9 years solid, 1964-73). The “bombings” continue at an alarming rate as UXO (unexploded ordnance) remain in huge pockets throughout the country, claiming 30 to 60 casualties a year, many of them children. Yet the people of Laos continue to smile and wave and welcome us. I’ve since had a hoot hanging out in Bangkok (once again!) for the last couple of days. A good chance to restock the supplies (sunscreen, deodorant, etc) and feast on ridiculously cheap pad thai and spring rolls before I catch my flight late tonight to Bali, Indonesia. Ahh, Bali! What a great place to turn 40! I had visions of a sunny month of huts on beaches, flowery sarongs and sunrise volcano hikes; but as you might have heard, the island of Bali is having a little problem with flooding right now. OK, a big problem. And there’s a tiny issue of a sinking ferry boat off of Sulawesi. But I’m not changing my plans. “Why on earth not”, you ask? There’s a very good reason… but you’ll have to wait until the next blog update to find out. 🙂 Wish me luck, and stay tuned.