Sunday, July 25, 2010

Si Phan Don - Been There, Don Det

We left Pakse to get to Si Phan Don (also known as the 4,000 Islands) by bus. Because the bus left from the front of our hotel, we were amongst the first 4 people to climb onboard. The bus was rather small with enough seats fit around 15 people and no luggage compartment, so a few seats needed to be used to hold luggage. As more and more people started arriving, all of us with large backpacks, the bus filled up very quickly. As the last few people arrived it was clear that the bus had been overbooked by one or two seats, forcing the people to sit in the back seat to all squash up to fit everyone in. At this point an English bloke behind us called to everyone for "all of the skinny people to go sit in the backseat, regardless of who got here first." When we heard that, we thought, "screw that buddy, we got here before everybody else, so that's just tough luck to those who arrived last and are forced to sit at the back."  Shortly after the bus set off, the same guy spoke loudly again to everybody saying "I would like to talk to everyone about what happened this morning. You are all going to get your first good bollocking of this trip." At this point, Jenni and I looked at each other rather confused thinking, "What happened this morning that we require a bollocking for?" He proceeded to then say "You better all have a very good reason to what just happened and I'm seriously deciding whether or not I'm going to give you a sanction." I looked at Jenni and said, "What the hell is a sanction and why is he going to give us one? Maybe I should give HIM a sanction, with my fist to his head!" At this point, we looked around at all of the pimple-covered faces of our fellow passangers and realized that we were being joined on our bus trip by a visiting high school group. It was good thing I didn't get a sanction though, I would have been beside myself! 

Our bus arrived at a small town by the side of the Mekong river and Jenni and I were escorted with a couple of other people to the dock (the school group had parted ways to head over the border to Cambodia by this stage). We took a small rickety boat from the dock to our destination for the next few days, the island Don Det. For those of you that are a bit confused about me talking about going to an island in Laos, a country that is landlocked, let me explain. Si Phan Don is an area of the Mekong river, right near the border of Laos and Cambodia where the Mekong river is a couple of kilometers wide. In this wide section of the river is a large series of islands, most of which are large enough to house villages on. Don Det, one of the biggest islands, is now a very popular location for backpackers to visit as it is an excellent location for lounging around, drinking beer and eating good food, engaging in a wide range of water sports and great for bike rides and hikes. Don Det is still rather undeveloped and only had electricity connected in November 2009, a mere 8 months before we arrived. Pretty much all of the places to stay on Don Det lack the sorts of facilities that you would find in most guesthouses such as air conditioning, fans, electrical sockets, hot water, even lights! As such, none of the places have online booking facilities, so like Pakse, Jenni and I were forced to rock up and hope to find somewhere available for us to stay. 

Fortunately, we had done our research and as soon as we jumped of the boat, Jenni raced off to find one of the best guesthouses listed in the Lonely Planet before the other people on the boat could get there, while I minded our luggage. To our delight, we managed to secure what was probably the best room to stay in on the island, staying at the "Little Eden" guesthouse. Little Eden is run by a charming Belgian bloke called Mathieu. During one of the days of our stay, over a beer, he told us the story to how he bought the land for a mere US$1,000, 9 years prior and was the first person to build a guest house on the island. For the next 9 years, he gradually worked on his investment, turning the bamboo-filled location into the only guest house on the island to boast proper bricklayed bungalows (unlike all of the other guest houses which are mere wooden houses on stilts with thatched roofs), electricy, hot water, ceiling fans and air-con in each of the five rooms as well as the best restaurant with the best view of the sunset on the island. We ate at his restaurant every night as the food was among the best we have tasted during this trip. Each night, people would flock to the decking area of his restaurant to enjoy the sunset and have a few drinks. This is all during the wet season where not too many people visit Don Det, so the place must be completely chockers during the busy season.

We didn't really get up to much at Don Det. We well and truly embraced the island life by spending our days lounging around reading our books and frequenting the local bakery. We were put onto the bakery by Mathieu on the very first day when he asked us where we were from. When we told him we were from Perth, Western Australia, he was quick to exclaim that one of his very good friends living on the island, the local baker Darren, was from Busselton, a short way from Perth. Hearing the words "bakery" and "guy from Busselton, living here on the island", we were eager to visit Darren. Teeth browned from smoking too many cigarettes, messy hair, torn shorts and a tank top that looks like it was washed 2 weeks ago, Darren was a real character who was well suited to the island life of Don Det. With nearly 20 years of experience working at busy bakeries in Western Australia like in Busselton and Coral Bay, he had moved over to Laos and has been making fresh bread, yummy cinnamon scrolls and mouth watering cakes for the past few years. By the time most of us were out of bed, Darren's hard work baking up a storm was already over, so he could spend the rest of the day lounging around, having a smoke and passing the time drinking a few beers with his mate Mathiew. 

On one of our days in Don Det, Jenni and I hired a couple of bikes to ride from our island of Don Det to an island of Don Kong which is connected by a bridge. The road was not exactly the smoothest of roads and thus, we had rather sore backsides the following day. Along the way we were able to get a good glimpse at the local people going about their lives, cooking in front of their houses, kids playing and men fixing this, that and the other. After a couple of kilometres, we crossed the bridge to Don Kong. From here, we continued on until we reached one of the local waterfalls. After grabbing a few snapshots, we enjoyed a coconut at one of the little market stalls before continuing down the track to "the beach". The beach in question was a little area of the riverbank that was covered in fine sand. We stopped here for a short while to dabble our feet in the water before heading back. 

On our way back, we stopped of at Darren's bakery for lunch, where Mathieu was already paying a visit to Darren to enjoy a beer. There we enjoyed one of the local specialities, a pumpkin burger. As my mum and dad will tell you, I'm a rather fussy eater and not the biggest fan of pumpkin, but because the pumpkin burger was just so damned good, even I enjoyed it. While we ate our pumpkin burger, Darren and Mathieu entertained us, telling us stories about the life of living as a working foreigner in Laos. In some aspects, they have it better than the locals because, when at markets, they are willing to shop around, sharing out their business to get the best price, whereas local people will only go to the one market vendor. In other aspects, it can be a pain because when they venture out of the area where they are treated like kings, the Lao people are more than willing to treat them like any other foreigner and get as much money out of them as possible. However, a quick verbal bashing in the Lao launguage usually gets the local con-men to see the error of their ways and they end up getting a reasonable price. Aside from that, it sounds like working in Laos and being married to a local woman is just the same as anywhere else, you wake up, do your work and have various kitchen implements thrown at you by your wife for little to no reason!

Throughout our 4 night stay at Little Eden, we were kept company by a couple of the local kitty cats. Two small and friendly ginger cats could be frequently be seen roaming around the guest house area. We just assumed that they belonged to Mathieu and his family, but we were told that they were not actually their pets. The two cats had taken it upon themselves to adopt Little Eden as their home and any cat-loving travellers as their family. As such, if you were to pay them any sort of attention (even a quick glance was enough for these two), you would have them rubbing themselves up against your legs while sitting at a table. In a few instances, while sitting down reading a book or using the laptop, the most friendly of the two cats would take it upon himself to simply jump up onto your lap uninvited. There he would be happy as Larry to curl up on your lap and have a sleep for an hour or so. Missing our little kitty cat so much, Jenni and I were more than happy to accomodate these two feline characters as unlike many of the other cats over here, they were very healthly and clean looking.

Frequent cuddles from the friendly felines weren't our only encounters with members of the animal kingdom on Don Det. I had a couple of altercations with one of the neighbourhood monkeys that we passed each time we took a trip to Darren's bakery. On the first occasion where I ventured too close to this cheeky devil, he was quick to jump up on my back and start biting and yanking at my umbrella that was sticking out of my bag. Jenni was not particularly helpful, wetting herself with laughter as I cried "Get 'im off me! Get 'im off me!' while hunched over, flailing my arms around in an attempt to get him off my back. On another occasion, we walked by the monkey so we could take a photo with him. As you can see in the photo, my wrist band caught his eye and he was quick to grab hold of it, give it a good biting and try and yank it off me... the cheeky bugger!

On one of the nights, a pack of local dogs took it upon themselves to pick a fight with another dog right outside our bungalow. The barking and howling at 3am in the morning had us as well as the rest of the guests awake. Not to be one that likes to be disturbed in my beauty sleep, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Still half asleep and armed with a can of insect spray, I boldly stumbled out of our front door to confront the pack. I strode right up to the ring leader that was making all the racket and gave him a good spray. He along with all of his buddies turned tail and ran yelping into the night, leaving us in peace.

Unfortunately our enjoyable trip to Don Det was somewhat spoiled at the very end of our stay. On the morning that we were due to leave, I came down with yet another bout of Gastro and spent the majority of the early and late morning running back and forth between the bed and the toilet to drive the porcelain bus. We were due to leave Don Det via boat in the late morning, to get to the mainland in order to catch a bus back to Pakse where we were planning to stay overnight so we could catch a plane to Luang Prabang the following day. By the time we were due to get on the boat, I was still hugging the toilet bowl, so we decided to chance staying one more night on the island and race back to Pakse the following day to catch our flight in the late afternoon. Fortunately, I was able to recover enough over the next 24 hours to be able to tear myself away from the toilet so that we were able to catch the boat to the mainland, get a bus to Pakse and reach the airport to board our plane. We managed to get to the airport with a good hour to spare, but were glad we did so when the plane ended up leaving nearly an hour earlier than scheduled. Phew!!!


  1. dude watch out for island Monkeys, they can be ferocious little monsters.

  2. That path you were cycling on just looked like the opnes your dad and I cycled in Cornwall, complete with coa and all!!!
    Mum xx

  3. Nice story - i put a link to it on my blog: