Been There Don Det

14 02 2011

The sleeper bus down to Pakse was a bit of surprise. Instead of the single-berth beds that had been the norm in Vietnam the bus had two lines of double bunks down the bus. I was next to a German girl. I’m not really sure about the etiquette of spooning with complete strangers so I tried not to get too close as we slept – although they were really narrow beds so this was sometimes difficult. I spent the first part of the trip watching Run Fat Boy Run on my laptop – not my facesake Simon Pegg’s greatest movie; but enjoyable enough.

In Pakse we swapped to a regular bus which drove us to a ferry crossing on the Mekong where it was a short boat trip to the island of Don Det. I was wandering down the main street and ran into Ellen, who I knew from Hoi An and had run into again in Vang Vieng, and Sarah (German) who I knew originally from Luang Prabang and had also seen in Vang Vieng. They were with a French girl called Manon. I sat down with them for a while and eventually checked into the guest house just opposite the cafe where the girls were also staying. In the afternoon we decided to rent some tubes and go tubing in the river. This wasn’t really the same as it would have been in Vang Vieng. The river currents were quite mild – the only place they were wilder in this area were those parts of the river leading to the big waterfall (it was generally NOT a good idea to go tubing there) – although I seemed to struggle more than anyone else actually paddling my way across the river.

The Four Thousand Islands are pretty enough (I think the “islands” can often just mean any random tree that is growing on a 1m² patch of land and I doubt that anyone has really counted them all) but I’ve been spoilt by being on too many exotic rivers over the past year or so. I scarcely found anything in the view that I felt was worthy of a photo. I really had become a jaded traveller and it was another clear reminder to me as to why I needed to stop soon.

Cow on 4000 islands

In the evening we went for a curry at the local Indian restaurant. The food here was absolutely amazing and once again in Laos I’d find myself in a curry house every single night of my stay in a town. The only downside of the restaurant was that it took a minimum of an hour to get any food. We eventually got around this by working out when we were most probably going to feel hungry and going there an hour beforehand to pre-order. We’d generally only have to wait 30 minutes for our food to arrive when we came back. The Indian was packed every single night there – it was far and above the best eatery in town – I can only imagine what additional profits they would have realised if they’d sped up the cooking process.

After the curry house we went to the reggae bar which would become another staple element of my time in Don Det and chilled out on the cushions there whilst we drank a few beers. There were quite a few French people at our table and Sarah is at least trilingual so the conversation would often lapse into French and I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said. Me and Ellen got our own back by speaking to each other in Dutch. The next day the bar was having a big all-day party on a random island outside of town and we all decided to go. The boat left at about 11am, I just hoped that Jan and Yana would arrive in time so that they could come too. I’m not sure why I worried so much – like reggae bars the world over, accurate timings were not strictly enforced. I’m sure there’s a reason for this.

There was a big party on the beach that night for Valentine’s Day and for wont of something to do we wandered down there. There was a DJ playing lots of tracks and everyone was sitting around in the sand drinking beer. It was a lot of fun and (perhaps because we were far away from the mainland) we were all able to drink away until 3am. It was probably the only time on Don Det that the party went on so late. When I went to the toilet I discovered that some people had remained in the main bar there and were singing some very bad karaoke. I was glad the sound was drowned out by the DJ on the beach.

The next day I had breakfast in a restaurant just overlooking the beach where I hoped the boat would drop Jan and Yana off. They arrived just before 11 and I quickly rushed them down to our guest house where they managed to get the last room. We bustled to the reggae bar – I barely let them get breakfast – and then signed up for the party. As could be easily predicted it was at least another hour before we actually got on a boat and headed to the island.

I was a bit out of sorts for the first hour of the party; perhaps the late night the night before had tired me out more than I thought and I didn’t really make much effort to mingle with people outside of my existing acquaintances but we had a really good time sitting on the beach and swimming in the Mekong all day whilst supping on Beer Laos. Eventually it was time to head back to town and, as was our pattern, visiting the Indian restaurant and the reggae bar.

An informative sign on the bridge between the islands

The next day we rented some bikes and cycled over to the nearby waterfalls. Unfortunately, Yana’s had a puncture and we had to keep stopping along the way to get some air in her tyre. Some of the locals were more than willing to help out a damsel in distress; others were less than helpful and would give a simple shrug that eloquently said “Well, if you’d rented a bike from me instead this wouldn’t have happened”. When we finally got to the Khone falls, which we got to by crossing a bridge to the neighbouring island of Don Khon, I was disappointed to discover that there was nowhere to swim there. I’d dreamt of a quick dunk in the Mekong to wash off the sweat from our bike ride through the midday heat but there wasn’t anything like that. We then debated whether to carry on further to see if we could see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins but we knew this would involve a lot of negotiating with a boat captain to get a boat into the middle of the Mekong so we instead headed back towards town.

Khone falls

That evening, in addition to our usual trips to the Indian and the reggae bar we all decided to head down to a local party. This was actually a funeral but they didn’t seem to mind a load of falangs sitting at the fringes. Rather than the sombre overtones of a European funeral the Laotians have a 5-day festival to celebrate a person’s life. We’d probably have sat a bit closer to the centre but the noise coming out of the stereo was a discordant mash of white noise and the incessant jabbering of the compère. The microphone was way too loud for the speakers to cope with. The compère was even making jokes about all the falang at the party and eventually, after another goading, we all risked bleeding eardrums and got up to dance with the locals. It was a fun evening and I’m glad we went but I’m sure my ears were suffering the next day.

I didn’t do that much on my last full day in Don Det – most of my time was spent trying to organise my onward flights (on the appalling and expensive Internet there) and finishing reading Marching Powder so that Jan could read it after me. Obviously the evening involved the usual schedule of the Indian restaurant, the reggae bar and a few games of Yaniv. I enjoyed my time on Don Det but maybe it was little too chilled for my tastes and the absence of WiFi annoyed my need to feel permanently connected to the real world. The next day I would start with the 11am bus on my long trip to Bangkok.