Jenny\'s Southeast Asia/China Adventure

Travel time: February - June 2004  |  by Jenny Chu

Laos: 4,000 Islands

Friday, 3/12/04
Day 38, Back to Basics

We arrived into Pakse without a hitch at 6 in da morn. No one really knew exactly how to get to Don Det in the 4,000 islands except for one guy who had been there once before. We followed his lead and first got into a 10 min tuk-tuk to a bus station. And then from the bus station another tuk-tuk (one with two benches down the bed of the truck and one bench in the middle). This truck would be crammed to the brink with travellers and Laotians. Right when I thought we could not pick up any more passengers, more would hop on. I counted at one time almost 30 passengers. A few were even sitting on the roof!

on the pickup truck from Pakse to 4,000 islands.

on the pickup truck from Pakse to 4,000 islands.

Sharing elbow and leg space with me was two parents(grandparents?) and their son and daughter....and their roasted snake head and skewered frogs on a stick. Yum. Needless to say when they offered me a taste, I declined. Being vegetarian is an easy excuse not to try strange new things that once has a pulse when you're traveling. Anyway, this claustrophobic, hotter than hot journey to Don Khong took about 3 hours (3$) with a few stops where groups of Lao ladies would run up with more skewered frogs and other delicacies to sell. As we drove through the desolate south of Laos, I didn't see much except for dry fields, a few huts, simple cement houses and a whorde of students riding or walking home from school. Here in Laos, students seem to journey far and wide from school to home (like our grandpas used to do).

When we got to Don Khong, we had to walk with our backacks on for five minutes until we got to the ferry boats that would take us to our respective islands. Suffering from a combination of hunger, too much sun, and cramped legs, this walk seemed to take me forever. I thought I was going to break down soon! At the dock, Lein booked us a boat, and the two german guys, and us three girls got on a little wooden boat that ferried us to Don Det where we would stay
(6,000 kip). As we cut through the Mekong river on the boat passing by islands big and small, the sky was blue, the water clear, and all of us were happy to see that the 4,000 islands were just as beautiful as described by other travelers.

We're almost there! Kris, Lein and me on the little boat to Don Det.

We're almost there! Kris, Lein and me on the little boat to Don Det.

As we climbed onto the shores of Don Det, we saw that there was only one path to take. Okay let's take a right. And we kept walking and walking, pass groups of bungalows-none which had enough space for the five of us to be together. About half a mile later, we heard a couple shout out to us, "The food is the best here." Well that was enough to convince us to put our bags down and check into Mamma Mon and Papa's Bungalows. They had five bungalows built right by the river, which they called their own. One was taken by the Swiss couple-who told us to stay, another by a 60yrs+ French woman traveling on her own(wow), and then one for me and another for Kristal and Lein (German boys had to take a neighboring bungalow). One night, one dollar. Cheapest accomodation I'll prob stay in for my whole trip. After scarfing down an Iced Tea, Coke and a fruit salad, I went to my bungalow and crashed out on the hammock hanging on the porch. What a lovely place to take my first nap.....
When I woke up, Kristal and Lein and I walked down to the Sunset Bar and saw an amazingly huge orangey/yellow sun set over the Mekong River. I think this has to be the most beautiful sunset yet for me.

Sunset on Don Det.

Sunset on Don Det.

Later that night we discovered it was definitely "back to basics" on this island called Don Det. There was no running water (you can take a bath in the Mekong, or use the water jugs in the wooden shed attached to the latrine), and no electricity. Dinner took Mamma Mon (23 yr old, beautiful mother of Tet who was almost 2 yrs) an hour to cook over the pitfire in her little kitchen. But, it was worth the wait. I had myself a huge bowl of lentil curry. yum yum. Our original group of five togther with the Swiss couple, Sybylle and Juerg, and the French woman had a long nice dinner conversation over candlight. Our conversation at one point turned to stories of huge, nasty, insects and the horrible diseases you can get from them (Flo, got dengue fever from a mosquito bite a couple of years earlier). Needless to say, I had a bit of trouble falling asleep, but I think it was more from the blistering heat more than anything. Unfortunately, night time hardly lowers the high temperature on Don Det.

Saturday, 3/13/04
Day 39, Me Sore Bum and Dolphin Spotting!

Today, Kris, Lein and I got up early to head out to to the neighbor island Don Khon with our rented bikes. Using directions from the Swiss couple, we headed down the one narrow dirt path that circumvents Don Det and crossed the bridge that connects to Don Khon. We then had a choice to go straight or right-Lein asked the bridge toll taker and he said either way, same-same. So, as the Swiss couple did, we took the straight route.

The ride at first was fine, but then ten minutes later the path turned rocky. Very rocky. No longer riding on dirt, we were now going slowly over golfball size rocks (later we found out we had ridden over an old railroad). This wouldn't have been so bad if we had proper mountain bikes. But I had the pleasure of riding an old rusty, "my bike seat is crooked and almost falling off bike"..poor Lein was riding a "my chain falls off every five minutes bike." And to top it off, the hot sun was beating down on us, making this ride twenty times worse than the ride I did to the waterfall in Pai.

After 1 1/2 hours of this hellish bum-beating ride, we finally made it to the small village situated in the southern tip of Don Khon. I made hand motions of drinking, and said "Water? Water?." Some women shook their heads, no. A minute later a guy appeared and said to follow him. We went to his house/restaurant and drank some much needed aqua.

"You want to see dolphins?"


"Sorry, but too late now. Better go in the afternoon at 3."

Oh my Buddha. It was only 10 am. We barely missed the morning boat to spot the rare Irrawaddy Dolphins. I had read that the Irrawaddy dolphin, which gets its name from the Irrawaddy river in Burma, is classified as among the world's most endangered mammals. There are only 100 left remaining in the lower Mekong River between the borders of Cambodia and Laos. The dolphins are rapidly dying off due to unsound fishing practices-getting caught in fishermen's huge nets, and also from the use of explosives and dynamites.

Well, there was no way I was going to leave Laos without trying to get a glimpse of the Irrawaddy. So, I told Lein and Kristal that I would sit and wait until 3. After some convincing from me and Kristal, Lein decided they would stay too.

Anyway, biking made us very hungry, but the man first needed to go to the market and buy some food. As we sat in the plastic chairs in the outdoor seating area, the sights and sounds of village life entertained the only Farangs in the village. The man's kids were extremely cute as were the other kids that would skip, walk, run down the dirt path from their humble homes to the restaurant to buy a toy or some other goodie. All three of us agreed that the kids here were made tougher. When one of the little boys fell, the mother did not baby him, like a Western mom would do. Instead, she let him cry until he stopped. Tough love. Growing up on this island and in Laos in general, survival of the fittest is the name of the game.

While waiting to see the dolphins, we were entertained by cute village children

While waiting to see the dolphins, we were entertained by cute village children

The man returned with groceries an hour later, and the wife then prepared for us some yummy noodle soup over the fire. Aftewards, we saw a Laotian guy who had sat with us on the truck from Pakse to the islands. He invited us to his house, and together we attempted to get to know one another underneath his abode, which was larger than many of the other village homes. (Lao houses are built on stilts, and Laotians rest during the day on hammocks, bamboo mats-underneath the foundation). Through broken English, we learned that he was a student at the argicultural school in Pakse, and had another sister living in the capital. His family although still very poor by Western standards, seemed to be one of the village's more prosperous ones judging by the fact that some of the children made it off this tiny island.

Taking a break from the sun with our new Laotian friend and his sister.

Taking a break from the sun with our new Laotian friend and his sister.

Despite resting in the shade, we were still a bit hot and wanted to cool off with a dip in the Mekong. We invited our new Laotian friend and his sister to come with, but they politely declined. When we got to the swimming spot, a group of kids were already there splashing away. They yelled for us to join them and soon we were engaged in an all out waterfight. Laotian kids are so cute and so friendly! But, I think I have mentioned this only a thousand times already.

Anyway, finally 3pm rolled around and the man brought us to his friend who loaded us up on a simple wooden boat and drove us out to the Mekong River ($3.50/boat). Five minutes into our ride, we saw nothing three other boats filled with tourists. But, soon to our amazement we saw a fin pop out of the water. Our first Irrawaddy! In the next 30 min, we would see the same four dolphins swimming around (we had one break to swim in the clear Mekong on the Cambodian side). We never got close enough to see their faces, but seeing them pop in and out of the river even from a distance- was simply breathtaking.

Now, with our mission complete it was time to head back to Don Det. Ack. The bumpy ride again. I didn't think I could do it anymore. At one point, I told Kris and Lein that if they found a kid who would ride my bike back to Don Det while I get a lift from a motorbike-I'd be willing to pay the asking price. . However, an hour into our journey we discovered that the path split. So, we took the other route and we were back at the bridge in a much shorter time-due to a nice flat dirt road. It appears that instead of going straight, we should have turned right -which would have brought us to another village, that was soooo much closer.

As I layed my tired self down to sleep that night-my stomach started bubbling and growing twice it's size. I hardly slept a wink. Oh, OH! I smell trouble ahead.

Sunday, 3/14/04
Day 40, Waterfalls and Lullabies

I woke up today making a mad dash to the latrine. You can only guess why my stomach had bubbled to an enormous size during the night. Yes, that's right- traveller's diarrehea. Like I said, when you travel you spare no details, not even with travel mates you just met three days earlier. As I shared with Kris and Lein the fact that my rear end was singing an octave much too high, I concluded it must have been the tasty but potent noodles from the village yesterday. We had noticed that the people drank water straight from the Mekong, so it wouldn't have surprised me if the noodle soup came from the same source. Yum.

Despite my troubles, I decided to tough it out and go with the girls to see where the Mekong suddenly drops to form the Khone Pha Pheng waterfalls. Our chartered boat was supposed to arrive at 8, but didn't get here until 10. Remember this is Laos, afterall.
During the boat ride we were treated to scenes of villagers washing their laundry in the river, kids waving and shouting "sabadii", and fishermen casting out their simple nets. It was nice to be in a place where the tourists seemingly had no affect on the rituals of rural living. In fact, while the 4,000 Islands have blossomed with bungalows, there was probably no more than 70 tourists on Don Det on any given day. And unless you sought them out, you would probably see no more than ten a day, walking down the one path on the island.

The boatmen brought us close to the falls forty minutes later and docked the boat to the side. We then had to walk 10 minutes to the actual falls, which were very wide and very loud even in the dry season. I never been to the Niagra falls, but this waterfall seemed to be a miniature version of it. Anyway, the great view of the waterfall made up for the mediocre lunch. Afterwards, Kris and Lein decided to walk back to the boat alongside the rocks of the waterfall, but by this point I was feeling to weak. I tried to pay for a ride back to the boat, but no one understood me. So, I slowly trudged along the road in the blaring sun. By the time I got back to the boat, I was ready to head back immediately. However, our boatman was taking a nap. Hello, Mr. Boatman, we are ready to leave. He ignored us and continued to sleep. Finally, five minutes later he decided to bring us back.

The ride back took an hour. I rode with my head in between my legs to shade myself from the sun, raising my head sometimes to catch a quick glance of the greenery. When we got back to the bungalows I quickly ate lunch and retired to the hammock. Pepto made me feel better, but that night I had to take some Tylenol for my fever. It doesn't look like I am going to leave for Cambodia with the Dutch girls tomorrow.

After dinner, I went to say goodbye to the girls at their bungalow. At first it was just me, Lein and a german girl Zurid who were sitting on the porch chatting. Then Kristal joined us. Then a few minutes later Mama Mon's mama-the grandmama, joined us because she couldn't sleep. Since the whole family shared sleeping space, she decided to leave and come sit with us. And for some reason, we all started signing lullabies. It was much fun to be a kid again, and sing in succession songs like Row, row, row, your boat. Lullabies then turned into contemporary hits such as Red Hot Chilli Pepper's, Under the Bridge. We tried to get the Grandma to sing us some Lao songs, but she was much too shy. We did however, learn that she had 7 children, and was a grandmother at the age of 43. Her parents were also still alive, meaning that little Tet had great-grandparents. A lucky little man. We also taught each other how to count to ten in our respective languages.

The mixture of candid conversation, bright stars, and warm glow of candlelight made for the pefect evening, and for a while I forgot that I was still sick.

Monday, 3/15/04
Day 41, Day of Recovery

I went to breakfast today with a big-ass bruise on the back of my leg and two scars on the front. In the middle of the night, I had to go to the bathroom and fell off the stairs leading up to my bungalow. Really good thing I was not making the arduous journey to Cambodia today. At the eating area it was just me and the family. And I felt right at home. Tet was wobbling around on the wooden floor. The grandma watching him play and Mama Mon, I noticed was wearing the lipstick and blush that I gave her as a present (for making great food and giving me some hot lemon tea for my achy belly). With her long traditional Laotian skirt paired up with a white blouse, Mama Mon looked ravishing.

Tet the cute son of Mama Mon and Papa.

Tet the cute son of Mama Mon and Papa.

As I sat there slowly eating my breakfast, I noticed there were families everywhere now that it was Spring. Chickadees following their mama, little piglets sucking milk from their mama, and calves walking down the dirt path, side by side with their mamas. Don Det was definitely my time to live up my childhood dream of having a farm full of cute animals. And the great thing was that all the animals were allowed to roam free on the island, or so it seemed.

During my brekkie, some visitors came to say hello to Mama Mon and she took out the Polaroid sticky pics that I took of her family the night before. She seemed really happy that I was able to take pictures of them since they don't own a camera. Too often as a tourist, you just take pictures of people and they never get anything in return. So, I am glad that I thought of taking my Izone camera on this trip with with me.

Some freshly arrived tourists started walking past the bungalow right as I finished my brekkie. "My friend, my friend, " said Mama Mon signaling to me that she wanted me to act as her bungalow pimp. So copying what the Swiss couple has said to me, I shouted, "You have to stay here, the food is the greatest." I must say, I made a good pimp. By the end of the day, all the bungalows were full! Well there was only two to fill up, but still. =P

For the rest of the day, I layed in my hammock enjoying the tranquility of my surroundings-the Mekong River on one side, the happenings of village life on the other. I was feeling much much better already. My big event of the day was walking down to the Sunset Bar with Zurid, and a Belgian guy that was now staying at the bungalows too. We misjudged our timing, and missed the actual sunset. Ah well. We ended up staying at the scenic bar, having dinner, and playing a game of cards with an Irish guy who was going to end up staying on Don Det for ten days! Actually, the more time I spent time in Don Det, the more I understood how travellers get "stuck" in one destination and never make it to their next. If I had no time constraints, I could easily spend another two weeks here on this island, happy as a pig in mud. And that's saying a lot.

My $1 riverside bungalow.

My $1 riverside bungalow.

Tuesday, 3/16/04
Day 42, Bye Bye Laos......I'm leaving ya!

Today I woke up feeling better, almost 100 percent. One more day on this lovely island and I think I will be ready to brave the border crossing to Cambodia. As I layed in my hammock, I saw that Zurid was getting ready to leave already with her backpack strapped on. I asked her where she was headed and she replied that last nite at the Sunset Bar she found out that there was a flight from Pakse straight to Siem Reap tomorrow. She was going to save herself the border run and hop on a plane for $75. But, the bus was leaving at 9, meaning I had to make a split-second decision.

Okay, I'm coming with you I told her! Hoorah! This info was music to my ears. Hearing the tales of other travelers, there were bribes to be paid to mean border officials and boats getting stuck in the river due to it being dry season. It could take anywhere between two to three days to actually get to Siem Reap overland, but the flight was only one hour.

So, I quickly packed my backpack and said my goodbyes to the lovely family over breakfast (My entire bill-food and accomodation for four nights and four days, a whopping $16 ). Zurid and I then hopped into the boat and the grandpa drove us to Don Khong where we then caught a bus to Pakse. This ride was soooo much smoother than the packed pick up truck I had taken on the way to Don Det. I did however paid wayyy to much for my ticket, $3. Nevermind.
Sitting next to me was an outgoing Kiwi girl named Anna who was the girl also flying to Siem Reap. We did the obligatory exchange of, " How long are you traveling for? Where have you been? Where are you headed." I got a good vibe from Anna and was thinking it would be nice to have her as a travel companion.

Two hours later we arrived in Pakse and a group of us girls headed to a hotel. Did internet- not checking it for four days was the longest that I went without computer access. Now, in SE ASIA the information superhighway could be accessed almost everywhere and pretty cheaply too. And then had an Indian feast. Poor Zurid didn't realize that there weren't any ATMS in Cambodia so she had to go back to Thailand that same day to get more money. I hoped that she makes it to Angkor Wat after having to leave Laos early to supposedly catch this flight she could no longer take.

Well, after eighteen days of lovely, laid back Laos, I'm sad to leave. But, I think if I get the chance I will definitely come back to explore the Northern parts of it. For sure.

© Jenny Chu, 2004
You are here : Overview Asia Laos 4,000 Islands
The trip
Follow my travels through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and China..........
Start of journey: Feb 02, 2004
Duration: 4 months
End of journey: Jun 02, 2004
Travelled countries: Asia
The Author
Jenny Chu is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 20 years.
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