Tag Archives: Don det

The Big Island, Mekong adventures & a wedding arrangement (April 4, 2007)

We waved goodbye to ‘Mama’ and Don Det while waiting at Mr. Pho’s fro the boat to the mainland. So the chartered boat with a roof that we arranged for turned out to be a skinny longtail with a compulsory extra passenger. We all sailed across the few minutes to the mainland. Jetting past sandbanks and narrow channels once again. Then waited only a few minutes until the next boat to arrive. All aboard plus roof this time all cosy and crowded on the cramped wooden planks. 10 minutes later heading towards the direction of “The Big Island” the engine suddenly decided that it had enough and conked out. However, the Mekong at this point is a couple of miles wide and there are giant concrete pillars in the middle as guides and we were heading straight for them in a very strong current with no engine. Suddenly you realise there are no lifejackets and you probably would have great difficulty in swimming against the current to the shore.

I clutched either side of the boat and hoped for the best as the boat driver began to get agitated as he desperately tried to start the engine. The other guide shouting in Laotian, grabbed a wooden pole and started to try and steer the boat towards the sandy shoreline. After a few nail-biting minutes we docked at the shoreline and waited for help to arrive. After a bit of paddling in the Mekong and chilling with the buffalo to pass the time. Another boat arrived and the guys swapped the engine for a less powerful cc, syphoned the gas and we were on the way once again. However, even though surrounded by idyllic scenery I remained a little tense while we nearly missed crashing into rapids, boulders and strong currents. I have to admit I was glad to arrive at “The Big Island” although the boat did pass several stairways the driver decided to pull up at the muddiest possible point and we had to scramble to the top on hands and knees.

We booked into the first place we saw. The Don Khong Guesthouse. It was a nice colonial-style building with communal balcony with photos of the hotel owners family hanging on the wall. That evening a storm hit out of nowhere and outside clouds of dust blew and people fled for cover. The rain stopped just long enough for us to reach a restaurant for dinner where we met up with an odd German couple and swapped travel stories. Later we grabbed a few cans of beer from the fridge and played cards for the evening. Of course, I lost and had to get the next round. We explored the island by bike the next day and passing temples, fields, shacks and more water buffalo. Stopping to enjoy the sunset on a bench by the river we were soon surrounded by a swarm of villagers of all ages from granny’s with no teeth, kids, babies and smiling local women. As no one had any English the local teacher was sent for to translate for us. She asked if I had any brothers and told us that she didn’t have a boyfriend but was quite keen on European men! So we arranged that my brother travel to the island and mama will arrange a big wedding but not to worry as it won’t cost much its very cheap in Laos for a wedding!

The next day I woke to a note at our door from the English couple who had been travelling with us since Cambodia to say they had sped off to Savannakhet. I guess they weren’t too impressed with the low key Island life perhaps? Later we had a wander down to the posh end where all the fancy hotels were and popped into the Muong Khong Hotel. The President of Laos Mr. Siphandon who has the same surname as the region, stays on the island but no one knows where? However, if I had to put money on it I would say it was at this hotel. While inquiring about tickets to Pakse, friendly helpful staff were gently explaining that the local bus to Pakse would not be comfortable for us big westerners and better to get a VIP Minibus instead. So in the air-conditioned reception we booked our VIP tickets from the well trained smiling manager.

This time the journey from the island was quite different. On arrival at the posh hotel the next morning the sturdy boat was ready and waiting for us with a roof and curtains to bring us across to the mainland. For the first time, we were the only passengers on board. Once docked our bags were carried to a bench in the shady waiting area – this actually lived up to the VIP status and I was loving every minute. The bench overlooked the rocky Mekong with small grassy islands and purple-hued mountains as a backdrop. While we waited the 3 locals laughed (probably at us) while making a fishing net. Our modern comfy minibus arrived and I dozed in the luxury of the spacious backseat which drove us all the way to the front door of the Pakse Hotel where the charming staff greeted us.

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Mama, Mr Happy & Four Thousand Islands, Don Det, Laos (March 31, 2007)

On the banks of the Mekong, we waited for our skinny longtail boat to arrive under a makeshift shack to hide from the afternoon sun. The mesmerising Mekong scenery soon made up for the cramped longtail boat journey. We passed tiny green islands reflected in the tranquil waters and navigated through a maze of sandbanks and narrow streams some seemed only ankle-deep until we reached our final destination ‘Don Det’. Coming from Cambodia I was expecting hoards of touts to await us however no one seemed too bothered that some tourists had arrived as the boat pulled up to the small beach. On arrival, the pace of life seems to have gone back a few notches and you feel a wave of relaxation wash over you.

It was getting dark and the island only has electricity for a few hours in the evening so we decided to check into the unappealing guesthouse with an en-suite western toilet for the night. Only a few minutes into the bungalow I looked up and backed out of the room slowly. I showed the lady who had checked us in a brown spider that was the size of my hand and she laughed and walked away. A few minutes later she returned with a broom. It took several whacks of the broom to kill the creature. With no hesitation, she picked the creature up in her hand and dangled it in front of me much to Alex’s and her delight.

Meanwhile, the English couple noticed what looked like a chocolate biscuit in their room which was stuck to the shoddy curtain and poked at it. It opened and fell to the floor it was full of maggots that then began to crawl over the floor. When they returned from dinner the ants had started to eat the maggots. We all decided it was our mission to get the hell out of there first thing the next morning. However, my other plan was to get very drunk so armed with cans of Beer Lao ( the only beer brewed in Laos) we sat on the porch in the darkness with eccentric characters and discussed the meaning of life and how to live it until the wee hours of the morning and I hit my bed snoring.

The next morning the English couple had risen early to check out the accommodation and recommended a place called ‘Mama’s Rasta Cafe’ with recognisable by the inflatable fish hanging outside. So with bags packed we happily escaped to the refuge of our new abode. On arrival, I was greeted by the burly Mama with a hearty laugh and a smack on the arse her way of being friendly. Her character made our stay in Don Det. She was our adopted Mama for the duration of our stay and the bungalow our home rather than just a place to stay. Being a hammock junkie I immediately fell in love with the communal balcony that displayed several hammocks overlooking the Mekong and the other uninhabited islands close by. Underneath the balcony is where Mama kept her beloved pigs which she often untied and squealing threw into the water for fun and our amusement as we looked on.

Eventually, we stirred from the comfort of our hammocks and rented bicycles to explore the island. We headed towards the bridge which used to be an old railway line in the French Colonial days now it is used as a toll bridge to get to the other island of Don Khon. After lunch, we cycled to the waterfall. We weren’t expecting much as it was dry season however nicely surprised as it was spectacular. Several streams splash down rocky cliffs and over boulders to the river rapids. Meanwhile, truckloads of Thai tourists in authentic bamboo hats and big cameras snapped away at each other enthusiastically. So much so that Alex got swept into a photo with a whole Thai family with a backdrop of the waterfall. As the sun was low in the sky the scenery really came to life and the sound of the gushing water was captivating.

That evening we discovered the ‘Reggae Bar’. It is tucked back from the road down a short pathway where sleeping bodies were lying outside under a mosquito net. We sat at a table amid the drunkenness and ordered a Vodka & Tonic. Mr Wath otherwise known as Mr Happy showed us the ‘happy’ menu. (‘happy’ on a menu in Laos normally means that there is some weed or other intoxicating substance in whatever your eating or drinking) on the menu among the usual stuff happy shakes, happy cakes etc. was a happy wedding party for $150, hangover breakfast including 500mg of paracetamol and 5mg of valium and for and for a little extra they will make anything ‘happy’ for you. As all electricity is run for only a few hours from generators every time someone ordered a shake the music died and the lights dimmed. Soon the candles came out as the generator was shut down for the night and a French girl started strumming on her guitar and sang sweetly to a hushing crowd, within minutes everyone was silent, mesmerised by the music. We all had happy dreams that night.

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