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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