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January 17th 2009
Published: January 27th 2009
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Saturday 17th
Up early for the journey to Laos. Five of us were waiting at the guesthouse for the same minibus to Laos. When the battered old vehicle arrived it appeared initially to be already full but our rucksacks were roped on top and we squeezed in only to be told we still had one more to pick up. Jen and I ended up sharing one seat and it was incredibly uncomfortable. The seat in front was broken and fell back against our knees. We each had only one cheek supported and my other was wedged on a lever which threatened me with an unpleasant injury every time we hit a bump. Fortunately the road is fairly new and therefore reasonably smooth. Of course there was no aircon but at least the windows opened. It was almost unendurable as we headed for the border. I counted down the kilometres - wanting the journey to end. However we stopped for a wee stop and changed places and strangely each of us was far more comfortable in our new positions. The landscape became scrubby woodland and this persisted to the Cambodia/Laos border which is simply a few huts in the forest. We got stamped out by the Cambodian official. As expected we had to pay an 'unofficial payment' of $2 each - supposedly because it was the weekend. We had to walk with our bags in the searing heat to the Laos border post. Again there was another extra payment of $2 each. A indomitable old Swiss lady argued for a calendar month rather than 30 days to fit in with her exit flight but we think to no avail. We shared our sticky rice with a single English girl from Lincolnshire. Amazingly when our Laos transport arrived it was a nice comfortable bus. We sped on a good road for about half an hour and then turned onto a very bumpy and slow road for 20 minutes to a dusty little 'port'. We split from the rest who were all going to Don Det. We hopped small boat for Don Khone (not to be confused with Don Khong which is far bigger - we read later of an elderly couple who'd confused their islands and ended up totally confused because they were on the wrong one). Once the boat had filled with locals we set off. It was wonderful ploughing through the small channels between the many small islands. Water buffalo bathed at the waters edge. Locals fished and bathed at the waters edge. We arrived at our island and were dumped at a small landing place - the locals and boatmen sped off leaving us alone. It was very hot and tortuous walking with our rucksacks. After an exhausting 10 minute walk we tried a recommended place but it was full. I left Jen sitting with the bags and tried several others - all full apart from one very dilapidated looking place with an squat loo. Eventually I found a place which was a bit pricier (80000 kip = £10) but really nice. We had to trudge back in the direction we'd already walked and further so by the time we settled in we were shattered. The place is called Seng Ahloune. Our stilt bungalow is set back from the river overlooking a shady garden. It had solid wooden recliner chairs which we settled into after fetching a Lao coffee from the bar. As dusk fell some large bats swooped incredibly low over our faces as we reclined. Jen is very weary of bats no matter how many times I explain about their fantastic powers of navigation which means they are not going to fly into her hair and get stuck. So she ended up staying on the balcony but with a towel over her head. We dined in the adjoining restaurant right by the water's edge and enjoyed our first BeerLao - the national drink. I ordered a fish soup which was huge - about the equivalent of about 4 cans of tinned soup. With the traditional Laos accompaniment of a wicker basket of sticky rice it made for a very full meal. The island has no mains electricity. Only the restaurants and a few better off homes have a generator The restaurant's generator only runs from 6pm to 10pm so it was an early night for us. In fact we were so tired we were in bed by about 8:30pm well before lights out. It was a bit strange in the middle of the night to have to use a torch to go for a pee with the only sounds being the noisy insects humming noisily outside. Of course the fans don't work after 10pm so the nights can get a bit sticky.

Sunday 18th

We checked with the owner and found that one of the bungalows that faces onto the river was becoming free so we moved to that. It has a verandah with hammocks overlooking the river, which is just 10 feet away. We can look down on the riverbank here which is used for deliveries by tiny boats. They turn up with ice, vegetables, cement, sugar cane, water and beer plus numerous other goods required on this island. The locals get up early in Laos (and Cambodia). Deliveries are in full swing at 6am with people washing in the river and kids playing at the water's edge. We are just downstream from the railway bridge built by the French when they were the colonial masters here. They built a small railway across the two islands of Don Khone and Don Det to bypass the rapids nearby to try and open up a trade route up the Mekong into China but it was not a success and fell into disrepair after the 2nd world war during which it was used by the invading Japanese. The line was long ago taken up. Anyway it is great to watch the tourists and locals crossing the bumpy surface of the bridge. We hired two biles for the day ( a $1.20 each) and set off on tracks to a deserted beach at the southern tip of the island (which is only a few kilometres long). The heat made cycling tiring. We returned home then headed inland then towards French Point where one end of the railway terminals was. However we came upon a rickety bridge across a ravine of loose planks on supports made from the old train tracks,. Jen refused to cross so we split up and I headed down to the French Point. I was slightly comforted crossing the bridge because a Frenchman arrived so if either of us fell the other could have summoned help. There is a lovely sleepy village (sleepy seems to be a natural word to apply to almost everything in Laos) near French Point. There is a rusting small Japanese locomotive and a concrete quay with old pulleys used by the French. I cycled back along the east side of the island passing through magical villages with laid back locals and lolling water buffalo. Many men and boys were casting purse nets - it seems as much a leisure activity as much as means of getting food None of the villagers I've seen appear to be malnourished. Few of them are fat and the men are small and wiry. Jen had 20 minutes earlier cycled much the same route and we met up back at the bungalow. There is a informally manned checkpoint at the end of the bridge which charges a fee of about $1 to cross the bridge and visit the waterfalls on Don Knone which goes to locals. Jen got collared by one of the men who insisted she pay despite her having done neither. With the difficulty of language and the amount being small she conceded. I decided however to use the ticket to cross to check out Don Det, It has much more backpacker accommodation and attracts a younger crowd on the whole but it is still lovely and relaxed. It appeared slightly cheaper as well. I Bought water and sped back before night fell. Once the generator started I tried plugging in our travel kettle but immediately the generator strained and the lights all dimmed so I abandoned the kettle as a non-starter on this island. The sunsets are wonderful as we sit or lie in hammocks on our balcony with a bottle of BeerLao. We can see across the Mekong to the high ground in Cambodia that forms the horizon. The bridge is a favourite place for many to watch the sunsets from. Again once we'd dined early - and then like the locals we went to bed early. (The restaurants like to start closing down the restaurants at about 9pm).

Monday 19th
With Jen this time we set of early before the sun got too hot, crossed the bridge andd cycled to the far nortern tip of Don Det. Most of the island is still paddy fields and bamboo plantations with many water buffalo and small cows which look a bit like Jerseys. Most locals live in the few villages but the concentration of backpacker accomodation is near the northern tip where there is a very small beach. There are no banks, post offices or other than first aid facilities on either Don Khone or Don Det. Some of the guest houses exchange currencies but at very poor rates so it pays to come armed with plenty of kip. We stopped only to buy crisps and peanuts and then cycled back along small paths via a lovely village back to the bridge back onto Don Khone and headed for Somphanit (Li Phi) Falls. These raging rapids were far more impressive than I anticipated. Although though it is the dry season, the water thunders impressively over several cascades over a large area. The locals believe that the rapids trap bad spirits of dead people and animals. The falls were nice and quiet with only a few other westerners and a few locals at food and drink stalls. South of the falls a track led to a beach that was deserted when we arrived. We left the bikes in shade and crossed the very hot sand to find a spot under some trees where we consumed our crisps. Some others arrived and clambered over rocks near the water which has calmed by the time it gets this far downstream of the rapids. Even in the shade it was too hot to stay long so we headed back to our balcony hammocks and indulged in an early BeerLao. Later we did another cycle tour along paths through the local villages. It was a lovely succession of locals at the waters edge washing, friendly children, dozy dogs and pecking chickens We've decided that the water buffalo's look like hippos from a distance. We saw one with just its eyes an nostrils poking clear of the water. We saw a delightful scene at one point - a young girl was asleep in a hammock and directly below her in the shade was a pig similarly asleep. At one point we had to stop abruptly when a local we hadn't seen up a tree (and who presumably hadn't seen us) suddenly dropped a huge bunch of coconuts onto the path 20m ahead of us. Ten seconds later and we might have had an unusual and nasty accident. We celebrated our survival with a beer BeerLao and a fish meal at a different restaurant to our usual one.

Tuesday 20th
Jen got up very early leaving me in bed. She witnessed discretely the daily ritual where the locals stand outside their houses in the early morning waiting for a procession of monks to whom they give food in return for a blessing. She said it was very moving to watch the faith of these people. We crossed the bridge to a café on Don Det. It was most amusing to earwig on a multinational group of about 6 blokes who were drinking coffee and slowly getting stoned at this early hour. (Don Det has a reputation for relaxed attitude to this). Jen helped out an old lady with a map and she then joined us at our table. She turned out to be a wonderful 71 year old backpacker from Michegan called Joy. She goes backpacking several months each year. She has some interesting opinions and tales. She backpacked around South East Asia in the mid sixties and was once arrested in Cambodia at Steung Treng for some border violation. The local policeman's wife took pity on her and put her and her girlfriend up for a while. Sadly we reflected that a policeman was unlikely to have survived the purges of the Khmer Rouge. We were also joined by another inspiring old lady - a German lady of age 68 called Amei. She was a mine of information on where to visit in north Laos so I took many notes. Eventually after several coffees the morning had gone and so we stayed on for lunch. It was a lovely relaxing way to spend the morning just talking and watching the activity on the river (and musing on how many joints the group of blokes consumed each day). We continued the lazing by retreating to our hammocks and reading. Each evening and early morning from our balcony we can see the fishermen setting and checking their static nets and throughout the day others more actively casting their purse nets.

Wednesday 21st
We hired bikes again and crossed the now familiar bumpy surface of the bridge and followed the path up the eastern side of Don Det (about the only one we hadn't cycled yet). Almost immediately we bumped into 71 year old Joy on her morning constitutional before the sun got too hot. We continued on to the bakery cafe where after a while Joy joined us. Jen had pumpkin soup for breakfast which she said was delicious. I had a more standard baguette and eggs. Joy was as voluble as yesterday. Later she showed us her room and gave Jen a couple of paperbacks. I had to exchange some dollars to kip despite the unfavourable rate because it was even worse back at our bungalows. The rate was 8300 kip per dollar, so in changing $120 we became instant kip millionaires. On our bikes as we passed through a village, I saw an old lady using a stick to knock pods from a tree - just like the scene I'd seen in Namibia two years back. Presumably like there they use them as pig food as in Namibia. We spent some of our new kip wealth on a couple of fruit shakes back at the 'marijuana central'' café. Again the usual guys were there. We felt like real squares as we were the only ones not smoking pot. One of the guys is really interesting. He works for some project that plants trees with locals. He was impressively switching from his native German to English and French and even Laos with the locals. We made the most of our last day on Don Khone on bikes by heading to the rapids again as the sun got low in the


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