From Midnight Landslides to Hammocks by Candlelight


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Asia » Laos » South » Don Det
September 9th 2011
Published: September 10th 2011
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“The journey is difficult, immense. We must travel as far as we can...”

At the end of this round-world trip I’d be interested to know how many hours have been spent on boats, buses, plans and trains. We’re keeping a tally of different modes of transport, but it didn’t occur to us in the beginning to make a note of hours spent. With England being a comparatively small country we have not been used to spending hours at a time on the road, and now reflecting on seven hour flights to the Caribbean for example, taken with anticipation a few years ago, it seems like such a short time now. Now I could tackle that kind of “long haul” flight without so much as batting an eyelid. I have it down to a fine art.

In a matter of milliseconds I can assess the bus and locate the “seat-préférer”; taking into account leg room, ventilation, safety (should we crash, which often seems inevitable) and other annoyances such as fellow passengers who are perhaps talking too loudly, eating smelly food or (particularly in Asia) hocking up great gobs of phlegm. When we’re finally seated I unpack those things I will need for the duration; neck pillow, ear plugs, eye mask, blanket, head lamp (to read at night), book etc. Once I’m all settled I can switch to “idle mode” and waste the hours away. I enjoy day dreams. Sometimes Chris cannot comprehend why I no longer use my Ipod, but I feel as though it distracts me from my doing nothing... The only thing I like to do on a bus is eat, and we’re also getting pretty inventive with our bus picnicking, but I’ll perhaps save the strategies of that for another time.

We travelled south from Muang Noi on a local bus. It was cramped but not too uncomfortable for the short four hour stint back to Luang Prabang. At some point we were flagged down by a family who then carried a very fragile, elderly woman onto the bus. As far as we understood it she was sick and had to be taken to hospital. Also along the way we saw the evidence of many landslides and were told that the day before a local man driving past on his scooted had been killed. It made me feel quite nervous.

After spending another night in Luang Prabang we caught a night bus down to Vientaine (having decided to skip Vang Vieng, naturally). This journey proved to be the worst of all, and I’ll be surprised, and likely of a permanent nervous disposition, if we experience another equally as tormenting. It began with the typical speed-freak bus driver combined with tight, winding mountainside roads beside steep slopes, which was in itself knotting my stomach. A few hours into this rollercoaster ride we came to a stop. There seemed to be a traffic jam. Strange place for one, on a mountain, at 2am. We were stationary for a while so Chris got off to stretch his legs and I was relieved to finally unclench my jaw and steal a few minutes sleep. When Chris finally returned he said there had been a landslide which had blocked the road entirely and we couldn’t pass.

Apparently this had happened before we left so the bus company had arranged another bus to pick us up on the other side. “Fine.” We collected our belongings and our backpacks and got to walking, not such a bad thing after a few hours on the bus and under a starry sky, but I was immediately regretful of all those small things I’d collected along the way which I was not having to lug around on my back.

As we walked we passed a long line of traffic, many with families that had settled for the night to sleep at the side of the road. It was strange to see - post-apocalyptic, even. We were walking for much longer than we anticipated before we reached the landslide, and when we did we were stunned. The earth had fallen and created a huge mound across the road, at least as tall as two houses and we were told that we had to climb it to get to the bus on the other side. With little or no choice in the matter I tried not to think about whether climbing over was actually safe and concentrated on getting over the thing quickly. However, from the top we were provided a new distraction in the wreckage of what once would have been people’s homes now reduced to smashed, wooden piles. It was upsetting to see and then to realize that what had occurred was more than just a minor inconvenience to our plans but had been in reality life-destroying for others. Chris and I felt utterly ashamed of many of the other tourists who stopped to take pictures of the wreckage and then later critiqued them whilst complaining about being put out; “Did you get a good one of that shack? Yeah, it’s a nice one that. I’m getting bitten, they’d better hurry up and sort this out.” It was all I could do to bite my tongue.

In all we hiked for around an hour and waited around for at least another two. The bus we were told was waiting for us was just another bus that was waiting in traffic on the other side and the driver refused for a long time to turn around and take us to Vientiane; that is until the police came along and instructed him to take the poor tourists away. When we finally arrived we considered getting straight onto another bus for fear if we didn’t then we might never be able to face another bus journey again- thankfully the remainder of the journeys down to Cambodia have been far less eventful.

Familiar Faces in Far Away Places

We took a few hours to catch up on our sleep when we finally arrived in Vientiane. We only intended to spend one day and night there so once we were feeling more energetic we headed out with our camera and spent a few hours walking around the city, which was nice enough but nothing particularly special. That night we met up with a friend of ours from Korea, Christina who is also travelling around South East Asia at the moment. It was great to see her and catch up but also to be around a familiar face for the first time in a few months. Hopefully we’ll be seeing her again soon in Phnom Penh.

Sleepy Savannakhet

Savannakhet was our next stop for which we had scheduled about three days. From our reading we had understood this place to be a perfect remedy to our fatigue and expected it to be much like Georgetown in Malaysia where we had visited recently and loved. We arrived at night time and we were not initially impressed, but sometimes that’s the way it is when you arrive in a place at night. We would sleep and give it a fresh chance in the morning. But daylight did little the improve Savannakhet. Lonely Planet was this time at least half right - dilapidated it might be, but not in an especially attractive or romantic or interesting or other way. We really struggled to entertain ourselves for more than an hour in Savannakhet and have little else to say about the place other than “don’t bother”.

We had planned to try the herbal steam sauna at the local Red Cross, which was something we would have done in Luang Prabang but we were hard up for time. When we arrived the staff were very confused and reported that they hadn’t had such facilities for some time (Lesson learned: you can never trust the guidebook). So, we spent the rest of the day wandering around aimlessly being followed by a young girl on a bike who repeatedly put her hand out for money although she wasn’t a street kid and also poked me quite inappropriately on the chest –uncomfortable!

And whilst we’re on the subject of the inappropriate and the uncomfortable, it was in the internet cafe in Savannakhet where young Christopher suddenly felt a hand on his thigh in this room of strangers. It would seem the Laotian man had taken quite a shine to our protagonist, even declaring “I love you” to which Chris responded simply, “OK”.

“The mark of a successful man is one that spent an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it.”

The next destination and our final stop in Laos was Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands). Modes of transportation required included a mostly empty bus followed by a little wooden boat, upon which I watched the driver very delicately trap a red, fire ant between finger and thumb and pop it into his mouth; an early morning snack! We were dropped on a muddy riverbank on the east side of Don Det. We had planned to stay on the next island along, Don Khon, to which we would have to walk 3km and cross a bridge, but we were shin deep in mud after a matter of moments since the island (and southern Laos for the most part) had recently flooded. Just as we were about to call it a day and head back to one of the guesthouses we had already passed, that was when we met Lance and Donna.

Lance and Donna were two Tennessee blues artists now living on Don Det, into their 50’s and 60’s respectively but young at heart. A dynamic duo; him with braided beard and her with Pink Lady style winged glasses, we cannot thank them enough for their hospitality. They called us over and welcomed us to “Paradise”. Paradise Bungalows are a collection of basic, wooden bungalows elevated on stilts on the most beautiful location on the Mekong River. For just 25,000 kip per night (which is less than £2), we’d found our home for the next four nights and in such a short time, home is how it began to feel.

Paradise is owned and run by a local family who are utterly charming, warm and welcoming. With little to do on the island we spent considerable time with the family members including a lady named Lao who had a “laugh like liquid sunshine” (to steal a quote from Donna); Bong, a playful 19 year old Down Syndrome boy with whom we spent time flying paper airplanes; and a young pregnant lady who was due any day, but sadly the baby never arrived during our stay.

In the Paradise restaurant, which served up a delicious and varied, MSG free menu, we made friends with Tasha and Rose, with whom we rented bikes and spent a bum-bruising day riding around Don Khon, taking in the stunning views of the sunlit rice paddies and waterfalls. Cycling desperately back to Don Det to beat the rain and give our posteriors a well earned rest we found the path impassable. Not due to bad conditions (where there’s a will there’s a way) but by four small, mucky Laotion ladies, no older than 6 years, creating a bodily roadblock. We hit the brakes and found that we were being mugged for whatever could be removed from our person! We entertained these little hustlers for a while, chasing them and taking photographs, and then headed back for a well earned rest.

Much of our time on Don Det was spent occupying our hammocks, drink or book in hand. We also made time to enjoy some of the most spectacular sunsets on the opposite side of the island. In all it was the perfect remedy for some of the irksome experiences we had endured recently in Loas, and although we’ve said it before (I expect we’ll say it many a time again), we would be sad to leave. When the time came to say goodbye we were presented with a couple of bracelets each, according to the tradition that when a person leaves the village the remaining villagers tie these bracelets to the wrist of the departing individual and in doing so make them a wish. It was a very nice touch.

As we have no photographs of the lovely Lance and Donna, we wanted to include a link here to their website:
www.lance-n-donna.com

Enjoy!



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11th September 2011
Rice field sunset

beautiful photo.
26th September 2011

pool tables
Hello Thanks for sharing this article that is fantastic article and share good and beautiful images and describe this story with images.
30th November 2011
Local Monk

One day (not tomorrow) I\'ll take a picture this amazing. You are really inspiring me!
22nd December 2011
Rice field sunset

Great!
Love this.

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