Do you remember the old spy movies from back in the day, when the secret agent was desperately trying to escape a country. He had been badly wounded, and of course, he had the beautiful damsel in distress that he was smuggling out with him. The guards would always be suspicious but the counterfeit paperwork was good, so they would reluctantly open the gate, which was just a wood beam that would pivot up. The agent and his special lady friend would share a secret smile, and limp under the gate under the eyes of menacing guards. Now they were in no mans land, the space between countries, which neither claims. The agent sees his colleagues awaiting him on the other countries side, but it’s a long hundred meters to get there. He must walk that bit knowing full well their rifles are pointed at his back. About midway you hear the phone ring in the distant post, and the loud cursing and screamed orders. The agent and his lady friend start sprinting, the gate on the other side is wide-open waiting for them, and then the shots start ringing out. Blocking his lady from harm, the agent makes the gate but collapses there, filled with bullets, smiling to himself that the mission was completed. Well, clearly this was the Hollywood version of border crossing, or so I thought, till I got to Laos.
Oh sure, no one shot at us, but I did have my special lady friend with me, and we did have to carry all our stuff a hundred meters between the countries gate houses, crossing under two of those gates, and it’s a very weird feeling. Of course the guards look more bored than hostile, and the worse they are likely to do is to hit you up for some hidden tax, or in reality a bribe. Which of course they did. We gave our passports to an agent on the Cambodian side, who informed us it was twenty bucks more than the guide books state, but what can you do. He disappeared with our passports, we waited an hour, then he reappeared. The gate was lifted, and we crossed. There was one traveler there with no money, and a really nice American guy loaned him some cash. How he expected to cross the border with ten bucks I have no idea, but there’s no way we could afford to loan money to a stranger this far in the trip. Once we crossed the border we paid more to get into Laos.
A minibus was waiting there heading to Don Det. In cases like this you never really know what is going on, so it’s best to just roll with it. We were taken to an ATM, and paid another fee, I don’t really remember what for, I think a National Park pass, and then we all walked into town. For the life of me I can’t figure out why the bus did not drive us to the docks, but we hiked with all our gear two hundred meters or so to a bunch of long boats. They had propeller at the end of a long shaft, which could go deep or shallow, depending on the depth. We paid another boat fee, and hopped onto a wobbly boat. Crossing over took like fifteen minutes, and we were dropped off on a beach with a bunch of sun loving kids drinking it up, in the middle of the Mekong. Welcome to Laos and Si Phan Don, better known as 4,000 islands, where life just slows down to a crawl.
Yvonne grabbed a coffee and took our bags while I went in search for a bungalow. I’m not going to lie, I had a preconceived notion of what I was looking for, which is always a huge mistake. I wanted a nice bungalow, with air, haha, or in the very least mosquito netting, with a porch over looking the Mekong, and hell, why not add a hammock. I just wanted to lay back and enjoy life. I walked up and down the island, in the middle of the day, the hottest part. I was drenched in sweat, and most everything was booked or too much like a shack. After more than an hour I came back pretty defeated and tired. I crashed down on a bean bag with Yvonne and ordered a cold beer. Yvonne went off the other direction and found a nice bungalow that was super clean practically where we got off the boat. Sure there were no river views, or even a hammock, but it did have air and a lovely porch looking at a garden. So you see, toss those preconceived notions out the door, because in the end they just get in the way. We were home.
Besides having a large selection of bars and restaurants on one end of DonDet, there are a large number of housing options. It’s really a huge party scene here, with marijuana being sold and smoked everywhere, and all kinds of tasty little treats like Happy Mashpotatos, Happy Shake, or even Happy Chicken nuggets. Happy being the code word for laced with marijuana. Magic mushrooms are also easy to get here. It’s understandably laid back here, with beach parties nightly, and just a real happy go lucky spirit. The islands are considered too far from anything to be of any real importance, so the government turns a blind eye to all the illegal drugs.
Some of the food it also really damn good, like at the Street View Bar. It’s like a little dive bar on the island, but man was I blown away by the food. For the first time in a long time, I got really good meat. Most of the time in Asia you get little chunks of meat, never a big steak, or whole pork chop. But the Australian owner had the best cuts. How he got it out to the islands I have no idea, but did he ever. His burger was the best in Mainland Asia, hell; it could give a nice run in New York. It also was a bit like being at Cheers on an island in the middle of a river. There were also a lot of other restaurants but this was way above the rest.
We decided to rent some bikes and give a peddle around the islands. We were actually looking for a clinic that was on another island, so it seemed like a good excuse to explore. It was 10 am, but it was already ungodly hot. We were sweating balls. We crossed an old bridge built by the French 100 years before and stopped at the main town, but the doctor was gone, as well as everyone else. It was 100 plus year old building, with no modern technology to be found. Oh well, so much for that. So we decided to ride to the end of this island, maybe look across the Mekong to Cambodia. There was a sign for a waterfall so we decided to check it out. There was an entrance fee, and we were debating paying it. Next to the ticket booth was a small stream and a few falls, and I was really worried that we were paying to see a joke of a waterfall. But again, with no real plans, we felt we should check it out.
Well, I was thrilled that we did. We walked through a path in the woods up a hill, and as we crested the top you could hear it. This was no puny little trickle, but a massive roaring waterfall going down a series of cliffs. It’s so funny because they really did not advertise it that well, heck, the sign was hand painted with an arrow. The falls were went as far as the eye could see, cascading down numerous cliffs, in a series of cascading pools.
They are called Khone Phapheng Falls, and they cascade down nearly 6 miles of the Mekong. These falls were the reason that river trade all the way to China was never practical. The French for years tried to find ways to overcome it, even going so far as to build a narrow gauge train on the island, so to transport the goods past the falls. The Don Det – Don Khon was the only train in Laos until 2009, when a train was build to Thailand. There is really nothing left more than some tracks here and there. There is one train left also that has been restored and put on display under a shed.
On our bike ride back we passed a small farm with some kids playing. We pulled our bikes over and a small girl carried her puppy over to us to show her beautiful art. The dog had a mask drawn on her with ballpoint pen. She was so proud of her drawing that we asked for permission to take a photograph of her. I love using sign language to communicate out here, and hanging out with the locals is the best.
During the night I was awoken by a loud bang, so I headed out on the veranda to check it out. There was a large water buffalo that had knocked the gate over, and was eating the garden. Now these guys are big, close to 2,600 lbs., so I was not about to go mess with him and his late night salad. I am a little smarter then that. I love the water buffalos, and they are everywhere here. Swimming with the tourists, hell, I even watched one old guy get his face licked to death by one. Not sure which one enjoyed it more.
The next day we decided to go on a kayaking trip on the Mekong. I was worried it was going to be one of those old people tours where you paddle for 5 minutes then wait an hour for people to catch up, but again I was wrong. We started 40 minutes late, apparently some of our kayakers were still hung-over. Once we hit the river it was smooth going. I love kayaking, and actually own three. No better way to get around. We paddled for an hour or so, then got out and walked through the interior of the island to get around some of the waterfalls.
No one knew what to expect of the falls except us. This was another and equally impressive section of falls. The fisherman have these wooden traps set up like chutes for the fish at the roughest sections of the river. I would not want to be the crew that sets those up. We even went for a little swim under one of them. As we walked on the island our guide took a little string and created a snare for catching lizards. He caught four, quick as a whip, that he put into a plastic bottle for a snack for his family. He also took some green leaves, that when crushed turned red. He told us this was a Laotian Lipstick.
We walked to the other side of the falls, and all our kayaks were waiting for us, a crew had portaged them of us. Our guides were very specific about skipping one rough section of the river, and two of our group already wiped out there. But I really wanted a fun ride, and wanted to hit the toughest section first. We were at a spot where two rivers joined, on being directly under the biggest falls. I crossed over as hard as I could but got caught in the current, which slammed me into a rock, flipping me over. My fault, but damn was it fun. Had to chase half my belongings, and was entertainment for everyone else. Once I helped the other two guys in their boat, I got back in mine and joined everyone else, who were laughing at my expense. Ha-ha.
We now hit a really wide section of the river, and slow. It felt like we were on a lake, and in all actuality, we were on the Cambodian side of the Mekong, which we had special permits for. This is where we all calmly waited for the tell tale spout of the Irrawaddy dolphin, and we were not disappointed. How exciting for me to get a chance to see the dolphins again. They were not so photogenic this time, avoiding our group, but we spotted probably 5 off in the distance. A half-hour of this and it was time to get some lunch. We paddled to a small village where we had some boxed lunches.
Sitting in the center of the village, one of our members of our group starts chasing the kids around in the village wearing a banana suit, yes, you heard that right. Of all the things you can pack in a small backpack, he thought it was important to pack a Banana Suit. He chased kids around palm trees, though huts, and back again, laughing all the way. The parents were laughing also, and it really brought every one together. After this excitement we headed back to the kayaks and the final part of our journey. On the way back we stopped at yet another viewpoint of the falls, with the biggest drop off, 87 feet. We had already seen 3 different sections of these falls, that’s how long and big they are. So that was the end of our stay at four thousand islands. If you are ever wondering the best way to get to know the locals, I suggest bringing a banana suit with you. It will surely make you some friends.