Don Det, 4000 Islands, Laos

Monday, June 02, 2008

A blinding flash of lightning off to starboard lit all but the furious clouds from which it sprang. They seemed to gather more darkness from the exchange and spilled higher into the sky as, less than a second later, an explosion of thunder drowned even the sound of the struggling motor. What probably saved us was that the rain had not yet broke; it was as though, like us, the storm was battling to get upstream on the Mekong River, perhaps surrounding us completely before unleashing its army of droplets upon us. I sat in the front of a small wooden boat that threatened to capsize if I so much as leaned my head to either side, a boat that seemed unequal to the task of navigating so mighty a river much less in the midst of nature’s fury. I was alone save the driver, whose expression said that even the double fare he had taken to bring me out was not worth it. And then the wind struck from nowhere and our boat teetered precariously as I grabbed my backpack to save it from tumbling overboard. Wind whipping, motor whining, and thunder roaring, we neared the river island of Don Det. Sitting at the front of the boat like a seasoned veteran with no trace of civilization, I was definitely on an adventure. We arrived without incident on Don Det, where there are plenty of traces of travelers come, gone, and presently dining, an island among 4000 in a place where the Mekong River sprawls some 15km wide. I stepped onto land, looked up the muddy slopes broken by fallen logs, and smiled.

It had been a bit of an effort to arrive here, even discounting the boat trip. I left Tadlo and the Bolaven Plateau at about 10:30 in the morning after some backpack zipper difficulties and breakfast with a local who couldn’t speak any English but kept grabbing my arm and smiling. Then, on the public bus down to Pakse, which I shared with some chickens, five other falang (foreigners), and locals, which arrived at noon. I wanted to kayak down the Mekong in three days and then just bring the kayak back, but I found nobody willing to rent me one. I also wanted to get to Si Pha Don (4000 Islands) and specifically Don Det in the south of Laos that afternoon, but there were no busses. I did discover that there was a songtiow (pickup truck with two benches along the back) leaving at 1:00, so I grabbed a quick lunch of Indian food and then went to get myself a tuk tuk. They were asking about 6 times what it was worth and hardly budging at all, so as time ticked I eventually found someone to take me for 20000 and sped there. We were about 6 minutes late and I worried that I would be stranded in Pakse overnight, but it turned out the last trip was at 1:30, so I had no problems.

I shared the truck ride with a pregnant woman, an elderly Cambodian woman who had moved to Laos, about five other locals, some small trees, two bags of fish, fruits (including durian), plants, and a week’s worth of supplies. It turned out to be the way to go; not only did we make good time, but it was cheap, and I had a bit of a conversation with the Cambodian woman in French. I alone was going to the islands at this hour and I took a motorcycle the last few kilometers to shore where I boarded the boat as the storm brewed. Then, finally, Don Det. I hunted quickly for a guesthouse as it was only a matter of time before the relentless rain started, finally settling on one for 20,000 as the rain started to pour. There’s no electricity here, either. They run generators from about 6:00 to 10:30 and that’s pretty much it. The island is a mixture of farmland, villages, and then the tourist village in the northeast corner, which itself is a mixture of guesthouses and restaurants – and two internet cafes. This is where I was and I went for dinner and had a quiet evening.

The next day, I would discover how little there is here. It’s pretty much a relaxation place, though there are hikes and bikes to explore the island and the larger neighbouring island of Don Khon. I just explored the town for a while and then took a walk down the Sunset path. I just wanted to go a short way and see what was there but I found myself just walking and walking until I was in the farmland and then I came across a freshly fallen tree across the path. The villagers were gathered around as a man with a machete cut it to pieces and distributed them among the children. The coconuts I could understand, but the spear-like palm leaves? I watched for a time and pressed on, until a little hello from beside me altered me to a companion. A young boy was walking along with me and I said hello, sa bai dee, back, and then he asked my name. His English was pretty good and we talked a little bit – though I think that he was just repeating what I said more often than not – and I tried to glean the purpose of the palm leaves. We walked along and encountered two of his friends, where we stopped. They had cut open their coconuts and one of the palm leaves, which apparently was food too.

And just then a woman came silently up the path right for us. Silently is not the right word, though. It implies stealth, which I doubt she had the calm to muster; we weer just too preoccupied to hear her. This woman did not sneak, she stormed up the path every bit as furious as the tempest of last evening, and with her tree branch in hand, whipped the young boy who’d followed me up the path along the back. There the silence was broken. She began screaming at him and whipping his with the branch and I sat there feeling helpless and guilty. Perhaps it was for talking to a foreigner, perhaps it was for running off and abandoning duty, perhaps it was for taking two coconuts. I wasn’t sure and could do nothing but watch as this woman with a pulsing red welt below her own eye chased the boy as he ducked under the fence. She would not look at me, but I could see in her face she wanted me and every other foreigner hung from the nearest tree. Not quite sure what my part in this was, but thinking that in some way I was responsible for this poor boy’s punishment, it put a damper on the walk and indeed the whole island. To put it mildly.

A little further on, the river was pooled with garbage, and my growing anger fed upon it. Normally I’m not one to photograph such things, but it seemed to represent all the things that were not good about these places. I’ve heard the excuse that since only a few generations ago, everything they had was from the land and decomposed, they treat plastics the same way. It’s westerners fault for introducing it to them. I think this is pandering nonsense. Any idiot looking at the spectacle of riverborne rubbish ought to be able to put two and two together and recognize that idly discarding things does not make them disappear. Yet, they continue. I had the locals cracking up on the truck here because I placed my empty Coke can under my seat rather than throw it over the side. It boggles my mind. Yet somehow, as I walked on, it helped me forget what was really bothering me, that angry woman and the little boy who’d only been friendly. Back to looking at fields being turned by ox and plough, water buffalo wading in rice paddies, and the perpetual storm always on the horizon here.

I made it around the island in a couple hours on foot and stopped my last stop at a small bakery run by an Aussie and with some pretty delicious fare. I spent a bit of time on the internet and even more time trying to help the proprietor restore the Language Bar on his computers – easy normally but there was something awfully glitchy going on. Then, out for Indian with Shamus and Willy and friends and, after the power died, to their bungalows with a Chilean guy that was hilarious and had a guitar for a bit of a singalong. The next day was much like this. I rented a bike and cycled Don Det up to a waterfall where I ran into some monks and all of us watched some crazy locals braving the raging rapids to fish. One misstep meant certain death with the full weight of the Mekong against the stubborn and unyielding rocks. I got caught in a thunderstorm along with two Korean girls and we had some fruit shakes and a chat while the storm continued and then back home. I booked my ticket to Cambodia. Although much closer to Siem Reap, the roads in Cambodia all go through Phnom Penh, the capital. Which is where I’ll be tomorrow, barring any unforeseen disaster (which did indeed befall us).

Don Det Photos

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