Posted in Photography, travel

Exploring Athens

After Napoli, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I headed to Bari on Italy’s eastern coast. Before you open up Google Maps, perhaps I can explain: it’s at the top of the heel.

Bari isn’t much of anything, but it’s a nice enough little place. There’s a pleasant old town that’s good to walk around and a reasonably attractive seafront promenade. It is clean and orderly compared to other Italian cities, and mostly free from scammers and beggars. There aren’t many tourists because there isn’t much to do, but that’s ok. It’s charming in its way, and I suppose you could say it does have one weird attraction: the bones of Saint Nicholas, aka Santa Claus.

In Bari, I dithered further about where to go next. Should head on down through the toe of the boot to Sicily, the rustic and volcanic island, or go north through northern Italy? But there was a third option – to jump aboard a ferry headed for Greece, across the Ionian Sea.

I was keen to stay in Italy a little longer because the country had really impressed me, but as it turned out I’d painted myself into a corner with the travel options in Bari, and getting a bus or train anywhere else was surprisingly hard. So I turned to the sea and booked myself a ferry for Patras. One bright, sunny morning, I headed to the port at the eastern tip of the town and boarded a big ship called the Nissos Rodos. It sounded oh-so-Greek.

The journey across the sea took some sixteen hours, but the departure was delayed by three or four hours for reasons I never did understand. The ship could’ve held a few thousand people, but there were only eleven passengers on board, and by the time we arrived in Greece we had been whittled down to just three. Whether we stopped somewhere in the night and some folks disembarked, or they went mad and jumped overboard, I have no idea.

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I was surprised to see, as the mists parted and the sun rose, the mountains of Greece covered in snow. I always thought of Greece – at least the coastal regions – as a very hot place, yet there was snow all over, and nearly down to sea level. The wind off the Mediterranean was also nearly freezing, and as I moved towards a destination I had always associated with excessive heat, I was wrapped up in winter clothing.

Patras seemed a nice enough town, but I couldn’t find any cheap accommodation, and so boarded a bus immediately for Athens. The ticket was 20 euros, which surprised me, but I would later find out that travelling in Greece is actually fairly expensive. Certainly, it was pricier than in Italy.

A few hours later, I arrived in Athens and made the long walk with my luggage from the KTEL bus station to my hostel, just south of the Acropolis. I was stunned by the beauty of Athens from the moment I arrived in the old town. The Acropolis stands majestically above the city, gleaming white in the bright Mediterranean sun. Although I had enjoyed Italy, the streets were often filthy and dangerous, but here it was clean and safe. The nearer I got to the Acropolis, the nicer everything looked.

I soon checked in and then headed out to climb Filoppapou Hill, a small slope that rises just higher than the Acropolis. I was able to sit and look out at the whole of Athens, spread out over a vast area 360 degrees around me. The sun went down, casting lovely light across the city and the nearby mountains.

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The next day, with a friend from the hostel, I set out to explore the Acropolis and other archaeological sites in the area. We first took in the Acropolis, slowing winding our way up the slopes past the theatre of Dionysus to the Parthenon and Erechtheum. We both had our cameras and spent several hours shooting the ruins. I regretted having not paid more attention to Greek history in the past, but it was nonetheless impressive and fascinating to see all these ancient buildings and monuments. There were quite a few tourists milling about, but it was not grossly overcrowded as in Rome.

Afterwards, we headed down the hill, north to the nearby Agora Park, where there are more ruins. We spent the rest of the afternoon shooting photos there, including some of the local cats. In Athens, people seem to spend an inordinate amount of time feeding the local cats, which have become fat and friendly as a result.

The following day, I met up with a Greek friend, Michael Limnios, and he showed me some more obscure places, particularly pertaining to countercultural figures. We saw places visited by the likes of Lord Byron and Allen Ginsberg, and looked at bookstores which sold translations of Burroughs’ novels. Of particular interest was an anarchist section of town – somewhere very definitely off the tourist trail.

That evening, I hiked up Lycabettus Hill to see a final Athenian sunset, but it was too cloudy, and so I wandered back to my hostel, ready to move on to the next place. Having ruled out the islands for being slightly out of my budget, I elected for a long train ride north to Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki.

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Posted in travel

The Last Port: Labuan Bajo

 

Labuan Bajo is a tiny port on the far west of the Indonesian island of Flores. Though the bay is mostly shallow, there is a single deep channel sufficient to allow passage for a large container ship every now and then, but normally it is just small fishing vessels and tall sailing ships that come here. The little town has become, in recent years, a stopover for tourists visiting the incredible Komodo National Park, roughly 50 kilometres west of Flores. Some fly into LBJ, as the town is locally known, and then sail off to Komodo on organized tour groups, and others sail over from Lombok. The wealthy fly into Labuan Bajo’s Komodo airport and then charter superyachts and luxurious sail boats out to the collection of stunning volcanic islands which the dragons call home.

As such, Labuan Bajo has become slightly more than just a tiny harbour town for a handful of containers and small loads of fish to be dropped off… it has now morphed into a clutter of hotels and restaurants and tour agencies. It sits on a miniscule stretch of land between steep, forested hills and the sea, and there is a single road running through, which is lined by these tourist-focused businesses. Nearly everyone seems friendly to the visitors, who arrive in groups whenever a tour ends, and rather overwhelm the town before heading off again just as suddenly. It is not really a place anyone chooses to stay very long, although it is certainly not without its charm.

When I first arrived, after spending a day photographing Komodo Dragons, I looked around the town with a few friends I’d made on the boat, searching for accommodation. Yet, such is the size of Labuan Bajo, there was none to be had. It seems that having a few dozen tourists arrive in one day is too much for the sleepy little village to handle, and I was forced to return to the boat and sleep on deck yet another night. I longed for a shower but I knew that one more night of being filthy wouldn’t harm me, and so I bought beers for the boat’s crew, and stayed another night on the sea.

In the morning I awoke to the incomparable beauty of a small harbour town at dawn. Fishing boats puttered around on glassy water, families paddled in little canoes, seabirds dove and cawed, as the drone of Arabic boomed from the town mosque. I bid farewell to the crew and soon found a small room overlooking the harbour. It was here I began the long, difficult process of trying to get out of Labuan Bajo. Flights are irregular and expensive, and boats and buses combine over several days to reach the next best airport, in Bali. I soon found a flight and resigned myself to a few lazy days wandering back and forth along the length of the town.

On the streets, like elsewhere in Indonesia, women walk around in headscarves and men in white skullcaps, and the drone of Arabic prayers is heard everywhere many times a day (and night) from the local mosque. It is colourful, yet it is also very impoverished. Though the restaurants and hotels catering to the influx of tourists can often be quite high-end establishments, most of Labuan Bajo is what they call a “kampong,” which means slum, shanty town, favela… These simple wood and tin buildings are everywhere, but largely cluster around the port. In Labuan Bajo, you either make your living from tourists or from the sea, and the kampong residents make their living out on the waters, fishing from small canoes.

Out on the edge of town, at the top of a long, dark road is Paradise Bar. Although some restaurants in the town serve beer and spirits, this is the only true bar in Labuan Bajo. Every night it has live music on its ample-sized stage. As with most parts of Southeast Asia, it is reggae music which is king, although many locals have told me they also very much enjoy Spanish music. There is a large veranda looking out over the sea, where tall ships bob in the darkness, their lights twinkling just where the sea meets the stars. A cool breeze blows in, which is a pleasant change from the heat of the town at the bottom of the hill. At Paradise Bar, locals and tourists mingle and drink together, whereas in town, in the Western-style restaurants, there are only foreign patrons. But out on the edge of town, where the reggae beats sound out late into the night there is a very different and very pleasant atmosphere. Yet it is very definitely other. You have to walk along a pitch black road to get here, and it is beyond the town limits in more ways than one. This is a place which is not welcome in the devoutly Muslim fishing villages below, and you remember that as soon as you wake up, several hours later, to the sound of the mosque, as loud in your ear as the reggae music was.

If the world was flat, Labuan Bajo is where you’d come to stand and look out into the abyss. If it weren’t for its proximity to Komodo National Park, it would be hard to imagine anyone ever staying here. Yet, it is a warm and friendly place, and the area surrounding it is just beautiful. For me, it was a nice place to relax after a long journey. It took me three days to escape this sleepy fishing village on the edge of the world, and it required a 27 hour journey via Denpasar and Shenzhen at great expense just to get home in time for work… back into the insufferable crush of people in China, a far cry from Flores.

Posted in Photography, travel

Komodo National Park

After a long, pleasant boat ride across a large chunk of the Indonesian archipelago, our little gulet boat arrived at the island of Komodo, tucked between Sumbawa and Flores. Komodo National Park is comprised of Komodo, Rinca, Padar, and perhaps 26 smaller islands, and is home to a tremendous diversity of wildlife both on land and below the water. It was established in 1980 to protect the Komodo dragon – the world’s largest lizard – but has since expanded to offer protection over the magnificent surrounding seas and their bountiful life.

It was early in the morning, after a night bobbing on the tranquil seas nearby, when our vessel made its move for the port at Komodo Island. While the other passengers were asleep, I stood on the bow, as usual, and watched dolphins jump from the still waters as we moved closer to what seemed a deserted island except for a tiny, mist-enveloped cluster of buildings. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but at this point in the journey it almost didn’t matter. The dragons had been the main lure of the trip. They were something I’d always wanted to see, and really for me the whole point of getting on the boat in the first place. Yet, after four days at sea, I was so happy with the experiences I’d had, the people I’d met, and the photos I’d taken, that I almost didn’t mind if we saw a Komodo dragon… The manta rays alone had made the journey worthwhile.

When we got to the dock, I jumped off and waited anxiously for the others to get ready. I paced back and forward, talking to the fishermen and watching the sea snakes dart among their boats, not allowed yet to enter the park. At the end of the long pier there was a large gate, and I felt like I was standing outside Jurassic Park… In a way, I was. It’s certainly as close to Jurassic Park as you’ll find anywhere on earth. But perhaps that’s my personal bias. I always loved that movie. A better comparison is King Kong, which was actually inspired by the first Western voyage to Komodo.

After what seemed like an eternity standing on the pier, looking at the vast island, we were on our way and soon being introduced to three guides who would take us to look for these incredible animals and, of course, protect us from them. We were warned not to expect to see many of the great lizards because, although they are a very well-protected species, they are naturally quite sparsely populated due to their cannibalistic tendencies. These bizarre, atavistic monsters – essentially just living dinosaurs – are not only vicious killers of any other animal stupid enough to get in their way, but they’ll actually feast on each other quite regularly, ensuring a very steady population. (It’s been at around 3,000 for a while now.) They also have a taste for human flesh, but thankfully they mostly save their appetite for Swiss tourists.

Despite the warnings of their rarity, we saw six dragons on Komodo during a short walk, and later, on Rinca, another eight. Of course, the first sighting was the most exciting. I stuck by the guide and managed to get within ten feet of the animal, snapping numerous photos of his phenomenal, ancient-seeming head and claws. Despite the guide’s warning that they could explode into action with a terrible speed and ferocity, it mostly just sat in view of the tourist group, seeming perhaps a little irritated but mostly uninterested by our presence. When he eventually got up and moved on his way, the lumbering giant did move faster than one would imagine, and the guides were quick to insert themselves between the animal and their tour group.

As we continued on, we saw more dragons. Mostly they were male, but there were a few females. You can tell only by the width and length of the neck – females have longer, more slender necks. Or, as the guide said, “They have very sexy bodies.” Sexy or not, they certainly were a sight to behold. Near the shore on Komodo and near the staff huts on Rinca, the Komodos clustered in small groups of giant males. They lay about, completely disinterested in the people because of the heat. Surprisingly, the also seemed not to acknowledge each other. The guides explained that Komodos are completely solitary. That’s probably not a bad idea when you’re a cannibal species. The young spend the first five years in the trees, venturing down only to grab a quick drink, or else they’d be dinner for the elders.

Although I’m not a fan of group travel, and the National Park portion of the trip was a little too organized for my tastes, it was incredible to see these wonderful creatures as they lumbered about with the dinosaur gait they’ve had since before humans even learned to stand up straight. I find it an incredible privilege to get up close to any large animal in this overcrowded modern world. Although the Komodo treks did not take me back in time to a world of distant memory as I’d hoped, they nonetheless capped off an incredible trip through a stunningly beautiful part of the world. By the time our boat was pulling into port at Labuan Bajo, I felt a great affinity for Indonesia. Moreover, I was very impressed with how the government of this great nation had kept the Exxons and BPs of the world at bay and managed to preserve a large chunk of the country, maintaining its fabulous eco-diversity in a world that has little tolerance for natural beauty.

Posted in Photography, travel

A Boat Ride to Komodo

Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. On the sea, time means very little. There is just day and night. There are those pleasurable hours when the sky is red and the world warms, and then the brutal midday hours when your skin burns when you sit out on the deck. Later, as the sun disappears and the world goes purple, and then innumerable stars beset the sky – where are these stars on land?! – the world seems peaceful, quiet.

*

I had always wanted to see Komodo and its famous “dragons,” and so it had been part of my tentative plan for this summer’s travels, although I knew it wasn’t easy to get there. However, when I found myself on Gili Trawangan, off Lombok, with a week to spare, I decided to ask around and found that there were boats that set off every Wednesday and Saturday for the mysterious island several hundred miles to the east.

So it was that on a sunny Wednesday morning, I walked to the pier and took a public ferry over to Bangsal, on Lombok island, and then jumped on a little wooden gulet headed for Labuanbajo, via Komodo island. It was not a ferry, as I had expected, but rather a tour boat, taking twenty-seven young Europeans to some of the more beautiful spots along that part of the Indonesian archipelago.

Our boat, the gulet, was an entirely wooden vessel, captained by an affable little pot-bellied man called Erren, who joked around a lot with his passengers. His bizarre Indonesian pronunciation made my name sound like the Welsh version, Dafydd, and a man named Blake was simply called “Black.”

“But you’re not black,” Erren would say. “You’re a white man!”

On board there wasn’t much room for the twenty-seven passengers. Most of us slept upstairs on the deck, in a large, low-ceilinged room with rubber mats on the floor. A few people had paid for cabins, which were the same thing except private, and smaller. There was a small area at the bow which got sun, but everywhere else was covered, and for the next four days the sun-lounging area would be crammed full and spots were hotly contested.

We set sail late in the late morning and spent the day moving slowly east along the northern shore of Lombok, whose imposing figure captivated the passengers for hours. Towering Mount Rinjani was visible throughout the whole day and the thick jungle was commented upon by several people as reminiscent of Jurassic Park. I sat on the bow of the ship, soaking in the sun and enjoying the gentle bob of the boat in the waves for some six hours. Flying fish occasionally took flight from the water and zipped along the surface like bizarre alien beings. Normally they made it 5-15 meters, but sometimes they flew as far as 50 meters before plunging back into the deep. Fat blue jellyfish bobbed on the surface, menacingly, and dolphins swam alongside the boat, jumping playfully out of the water every few seconds.

In the evening we dropped anchor and watched the sunset. The sky turned bright red and then it faded to purple and then black, and soon an inconceivable blanket of stars covered the sky from horizon to horizon. I thought how sad it is that, all around the world, we are losing this essential part of who we are as human… We have vanquished nature and cast our light into the sky so bright that, for most humans, the stars are barely visible. Yet out at sea, where man is still not master, the skies remain and it possible to feel fully human.

I went to bed at nine-thirty but, at sea, time means very little. It gets dark, you sit around, and then when you’re tired you sleep. The engines fired up about eleven-thirty and we started moving eastwards again. From the top deck, the bob of the ship was more pronounced, and I was paranoid about being seasick out here… yet throughout the day I had enjoyed the rocking of the boat, and no seasickness befell me.

*

I awoke to watch one of the few sunrises of my lifetime, and certainly one of a very small number for which I’ve specifically woken. It came up into a clear sky from behind the mountains of Sumbawa, burning bright orange at first, and then, very quickly becoming the regular old yellow sun in the sky, burning down upon the world.

Soon the rest of the group was awake and eating pancakes for breakfast, and then we were dropping anchor at Moyo Island, where we snorkelled in the most pristine reef I’d ever seen. The sea life there was beyond my comprehension. In the Perhentians and off Gili Trawangan and Gili Meno I had seen outrageously beautiful fish, and yet here it was better still. The reef was completely untouched and undamaged by man or his evil pollution. The array of colour was staggering in both the coral and the fish, and I was utterly captivated as I swam around in my element. Whether on it or in it, I have fallen even further in love with the sea.

At Moyo we climbed a tall waterfall with no ropes nor any form of safety equipment, which seemed obscenely dangerous, but miraculously nobody died. The wet rocks were oddly course and provided sufficient grip to get up and down, and at the top there was a huge deep pool into which we all dived in the midst of the jungle morning. Erren amused everyone by producing soap and showering under the waterfall. I couldn’t even remember the last time I showered, and it had certainly been more than three weeks since I last washed my hair…

We got back on the boat and set sail once again, this time just a short hop to Sebotok Island, where we did more snorkelling. Again, the life underwater was stunning. I saw two turtles (taking my total for this trip to almost forty) and perhaps a fleeting glimpse of a shark. In general, though, the fish were small here, but brightly coloured and incredibly intricate. Unlike in more popular dive locations, they were unaccustomed to people and had no fear as I swooped down to shoot them with my GoPro.

Then we were back on the boat and off on a longer trip – this time an eighteen hour journey to the Komodo National Park – our main destination. The trip went well until nightfall, when people moved upstairs to bed, tired from the day’s swimming. Shortly after darkness fell, the waves rose in size, and soon the few of us left on the main deck were being hit with continual sprays of salty water which, in the wind, felt cold and unpleasant, whereas in the daytime it had been refreshing. The waves continued to grow and hit us from the starboard side as we forged on into the night. The stars came out and the dark landmass of sparsely populated Sumbawa was all that could be seen. As I watched the lean, muscled old man behind the wheel, I wondered how he could guide the ship. The waves were invisible until the very last second. We were rocked violently and it became hard to stand up, so I sat and held on tightly to my seat. One of the passengers, a ship-builder by trade, was worried because the ship was clearly in bad shape and slung far too low on the water to handle anything bigger than what was coming at us. The crew seemed on edge, too, and they eyed the distant shoreline as though they wondered whether it was possible to make it if we capsized.

I managed to sleep through most of the night, but like everyone else it was a fitful sleep, being awoken regularly as the ship rose and fell on the water, tossing us all around on the communal sleeping deck. Bags crashed about and in the morning we found everything on board a terrible mess, with life jackets having broken loose and nothing where it had been left the previous evening.

*

Again, I awoke to a rising sun, this time rising over the sea as the Komodo Islands appeared on the horizon. We’d lost time during the rough seas and were behind schedule. But what does time really mean out here? It is only the rise and fall of the sun that matters, and after a rough night, it felt good to watch it burn up and over the horizon, illuminating the shape of our destination.

I sat and watched Komodo move painfully towards us as people woke and came out for breakfast, wondering what today would bring. Soon we stopped in an unbelievably beautiful bay, surrounded by Komodo’s bare islands – very different in appearance from those of Lombok and Sumbawa with their thick jungles. Here, there was only grass and the occasional shrub, on top of land that looked like it had been poured loosely from the skies with wet dirt. It was impossible to imagine how the same chain of volcanoes – the Ring of Fire – had created such different landscapes, but I suppose it is just a matter of age.

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This was Gili Lawadarat, and after jumping from the bow of the boat to the shore, we hiked an unforgiving dirt trail up a steep hill to a viewpoint, from which the seas and the mysterious lands of Komodo unfolded. The climb was brutal, but the reward was more than ample. The azure skies and crystal waters weren’t picturesque; they were beyond the description of mere words. Vast yachts and tall sail boats cruised in and out of the islands, treating wealthy tourists to privileged views of this amazing part of the world.

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There was more snorkelling here but I didn’t partake, as I had sunbathed most of the morning and, coupled with the climb, I felt I had now gotten too much sun. I knew there would be plenty more snorkelling later in the day…

Indeed, after an hour and a half of sailing we came to a non-descript area of coastline called Manta Point which, as the name suggests, is famous for the huge, alien creatures called manta rays. The captain steered the boat carefully and a man in a snorkel mask tied himself to the front to search the clear waters from below the surface as we slowly circled around the area. Turtles and fish came by but we were only interested in one animal…

After a failed attempt to follow a small group of mantas, we found unimaginable success. A large group was spotted and we were all eager to dive into the deep waters and follow them, but the captain held us back and told us to wait for a better position. On his word, we all dived in and swam frantically towards where we thought we’d see the giant rays. Soon we had a sighting – three impossibly big black shapes moving ethereally through the ocean. And then they were gone.

A few others and I followed the rays but, going against the current without fins, it was impossible to catch up. We bobbed there as everyone else headed back to the ship, and laughed about how amazing the sighting had been – these creatures are just out of this world. They look as though they are flying through space; not swimming in water. They don’t look like anything else on the planet. We didn’t realize, though, that our experience was just beginning. Soon another group of three swam past us very, very close. As we swam after them, shooting videos and pictures without our underwater cameras, another group came up behind us. A great black ray brushed my leg and scared the hell out of me, before I turned and realized his giant gaping mouth was not intended for eating anything like me. He just wanted me to get out of his way.

Manta rays came again and again, swimming along the edge of a steep reef and out into the deep. I swam and bobbed and watched them come and go for what seemed like hours, loving every second of it. It was an experience so wonderful it would have justified the trip alone – and yet from the beginning, with the exception of the choppy night on the sea, it had been one delight after another.

Soon we were back on board, laughing and talking about how incredible the day had been – from stunning views of paradise to close encounters with otherworldly creatures. The ship continued its way south to Pink Beach where we were to go snorkelling once again, this time for two and a half hours. As I dove into the sea, I noticed how much colder it was here than anywhere else, and the current was strong, too. I held out hope for a shark sighting, as they prefer these waters to the water coral reefs we’d previously encountered.

The waters were once again teeming with life and the corals were vivid and thriving, but the first animal I noticed chilled me more than the water – it was a giant moray eel, trying to hide among coral but remaining almost entirely visible. It was easily ten feet long, with a body wider than my own in places, and a giant, mean-looking head. I’ve been trying to overcome a lifelong fear of morays recently, with great success, but this one was hard to even look at. It had vicious eyes and a massive set of jaws at the end of its powerful body. Whenever I moved in close for a photo it would posture aggressively. I am a firm believer in the adage that no animal is truly dangerous when shown adequate respect, and moray eels are no different. I heeded his warning and watched from a distance, although his menacing grimace turned my blood to ice. In the end it was difficult to turn and swim away because I could so vividly imagine the beast chasing me down, even though I knew it was ridiculous.

Elsewhere, I saw very large versions of animals I’d see elsewhere, and they seemed far more aggressive. I saw a huge, bizarre squid/cuttlefish creature which, when I move near, postured as though it would attack me. I also found several blue-ringed stingrays which proved more aggressive than the incredibly shy ones I’d seen elsewhere. From the sun burning my back to the icy cold waters aching my bones and the hordes of jellyfish stinging my skin, I decided after an hour to escape to the comfort of the beach and its odd pink sand.

Back on the boat, I spotted two eagles attacking a smaller bird, and yet more dolphins leaping from the water, as the sun fell once again – this time over the dark, bare mountains of Komodo. Our boat chugged slowly to its resting place for the night as everyone breathed a sigh of relief that there would be no more waves disrupting their sleep. We would be anchored in a large lagoon with lots of other tour boats, with little canoes of touts selling beer and bracelets coming up to the boat. One by one, the other tour boats turn on disco lights and reggae music, and our captain, Erren, started showing off his dancing skills.

*

This is part one of a two part story. The second, which tells of the Komodo Dragons, will be posted next week.

Posted in travel

Been There, Don Det

In the middle of sleepy downtown Pakse, I managed to find a small travel agent who booked me on a morning minibus south. The journey, he said, would take three hours. I didn’t believe him, because in Lao there is a terrible tendency to lie about the length of a journey. I remember it from my first trip here, five years ago. An eight hour bus ride turned into fourteen hours. Granted, it was partly because our bus was caught in a mudslide and nearly lost over the edge of a cliff, but this is not merely my own observation – this is the consensus among travellers to the country: Make yourself comfortable, get a good book, and prepare for a long, bumpy journey.

At eight o’clock the following morning I was standing outside my hotel in the baking sunlight, waiting for the minibus. I was prepared for a ten hour ride, squeezed in to a grossly over filled vehicle between sweaty, hungover tourists. Half an hour later, though, I was still standing there, quickly turning red from the obscene sun that simply shouldn’t have been so strong at such an hour.

“Had this been another scam?” I pondered. Was I doomed to stand here half the day, only to find I had been sold a bum ticket?

The little bus eventually showed up a half hour late and it was indeed crowded beyond capacity. I was the last in, which is usually a vile curse, but this time I was given the cherished front seat, and enjoyed my ride in comparative luxury, listening to loud music from my iPhone to drown out the groans from the back. Southern Lao slipped by in all its laid-back glory, and, amazingly, the bus pulled into the small ferry village on the banks of the Mekong at exactly the forecasted time.

Soon we were zipping across the muddy waters towards a tangle of islands. Si Phan Don (that means 4,000 Islands) is located right above the border with Cambodia. Here, the mighty Mekong river can reach 14 km in width and rises and falls between 5 meters from season to season. At its lowest, it is said there are four thousand islands here, hence the name. Accepted wisdom, however, is that four thousand is a generous figure on a particularly special day, and involves counting any rock protruding above the waterline for a moment or two between ripples as an island. But it is wise not to question an Asian nation’s interpretation of an island these days. Between the Koreas, Japan, China, and the Philippines, the smart gambler would bet on the apocalypse beginning right around this part of the world, and on a matter as seemingly trivial as asking what exactly constitutes an island.

When we arrived on Don Det, I hopped off the boat and marched quickly up the small beach. In Southeast Asia, you have to assume that when you disembark from any mode of transportation, you will immediately become beset by an army of tuk-tuk drivers, women selling bananas, beggars, and kids looking to rifle through your pockets while you find your bearings.

There were, however, none of the above. I marched up and off the beach and into “town” – which was a small, unpaved street with a few businesses along either side, all of which appeared to be closed or open but unstaffed. I kept walking south at a brisk pace, partly looking for a place to stay and partly just getting a feel for the island. I really didn’t know what to expect. Some places you can get a good feel for even from guide books, blogs, YouTube videos, and countless other second hand reports; most places, however, are impossible to understand until you’re there.

I passed a few bars and many little convenience stores. It all looked run-down, sad, and dingy. I didn’t have a particularly good feeling, but I was more interested in the island itself – the beaches, the jungle, the hills. I had come here to unwind, to decompress from a month-long CELTA course. I didn’t care what the “town” looked like. All I wanted was a hammock.

After a few minutes of walking down the east of the island, along a little mud path in which I sunk about ankle deep, I was accosted by a voice. A tall, thin white man was leaning over a spade in a garden. “Lookin’ for a room?” he asked in a thick Yorkshire accent. Before I could reply, he continued, “I live with this here family and, if you’re interested, they’ve got a few bungalows right on the water here. Basic backpackers fare, like, nothin’ special. Does the job for me.”

I said I was interested, and he slowly started to move in my direction through the thick red mud. He complimented my Bob Dylan t-shirt. “You like Bob Dylan, do you?” he asked, which I thought was a slightly redundant question. But I suppose there are any number of people wearing Rolling Stones and Ramones t-shirts right now who’ve never knowingly listened to a song by either band.

He showed me a very basic little bungalow – a dirty looking bed, walls covered in hundreds of blood splatters, and an unspeakably evil-looking bathroom. The place seemed to have never actually been cleaned before, and had only ever been swept out once the cobwebs made living there unbearable. There was, however, a little balcony right on the water, with two hammocks and a little table and chair looking out at the Mekong as it slowly wound past on its way to Cambodia. A wifi password was scrawled on a wall in blue marker.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

The man nodded and shambled off in search of the register. He came back with a jumbled pile of papers five minutes later, and took long drags from a joint as I filled in my details. “If you like weed, you’re in paradise,” he said. “You can find it anywhere here. Can smoke it anywhere, too. No hassles on this island.”

I gave Adrian, as he later introduced himself, 40,000 kip ($5) for the room and he shambled off again with the register, muttering something incoherent about coffee. Southeast Asia is full of men just like Adrian. It’s either booze, drugs, girls, or a combination of those three that brings them here and keeps them here. Within a minute of meeting him, I could tell Adrian had been wandering this part of the world for more than a decade, and had burned himself out on near infinite quantities of cheap bushweed. He walked around shirtless, his skin a rough tanned leather from the tropical sun, with the unmistakable confused steps of a man who’s spent several decades getting stoned. When he spoke he did so with conviction, yet rambled incoherently before fading out mid-sentence.

I took a walk down the east side of the island to what Adrian had called “the village” – a sign that said “Don Det” and a half dozen wooden houses. The path there was narrow and muddy from the night’s rain. To my left was the impressive river, or at least a small sliver of it, and beyond it more islands and mountains. On my right were rice paddies and people’s homes on wooden stilts. There was a distinctly unfriendly atmosphere. After leaving Chiang Mai, where in every village it seemed I was greeted with shy smiles and bows, here it was frowns. I’d read online that relations between the locals and tourists had been frosty for a few years, but I didn’t know exactly why. It’s not hard to guess, of course. Don Det has worked its way onto the so-called “Banana Pancake Trail,” and everywhere that trail winds, there follows an attitude of irresponsibility, entitlement, and unbridled hedonism.

Or was that really it? As the day went on I explored more of the island on foot, and found more unfriendly faces. Even in restaurants where I stopped for food or beers, I was greeted with abject coldness. It ranged from a complete disinterest to outright unpleasantness. This was not the Lao I remembered from my previous trip, five years ago, to the north of the country. There were many differences between northern and southern Lao that I could see, but in terms of tourism I did notice one thing that made me wonder: there were innumerable bungalows fallen into disrepair, bars clearly closed for several years, and even in the businesses still open and with a handful of customers, everything seemed dilapidated. Could it be that relations turned frosty when Si Phan Don failed to capitalize on its tourism boom? Did these islands ever prosper from the tourists who’ve caused so much change to this place? On Don Det there is nothing to suggest any wealth was gained here. The people seem impoverished. Businesses are merely hanging on. The resentment in the air, it seems to me, is the same as is felt throughout dozens of towns and villages in Thailand and elsewhere, whose way of life was irrevocably changed by an influx of young Western hedonists, yet in this case there are few benefits to temper the displeasure that arises from the clash of cultures.

Still, it takes more than a cold shoulder to make me feel put out. After a long day of walking in the hot sun, I settled at a small restaurant on the west side of the island to watch the famous sunset. The sky changed colours every few minutes for an hour, as the sun dipped and eventually slid behind the horizon, far over the Mekong and the jungles of Thailand. It started a light yellow, became a fierce orange, and then an impressive purple that took over the whole sky until darkness fell, and thousands of stars shone faintly in the dark jungle night.

*

In the morning I awoke early and sat reading on my balcony in the calm morning air. A voice called from the hut two down, “So you like reading books, then?” If I hadn’t guessed from the Yorkshire accent, the ridiculousness of the question told me that it was Adrian.

He didn’t follow up with anything conversationally useful like, “What are you reading?” but instead he told me that he’d written a book and that he was selling copies. “Come over here and I’ll tell you all about it,” he said. It was an invitation, but somehow not entirely optional.

I walked around to his little bungalow – different from mine only in that he had plants on every conceivable surface – and he told me immediately to sit down. He broke into a long sales pitch, not even hiding the fact that his story was recited from memory. “This is the most unique story you’ll ever hear,” he said. “It’s the most original idea you’ve ever heard.” He went on and on, stopping to tell me things like, “it only took me six hours to write it,” and “writing’s so easy,” and “the grammar may not be, y’know, entirely accurate but you’ll know what I mean.”

I awkwardly flipped through the book, wondering how I could get out of buying a copy. It was absolutely unreadable and, as far as his originality went, as an editor I’ve seen hundreds of these books pitched at me from people who care too much for their own story and too little for the craft or business of writing. He then showed me a small folder in which he’d recorded a copy of every book he’d sold over fifteen years – allegedly a total of more than 7,800. “I even sold one to a Scottish person one time.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just bought a load of books in Thailand and I really can’t buy any more. This looks great though…”

He immediately stood up and stormed off the balcony and into his room. “Alright, then, well you’d best be going. I’m a busy man.”

That awkward encounter expedited my decision to get out and explore, and so I found the nearest bike rental, and rented a small, fixed gear bicycle with two flat tires and a loose chain. The seat may as well have had serrated edges, the basket at the front was torn almost in two, and when the bike moved it let out an ungodly squealing that warned the children on the path to get out of my way, which was probably for the best because the brakes did absolutely nothing.

Although it was hot out, I knew it would only get hotter, so I set off along the east of the island and cycled all the way to the long concrete bridge that leads over to Don Khon. I paid the 35,000 kip admission to the island, and then fallowed a sign for a waterfall. Don Khon is bigger than Don Det, and emptier, too. Like Don Det, it lacks paved roads, and it has only one wide dirt tracking running through the very centre of the island, with a series of small paths running up the east and west coasts. I started down the west, as that’s where the waterfall was located.

When I parked my bike at the waterfall, I wondered about locking it, as I’d been given no lock at the rental shop. I looked around and there were a few other bikes, none of which were locked. I supposed that in a place like this it would be too difficult to get a stolen bike to the mainland. It probably just wasn’t worth the effort.

The Tad Somphamit Falls are not breath-taking, but they are impressive. All around the Mekong moves sluggishly, but here a huge volume of chocolate brown water is forced between the island of Don Det and a few smaller islands, where there is a modest drop, crashing furiously down in a large horseshoe before seemingly collecting and moving on at its own leisurely pace once again. From a few close viewpoints the sound is deafening and the power of the water awesome, yet soon it is back to tranquillity. I stopped for a beer nearby at a small beach, only 100 meters down river, and watched the water roll by slowly, as though its path had been completely unbroken.

I cycled around the rest of Don Khon very slowly, stopping several times to have a beer, take some photos, or, more often than not, fix the chain on my bike. Then I took an unfortunate trek up the east of the island, thanks to my reliance upon the GPS app on my phone. I suppose when tourism to the island was greater, this track may have been suitable for cycling, but now it was tremendously overgrown, and some of the bridges had become downright treacherous. On the absolute worst bridge on the route, where most of the boards were rotted through, I tried to go fast enough that my weight didn’t bring the bike down through the missing and broken slats and into the jungle below, but unfortunately my provocations caused the bike’s chain to slip again and I was stopped, balancing perilously.

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When I emerged from the path less trodden and crossed back to Don Det, I found a small restaurant called Crazy Mama Piang’s. Here, I was finally greeted with smiles and friendly service. I ate a small dinner and watched the family sit around watching a Thai drama on TV. The two small boys played with the family of cats which lived there. They ran around carrying two very tolerant kittens, whose mother looked on sleepily from under a wooden table.

When I stepped outside, ready to return to my bungalow for the evening, I found that the bike was missing. The friendly old woman – who I assume from her wild, unpredictable laughter was the Crazy Mama Piang, or at least one of her equally crazy relatives – told me that someone had just left and had taken my bike by mistake. She showed me the other man’s bike, and it was pretty much identical, except that it had a sign saying it was from a different shop.

“Same, same,” said Crazy Mama Piang. “Bike just same. You take it no problem. Shop not care”

I had little choice, so I rode this bike back to the shop at the north of Don Det. It was the same colour as the first bike, and a similar design, but it was a far better bike. If only I’d had this one on my long ride around Don Det and Don Khon. I cycled it to the door of the shop where I’d rented the first bike and walked hastily away. I saw a woman come out and acknowledge the bike with indifference. I could see on her face that she was thinking, “Same, same.”

After that I returned to my bungalow, where I was met with a familiar voice. “D’you like fishin’?”

I turned to see Adrian standing on his balcony with a fishing rod in one hand and his joint in the other. “Er, yeah…” I said.

“Well I lend me fishing gear to anyone who wants it, like, but y’know I can only really give it to ones who’ve bought me book.”

I laughed and turned to go inside for the night. I could still hear him talking as I closed the door: “So y’know, as much as I’d love to give it to ya, I really can’t. There’s lots of people round here would love to do a bit of fishin’ but I just can’t be givin’ it to everyone and so y’know…” He went on as I turned on the noisy ceiling fan to drown him out.

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