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.
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.