Part Deux – Don Det

Don Det, 4000 Islands, Laos – Pakse, Laos
November 14 – November 15, 2013

Part 1 – here

We’ve made it back to the Mekong somehow and in marvelous fashion. The cerulean skies are adrift with smoky-white Santa beards. The Mekong is its usual muddy puddle brown. And Laos is as chill as ever. My shoes are at the front of the restaurant so I let my toes play with the wooden boards that hang over the river. Katie’s in a hammock with an inebriated puss passed out on her swaying lap. And aside from an Asian actor being interviewed on the tele, it’s pretty near impossible for it to get any more peaceful.

Meow

Meow

Don Det is a spaced-out island serving up fun treats and shakes with slogans like make it happy for 20,000 ­­- so it’s hard not to immediately feel at home. We have already walked the island twice over and found that 95% of it is traditional Laos, staying true to its roots of tending, building and living off the land. The 5% (if) is at the northern tip and has been seeded with foreign interest. A hedonistic getaway to fall into your senses and release yourself of reality. I only say that this isn’t reality because it’s not sustainable; once the green has withered it’s back to work I hither. Ha, that’s a silly way to put it. Actually just thought of it, but it’s true. I can’t keep this lifestyle up and soon enough I’ll be a teacher back in my ol’ stomping ground Seoul.

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But there is lots of living to be had until then, and in two days time we’ll be back in Paksong with Tyson & Janelle celebrating their coffee house opening and then we whisk off to Thailand for Muay Thai and yoga in the north. And with perfect timing, yesterday I received an email from the training camp and they let off so much good energy and assured me that there are a lot of good people there right now and the vigor is high. And with grand news it has only birthed more. It has been almost 3 months without having a home and Chiang Mai will offer us that, even for a month. It will be nice to let our lives breathe from our packs and put up our stones and shells on a shelf alongside our books, and home cook meals and have a desk and wooden chair to bring outside and write and write into the night and wake early and run and train and kick bags and burpees, and sit in the hills at night with campfires below…this is a big deal, a real wallop to get worked up about, this month could change the way I look at life! I need to be able to prove to myself that I can accomplish one of the toughest tasks I’m about to set on myself in my life. This isn’t this last minute whim I am signing up for as a goof, whether I know what I’m fully getting myself into or not. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do ever since I went to Thailand in 2007. I want this to be the last year of my gut, the last year of rubbing thighs, the last year of ever caring about taking my shirt off. 30 years is way too long to live in self-created fear.
KT: I’m not signing myself up for Muay Thai, I don’t have much interest in it. Instead, I’m going to dive into the Chiang Mai yoga world and see what’s going on there. I’d also love to get into some meditation (as Janelle so wonderfully suggested!), but I’ll have to scope that out once we’re there. Really looking forward to keeping put in one spot for a month, and being Lou’s cheerleader as he commits himself to this crazy workout routine.

Supa ugly birds

Supa ugly birds

We ended up at an Indian restaurant for dinner with our elbows on the railing over looking the soupy Mekong. In the distance, deep within an ominous cloud, a perpetuating display of lightning prevailed in the sky, lighting it up in electric gasps, larger and longer each time, until all chairs had been turned and eyes adrift. The food was magnificent and spiced perfectly, so much so that we ordered an extra curry and naan for dessert.

The nights were early for us and the days long, all spent in hammocks and chairs or walking about or picking up children and swinging them in the streets like vintage carnival rides, as the two tiny little girls no more than six, swapped back and forth between Katie and I with arms out to be hugged, and stern little faces that meant business. They wanted to be swung and that was that, so we picked them up more and twirled and rocked and upside down and right side up, until they giggled and let out whales, and swapped places and ran into either Katie or I’s arms until we did it again & again & again, until we said sorry we had to go and tried to level with them, and they weren’t sad, they only high-fived us and blew us kisses.

KT: Don Det was indeed more Rock & Roll,in the most relaxed sense of rocking and rolling. Although there wasn’t a lot going on, it was telling that many souls got lost on Don Det, very similar to what we saw in Vang Vieng. In the evening, Lou & I went for a long stroll all the way around the island, taking in the Mekong sunset. What a place.

Transportation in 4000 Islands (and some great hair!)

Transportation in 4000 Islands (and some great hair!)

It had been five days on the islands and it was time to make our way back to mainland to wrap up our last 5 days in Laos, so we bought a boat & bus ticket (50,000LAK) from a woman who ran a restaurant that held a litter of kittens and their mother in a Styrofoam box under her desk. On her phone she showed us videos of them sleeping in a swing she has above one of the tables. It was a swing similar to one you’d rock babies to sleep on, but instead it slept three kittens and their mother. I paid her for the ticket and she told us to meet her at our guesthouse at 11am the next morning.

Doesn't look like much, but it was all we needed

Doesn’t look like much, but it was all we needed

Well 11 am rolled around and about 50 people had amassed along the murky beach at the tip of town, about 20 feet from our guesthouse. Everyone was heading back to main land, it seemed like the whole island had been drained all at once. Everyone was in a long line waiting to hop on one of the 6 long boats awaiting passengers. We hung back as we always do, hanging out until we have to get on. Sitting around waiting, she came up to us from behind.

“I told you to wait at your hotel” she said sounding upset.
“Ahh…the manager said to wait by the beach. We’re sorry!” we said.
She softened up right away and the three of us walked to her own personal boat where we loaded in and took off in minutes, sailing past the claustrophobic beach.

“What the hell Katie? That was amazing!” I rejoiced.
“So good! How do people not know about this?” Katie said rhetorically.
We bypassed these tourist-filled boats to have a whole one to ourselves. Lucky us ;)

Switching busses....grrrreat

Switching busses….grrrreat

We docked and cleared the boat in a heartbeat and made our way to the bus…only to have the slowpokes catch up and saturate our quiet little brew-ha. The bus eventually left, but snapped it’s clutch minutes before reaching Pakse. Another bus oddly enough was trailing not too far behind us and all thirty of us managed to find a seat. So back in Pakse we were, for the third time, sitting at our favorite coffee joint and Indian restaurant and riverside bungalow being the creatures of habit that we are. Tomorrow we ride.

Our favourite Pakse puppies that live at the guesthouse we stayed at (3 times...)

Our favourite Pakse puppies that live at the guesthouse we stayed at (3 times…)

4000 Islands pt. I

Pakse – Don Khon Island – Don Det Island (4000 Islands), Laos
November 10 – November 13, 2013

Our idea behind hitting the 4000 Islands was to purely hangout, fill our days with getting lost, reading, and sitting along the river; a lot different from the relaxing we’ve been getting ourselves up to the past month. This is different, now we’re on an island. Two completely different levels of chilling. We took a boat to get here…this is a commitment.

Travel Laos boat ride kt

Due to the language barrier, our tuk-tuk hauled us all the way to Don Khon instead of our intended destination Don Khong…silly us. Although we took it for what it was and made it our home. Ohh the troubles of island life. We loaded a long boat with a slough of tourists also looking for a getaway and we snaked past twenty of the 4000 islands, passing Don Det on our way to Don Khon. (Lonely Planet quotes Don Det as being a more ‘rock & roll’ island.) KT: We were looking to avoid this “rock & roll” – we had enough in Vang Vieng. Peace and relaxation was our ultimate goal ;)

Behind Lou is part of the infamous railroad bridge you'll read about shortly...

Behind Lou is part of the infamous railroad bridge you’ll read about shortly…

Our boat docked as the sun was going down and the shore along Don Khon was lit up with riverside bungalows and stilted restaurants draped with lanterns and laid out with day beds and Thai pillows. It wasn’t even six and the island had a sleepy feel. Seven of us unloaded, climbed the bank, and put our packs on to explore and find a guesthouse.

The first two bungalows we looked at were charging $5 a night, but we held out for one that didn’t resemble a castaway shack. We ended up splurging and got a bungalow with an en-suite bathroom, front porch and hammock for $6.50; which is quite handy since hanging out on your front porch is the lifestyle that is in store for the evening.

Our bungalow - loved it :)

Our bungalow – loved it :)

We sat around all night drinking fruit shakes and eating three dollar thai curries with sticky rice in cartoony day beds with kittens being adorable on our laps and table, and then

kitty love

kitty love

bumping into the same couple from the boat over and over again until they curse out “oh no!!! it’s the Canadians again” and then we even see them again. In front of our bungalow grew a tree that now sleeps all the roosters in town, all making a branch there home, until one has a nightmare and starts cuckoo-ing wildly in the night, like a miss-set alarm clock.

Where the roosters slept. & our neighbours

Where the roosters slept. & our neighbours

The next morning we rented bikes and rode to the other side of the island with views of Cambodia and kayaks afloat hoping to catch a sight of the elusive Mekong River

Rapid rapids

Rapid rapids

dolphin. We also learned the history of the island and the importance the French held upon its position in their conquest during the Indochina War. I felt rather nostalgic sitting at the banks sipping beers looking out across the river, knowing that 100 years ago many French men did the same with big dreams in their hearts. Not much has evolved at these coordinates in the past 100 years though, and if it wasn’t for a few signs and train engine you’d have no idea that a train track once linked these islands past the rocky cascades and waterfalls that prevented their ships from channeling up the Mekong.

Bike riding day

Bike riding day

With difficulty I tried to drift back 100 years to an era bustling with activity. But I’ve always found it hard to really imagine myself there. But that was what I was left doing. If it’s not trying to transcend myself into a NYC jazz club in the 50′s jiving to the renegade sounds of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, I’m trying to picture myself as a 1920′s street tough suited up with long suspenders standing outside of the fruit market juggling an apple scheming about the day, and always how I would have really whooped it up.

puppy play

puppy play

A toss away a gang of kids pass a wicker ball back and forth over a net in teams of two, bopping it with their heads, shoulders and toes, sweating in the sun with their hands cautiously held back. An old wrinkly woman walks by with a mouthful of something awful, red and juicy, constantly at dribble, which is even more cause for alarm because she’s grinning over her big haul. In one hand two silver fish hang hooked through their agape mouths & her other hand dangles the instrument used to catch these edible victims. She has paraded the whole town over trying to sell her catch, although so far her attempts have been fruitless.

"Hey gurrrrrl. Whatchu sellin'?"

“Hey gurrrrrl. Whatchu sellin’?”

All this while a  school lets out and a sea of uniformed children start running about, but

BeerLao, to be exact

BeerLao, to be exact

when I look closer I see that they are collecting garbage, while their teacher in the background sets a small pile of it ablaze. The kids keep running around collecting more and throwing it all in the fire until the harbour smells like burning plastic, which is just toxic and not fun. And here Katie and I are relaxing over a beer, much like the French must have who oversaw this project 100 years ago. And I feel oddly in touch with the beauty in today, gazing out onto Cambodia, like all the others who have stood here before.

Cow + Louis, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!!!

Cow + Louis, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!!!

On the bike ride back to town we had managed to locate the waterfall which we were first in search of. The same waterfall that caused the French to build the train track to the north.

Fishermen!

Fishermen!

In the rushing waters, a handful of Lao men were checking a slough of traps they had set up to catch fish that battled through the currents. Long bamboo shoots were aligned like alleyways that curved up and out of the water to coop their catch. This all within crashing rapids near the base of a falls. When they docked their boat they came back with a minuscule haul, a few mere morsels for their gallant efforts, while one fish appeared as though it had already been munched on.

Rapids the fishermen were set up in front of - nutso!

Rapids the fishermen were set up in front of – nutso!

We ended up staying on Don Khon one more night, doing nothing more than this & that. In the morning we filled up on chocolate banana crepes, picked up our laundry and strapped our packs to our backs and started walking. We shuffled across all 158 meters

THIS sunset!!

THIS sunset!!

and 13 arches of the French bridge that connected Khon to Det and then trundled the whole island heading north along one rocky shadeless path as it’s labeled in the Lonely Planet. Hell, it wasn’t too bad – gorgeous really, even weighted down by our packs. We passed a glowing field being harvested by a few ladies smeared in sewn fabric from toenail to eyelid, just working away as life goes, chomping away with razored machetes at fields of rice. I couldn’t see their faces, but a stereo grooved and if I had to bet, I’d say they had smiles on their faces. We came across a pack of smokes along the dirt road with two cigarettes stretched out begging to be smoked, this omen came just when our conversation led to smoking and lung cancer.  It was a test. We passed-being that we aren’t smokers. Our high came to an end when we met this downer named Donno.

Typical Lao "shower" - water buffalo included!

Typical Lao “shower” – water buffalo included!

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TBC…

Check out our next blog to ironically read: to the woman who wasted 15 minutes of our time.