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!

SAMSUNG CSC

TBC…

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

 

War Remnants Museum & Reunification Palace

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, neither of us knew a whole lot about the history of Vietnam and it was one of our goals to learn more about this country we were immersing ourselves into. We had heard a lot about the War Remnants Museum, and after being in the city about a week, we decided it was time. I had read about how heavy the contents of the museum were, and to go prepared for an emotional beating.

We paid our 15,000VND admission (about 75 cents), parked our newly acquired bikes in the secured Travel Vietnam War Memorialparking (about 3000VND each), and trooped on up. The front entrance on the main floor is covered in propaganda posters from countries all around the world supporting the Vietnamese and pressuring the United States army to evacuate Vietnam. I handed my camera to Louis, as I didn’t have the patience to take that many photos, and I didn’t think the museum was one I would want detailed in my photo history of Vietnam, it was incredibly upsetting.

After finishing the first floor (which had gotten incredibly packed once it started raining) we walked up to the second, already heavy-footed by the posters, not quite prepared for what was to come. Photos of Americans torturing Vietnamese men, women, and children, statistics about death, imprisonment, torture, bombings, etc, plastered the walls. Cases of bombs, shells, equipment, uniforms, mines, guns, and so on circled the rooms. There were stunning photo exhibits from war photographers who risked their lives (some of whom lost their lives) documenting atrocious and horrifying scenes of violence. Many of the photo placards are written in unintelligible English, but the photos speak for themselves. Some say a picture speaks a thousand words, but these photos asked a lifetime of unanswerable questions, the biggest one in my mind being “Why?”.

Comparative before & after Agent Orange

Before & after Agent Orange

The room dedicated to statistics and photographs about Agent Orange truly took my breath away. Photographs of Agent Orange victims, from the land to children born generations after the war, were unnerving. There are still people being born in the United States and Vietnam with birth defects from their parents’ and grandparents’ exposure to Agent Orange during the war. After the war, between 1975 and 2002, there were 42,135 people killed by bombs and explosives that had been leftover from the war and 62,143 people wounded. This is AFTER the war, after the carnage was supposed to stop.

 

The tankers, fighter jets, and boats outside the museum were interesting to stroll through, but after the lethargic photos, stories, and statistics of the museum, I didn’t have much interest in seeing the heavy killing machinery.

Gunned up boats

Gunned up boats

Next up on our “history to see” museum list was Reunification Palace, or Independence Palace, depending on who you’re talking to. Let me say up front that if you’re interested in going here, make sure you get in on a free tour (walk in the front doors & there’s a “Tour Desk” – easy peasy!), or nothing makes sense. The tour was about 30 minutes, our tour guide spoke English (mostly), and there are NO signs in this place other than ones in Vietnamese telling you not to enter, and “The lift is only for the old, disabled and pregnant woman”. That is one woman in an unfortunate position that really wants to visit the Reunification Palace. Anyway, admission to this big old house that used to be home to the President of South Vietnam during the war is also 15,000VND and although not as mind-blowing as the War Remnants museum, it was worth the 75 cents and 45 minutes we took to tour it.
Travel Vietnam War Palace Louis

It is a significant part of Vietnam’s history as it was this location that the Vietnam war ended at the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 when a North Vietnamese army tank tore through the front gates. Without giving you a full history lesson, as Wikipedia has everything you’d want to know, the house was interesting enough and full of “this is where the President met his friends” and “this is where the President played with his children” type of rooms. One of our favourite spots was the winding tunnel of basement hallways and rooms containing war correspondence equipment and Vietnam maps. You could tell it was full of stories and secrets that no one but the people who spent hours and days down there during the war knew.

Basement communications equipment

Basement communications equipment