Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Been There, Don Det, Laos

We were two of the thirty backpackes jammed onto a longtail boat that was skipping towards the island of Don Det next to the Laos/Cambodia border. The recommendation had come from Chris and Chalain. We had ten days left in Laos and were likely to spend a chunk of them on this little island.

Don Det is one of the 4,000 islands, which are an island chain in the Mekong River. The rivers gets so big in this part of Asia that it contains an entire island cluster which spreads across the Laos border into Cambodia. Granted, most of the islands are pretty small, but it requires a boat to reach them.
The longtail arrived around 2pm, and it took all of three minutes for Leslie to declare that Don Det has made her shortlist for best places in the world. Its been said that Laos is Thailand 30 years ago, and this island made the case.
The beach itself was sandy, but the main road leading into was dirt, and dusty. There was the occasional motorbike, but the main ways of getting around the island were foot and bicycle. Little restaurants and shops sold mostly Western food.
Soon, we had taken a right onto the “Sunset Side”, and began our hike to Vixay’s Guest House, a place that Chalain and Chris pointed us at. It was one of the furthest away, so took all of ten minutes to walk to.
There were no waterfront bungalows, so we checked into one of the more expensive variety in back. It was more expensive because it had a private bathroom. It was 40,000 kip, which translates to $5. Yes, both of us slept for $5. It had a hammock, a porch and came included with a water buffalo four feet off the porch. We stayed there for a night before moving to the waterfront “bungalows”. These were really a longhouse, with four bungalows connected and a massive porch out front. Ours had two hammocks, a little desk, and a direct view of the water. It was a little closer to the restaurant than we would have liked, but for 30,000 kip, we’ll manage.
That night, we went walking and found a restaurant that was quite hopping, called “Sawnpetheon” or something like that. There, we met Sogol and Mambo, two friends from Nurnberg. Mambo was full German while Sogol’s family had moved to Germany from Iran when she was a child. They invited us to join them at “One More Bar” after dinner. Like almost all the restaurants around the Sunset side, it was a large, open-air platform looking out over the river with knee-high tables, sitting mats and triangle-pillows for leaning against.
Family is very important in this little traveller enclave for the local people. Businesses are family-run, so having a large family translates into a large staff. The Sawpetheon place was ran by a man who had three sisters in their 20s and 30s, a wife and a plethora of the next generation. The whole thing translated into a well run place and a kitchen that could crank out food.
Kien, (pronounced Ken), is the proprietor of One More Bar and a couple bungalows, but only has himself, his wife, and an 8 month old child to run the place. A group of Germans had decided to help him out, so he had four more staff at the moment. They had decorated with strings of lights, painted new signs and collected tables and sitting mats for the bar. His wife makes an excellent homemade gingerale and they were selling a gin and gingerale concoction that was quite popular.
The next day, we went out on a fishing trip with Sogol, Mambo and Kien. Kien took us out in his longtail to a place with lots of small islands and reeds. It looked like a good place to fish. Soon, Mambo, Sogol and I were up to our waist in the Mekong with bamboo polls when Sogol asked an interesting question to Kien.
“Does this river have snakes in it?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Kien.
“Are they poisonous?”
That was the end of fishing for Sogol as she joined Leslie in taking pictures on shore.
Mambo and I were more interested in the net. The fishing net was about 12 feet in diameter with a chain around the edge for weight, and it was a lot of weight. You had to wrap it around your body, then fling it out into the Mekong so that it landed in a circle, with as much surface area as possible to catch the fish underneath.
Kien made it look easy.
Mambo and I had trouble even walking around the river. Kien knew every rock, where the ridges were so he stayed out of the water and generally understood how to navigate. Mambo and I were tripping, struggling with the current, kicking rocks, slipping on rocks and it wasn’t long before both of us were going for an unintentional swim.
I think it’s fair to say that Kien went fishing, as he actually got one. Mambo and I tried, but our throws looked more like really skinny jellybeans than anything like a circle. We went splashing.
We then floated down the river a bit in tubes and went back to One More Bar.
The next day was bike and dolphin day, so the four of us took off on our bikes and rode the little dirt road all around the island. We found the one bridge and made it from Don Det to Don Khan. The southern tip is where the enclave is for the endangered irrawaddy river dolphin.
A man about twelve rented us a longtail. “Man” seems like the appropriate term because he was the top salesman for his family because he spoke the best English and was constantly chain-smoking. People grow up fast here.
“You’re a little boy! You shouldn’t be smoking!” said Sogol, while he just laughed.
Soon, a young woman navigated the longtail out to the Irriwaddy, turned off the motor and anchored us on a rock. We were hoping to see one or two, but they were everywhere. They don’t jump unless its mating season, but they poked their fins up quite often. They were tough to get a picture of though. We got one that’s okay, but it’s a bit Loch Ness monster-ish.
The next day we went on another bike ride with Sogol. Mambo went to get pictures of a temple, but we had a beach goal. This day was also when we met Loy, who had just opened his restaurant with a few picnic tables. He thought there was too much Western food and people would appreciate a chance for real Lao food. His place looked a little iffy. We were full of trepidation as we ordered the Chicken Lap and sticky rice, but it was fun talking to Loy, who built his own, rather Western looking house. He showed us around as his wife cooked. We were the only two in the restaurant. At one point he showed us the master bedroom and announced he had air-con. He got a proud little grin on his face, like if a car-buff were to show you his new Porsche.
The lap arrived and was absolutely great. Lap is minced chicken with green onions, mint and some other spices I didn’t recognize, but were quite fresh. When you order street food sometimes you get sick and horrible food, but Loy and his wife delivered one of my favorite meals in Lao. Of course, there were no utensils. Instead, a small wicker basket of sticky rice came with it, so you ripped off a piece then grabbed food with that.
The last big adventure we went on in our eight days on Don Det was a kayaking trip with twenty other people, including Sogol and Mambo. It was an all day trip with about four hours of paddling, so we got rather sore. At one point, we headed down some class 2 rapids, which was a bit hairy as many people had no idea how to kayak. I was reminded how lucky we are to live in a place where there’s rivers, lakes and oceans all readily available. In other words, there were a couple groups that were clueless with a paddle.
That translated into four groups tipping….
We came out of one of the rapids with some pretty good speed, reeds and plants sticking up all around us. We had done pretty well, me in back, using the paddle like a rutter while Leslie kept us steady. Then,we paddled hard to shoot the rapids once we were angled right. Unfortunately, the group in front of us hadn’t done so well. They were floating down the river sideways, and for some reason they were both paddling backwards.
This wasn’t working. We ended up cutting right to avoid them, then had to cut back hard to avoid the reeds. We didn’t make it and went careening into the bushes.
Soon, we were taking on water as both Leslie and I were out of the boat. We grabbed the paddles to make sure we didn’t lose them and Leslie scrambled back in the boat. I pushed the boat over towards the right area, thankful that the dry bag they had given us looked to be holding up.
I scrambled back in and we were on our way.
The rest of the trip including a (techinically illegal) trip to Cambodia for lunch, a trip to the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia and ended with a sunset ride.
We spent another couple days in Don Det, just hanging around. We’ve learned that when we find somewhere we like, we just stop for awhile.
Our last day included waking up for sunrise, dinner at Loy’s and of course, a last trip to One More Bar where we shared a beer with Kien. He had another friend from Portland that was going to help him build a pizza oven out of clay and straw. I don’t know what it is about Cascadians, but the only Americans we met here were from the Pacific Northwest. When we left they were testing out different sizes of bricks.
Don Det was great and definitely one of our favorite places, but it was time for us to get moving. We had one of the hardest travel experiences coming up, and although we were dreading it, it was time to go.
Longtail, minivan, lunch, minivan, tuk-tuk, overnight bus, taxi, night in Bangkok, taxi, airplane, taxi… Chennai,India.

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