Don Det, Champasak, Savannaket, Laos – We had not been in Laos long before finding ourselves lazying in hammocks, nursing fruit shakes, and realizing that even reading was too much work.
The tone was set by the speed bump of a border crossing into Laos from Cambodia marked by a wooden shack at both borders with a piece of rope draped across the road. The only rise of inflection in the border guards voice was when he mentioned the “fee” of a dollar to pass. I paid at the Cambodian shed, but when the Laos officer tried to collect the fee, I said I gave my last dollar to the other guy. Tina, not wanting a scene, punched me and said to just pay the man.
After being handed off more times then a ripped kip, we arrived at the boat dock for the 4,000 islands, a section of the Mekong river that fans out around lots of little islands. There aren’t literally 4,000 of them, but there are quite a few and the actual number depends on the Mekong’s mood. We stayed on Don Det, one of the more developed islands. And by “developed”, I mean that it had electricity sometimes.
At the dock, the ferry operator wouldn’t accept that the tickets we had bought at our guesthouse in Cambodia included the boat fee to the island. We assured him it did, but he resisted and made us sit and wait while he made some calls. A few other tourists showed up and paid him and got right on a boat and left for the island. This was a waiting game, we thought. So we resolved to wait him out. After about 20 more minutes, his phone rang and he argued with whomever was on the line, then finally told us to get on a boat and shipped us out to Don Det without charging us.
This mass of confusion defined a number of our journeys in SE Asia. The problem is that no one really keeps record of what has been sold. So when you show up for a bus, they have no idea how many people they will have to fit. You also have no recourse because the person who sold you the ticket is no longer involved. You get handed off many times – from the guesthouse, to the tuk-tuk, to the bus station, to the bus driver, etc. And at each step the accountability evaporates like rivers in the dry season.
Once on Don Det, we searched a few guesthouses and stumbled upon Mama Tanon Cafe and Guesthouse, a cute but rather functional place short on amenities and charm, and only had electricity a few hours in the evening. But that was ok since it was less then $5 for the two of us. And they had a deck with hammocks that overlooked the Mekong giving us great views of the sunset.
While eating breakfast the next morning, we decided to get some US Dollars exchanged since the restaurant had a great rate. The explanation for the great rate became obvious when the guy offered me a bag of pot as part of his payout. I declined politely and checked the bills to make sure they weren’t counterfeit.
We rented bikes for the day and spent the morning wandering the dirt paths around the island making our way across the bridge to Don Khon, an island south of Don Det. Since this is the end of the dry season for Laos, the arid land intensified the sun’s heat, so by about 11am it was too hot to ride.
We headed back to town, stopping at a bakery and splitting a cinnamon bun and had some drinks. Then we resumed our favorite activity of hammocking. For lunch we biked to the other side of the island where I ordered an apparently complicated meal of noodle soup. I just wanted noodles, but the waitress and I went back and forth and even the cook came out to discuss this.
I was told it was impossible to make noodle soup with just noodles. Fine, I said. Just bring me regular noodle soup. I was brought a bowl of vegetables with a few noodles. Exactly the opposite of what I wanted. And in the meantime, an employee had taken Tina’s bike to run some errands. This place was classy.
Having used all our energy biking, hammocking and arguing with the cook, we passed the afternoon lounging on some tubes in the Mekong just off shore until a crazy thunderstorm made it’s way across the sky. A few impressive lightning bolts encouraged us to get out. We got back to the guesthouse and watched the storm from the balcony.
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Laos has no State-run buses, they are all private. And there are two types of buses in Laos: regular and VIP. The main differences are price, speed and comfort. The VIP buses cost more but get you there faster while removing the chance of you spending the ride sitting on a sack of rice or holding a chicken.
We had purchased what we thought were tickets on a VIP bus to Champasak from Don Det, but there was mass confusion when we got to the bus station. We arrived with a huge group of tourists and it became clear that there was no keeping track of what guesthouse had sold what tickets to where.
So they tried to put us on a minibus but we said we had VIP tickets, so they put us on the VIP bus. We had two seats and were all set. Then they made just the two of us get off and gave our seats away. They took us over to minibus but realized it was full. Meanwhile I was trying to get our luggage off the bus but the driver kept telling me not to worry about it.
Realizing there was no place in a minibus for us, they packed us back on to the bus. Tina got the last seat in the back and I had to sit next to her on a cracked pink stool. The ride was only a few hours, so big deal. But the problem turned out to be that the bus didn’t actually go to Champasak. It went near it.
In the middle of no where, the bus pulled over and they made us get out and they pointed down a road implying that Champasak was that way. Fortunately, there happened to by a tuk-tuk driver waiting, so he took us down the road which ended at a ferry crossing. We then had to take a ferry across. Then we got another tuk-tuk who’s driver happened to be the nephew of a guy who owned a guesthouse in town – at which we ended up staying. It was great little place high on the riverbanks with a patio overlooking the Mekong.
The guesthouse had stairs that went down to the water, so that night I went to take a bath in the Mekong as the sun was setting and the local kids were out playing. Having grown up in Florida where there are monsters in every body of water, I am still overly alert when swimming in anything that’s not a pool. This is totally unnecessary here because other then fish, the Mekong itself has no wildlife. A long time ago there was a massive slaughter of all the crocodiles, which sounds cruel, but these people’s lives depend on this river. They couldn’t have death lurking a few inches below the murky surface.
We biked to Wat Phu Champasak, an ancient Khmer temple from the mid 5th century, the next morning. The ruins turned out to be a bit small and after seeing Angkor Wat, so it was kind of a let down. The temple at the top of the hill gave a nice view of the valley and the remnants below, giving a vague impression of what the temple complex must have been like back in the day.
Upon returning to town we rode around looking for somewhere for lunch. We stumbled upon a women selling what looked and smelled like milkshakes in a stand next to the road. They were delicious. Each shake was basically sugar water mixed with some flavored powdered sugar then some gummy sugar bits added.
While nursing our sugar shakes, we struck up a conversation with some Israeli travelers who told us about a guy who sells ice cream from a cooler on the back of his bicycle. On the ride after lunch we came across the ice cream man selling at one of the guesthouses. It cost less then a $.25 for two scoops – one coconut and one chocolate.
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The owner of the guesthouse in Champasak also ran a minibus service to Pakse, the central transportation hub in southern Laos. We got dropped off at a bus station where we once again bought tickets for a VIP bus – we found out later that we never actually paid what a VIP bus costs, so I think they just wanted us to buy their tickets – to Savannaket, another Mekong town that looked across to Thailand, where we’d hoped to do a day-long motorbike tour of the countryside.
When the bus showed up it was obvious this wasn’t a VIP bus. It was more like a RIP bus. But we got a seat, so whatever. But once we got out of town, the bus pulled up behind a bus on the side of the road and we all had to get out and get on the other bus. Which, of course, was already full. So either the first bus broke down, or more likely they didn’t want to run two partially filled buses so they just combined the passengers.
For the first couple hours we had to sit in the aisle on plastic stools. It was a problem until people started wanting to walk around, or at some stops, a pack of kids would get on trying to sell food. So we got smooshed and pushed around by kids with skewers of chicken, boiled eggs, fried dough, and who knows what else, all trying to fight to be the first to get to the back of the bus. Then they had to climb over everyone to get back up front to the door. We got off the bus the first chance we had in Savannaket and took a tuk-tuk to the Saisouk Guesthouse, a great airy wooden house on a quite street south of the center of town.
We spent the next day touring around the countryside passing through a few villages, seeing some wats and a few standout sites including a Monkey Forest. The “forest” was really a shaded area near a village where a bunch of monkeys hung out. You could buy food at a stall and feed them. But when you did that, goats and chickens came out of the woods and fought the monkey’s for the food. The most enjoyable part was watching the monkeys plot and accomplish stealing food from the stall.
The weather was getting hotter by the day, so we arrived back in Savannaket rather thirsty. I had spotted a place that served milkshakes like what we had in Champasak, so that was our first stop back in town. But this place put even more sugar in it which made it hard to drink.
There was one more wat I wanted to see outside of town, so I dropped Tina off at the guesthouse and headed north. The guidebook didn’t give much in the way of directions so when I hit the first roundabout I took the way towards the only thing that sounded familiar – the Friendship Bridge. But when I got near to the bridge a rather large complex appeared and suddenly I was in a lane marked “Departure for Thailand”. Since I was a few weeks ahead of myself, I quickly pulled a u-turn at the entrance and decided Thailand would have to wait.