I had determined to leave Vientiane as soon as possible, and accordingly booked a much-overpriced ticket to Pakse. I wanted to do “the motorcycle loop”, as I’d heard there was a tour you could do by motorbike to see some caves that took a few days. I read online that the motorcycle loop started in Pakse, so to there I booked a ticket.
The ticket for the bus ended up placing me and another girl who had attached herself to me in the very front of the bus, overhanging the driver’s area, a sort of loft if you will. It was actually a cool seat, but very warm and short. A brief night’s ride with two barely of-age British boys that my definitely of-age companion was flirting with and we were unceremoniously dumped out at Pakse.
Don’t go to Pakse. It’s essentially a one-road town–hot, dusty, and under construction. All the sleeping accommodations are overpriced, although Lamkhang Hotel is probably the most affordable, and is also a good place to rent bikes and keep your luggage. We rented two bikes for four days, the prices decreased according to the length of lease, but I assumed it would take about four days anyhow, it was supposed to be about 150 km. Unfortunately, about this time, I tried to find Tha Kaek on the map. It was about three counties away. I began to have a growing suspicion I was in the wrong place.
I dragged out the laptop and looked it up. Yes, I had bypassed the “cave motorcycle loop” for the “waterfall motorcycle loop”. Gutted. I really don’t care about waterfalls (sorry), and was severely disappointed, but decided to make the Most Unexceptional of it and tour the waterfalls anyhow. We set out with a terribly photocopied map with nothing written in Lao and tried to find our way onto the road that would lead us around the Bolaven Plateau. We drove for an hour, asking the entire way. We did not find the road.
We returned the bikes, and asked to book a bus to the 4,000 islands. Sorry, the bus leaves at 8AM. Once per day. No, we’re out of the cheapest rooms, even though there is figuratively no other visible guests. No, I won’t go halfsies on the bike rental because you only had them for a couple hours. But in the end, my stolid companion persevered on our behalf, simply by demanding the same thing over and over again. We only had to pay for a half day for the bikes, and we got a good room price.
My eye had been killing me since the bus ride the night before. My homegirl, Tal, had complained of eye pain a few days before, and I recalled that she had used her eye pencil on one of my eyes, consequently, the one that was now annihilatingly painful. That night, I went out to the pharmacy and bought some $1 antibacterial eye drops and began using them immediately. Results seemed positive.
The next morning came early for our minivan to the 4,000 Islands. Once you come to the riverside town, you must still charter a boat across the river, for an additional 10,000 kip.
Arriving in Don Det, I immediately began looking for a hostel, because I wanted to meet some new folks, and potentially off this other girl onto someone. But I couldn’t find a hostel! There were guesthouses, bungalows, and hotels, but no hostels to be found (at least by me—I’m pretty sure there is one, though!). As we trudged along the muddy path further into the island, I saw a likely backpacker boy and asked where he was staying. Sunset Bungalows, was the reply, but when I asked there, the man said they were full up. Which seemed impossible, as there was nary a soul on the island. It did look nice though, hammocks on a porch overhanging the water.
We walked a bit further, and stopped at the reggae-themed “Happy Bar”. I was quite rudely replied to by what I assumed to be the proprietress that yes, they did have rooms. We decided to take one, as the price was great, and it also featured hammocks and a waterfront porch, at 50,000 kip a day. After securing lodgings, I ambled back into town to see what was happening there.
The place was essentially a ghost-town, I saw maybe 3 people, including locals. The island included a bar creatively named “Adam’s Bar”, a “Reggae Bar”, some eateries, and a place where you could buy a hard drive and have music/movies/shows put on it, operated by Adam, of Adam’s Bar.
There’s not much to do on Don Det—you can pay an exorbitant fee to go kayaking and see “river dolphins” or go tubing + bbq, or you can get stoned and lay around. Adam’s Bar sold weed and edibles, as well as normal food, and played “choose-your-own” movies in the front, all day. The back overlooked the river, and had music going. You can also buy weed from the place I stayed, and from the Reggae Bar.
The going rate for a bag is 125,000 kip, and a joint is 30,000. No one will haggle. I ran into a friend who bought weed from some person in his bungalows for 50,000, who I never saw again. This friend had coincidentally been arrested by the police in Vang Vieng for drug possession.
If you don’t drink, don’t get stoned, and don’t pay to do things, there’s not a whole lot going on here. You can wander around Don Det trying to find internet (good luck, Adam’s Bar and the accompanying electronics shop are your best bet), eat amazing Indian food at Fajai (the little A-frame in town), jump into the chocolate river Mekong and swim a bit, sunbathe in the patchy sunlight, or read in your hammock. It’s actually a great retreat, but most of the people are frustratingly money-grubbing or brusque.
The woman running my bungalow tried to charge me for hot water, so I ended up going into town, paying to refill my giant water bottle ( 2,000 kip ) and getting hot water at the same spot, which I then carried home in my now-handleless tin cup, wrapped in a dirty shirt, and used it to make my coffee and oatmeal. In the afternoon I walked to Mama Thanon’s and bought an order of sticky rice, which I slowly consumed with soy and chili sauce, and my dried garlic.
In the evening, I went to Fajai’s, and took the little table in front, with a book. Every day, I ordered 2 chapatti, a bowl of raitha or straight yogurt, and a curry—usually eggplant or tofu. It was delicious, and very cost-friendly; I usually ended up paying around 35,000 kip, or a little more than $4. Obviously not as cheap as sticky rice for every meal, but that gets old quick.
And, that’s what I did in Don Det. At night, you can hear the peepers as you amble through the sludge-filled path home. There are huge patches of blackness you have to feel your way through with your feet, and often cats, chickens, or cows cross your path. It rained heavily, off and on, for the entire time I was there, but it was highly enjoyable to sit on the patio and watch the rain falling into the river. One night, there was a huge storm across the river, in Cambodia. We could see the lightning flashes, illuminating purple clouds with trees of light, but we couldn’t hear a thing! The stars broke out above us, and the wind blew steadily, tossing the palms overhead.