Ah man, I could’ve stayed on Don Det for weeks. It’s the most relaxed few days I’ve had in months, and to be honest I expected myself to immediately get sick the moment I sat down and did nothing. But then I’ve realized I’ve been perpetually sick in various ways, shapes, and forms since Rongxian, so why would I get worse by putting my feet up?
No, it made me feel way better.
The bus ride down from Pakse to Si Phan Don (4000 Islands) is about three hours, and following that you have to take a boat fifteen minutes across from the mainland to get to either Don Det or Don Khon. Don Khon, the more laid back of the two islands, is where the more established tour groups settle down for their 1-3 day chill-out, while Don Det is quickly becoming the new backpacker utopia of Southeast Asia. It attracts a younger, hipper, ride-and-die crowd who get drunk and stoned every night and wake up at a surprisingly reasonable hour to make the best of their time in the islands. Don Det attracts purposeless funseekers who play hard and drink harder.
As a bit of a square, I felt a little left out in the crowd – I was a Type A guy in a Type B place. I haven’t been much of a binge-drinker since Undergrad, either, and I’ve never attempted to grow dreadlocks, so I found it hard to really interact with people beyond a few European bar-owners and various Laotian shopkeepers who knew a bit of Khmer because of how close we are to the Cambodian border. So I mainly kept to myself and channeled my inner introvert into writing my Wenner-Gren proposal, exploring Don Det and Don Khon, and relaxing. Yep, relaxing – that’s what you come to do in Si Phan Don. The islands are a sleepy place where not much happens this time of year because the local farmers/travel agents are waiting on the monsoon rains and the majority of tourists have been driven away because of the heat.
Suffice to say, finding a room wasn’t hard, and renting a bicycle the next day was even easier.
I spent my first half-day on Don Det wandering around aimlessly, getting the vibe of the place. Every hotel worth its salt has a bright yellow sign sponsored by Beer Lao hanging off a lamppost in front, which creates an incredibly claustrophobic entrance to a packed-in main road down the northern part of the island facing the jetty. That said, the Beer Lao flows like a fountain in Don Det, and there’s probably more alcohol than drinkable water on this island. Based on the stench of the water coming out of my shower on the first morning, I’m sure there’s more alcohol than drinkable water on this island.
Don Det is a cooky place though, and if you’re not used to backpacker abodes I suggest steering well-clear of it. But after staying six days on Khao San Road in Bangkok back in 2015, nothing phases me about this weird, hedonistic Banana Pancake Trail lifestyle in Southeast Asia anymore. The only difference between Thailand and Laos is that the rule of law is more established in the former, so pot is everywhere in Laos, and you can get almost anything made “happy” in almost every restaurant. “Happy shakes” appear to be the favourite, with “magic (take a guess) pizza” coming in a close second.
You can blame the authorities in Vang Vieng for Don Det’s evolution into a screw-topia. Once a party town between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the one government official who decided to take a look around shut down all the bars in Vang Vieng, shut down the culture of drunken tubing down the Mekong that killed 27 tourists in 2011, and start advertising Vang Vieng as a family destination. The party crowd moved down the river near the Cambodian border where the police dared not venture (there’s one police station between both islands and it’s not on Don Det), and the rest is history unless yet another idiot in a tube goes over the waterfalls drunk.
There was no “happiness” had on this trip on my end, unfortunately, although Beer Lao is arguably the best-tasting beer in Southeast Asia (sorry, Tiger) so I had one of those big bottles every night with dinner.
And there’s a bar on the very north coast of Don Det called Banana Bar that plays episodes of Friends on repeat, too. Only Seasons 6-9 though, so you don’t get to see what happens after Joey and Rachel kiss in Barbados.
In terms of the sights to see between Don Det and Don Khon, the Mekong River is your friend. It’s got waterfalls, a rare pod of Irawaddy Dolphins, and…waterfalls, and that pretty much makes up the tourist circuit they’ve created. Most people take a bike or a kayak between the islands, and the main path between both is linked by an old derailed railway bridge built by the French to move boats between the rapids down the Mekong. I took the bike myself, and had a great morning bumping around on dirt roads across both islands.
Si Phan Don is much shrubbier than I pictured a set of islands along the Mekong River, but I do acknowledge I went there in the middle of the dry season. There’s a few rows of palms along the water between Don Det and Don Khon, but you’re not entering a picturesque Southeast Asian tropical utopia.
I didn’t see any dolphins on my travels from island to island – usually places that advertise wildlife used to have it in abundance but now the animals are scared shitless of the human traffic – but the river’s cataracts are quite impressive and I was happy enough not wasting a full day in a kayak looking for a pod of 20-some endangered dolphins that may or may not be where the guides say they are.
There’s two waterfalls you can visit on either side of Don Khon – I visited the larger of the two called Khone Phapeng, which is the one above. The tourist industry’s first real “act” on the two islands beyond the Beer-Lao-sponsored restaurants and guesthouses was to build a viewing park at Khone Phapeng. The waterfall is about 3.5km east of the bridge between Don Det and Don Khon, and it’s well-marked. They’ve built various huts, a restaurant with hammocks, a beachfront swimming area, and a “petting zoo” featuring water buffalo and turkeys. Yep, turkeys, because it’s the best thing Laotian tourism planners could think of bringing from the New World.
I guess hungry jaguars wouldn’t really mix well with a flourishing population of water buffalo…
The culture of the island, not the “Happy Shake” culture but the sleepy, lazy culture, had me ready to lounge around for most of my time there after hiking around Wat Phu and the Bolaven Plateau for the two days prior (and the past eight weeks of survey). I went out once in a while to eat, to walk around, and sometimes to watch Friends with a Beer Lao or a fruit shake in the late afternoon, but that bike ride was really the only “activity” I did. You can go on kayaking tours down the Mekong, take day-trips to Wat Phu and Champasak on the mainland, and even book bus tickets on to your next destination (mine was Kampong Cham in Cambodia, a fun little town that’ll be the focus of my next entry), but really, you’re there to chill and put your feet up.
I swam once in the Mekong off the boat jetty on the north part of the island – it smelled like dead fish and I did too – but every afternoon from 5-6pm I’d come down to the same spot and watch the hazy, sleepy sun set amongst the islands and mountains as boats came in with new tourists and fishermen set out their last nets. I love sunsets in Southeast Asia – even though I was on the sunrise side of the island, the one sunrise I attempted to wake up for was clouded over from the nightly rain Si Phan Don gets from 9pm to 5am; I can always rely on a sunset.
A testament to how hypnotizing the “chill-culture” can be in Si Phan Don (and especially Don Det) is the Slovakian couple I met working at a bar specializing in “Happy” things. Working on the Wenner-Gren grant through the afternoon, I must’ve been the only sober Westerner in there, but those Happy Shakes are strong because everyone sipping them was giggly or passed out and suddenly made everyone just smoking seem incredibly coherent. The couple, who were baked but functional as they took my payment for a tasty Chicken Lao Larp meal and an ice coffee, mentioned that they’d met the owner of Mama’s Guesthouse, their abode, on their first trip through Laos, and had been coming back for seven years as travellers and staying upwards of a year. They would go back to Slovakia once their visa extensions were up, work for a few months, sometimes work elsewhere, but the main goal was to come back to Don Det and pick up where they’d left off: doing nothing. They helped the owner modernize her guesthouse, set up the wifi, cook Western and Thai food alongside the traditional Laotion dishes (try the sticky rice!), and create the chilled-out vibe so many backpackers yearned for in Si Phan Don.
Whenever I started firing up the conversation to real-world responsibilities, the two of them began to talk like a pair of 1960s bumper-stickers on the back of a VW Microbus: enjoy life, have fun, stay chilled, be true to yourself, life is short; slogans of relaxation. Again, I was a Type A person in a Type B place, so you realize soon enough no one is here to think. They’re here to dream.
The two of them weren’t the only Westerners I saw working on Don Det – the Laotians on the island, traditionally farmers and fishermen, have hired backpackers from all walks of life to help market and manage their hotels and restaurants. You can buy, not rent, a brand-new, completely furnished apartment in Don Det for $1750 USD, so there appears to be an attempt to market prime riverfront real estate to prospective expats. Chinese tourism groups are poking around, too, and on my first day on Don Det I saw a team from Shanghai taking drone footage of the jetty – they asked a few French tourists to pretend to get off a boat and walk down the road, but the two of them declined because they just wanted to watch the sun set in peace.
Three nights in Si Phan Don was plenty, though. You can spend anywhere from a night (I saw two girls check into my guesthouse around noon on my last day on Don Det and leave again on the same boat I took across the river the next morning) to a year (as was the case with the Slovakian couple), but if the goal was just to relax for a bit and keep going, I could’ve done either a night more or a night less. Nevertheless it was the break I needed, and was the closest I’ve had to a feet-up vacation in more than a decade.
Laos was a great break from survey – I’m nearly done my grant proposal and I haven’t been this chilled out in a long time – but the real beachfront vacation (with palm trees and water that doesn’t smell like humans went near it) happens in May at the end of my field season when my girlfriend Natasha and a few of her friends come over from Canada for ten days. I’ll be on Koh Samui Island in Thailand for four days of it (with four in Khao Sok National Park and two in Bangkok before saying goodbye and completing a few days of comparative survey work at Ayutthaya/heading southwest to Sri Lanka), so the fight to the finish begins as soon as I get back to Siem Reap in two days. Bring it on!
Next Entry: The final two days of this Visa-Cation in Kampong Cham and the culmination of the lost luggage drama back in Phnom Penh.