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An Art Therapist Abroad

Been There, Don Det

LAOS | Saturday, 25 January 2014 | Views [2372]

Traveling from Champasak to Don Det was so pleasant it almost made up for the Pakse to Champasak debacle. ...Almost. Much of it was by boat which was fine by me,

and rest was on a nice bus surrounded by beautiful scenery. (I had another fortuitous moment where I happened to look up as we drove past a tall hill were a giant golden Buddha was seated.) The whole of my morning went boat, bus, boat, and the final boat was greeted on the shores of Don Det by a sunbather, frolicking local children, and a cow.

Welcome to the Four-Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don).

As it turned out, the sunbather was none other than Jeremy who I met in Vietnam! We chatted for a bit, catching up, and as he was leaving the next day we decided to maybe try and meet up later in southern Thailand. After finding and checking into a room I quickly put on a swimsuit and headed to the "beach" (think finely milled dirt-like sand gently lapped by the waves of the lovely, mud colored Mekong) to take advantage of the few remaining hours of sunlight.

Earlier, as I had walked along the main strip of the sunrise side of the island,

 

I had noticed a few Indian restaurants that looked pretty legit so I decided to check one out for dinner. It was a tiny spot owned and run by an Indian family. I had been sitting at a table for a less than a minute when a group of guys asked me if I would like to join them. The most outgoing of the group was Manny, a Brit of Indian decent who had been living on Don Det for nearly three years, working at a bar on the sunset side of the island. With him were several Israelis (I couldn't believe the number of people from Israel I met on the islands!) and later we were also joined by a group from the Netherlands. Dinner was done family style with Manny custom ordering everything from the restaurant owner. While waiting for the meal we all shared some beers, and, as is the custom on Don Det, spliffs were passed around. You know what they say, when in Rome... (Although I passed on the also customary happy mushroom pizzas and such that are available literally everywhere.) After a meal that would have been amazing even without herbal enhancement, the group headed to a bar where shots of locally made whisky flowed freely out of a repurposed, enormous, Smirnoff bottle. At this point I decided to call it a night, but not before Manny had invited me to come to his bar the next morning to assist in baking some cookies AND to attend the weekly, traditional English Sunday roast in the evening at the only place on the island where it was offered. How much friendlier and more welcoming can you get?

In the morning I moved out of my room and into a riverside bungalow for a more atmospheric, and cheaper, experience of island life.

(Not to mention a great view.)

After a quick lounge in a hammock I headed over to the sunset side to find Manny et al. (a little citation humor there) and maybe bake some cookies. On the way I stopped at a tiny cafe, which I think might have had the only espresso machine on the island, and met a really interesting group of older guy solo travelers. As I worked my way down the street, surrounded on one side by the Mekong and the other by bungalow porches filled with travelers seemingly bound to their hammocks, marijuana constantly perfumed the air. Again, welcome to the Four-Thousand Islands. When I arrived at Manny's bar, he, surprise-surprise, hadn't even started thinking about making cookies. Mmmhmmm. So I headed back to my side of the island and spent the day on the "beach" reading "First They Killed My Father" by Luong Ung in order to educate and prepare myself for traveling in Cambodia. (It's a memoir detailing Ung's experiences growing up before and during the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia. She was 5 years old when they seized control of the country and evacuated her home city of Phnom Penh. She recounts the horrors of living in the work camps and later her training as a child soldier, as her family was picked apart piece by piece. There are many other memoirs that have been written by survivors of this period in Cambodia which are more graphic, so I feel "First They Killed My Father" is a good introduction, and I highly recommend it.) Then I took a long walk along the island

(cow and house...)

(cow and....boat...?)

and on my way back I felt a strange pull to head down a small dirt side road that looked as if it might cut across to the sunset side. I hadn't walked for two minutes when I saw Manny and crew strolling towards me on their way to Sunday roast! It seems one of the lessons the universe is trying to teach me on this trip is to trust my intuition more. After Sunday roast (where the Yorkshire pudding was absent and is still something I need to try) I walked with the group back to the main stretch of town and sat down at what, I'm not gonna lie, became one of my favorite spots on Don Det: a bar with a floor made of couches that specialized in deserts, specifically ice cream sundays, and constantly played movies. People wonder how some westerners end up living happily on such a tiny island for decades ... Copious amounts of weed + ice cream + movies = that's how.

The next morning I woke up early and rented a bicycle for the day. I rode all over Don Det and then crossed the bridge to the neighboring island of Don Khon to see the Li Phi waterfalls, or Tat Somphamit, and the nearby beach.

On the way I passed remnants of the old French railroad, which was never completed due to the adverse conditions of trying trying to build a trans-Mekong railway in the late 1890s.

The waterfalls were pretty impressive - not spectacularly tall but vast and abounding,

 

and the landscape was otherworldly. It had been a long time since I had seen anywhere so flat and barren.

After walking along the cliff edge abutting the falls and river I found the beach, which, despite still being on the Mekong, was pretty nice.

It reminded me of hanging out by the James river in Richmond, Virginia during college. After laying around for a bit I jumped back on my bike and returned to Don Det, taking the long way around and stopping at a bar to watch the sunset on that side of the island.

Obviously, I ended up back at the movie bar for dinner.

In the morning it was time to plan my next stop and make some travel arrangements. This was a big one: it was time for Cambodia! I took a boat to the mainland in order to visit an ATM and back on Don Det I bought a bus ticket all the way to Siem Reap - land of Angkor Wat. My last day on the island was spent laying in hammocks and on the beach, an ode to the lifestyle there, and finishing "First They Killed My Father." After dinner NOT at the movie place, I headed to bed to prepared myself for a very full day of travel in the morning.

(Departing sunrise on the sunrise side.)

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