Following a short boat ride, we arrived on Don Det and I found a bungalow on the sunset side of the island. Right on the river, hammock on my private front porch, $2. Stayed five nights but could have stayed a lot longer. I met the other guests at our little guesthouse restaurant that night and we spent a few hours talking and eating before heading off to bed. The next day we (Jose and Maria from Chile, Chris from Germany, Paul from Austria, and Richard and Becky from England) took a trip to a local waterfall on the Mekong (largest waterfall, by volume, in Southeast Asia) and to see the rare Irawaddy dolphin. Stange creature this dolphin, it lives in the Mekong, and is therefore a freshwater dolphin. The actual dolphin sighting was a bit underwhelming, as we took a boat with outboard motor to a small rock in the river and stood there gazing a hundred yards in the distance for a peak at the dolphins sporadically popping up out of the water.
That night, everyone on the island came out for the big temple party. This party is held at the local wat (way out in the middle of a rice field) every year to raise money for the monks. It was quite an affair, with dozens of big speakers set up to amplify the local bands, vendors set up selling food, and even game booths which made me wonder how gambling at the temple was considered an acceptable form of fundraising. Nevertheless, I lost a few kip playing darts and the game where you try to knock the pack of cigarettes off the wall with a slingshot. We danced with the locals to the sounds of the Lao band, and quickly learned the odd custom of rushing back to your seat (or any seat) at the end of each song. A little bit like musical chairs, excpet no walking in a circle, and with a few hundred people. I broke a flip flop and spent the next few days occasioanlly walking barefoot as size 12 shoes are tough to come by in this part of the world.
The next day was Christmas Eve, and I was informed by my new friends that in much of the world, it's this night, and not the morning of the 25th that is the big celebration. We (those mentioned above, plus Ronald and Corrina from Germany) went about planning a Christmas Eve barbecue at our guesthouse, putting in an order for four chickens and two kilos of fish, which the owners promplty went out to catch, kill and prepare. It's quite different from life in America, seeing how directly eating meat is related to killing a living thing. There were a few less chickens running around the next day because of us. Anyway, the ten of us had a great evening, even without a tree and presents.
On Christmas Day, I rented a bicycle and set out on a ride across our island to a bridge which connected us to the neghboring island, Don Kon. Despite all the tourist build-up on the north side of Don Det, the south side was mostly very rural, with the occasional Lao home. At the bridge, I bumped into the French couple I'd orginally met almost two months earlier on the bus from Mae Sot to Mae Sariang. I'd see them yet again a week later. On Don Kon, I cycled to an amazing waterfall where the Mekong spilts into a dozens of small sections before rushing back together into a canyon a few stories deep. The view upstream of the river fanning out among the land gave me my best perspective on what a strange place this was. After taking a mid-day break in the shade talking with a couple of Italian and Australian girls I'd met earlier, I continued around the island to a small beach and then back to the built-up, guesthouse area. We spent Christmas night at a restaurant on the other side of the island (the one with the diving board into the Mekong) eating, talking, listening to music and watching Ronald match wits with the owner in a few games of chess.
On my final afternoon in Don Det, I rented a kayak and paddled around to see a few more of those 4000 islands. Definitely one of the highlights of my travels thus far. Saw only one or two other tourists, but lots of locals fishing for their supper. Many of the "islands" are nothing more than a little clump of trees a few feet across, and I enjoyed exploring the small spaces in between. Watched the sunset from the middle of the river, then paddled back under the light of a quarter moon. As I said, I coupld have spent a lot more time on Don Det, but my visa was running out, and anyway, there's a lot more out there to see.
More photos on Flickr
My last stop in Laos was an island in the middle of the Mekong. Don Det is an island in Si Phan Don, also known as the 4000 Islands. It's a stunningly beautiful spot, even if you wouldn't dare swim in the water, and was a great place to spend my southeast asian Christmas. On the way there, my typically over-stuffed songthaew included a Texan, a few Australians and a Sweede all headed to the same place. After a few cramped hours, they stopped and told us we had arrived at the boat dock for Don Det. A quick look at the map told me this wasn't where we wanted to be, and I told the driver the name of the town (Ban Nakasang) about 10 km further down the road, where we wanted to go. All the Lao people insisted that this was where we wanted to be, until finally I got the boat captain to point to where we were on the map, and that settled that, as he confirmed my suspicion. My guess is, as is very often the case, the songthaew driver had a deal with the boat captain and dropped passengers off there for a much pricer trip to Don Det. Anyway, we got back on the road, until a few km later when the songthaew stopped again and they announced that this was as far as they went. We were still a good 8 km away from our destination, but what can you do when they they refuse to go any further? So I and my four new freinds piled out and looked around for where we might find another ride on this empty stretch of road. We saw a truck a few hundred meters down the road stoppped at a little lunch spot, and as we approached, saw that it was full of big sacks of sugar, each decorated with a giant picture of an ant. I suppose ants do like sugar. A bit of negotiating later, we were all riding with the sugar down to the Don Det boat dock.