Discovering Don Det

Trip Start Jun 13, 2011
Trip End Jun 12, 2012

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Mekong Dream
Mr Phao's

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Tuesday, February 14, 2012

We were like shadows of our former selves by the time we reached the Lao capital of Vientiane (all that partying catches up with you at some point!), on our way towards the south. It was a mercifully short journey to get there (5 hours, 70,000k), and no breakdowns or burst tires on route (yay!), but it did mean we got there at pretty much the hottest part of the day! We were astonished to come out of the bus station and find a couple of Lamborghinis - I have no idea how they last 2 minutes on the Lao roads! Unfortunately they weren’t waiting to pick us up, so myself, Barry and a lovely couple we’d met tubing all piled into a tiny (and very pink) tuktuk for  the journey into town.

Vientiane is fairly small, but nicely laid-out, with a few streets with bars and restaurants, and a pretty riverside esplanade. It wasn’t the most fun thing in the world trailing round trying to find a room (but we’d gotten so lucky last time we can’t really complain), but we eventually found one (the Saysouly) that was (miraculously) under budget (90,000k), our only grumble being it could’ve done with a bit of a dust - but absolutely fine for one night!

It took us ages to find somewhere to eat that looked decent and was reasonably priced, but we found a real gem of a place called Lao Kitchen, where the food was both authentic and incredibly well cooked. We walked off our meal round the evening markets by the river, then settled in for a lovely early night! The markets must be the most chilled in South East Asia - it felt surreal but great just to be able to wander round in peace.
We awoke the next morning feeling much more rested, and had a top class breakfast at the Scandinavian Bakery to set us up for our day’s sightseeing.  We spent the afternoon in the old-school bowling alley - it was a choice between that or seeing yet more temples, and as we hadn’t been bowling for 8 months (but had certainly seen more than a few temples in that time!) it was a nice change!

We couldn’t resist having a last meal at Lao Kitchen before we headed off, and were possibly even more impressed the second time. So it was with nicely full tummies that we embarked on our journey towards the 4,000 islands. We’d booked a combi ticket with the guesthouse (260,000k), which started off with a sleeper bus down to Pakse (which we got taken to in the fastest tuktuk I’ve ever been on - I’ve no idea how there wasn’t an horrific accident!). The overnight journey was no better or worse than usual (a necessary evil really), then we had a couple of hours hanging about in a really manky bus station/market place before our connection - what a lovely way to start Valentine’s day! It took about 3 hours to get to Ban Nakasang, then only 10 - 15 minutes for the boat to cross to the island.

The 4,000 islands are a collection of islands in the Mekong river in the very south of Laos, alongside the Cambodian border. We’d heard they were a great place just to kick back and relax, so we thought they would be a nice stop to round off our South East Asia leg. We had a week and a half put aside, so we decided to head to Don Det first (the slightly more ‘developed’ of the 2 main islands) and then take it from there. We’d found practically no information online about accommodation, so it was another case of trailing round, but the heat was so unbearable that I left Barry with the backpacks (and a nice cold beer!) and headed off. We’d been told that Sunset Strip was the place to head to, but we weren’t really that impressed on first impressions - it was a bit scuzzy and the accommodations all looked like they were about to collapse, as well as being wedged in right next to one another, so there was pretty much no privacy. However, we were knackered and needed a bed for the night, so I managed to find one that was available (so many were booked out completely) and not too hideous (Mekong Dream), and for 60,000k (about 4.50) per night - the fact that we had to share a bathroom and the bed was so small that we had to sleep with our feet hanging off the edge of the bed didn‘t seem that important! And on the plus side, we did have a killer view of the sunset from our balcony.

We went out into ‘town’ that evening, which is pretty much the couple of streets next to the beach where the boats come in. There were the usual selection of backpacker bars and cafes, travel agents and mini-markets - pretty uninspiring but pleasant enough. We had our dinner at Jasmine, which was nothing special but served decent enough Indian fare. 

The next morning, we headed off early on our rental bikes (10,000k), with the mission of exploring the two islands (they’re connected by a foot bridge) and finding the perfect spot for our final chill-out in South East Asia! We were delighted to find that the further away we headed from the main drag, the more the island started to look and feel like how we’d imagined - more peaceful, rustic and prettier. After a bit of searching around, we hit the jackpot - the wonderful Mr Phao’s! It was just what we were looking for - really nice, solid bungalows (with two hammocks on the porch and inside bathroom), set on the river but with a garden in front so we could enjoy soaking up the rays. There were no other bungalows in sight, just a lovely field across from us, and as it was on the ‘sunrise’ side so we had sunshine all day long. The onsite restaurant did lack character, but the snacky food was adequate and cheap, and there were plenty of other places to eat fairly close by. The fact that it was the same price as the crumbling hovel we’d stayed at the night before sealed the deal! 

So, deposit paid, we set about the rest of our exploring. We cycled over to Don Khon (which has a 20,000k ‘entry fee’, which covers all the tourist sights on the island), which we were under the impression was less touristy than Don Det, but were surprised to masses of packed restaurants and bars. Again, once we got away from the main drag, the island became much more peaceful, but we actually preferred the way that there were at least some out of the way places to stay dotted around Don Det, whereas on Don Khon there was literally nothing outside the main area. But, saying that, there were loads of really interesting things to see, including a pretty impressive waterfall with a stunning beach, a couple of temples, some French ruins and wonderful buffalo filled fields. But after a fantastic (but filthy and tiring) day on the bikes, we conceded that there was a nicer feel overall on Don Det (and more choice about whether you want to chill or party), and it’s easy enough to go over to Don Khon for a bit of sightseeing. 

The bikes are without a doubt the best way to get around there, you really don’t need a motorbike (it’s so small and the roads are terrible), and it’s possibly a bit too excruciatingly roasting to walk around for too long; but with a bike you can get around so easily, and have that lovely wind running through your hair feeling at the same time!

Once we were settled in at Mr Phao’s, the time just seemed to pass by in a pleasant blur. It really was so hot that it forced you to totally relax - you just can’t rush in that heat! Most days were filled up with catching some rays, getting lost in a book and just spending some quality time together. We did have a great day/night out with our German friends, starting at Happy Bar and ending up at the fabulous Veggie Patch outdoor restaurant - it was one of the best places on the island to eat, but unfortunately about as far away from our bungalow as you could get - walking home was nearly an hour long trek in the pitch black over the mental dirt paths - fun when you’ve had a few drinks! The guys were all on top form (as always) - Sebastian had treated himself to some weed (when you’re in Rome and all that…), and when we asked him where he got it from we couldn’t believe it when he told us it was from the travel agent - classic!

We also spent some time with our lovely neighbours Olly and David, with yet more drunken stoating home in the dark. There were a lot of places to eat and drink, most of which were pretty similar, but the best food we had on the island was at the bizarrely named Don Deth (silent ‘h’ I think/hope!), which served both western and Lao dishes, and although the menu was practically identical to the other 2 dozen or so about, it was a real cut above.

Towards the end of our stay, we treated ourselves to a brilliant all day kayaking trip, which was great value at only 180.000k including breakfast, lunch, equipment and entry fees. We had done a bit of kayaking in the past, but nothing as intense as this - we quickly discovered that we’re not naturally gifted kayakers, given the fact that we managed to crash a few times and ended up going down the rapids backwards at one point - a bit scary but sooo much fun! We were lucky enough to get taken to the biggest waterfall in South East Asia, which was well worth having to carry the kayaks up to the crazy tuktuk waiting to take us there!

Overall, by the time we were leaving we’d definitely found a place in our hearts for the 4,000 islands. It took us a while to warm to, but if you’re looking for somewhere to chill for a few days, while having loads of interesting things to see and do around about, it definitely ticks the box. The sad thing is the amount of development that was going on while we were there - it’s just a nice amount at the moment, and will probably be ok for the next couple of years or so, but if things keep going the way they are just now (which, with so much money to be made is pretty much a certainty), the thing that makes it special (the rustic, rural side) will be there no longer, and all that will be left is a run of the mill party island.
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