After the countless temples, excessive heat, and constant barrage of touts in Siem Reap, we were admittedly a bit relieved to find ourselves en-route to Pakse, a one-horse town in Southern Laos that would be our jumping off point for a week of relaxation and adventure.
Pakse was like nowhere we’ve been before or since. Imagine, upon landing in a new country in Southeast Asia, you find yourself suddenly transported to an American wild-west frontier settlement straight out of 1850. Pakse is a town of red-dirt roads, macho dudes in low-slung dungarees and cowboy hats, and old-west-saloon-style facades. We half expected a gunslingers’ duel on the main street, and Trinh and I giggled for minutes when we saw a plastic bag somersault across the road like a 21st century tumbleweed.
We stopped off only long enough to organize transport to our real destination. Laos’s 4000 Islands are a large grouping of islands carved out by the Mekong, which have gained minor notoriety for the liberal drug scene in Don Det, where restaurants will make any food or drink order “happy” by adding several handfuls of weed into the mix. Recently, however, Don Det’s neighboring island of Don Khone has made a name for itself as a quiet island getaway, full of scenic bike rides and beautiful waterfalls. We were told it was a great spot for those, like us, looking to kill some time before trekking out into the jungle around Pakse.
We found that Don Khone lived up to expectations. After a quick bus ride and quicker (but much louder) longtail taxi transfer, we were glad to drop our backpacks at the cheapest bungalow hideaway we could find on the river before renting bikes to explore the island.
We discovered a small café/bar perched on a high cliff overlooking a series of small waterfalls. From here, we spent a languid afternoon sipping Beer Lao and watching local fishermen performing ballet-esque feats of balance and skill, propelling themselves dexterously amongst the small rapids while spearing their day’s catch.
We rode our bikes back to town reluctantly at dusk, before deciding that we couldn’t visit the 4000 islands without at least paying a (purely anthropological) visit to the sin bin that is Don Det. It was here that we made two crucial errors that would change the course of the night’s events. Our first mistake was assuming that our tiny hotel map was to scale, indicating that the town of Don Det was just a hop, skip, and a bridge over the river. Our second mistake was assuming that in Southern Laos, like in the rest of Southeast Asia, a small army of tuk tuks would be clamoring to drive us to our destination of choice, should we decide we were tired of walking.
An hour of walking along abandoned dirt roads in complete and total darkness later, we arrived in Don Det. But not before Steven told us all the terrifying true-crime scary stories that Canadians apparently teach their young at summer camp, eschewing the traditional fantastical ghost stories. By the end of Steven’s graphic recitations of serial-murders and gore, I was praying for a tale of Bloody Mary or that one about the woman whose head falls off when her husband removes the ribbon around her neck in the dead of the night, against her express instructions.
[NB: for those interested in this kind of thing, ask Steven to tell you the “seesaw” story sometime, but just don’t plan to sleep for a week or so afterward.]
Nevertheless, we finally arrived at our intended destination, a restaurant that had been written up in Forbes, and quickly realized that we were too old, or too clean, or too…something for this scene. It felt like we’d wandered into an opium den. Travelers of all ages but a similarly low standard of hygiene were sprawled, glassy-eyed and unresponsive amongst mutts and feral cats on ragged pillows and carpets. Friends was playing on loop in the background, which was definitely the main strength of this place, though no one seemed to be watching.
Having come this far, we bravely pushed through to a back room, where river views and a livelier crowd of people playing Xbox made us feel a bit better about our decisions. The food, however, proved mediocre, perhaps because it was expected that the clientele would be “happy” and therefore less discriminating in their culinary preferences.
After this underwhelming foray into Don Det, we were ready to return to our comparative island paradise on Don Khone. So we trooped out into the street, loudly hailing the tuk tuk that was expected, but never materialized. We couldn’t bear the thought of the long return trip in the dark, and I was still reeling from Steven’s Canadian tales of psychosis and carnage. Luckily, we soon saw our destiny approach in the form of a young man on a motorbike, towing a large trailer of fruit and water behind him. With all the entrepreneurial gusto our situation had imparted, we asked him how much it would cost to offload his burden and return four Beer Lao-soaked westerners to their proper island. He graciously agreed to do so for a completely exorbitant sum, which we cheerfully agreed to, being completely out of alternative options. For the same price as a New York cab ride, we found ourselves gleefully towed through the dark country roads of Don Det on a fruit cart, and we savored every minute of the bumpy ride home.
The next day, after the morning’s fond farewell to our favorite waterfall café, we once again boarded a longtail back to civilization, leaving the dreamscape of the 4000 islands somewhat reluctantly behind us.
We were headed back to Pakse, to say goodbye to Trinh and prepare ourselves for the next adventure—flying around the treetops of the Southern Laos jungle.