It is said that the best travelling experiences are often the unplanned ones. I like to travel with as much flexibility as possible, but sometimes this isn’t possible because of airline rules or peak periods when accommodation may be difficult to find. We had many unplanned experiences on our big trip, especially towards the end, in Laos and Cambodia, when we were getting tired of making arrangements in advance.
From Tha Khaek in Laos we decided to catch a bus to Champasek, stay there a couple of nights then go to Don Khong for a few days. What eventuated was totally different …
In Laos the bus stations seem to be way out of town. When a tourist bus arrives, the tuk tuk drivers all crowd around and demand exorbitant prices for their services. This happened to us in Pakse, where we needed to change buses to get to Champasek. By the time the bus pulled into the northern ‘bus station’ it was dusk. In the fading light, this completely empty square, surrounded by semi-derelict buildings looked like a wasteland – all it needed were tumble weeds blowing through it. Most of the other (Laotian) people stayed on the bus, but me, Ian and a Singaporean man were told to get off. There was one tuk tuk driver waiting … circling his prey.
Champasek was only 28 km away. The tuk tuk driver told us there were no buses running in the evenings, but he would take us there for 300,000 kip (about AU$50, and that was after bartering with him). For comparison, our seven hour bus journey from Tha Khaek had cost us 60,000 kip each. The Singaporean was going to Pakse town centre 7km away (for 30,000 kip) so we decided to overnight there. We found a clean and convenient guest house, had an Indian meal for dinner and organised a boat ride to Champasek the next day. Then we went for a walk along the Mekong. We came across a Buddhist temple where the monks were chanting in rounds and stopped to listen for a while.
The next morning we were picked up at 8am for our boat trip. The journey on the Mekong took about two hours and was a much better way to travel than by tuk tuk in the dark! Our accommodation and the river cruise was the same price as the tuk tuk driver was asking and we got to see a bit of Pakse and a slice of life along the Mekong.
At Champasek the tourist information office was empty so we went to the restaurant next door for brunch and to check our emails. It was 1.30pm by the time we returned to the tourist information office. We discussed our options with the very helpful staff and decided to go to Don Daeng and stay at a homestay overnight then catch a minibus to Don Khong the next morning.
A boatman from Don Daeng was summoned, our accommodation and onward transport were organised, and by 2pm we were on the island. We made our way past a herd of water buffalo wallowing in the river to the community lodge on the northern tip of the island. Here guests sleep in two communal rooms on mattresses on the floor. There were three other mattresses on the floor in our room (we discovered at dinner that these belonged to a woman from the UK and a couple from Austria).
The community lodge is run by the local village and groups of villagers take it in turns to look after the guests. At mealtimes, everyone in the group on duty brings a contribution and they cook the meal together. The lodge is very clean and well run and all the profits go back to the village.
We dropped off our bags and hired bikes to explore the island. By this time it was 2.45pm so we only had a few hours of daylight left to explore. Don Daeng is an island in the middle of the Mekong. It is about 8 km long and has eight villages around its edge and rice fields in the middle. There are no cars on the island; bicycles, motorbikes and the occasional tractor are the only transport. It’s a very friendly place – nearly everyone sang out “Saba dee” to us as we cycled past.
It was hot, even at that time of day, but thankfully most of the track was shaded. We met the English woman from the lodge who was also cycling around the island. She told us the track was indistinct further on and she’d had to cut across fallow paddy fields – or rather, an old man had ridden her bike across for her while she’d sat on the back!
We rode across the dry, cracked rice paddies and finally found a path … which brought us back on our original route, so we took the track leading to the Forest Temple. This is an ancient looking temple with a shelter built around it. From there we decided to carry on across the island and try to get back to the lodge via the path on the other side of the island. By this time it was getting towards dusk and we weren’t sure what state the path would be in so we cycled as fast as we could. This path took us through forested, less populated areas of the island.
We got back about 6pm just as dark was falling and just in time for dinner. We were dirty, sweaty and tired, but happy that events had transpired to allow us to visit Don Daeng.