After 80kms into my first day out of Vientiane, during which I was feeling fantastic being fully fit once more and on the flats, I stopped by the side of the road for a drinks break. Beginning just five metres from the edge was a landscape that truly reminded me of various parts of Sydney. Protruding from the surface of the sandy soil were huge slabs of sandstone, deep red in colour and warm to touch in the afternoon sun. Scattered amongst these were patches of small trees and shrubs that became denser as one moved further from the road. I felt drawn to this place and it took me a while to make the connection and figure out why.
A short drinks break became a half hour stroll over the various slabs, which became an expedition down a dirt track, which became spending the night. I found a flat, cleared spot, well hidden from the road and beside a large sandstone slab upon which I could dry my sweat-soaked clothes and sunbake in the three hours I had until sunset. Unfortunately, much like similar parts of Sydney, the place was infested with ants; members of the Lao tent-eating family I believe. I awoke to thin beams of light penetrating my tent through tiny round holes in my fly.
It was worth it.
I have really started to embrace wild camping and have been pitching the tent regularly since this enlightening experience. After this long on the road every hotel and guesthouse room begins to look and feel the same. They are lifeless and impersonal. Campsites on the other hand, be it a disused construction site, a dried out river bed or an equally dried out and colourless rice paddy, are all unique and full of character, a place I can form an intimate connection with and truly call my own, even if only for a night.
The main highway to the south does a big arc that straddles the Mekong, which separates the Lao people from their Thai neighbours. It is lined with villages and towns, some of which seem to exist for the purpose of fast-feeding the busloads of locals who are on the move. Running down either side of the road are coal barbeques that roast an array of meat on a stick; chicken, pork, beef, squid, crab, rat and the list goes on. I must admit that despite my first experience, as they lay glazed and roasting over the hot coals, some of the fat town rats, as opposed to skimpy village rats, looked pretty tasty.
Since their neighbours’ territory begins on the opposing bank, usually just a couple of hundred metres away, the Thai influence in strong, just as the Vietnamese was in the north east of Laos. The region also seems to share in some of the Thai’s relative prosperity. The most noticeable evidence of this is the large number of new homes being built among villages from more durable materials than bamboo as well as the number of Buddhist temples in and around the small towns. Though not as elaborate as those across the Nam Khong, many are in either new or newly refurbished condition and therefore sparkling.
A memorable one I visited was about a kilometre out of a town I was staying in and provided me with one of my many Mekong sunsets. Atop a hill, I sat on a rounded boulder, beside a small though impressive single-roomed Buddha shrine, overlooking the local school that sat amid dense foliage running to the river bank. On the opposite bank sat square veggie patches rooted in the fertile soil that will soon be submerged once more and separated by bamboo fences leading down to a sandy beach.
In between the two sat the mighty Mekong.
When I could, I made a point of it to get down to the Mekong at the end of a day to watch the sun set and marvel at the quantity of water that was on the move and the amount of life that it supports – human, plant and animal alike. There is no doubt that the sight would be astonishing in the wet season when the water level is 5+ metres above what it is at the moment and rises to the base of local homes, submerging the many ‘winter islands.’
As I travelled further south and summer looms closer, the days became longer and hotter. It has been a while since I have been in really hot, dry weather and I forgot just how much water I need to take in to keep hydrated. On one particular day that marked the beginning of the brutally hot period, I found myself feeling the effects of severe dehydration in the late afternoon. Camping that night, as Ron Burgundy would say, “was a bad choice.” As I lay restricted in my tent, muscles were cramping up all over my body that I didn’t even know I had and when I tried to stretch them, an opposing muscle would tighten. There were times when I thought that surely, such was the pain, a muscle would burst through my skin. Heading off to sleep that night, I had a yawn that gave me a tongue cramp.
Being forced to ride the following day, I had an equally unpleasant experience, but it got me to a guesthouse where I was able to recuperate for a few days. I have since learnt to handle the heat fairly well by drinking up to 15 litres of water a day.
On the route south towards the Cambodian border is the historical town of Champasak. Lying on the western bank of the Mekong, this once major centre is now a quiet, one-street town that booms for three days a year when pilgrims diverge on it for the Buddhist festival of Wat Phu. This lively event is based around the ancient Khmer ruins of the same name, part of which date back up to 1500 years ago.
Stepping up a lone hill in the otherwise pancake-flat landscape, these well-preserved ruins consist of several levels, the uppermost of which affords tremendous views over the never-ending rice paddies beyond. The hill is locally known as Phu Khuai, or Mt Penis, due to the shape of its peak and it is no coincidence that the temple began as a shrine to the hindu god, Shiva, who is often depicted as linga (phallus). Behind the main temple is a sacred spring that flows from the rock, the water from which pilgrims pour over their head for good luck. It was a stinker so I took four hits and am subsequently feeling extra lucky.
For most tourists heading south however, Champasak is just a day trip on the way to the majestic Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands). Located where the Mekong stretches to one of its widest points, Si Phan Don is so named because of the enormous number of islands that emerge from the depths in the dry season. Most are little more than a tree or a shrub whose green foliage protruding from the dark blue water makes for a surreal sight. Also in the area are several large, permanent islands that are inhabited all year round. Of those, any self respecting backpacker would not dream of staying anywhere other than on Don Det.
After arriving there myself, I found a bungalow some 30 minutes walk from the ‘town centre’ owing to the popularity of the island. I soon went for a much-needed feed and a beer at what was to become one of my favourite haunts; the Reggae Bar. Upon entering the river-side deck that is furnished with long communal tables and hammocks and colourfully decorated with various abstract artworks as well as a huge Australian flag, one is greeted by the resident baby monkey. This cute little fella has obviously been without a mother for far too long and he eagerly takes every opportunity to cuddle up to any traveller willing to hold him to their bosom. Little do the first-timers know however, that upon attempting to relinquish their responsibilities as pseudo-mother, he will scratch, claw and fight for all he is worth to retain his warm embrace.
Disappointingly, the fact that he is restrained by a two metre long rope, leaving him to whimper and look longingly with his big, sad eyes at potential cuddle buddies when he is not being held, detracts somewhat from the romance of having a pet monkey.
It was upon reading the menu that I realised just how much of a haven for potheads Don Det is. Any dish or drink, be it fried rice, chicken curry or a watermelon shake can be ‘happied up’ for 5,000 kip (50c). Alternatively, if one prefers to smoke rather than ingest their drugs, they can buy a sizable bag of locally grown weed for 60,000 kip ($6) from the owner, who takes much pride in his crop. The same amount in Sydney sells for $300-$400. And if rolling doobies is not a skill that one has acquired during their adolescence or if they are incapacitated/too stoned, they can order a ready-made one, large or small, right off the menu. This is common practice throughout the island and smoking up is accepted in all guesthouses, restaurants, bars and on the beach.
To say the place is chilled out is an understatement.
Depending on energy levels in the scorching heat, days on Don Det are best spent walking or cycling along the dirt paths around the island or over to neighbouring Don Khon, which is linked by an old French-built railway bridge and is home to a couple of powerful waterfalls and sandy river beaches. Rather than haul the bulky King Brown around, I went for the popular option and rented a local one-speed, step-through bicycle, complete with a handy little basket hanging from the front. It was quite a novelty and despite having a chain in need of a lube job, tyres in need of a pump-up and almost everything else in need of replacement, she made for a very comfy ride due to a ‘summer island cruise gear’ that I just can’t seem to find on the King Brown. He, like Ricky Bobby, just wants to go fast.
If this was all a bit too much physical exertion, which on most days it definitely was, time between the sun drifting from one side of the island to the other could be passed either swimming at the local beach, floating down the Mekong in a tube in a far more sedate manner than at Vang Vieng, kayaking between the various islands or of course, laying in ones bungalow hammock.
I spent many a day doing just this while catching up on some reading and writing in between siestas and watching the local fishing expeditions depart and return. These consisted of wooden long-tail boats that carried 6-7 villagers, some of whom were fit, young, sprightly men, burnt black from the sun since many of them wore nothing more than their undies and some of whom were withered old women, hunched beneath their conical hat, teeth, gums and lips stained a deep maroon from a life-long and constant betel nut chewing habit.
There was also the occasional boat of young teenage boys who not only had to do without a motor, but often rowed using a pair of thongs as oars. They were armed with old-style diving goggles and home-made spear guns, which if they were lucky, would catch them some dinner for their family and perhaps make them a bit of pocket money for themselves.
Late of an evening when the rest of the island had gone to bed, the place to be was on the main beach where large numbers of falang would gather around a fire to drink, smoke, chat, sing and play guitars, which were readily available due to the ‘Don Det musical instrument phenomenon.’ In nine months on the road, I had not seen a single person travelling with a guitar. On Don Det, I met no less than four as well as a violinist and they contributed greatly to a very warm and communal atmosphere where meeting people came more easily than anywhere else I had been.
Yet again, I had found a place in Laos that was going to be very hard to leave, but leave I had to, for I had just received the super exciting and heart-warming news that my Mama was flying over to visit me in Northern Thailand in six weeks. So one morning, before I could convince myself to do otherwise, I jumped on a boat and hit the road.
Within a couple of days I had reached the border crossing into North-Eastern Thailand and was saying goodbye to beautiful Laos where I have had a blissful two months, seemingly half of which has been spent in a hammock. I did not mind though, for I will be seeing her again soon enough and was re-entering a country that treated me so well when I was there seven months prior. Judging by the number of reminders I received at the border of the great Thai smile, she looks set to do so again.