Serenity in Don Khon

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I’ll begin with a heartfelt thank-you for everyone’s comments and e-mails regarding the accident. Normally, I respond personally, but this time I would be saying almost exactly the same thing. So…to save all of you (and me) from hearing my voice over and over again: Thank you all so very much for your concern and advice and caring sentiments. It means a great deal to us.

The experience and the images still linger, but we’re left with a fresh appreciation for how lucky we are.

We could not have arrived in a better place to calm down and rest. Don Khon is one of the 4000 islands of the Mekong archipelago that sits just north of the Cambodian border. Four thousand is an approximate number, and that includes tiny sandbars and islets big enough for nesting ground birds. Tributaries wind their way through, as do fishing boats and longboats, making this part of Laos deliciously serene and sleepy. Of the few islands that are inhabited, just three cater to tourists, and of the twin islands, Don Det and Don Khon – we took a pass on the former for its hippy, happy-snack crowd and chose the latter for its peacefulness and rice paddy landscape.

 

We have discovered we need regular breaks from travelling. We need the recharge of staying put for a few days with no agenda. Don Khon has given us exactly that – relaxation bordering on downright laziness.

The boat landed at Don Det, where the vast majority of visitors stay.

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We could not find a boat to carry us on to neighbouring Don Khon. As luck would have it, a young man called out to us that he could take us by “tuk-tuk” down the island and across the bridge. His tuk-tuk turned out to be a utility truck with two milk cartons for seats, and he demanded the money up front (he had to refill with gas first). Away we went – bumping down the back roads (we suspect he didn’t want the legit tuk-tuk drivers to see him on the main road), and eventually arrived at our destination.

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We were excited to see that our hotel resembled its online photos – clean and bright, with wooden bannisters and shiny tile floors and best of all – our huge room and balcony overlooking the Mekong. We’re the third room in from the left on the second floor.

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Hot showers (rarer than you might think), followed by lunch and beer on the patio – we were starting to feel human again.

There is a boat dock right by our hotel, and we’ve amused ourselves by watching the various and inventive craft transporting tourists.

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This premium boat offers seats and life jackets.

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We are most definitely in the south again – the comfy days and cool evenings of Vientiane have been replaced with sweltering, sweaty temps – only mad dogs and white-skinned Englishmen are out in the midday sun.

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Don Khon has three main roads – one that skirts the west coast, one that follows the east coast, and one straight down the middle. Water features are the big attraction – waterfalls, a broad port and a pool that is home to the endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins.

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According to one of our lunch table mates, the pod has shrunk to four dolphins, and chasing after them by boat seems designed to put another peg in their “near-extinction,” so we decided to stick to cycling as our main form of entertainment.

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While the rental bikes are rough and ready, they come with a basket and a bell and the price is right – about $1.50 a day. For each of the past three days, we’ve set out in the morning to explore, and what a glorious time it has been. We’ve seen heritage homes turned into fancy hotels.

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We’ve seen modest, welcoming homes out on dusty roads.

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There are few island vehicles –  utility tuk-tuks, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles. This makes cycling a dream, and getting lost a pleasure. We rode across rice paddies, through temple grounds, past homes and small settlements, beside the river and through bamboo stands. We watched kids play soccer, and dodged cows, dogs and chickens in the road. Life on Don Khon feels quite untouched by civilization.

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There is no ATM, police, or medical services here, wifi is spotty and refreshingly, cellphone sightings are less common than elsewhere.  It is poor here, but without pathos. As is similar to life on many small islands everywhere, the sense of community is strong. People are relaxed and friendly and you can spot the characters after being here for a while. There is no gas station on the island, so bottles of gasoline are dispensed at stand like this one.

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Waterfalls are a common feature everywhere we have been so far, but since it is well into the dry season, many of them are but a trickle. Not so the waterfalls of Don Khon – they are impressive and majestic. If they are mighty now, what they must be like in November?

As we approached Khone Pa Soi waterfalls, we were warned by a couple of women, in that understated way that Brits are famous for, that the wooden bridges were a bit “perilous.”

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The suspension bridge was a little sketchy, but looked as though it might hold up. Up a path we went to get to the top of the falls.

We headed over to the smaller waterfall, and came face-to-face with the “perilous” bridges – we took our chances on the thin layers of bamboo and lath and made it safely across.

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The second falls we visited – the Li Phi Falls – were massive. They are one of Asia’s largest waterfalls by volume – so named as they are meant to catch bad spirits as they wash down the river. We paid heed to the dozens of “Dangerous” signs, not wanting to join the bad spirits.

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Our photos cannot capture the scope and volume of water in this waterfall – what must this look like in the rainy season?

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At the end of our hike, Stephen stopped to cool off his feet in the pool – still the Mekong, but clean, clear, fast water.

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On our way home, we rode through one of the temples to discover a small herd of cows all cozied up together.

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Further along, three young novices were busy making bricks. They greeted us with a smile and allowed us to take photos.

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A perfect break in the travels, and a memorable way to end our time in Laos. Tomorrow we are in for an early start and a trip by boat, minibus, and bus to get us across the border into Cambodia and to our first destination, Siem Reap.

Life and Death in Laos

There have been many a time while travelling over the  past few years when a situation felt a little dodgy or unsafe or uncomfortable, and I coped by repeating a silent mantra to myself,”Nothing bad will happen today.” Since bad things happen every day, my mantra was more a delusional self-soothe than a fact-based reality, but it worked for me.

Yesterday, my mantra was shattered, but I will get to that later.  I want to tell you about the life we have been experiencing in Laos, and how varied it has been as we’ve travelled the country from north to south.

We spent two days in Vientiane, the country’s capitol, referred to by some as a dustier, less charming version of Luang Prabang. We were advised to give it a miss, but since it was a hub for our travels, and also Laos’ capital city, we wanted to see for ourselves.

It has its own Arc de Triomphe, unkindly referred to as a “concrete landing pad.”

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Vientiane lacks the polish and lustre of Luang Prabang – the word “crumbling” comes to mind. The French colonial style of architecture is still evident, but not as well-maintained and not in as great numbers – you have to wander the streets a bit to find the charm.

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The French influence on food is strongly felt – patisseries are authentic, and the butter croissants make a great change from white bread toast in the morning.

The promenade along the Mekong is a huge draw for tourists and locals alike. People start to gather around 4:30 or 5:00, to walk along the river, check out the night market or take in some exercise. We watched a zumba class, but the music was boring, and so were the moves. The aerobics class was quite spirited – I was (almost) tempted to join in.

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We ran into this curiosity – the travelling manicure ladies. At least three or four women called out to me,” Manicure, madam?”  I might have taken them up on the offer if it hadn’t felt so strange to perch on a tiny plastic stool out in public, and have my nails done under questionable hygienic circumstances.

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We actually enjoyed our time in Vientiane very much – it felt more Laotian and less touristy.  We were tripping over temples, and wandered through a few of them. This sign caught our attention, and I was curious as to how many people had smoked on the grounds of a sacred place.

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There are definite signs of affluence here – we saw a mint-condition vintage white Jaguar parked outside a hotel, and a Rolls-Royce tucked on the grounds of an exclusive art gallery. There are bangin’ big Toyota trucks, and Lexus SUVs, and many, many Range Rovers. Cranes dominate parts of the city – foreign investment has hit.

The riches are not available to everyone. This is the first place in Laos where we encountered begging. These women and children passed us and asked for money, and then one of the women squatted down on the city street, hoisted her skirt and peed; a thick stream of urine running down the sidewalk. It was shocking to see the utter absence of basic decorum; her rules (and life) so different from mine.

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A highlight was a visit to the COPE Visitor Centre – part of the rehabilitation centre for people who have lost limbs with UXOs (unexploded ordinances). Laos was the most heavily bombed country in the world: between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped over 270 million bombs and 80 million of them failed to explode. Forty-four years later, at least one person every day is killed or injured by unexploded ordinances – many of them children. There is a market for scrap metal, and dealers will send out kids to retrieve metal for a small profit to them – and the risk is all theirs. The COPE centre is excellent – very well laid-out, with many displays and short videos. All donations go to prosthetics and ongoing treatment.

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This sculpture was made of 500 kg. of UXO, including cluster bombs, “in memory of those who have been injured, killed or lost loves ones from UXO.” – Anousone Vong Aphay – local artist – 2008.

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Among the many excellent displays is the list of countries who have signed the CCM (Convention on Cluster Munitions) International Treaty. Among countries notably absent from the list is the United States.

Moving on to the slightly absurd – we visited the Buddha Park, a monument to concrete craziness, about an hour out of town. It is far from being a sacred site – more of an Asian theme park – with themes of lust, sex, domination and excess – all enjoyed with flute music wafting over the bamboo fence.

The Big Giant Pumpkin greeted us first –  we had to squat down and squeeze through the gaping mouth to climb inside, walk around three levels and finally reach the top. Safety was at no time a consideration in the building of this monstrosity, but…it made a grand spot for endless selfies.

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Lots of fun wandering around the park for about an hour.

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And then…our reality took a bit of a shift. We wanted to head south from Vientiane to Pakse,  enroute to the 4000 islands. The only affordable travel option was a sleeper bus leaving Vientiane at 8:00 pm, arriving in Pakse at 7:00 am. The bus consists of two levels of bunks, and if you are not intimately associated with your sleeping partner before the ride, you will be after, as the bunks are cozy. We got a lower bunk, two pillows and two blankets. I tried not to think about bed bugs, head lice and long-living bacteria. Armed with our sandwiches and water, we settled in, and surprisingly, we slept quite well.

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The next morning, we transferred to a regular bus for our three-hour ride to the 4000 islands, and that is when tragedy struck.  Our bus driver had been driving carefully and we were about 10 km. away from our final destination. Suddenly the driver hit the horn, hit the brakes and swerved, but could not avoid the motorcycle that pulled out in front of him.

Our bus slid sideways down the hillside, but came to a stop at quite an angle without tipping over. One of the passengers broke the back window and climbed out, followed by two or three others. The front door was jammed so it was a bit intense, but they managed to pry it open. Slowly we made our way out.  Our first reaction was relief  at being off the bus safely, but then we began to realize how serious the accident was.

A man carried the body of a small child, and three men carried the lifeless and bleeding body of a woman and put both of them in the back of a truck. Apparently the motorcycle came up from a side road and just drove across the highway without looking.The driver was pinned under the front of the bus – one of his feet was severed. A couple of passengers were trying to administer CPR, but it was pointless. Someone brought a blanket and put it over his head.

There was a house with several people standing outside, and we felt they must have been related. One of the women was shrieking with the most raw grief and anguish – I will never forget that sound.

We were all in shock  as we began to understand the severity of the accident. It will take a  long time to process.  I will remember the cracked windshield, the pools of blood, the little hat on the road. There is no sense to be made of this – no lesson learned.

 

The Laos work-around

We left Luang Prabang with very good memories, but for one small detail: on our last day  Stephen exchanged $200US to Laos Kip (currently trading at about 5700 k to $1 CAD). The lady counted out 1 million, 600,000 kip, Stephen made a joke about being a millionaire, she laughed, and that was the end of it. About 8:30 that night, Stephen re-counted the  money and realized he had been short-changed about $20 US. He kicked himself for not counting it at the counter, but it seemed right at the time and…lesson learned. Except he couldn’t let it go. So he headed back up to the main street and another lady was just closing up. Stephen explained there had been a mistake, and after a bit of conversation, she believed him and handed over the missing cash! Amazingly, this very thing happened to another person who was staying at our hotel, and he also got his money back. It’s a nice little scam – when confronted, they simply hand back the money – it must be a profitable side business. Aside from being astounded that we got our money back, we have no hard feelings. It falls to us to be aware.

The next day, we headed out on our six-hour mountain bus trip from Luang Prabang south
to Vang Vieng. Almost immediately, the scenery grabbed us.

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The switchbacks were a little hairy, but our driver was (mainly) safe, and the road was (mainly) in good condition, so we just enjoyed the view.

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Laos is struggling to pull itself out of a state of truly dire poverty, and we saw some desperately poor houses in some of the mountain villages.  I was struck by the message on this house, on so many levels.

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In other villages, we would see a little more prosperity and comfort.

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A ball game of some sort was in full swing as we drove by.

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And then this happened. We came around a corner to find a tanker stuck in the middle of the road; its axle broken and the brakes gone. The driver had positioned rocks behind the wheels and could not be persuaded to let the truck roll back enough to allow other vehicles to get by (which may have been a spectacularly bad idea anyway). Much consultation ensued – our bus driver and the tanker driver walked back and forth and measured out the distance. Several other men joined in the discussion, and the decision was made: Our guy would try and squeeze through. He inched along, inched along and then stopped.

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The guardrail would have to be removed, which we’re quite sure is not legal. At first one piece came off, then two, then one of the posts, and again, each time our driver attempted to come forward, he was encouraged by a half dozen swampers, waving this way and that, yelling out encouragement.

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This entire endeavour took about two hours, but we all got to know each other a bit better, shared our banana chips, and generally took it in good humour. When all else fails, there are sun salutations.

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Stephen captured it on film – this will give you a better idea of how little wiggle room our driver had to get through. The big trucks in line behind us may still be stuck up there.

We were a pretty giddy lot by the time we got going, and when we arrived in Vang Vieng, it was almost dark. A short story about the hotel we booked – the Green View Resort. We saw it online, it was a tiny bit more than we wanted to pay, but situated on a lake, with swimming and kayaking and we were sold. After we had booked our non-refundable room, we realized too late that it was not even in Vang Vieng – it was 20 km. south. We would have to pay a $30 tuk-tuk fare to get there, and once there, we would be trapped. We were annoyed with ourselves, but decided to make the best of it.  A couple of days of R&R would be perfect.
Then…the fun began.  At the bus station, we told the tuk-tuk driver our hotel’s name and that it was far out of town, but that seemed okay to him, so we hopped in. After an hour of dropping off all the other passengers, our driver suddenly realized he did  not have the foggiest idea where we were going. He returned to the bus depot to settle the day and consult with his fellow drivers. He then went looking for a car (instead of driving all that distance in a tuk-tuk). The car was nowhere to be found, and after watching him on his cellphone, we pleaded to just get out there in the tuk-tuk.   He phoned our hotel owner for directions and set off, stopping at one point at a creek to pour water over his overheating radiator. He then almost ran out of gas. Stephen insisted that we stop to buy beer before we got to the hotel. Once there, he called our hotel again, and within a few minutes we had left the highway and bumped along a narrow rocky road in the pitch black for another ten minutes. We could see steep embankments on either side.

Finally, we arrived -we saw our hotel owner coming down the hill with a flashlight – I could have wept. He took us to our beautiful bungalow, we had showers and came back up to join a few loquacious French tourists for a delicious dinner. All was right again.

The view from our dining room. In the rainy season, all those islands are underwater.
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The view from just around the corner from our hotel.

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We spent yesterday in total relaxation mode. First we walked back up the road to the small village – about 30 minutes – to pick up some beer and snacks. We were a big hit with these little girls, who called out “hello”, then burst out giggling, then “what is your name?”, then more giggles. The driver of this contraption, Natalie, could not have been more than 10 or 11.

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We waved at a woman fishing from the banks on the way back. In the rainy season, the water rises almost to the top of the banks.

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We took out a two-man heavy plastic kayak for a spin around the islands. We were trying to find Monkey Island, although we were advised by the owner not to get out of the kayak, as the monkeys are very aggressive, and we didn’t want to get bitten. Duly noted – but we didn’t see any sign of monkeys on any of the islands we paddled past. We met up with lots of fishing boats and several fishing nets.

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We turned the corner and saw our very first water buffalo – a small herd of them were grazing on one of the islands. As we approached, they started to come down the hill toward the water’s edge, so we moved in as close as possible. This big male was giving us the hard stare, and started to paw the ground a little, so we conceded his territory and moved on.

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Back on dry land!

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Time to head back to our cabin and enjoy the view from our balcony, with a nice cold Beerlao – Laos’ fabulous homebrew, apparently courtesy of a German brewmaster.

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