Our first impression of Laos: as our boat pulled up onto the small landing beach at the tip of Don Det, one of Si Phan Don (translation: four thousand islands), jostling for position to sell us food, transport and accommodation was... absolutely no-one! Incredible! For the first time since we were in central China, so including Yangshuo in southern China, seven weeks of Vietnam and three weeks of Cambodia, there wasn't a single person waiting to hassle us into buying anything. And first impressions didn't mislead, as Laos is indeed far more laid back than even Cambodia, which itself had obliterated Vietnam in the chill-out challenge (mind you, most places probably would - Vietnam is fairly highly strung!). Whether it's the Karma sought after by a largely Buddhist nation, general contentment from simplistic lifestyles, or an inherited culture of stress evasion, I don't know, but it's certainly been the case almost everywhere we've since stopped in Laos too. And it's been hugely refreshing to be here and part of it.
Right, a bit of an immediate tangent, I can't go into any further detail about Don Det without first paying respect to the majestic and all-conquering Beerlao! Not only does it taste divine and cost less than half of the same sized beer in hardly extortionate Cambodia, but greater exposure to this colossus over a longer period of time has revealed its quiet rule over the country of Laos. No other beer competes. One doesn't get offered a beer, one is offered a Beerlao. Many other drinks, it turns out, also carry the Beerlao logo, the now familiar circled outline of a wild cat's head and torso in profile, so even when you're drinking bottled water first thing in the morning, Beerlao is probably to thank. That logo appears again on the sign for virtually every guesthouse, restaurant and bar in the country, in the also now familiar yellow and green colours. Posters and banners are everywhere, even on abandoned buildings. And I believe Beerlao was the sponsor of a recent South-East Asian football competition, so is clearly starting to expand beyond its borders too. Expect Beerlao in a bar near you soon, I predict! In fact, I've come to believe that Laos is actually named after Beerlao, and not the other way around, although I haven't yet managed to officially confirm this. OK, finished, back to Don Det.
Four thousand islands, absolutely stunning, and a fantastic place to relax for a couple of days! We can't have been on the bus for much more than half an hour after crossing the border before arriving at our boat transfer point, and we were on Don Det less than a further half hour after that. Right at the southern tip of Laos, and I believe where the Mekong is at its widest in the country, at 14km in the wet season, the islands are an array of small, sandy protrusions from the Mekong, the smaller ones measurable in centimetres, the larger ones lined with coconut palms, small bamboo huts on stilts and dusty pathways. Narrow waterways run in between, in places turning into rapids and waterfalls as the river falls towards Cambodia. There's not a great deal to do other than walk or cycle around, absorbing the idyllic, peaceful surroundings, but I guess that's the point of going there! We explored on our first day and lazed around on our second (partly induced by Beerlao consumption on the evening of the first!), but both days were equally relaxing. Some travellers stop in Don Det for the novelty of making fruit shakes, coffees, pizzas or whatever "happy", with the help of some herbal additions, but given the nature of the place, that seems pretty pointless, to be honest. So, in summary, no tales of adventure on this occasion, as we didn't even bother trying!
In fact, the greatest achievement over the three nights was undoubtedly by Matt and myself, jointly, in creating the most entertaining desert island (kind of appropriate) dinner tables you could imagine for both sporting celebrities and film characters (and yes, this was after a few of those aforementioned Beerlaos). Simple rules, you're at your own table, there are five other places. Now, honestly, do you think you can better either of these? I'm confident the answer is no. Sporting celebrities, clockwise from my left, with me at the centre on one side, three facing three, Ian Holloway, Muhammad Ali (at his peak, of course, not in semi-vegetative state; is it none-PC of me to say that? Apologies if so, but it's clearly an important distinction), Jeff Stelling, naturally chairing table conversations in centre-stage, John McEnroe, and finally Sid Wadell to my right. Film characters, again from my left, Jay (of Jay and Silent Bob, narrowly beating both Silent Bob and Ali G), Lara Croft, Ron Burgundy, Yoda (a close call between him and Gandalf; wisdom factor determined equal, but won by virtue of saying things backwards) and Home Simpson (would have been Peter Griffin if Family Guy had yet been made into a film). Outstanding, if I may say so myself.
Finally, of note, my tennis ball got its first proper airing, after nestling under my waterproof in the side pocket of my rucksack for a solid five and a half months! This was of course thanks to the presence of Matt. Paula, in fairness, had previously offered, but clearly out of sympathy and generosity and not desire, so it had stayed put. Mekong catch, a new version, feet not touching the bottom, and an excellent game it was too!
Oh, and one more quick observation. Much to Paula's delight, she has finally found canine friends, I think for the first time since Europe, of perhaps even more specifically, England! She has had to get used to dogs either scrounging for food or wanting nothing more than to guard their owners' properties and strike fear into our hearts, but, finally, Laotian dogs are just happy to get a bit of love and attention. Friendly people, friendly dogs too!