Vern: When Samly's 'local taxi' (a truck loaded with a dozen villagers and us) pulled in to Pakse bus station we were relieved that the rough part of the journey was over.
Or so we thought. A large 'sawngathew' headed where we were was rearing to go and we were ushered on. Our chosen method of transport was a bright blue truck with three wooden benches in the back, perpendicular to the cab. The two on the sides had backrests (luckily we both got a spot on these) but the middle bench didn't. Twenty-seven people and most of their luggage (the rest was tied to the roof) were crammed back there, so the next four hours were spent intimately with 54 legs, three crates of melons, eight bags of limes, a tower of plastic cups and a duck.
There were a handful of foreigners on the sawngathew, but a 10-year old blue-eyed German girl was getting all the attention. Old ladies reached over the mess of people to touch her hair, and whenever the truck pulled over to load or unload passengers, villagers carried children up to the side of the vehicle and dirty little hands came reaching through the slats and grasped at her locks. All this fuss, despite guidebooks and tourism board posters advising that it is incredibly demeaning to touch a stranger's head in Asia! But then maybe I'm just getting a bit jealous, because no one wanted to touch my untended yellow mop.
Fortunately however, while riding public transport required twisting our bodies into some of stress positions used for interrogation at Guantanamo Bay, our destination pretty much stipulated stretching out into banana-shaped hammocks. As the Mekong river reaches the south of Laos it widens like the stem of an inverted wineglass meeting the bowl. The wide part is dotted with palm-tree studded islands and muddy islets, and this scattered shrapnel of land is called The 4000 Islands, or Si Phan Don. We'd decided to spend a quiet few days on the sleepiest of the inhabited islands, Don Khon.
We crossed to the island on a longboat and looked at a couple of guesthouses before settling on one resting on stilts poking out of the river. The deck overlooked the bridge to neighbouring Don Det. Our guidebook suggested examining the stilts for structural integrity, because one or two of these places washed away recently, but I'm no engineer and really, who has the time, with all these empty hammocks to be filled and all these full beers to be emptied?!
The sun bid the island adieu with spectacular flare that evening: silhouetting cyclists crossing over the old bridge's arches, against a raspberry sky. We sipped our beverages in quiet awe. After dark, under fairylights wrapped around the rafters we spooned up fried rice while I eavesdropped on a Korean girl learning of the death of Kim Jong Il and talking hopefully about the change which this may bring to the region.
After breakfast the next day, we had some planning to do and sought out boat and bus combo tickets to get us to Cambodia in a day's time. At a guesthouse we found an agent with the tickets we needed and told her we'd return shortly with the necessary funds. Unfortunately, when we returned 20 minutes later, the lady we'd spoken to wasn't around and her stand-in, another woman - possibly the cleaner, didn't speak any English. (This was not the first time something like this had happened in Laos, so often commerce seemed to take second place to running an errand or taking a nap - we walked in and out of 15-odd shops/restaurants/guesthouses or travel agencies because the doors were open but the proprietor was nowhere to be found). The non-English speaker looked at us and shrugged. She certainly wasn't told to expect us. Andrea found the trip we needed printed on a poster hanging on the wall and tapped hopefully on the word 'ticket'. It filled us with a glimmer of hope when she walked over to the poster, but despair returned as she lifted it off its hook and rolled it up while she shook her head. Apparently folding up the visual aid and holding it behind her back would make this problem go away. We left perplexed, frustrated and defeated! (Luckily, later on we came across the English speaker in the street and she was able to oblige. There seemed little point in telling her what a fabulous job her stand-in was doing in dismantling her little tourism business).
From a roadside stall we rented two bicycles, painted hot pink and grape purple, and set off on a self propelled tour of Don Khon. We were only a minute in, when a man emerged like a troll, from beneath a shadowy bridge-arch which crossed over the dirt road, and demanded a tax to permit us onto the south of the island. Indignant, defiant (and as dramatically as one can possibly dismount, turn a bicycle to face the opposite direction and re-mount), we declared, "Screw the south then, they won't get any of our tourist money!"
Instead we bisected the island on a tremendously rocky road and followed farm trails through a herd of buffalo, in and out of a thicket and up to a swing-bridge over throttling rapids. A sign posted to a mast at the beginning of the bridge outlines, in English, the regulations for crossing over to the cascades on the other side. The third of which reads, "No drug party, sex, nudity or alcohol at waterfall," and is signed, "By order of village chief and proprietor." What exactly went down to require the formulation and posting of this rule, I wondered? Perhaps I'm being naive, but how often could a short walk to take a photo of a small waterfall possibly unfold into a raucous orgy? Often enough for a sign apparently.
We parked the bikes, walked the short trail, photographed the waterfall, skipped the drug party and looped back to the rapids where we collapsed into canvas chairs at a little restaurant where we slurped up fruit shakes. Unfortunately, when we readied to leave Andrea realised that she had picked up a puncture and her back tyre was completely flat so she had to wheel her bike back. The road back took us past rice paddies, curious villagers and a small herd of buffalo cooling themselves in the river. Luckily (but typically) the bike shop was abandoned when we got back, so Andrea quietly kicked down the stand, parked her bike and we snuck off.
As we strolled back, we came upon a group of twenty sweating men performing a strenuous feat. They noticed me, notice them. "Hey falang, come!" one hollared. And because community spirit (or perhaps peer pressure) is not a slave to language, I joined the group in their task. Our mission: to hoist an enormous wooden longboat, (about 20 metres in length, onto a diminutive wooden cart, about a metre squared) attached to a tractor-like vehicle. I found a spot to stand and a piece of splintering hull to grip and I heaved when they heaved. Well most of the time I heaved when they heaved. Sometimes I found myself heaving alone while they were resting and other times I got off to a late start on the heave. There was no obvious, "one... two... three... LIFT!" equivalent before each burst of force, so I was operating without prompts and left to guess the group rhythm. I'd like to think my sporadic bursts of energy helped though because eventually the boat was face down and balanced on the flimsy cart. I was certain that the wheels would imminently buckle and cartoonishly spring off, but, at least while I stood there panting, the cart held firm. "Nice one," Andrea said to me, "I think you've earned yourself a Beerlao." Unexpectedly, a local man overheard her and whipped a bottle of beer and a small glass out of a cardboard box and awarded me my cut of the loot. "Beerlao, full" he said, and he smiled and handed over the frothy glass. It was the first hard-earned drink I'd enjoyed in a long time and the cold bitter nectar went down a treat.
After a couple of cold showers we spent the afternoon lazily swinging from hammocks, sleeping and reading. The teenage daughter of the guesthouse owner, and her friend, were delivered home from school across the water by a slightly older boy in a longboat. I mused that this must be the local equivalent of the pretty high school girls who get picked up by their older boyfriends who have motorcycles or cars, when everyone else has to walk home or wait for their parents. Here, the older boyfriends just have boats.
Our last evening in Laos was uneventful. We changed the last of our kip into dollars, ate at the guesthouse restaurant, and went to bed early in preparation for the long travel day coming up and the crossing into Cambodia.