Hello again! Apologies for the ridiculous delay in blogging - some things never change i'm afraid!
Anyway so once upon a time, roughly a month ago, we left the tubing capital and headed down south for some much needed rest. The journey south was fairly easy except that we had been promised a plush sleeper bus and actually ended up travelling with the locals and arriving at an ungodly hour in the sleepy town of Savannakhet. Wonderful travel were not so wonderful after all! The next morning we set out to explore the town, mindful that it was not a touristy area but with our trusty guidebook to hand. After about ten minutes, and that's being generous, we were lost and realised that this place was a true reflection of real Laos. We hailed a tuk-tuk and pointing to our map, we asked 'where are we' and the driver replied 'hmmm Savannakhet', nodding and grinning inanely, repeating the words over and over. It wasn't until later in our trip that we learned that most of the people here don't understand the concept of a map, which is always comforting when you're in the middle of nowhere acting like a dumb tourist. So eventually we found the plaza, with some tourist help, and which transpired to be nothing more than a rectangle of dusty concrete. Ghost town is putting it lightly! We spent the day wandering the town and exploring the few sights on offer. First to a beautiful wat which is one of the oldest temples in Laos still functioning. Through the deserted streets we pressed on, until we met with a beast of a dog which half chased us down the road, savagely barking and foaming at the mouth (or so i like to think). Steve had different ideas but the dog definitely had a problem with foreigners, so he was in stitches as i half walked, half skipped down the road to safety. Down to St Teresia's Catholic Church, a simple structure which housed a rather interesting teakwood confessional, which was basically a piece of wood between two chairs! This was lacking privacy to say the least and we imagined the local priest cheekily catching a glimpse of the sinning culprits and secretly casting them asunder. Later we enjoyed a fish supper overlooking the sunset (all very romantic) on the Mekong which for us seemed a real treat but dirt cheap owing to the lack of tourism. On our way back, we spotted some children running from a barking dog, probably the same one from earlier, and bearing in mind the children here are pretty tough and fearless, i concluded it was obviously a lunatic as i'd suspected. All in all, Savannakhet was a real eye-opener, a charming town of crumbling european-influenced buildings, few tourists, and one extremely racist dog...
The next day we took a public bus down to Pakse which is essentially a travelling hub, slow-paced and quiet like Savannakhet but lacking any of the charm so we immediately booked our tickets to the notorious 4000 islands which i'd heard so much about.
The natural beauty of the 4000 islands is impossible to ignore. We arrived at the port of Nakasang, which actually is just a bank lined with long-tailed boats. We noticed one precariously parked tuk-tuk half submerged in the Mekong, which we guess must have been whiskey induced or else just a serious lack of judgement! As we crossed from the mainland, the Mekong expanded as we weaved through the labyrinth of dotted islands, dense with lush greenery and mostly uninhabited, until Don Det came into view. So it wasn't quite a beach but it was a relief to feel the sand beneath our feet at last. We found a room and took a short walk around the main circuit of the island and were soon surprised to discover how small and undeveloped the travelling area actually was. I guess that's fairly naive given the island's location but Steve's enquiry about an ATM was just plain ridiculous! Later that afternoon, Steve called beer o'clock (he's so good at that) and we mingled with some of our neighbours. Beer and whiskey ensued from there but can you blame us when a bottle of whiskey costs less than a pound!
The island is comparably undeveloped and electricity runs for a meagre four hours per day. In the evenings, fellow travellers congregate in the Reggae bar until lights out at 11pm and then it's down to the beach bonfire to continue the party. Although our balcony was all we needed to kick-start the mayhem. Set away from the riverfront, our blue wooden hut joined several others by one large balcony, hammocks to boot, and our room complete with a lonely cockroach who lived under our bin, a jumping spider in our mosquito net, and a frog in our bathroom bucket - very cosy indeed but it had character and an extremely social network.
We spent the first full day cycling over to Don Khon. We hadn't really known what to expect but it turned out to be a trek and a half! We realised the huge expanse of the island as we pedalled in the searing heat past desolate rice paddies, grazing water buffalo, the air thick with anticipation and an amass of butterflies. We eventually reached the French Bridge, glimpsing stunning views of the Mekong, and crossed over to the neighbouring island. Immediately we found a steam locomotive, an old remnant of the railway line which formerly ran through the island. We followed the road north where we knew a beach and village were located, our bikes vibrating as we bumped along the rocky path which was challenging to say the least. After some time we contemplated that perhaps we'd taken a wrong turn, instinct is a wonderful thing (hindsight not so much) and as we approach a blockade of trees across the path ahead, our instincts were confirmed. We found a sandy path from there and biked down through the island, blissfully speeding along until we reached the beach which was gorgeous. From there we headed back towards the village, biking through what felt like the middle of nowhere until my bike felt heacy and emitted strange noises. A puncture would you believe, perhaps you would if the jagged rocks were to blame but ironically it was a discarded bike spring. Up the creek without a paddle! We walked the bikes a hefty distance until we reached civilisation where Steve tackled he bust tyre, breaking the front guard in the process, but generally exuding a masculine confidence i have scarcely seen! My basket was soon full with broken odds and ends but it held up well enough. That night, the balcony mayhem resumed...
We spent the next two days exploring some more of Don Det itself, cycling to a nearby 'beach' which was little more than a watering hole and a stretch of sand littered with buffalo crap. And over to the neighbouring island again, we found the waterfall which was far from disappointing and much more dramatic than we had expected. Exploring the 4000 islands, well two of them, told a different story to our imaginings of tourist overload, with a strong sense of tranquility owing to the lack of motorised transport and isolated location. We left there with heavy hearts, balanced on a platform nailed across two boats, turbo engines roaring and the boatmen deftly scooping water from the questionable vessels without a care in the world...