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2.19.2003

Wow, Laos (version 2.0)

We spent our last several days in Laos on a little island in the Mekong called Don Det. Don Det is part of the See Pan Don, or 4,000 islands, near the Laos-Cambodia border. It was heaven, but you had to go through hell to get there.

We left Muang Ngoi with the intention of making it down to Don Det. The journey started out nicely enough. Nina, Harper and I took a boat down the Nam Ou and Mekong to Luang Phrabang. We essentially had the boat to ourselves, the few other passengers aboard--all Laos--all disembarked early in the trip. It was the most luxurious transport we had in our entire time in Laos. Just the three of us in this boat heading downriver. Along the way, just outside of Luang Phrabang, we stopped off at the Pak Ou Buddha caves. In Luang, we stayed in a hotel overlooking the Mekong. We sat on our veranda at night and drank BeerLao with Nina. We watched the sun set over the Mekong, visited Watts, and talked to monks. We bought textiles and handicrafts from Hmong women in the market.

Next we went down to Vang Viang. This was a rather uneventful trip, our last such trip in Laos. Vang Viang was just a place I couldn't wait to leave. A party town for travelers. I might have enjoyed it at 20 or 22. But at 30, I couldn't see the point of going to an exotic locale if you're just going to hang out with other Westerners in bars.

From Vang Viang, we took a Songtheau down to Vientienne. A songthaeu is a converted pickup truck with two rows of benches in the back and a roof overhead. As we were waiting for our ride to depart, part of one of my crowns came off, stuck to my chewing gum. Toothy-gum. Great. We breezed through Vientienne, only spending one night there before jumping on a bus to Pakse early the next morning.

We got to the bus station early, to make sure that we got a seat. This turned out to be one of the wisest things we've done in the last several weeks. We got our tickets, and were waiting around for the bus to arrive. All of the sudden, Harper realizes that a bus we've been disinterestedly watching fill up is the Pakse bus! We scrambled aboard. I threw the bags on top of the bus while Harper and Nina grabbed some seats.

Nina grabbed a window seat, only to have an elderly Lao woman, who appeared to be somewhere between 85 and antediluvian. She wanted Nina's window seat. Nina turns around and asks me what to do. I demure. Nina then whips back around, looks at me and says, "Dude! She wants to spit shit out the window!" This pretty much settles the decision. The old woman was to be our amusement for the next 16-17 hours, spitting betel nut, sneaking smokes out the window, eating some sort of leaves and paste, and generally doing whatever the hell she wanted. Old people can smoke opium in Laos if they want to, so I guess Marlboros on the bus are A-OK.

Something we've learned is that in Laos there's no such thing as a full bus. When all the seats have been taken, they fill the aisles with stools, two abreast. Once al the stools are full, it's time to stand. After that, they start stacking people in horizontally. Each hour on the bus saw more and more people pile on. "Excuse me, ma'am, you're riding in my lap. Thanks. No. I wasn't using it for anything other than, you know, um, sitting and, um, being my lap." You can't move, you can hardly breathe, it's hell on wheels.

We finally rolled into Pakse sometime after midnight, and stumbled off of the bus into the night. By this point I could hardly even stand up. Every time I raised my head above the position it had been fixed in for the last 17 hours, I would get an intense feeling of vertigo. We caught a tuk-tuk into town for a few hours of sleep, and then set off again early in the morning for Don Det.

We caught a songthaeu, which was inexplicably only about 90 percent full when we left. Although a few others piled on along the way, it never got totally Laos'd out. But then, about halfway along, we stopped in a small village, and the guy who sod tickets on the truck disappeared for a few minutes. He came back with another Laos man, the two of them carrying a screaming, squealing, hog, which they proceeded to, er, hog tie to the back of the truck. It was pretty brutal, and although it didn't affect me overly much, Harper was pretty much devastated. She spent the rest of the trip taking solace in the soothing sounds of Eminem's rage.

But after 17 hours on a dangerously overcrowded bus, two with a distraught pig, and ten minutes in an open boat on the Mekong, we arrived on Don Det. We've stayed in a lot of guesthouses now, but Mr. Deng's Sabai Dii on Don Det is by far my favorite. Deng was the sweetest, nicest guy we've stayed with yet. Although the bungalows themselves were nothing to write home about, he was by far the most hospitable, caring wonderful host we've come across. He completely reinforced the way I'd been feeling about Laos, and about the Laos people. His wife, Seng, was one of the best cooks we've met in Asia. He also had two incredibly adorable kids one of whom, Dipoy, would wake up every morning, walk out to the river, and do a little song and dance looking out over the Mekong.

One of Don Det's major attractions is the pod of Irrawaddy dolphins that live just downstream from the island. We took a boat out hoping to catch a glimpse of them. They're highly endangered, with only about ten individuals remaining in this stretch of the river. We got lucky, and saw about 5-8 of them, swimming there, just off the coast of Cambodia. It was a remarkable sight.

Just upriver from the dolphins, there was a major set of falls, too big for the French to navigate when they colonized this area. In order to negotiate the falls, they built a railroad between Don Det, and a neighboring island Don Khon. It was Laos' only rail system, and although the tracks have been ripped up, the bridge still survives today, which allows you to walk to the (larger and more populated island) Don Khon. I don't know what the French were doing on Don Khon, but they left a few graves behind. It was eerie, seeing these growth-covered graves scattered around the island. Forgotten. The families of the dead having long since passed away themselves. One such grave marked an entire family that all dies on the same day. No cause of death was listed.

It was a remarkable place, and a wonderful time. And I wish we could have stayed much longer than we did. In fact, I wish we could have stayed in Laos much longer than we did. All in all it was the most relaxing, idyllic destination we've been to on this trip. About the only downside is the utter lack of medical care there. But more on that later.

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