I left Vang Vieng with a hangover so it was just as well that it was only a short bus ride of four hours or so to reach the capital of Laos Vientiane. One of the things that amazes me about Laos is just how many people are backpacking here. So much so that for a while it looked like we would be sleeping on the streets of the capital. Guest house after guest house had signs up saying FULL as Bron, James and I trundled along with all our stuff. Finally we ended up sauntering into the rather smart lobby of the Intercity hotel on the river front on the off chance they had a vacancy that wasn’t too overpriced. It was the only room we could find. So for US$20 each (really expensive by Laos standards) we ended up in the deluxe room on the top floor with all the trimmings and a balcony overlooking the sunset on the far side of the river. This kind of inconvenience I can occasionally handle.
Vientiane is a fairly relaxed Asian capital city and feels more like a large town. Most of the river is a dried sandbank at this time of year providing a huge area for evening strolls and kids playing football. Tiny food stalls and market stalls line the pavement and give rise to the unmistakable smell of an Asian city, the fragrance of noodles, chicken and chilli sauce in the evenings. We decided not to visit the usual temples in the city and instead hopped on a tuktuk out of town and went to visit Buddha Park, 25km away. Buddha park is a kind of theme park full of the most unusual and bizarre Hindu and Buddhist sculptures I’ve seen in Asia so far. It is the brainchild of a priest-shaman called Luang Pu built in 1958 and runs amok around the traditional religious style of Hindu gods and symbolism. A giant reclining Buddha lies across one side of the park in a vaguely familiar pose, around him are multiarmed serpent gods, giant crocodiles, Grecian styled women carrying flowers, skulls, winged men, horse-bound warriors and a giant pumpkin you can climb up inside. What more could you want from an afternoon in the park? Our side kick, Bron, left us to head back to Thailand and James and myself caught a rather swanky sleeper bus complete with duvets and bad Laos karoke TV down south overnight to Pakse, breakfast, one minibus and one rickety wooden boat ride later we arrived on the island of Don Det in Si Phan Don, otherwise known as the four thousand islands.
At the very southern point of Laos by the Cambodian border the Mekong river fans out creating a series of tiny to large islands, sandbanks and waterfalls. Most of the islands are deserted and the others populated by farmers and fishermen, chicken and buffalos. The farmers on Don Det have cheerfully jumped on the backpacker buck and just about all of them have built a few simple wooden bungalows on the water’s edge, and set up tiny restaurants and even two internet cafes to keep us travelling bums happy. It took a while to find somewhere to stay but our walking was rewarded by finding a place on the emptier west side of the island with the perfect viewpoint for sunset.
Life on Don Det is very, very laid back. In the afternoon we hired a couple of very girly looking bikes and cycled down the length of the island passing through dry fields, grazing herds of uninterested buffalo and theoccasional local game of pétanque. At the end of the island we pushed our bikes over the rocky obstacle course that serves as a bridge with the neighbouring island of Don Khon and visited a tumbling white water fall disappearing into a narrow gorge and then on to the tip of Si Phan Don where a sandy area of beach led down to the water. By now I was desperate for a swim and dived into the cool green water, I let some American guys go first, just to be sure it was safe!
The evening is when this area really becomes its most captivating. On the terrace of our bungalow the heavy clouds were reflected in the still waters as the sun gradually disappeared behind them. A few fishermen started up their narrow boats and began disappearing between the floating clumps of bushes and the cicadas started up a deafening chorus in the trees.