Friday, May 1, 2009

One last stop before leaving Laos

Sunset on Don Det. Photo by Simon Whistler.

Si Pan Don, or 4,000 Islands, in southern Laos is one of the most beautiful, relaxing places I've ever been. I planned on staying three or four days but ended up leaving – the day my visa was set to expire – two and a half weeks later: in love with the islands, heartbroken to leave, but glad I had experienced – if only for a moment – paradise.

Of the 4,000 islands there are only three that welcome tourists: Don Khong, Don Khon and Don Det. Don Kong, the biggest island by far, is for not-so-adventurous adventurers who prefer their electricity on demand and their distance from the mainland minuscule. Don Khon is the getaway for those who want a little luxury with their seclusion; its pricey air-conditioned digs tend to keep the seedier backpacker elements at bay.

Then there is Don Det.

Connected to Don Khon by a narrow, colonial-era railroad bridge, Don Det is the backpacker haven of Si Pan Don – and with good reason. It's one of the cheapest places to stay and eat in Laos and the island's vibe is all about perfecting the art of doing nothing. But the island is also on the verge of being spoiled by tourism, motorbikes and television, and I soon came to the conclusion that I had arrived on Don Det just in time and entirely too late.


Si Pan Don's water is a ruddy, glistening blue and is probably the cleanest water anywhere along the Mekong: I swam in it, bathed in it and did my laundry in it. If it's possible to have a relationship with a body of water, then this is where I fell in love with the Mekong. Bathing was an everyday ritual for everyone, but for the children it was more like a giant pool party. From my bungalow porch I would watch kids pull up in boats, call to their friends, strip naked and jump in. Foreigners on tubes drifted lazily in the river's eddies, soaking in sun and slowly paddling their way to tiny islands in the middle of the river. Small boats threaded the calm blue water, their fisherman casting nets from skinny prows.

Everyday the sun made its inexorable trip from one side of the island to the other, and at midday there was nothing to do but sit in the shade and wait it out. Local boys played petanque in the dirt, the dusty pattern-etched balls shining silver in the afternoon light.

Conversation among the locals was an all day affair – like any good gossip – and banter bounced between yards across the island's main dirt path, a rising and falling chatter I couldn't understand but which always had the air of nothing in particular. Smiling women leaned on fence posts, their teeth stained red with the blood of the betel nut, the dirt at their feet spotted with spittle.

Clusters of palm trees dotted the landscape, while dense vegetation ringed the rest of the island. In the middle of it all, a solitary wat was surrounded by acres of rice fields that were barren during my visit but in the rainy season would fill with tiny green shoots. Unlike most of Laos, which benefits from basic irrigation, Don Det is solely dependent on the rain to grow its rice, so there is only one growing season, from which the harvest is not even enough to last the year (an average family on Don Det consumes hundreds of kilos of rice each month).

The island teemed with life: black and red ants, earwigs, butterflies, hairy wasp-like bugs, jumping spiders, white spiders, water striders, frogs, chickens, ducks, roosters, pigs – huge pigs that looked unable to pick themselves up out of the mud they wallowed in – cows, small birds, monkeys, myna birds, cockatoos, dogs and cats. It was like living on a giant farm with nothing fenced in or tied down, except for the smaller pigs confined to ropes tied to palm trunks waiting for the coming slaughter.

In the evening the shadowy hills of Cambodia, visible beyond the lush density of the islands, seeped into the muggy night as the sun made its final dip into the clouds and Laotian haze.


Everyone's stay on Don Det turned from three days to three weeks and the most common declaration was, "I'm leaving the day after tomorrow." In my first week on the island, I changed my departure ticket three times. Eventually the tour bus agent just wrote me a blank ticket and told me to fill in the date when I was ready to leave. I filled it in once and then changed it two more times before I actually left.

Even the locals used the word "tomorrow" loosely – it usually just meant soon. In fact things progressed so slowly on the island that, according to one farang who had lived on Don Det for a couple of years, simple project might take months or years to complete. Piles of wood, concrete and bamboo that I first assumed to be discarded junk were actually works in progress. Most everything was under perpetual construction.

The biggest project on Don Det – connecting the island to the surrounding electrical grid – has been moving at a river snail's pace for several years now. Last year, concrete pylons used to string the electrical wiring started arriving at the main dock, but the crane broke and the locals couldn't upload them off the beach before the rainy season hit; when the water level rose the pylons became buried beneath silt, sand and mud.

While I was on the island, there was a scramble to unearth the pylons and get them off the beach before the rainy season hit again. But the process was slow and the truck that came to haul them away could only handle two at a time. It trundled its way down the middle of the island up and over the low runnels of dirt that broke the rice fields into brown patchwork.

Every business and most houses on the island depended on some kind of gas-powered generator. The generators typically ran from 6 p.m. to midnight; the exception being restaurants that needed to use their generators during the day for the occasional fruit shake order, which required the use of a blender.

According to several locals the electricity will be good for some on the island and bad for others. Many of the already established businesses and guesthouses have enough money for the initial installment and the bills. But many families cannot afford the large upfront fee and the steep monthly rates (electricity is far more expensive in Laos than in the United States). And what will the juice bring? Loud music? Televisions? Lights on all night?

"Don Det is dead," a French traveler named Fred told me. "Electricity is coming."


In my two and a half weeks on the island I also had the pleasure of getting acquainted with a family who ran a restaurant and a set of bungalows called Peace & Love. They often invited me to eat at the family table and we conducted informal English-Laos lessons while sopping up delicious soups and dipping sauces with sticky rice. One morning I had snails for breakfast. The next night I ate fresh mussels from the river stewed in a pungent ginger and green onion broth. One afternoon I was treated to fresh green papaya served with a simple spicy dipping sauce – dried chilis, sugar, garlic and vinegar – that we were told was "spicy number five" on a scale of seven. Spicy number one was for Laotians only.

Papa Kai and Mama Kam headed up the family. Papa Kai was skinny and quiet and had an easy smile. He had short gray hair and was enthusiastic about learning English. One morning I watched him cutting yellowed tobacco leaves with a machete in the shade of the house. Mama Kam was slightly stooped and talkative; she had an animated, nasally voice and became quite silly after a couple of Beerlaos.

They had seven kids in all. The two youngest daughters were going to school in Thailand but the rest of the family lived on the island. The oldest son, Vilay, ran a restaurant and guesthouse down the road. The next oldest, Kampai, was married and had two daughters who lived with his wife in Pakse. Kampai was struggling to start up a tour business but his English was limited and business was slow. Posai was the family's handyman, and he ran Peace & Love's bungalow operation with his wife who was quiet and stern. Sesai was the most Western of all the children. He often wore a blue basketball jersey and attended school in Pakse where he was studying to be a banker. The third daughter, Mai, ran the restaurant with her fiancee, Mikao, who was a competitive jokester and spoke mostly in bursts of English slang.

In general it was easy to mix with the locals on the island. Most of them didn't speak English and so they depended on friendly tourists to bring in other friendly tourists. Who are the farang and what do they want? This is the question the villagers were asking themselves. Businesses tried desperately to pull farang in, and they each followed the other's lead, with one business watching another when, for instance, fans were installed in a restaurant or a new drink was introduced on a menu.

Tourism was, for the most part, still a mystery on Don Det. And while most of the time things happened slowly, when change came it often came overnight.


Unfortunately, four days after my arrival on Don Det, my livelihood was stolen from me. I came home one night and settled into my bungalow's hammock and fell asleep. I awoke in the middle of the night and moved into my bungalow, neglecting to bring my bag with me. When I woke up a few hours later it was gone. My bag turned up later that morning at a restaurant down the path, emptied of all but my passport, a notebook, a couple of video tapes and some pens. My cameras, voice recorder, Blackberry phone and everything else – even my harmonica and the book I was reading – were gone.

I spent a frustrating half hour trying to explain to one of Papa Kai's sons, Kampai, what had happened. Since he was one of the only locals I really knew on the island I figured he could help. When Kampai realized what I was saying he took me on his motorbike into the village and found the only two people on the island who could speak passable English. I explained to them what happened and they called over a local authority. A conference ensued under the awning of an Internet café at the village's main crossroads.

I sat on the back of the motorbike while Kampai and the three men discussed the situation. The conversation went on for 45 minutes or so while I tried to follow along. The whole time little black ants kept falling on me from the awning and I kept brushing them off while trying not to act like they were bothering me. At one point I made clear that there was a U.S. dollar reward for the return of my belongings, but the men seemed to think that it had been farang, not locals, who had stolen my stuff, which meant there was little they could do. The ants kept falling, the men kept discussing and I tried to be patient. Then they started noticing the ants too, and everyone began animatedly brushing them off themselves, looking up to the awning to see where the ants were coming from. The group soon disbanded and Kampai and I headed back down the dirt path.

I never saw my gear again or heard anything more about it, but I refused to let the incident ruin my trip. They were just things, I kept telling myself. Shedding them turned out to be one of the best things to happen to me in Asia. I began seeing things in a fresh light: I no longer had to worry about whether or not my electronics were safe; the palm trees were greener and the water was bluer. I became free to pursue my travels.

Learning to live with less has been the lesson all along, and I learned it big on Don Det. I still wish I had my camera, and I lost a lot of good interviews on my recorder. But it was almost worth it just to say, "Meeting adjourned due to ants."


The day before I left Don Det, I woke up early. The sun was just beginning to creep across the eastern side of the island. The sounds of families gathering in the morning and beginning their work drifted out over the rippled murk of the Mekong. A breeze blew through the slats of my bungalow.

Throughout the day clouds converged over the island and by afternoon thunder was rumbling across the rice fields. Eventually the sun was completely obscured by darkening storm clouds and the Mekong reflected the graying slate of the sky. Rain was foretold in the lifting of three white gulls from the water's rough in search of another roost.

Dust began to blow up from the path and the island became hazy with dirt particles and the smell of earth. Palms swayed in the wind and sand blew off the smaller islands in wispy threads. As the rain began, leaves and chicken feathers swirled up the dirt path; the Cambodian hills were almost completely hidden, reduced to opaque ridges of geographical proximity. Papa Kai's family scurried around battening down the house and collecting items from the dust-blown yard.

In the end it only sprinkled and the commotion passed without event. Two tubers could be seen drifting in the cool shower, their pale bodies bobbing in the rippled water, the only color against the rain darkened expanse of Si Pan Don.

It was time to move on. One can only take so much paradise.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to here you lost your shit brother. Good to here you don't give too much of a fuck.