Have some stress on your mind? Need a place to relax and unwind from the madness life throws at you? Then the south of Laos, is your next retreat.
Don Det has grown and flourished in the past five or so years. A large part of this is due to the demise of the tubing industry in Vang Vieng. Backpackers have shifted their attention to the laid back lifestyle, easy going bars and cheap bungalows by the river, catering to all who are on a low cost travel budget. Go for a day or two, stay for a week or just get stuck forever.
I had ventured from Siem Reap in Cambodia, on a 12 hour bus ride to the border of Laos. The journey was too much for a few passengers, vomiting up their lunches as we flew through the twisting roads. The boarder crossing is a little funny. The Cambodian officials ask for $2USD, no one knows why. I believe it is just some form of corruption. Everyone has to pay, but if you challenge them, I have heard you can avoid paying or they will just keep your passport.
After the arduous journey, we finally arrived at the harbour. The last connection to the island from the mainland is a small taxi boat, which costs around 10,000 kip. Once we had enough passengers we set out on the water. The sun was slowly setting over the Mekong river, creating a warm golden glow. A lovely touch after such a long day.
It was the perfect welcome to the Island town. As our little wooden boat carried us across the river we finally arrived. I loaded on my backpack, trying not to fall into the water as I disembarked. With no idea where to stay, I looked at my phone for a recommendation. My friends would usually send me messages with great places to stay. All part of the never ending cycle, of sharing backpacking knowledge. Off I went to Happy Bar, my own bungalow overlooking the river for AUD $5.
Don Det is a small island town, connected only by bridge to Don Kohn. You can walk around most of the island in around 3 or 4 hours, which I don't recommend on a hot day. The small size gives the place a unique community vibe, allowing you to meet the locals and throw Sa-Bai-Dee (hello) all round the town. There are no cars and almost no scooters, leaving nothing but the soothing sounds of nature to tickle your ears. Your best means of transport is renting a bicycle. It will send you back around 10,000 kip for a single gear or 30,000 for a mountain bike with 24 gears.
As the sun sets, go catch a view of the setting sun, over the far side of town. My favourite location was towards the end of the main strip, near the abandoned guesthouses. Take a Beerlao, some good friends and watch the sky put on a show. Afterwards head back into town, for some incredibly cheap and delicious food. Mama Mon was my favourite, with incredible Laos food for around 20-40,000 kip.
On my second day in town I made my way to Green house. Instantly greeted by the bar owner, Jordan. "Its happy hour mate, free whisky, you can just pay for coke if you want some." Generous and welcoming, as every great host should be. If you would like to purchase some of the local whisky, a bottle can be purchased for a few dollars, no wonder they give so much of it away for free. Beware, this stuff cannot be too good for you. Surprisingly, it did not give me any crazy hangovers.
After Jordan noticed a few drawings in my travel book, he and I got to chatting. He asked if id like to stay and put up a mandala for him, free drinks and food provided. My eyes lit up. I was looking for a blank canvas to draw on for a while. The next day I moved over to Green house. I spent the entire day painting for the first time and meeting everyone passing by. If you have some artistic talents, many hostels and bars will help you out with either free food or accommodation for a days work. I didn't really consider it to be work, more just fun.
As I continued to extend my stay, every day saying, "tomorrow I'm leaving" I began to see more that the islands had to offer. With the sun shining, I headed out for a solo adventure. I rented a bicycle and headed out to see Khone falls. I set out on my suspicious looking bike, with a strange feeling it was going to break down on the way. To no surprise, my chain came off about half way to the falls. Luckily I still remember my old bike repair skills from when I was a child. I managed to have it up and running in a few minutes.
The Khone falls are the largest falls in South East Asia. The highest point of the falls reach 21 meters, with a series of rapids stretching for 9.7 kilometres. The sheer size of this beast stopped me in my tracks. I could hear the thunderous crash of the falls as I pulled up to the entrance. Once I could see the beginning of the falls, it stretched across the entire horizon. I was not expecting to see something so massive. I took my time as I strolled through the park, constantly stopping and soaking it all in. The sounds of the falls putting my mind at ease and allowing me to stop and unwind for a while. I think this was my favourite outdoor activity on the 4,000 islands.
If you are looking for something different, you can rent a tube for 10,000 kip and float down the Mekong, (take a few beers and snacks with you). Grab a boat or go for a full day kayaking. Go check out the Irawaddy dolphins, there are less than 20 left (in this part of the Mekhong) on the Laos/Cambodian border.
If you find yourself around the south of Laos, Don Det should be highlighted along the way. After the sun sets on the island most people head over to the sunrise side to enjoy the bars and easy going night life. The night life slows down at around 11.30 but by this time you will be exhausted from all your adventures and happy shakes anyways. Go find a nice place to sit around one of the many campfires, tilt your head up towards the sky and gaze upon one of the clearest and sparkling night skies you will ever bare witness to. For fun, adventure and good times by the river, look no further than Don Det.
There are two sides on the island, sunrise and sunset. Sunset side is more laid back at night and will force you to walk a little further into town. Sunrise side has more bars and people, don't worry, they are within a 10 minute of walk of one another.
Don't book accommodation before you arrive. There are so many places to pick from you will be overwhelmed with choices. Have a look inside the guesthouses and bargain on a price.
Don't walk to Khone waterfall from Don Det. I started walking around the island with a few friends in the baking sun. We were so hot and exhausted after an hour of walking that we decided to get a taxi boat back to town.
Bikes will be your best friend, choose the right one.
Make sure you take enough money before you go on the island, or be prepared to pay a ridiculous fee for taking withdrawing cash on the island.
Remember, life here is slow, people are poor so don't be in a rush for anything. Take your time, your food and drinks are coming, just wait an extra five minutes.
Laos P.D.R, PLEASE DON'T RUSH.
Enjoy this beautiful place guys and if you need any advice, don't be afraid to contact me.