Happy under the clouds

140km Don Det to Champasak

dsc_3590We’ve never smiled quite so much at grey skies as we have lately here in oppressively hot and humid Southeast Asia. Under normal conditions we’re quickly covered in sweat and by the end of the day a rash spreads across our legs and backs from all the salt that sits on our skin. We get sunburnt too because we can’t seem to find a sunscreen that stays applied well when we sweat. Under cloud cover though it’s a different story. Feeling still a bit burnt from our journey through northern Cambodia, we breathed a sigh of relief when we pulled the curtains back on Sunday to discover the sun well hidden.

After a few days of relaxing it was time to leave the islands in the Mekong, the highlight of which was our journey across Don Som. It was a short trip that took only a couple hours, a way to branch the distance between two more populated islands, but our few hours on this completely untouristed patch of land were adventurous and fascinating. When we landed at the pier, just a five minute journey from Don Det, we immediately noticed the land all around was covered in a few inches of water. We’ve seen this many times now and it almost seems normal to start stripping off our shoes and socks as we arrive at a dock before plodding in bare feet through the muck to get to higher ground.

This time the pier happened to be behind a family home so off we went, watched by everyone from baby to grandma and a few chickens and pigs besides. Soon we were on a narrow, dusty raised surface between rice fields. Was this really the main road to Don Khong? Yes, everyone nodded and pointed in the same direction. Good then. We dried off our feet, put our socks and shoes back on and headed out zigging and zagging across the island. It soon became clear that we shouldn’t have bothered cleaning our feet. We got muddy several more times as the track dipped and we had no choice but to drive right through the puddles. One bridge caused us particular concern because it went over a deep irrigation channel. The boards running from side to side were barely attached to the one strut crossing the water, which was only a few inches wide in any case. What would we have done if our bikes had fallen in?? Between the two of us, with our breath held, we managed it.

Although Don Som is very rural, we were almost always passing one house or another to shouts of surprise and the universal call of ‘falang’. Southeast Asia marks the first time where we’ve quickly learned the word for ‘foreigner’ in each country and we are not sure what it is about this culture in particular that makes adults and children alike identify us in this way. In other isolated places people also took notice of us but as far as we know they never labelled us specifically as foreigners. Sometimes we mimic them in a joking way, saying ‘falang’ and smiling as we point at ourselves and they always appear surprised that we recognise the word and the fact that they are talking about us. It never fails to raise a giggle from both us and them.

A few hours of slow cycling later we arrived at a dock behind some houses where an older man was only too happy to take us on his ferry across to Don Khong. We were greeted with the twin joys of paved roads and 24-hour electricity but overall we found the island’s atmosphere a bit sterile.

The next day we were up early and ready to get off Don Khong and start exploring Lao outside the tourist bubble. One ferry ride and an overpriced breakfast later and we were on our way. We passed through many villages but none of the markets we were hoping to see and then late in the afternoon we took a left turn back towards the Mekong for yet another ferry to Champasak, famous for its historic wat. It was with some surprise that we learned from talking to other tourists over dinner that the 5,000 kip entry fee in our aging guidebook had rocketed to 30,000 kip and being lukewarm on wats at the best of times we decided to give Wat Phu a miss, although we did do a scenic ride around its perimeter, taking some of the local farmers by surprise. Even without the wat, we ended up spending two nights in Champasak because we had a few tasks to do and we enjoyed its relaxed atmosphere so much – almost as good as Don Det and Don Khon but without the hammocks!

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