The 4,000 Islands

There isn’t much to do in Si Phan Don, so to speak, but there’s plenty to keep oneself entertained. A hammock hangs from the porch of every bungalow, making it a perfect place to relax with a book, take a nap, or watch the children swimming and bathing in the water below.

Si Phan Don is a sleepy cluster of islands in the Mekong delta, just above the Cambodian border. There are no roads, only dirt paths. Most people get around on bicycle or foot, and very few own motorbikes.

I rode a bike around Don Det (my choice of the only three islands offering accommodation, and I highly doubt there are actually 4,000), stopping to take pictures of the baby water buffalo, the calves, the chicks and the pigs. As a farm girl, I shouldn’t be awed by the sight of farm animals on an island, but I’m a sucker for their cuteness. They walked right up to me, not even disturbed by my presence.

The dirt path encircling the island was about four kilometers around, making Don Det the second largest of the pack. The waterfront is lined with bungalows for rent and homes for locals, while the inner island is covered with rice farms, intersected by more dirt paths. Pedaling around, taking in the beauty of such simplistic, local life was exactly what I had pictured myself doing in Southeast Asia.

On my second day, I joined a kayaking tour that was nothing short of fantastic. Another solo traveler and I shard a two-person kayak, laughing at our inexperience as we paddled out of sync, trying to catch up to the pack.

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Our first stop was one of the biggest waterfalls in the region. The water forcefully splashes over rocks and plummets through the crevaces, leaving nothing in its wake. It is beautiful, but my pictures don’t do it justice.

We paddled again to a rock island where we would watch the local Irrawaddy dolphins – an extremely rare breed resembling a whale more than a dolphin. There are said to be only ten left, and we were lucky to see about five of them. From our perch, we could also see Cambodia. The Mekong separates the two countries at this point, and we were sitting in the middle of both, enjoying chicken fried rice.

After lunch and more swimming, we were back in the kayak, headed for another waterfall that was just as impressive as the first. We were now on the mainland, so while we stared in awe at the natural wonder before us, the guides loaded our kayaks onto a large bus and prepared to drive us back to our starting point.

I was exhausted after such a full day of paddling and so I walked back to my hammock where I fell asleep early enough to catch the next mornings sunrise before going out for a run.

The day was another relaxing one, spent reading and chatting with new friends. I was going to need it before the long, chaotic adventure of traveling back to Suwannaphum, but it seems I enjoy the journey just as much as the destination.

Along the Way: New Years Eve in Pakse, Laos

The taxi driver sang to me the entire drive from Suwannaphum to Yasothon (about 30 miles). As a female farang, I was given the passenger seat, like first class in this type of travel, sitting next to the squatty, happy man who enjoyed the sound of his own voice. I didn’t mind it either. It was a nice alternative to the broken radio.

His songtao – a multi-purpose vehicle in Thailand, essentially a pickup converted into a bus with two, long bench seats in the back and a luggage (or excess passenger carrier) rack on top – was quite full, with people hanging off the back. I was lucky to have a cushioned, air-conditioned seat up front.

The cab was adorned with photographs of the young King and a few famous monks. The driver wore several religious charms around his neck and appeared to be quite a holy man, until I looked down and saw his steering column.

Around it hung a variety of wooden penises, one in every shape, size and color of wood. The dangling man parts appeared out of character for such a dedicated worshiper, so I expected him to be shy when I asked to take a picture. Instead, he proudly showed them off and explained in Thai that they mean good luck: Sabai dee be mai. Fittingly, this expression also means “Happy New Year,” which is exactly the reason I was headed to Laos.

We arrived in Yasothon just as my bus to Pakse was leaving the bus station. Mai pen rai, my driver said. He flagged down the bus driver, parked in the middle of the four-lane highway and ushered me into the V.I.P. bus that blocked an entire lane of traffic when it stopped. This was definitely going to be a good (and interesting) trip.

In Ubon Ratchathani, I changed routes again. Boarding the international bus, I had my first glimpse into what life would be like for the next four days: Lazy. I didn’t think life could get much more slugglish than the pace in which I’ve become accustomed while living in northeastern Thailand, but I’ve been proven wrong. Everything in Laos is slower and less organized.

At the border, the driver let us out and signaled us to walk across. He would meet us on the other side, after we escaped customs. Back on the road, everything seemed different. We were now driving on the right side (which felt weird after so long in Thailand), and he used the horn for everything. We slowed just enough to let the passing water buffalo cross our lane. A few miles later it was a cow, then a chicken, followed by a pig. In Thailand, these animals are usually tied to the side of busy roads, but in Laos, you might actually get a gourmet meal from road kill.

Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands) was my destination, but when I finally arrived in Pakse, I had missed the bus to go there. I was trying to avoid spending New Years Eve in one of the sleepiest towns in the country, according to Lonely Planet, but I didn’t have a choice. I checked into a hotel and headed out to find some dinner.

I walked, and walked, and walked. It was 8pm and nothing was open, but I continued walking down a long, dark stretch of road toward city lights when a local girl about my age and her family invited me to join their sidewalk party. The beer was flowing and the celebration was in full swing. I happily accepted.

Using my very basic knowledge of Thai (the languages are very similar and they usually understand both) and lots of hand signals, I managed to explain that I was a teacher, and I was hungry. Shortly after, food appeared on the mat we were sitting around, and two men, who were studying English in university, joined the party to practice with me.

When 11pm rolled around, the party was over and everybody headed for bed. It was a late night for them, explained Mr. Vic, as he wanted to be called, and more often than not they are in bed by 8pm to be ready for the next workday. It’s a nationwide law in Laos that bars must close at midnight, though many people nod off well before. Mr. Vic offered me a motorbike ride back to my hotel if I would go take a tour of the Pakse Hotel, where he works.

It was gorgeous. It is one of the tallest buildings in Pakse, boasting a spectacular rooftop bar. It’s probably one of the best in the city. We had a drink (on the house) and watched the fireworks (one every ten minutes), as I promised Mr. Vic I will stay at his hotel the next time I visit.

While there isn’t much to see in Pakse, my stopover proved as a reminder that getting to your destination is sometimes the best part of a journey, and that travel is much more about the people you meet along the way than the places you see. I had already had one of the best weekends of my life, and my vacation had yet to start.