We were done in. We just wanted to get back to the Travel Lodge, hopefully with our arses still intact, get showered, put on clean clothes, have a shave and maybe I could brush my hair, although brushing of hair is not a priority when you’re backpacking.
We decided on the way back that we were going to move on to the town of Pakse the following day which would be a good stop over point for us heading to Si Phan Don – The Four Thousand Islands, which are a group of islands in the Mekong River at the southernmost point of Laos.
If you have travelled before you may have noticed that certain guidebooks have a handful of buzzwords and statements throughout describing the different towns and cities, not with the intention of exaggerating how good these places are but basically because, I’d imagine, there is only so much you can say about multiple towns that happen to be almost identical in every way. We noted the words and phrases used throughout such as chic, colonial, riverside charm. Pakse, it seems, is all of those things, and I am sure it is if you were to spend longer than 16 hours there.
We had a little wander, ate a delicious curry for dinner and booked our travel to Don Det, an island in Si Phan Don. Our guidebook revealed the next morning that Don Det, although the liveliest of the islands, was yet to have electricity and, unfortunately, there was no ATM on the island. After a sigh, a moment of panic and a brief row, Gareth ran to the nearest cash point to refill our coffers and we hopped on to our packed coach where we imitated sardines for two hours and thirty minutes. It turned out that there was indeed electricity and a number of travel agents and guesthouses providing cashback services.
After disembarking from our minibus we then needed to get a ferry to the island. Now get the picture of the ferry crossing the Mersey out of your head, this was a long-tail boat with a capacity of about 15 people and their baggage, travelling at the breakneck speed of 10kmh.
Five of us got off the boat at Don Det, Gareth and I had our two backpacks each and didn’t struggle too much climbing the 20ft up the sandy embankment, however two of the others had a constant battle dragging their heavy suitcases up the sharp muddy incline. What I’ll never understand is why the bloody boat didn’t stop at the landing dock with its perfectly sensible slipway and stairs.
Our time on Don Det consisted of mainly lying in our hammocks by day and eating a mixture of the worst food imaginable and the most delightful foreign cuisine by night; after four weeks of Lao food, enough was enough and we opted for a curry or Australian BBQ most evenings.
Over the course of our stay on Don Det we made friends with the proprietor of the Australian BBQ establishment, I think it was called Streetview Restaurant. (I know not being completely certain of the name is very unprofessional but it won’t take a genius to find this place – it’s the one full of satisfied diners) Anyway, this bloke, lets call him Bruce, had some great tales to tell us about his life living on Don Det, and generally living in Laos as an expat Aussie married to a Lao.
Here’s a factoid: It is actually illegal for a non-Lao to have sexual relations with a Lao unless of course they are married. Funnily enough though it costs around 3000 USD to pay for a marriage certificate. There are stories of couples having engagement parties and the police have stormed the celebration arresting the man as it is assumed that the couple are likely to have already had sex! Just absolutely shocking, although I suppose it is a severe way of stopping a sex tourist culture that is so prevalent in Southeast Asia.
Bruce knew our charming landlady, Madam Pinh, and her son. They both would take it in turns asking us every morning what we were going to be doing that day and consequently pitch to us about using their bikes/tractor tubes/shop/restaurant/cashback service and if we didn’t use these we would later be reminded about their bikes/tractor tubes/shop/restaurant/cashback service. It was tiresome and extremely boring in the end and something we just learned to live with for the five days we were there. Bruce explained that Madam Pinh is renowned for this kind of pushy behaviour and regaled us with a tale of her son who had recently arranged tickets to Cambodia for a guest but kindly decided to keep the money for himself as opposed to brokering with the official travel agents. When the son came to see us for his morning stalking the day before we left we told him that we had booked our tickets to Cambodia already ‘But I tell you that I sell ticket, I tell you yesterday, I tell you every day!’
Leaving Laos was easy but knowing I was returning to Cambodia, after four years, was quite emotional for me. Now is not the time to go into my history but returning to this place brought back a lot of memories. It was something that I had to do.
At a border, as in life generally, you will come across three types of people; aggressive, passive and assertive. An aggressive person will cause a fuss, moan, whinge and gripe at every point of the process. He will complain that he has to pay a dollar at the quarantine alongside filling in a relatively pointless form. He will protest when he is paying for his visa because the official is requesting $25 for entering the country. And finally, at the hut where he gets his visa stamped, he will spend five minutes telling everyone in earshot that they too should be shouting down these hardworking individuals who are doing their jobs because nothing will change otherwise. Gareth and I, we’re passive and couldn’t give a monkey’s. The assertive group will pay $30 to a company that will do all of the paperwork and legwork on their behalf. These aggressive people make me just want to punch them in the nose.
Moving on, we left the border and made our way to the town of Kratie, which we considered a halfway point between the border and Siem Reap. As I mentioned above I had been to Cambodia four years ago and Gareth had been there three years before so we believed that we were both fairly savvy; we knew a shyster when we saw one. Or so we thought….
We stepped off the bus, tired and a bit miserable so it was quite nice to be greeted by a plump smiling Cambodian gentleman who told us that he had a nice hotel and we should come and see it, and it was only a two-minute walk after all. Strolling along, him crawling beside us on his scooter, the conversation went along these lines: ‘How much is your room’ ‘$7 sir’ ‘Air con?’ ‘Yes sir, and you will have a balcony overlooking the Mekong’. You may be able to see where this is going… The room turned out to be $15 with air con or $7 for a fan (We had not had air con since Vientiane so we wanted to spoil ourselves a little) and overlooking a brick wall. But we were in luck, because it was after 4pm therefore we could have the room for $13 instead. What a treat!
After all the excitement of the day I needed a little lie down so Gareth went out to book our transport for Siem Reap the next day. I will pass over to him now to tell you all about his little adventure in Cambodian tourism.
“I spoke to the fine gentleman who had lead us to our extortionate guesthouse in order to enquire about prices. He explained that if we wanted to get there within 7 hours it was $27 each, $24 for a 10 hour journey and $20 for a 14 hour journey. Knowing that it was always a good idea to shop around I told him that I would speak to Jen first and let him know. ‘But you only have one hour until the ticket office closes, you will need to book it very quickly sir’. I knew then that he was trying his luck so I politely said my goodbyes and breathed a sigh of relief as I walked off the premises. I was off to the bank to get my first wad of dollars and so I was in a world of my own until I heard a voice I recognised, and it certainly wasn’t Jen. The fine gentleman had pulled out on his scooter into my path ‘The ticket office is open for another couple of hours so you still have time sir.’ I explained that I hadn’t been able to withdraw cash yet (which I hadn’t) ‘I can lend you money if you need it sir’. I was the quintessential Englishman and made my excuses then continued on. He literally followed me for the next five minutes.
“I tried to lose him so I turned down a few streets but alas he found me again and continued to pester me to buy his tickets as soon as possible. I fobbed him off one more time and a couple of minutes later I came across a guesthouse where they were selling tickets to Siem Reap for $11 each. I spoke to the manager who was a kind looking young man called Mao and booked the tickets with him before the fine gentleman could track me down.”
That evening we had a few drinks at Mao’s place and spent hours talking to him about the finer things in life and football. After Gareth told me about what happened earlier I jokingly said that I keep thinking every man in a white top on a scooter is going to be the shyster. Quite unexpectedly, who would appear while we were sipping our 7ups? Yes, he followed us to Mao’s and after we informed him of our bargain bus tickets he spent 10 minutes trying to persuade us that he would never lie to his customers blah blah blah. Sorry, but what a knob.
We were glad to have had these two completely opposite chance encounters and we knew that this was just the beginning of time in a country that is renowned for its share of beautiful and terrifying history. That was all to come though and tonight we just wanted to eat cheeseburgers.
On our way back to our hotel the shyster once again managed to find us, this time with a glamorous Cambodian lady on the back of his bike. As he rode off we just laughed and joked that he was probably a pimp on the side. We turned into the guesthouse where a woman in a knee length silver dress and stilettos stood outside. Stepping into our room, we suddenly noticed a poster for condoms on the wall that we hadn’t seen earlier. So it turned out that our guesthouse was moonlighting as a brothel. How lovely…