Words can barely describe our journey from the North of Laos down to its Southern tip, although ‘agonising’ gets pretty close. We knew it would be a long journey, but nothing quite prepared us for the 38-hour hell that awaited us.
The first part was a painless 12-hour night bus back to the centrally located capital, Vientienne. So far, so good. Then, in classic penny-pinching Sam and Chloe style, we waited for a public bus to take us across town to another bus terminal, rather than catching a cab. So, 4 hours of waiting later, we arrive at the other terminal, only to find that the best bus (cheap and quick) had already left, so, faced with an expensive fast tourist bus or a cheap local bus, we took a punt on the local one. The guy assured us it was only 11 hours, so how bad could it be, right? RIGHT?
Getting on the bus, our hearts sank. It was an old school-bus-style rust bucket, with hard upright seats, ancient fans attached to the roof, and a broken door held on by a piece of string. Even the seats were fucked, with arm rests that constantly fell down behind the seats, scraping the people behind with their exposed metal edges. We were apprehensive, but only 11 hours right???
At the regular stops, it became clear this was going to take longer than expected. The locals we chatted with pretty much laughed in our faces when we said where we were going. They were barely reaching their destinations (halfway down) by nightfall. Oh dear. Soon it was 9pm and Sam’s GPS was showing us as nowhere near there. The broken door continued to fling itself open as we travelled, dirt-clogged hot air blowing in and choking us every so often. We were covered in grime, and felt dejected.
We ended up ‘sleeping’ on the bus – our second night on a bus – by trying to lie in foetus position across two barely-padded seats, and by the time we actually arrived, TWENTY-ONE hours later, we felt like we’d been travelling our entire lives. We were spewed out on the side of the Mekong, and told to await a boat that would take us to the heralded Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) across the river. After paying a guy from the bus who promised to take us, he promptly disappeared for two hours! We waited for him in a restaurant and the restaurant guy kindly phoned him for us when we started having a full-on meltdown about whether we’d actually ever reach the islands, and within half an hour, we were on the boat.
From that point onwards, everything was beautiful, serene, and pure relaxation. The small wooden boat puttered across the Mekong – a beautiful half hour journey through reeds, past river communities – to Si Phan Don, where we promptly (as quick as possible!) found a bungalow overlooking the river with two hammocks, and dropped bags for the next five days.
Feeling like we’d really earned the r&r after such a horrific journey, we did little for the first few days other than hammock-hanging, smoking, subsequent eating at various little foodie joints along the river, then returning to our hammocks to watch the trees, the emerald river, locals passing on their little boats, and tourists moving by in kayaks. It all looked like far too much effort as we watched from the comfort of our bungalow, music playing, feet up, blissful.
After the few days’ rest, we decided to get active and see something of the islands, so we rented some bikes and spent a fun day cycling around. We were staying on Don Det, the most touristy of islands, the kind of place that has cafes showing Friends and everyone’s pretty stoned, so we had to go further afield for a taste of real island life.
Cycling around the islands was great and we agreed we easily could’ve spent a few days doing it. On Don Det, we cycled through beautiful golden crop fields full of cows, past streams with water buffalo bathing, through tiny villages with schools and kids shouting ‘Sabadee!’ at us. We past cute little huts and snapshots of simple living, with just farming and little shops by way of industry
We cycled over the Friendship Bridge to another island, Don Khong, where we’d planned to visit a waterfall, but after cycling there we found it to be way overpriced so we instead headed to a ‘beach’ on the river bank where we swam in the Mekong to cool down.
It was super fun just being on the bikes – cycling down country lanes in the blistering sun with beautiful scenery all around. We took a break to have a beer at one point at a cafe on the edge of the river under some trees. After that, we took an adventurous route back through some woodland, passing bulls and cows en route hiding in the bushes.
The tranquility was only broken when Sam looked down into his bike basket and saw his phone was missing! We backtracked and found it – miraculously – balancing on the edge of a rickety wooden bridge over a river. What luck! We secured it away and headed back to ours via a couple of small waterfalls, and treated ourselves to some fruit shakes in a cafe that sat over the Mekong looking West, so we caught the sunset, and it was stunning.
Inspired by our chilled and scenic time in Si Phan Don, we headed to another sleepy place nearby, Tad Lo…