After finishing our trip around the Bolaven Plateau, we headed south to an area called the 4,000 Islands, near the Cambodian Border. Here the Mekong widens out and within it rest many small, and some larger islands. In the dry season as the river level falls, many more islands appear, giving the area its name. Are there really 4,000 of them? Has anyone actually counted them all? I don’t know. By all accounts it’s a good place for relaxing in a hammock as the Mekong drifts past, and the pace of life is slow. We were soon to learn the truth of this.
We disembarked onto the island of Don Det after catching a small boat from the village of Nakasang on the mainland. I left Alex and the kids at a restaurant then set out to find us some digs for the night. Don Det felt a curious place to me. There was no real village centre, instead a small road which soon turned into a bumpy dirt track followed the coast with bungalow operation after bungalow operation strung out in one long line for several kilometres along the shore. As I set off from the pier there were restaurants and bars advertising Burgers & Chips, Pizzas, 2for1 Happy Hours, and Happy Shakes. It was a typical Backpacker Ghetto, but on a slightly smaller scale. And it was deserted, eerily so. I walked along, sensing a strange energy to a place that seemed to be crying out for some youthful exuberance to make it feel complete. As I continued down the near-deserted track I wondered if we’d made a mistake in coming here.
I checked out a few bungalows and guest houses, which ranged from basic but dirt cheap to moderately expensive but appropriately flashpacker-ish. With kids in tow I wasn’t quite ready to go for a tiny bare-bones bungalow with shared bathroom, but nor did I want to spend 200,000 kip/night (about £20) for two rooms at the fancier place. Luckily as I was walking back towards the pier and passed the Crazy Gecko guest house, I found someone working there. I’d wanted to have a look at the place but on my first pass by, I couldn’t find a soul around. I asked if he had any rooms. He said he only had one, a large family room. “That’s perfect,” I said, “I have a husband and two kids to house, as well as myself.” So he showed me up to it and it was perfect. Very spacious, a large double bed and two single beds, all with mosquito nets, and two fans. To top it all off there was a large veranda area with three hammocks, a table and chairs. He gave me a discount if we stayed 5 nights or more, and I returned to Alex and the kids triumphant at having found such a great place for £11/night. A place with cats and newborn kittens, no less.
We all traipsed back, unloaded our bags and then proceeded to lounge on the veranda, occasionally walking a few steps across the road to the restaurant for drinks and food. And honestly that’s pretty much all we did for the next 10 days. Oh yeah, the kids petted cats and played a lot of UNO.
Sure, we weren’t total recluses – we hired bicycles one day, as everyone does. £1/day gets you an old, suspension-free, sit-up-and-beg style step-through bike. Did I mention they are totally lacking in suspension? That might be well and dandy on flat tarmac, but it was not well and dandy on the rutted, bumpy, rocky dirt tracks that comprise 99.9% of the road surfaces on Don Det. We picked up the bikes, the kids sat on seats on the back and we set off. I hated the experience almost immediately. It was hot, Ben was clinging to me with his arms around my waist like a heated belt, my crotch felt every single bump and bang on the rock hard seat. It was jarring and unpleasant and I had my eyes glued to the road looking to avoid as many rocks and pot holes as possible, thus missing the glorious scenery around us. Alex didn’t seem to mind the bikes and was genuinely surprised by the vehemence with which I expressed my dislike of the mode of transportation we were using. I was genuinely surprised that he didn’t mind it. To Alex they were worth using to save £14 over the cost of renting two motorbikes. I did not feel the same. To each their own, folks.
After the bicycle experience, I decided that any exploring I would do would be on the back of a motorbike. So one day I went into town to find one to rent. I didn’t expect it to be difficult, I’d seen a few places renting bikes that I was familiar using, like the Honda Wave. I stopped at one with new looking bikes, confidently told the woman I knew how to drive one, handed over money and passport and then realised I might have made a mistake. A closer inspection of the bikes showed it was not in fact a Honda Wave, but a Honga Wave. It looked like a Honda in every respect, but was not. Knock-off bikes are pretty par for the course, and I wasn’t against using one on principal. However, once I tried to use it, it quickly became clear that I was going to have some problems. Unlike the Honda Wave which was impossible to stall, I was completely unable to change gears on this bike without stalling it. No matter what I tried, no matter how much she tried to show me how to do it differently, it just wasn’t working. I completely failed to even get into first gear on the bike I’d confidently told her I knew what I was doing with. She took the bike back, I got my money and passport back and slunk away. I found another rental place. After the first two bikes they showed me didn’t work, though this time through no fault of my own, I did eventually find one that did. And I could actually drive it. Perfect. It had no wing mirrors, gear changing was a bit clunky, the brakes squealed, the electric starter didn’t work and the kick starter required some vigorous kicking, but beggars can’t be choosers and I was running out of options.
I drove back to the Crazy Gecko and picked up Chloe, my side-kick for the day, and off we went. It was a fun day or exploring Don Khon, the island attached to Don Det via an old French Colonial bridge. We drank some fruit shakes; explored a Wat; saw a waterfall; walked over a suspension bridge and got slightly lost on the small adjacent island; recovered from the heat for lunch; found a beach.
It was on the way home that we accidentally went exploring through the lesser known trails on the island. Trails best not explored on the kind of bike we were riding. The track started off promisingly wide, inviting exploration. It slowly narrowed and before we knew it, the path was overgrown. Still, I thought, this is fine. It’s just a few bushes, it’ll widen out soon. It didn’t.
The track was now more of a narrow trail, and I was beginning to wonder when we’d reach a junction with the larger main path. We were ducking under branches, I was swerving the bike to avoid muddy ruts I was worried we’d get mired in. It was during one of these manoeuvres where I gunned the acceleration to get us up a small bump past a muddy area that I felt and heard a ‘thunk’ on the right side of the bike near my foot. We’d sideswiped a tree stump hidden in some long grass. I looked down and saw the foot brake in a position it was not designed to be in. The foot brake pedal is supposed to be in front of your foot, not beside it. Shit. This was not good. I stopped, we got off and I examined the brake. Maybe I could just, you know, whack it back into place. Nope. The pedal was bent and halfway cracked through at it’s welded join to the brake. I managed to kind of wiggle it back into a more normal looking position, but there was no way that brake was going to be functional. The first bit of pressure on it and the pedal would just crack right off. Not good, not good at all. I was not feeling super great about our situation. We were on a trail that clearly we should not be on. The road I had expected us to be meeting by now was not meeting us; it was late afternoon and starting to get dusky and our only functioning brake was a handbrake that I had to squeeze really hard to make work.
To turn around or press on? That was the question. I didn’t fancy turning back so we carried on, slowly and carefully. Luckily we met the main road not too long after and were able to head home before dark, albeit not very quickly. I had slight fears about how much the rental place would charge me to fix the bike, you hear so many horror stories about tourists getting ripped off for even the smallest scratch and having no choice but to pay up because they have your passport. Luckily I was given my passport back and not asked to pay anything, maybe that’s what happens when the bikes are clunkers – they expect stuff to get broken. Alex thought it was hilarious that I’d managed to break the only bike on the island that I was able to drive. No more motorbike rentals for me!
But yeah, other than those few outings, we pretty much just wandered a little bit up and a little bit down the road from the Crazy Gecko to sample some other eateries, watched some sunrises and sunsets, and spent an inordinate amount of time chilling.