The 4000 Islands, or Si Phan Don as it is known locally, is a beautiful set of islands, set against a lazy and winding section of the Mekong.
There is not much to do in Si Phan Don, but that’s the point. The islands are laid back, with small huts mixing in with guest houses along the banks of the Mekong.
We arranged the transport with Mr Jasmine in Pakse (not his real name, but he owned the Jasmine Indian restaurant, so this was easy, and he seemed happy enough to be “The Jazz Man”), and headed out first thing in the morning. The journey took about 4 hours and was pretty relaxed, and we stopped only once to pick up a couple of German travellers. When we arrived in the village on the mainland, we handed our tickets over and were escorted to a little jetty and clambered onto a longboat. As we cut through the mighty Mekong, I noticed that the water was exceptionally fast, and the boat was struggling at times to make any distance with the force of the current. The boat was sitting in the water with only 6 inches to spare between the surface and rim of the boat. I get a little nervous with water these days, one false move and we would be out of the boat and floating to either Vietnam at great speed, or in real DEEP trouble. It was hard to relax and enjoy the stunning surroundings, but we would eventually land at the little island jetty some 10-15 minutes later – it felt more like an hour.
On arrival and with great relief we arrived at Don Det, one of the Islands renowned for it’s relaxed atmosphere, but with major support systems for the traveller in terms of bars, food and accommodation. A 5 minute walks and we were at Ricks Bar, and dumped the bags while slumping on scattered bean cushions on a raised platform with little tables. Sam and I decided it was Beer O’ Clock, and the girls opted for a fruit shake. The weather was perfect, nice and sunny, and Rick, a young English Expat gave us some great advice on places to stay on the Island. You have the choice of Sunset or Sunrise Avenue, two rural muddy paths that follow the shoreline on either side of the Island. You just have to decide if you want to waken up in a sweltering Beach Hut or awake relatively cool, and get the chance to see a nice Sunset in the evening. We plumped for the latter, obviously, and Sam and I left the bags, and the girls and went for a wander.
The River huts are pretty spartan, basic and makeshift. I’d read somewhere that some of them are so shoddily constructed, that a few had actually collapsed into the water. With his in mind, we were looking for something that looked quite safe. After a good 20 minutes, we found what we were looking for, a properly constructed block of 6 rooms, with a huge tiled terrace, with ensuite bathrooms and hot water. Exceptional, given the price was about 5 quid/night.
The place was set back from the water, but we had a string of makeshift bars directly in front of us. The sounds of Bob Marley could be heard from across the way, and so after sorting ourselves out, headed over for some more refreshments with views over the water towards Cambodia.
This place was in low season and really chilled out and relaxing. People were exceptionally friendly, and most were just lazing about, reading books, playing cards, or just chatting over a beer or ice cold fruit shake. We had been told that in about 3 or 4 weeks, the place would be teeming with travellers, with around 150 arriving every day. For such a small place, we could only try and imagine how cramped, busy and noisy this quaint little place would be. Of course, with it being low season, you could count on the rain and thunderstorms everyday at anytime, and after a few days we were getting a bit down having to walk through slippery mud, and occasionally misplacing a foot in a wet quagmire. Having said that, we really enjoyed the company we were keeping. Nicky and Sam are really great fun to be with and you get a good laugh. We had also picked up another couple, Steve from Ireland, and Katya from Russia. Both had lost there jobs in each country due to the economic situation which seems to be affecting every country, apart from Asia and Australia so far. They had saved up enough funds, and planned to keep travelling until the funds ran out, hopeful that things would eventually pick up back home and they could start again. We were left with these 2 for a few days when Sam and Nicky moved on to reach Cambodia. Although we had a great time with Steve and Katya, it was slowly dawning on us that our adventure was coming to a close, and we were both feeling slightly envious of everyone who was just beginning theirs.
Having said that, I think we were looking forward to reaching Australia, and with a sense of the unknown, feeling both anxious and excited at the same time. Each day was beginning to feel like we were just putting off the inevitable, and so we became slightly more focussed on our plans for arrival down under.
We booked the boat and bus back to Pakse, this time deciding to splash out a bit on some nice accommodation. Having a telly was great for watching the rugby, and the fridge was obviously very practical. A couple of days here then, and we were ready to get back across the border to Bangkok with only a few days to spare before our flight.
We would break up the journey with a stopover in Udon Thani, a huge city as big as Bangkok, but without the Western style amenities or attractions. We were a bit of a novelty in a town that does not see many Westerners, and we were surrounded by smiles and felt wholly welcome, chowing down for some authentic local food with the locals. Before we knew it, we were up next day, and like second nature, grabbing a TukTuk to the bus station and catching a ride that would take us 6 hours, right into the heart of Bangkok.
On arrival, we felt like we were back home, but decided that on our last few days, we would swerve Apple Guest House, and in the same vein of our thoughts go slightly upmarketagain. We had to go back to Mama’s and make out we were collecting our enormous backpacks because we were moving on again. We just didn’t have the heart to say we were staying just around the corner. It’s always a strange feeling for me coming back to someplace after a while away, and seeing your belongings sitting exactly how you had left them. I always get the same feeling when you get back home from a holiday. Just little things, knowing your home has been empty for that period, and spotting for example, an open CD case on a table, and remembering it was the last thing you had played before leaving. I don’t know if other people think as deeply about this stuff, but I just seem to do it all the time. So my mind rushed back to what we had been up to over the past 6 weeks, and the thoughts I had as we left Mama’s. They are always the same really, wondering what the new place will be like, what the food and beer will be like, and wondering who you will meet, especially when you meet some really great people and get along so well, that you can truly call them new friends – Hello Sam & Nicky xx.
And that really has been the story of this long journey, and what has made it so special.
Our last days in Bangkok would see us bump into Tippany, spending a night together playing chess, eating really nice Thai food, and obviously getting reacquainted with my 2nd favourite Asian beer – Beer Leo. Indonesian Bingtang, so far, has always been #1.
The next day, we would be flying to Melbourne, Australia.
The next phase of our lives was about to begin.