(Em) After another great night’s sleep in the dorm in Thakhek, we got back on the road south. Our next destination was Four Thousand Islands, a collection of islets in the Mekong river at the southern tip of Laos, cited as being a great place to relax (how many of the ‘four thousand’ would be fit in, we wondered?!) Juan had made an early start with the intention of riding the 550km stint down to the islands all in one day whereas we, who like to travel at a more sedentary pace, had picked Pakse (still a good 350km away) as a more realistic target for the day. The whole journey was pretty tedious as we rode through a flat, dry landscape on straight roads; it became one of those days where you’re just trying to get the mileage done. At one point we passed an overland cyclist (a crazy breed of people) and, stopping for a chat, discovered he was Vincent from France who is cycling around southeast Asia after starting in Vietnam. He was behind schedule after a DHL muck up had left him waiting in Luang Prabang for a new passport to turn up and he was now trying to catch up by doing 140km+ days back to back. He looked in serious need of a rest! Vincent was also heading to Four Thousand Islands via Pakse, though for him the remaining 45km represented several more hard hours in the unrelenting sun unlike our easy blast. We are always amazed by cyclists, especially on days like this; if we think the road is straight and boring, imagine what it’s like for them!! We gave him our water, wished him luck and continued on our way through the scrubland.
Pakse is a small, non-descript town, easy enough to navigate (for James anyway!) and we found a room fairly quickly. We were both feeling a bit under the weather with heavy colds (picked up either from the unhealthy wasters hanging around in Vang Vieng or through watching an episode of the West Wing where everyone had the flu… I guess the former is more likely!) James was also suffering from a dodgy stomach which had persisted ever since we’d entered Laos, most likely due to the lower standards of hygiene of the street food vendors compared with Thailand, and the combination had left him feeling pretty weary. In the evening, we managed to find a place selling reasonably priced food (Laos is much more expensive than we’d anticipated) and got a really early night. Waking feeling slightly more refreshed the next day and with only 120km on the agenda, we stopped for breakfast before departing the town only to find Vincent the cyclist sitting in the same café! We had breakfast with him and discussed previous routes and experiences before heading off. As with the previous day, it was another dull, hot ride. The only thing of note was when we saw a local man and woman walking along the side of the road, the man holding what looked like a loop of rope. As we passed, James said into the intercom, ‘Hey, was that a snake?’ We turned around and sure enough, he was walking along carrying a live snake, his thumb and forefinger clamped tightly around the back of its head. We mimed ‘Is it to eat?’ (yes) and then, ‘Is it poisonous?’ (more alarmingly, yes!) James asked if he could take a few photos to which the guy gladly obliged and then they went on their way. Another world!
On seeing a sign for ‘Don Khong’ (the main island of the ‘Four Thousand’) we turned off the main road and down a track to what must be the ‘port’ – a clearing by the river where a few small boats were docked. A conversation with the boat pilots (which relied heavily on mime acting) ascertained that the bikes could be transported across the short stretch of water to Don Khong for a fee of 50,000 kip per bike. That seemed pretty steep to us so we resolved to go a bit further down the road to the ‘car ferry port’, hoping that the boatmen might drop the price as we began to move off. However, in Laos they don’t seem to have grasped the concept of bargaining, that a lower price is better than no custom at all (it is the same at many of the guesthouses we ask at – they remain sitting empty because they don’t offer competitive rates) and predictably the boat guys seemed quite content to watch potential business ride off despite a clear lack of any other customers. Down at the other port (i.e. a slightly larger clearing by the river) we were quoted the far more reasonable price of 10,000 kip per bike – quite the difference!! Fee sorted, there now remained the more dubious challenge of getting the bikes aboard the… well, ‘ferry’ certainly isn’t the word! Our transportation was, in essence, a small floating wooden platform buoyed by three narrow canoes, access to which was via a plank of wood. And I’d thought getting onto the ferry at Chiang Khong had been scary!! James went first (of course!) but on hearing an ominous cracking sound as he mounted the plank, he quickly aborted! Ah, what to do? The boatmen had a solution though and indicated that we should ride round to another vessel further down the beach where the gap between shore and boat was narrower thus strengthening the access plank. Our guy wasn’t about to lose our custom to a rival, though, so he meanwhile manoeuvred his boat alongside the one we were now lined up to mount in order for us to ride over the first boat and onto his. Right, time to go for it! Luckily no cracking to be heard this time so up James went. It took a few minutes for him to manoeuvre his bike manually to make room for me and then it was my turn. I didn’t want to make the mistake of not getting all the way up the ramp so gave it some beans… maybe a little too much as I nearly rode off the other side of the boat and into the river! I was on though, that’s the main thing!
It took less than five minutes to cross over to the island. At the other side, rather than pull up to the small, uneven section of bank, the boat pilot steered our boat towards a large floating metal pontoon that was hanging out over the water, motoring up alongside it to where, luckily, the ramp drew level with our wooden platform. The only thing keeping the gap closed as we rode off was him standing on the ramp and pulling the boat towards him with his own two hands! Safely on dry land, we rode up the track to the ‘main road’ and were mildly disappointed (though we shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose) to find that the island looked exactly like the main land had done: flat, dry and dusty. Undeterred, we made our way to the main village where the guesthouses were located… hmmm, surely this wasn’t the focal point of Don Khong? The village consisted of a line of shabby guesthouses situated along a dirt track, opposite each of which was a rather uninspiring ‘restaurant’ (shack selling food) looking out over the Mekong (running rather low at this point in the season) and all the other ‘islands’ (there are only really three inhabited ones, the rest refer to clumps of land that rise out of the water.) Right…. So not quite the lush island paradise we had been anticipating!! We did manage to find a nice guesthouse set back off the road (one of the smartest but also the cheapest) but I have to say, we were left puzzled as to why this area was touted as such a tourist draw. The lack of shops and wi-fi could be seen as a positive – it’s nice to get away from it all now and again – but the potential on Don Khong as a chilled out haven was completely wasted. The tranquil location by the Mekong cried out for hammocks swinging by the river and dining al fresco with fairylights and candles, but instead there were beer crates piled up in the street, electric lights that attracted thousands of bugs at dusk and the only hammocks around were invariably occupied by residents!
Bemused, we settled down for a beer (when in doubt…) and were surprised to see Juan turn up around 5pm – we’d assumed he’d have got here before us as he’d left Thakek to do the stint all in one day. Turns out that rather than follow the road straight south as we had done, he’d gone off for a little jaunt to the east, camping by an amazing waterfall for the night before coming to the islands. Apparently it was the best, most scenic road he’s done yet in Laos… Great, so glad we missed it!! Juan was equally as bewildered at what all the fuss was about with 4000 Islands – maybe we’d come too late in the season, missing the most picturesque part of the year? (Though I still don’t think they’d have had hammocks and fairylights…) In addition to the anti-climax of the location, James and I also had a small problem resulting from the lack of facilities on the island; we had no money! Well, we had just about enough Laos Kip to pay for our two nights’ accommodation and food (as long as we skipped lunch and limited ourselves to sharing one beer each day) but we’d intended to withdraw some dollars, required to pay for our Cambodian visa, before heading the 20km or so down to the border. Resigned to having a frugal few days, we resolved to get some cash out once back on the mainland until we were told by staff at the guesthouse that the nearest ATM was in Pakse. Yes, Pakse – where we’d spent the previous evening, now 120km away!!! You cannot be serious! (Now, before you waggle a finger at us saying, ‘what do you expect in a developing country’, let me explain that in the whole of the rest of Laos there had been plenty of cashpoints!!) We began to weigh up our options: ride back to Pakse (no thank you!) or… well, that seemed the only option really. Thankfully, we were directed to speak to ‘Mr Pon’, seemingly the man in Don Khong, who ushered us down the street to his flash (James: and very empty) hotel where we were able to buy some dollars with our visa card (for a handling fee, of course, though we didn’t mind too much – it had saved us the cost of riding the 250km round trip back to Pakse!) Phew!
Originally, we’d thought we might spend several days at Four Thousand Islands just chilling out but, lacking as it was in pretty much any charm, we decided to go after just one day! Juan was of a similar persuasion so the three of us left together. We half expected to be fleeced getting a boat back to the mainland (after all, they had you over a barrel on the return leg) but were pleasantly surprised to be quoted 10,000 kip per bike again. There was no way three bikes were fitting on one boat so Juan and I went over first, followed closely behind by James who was joined by a couple of locals on mopeds. Seasoned pros at the mount and dismount now, we got back to dry land without incident and we were soon on our way to the Cambodian border. It was only a short distance so on the way we stopped off to visit some recommended waterfalls… or not; they were charging a fee to get in and we’d used up every last ‘kip’ on the islands (James: It’s important to ensure you have no Laos Kip left over as it’s impossible to exchange outside of the country). Denied! So to the border it was, where our carnets were quickly signed off at a dusty customs office and we avoided paying the $2 dollar exit stamp fee by playing vague – ‘Most people pay,’ the immigration officials assured us but it was clearly a completely shady affair as they didn’t pursue it further than that! It’s not the amount we objected to so much as the principle of being charged for what they were getting paid to do, and to pay would set a bad precedent for the next tourist (James: We’re also aware that if you pay once, they tend to radio their mates down the road to let them know that a couple of soft touches are coming and you then get pulled over all the time – a trap we’ve made an effort not to fall into regardless of the pressure applied!)
On the Cambodian side, we encountered the same half hearted demand for payment – this time, $1 for filling out a quarantine form. I flatly refused before James waded in to give a more diplomatic response (James: Those who know Em won’t be surprised that she sometimes finds it hard not to show her ‘disapproval’ at things. This can be an issue at some borders where officials like to ‘flex’ their muscles to show who’s boss. The answer is walk a fine line: compliant, yet looking like you’re not going to be worth the hassle of squeezing money from. Em’s generally pretty good these days, particularly after all the bureaucracy of central Asia, but she does ‘relapse’ occasionally when confronted with blatant corruption or ineptitude!… ) At the quarantine tent, we all had to fill in a medical form which listed eight symptoms of illness that you were meant to tick if you’d experienced them recently. Still feeling under the weather, James joked as he filled his out that really he should be ticking at least seven of the eight (of course, he didn’t confess!) but, when they pulled out some sort of temperature sensor gun and aimed it at each of our foreheads, his reading was a good couple of degrees higher than everyone else, triggering the alarm to go off on the device!! (James: a solid case of man-flu if ever I’ve seen one – I’m not one to complain though, well, not much anyway…..) Luckily, the whole quarantine affair was clearly just a sham to get money off tourists as they didn’t seem to care that James was potentially carrying a tropical disease! Getting the carnets stamped and obtaining our Cambodian visas was a quick and surprisingly ordered affair and it was only right at the end that there was a sting in the tail – $1 fee each for stamping our passports at immigration. There’s not a lot you can do when it’s the boys in charge of letting you into the country so we acquiesced and handed over what was essentially a donation to their beer fund! All in all, it was one of our quickest border processes yet and in just a matter of minutes we were riding into Cambodia, country number 24…
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