The 4000 Islands
Deciding that we could not match the fun that we had alredy had by staying on in Pakse we decided to head on down to the 4000 Islands, or Si Phan Don, that we had heard so much about, and which were our main reason for coming back into Laos again in the first place.
The 4000 Islands are actually loads of Islands, islets, and if you want to count them, sand bars, that are left behind when the river water receeds during the dry months. During the monsoon most of these 4000 Islands disappear once more leaving behind only the largest few.
Four hours later we found ourselves perched on a sawngthaew which should comfortably seat ten, but which managed to fit in nineteen people (with use of the roof!), four rattan baskets of chickens (all still alive and very much pissed off), and a huge block of frozen fish under tarpaulin (that it was fish only became evident when a couple of hours into the journey it all started to melt.)
Arriving at the ferry terminal, a small hut reached by following a muddy dirt path down to the river side, we managed to get onto the next long boat over to Don Det, one of the larger islands, a feat that involved wading in dirty river water up to our knees, throwing our rucksacks into the boat and then trying to clamber in after them. All done in the name of interesting experiences which I would rather not have to repeat again!
Landing on the banks of Don Det we repeated the process of getting off the boat in much the same way as we got on, and dignity demolished went off in search of somewhere to stay.
Whilst Don Det is one of the bigger of the 4000 Islands, and an increasingly popular tourist destination, there is no 'Club Med' or Hilton there yet, in fact there is not even any electricity most of the time. There were two main dirt tracks which ran most of the length of the Island, Sunrise Street and Sunset Lane. Obviously Sunrise Street is on the east side of the Island and gets the morning sun, and Sunset Lane gets the good sunsets. Bearing this in mind, along with the fact that none of us are particularily morning people, we opted for the Sunset side of the Island.
We managed to find ourselves some huts which were right on the banks of the river, with some comfy-ish looking hamocks on the woooden balconies for those times when life just got too hectic and we wanted to relax and watch life float by. What it did not occur to us to check was the condition of the 'washing facilities', a lamentable failure, the magnitude of which became all to clear later that evening when I (the intrepid, and pathologically clean one) decided it was time to go for a shower.
The shower and toilet block was just that - a concrete bunker with holes in the tops of the walls so that you could see what you were doing, if only just, as there was no lighting installed. Inside there was a forlorn looking toilet (and I bet you didn't even know that toilets could look forlorn - well they can!) with a bucket of scummy, cobwebby water that you used to flush it. The shower (cold water only obviously) was just a glorified hose. But, it was not any of this that bothered me. What reduced me to a hyperventilating, hysterical mass was the 'wildlife' that was living in there. I don't think I have ever seen spiders so huge, or so hairy - they were the size of your hand, and looked pretty mean. In addition to which there was your usual assortment of lizards and winged things that have an annoying habit of flying straight at you.
It is at this point that Chris made his debut as the Insect anti-Christ, and Emma's personal hero. Armed only with a broom he went into the 'bathroom' and removed all the offending creatures - something which he had to do daily from then on.
Our bid to be on the side of the Island which entailed a lie-in was scuppered by the local cockerel and children, all of whom seemed to come into full voice at about 6am, right outside our huts. This is understandable I suppose when you consider that everyone on the island went to bed about 7.30pm. With no electricity to speak of everything pretty much stopped as soon as it got dark, and the couple of evenings that we rather daringly strayed a bit futher from our huts than would be deemed strictly necessary, we found ourselves walking back down the pot-hold track in the pitch black - not the best move ever.
Deciding that a week would be the maximum amount of time that I could cope with the 'bathroom' without having a complete nervous breakdown we set about exploring the island.
On one of the days we borrowed some bikes from the place that we were staying and cycled over to Don Khon, another of the bigger islands, linked to Don Det by an old disused railway bridge.
Whilst on Don Khon we payed a visit to the Khon Phapheng Waterfalls, a fierce looking waterfall with swirling rapids and a shaky network of scaffolding across them that is apparently used by the local fishermen. We settled ourselves down with a fresh coconut to admire the view before moving on to our next stop. Next we cycled down to the southern tip of the island to attempt some dolphin watching - apparently the very rare Irrawaddy dolphins can sometimes be spotted in the area, although it is with regret that I must now inform you that the only mammals we spotted were some rather irritating men selling overpriced soft-drinks. Back on the bicycles once more we made our way unsteadily back over the bridge to Don Det, just in time for the heavens opening and completely and totally soaking us to the skin.
One of the highlights for us on our visit to Don Det was the discovery of a little restaurant which specialised in lentil curry. This dish was one of the best things I think that I have ever tasted, slightly spicey, somewhere between a soup and a stew, it was basically just a big bowl of stewed lentils and fresh coconut. When coupled with sticky rice - which in turn came with the added protein of at least five or six ants, which had to be delicately and discretly picked out prior to eating - this dish was pure heaven!