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Andy’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 20 Jan 2007

Location: Si Phan Don, Laos

MapFOUR THOUSAND ISLAND (DRESSING) =============================================

Si Phan Don. The name literally translates as 'four thousand islands'.

Here the Mekong, until now a wide expanse of water, branches out into an intricate web of channels producing a 14km wide mosaic of sandbars (see definition below), islets and islands numbering in the thousands.

Don Khong is the largest and most populous of the islands. In the last few years it has even attained the luxury of 24-hour electricity, but it still boasts a largely authentic traditional Laos lifestyle.

We were dropped by the boat at a small collection of guesthouses overlooking the riverbank. We checked into our chosen guesthouse and crashed out, exhausted from the journey. Around four o clock in the afternoon (whoops) we woke and decided to cycle around the island after speaking to three Irish girls who had just undertaken a similar journey. In our groggy state we failed to listen when they informed us how long it had taken.

We set off during daylight and admired the laid-back, sedate and traditional island life.

The road wound through rice paddies and lush green fields with grazing waterbuffalows. Every few kilometres we would cycle through a rustic village, just a few wooden shacks populated by people busying themselves with daily chores; women pumping water, and washing clothes in the river, children bathing by the roadside with a bucket, men threshing grain and other examples of subsistence farming.

Children would come running out of their houses and shout "good morning". They were too cute to correct. Mothers would point us out to their kids r bring them over to us when we stopped. They were all so friendly.

It was clear that foreigners are still a novelty for these people.

After an hour we stopped for a break. A short distance across a field stood a small monastery. We watched as the sun set behind the roof silhouetting the building and the palm trees against a sky of bright reds, oranges and purples while the bells of the temple tolled.

The journey turned ugly from then on.

The moment the sun dropped below the horizon we could barely see anything. There were no lights. Though the island has 24 hour electricity the vast majority of the population do not have the facilities to utilise it. When the sun goes down the people go to bed; their daily rhythms dictated by the sun. Occassionally we passed a small hut with a fire flickering inside and a family huddled round for warmth.

Apart from that the only life around us were the millions of chirruping, scratching insects. They filled our eyes, mouths, nostrils and clothes. It was hard to keep cycling.

In the end we stopped speaking. It was useless to try. Everytime we opened our mouths they were too full within seconds to be able to speak properly.

The journey became immensely uncomfortbale and unenjoyable. At one point we passed a tiny hut with a lamp. In the light of the bulb we could see the air alive with bugs, big and small, like bad television static. I've never seen anything like it.

This went on for many dark hours. The journey was 32km!

After two hours i was starting to worry we would never make it back before the guesthouse closed. We heard it was a simple circuit around the island.

After three hours i was mentally preparing myself to sleep on the floor of a wooden shack inbetween a farmer and his wife, with two kids as a pillow if i was lucky.

After four hours i began practising in my head how to approach a local and ask if we could sleep with them without giving the wrong impression. Charades had never helped me much in these situations before.

The low point came when we reached a small settlement and asked a group of men drunk on local lao lao which way the hotels on the island were. The charade for "sleep" must be similar to the charade for "drunkenly stumble and offer the foreigners foul smelling moonshine, then laugh and point at them, for they are cycling in the dark, with no hope of getting home". After much merriment (on their part) they all pointed back in the direction we had just come...except for one man who waved us further on down the road we were on. To complicate matters a women came over and poked a finger at a bumpy dirt track leading off in a third avenue.

We decided to persevere with our original heading and promptly drove up to a t-junction. No one had mentioned any junctions. the irish girls had said it was a simple circular route. Our warm beds were now a remote possibility.

Basing our decision on nothing whatsoever we turned right and cycled for 15 minutes. Thankfully Ruth convinced me to stop and ask a family who were still up and about. Miming sleep fairly convincingly they seemed to understand and directed us back the way we had come.

Finally, after about five hours of constant cycling, with no water or food we arrived back at the hostel covered head to toe in insects. How they got in my boxers i will never know - they did not stay alive for long that's for sure. Ruth's bra was also amply filled. We dropped the bikes off and, with tender buttocks and thighs, stumbled in the manner of John Wayne to the nearby bar overlooking the river.

We saw the Irish girls. I wanted to throttle them "You barstards! Why did you not warn us!") Instead we got chatting and shared a few beers. They told us they were leaving the next day. Ruth and I decided to join them - the bike ride had embittered us towards the islands. The southern islands are magical apparently. For a few dollars you can rent a bungalow along the rivers edge and spend lazy days tanning, hammock swinging and sunset gazing. The weather was not great however. Plus we had recently seen a magnificent waterfall (the only other thing to see in the area) and had just toured the whole large island (albeit in the dark).

So we joined up with their gang. Louis, Susan, Raymondo, Tony (Spear)Minto and Laura and packed for the early run in the morning to Cambodia - country five!

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Definition of a sandbar:
A ridge of sand formed in a river or along a shore by the action of waves or currents. NOT a bar serving beer in the sand Raymond.