Posts Tagged ‘Don Det’

Bangkok stopover

Friday, June 5th, 2009

On Tuesday Hannah and I rented bicycles and headed south on Don Det, to the old railway bridge connecting it with the larger island of Don Khon. We rode past the remains of a small, old French locomotive, and west out to the Tat Somphamit waterfalls. The part of the Mekong that runs west of the islands comes crashing down through rocky canyons, and the mighty river, that has turned brown with the tons of silt washed out by the rains now in the rainy season, roars with a deep bass that resonates with something deep inside the stomach. It was a truly breathtaking experience! From there we cycled south, to a much lauded beach that turned out to be a smelly stretch of dirty, brown sand, where we stopped for a soda in the heat. We turned our bikes east on a small dirt path, until we reached the course of the old railroad again. The French built the little stretch of rails to transport goods from boats downstream of the waterfalls to the boats waiting to take them further upstream to Vientiane and beyond, but now the rails are gone, and we bumped south on the coarse gravel on which the tracks used to lie. My travel guide informs me that the government is talking about restoring the little railroad, but warns me not to hold my breath waiting…

We reached the tiny village of Ban Hang Khon at the south tip of the island, and across the river was Cambodia. It is possible to rent a boat to go out and try to spot the rare Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins, but like in Lake Baikal it was both too expensive and also the wrong season to go fresh water dolphin spotting… Instead we turned back north, and followed the eastern edge of Don Khon up to Don Khon Village. We stopped for a late lunch, and while we were sitting there, a mighty rainshower turned the road to mud, which the scorching hot sun turned dry again before long. Back in our guest house on Don Det, Mama Tan Orn’s Rasta Cafe and Guest House, the rest of the day was spent in exactly the way we came to the four thousand islands for to begin with: In hammocks with our respective books. πŸ™‚

On Wednesday Hannah had to catch the boat and bus back to Vientiane to pick up her new passport from the Australian Embassy. She left at eleven, and shortly after I went to enquire about tickets to go to southern Thailand. I found that the best way would be to just buy a bus ticket to Ubon Ratchatani, and find my own way to the railway station and buy a ticket on the night train to Bangkok from there. For lunch I went to a bakery run jointly by a Laotian family and a man from Australia that has some amazing cinnamon rolls for next to nothing. I sat there for hours, reading, until an incredibly fierce rainshower crashed down over us, while the sun was still shiningΒ  just as strongly as always. After about three minutes it stopped as abruptly as it had started, and it was difficult to comprehend how much it had rained just seconds earlier! The only other customer and I looked unbelievingly at each other, and simultaneously exclaimed “That was unreal!”

We got to talking, and discussed what was worth doing on the islands. Her name was Lisa, she was from Germany, and she’d rented a bicycle that morning, but hadn’t found the waterfalls. I told her where they were, and that they were worth an extra trip out there. We figured that there was just enough time to go out there and back again before it would get dark, so off we went in a hurry. While we were out at the waterfalls it started raining so hard that when we found shelter after a couple of minutes I could wring several deciliters of water out of my T-shirt… The only other traveller out there so late was Kaye from England, who was hoping to get some video shots of the sunset over the waterfalls. She wants to be a TV announcer, and was using her travels as an opportunity to compile a show-reel to send with her applications when she returns home, and I remembered seeing her filming herself buying a donut in the bakery earlier that day. We all waited out the rain, but there was no sunset to film. The three of us headed back to Don Det together as it was getting dark, and then went out for dinner together. Kaye was tired, and went to bed early, and Lisa was leaving for Cambodia early the next morning, but we stayed on the back porch of my guest house until almost midnight anyway, because she wanted to see some photos from Nepal, as she was thinking of going there later.

Yesterday morning I bought the bus ticket I’d forgotten all about the night before, and had breakfast with Kaye in the bakery before I went to the pier to take the boat to the mainland. From there I went to Pakse in a minibus, and from Pakse across the border on a VIP bus. We arrived at the border just too late to change our Laotian Kip into Thai Baht, and the bus driver offered a totally unacceptable rate, so I got in a sawngthaew, a pick-up truck with two benches along the sides in the back, to go to the train station, hoping to be able to exchange there. I got to talking to a Lao man who spoke incredibly good English on the truck, and he told me there were no places that would accept Lao Kip anywhere outside of Laos and it’s borders. I almost considered going back to the bus station to make the change with the greedy bus driver, even though that would mean missing my train, because I had way to much Kip left to let it slide, when the guy offered to buy the Kip from me! We looked up the going rate online on his palmtop, and I insisted on giving him a slightly more favorable rate, seeing as he had just saved me from a much greater loss. I find that the people around south east Asia are extremely friendly and helpful, it’s just too bad that communication is so difficult when I don’t speak their language, and very few of them can speak enough English to communicate properly!

The train ticket was cheap, and I bought the cheapest option with a bed, second class with fan, upper bunk, but I couldn’t buy a ticket all the way to Suratani, where the boat to Koh Pha-Ngan leaves from, I would have to buy the Bangkok-Suratani ticket in Bangkok. I spent some time in the restaurant car, and had several “conversations” with Thai people who spoke no more than five words of English between them, but insisted I sit down and share their food and have a glass of Thai beer with ice. πŸ™‚ When the restaurant car closed at 22hrs, I went to bed, watched an episode of Battlestar Galactica on my laptop, and slept like a baby until the conductor woke me up at 7:25, five minutes before we rolled into Bangkok station.

When I got to the ticket counter there, it turned out that because of the upcoming full moon party, all the trains were fully booked… I went instead to a travel agency, that managed to find an available seat on a night bus, with the boat ticket included. The bus doesn’t leave Bangkok till seven pm, which meant I had over ten hours to kill in Bangkok. I used the facilities in the train station to brush my teeth and have a shave, before I caught the subway out to Lumpini park, where I had breakfast at the food court. A very outgoing lady there wanted to serve me a Herbalife shake for breakfast, but laughed with me when I broke out in laughter at the thought of ME drinking a weight-loss shake when what I really needed was something that would put some meat back on my rather lanky frame… πŸ˜› It’s funny how when I travel, I loose weight even when I feel I do nothing but eat!

The lady showed me where the best food in the food court was, and pointed out her favorites, all the while talking about her friend in Bergen, and her involvment in CISV, Children’s International Summer Villages. I got her card, and she urged me to try volunteering for CISV when I return to Norway. After breakfast, I walked around the park for a while, looking at the wealthy and bored Bangkokians working out, or just enjoying a morning stroll in the painstakingly trimmed green lung in the middle of this smoggy metropolis. It is weird to think that only a few hundred meters away, people are struggling to eke out a living in the squallor of Bangkok’s slums…
When I came out of the park, a Tuk-Tuk driver immediately pulled up, as I was rifling through my Lonely Planet guide to come up with something else to pass the time. He asked me where I wanted to go, and looked a little confused when I said I didn’t know… A little explanation later, he understood my situation, and suggested to give me a tour of the main sights. I lied and said that I’d seen them all, and was just looking for a way to while away eight more hours. For some reason, Bangkok is not a city where I feel the need to see the temples, pagodas and museums, but I didn’t think I would be able to make him understand, seeing as I don’t really understand it myself. It’s just something about the city that tells me to observe the things that I accidentally come across, instead of seeking out the sights. The driver pointed out a couple of things within walking distance, wished me luck and a good journey, and drove off in search of people with a little more specific goals for the day…

I walked aimlessly up wide boulevards with noisy, polluting traffic and down narrow alleys with exotic, but by now familiar smells coming from the food stalls lining them, until I happened upon a Starbucks… I haven’t been to Starbucks since Xian in China around Christmas time, so I decided to treat myself to a Grande of Today’s special coffee, and surf the net. It turned out I have to pay for the web access, but the Columbian blend was completely worth it, although it cost twice as much as my entire breakfast in the park… I have gotten to actually enjoy the ice coffee with sweet condensed milk that’s served in street stalls and small side walk cafes, but a nice, hot cup o’ joe, black as sin and bitter as an old widower, consumed sitting feet-up on a soft leather couch in an airconditioned Starbucks is a luxury I’m thoroughly enjoying, and charging my laptop while I’m at it is an added bonus. πŸ˜‰

Here’s hoping there’re rooms available in Koh Pha-Ngan tomorrow, so I don’t have to sleep on the beach. πŸ˜›

Four thousand islands in the Mekong river

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

On Thursday I got up early-ish, and headed out to the Thai embassy to get a visa. They are giving away 60 day visas until June 4, so I figured I’d take advantage of that. In the visa office I met a Norwegian-Swedish girl called Helena who stayed at the same guest house as me, and that I’d spoken to a bit the night before. It was a looong wait to get to the counter where I handed in my application and my passport, and then an almost equally long wait to the next counter where I got a receipt for it. We talked most of the time, and decided to do some sightseeing once we got out of there. We first went to see the golden stupa, Pha That Luang, which is a symbol of Laos both nationally and religiously, but it wasn’t all that impressive, to be honest. The best part of it was that we met a couple of monks that were sitting around studying English and Japanese, and they wanted to talk to us to practice their English. Helena had recently studied Japanese for a few months, so they accidentally got to practice their Japanese as well, while all I said was wakarimasen, I don’t understand… πŸ˜›
On the way back we went through the Patuxai, which is a symbol of peace, but looks like the Arc de Triomphe. We stopped by Wat Si Saket as well, which was the only temple to survive the Siamese sacking of Vientiane in 1828, but it was closed, so we didn’t get in. We had dinner at an outdoor restaurant by the Mekong, where I ordered Mekong fish, and got a giant barbequed fish
on my plate, with some stickyrice on the side. πŸ™‚

The next morning we met at breakfast in the guest house, and both had to go pick up our passports with the Thai visas, so we stuck together again. We stopped for lunch on the way, and almost got to the embassy to late. It was open till 3pm, and we got there at 2:59, but with the result that we were in and back out in less than a minute! That night we went out with two Brits and an Australian, to the same place at the Mekong riverfront. Me and Helena were planning to pick up dinner at the night market, but since the others were eating there, I couldn’t resist getting what they called a “hatched egg”, which basically means a boiled egg with a foetus inside… It looked thoroughly disgusting, but it tasted like a hard boiled egg. For dinner at the night market I picked up some beef jerkey, fried rice, a really nice sausage, something that turned out to be herbs and liver in an intestine, and a bag of deep fried beetles that looked like giant stink bugs… πŸ˜› The food was good, but the beetle-snack was just salty and dry as dust, so I passed the bag around, and a Swedish guy ended up finishing it!

That night I got to talking to an Australian girl, Hannah, in my dormitory, who’d lost her passport and had been in Vientiane waiting for a new one for nine days. I told her I wanted to go out to Phu Khao Khuai National Park to go Elephant spotting, and she asked if she could come, so Saturday morning the two of us took a local bus out to the park, and a Tuk-Tuk to the nearest village, Ban Na. We found the office, had lunch, and headed out into the park. After a few kilometers we reached the Elephant Observation Tower, where we were going to spend the night with our two guides. They were two “for our protection”, but armed with flip-flops and umbrellas I’m not entirely sure they could do much than try to distract any giant pachyderm trying to attack us… We had a dip in the water hole where the elephants come to drink, and then settled in for a night of Elephant spotting. The tower is built right on a salt lick where they come to add some much needed minerals to their diet, by licking the salty rocks. It was a gorgeous night in the jungle, but the closest we got to wild elephants was a prodigious snort deep in the woods.

Sunday morning we headed out for a trek, and saw where the elephants had gone through last night. We went to a beautiful waterfall where we were playing around in the water for a while, and when we got back up, our things were literally COVERED in butterflies! I had to shake them off my camera bag to get out my camera, and it was hard to get good pictures, since they kept landing on the camera while I was trying to photograph them. When we were packing up to leave again, I had to wave the butterflies out of my backpack, camerabag and shoes… We stopped for lunch by another stream, and had another dip there to cool off in the killingly hot and damp jungle. A cool thing about that stream was that some of the water went under a ledge, and came bubbling out of a hole further down the stream, so it was like a natural jacuzzi!
We were back at Ban Na village a little before 3pm, and walked out to the river to catch a bus south to a place in the Mekong river called the four thousand islands. At a quarter to four a bus came past that was going to Pakse, and we got on it. Twelve hours later, we arrived in Pakse, where we had to wait for three hours before we could get a bus to Si Phan Don, the Four Thousand Islands. From the bus we got a ride on motorbikes down to the river, and then on a longboat across to the island of Don Det. We arrived at 11am, on Monday morning, a good 19 hours after we left… Needless to say, Monday was not a very active day on our part, we spent most of it in the hammocks on the terrace in our guest house, which is built on stilts over the edge of the Mekong. Here I met some Dutch girls that I spoke to in Vang Vieng, and that I might meet up with in Koh Panang on Sunday. This morning we’re planning to rent bicycles and go around the island of Don Det, and cross the bridge to Don Khon. Hannah has to go back to Vientiane tomorrow morning to pick up her new passport, while I’m staying another day before I head back to Thailand, and down south to the islands. The idea is to get to Koh Panang in time for the full moon party, the biggest beach party in the world. A lot of the travellers in South East Asia try to catch one of those while they’re here, and I expect to meet quite a few of the people I’ve met around the place in the past couple of months. πŸ™‚