I thought that at this point of our trip around Laos things couldn’t get any more laid back.
After spending several days lazing in sunny Vang Vieng, we found ourselves aimlessly strolling through the sleepy capital of Vientiane while slurping on fruit shakes, then in the most remote and quaint village of Kong Lor to experience an eerie 7km boat ride through a pitch black cave and, later, lay beneath a blanket of stars during a brief blackout before, finally, arriving in Pakse where we would do little more than get several massages from the excellent Dok Champa and ingest multiple masala dosa from Hasan. We might have drooled a little bit from the corner of our mouths along the way. We even extended our visa by five extra days to further the near-vegetative state we were already in. And you should consider doing the same if you have the time and are enjoying this gentle comatose way of living: we had an average daily cost of life of US $30 for two people including food, accommodation, transportation and activities (OK, we didn’t do much) while we were in Laos. The visa extension cost $2 a day plus a $2 processing fee and is a piece of cake to get, so for us there was absolutely no reason not to linger for a little longer.
Our penultimate endeavour in the quest to rancho-relaxo was a two day road trip on a scooter around the Bolaven Plateau chasing waterfalls, rainbows and baby cows, drinking amazing coffee and stuffing my face with plump durians. But it was not all roses for everybody, as Richard got stung by a wasp, dropped the scooter in the mud, pouted at me while I gorged on durian like a cave woman with no manners at all and, in his words, “got mobbed by mosquitoes and eaten by ants”. I still think he secretly had a good time though.
We briefly returned to the lovely Nang Noi guesthouse to scrub the dirt off of our flip flops a bit before setting off to our last and most idle destination of all: Si Phan Don – the land of hammocks and horizontal living.
The first stop was Don Det. We adapted very well, I can tell you that much. No culture shock here. We settled as far to the boat landing and unassuming party crowd as we could, 2km out of town at Mama Leuah, a lovely little set of bungalows right on the Mekong.
A typical day consisted of getting up at around 8, walking the twenty or so meters that separated our bungalow from the front porch of Mama Leuah to get some breakfast, walking back to our bungalow, flopping in a hammock to read for a few hours, walking into town to get some lunch – preferably from a restaurant where we could also flop in a hammock while we waited for our food, walk back to Mama Leuah, flop, sleep, do a bit of yoga, have dinner from Mama Leuah because at this point we’re too lazy to go anywhere else, flop, sleep, flop, and repeat. We briefly interrupted the flopping to circumambulate Don Det on push bikes and cross over neighboring island Don Khon to visit the waterfalls, old train line and beach for a day.
It seems opinions are somewhat divided as to whether Don Khon is better than Don Det or vice versa. I personally don’t think that Don Khon offers anything significantly more appealing than the South Eastern point of Don Det in terms of accommodation and food, meaning that I would have been equally happy living on either island. Whatever you do, however, don’t go without visiting the one island you are not staying on, since both of them boast their own individual charm and puppy herds.
A significantly more polarizing decision is if a visit to Don Khong, the biggest and least popular of the islands, is worthwhile. Despite some warnings from flopping companions in Don Det that it was not that great and we should instead visit Champasak, the lure of Don Khong’s morning market, seemingly more authentic food and allegedly friendlier locals was too strong a bait for us not to go and see it for ourselves. And I’m glad we did. Because the morning market was lovely, the views from the restaurants was wonderful and so were the locals. And there is durian in Don Khong, but not in Don Det. However – where were the hammocks? Why is there no hammock in Don Khong? Eventually we made it back yet again to Pakse to be reunited with Nang Noi’s warm whole wheat bread rolls and ridiculously cute dog as well as Dok Champa’s massages.
On the last day before leaving, we thought we’d follow up on the advice that we got in Don Det and rented a scooter to go check out Champasak and the Khmer temple of Wat Phou. Champasak is an absolutely charming town with great food, temples, old French building remnants and, despite the fact that I’m glad we got to check out Don Khong for ourselves and form our own opinion, I’d be inclined to admit that perhaps we should have spent a few days in Champasak instead, or also. Moreover, I think our itinerary was a little backwards. So in light of our experience, here’s a suggested itinerary:
1. Pakse is in my opinion definitely worth spending a couple of days on arrival before setting of for a road trip around the Bolaven Plateau. When you are ready to go, there are several options ranging from one to seven days. We did the two day small loop to Tat Lo and back and it felt just right for us. As much as we love riding a motorbike through the scenic roads, our sore asses were ready to come home after two days! Nang Noi guesthouse can store your suitcase for you for free whilst ou’re road tripping and has great scooters for rent. One more reason to make them your base.
2. Return to Pakse. Here I would take at least one night to scrub off and have a good stretch before moving on 😉
3. Pakse to Champasak. Spend a few days in Champasak, there is sufficient things to see, do and eat for at least 2 days, maybe more.
4. Champasak to Don Khong. Don Khong is a great introduction to the 4000 islands: it has several commodities that Pakse has, but it also has the beautiful scenery and laid back vibe of Si Phan Don. If rustic bungalows aren’t your thing, there is a great selection of resorts for all tastes/budgets, and perhaps you might be happier here than in Don Det or Don Khon.
5. From Don Khong you can catch a boat to either Don Det or Don Khon for relatively cheap (it’s complicated to do it the other way around, you have to charter a boat and it’s expensive – we made the mistake and had to take a boat to the mainland, followed by a bus, followed by another boat). Going to Don Khon is slightly more expensive (5,000 kip), but you’ll save on the bridge toll, which is 25,000 per person, so it might be worth doing things in this order if you intent to sleep on both islands, but I don’t believe it is worth it, because you are basically going to be flopped in a hammock for the most of your stay, whether you do it on one island or the other. Don Det is a lot more touristed and has got a bit of a backpacker ghetto around the main boat landing. It also has one fancier resort if that’s your thing, some western food options, good English widely spoken and a few very secluded guesthouses. Don Khon offers many guesthouse options also, but a lot less tourists to be seen, a few more sights and activities and perhaps a bit more of a genuine Lao cuisine and rural Lao life experience overall. In either case don’t expect anything amazing in terms of food. Also, as mentioned, don’t go without visiting the island you are not staying on.
6. Return to Pakse before moving on to your next adventure. In our case, the next move is Thailand. But before that, one more massage and masala dosa.