Don Khone Island is one of 4,000 islands scattered through a 40 x 14 km section of the Mekong river where it tumbles out of Laos and into Cambodia. We expected that our visit to this remote island would one of the more challenging destinations on our current travels – we were not disappointed.
A rather beat-up ‘tourist’ bus took us to Nakasong, 145km south from Pakse. We found the waterfront and, a boat that was heading to Don Khone, and upon arrival at our island, we then needed to get a Tuk Tuk. We had chosen to stay at Ban Hang Khone, a village located some 6km away at the ‘quiet end’ of the island. “A place well away from your fellow travellers where you can experience the sleepy pace of life in Laos”.
The Tuk Tuk was a bone rattling and dusty ride – in a fair ground, a similar ride would probably be called ‘bucking bronco’. We managed to stay attached to the tiny Tuk Tuk seat and were soon in a small and rather dishevelled looking village.
Our guesthouse was in the middle of the village and luxurious compared to the other village dwellings but, a somewhat different ‘luxurious’ to what we have become accustomed to in Luang Prabang and even Pakse. No aircon, no drinkable running water, no windows and very little else to keep the ‘evening nasties’ on the right side of the house. The in-house cook did not understand the term ‘mild’ when it came to the inevitable addition of chillies to the the limited range of dishes on offer. This was going to be every bit the village-experience that we had sort-of anticipated when we booked our stay. I had warned Ruth that it may be a little rough around the edges hoping that it would actually be better.
All of the villages have what appears to be a considerable population of free-range; dogs, cats, chickens, ducks (and last, night water buffalo) that have roaming rites to the village, including; our eating area and your room if you give them the chance. Nobody seems to have responsibility for looking after them and many are in a poor state of health but, by the number of offspring, still capable of certain activities.
Fortunately, our only overnight intruder (that we are aware of) has been a frog that took up residence on our toilet seat. We left it to find its own way out rather than play a game of ‘catch Kermit’ in the dark of the night. Our bedroom is very dark (even in broad daylight) as it has no windows, just a bed and mosquito net, a door through to the open living area which we keep closed at night in order to provide a barrier to any unwanted visitors who should wander or fly through the windows. That door blew open one night and I walked into it not expecting it to be where it was.
The village dogs sleep all day (they know it is too hot for any activity) and any place that is available, including the middle of the road. When the sun starts to sink into the smoky atmosphere at around 5pm, they spring into action. The village becomes a free-for-all as dog fights break out, chickens and cats are chased, romances are formed (after a lot of before and after howling) and general mayhem ensues through the night until they hand over to the roosters around 5:30am.
The roosters are the local ‘alarm clock’ and put a lot of energy into carrying out their duty. Shortly after ‘rooster reveille’ the two stroke motors (without mufflers) that are used to power the canoes and boats, kick into life as the locals head out to their fishing grounds to check the nets they had dropped the previous night. It sounds like a dry Saturday morning back in urban New Zealand as the lawn mower brigade attack the week’s grass growth. The hills on both sides of the river seem at act as an amplifier delivering the noise through the window in dolby stereo.
Now if this was enough sleep depriving noise, we just happened to arrive in the village at the same time as the oldest resident, a 97-year-old, died. We were amazed that anyone could live to 97 in these conditions but the locals are made of sterner stuff that us urban wimps from westernised countries. The cremation took place shortly after we arrived, on a funeral pyre that had been built just across the village ‘green’. The death appeared to be a cause for celebration (I will certainly be celebrating if I make it to 97) and the entire village seemed to be celebrating, each in their own way. For some, this involved listening to very loud music until it was time for the roosters to start amassing.
Oh well, it was probably only going to be for one night. Wrong, it goes on for some days. On the sixth night ( a Saturday) the music hit previously untested volume levels. A sound system must have been shipped in from a rock venue to generate the inter-country noise volumes that kept us (and I am sure most of those across the river in Cambodia) awake until 3am. The ceiling fan even started to shudder as the base was tuned to maximum permissible levels. We had concerns that the neighbouring and rather unsteady looking water tower would come crashing down onto us. Over breakfast, in our state of total exhaustion, we concluded that the deceased must have been part of a famous Lao heavy metal band.
Our ‘villa’ looks out over a very pretty stretch of the Mekong river as it flows into Cambodia. Unfortunately, the burning of rice stubble (and anything else that can be set on fire) steadily obliterated the view and actually started to become unpleasant. Three of us ended up with irritated nose and throat conditions although we have probably caught colds in our vulnerable sleep-deprived state.
Our village experience was rapidly starting to sour. But, all stories should have a happy ending and this one is no different. 9 nights gives you time to adjust and, it also enough time for events to move on. Yesterday while coming back into the village by canoe we noticed the huge speakers being loaded onto another boat – they were leaving the island. The smoke had temporarily gone and overall a new optimism was enveloping us – just as we are about to leave.
I guess the moral of this travel tale is that ‘good things take time’.