No pictures with this post yet, as I'm sitting in a very tiny internet "cafe" in "downtown" Don Khon, in the Si Phan Don, the part of Laos closest to Cambodia. In fact, I saw Cambodia this morning, biking around the island; there was a dirt road that dead ended in some beautiful blue water and a cluster of tiny islands in the distance that was a whole different country. How did I know that? Because the sign in English right before I got there said "Hello you can go no further there is the end of the island so walk to the beautiful sandy beach and look at Cambodia and sit down relax have a beer thank you."
Moving from Thailand to Laos was relatively uneventful, except for being relieved of $35 US at the Laos border for a "visa", which you don't actually get one of, just a stamp with an end date. The border crossing is dusty and hot and the windows are completely tinted black ecept for one small semi-circle at the very bottom, so we all spent a lot of time shouting "Forms? Passport? No picture!" with our heads tilted sideways and resting on the Formica countertop. The shouting was happening in lots of different languages, since the bus from Ubon to Pakse was crammed full of, not just tourists, but Laos returning home and Thais on vacation. And bicycles.
Although Pakse itself is a pretty touristy town, the Laos are probably the friendliest people I've encountered so far. They're always smiling, even if you're not buying something off them, and everywhere you go, people are shouting "Sabaidee!" In Pakse, I found the street market and amused myself playing with a tiny puppy and gnawing on an ear of corn while watching the smiling faces come and go, eating soup from a bag and noodles from...still a bag. They like plastic bags.
(When I told the French girls I've been hanging out with about the puppy, one said, "Oh my God, what do you think they were keeping it there for?" Note: it was purebred and had a collar. Not food.)
The Sabaidy 2 Guesthouse had one dorm bed left; tidy and spotless, the dorms had four actual beds, not bunkbeds, although when I returned from breaking into a deserted mansion later in the day, another mattress had been added to the floor, along with a backpacker on it. I wandered and wandered, Pakse being pretty freaking tiny, and crossed the Mekong as the sun was setting, wandering through the dusk and jogging Laos and motorcycles and shouts of "Sabaidee!" and construction workers yelling "I love you!" onto the Laos side of the river. From there I could look through the pink air across the Mekong back at the tourist fiesta, see the bright lights and signs proclaiming "Pizza!" and I smiled.
I'd spent the whole day looking for a riverboat down the Mekong to Si Phan Don, which is the ONE thing I really wanted to do while I was in SE Asia. There aren't any. Well, there might be some, but you can't find them without speaking Laos, and I think my limited vocabulary would not extend to such endeavors, unless all they required of me was to say "Please," "Thank you," and "Hello." So I got a ticket from Sabaidy 2 on a tiny Mitsubishi minivan that brought back memories of Guatemala, and dumped me at a rural boat launch known as Ben Nakasang.
The small canoe with outboard motor crammed as many tourists as possible into it and rocked out into the Mekong, depositing its first and largest load at Don Det, the backpacker paradise. As the rest of us continued onwards to Don Khon, I laughed out loud to see several water buffalo swimming, their noses barely held out of the water; for some reason, I turned my head to look at the boat driver, directly behind me, presumably inviting him to be delighted at them right along with me, like he doesn't see the eact same thing every day. A few minutes later, he touched my arm and pointed at some more swimming by, with a big Laos grin.
Arriving in Don Khon, it's pretty easy to find accommodations: there's only one big town and one road. So The two French sisters and I walked to the first guesthouse we found that had riverfront rooms with hammocks (I NEED hammocks...the same way some people need cocaine) and took it. My room is 25,000 kip, or approximately $3US, for a large bed with mosquito net, outdoor toilet, view of the Mekong, hammock, and, presumably, mites, ticks, bedbugs, and other infectious stuff.
Yesterday night, watching the sun set over the Mekong from the gentle sway of my hammock...well...it probably couldn't have been better. This morning, however, I made the mistake of believing the guidebooks and bicycle merchants and rented a bicycle. Why doesn't anyone talk about how intensely unpleasant riding a bike around this island is? The roads are scattered with rocks the size of fists; no wonder every Laos rides a motorcycle, because everybody but dumb tourists knows that biking around is a sure way to either fatal head injury or potential shaken-baby syndrome. I did find some isolated sand beaches, and enjoyed a breakfast/lunch of chicken and vegetable curry while staring out over the river. A Buddhist nun joined me and we sat in companionable silence, while she surrounded herself with animals and I slurped my curry, which had probably been made of river water. Yay, Parasitology Museum!
I can't stress enough how terrible bicyclcing is here -- I'd really almost rather walk, assuming you get up early enough to avoid midday heat. So now I'm heading back to the hammock to nap till it cools down a bit...then probably walking across the railroad bridge to Don Det. I'll probably be staying in the Si Phan Dno for at least another day and then...I don't know. Maybe north to Vientiane via sleeper bus and work my way south through Thailand back to Bangkok...or maybe back the way I came, spending another night each in Pakse and Ubon. Either way, I'm on a tropical island.