Don Det - 4000 Islands

Our journey from Kratie to Don Det in Laos started at 7am with an expected 6-hour journey for which we paid $18 each, we thought we would arrive around 2pm at the latest. You may be surprised to hear it was around 5pm when we eventually got there, but this is SE Asia, and anything can happen! 
After an early morning breakfast, our minivan turned up 15 minutes late and we pile in this old vehicle which was already full of locals and only 2 seats remained which were right at the back. After unloading some of the bags in the rear, we clambered (via the boot) over the rest of the luggage and squeezed into our little spot for the first part of our journey which was to Stung Treng, approx. 2 hours north where we knew we would be changing vehicle.



Despite the van being full, we still stopped to pick up another couple of locals, and the rows of 3 seats soon convert into 4 with a little bar that folds down, and a cushion slots in. By now I think there was 16 of us in this little 12-seater, plus bags and goods too! 
As we got closer to Stung Treng, a few people were dropped off along the way in what seems like the middle of nowhere, and as we drive round the small market town, the others slowly all get out and we are the only 2 remaining. The driver then tells us 5 minutes as we head out of town.... again I wondered what was going on. We eventually are dropped off at a little café about 9.30am, and we just get told to wait there, no further info at all and our driver passed some money to the young lad in the café and disappears.

We sat for about an hour and then asked one of the young guys when our next minivan was arriving, and after a quick phone call, he said about an hour. Shortly another minivan turns up and out gets a fellow traveller and asked if we were going to 4000 Islands. His name was Bernard and was from Catalonia, so he took a seat with us and we got chatting. Then a tuk tuk turns up and an older lady gets out, again going to the same destination and she is called Bronwyn and was from New Zealand.
Around 12pm yet another minivan arrived, and we again get squashed in the back with more locals, boxes and huge bags of rice at our feet, meaning there was nowhere to put our legs down. This part of the journey was just over an hour long, and after the usual dropping off locals and goods, we arrive at the border just after 1pm. 


Then the 4 of us had to get out and go see an official(?) who was in a café at a desk and take all our luggage out of the van. Now this border crossing is notorious on the traveller’s circuit for being corrupt, full of scams and some even nasty stories pop up. So, when some guy asks for my passport in a café, yes, I am apprehensive. As some of the scams involve people ‘arranging’ your visa and charging extra fees, but as it turned out this guy just had a quick look, asked to see our photo for the visa and then gave us the Laos visa form and arrival cards to complete. 
We sat and filled these out, and once done I was still expecting him to ask for the visa fee/passport and tell us to wait there. But we just got pointed to the direction of the border point, so off we went with all our luggage. We got told that the minivan would get us at the other side, but I already had my doubts about that too. 


First up was the Cambodian Immigration control, where we hand over our passports one by one and then the first of the ‘un-official’ fees were asked for, which is $2 each for our departure stamp. Having read about this already, we were expecting it and as the man behind the dark glass counter has your passport hostage, there isn’t much else to do. 3 of us pay it, but Bernard refused, and he was told to wait. Still we wandered through just in case our minivan was waiting for us and walked the 500 yards to the Laos Immigration control and go to the first window where a man checks the paperwork you have completed, takes the $35 Visa fee (correct UK price), your photo and tells you to wait. The 3 of us do that and then Bernard finally catches us up, he got away with not paying the $2 to the Cambodians by saying he had no money! 


Now we are just waiting for the lady at the next desk to stamp our visas and get on our way, Sadie gets called up first to collect them. We had read that they charge another unofficial $1 entry stamp fee here, so Sadie hand’s over $2 to get our passports back. But she only gets her one back, so after I finish my cigarette I go up to speak to the girl. She adamantly demands another $2 from me to get my passport back, to which I tell her I have no dollars left and that she had the last $2 from Sadie. She continues to argue I need to pay, and this goes on for 5 minutes before I tell her I will wait for a while. Then Bronwyn goes up and tells her she has no dollars either and offers to pay in Cambodian Riel which she didn’t accept. Another long discussion took place with no resolution, and it’s the turn of Bernard who also says he has no dollars left, and yet again no movement by the girl who now had all 3 of our passports! 
We all take it in turn to go up to her and ask about our passports, getting the same story that we need to pay $2 which we were all refusing to pay. She just kept telling us to wait, 6pm was mentioned (it was around 2pm now) and kept disappearing from her desk. We were now in a stand-off, the money isn’t the point here, their corruption and attitude were. As our minivan was nowhere in sight (as expected) which probably had no intention of coming across with us and with nothing coming from the Laos side either, we knew we had a bit of time on our hands to see this out.


Bernard was hilarious in giving her banter and clearly not getting anywhere, we were getting a bit more frustrated as time went on. We even offered to pay by card, but as this an illegal ‘fee’ that was refused. At one point I pretended to take a photo of her, which obviously is a big no-no at immigration as she took a disliking to it! So, as well as the arguments which were still ongoing about the fee, there was a new one regarding taking photos. It was all going around in circles, with neither of us willing to pay, there was no toilets available as they have them all closed, apart from one of the other side of the road that you need to pay for! Bronwyn went behind the offices in the trees, and at one point I walked into a corridor near the closed toilets, which took you to the way the staff got to their desks. Next minute some crazy guy (not in uniform) grabs me by the arm and pulls me aside, well that didn’t go down with me as we had a heated discussion about what would happen if he touched me again like that! 
By now an hour had passed and it was still ongoing and despite us asking for a manager, threatening to call the police etc, Sadie went to the desk again to plead to the girl to get our passports back. Again, the conversation was mainly about the ‘photo’ that was never took, so after showing her my photo gallery (she wanted my phone passed to her which I refused) to prove there was no photos, she still didn’t believe it.
Shortly, a male officer comes down so she explains to him and eventually once I have shown him my phone, he spoke to her and said for her to stamp our passports and give us them back. Sadie even got the $2 back she handed over at the start, just shows that this is just a scam to get extra cash from tourists! 

Once we all got our passports safely back with our Laos visas, and already a bit miffed with the country already, there was still no sign of any transport for us to get the 17km to Nakasong to get the boat to Don Det. We walk over to a little café on the border and grab a drink, the man tells us the minivan is at 5pm, and now it was only 3.30pm. None of us particularly wanted to wait that long as we would be arriving by boat in the dark, so Bernard tries to get us a lift by stopping any van that was heading that direction. He eventually gets one to agree to take us for free, despite the driver initially wanting 30,000 LAK (£3) from each of us (we had no local currency). The 4 of us jump into this minivan which had just enough room, and 3 travellers all heading to Don Det too plus a few locals. Though the 3 of us were in the boot, Sadie deciding to stand too! 


We got chatting to the 3, one guy was from America and the couple were British/American. Thanking them for the lift, we chatted for the short distance, but strangely the driver stops at the junction he needed to take the last 3km to the ferry. He then asks us all to get out, to which all of us were now very surprised at, as the 3 already in that minivan had paid to get to the island too. The driver said he was just a taxi and tried telling them they needed to pay for a Tuk Tuk to take them the last few km, but rightly so they were unhappy with this as it was not what they had booked. 
This resulted in a fair bit of confusion, but to add to that even more, another minivan pulled up at the back of us and asked if we were going to Don Det and that he was there to pick 4 of us up! 
So, he must have been there to pick us up, realised we had left the border café and luckily just caught up with us, and after a bit of discussion he agreed to take all 7 of us now to the ferry, so the other 3 now got a lift with us… it was all very bizarre! 
Then we headed the last part of the journey down the bumpiest dirt road ever (no wonder that other guy didn’t want to go down there), and we get dropped off at the bus station with all our bags and luckily the American guy has been coming here for 17 years, and took our little group and guided us down to the ferry via an ATM so we could all get some LAK. 


We already had our ferry ticket as part of the package we booked and despite our doubts of it not being accepted due to reading various blogs, to our surprise it was fine and we all get on the small local boat over to the island.

By the time we got checked in it was around 5pm, only 10 hours after leaving Kratie! but we had no power in our Paradise Riverview chalet for the much-needed shower. Thankfully it didn’t stay off long, and after a beer we had settled on our veranda with an amazing view overlooking the Mekong River. 
Don Det is a small island with a laid-back tourist strip, popular amongst young backpackers, you can walk round the whole island in a couple of hours, and there isn’t much to do here except chill out and perhaps go see a couple of nearby waterfalls. 


We head out to a bar a few doors down from us called Adam’s Bar, which is ran by a guy originally from Brighton, which has a few tables out the front area, then out the back is a large floor area with cushions etc that faces the river. The first night we went in there was a huge group of people across from us and a couple said hello. We just had a couple of beers and a cocktail in a pint glass, however we then went out for a walk around looking for a restaurant called Kea’s Backpackers which we couldn’t find, before heading back to Adams and sat in the front section for some food. 


I ordered a Happy Pizza and Sadie went for a Chicken baguette, and after our food went through the back to join the others and got chatting to them and we sat and had a few more beers. Manni was from the UK, but now lives on the island and there was also Chris and Graham who are the 3 main characters in this group, and who I think live here most of the time. It’s a very much a drinking/smoking culture here on Don Det for tourists, and these lads just hook up with whoever is around to chill with, quite a good life I suspect 😉 


After that we all headed to a little bar across from our hotel called Cloud 9. This bar was in the process of closing, so didn’t have many drinks in... there was no beers, no tonic and I think we ended up with what was meant to be Gin & Sprite but tasted mostly of the latter. It was all a bit hazy from what I remember, and I think we wandered back to bed around midnight!

The next morning, we didn’t awake until 09:30, just in time to go for breakfast. Which was probably one of the weirdest meals I’ve ever sat down to. The waitress (possibly owner) gave us the menu, from which you choose one food item and one drink item. We then to proceed to get everything we ordered/needed brought to us one thing at a time, with no order to what was coming and with around 5 minutes between every item. So, the butter would come, then some fruit, then your eggs, then jam, then bread, then some juice. What was even weirder is she brought some white milk looking stuff in a glass, which I thought was going to be milk for the coffee (that never arrived). But she came over and tried to get me to drink this stuff, I said I was ok for now and she just said ‘No, drink it now’… so gobsmacked I took a mouthful and swiftly put it down, no idea what it was, but I didn’t like it! Am not sure why her behaviour was a bit strange, maybe she was just trying too hard to be friendly, but it made breakfast an interesting thing… but then we were both still shattered so went back to bed till 12:30!


We wanted to go for a walk, so headed down the sunrise side of the island, which is the one we were on, and found a place called Street View Café. There isn’t a huge amount of choice on where to go for food and drinks on the island, but this one was rated highly so we stayed there for a good few afternoon drinks. The American we met yesterday was there, along with Darren the owner who was originally from Australia, so we chatted to them both for ages and enjoyed the nice cold beers. 
Darren fired up the BBQ, so we had dinner there then headed back up to the main strip to find the others. No one was in Adams at all, but we found a few of the group in a bar called Ning Nings which did a better Gin than the previous evening. Around 10pm we called it a night and headed to bed.

Our next morning, we awoke to find some stuff had been left on our veranda table, which was clean towels, toilet roll, a whole Papaya and some fresh fruit. Unsure of if this was breakfast or not, we got dressed and went to the restaurant where we had our proper breakfast, this time served by another girl and service wasn’t quite as random as the previous day.
We still had to get SIM cards for Laos and found a shop nearby that had some. You don’t need to register them here with a passport etc like other countries we have visited, so I got one first and some top up credit to buy a data bundle. After heading back to the hotel to sort that out, I managed to work out how to register the SIM and buy a bundle eventually.

 

We did plan to walk right round the island to see the bridge that goes across to Don Khon, but after setting off it was too hot to walk all that way, so we cut across the middle of the island and headed back up the sunset side which we hadn’t seen yet. We found the bar we were looking for the first night but not where it was on Google Maps, called Keas Backpackers, so we stopped there for a couple of drinks and then back to hide from the mid-afternoon sun.

We got our washing back that we had given the crazy lady yesterday, eventually as it wasn’t there when we asked and some girl had to go running off for it, so we quickly dumped that in the room to sort out later on.
Deciding to go out for sunset, we went back to Keas and got a table overlooking the Mekong to watch it. We got a spectacular sunset, with the most amazing clouds and once it got dark, we ordered some local food which was delicious.


Then it was back to Adams to see the group, and we sat and chilled with them for a bit, had a smoke and then staggered back to bed around 11pm. On getting back to the bungalow, we had no power and with no staff around to ask about it, we just had to endure a warm sweaty night with no air-con!



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