Days 645 & 646 of Round the World Travel
Preparing for another very long travel day that is estimated to be more than twenty hours. The journey from Vang Vieng to Si Phan Don (also known as Four Thousand Islands) is an arduous and exhausting haul. There are numerous companies that offer transportation services and the average price I found to Don Det was 250,000₭N ($31.15). While I am not on a time crunch and could have taken the local bus to Vientiane, I had heard from numerous backpackers that this is not a destination to spend much time in. Plus, I would have added even more hours to my travel time, and I have learned that money saved will typically be spent on other necessities (food, toilet fees, water, etc). I talked with several other backpackers who had done it their own way using local transportation, and they said it was a nightmare. At each stopping point, they had to organize their transportation, deal with language barriers, pay extra for tuk tuks, or taxis, at an inflated price, as well as even having to pay for additional accommodations when they arrived after the last bus departed because of the skewed time frame. There were also instances where the bus terminal they arrived at in one town was not the same bus terminal they were departing from, which was often on the other side of the town. I have heard of people purchasing tickets that were either void, fakes, or only took them part of the way even though the seller guaranteed that it would cover all transportation services to the desired destination. Over my time and experience of extended travel, I’ve come to view this as a game. I do my best to talk with other travelers as well as inquire at a variety of local shops and transportation operators to determine what the best overall bargain price is. But, I have also come to terms with the fact that, as a foreigner, you will pay more, and this is just a reality.
This morning I was awake at 9:30am (I know this sounds like a luxury to most) and after enjoying a hot shower and organizing my backpack, I headed out for a late morning brekkie at one of the local restaurants that I continued to return to because the family that ran it was so wonderful. After returning to my guesthouse, I did my routine inspection of checking for any items that may have fallen under the bed or hidden in the pillowcase. Throwing on my dual backpacks (the larger one on my back and the smaller one on my chest) I took the short walk to the transportation office and before I knew it, the driver was calling us to board the minibus to Vientiane just after 1:00 PM. The short, five-minute drive took us across a dirt airstrip that was full of bicycles, motorbikes, and other vehicles driving in various directions. I suppose when there is an absence of aircraft attempting to land, every bit of road surface is utilized. We arrived at the bus terminal that would take us to Vientiane, on the opposite side of town from where I had first arrived in Vang Vieng. By 1:30 PM, our large coach bus was full and we arrived in the capital around 5:30 PM. After talking with several more people, including the lone ticket agent that barely spoke English, I learned that our overnight bus would be departing at 7 PM. The bus terminal in Vientiane had few amenities to offer, but I did have a chance to grab some dinner. I approached the counter of the only restaurant in the terminal and a young girl that I guessed to be ten years old took my order of fried rice with mixed vegetables. I took a seat and minutes later my meal arrived– a bowl of soup with vegetables. I tried to explain that I had ordered the rice, but the young girl had no idea what I was saying and I gave up and enjoyed my hearty bowl of leafy greens floating in hot water.
Since there was time to kill waiting at the bus terminal, I struck up a conversation with a girl from Brazil who had been living in Australia for about fifteen months. She had only six weeks to explore South East Asia. We shared various travel stories and I told her that I had already promised another friend I had met in Colombia to visit him in Rio, but now I have an excuse to visit her in Sao Paulo as well. As we were talking, I asked if she had experienced a sleeper bus yet, and she said she hadn't. I told her I had heard that when you receive a ticket you are doubled up in beds. A horrified look came over her face as we discussed this. Unless you are traveling with someone else, this can be a game of roulette as to who your bunk-mate will be.
We boarded the 1970s style sleeping bus that reminded me a bit of the bus from Almost Famous. It just happened that our tickets were the two lower bunks across from one another and Luana and I were praying that the bus would not be full and we would have a bed to ourselves. No. A few minutes later a large group of Asian students showed up and I had the privilege of sharing a twin size bed with a German guy, while Luana had a much older gentleman next to her.
Luana from Brazil, we were across-the-aisle bunk mates until she realized she was on the wrong bus!
If you have personal space issues, this has got to be one of the first things you get over when backpacking. Wedged in our bed, I couldn’t help but touch the other person next to me, and the worst was when I rolled over and was practically nose-to-nose with my bunk-mate. Thankfully Die German that was millimeters from me for the next twelve hours did not snore, but sleep was still a constant battle from the bumpy roads and tight sleeping quarters. Just after sunrise, we arrived in Pakse to the normal yelling of the bus driver for us to exit the bus in a disoriented state. The bus terminal in Pakse was next to the Mekong River and was a dirt lot where a slew of taxi drivers were waiting for the new arrivals. I confirmed several times that our ongoing transportation to Si Phan Don would be a twenty minute wait. This was an opportunity to brush my teeth with a bottle of water. Yes, the joys of travel continue.
I said goodbye to Luana, as she was heading to Cambodia, exchanged Facebook info and gave the standard, “safe travels.” At 7:30 AM, the smaller group of us were picked up and driven another short five-minute drive, where we transferred buses, yet again, and departed Pakse at 8:00 AM. I knew it would be about two hours before reaching the dock for the boat to Don Det. Exhausted, I curled up against the window and prayed for some sleep. Four hours later, we arrived at another dirt parking lot and were told that the pier was just down the road.
Marching in a line of backpackers like zombies, it took between ten to fifteen minutes to reach the Mekong River bank where numerous long tail boats were waiting to take passengers on to Don Det or one of the other 3,999 islands. By this point, the midday heat made each step feel as though more weight was being added to my back, which had a nice pool of sweat growing underneath it. We were dodging speeding motorbikes, rickshaws, and merchants carrying sacks on their backs or poles strung across their shoulders. The bustling departure port was lined with street vendors selling everything from clothing to food.
Climbing aboard the swaying long tail boat, I was one of the last people before we reached maximum occupancy, leaving a few stragglers behind on the shore. As the captain fired up the engine by pulling on a piece of rope that was wound tightly around the starter, there was a slight breeze and we puttered down the Mekong. The boat ride reminded me a bit of the journey from Almirante to Bocas del Toro in Panama, and I was told the same a few days before from Quinnan. Sadly, as we were cruising down the river, there were numerous plastic bottles bobbing above the water and I could only imagine how much worse the pollution factor may be in the years to come.
From the book that I’ve been reading, Vagabonding, I continue to find some very good and inspiring quotes:
There’s a story that comes from the tradition of the Desert Fathers, an order of Christian monks who lived in the wastelands of Egypt about seventeen hundred years ago. In the tale, a couple of monks named Theodore and Lucius shared the acute desire to go out and see the world. Since they’d made vows of contemplation, however, this was not something they were allowed to do. So, to satiate their wanderlust, Theodore and Lucius learned to "mock their temptations" by relegating their travels to the future. When the summertime came, they said to each other, "We will leave in the winter." When the winter came, they said, "We will leave in the summer." They went on like this for fifty years, never once leaving the monastery or breaking their vows. Most of us, of course, have never taken such vows–but we choose to live like monks anyway, rooting ourselves to a home or a career and using the future as a kind of phony ritual that justifies the present. In this way, we end up spending (as Thoreau put it) "the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it." We’d love to drop all and explore the world outside, we tell ourselves, but the time never seems right. Thus, given an unlimited amount of choices, we make none. Settling into our lives, we get so obsessed with holding on to our domestic certainties that we forget why we desired them in the first place.
Sunset in Don Det
After traveling continuously and currently for almost 3-years, I have had an amazing opportunity to gain and improve upon my previous professionals skills, both my previous 12-year career in Broadcast Television, as well as through volunteering, activism, entrepreneurship, hostel or guest house management, international business ownership, freelance consulting, and English teaching. Follow me at RTW Experiences.com.