Next morning, we’re up and ready to leave on the minivan at 8am, until a call comes through that they can’t, afterall, take the bikes, so the booking (costing 150,000 kip) is refunded. Not the greatest start to the day. Instead, we have to cycle to the Southern Bus Station (aka the ‘8km Bus Station’ as it’s, you guessed it, 8km out of town!) We’re not dressed for cycling, so this is a bit of a pain, but we don’t have much choice. This bus station is pretty chaotic but, with some help from a helpful old fella who is from Laos but lives in LA, we manage to get on the right local bus, and our bikes are chucked on the roof, no problem. The journey will take about 3 hours and costs 140,000 kip in total (50 each and 20 per bike).
It’s hot, sweaty, windy and dusty, but the road is OK and we at least have a seat. In retrospect, an air-conditioned VIP minivan probably isn’t our scene, and this felt much more ‘us’, so, no regrets. The information about getting to Don Khong Island, and even the bus drivers, still talks about including the ferry as part of the price. In fact, there is now a road bridge connecting the island with the mainland. It opened about three months ago and is not yet on Google Maps or in our guidebook so, before we know it, we’ve driven onto the island and been dropped off in the middle of quiet, serene Don Khong… let the rest and relaxation finally begin!
After waking a woman from her lunchtime siesta (this is a seriously relaxed island), we check in at Villa Kang Khong, a beautiful old house built of teak (even if the teak would be even more beautiful if it was still rooted in the earth). It’s one of the best rooms we’ve stayed in, with a bed to die for, or in, and only costs 50,000 kip.
We then do some mild exploring, watching kids bringing in their meagre catch, and take an inaugral dip in the Mekong. The waters here are so shallow that it’s not really possible to swim, but I give it a go anyway, much to the amusement of the kids, who are all born water babies.
The rest of the day is spent lounging around the riverside restaurants of Muang Khong, drinking Beer Lao and then Nam Khong (when in Rome…) as the sun sets and the red moon rises over the Mekong. It’s unbelievably peaceful here and totally undeveloped in terms of tourism.
Next day, rather than take the boat to Don Det, we decide to cycle there (hey, we are CYCLE TOURERS after all), after first doing a southern loop of Don Khong. Before that though, we check out the local museum. It seems to be shut, but the back door is unlocked so we sneak in and are glad we did; the exhibits about the islands and their people and history are tres interesting and the old French colonial building, built in 1935, is gorgeous.
The south of Don Khong is pancake flat and, although there’s not a whole lot to see, just cycling through the island interior feels like rural Lao in microcosm, with hills and forest in the distance, rice paddies, cattle grazing and homes on stilts. When we stop for a pause, there is absolute silence.
We then cycle over the new bridge and, after a couple of km, hang a right turn and take a local back road that runs parallel to the Mekong. Here, we stop to cool down and have lunch, and an old guy joins us. He has pretty good self-taught English and explains he is on his way to visiting friends on Don Det.
After 33km of sweaty heat-of-the-day cycling, we’re at the ferry terminal (little more than a tiny floating jetty) where we take a tiny narrow-boat to Don Det. The crossing takes no more than ten minutes and costs 40,000 kip in total, including the bikes. On arriving, there’s a sandy beach and when Rach suggests a quick dip, it seems foolish not to. This time the waters are perfect for swimming. There are also more falangs on the island than we’ve seen in a long while.
Don Det is supposed to be the ‘party island’, while neighbouring Don Khon is apparently more chilled, so we decide to head to that one. There’s a great little cycle path to the French Bridge which connects the two islands, and about 4km later we’re on Don Khon, hoping to find our idyllic riverside lodgings… but aware that we’re probably too late for today (it’s already gone 4pm).