I've been travelling in Southeast Asia for a little over a month now, and decided that this time around, I was going to try to avoid most of the touristy locations that line this backpacker's haven: in Thailand, Bangkok's Royal Palace, the ruins of Ayuttya, and the beaches of Phuket and Koh Pan Ngan; in Laos, the sleepy town of Vang Vieng and the majestic heritage town Luang Prabang; and in Cambodia, the magnificent Angkor Wat.
Don't get me wrong — these destinations are a must see for anyone visiting the region, especially for the first time. Even having been there before (Thailand more than once) I was still struggling with whether to return or not. But with time limited and my desire to see new things in full force, I decided to try to stay in fewer places for longer rather than try to pack in all the official sites and then squeeze in some down time.
I'm starting to have a renewed appreciation for the virtues of down time — time meant for relaxation and contemplation in inspiring settings that are guaranteed to give you a bit of a new perspective on things.
After spending a little over a week in Nong Khai, which is one of the northernmost towns of Isan, Thailand's Northeast region bordering Laos (this place is magical as well, and deserves a whole article of its own), I crossed the border into Laos via the Friendship Bridge, which took me to Vientiane, Laos's sleepy, scenic capital.
Unfortunately, much of the waterfront is under construction right now as a new park is being built, but I still had a great time wandering around the wide streets and smaller sidestreets, looking at lovely Lao crafts (I was drawn to the many embroidered scarves, wallets and handbags), and drinking some of the most delicious coffee on Earth.
I'd been to Vientiane before, and while it has grown some, making it someone more fast-paced, it still has so many of the things I love about that city: grand scenic boulevards, tasty baguettes served on the street with pate, chicken or cheese, very friendly people, and an interesting national museum.
The next day, I took an overnight sleeper bus to Pakse, taking me to the south of Laos for the first time. Savannaket and Champasak are easy trips from Pakse, but I was determined to get to Don Det sooner rather than later, so I opted to spend the afternoon walking around the quiet town of Pakse, and delighted in crossing bridges to enter village after village of the friendliest people sitting in their storefronts, selling fruit, and working to build or repair some of the town's temples and other edifices.
Everyone was quick to say hello and jump into my camera's frame. I bought some delicious oranges and ate them by a bridge overlooking the Mekong after stopping into a quiet Chinese temple tucked away at the very end of a village street, and marvelling at its colours and gorgeous symmetry.
The next morning, I got up early and jumped into a minivan with several other people heading even further south, all the way to Si Phan Don, or Four Thousand Islands, which straddle the Cambodian border. I'd heard great things about this place but it's so far off the grid it's often hard to squeeze a place like that in if you only have a couple of weeks to travel around.
I was so glad I gave myself time to discover the magic of these islands.
Some of the four thousand islands are as big as a tree and its surrounding grass, and as of now, there seem to be only three that are set up for visitors: Don Khong, Don Khon and Don Det. The latter two are joined by a bridge that is easily traversable.
Once on the islands, you'll be thrilled to discover that there are no cars anywhere. Only recently, in fact, was electricity available after 6pm, only adding to the rustic charm and traditional feel of the islands.
I stayed on the tiny Don Det the entire few days I was there. The whole island spans only 7.2km, and circling around it in parts or in whole brings so many rewards. The south part of the island is full of bungalows and guesthouses overlooking the Mekong: you can choose the east side for sunrise or west side for sunset, though it is easy to cross to either side to catch the view from wherever you stay.
Most bungalows have a restaurant and there are plenty of others nearby. As you walk north, you'll find homes interspersed with nature's finest offerings: bamboo trees, various plants and animals, and above all, a great sense of peace and calm.
I spent two mornings trying to traverse the island but I tend to get lost easily and the trails sometimes taper off into vast tracts of field. No matter: it's hard to get really lost on a tiny island, and I delighted in stumbling into people's gardens to say hello, find myself walking amid calm cows grazing in the early morning, and even finding the odd guesthouse tucked away in the centre of the island.
My greatest memory of Don Det is the friendliness of its inhabitants. While I was there, there was a huge celebration happening at the temple there, and people were feasting and singing and dancing in joy for hours.
We were constantly invited to join the fun, and the next morning, we all sat in a collective, respectful silence as the festivities from the night before wore off and everyone quietly began their mornings, washing and getting water from the Mekong, playing with their children, opening their restaurants and stores, and tending to the animals.
Sometimes you want to visit a place once, see the splendour it has to offer, and move on.
Other times, you find a place so magical you can't imagine why you'd leave. I'm still asking myself that question as I write.
The Brunei Times