Crossing the Dom Kralor border from Cambodia to Laos was easy. In fact, all of the guidebooks seem to purposely confuse people and tell tales about how difficult passing this border would be. Just buy a bus ticket to Stung Treng (the last Cambodian city before the border) and once there, get your ticket (from the bus company or a guest house) for onward transport to Don Det (or any other major place in Southern Laos). The whole trip from Phnom Penh across the border to the Island of Don Det will cost 25$.
At the ‘Riverside Guesthouse’ in Stung Treng, I met several backpackers, three of them heading in the same direction as me. We set off early next morning for the short ride to the border, which consists basically of two small customs huts and a roadside refreshment ice-box. Note the total absence of hawkers, taxi or moto drivers and beggars. This is a place as peaceful and quiet as it can get.
There, we would change for a minivan, driving us to our destination in Laos. While the four of us were waiting in the shadow of a tree, Rene – the French guy in our group – spotted a ‘Petanque’ field. Probably the customs officers get quite bored as there is very little traffic (One car every ten minutes or so).
This was – so we guessed – the only explanation as to why such a recreational area would exist in the no-mans-land between the two countries. So we decided to play this French game under the watchful eye of the border officials, who were bemusingly make sure we’d stick to the rules. It was so relaxing and fun to play, that we made the minivan driver wait – once he’d arrived – until we had finished our game.
Next, we were driven to a landing pier and hauled onto a small boat which took us to the area of 4000 Islands. We all wanted to stay at the island of Don Det, despite the fact that the Lonely Planet guidebook is misleadingly insinuating that this spot would be crowded and pretty busy. I don’t know what the book researcher was looking for, since this is the most laid back place I have seen so far. There is a total absence of the Easyjet crowd (drunk lads with tribal tattoos and blond girls in mini skirts trying to look unimpressed – see my Sihanoukville entry).
In fact, I’d like to thank all the guidebooks who neglect to give this place the credit it should deserve. Don Det is raw country and the locals are warm and welcoming. They greet you all the time and it would be very hard not to know how to say ‘Hello’, ‘Thank You’ and ‘Goodbye’ in Lao after spending a day here. It’s hard (and heartbreaking) to imagine how this place and its people would survive promotions by tourist guidebooks.
However, it is hard to describe Don Det. This might explain why the guidebooks are so vague about it. All of our group said within five minutes after arrival that we’d probably overstay here. The term ‘Paradise’ was mentioned often. Along the Mekong river – which surrounds the island – there are heaps of bungalows in various shapes and sizes. Almost all of them come with a hammock on a terrace over the river. The restaurants also offer for the most part a 180 degree view of streaming water running rapidly through a scenic, rough wilderness.
The most difficult choice for us was the decision on which side of the island we’d rent the bungalows: Along the Sunset- or Sunrise-Boulevard. We settled for the latter as there was a bakery lounge with a river terrace nearby. They serve the usual choice of homemade pastry. Great stuff for hanging out during a long breakfast.
Most bars and restaurants on the island will make your order ‘happy’ for an extra 50 cent. Besides magic mushrooms and special ‘herbs’, the prices for weed is close to the price of regular tobacco. Needless to say that a lot of tourists on Don Det are quite ‘happy’ all day long. If you missed the ‘Flower Power’-era during the ‘Woodstock festival’ or on the island of Goa – back in 1968, then come to Don Det. It seems this is as close (or: as good) as it gets.
Sure, there are other things to do than chilling and listening to ‘Jimi Hendrix’ and other notorious late-60’s soundtracks in the bars. Most common is a bicycle rent to explore nearby Don Kon island, which is linked by an abandoned railway bridge. There are scenic views of rice fields, various animals, temples and local villages. All can be done within a couple of hours. Needless to say that this perfectly justifies a couple of days’ stay. Which will you make happy – one way or another.