Friday, February 17, 2017

From Don Det to Sanamxai

I made my way down to Ban Nakasang, Laos, which is where I needed to cross over to Don Det Island in the 4000 Islands of Laos on the Mekong River. It didn't take me long to find the ferry crossing from  Ban Nakasong to Don Det.  There were special boats that took motorbikes across the river to the island; they consisted of two little dugout boats about the size of canoes, with a platform between the two, and one engine running the whole contraption.  I had read online about the possibility of one's bike getting dumped into the river while perched atop the motorcycle ferry, but luck was with me and I made it across intact.

Once I got on the island, my first thing to do was to get a place to stay.  I rode up the main road through the village a bit, then a friendly German woman asked me if I needed a place to stay, and I went ahead and stayed there.  It was a nice guesthouse with lots of room, but I wish I had gone a little longer and found one of the bungalows with hammocks along the water. After I got settled, I took a motorcycle ride around Don Det Island to see the sights there. First I went down the road on the east coast of the island, the sunrise side.  There were a whole bunch of little restaurants offering “happy” pizzas, cakes, brownies, and shakes.  Then I went down the middle road on the island, which was not very picturesque at all and just ran between a bunch of farms.  The road was very bumpy and rough. At one point, the chain came off my bike. I struggled with it a bit, but didn't have any tools to help get it back on.   One guy stopped where I was wrestling with the bike and tried to help fix it, but he didn't have tools so he told me to wait while he went and got some tools.  He came back after about ten minutes, and tried to work on my bike, but he stripped the outside of the nut a bit using the wrong size wrench.  I thanked him, and said I would pay him and then find someone else to do ti.  After asking around a bit, the locals referred me to another guy, who successfully fixed it and tightened up the chain, which had gotten really loose.  Success.  I was able to get back on the bike and ride again.

I took a bridge on my bike from Don Det Island to Don Khon Island. The roads were very rugged and bumpy, and the island was more desolate and wild, though there were some tourist accoutrements in the north part of Don Khon. Once you get further south, it's all fairly wild.  At one point, I heard a huge noise to my left, and there were a whole bunch of water buffalo stampeding in my direction.  The center of the stampede was in front of me, but I was still on the sides of it.  I quickly started walking my motorbike backwards, and got it about a hundred meters back, and was able to avoid the stampede, hoping that there were no stray animals still to come out of the bush.

I explored around Don Khon island some more.  Don Khon was a lot bigger than Don Det, but much wilder.  I didn't get signal down there, so I had no online map, but I managed to make it back toward the north part of the island, where there was signal again.  I couldn't figure out why I kept missing the road that went to the bridge...I finally figured out that the roads on Google Maps didn't meet and there was an overpass to the road I was on that led to the bridge back to Don Det Island.  So I found a little side path up the hill that led to the overpass, and I was able to cross the bridge back to Don Det.

Later that night, I had dinner at one of the restaurants on the river, and I met Chido and Desi there.  They had been traveling together for a bit, and later that night we all went back to my guesthouse room to just chill for a while.

The next morning, I ended up walking along the sunset side of Don Det Island.  There were a whole bunch of spots on that side of the island where I could wander out into places among the 4000 Islands where the Mekong has receded or changed course, so the ground was walkable but sometimes muddy.

Walking down the west side of Don Det Island some more. I ended up walking all the way to the south tip of the island, where the bridge to the next island is. I walked back up the east side of Don Det Island. I ended up walking the whole circumference of the island that morning. It's not huge, but it's about a two hour walk. There are ruins of a century-old pier along the east side of Don Det Island. It looks like a section of a bridge that just starts and stops out of nowhere.

I met two guys named Tom on Don Det.  The first Tom was Tom from Israel, who had just gotten into a bad motorcycle accident, and had his knees and elbows bandaged up.  He just mostly lay on the floor next to a table in this bar and restaurant across the street from his guesthouse, while he waited to heal up from his accident.  I saw him there most of the time every time I walked by that bar.  The second Tom was Tom from the Czech Republic, who told me that I solved just about all of the IT problems he was having.  I helped him get the money in his SIM card account into a plan so he could use his phone.  He had put the money in the account, but not activated a plan, so I showed him the code to dial to choose the plan he wanted from Lao Telecom.  I can't remember what the other thing I helped him solve was, but he was grateful. Some of the people around were thinking about taking a “happy” cruise offered by some bar on the sunset side, but it turned out the bar wasn't doing it that day.

When I was leaving the next morning, I was walking my motorbike up to the boat ramp, and someone pointed out that my tire looked flat.  It was not yet completely flat, but was losing air rapidly.  I decided to take the ferry across and get it fixed on the other side.  My incident where the chain came off made me realize there were no bike repair shops on Don Det, just individuals who are willing to fix things.  I once again managed to get my motorbike off Don Det Island, back across the Mekong River, once again without my bike and my gear spilling over into the river.  But then once I got to the other side, my tire was completely flat.  I had to walk the bike, pushing it through the beach sand and then up a steep ramp, to try to find a mechanic.  And I found a little bike repair shop in Ban Nakasong.  They fixed the flat and I was ready to go.  I didn't realize that to fix the flat, you have to take the brake assembly apart and put it back together again, but I watched him doing that.

I headed back up Laos Highway 13 to get to a place where I could cross over to Vietnam.  On the way up, there was a particularly nasty looking tour bus wreck.  It had been run off the road, and there was a huge spider web crack/dent in the windshield on the driver's side.  I had already seen a couple of bad motorcycle wrecks along this road previously.  I found a road on a map, south of Pakse, that I decided to take. This road, Laos Highway 18, ended up being the most challenging road I had been on in Laos. It was totally unpaved and extremely rough. I was riding up and down steep rocky and sandy hills, crossing many bridges with just rickety boards. One bridge was closed, but I didn't find out until the end, when I had to slowly back my bike off the bridge. There wasn't enough room to turn my bike around, so all I could do was back it up.  When I got to the beginning of the bridge, I had to back it down a little sandy hill, and the bike slipped out of my grip and I dropped it.  Some guy fishing at the stream helped me pick it up with all my gear strapped on and then I crossed the stream on my bike. I had to ford six streams along the way with my bike, which were each pretty deep. The first time, I just stopped right before the water, wondering what to do, when I saw a local guy just purr right through the water, so I started up my bike and followed his lead.  It wasn't so bad, but my pants got wet up to knee-deep. In the last one, I got stuck in mud in the middle, and pulled the bike out by gently accelerating and guiding with my feet like ski poles. My pants got soaked up past the knees from the crossings, and my shoes got caked with mud. Moving along was slow (at one point, I timed myself and I only went three kilometers in 20 minutes), and so I didn't get to go as fast as I thought I would, and there was no way to get to my destination during the day. So I ended up riding at night in pitch darkness on this difficult road for a couple of hours, even crossing some board bridges almost blind at night, trying to find a village with a guesthouse, and I finally found one after several unsuccessful attempts. To top it off, the rack on my bike snapped off from all the hard bumping, taking my tail light with it, and forcing me to repack my gear on the seat, with the broken rack loaded on top, and I had to sit on the gas tank. I lost my jacket (it was bungee-corded on the back in case I needed it) and my water somewhere along the way when my rack failed. I was just completely exhausted, riding in the dark and hoping each village I arrived in would have a guesthouse.  I finally arrived in the village of Sanamxai, tired, hungry, thirsty, and emotionally spent.  There was one guesthouse in the village, and I jumped on it.  I was so happy to finally stop.  I motioned to my mouth, because I was really hungry, as I hadn't eaten all day, and they fed me some rice and vegetables.  I walked around the village at night a bit; there wasn't much open at night and there wasn't much to see.  Then I collapsed into sleep at the guesthouse.

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