27th – 28th April 2012
Arriving at Don Kong, the main island of 4000 islands (Si Phan Don), after the Pakse bus fiasco, we were pretty stunned to how quiet the main street was.
Hungry and thirsty, we stopped off at a local restaurant overlooking the Mekong River at its widest and slowest since Tibet, and appreciated the view as we silently munched through our pancakes. 4 days of travelling was starting to take its toll on us. We needed to relax and do some self maintenance. I was worried about myself, I hadn’t checked myself in the mirror since Thakek and was anxious to see if my eyebrows were not out of control (yes I pluck my eyebrows, believe me, you need to see my graduation picture before eyebrowgate).
There was hardly anybody in sight and we wondered where the backpackers go in 4000 islands. A quick study of the guide books revealed we needed to go to Don Det, another main island that is full of ‘falang (foreigners). So we needed to get there.
First, I remembered what we should have done in Pakse before catching the bus to here if it wasn’t for the Pakse Fiasco, draw out some money at an ATM as recommended in the guidebook. However, I wasn’t too worried as I knew there is an ATM on the island we were on currently and after speaking with the staff at the tourist information centre, Alannah and Matt went off first as Muriel and I looked after all the bags.
Muriel and I had a laugh while we waited and our smiles disappeared when we saw Alannah and Matt come back with frozen grimaces on their faces…oh no…
They said it only took Lao bank cards, not Visa or MasterCard. We were up shit creek and after standing around for a few minutes, it looked like we may have to go back to Pakse… A 3 hour journey. No one wanted to volunteer. Surely there must be another ATM in 4000 islands. Speaking to one of the owners of the guesthouse here, he mentioned there is one at the main port that is across the River Mekong from Don Det, our next point of travel in 4000 islands. I was slightly hesitant and he seems to tell us off hand rather than informing us of it. After making it clear that there is an ATM where we were headed, we gingerly travelled via long tail boat to Don Det and watched the local fishermen at work.
It was clear that the money situation was on our minds and we all read our books in order to take our minds off it. Counting my money, I knew I had enough for accommodation and my bus ticket out of Laos but not enough to pay for my Cambodia Visa.
In fact, I lie. I always have emergency money stashed away and really I did have the money to get out but I was also worried for my friends.
Stepping on to Don Det, we could see this place was a lot more happening but still fairly quiet. Finding accommodation in the form of a couple of bungalows hanging over the Mekong River that had its own hammocks (yay!), we decided to put off going to the ATM to the next day as we were pretty worn out.
The rest of the day was spent chilling out on the hammocks with Muriel talking about our lives, ambitions and thoughts whilst drinking nice fruit shakes and sticking our tongue out at the rude, unsmiling, pregnant woman who owned the bungalows while her back was turned.
After a sleep, Alannah announced she was to travel to Siam Reap (Cambodia) the next day as she wanted to get there and not stay on 4000 islands as she wasn’t a fan of the place.
I agreed with her partially. Maybe it was the money situation or that it wasn’t what I was expecting leading to disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, the place is beautiful but there seemed to be something missing. I reckon it was the community feel.
Booking her tickets out of Don Det and hoping to draw out the money at the ATM for the visa the next morning, we all went for dinner at the boat landing and was astounded at the ferocity of the storm that suddenly brewed up out of nowhere. With water spray on us as we ate and the winds threatening to upturn plates, the staff ran amok as they tried to keep everything dry and quite often the power cut out. Luckily, I had my headlight with me.
The storm blew itself out by the time we got to our bungalow, that hasn’t been flooded away yet. The bungalow was very basic with a cobwebby fan and a massive mattress that both me and Matt slept on and a huge mosquito net. It was okay I thought but it was miles better than the guesthouse at Thakek!
Waking up the next morning, Matt, Muriel and I decided to go to the ATM first thing to get the money to get rid of our anxious thoughts about money. But first, we waved off Alannah and wished her luck on her journey to Siam Reap. Don’t worry, readers, we will be catching up with her later. Not only we were waving off Alannah but also Justin and Corianne who travelled with us in Luang Prabang and turned out they were on 4000 islands!
Shortly after they left, we took a long tail boat across the Mekong River to the port that had the alleged ATM. We were bemused to discover that other people in the boat with us had the same problem. They needed money.
Landing onshore, we quickly searched for the ATM and hallelujah, there was one! My heart burst with relief. We were gonna be okay! Woo woo! Now, we could draw out loads of money and maybe spend on a boat trip around the islands and see the rare dolphins of the river at sunset?
Matt was first to reach the ATM and banged furiously at the machine. He turned round and said,
‘it’s not working‘
What?! I pushed him out of the way. He wasn’t joking. There was no sign of power on it whatsoever. I checked the back to see if there was a switch. Nada. There was a slight opening between the machine and the covering and peering through, I could see a fuse box and several fuses have been flicked off. It seems like the storm last night put it out of action. Oh dear. I couldn’t pull back the opening and the bank across the road was closed due to it being a weekend.
I want to leave the next day to Cambodia! And at this rate, it looked like it wasn’t to be the case.
I enquired at the stall next to the ATM to ask about power to the ATM as it looked like they shared the same outlet. The owner was pretty helpful and rang a number on the power line , and after a conversation in Lao, he passed me the phone. The line was very crackly and I informed them that the ATM is out of service. The voice at the other end told me I would have to go to Pakse as the ATM would not be fixed. And he talked more but I couldn’t understand and by the time. Passed over the phone to Muriel, the line went dead.
Taking stock of our situation, we wondered how Alannah got on. She would still be around if she couldn’t get the money and it seemed she did. We asked around if there was another ATM close by. Nada. It seemed like a bus journey back to Pakse was on the cards. One of us would have to ride the bus with all our cards and draw out money then get back on the 6 hour round trip. No one was willing to volunteer but ultimately deciding we would arrange it back on the island we were staying at, we silently travelled back on long tail boat with other travellers who came to the same realisation.
As it was too late to grab the bus to Pakse that day, it looked like Cambodia would have to wait another day. Leaving Muriel and Matt at the bungalow, I kicked a rock along thought about exchanging my emergency money to get all of us across the border at least to a Cambodian ATM and then booking a bus from the border once I did until I heard,
‘Sir, where do you go?’
I looked up to find a grinning travel agent sat outside his shop.
Informing him I wanted to go to Siam Reap the next day but I cannot due to having no money and I would have to go to Pakse to get some. He put up his hand and waved that suggestion away.
‘Don’t worry. I give you the money.’
You what? He’s willing to give me money. Seeing a small lifeline that may come with a huge catch 42, I enquired further.
Turned out he was willing to lend us the money for the bus ticket and visa providing we pay him back on the Cambodia side. There would be a charge for this, that was the catch. But the catch was miles cheaper than a bus ticket to Pakse. I asked him how he could trust us to give him back the money? He replied that his brother is the driver of the bus. Ahh. I asked him if this could be extended to Matt and Muriel and he was more than happy to do so. I rushed back to the bungalow, grabbed them both and we managed to get bus tickets outta Laos finally!
Celebrating, we went to a restaurant and had a Lao dish of pumpkin burgers. It was mouth watering and tasted good…perhaps that there was no anxiety anymore! The rest of the day, we chilled in our hammocks taking in the relief, having some fruit shakes near the beach where I swam in the Mekong River that felt gorgeous and relaxing.
The evening was spent playing some pool at the aptly named ‘Pool Bar‘ with some of the Slowboat people that we met. Erika and Lola play a good game!
I was pretty happy and yes, I did have the emergency money on me but this would be used in case if anything happened en route to Cambodia.
But little did I know that our troubles was far from over and some of my emergency money would be spent immediately first thing in the morning…