We almost missed out on the best part of the trip.
The visa delay in Thailand (and the required return trip to Bangkok) meant cutting our original plan to head to Vietnam through northern Laos. We said goodbye to our plans to see stunning waterfalls and cross the border by boat, deciding that Angkor Wat and Cambodia would be our substitute. Thankfully, the patron saint of our trip, Anne (who we met at that hostel in Bangkok), suggested heading toward Vietnam via the 4,000 Islands in Laos.
There have been lots of moments that felt familiar along the way. Smiling to myself as the train to Chiang Mai passed rice fields that reminded me of my favorite running route in Orizari. Watching a grandmother fuss over her little one the way the babas do. But the 4,000 Islands, outward appearance aside, felt like home.
Sure, Orizari is surrounded by mountains instead of other islands, but the feel was the same. It was the relaxed, if the bus is late, we wait. There’s always more time for another drink, or a few more minutes to sit and chat. I loved it.
We had the kind of trip there that people complain about on the way and brag about later. We got picked up in Cambodia by the wrong tuk tuk to meet our bus. Backtracked. Then the right van took us to meet a bus. The bus drove for a few hours and dropped us at a gas station, where the driver said, “Wait. Another bus will come.” So we sprawled around the gas station reading, snacking, and wondering how long and if a bus would show up. Two hours later, another bus pulled up across the road, honked, and waved us over. Another hour and one of the staffers asked for extra money to take our passports for us through the border. We declined. He smiled and took our bus tickets.
We walked through the border and met a guy from England who has lived on Don Dhet for six years. He ushered us through like baby ducklings.
We paid the bogus $2 stamp fees, but still netted a savings from what the helpful bus man wanted to charge. One of our friends asked nicely and said “please” and they didn’t charge him. The man who took our bus tickets sneered.
The bus drove 30 minutes more and dropped us off at an intersection, where we loaded into the back of a truck, backpacks piled high. (Our fifth transportation change of the day, btw.)
Down a bumpy, dirt road for another 20 minutes and then we traded bus tickets for boat tickets. But that cranky man from the second bus took ours. Thankfully, with about 10 other people in the same boat (lol. punny.), the woman with the tickets let us on anyway.
Then we walked down to the long, wooden boat, filed on two by two, and wondered how we were so lucky to enjoy a sunset arrival.
We didn’t have a place to stay, so with our new friend (who was seriously our mother duck) leading the charge, we wandered down the path till we found an open bungalow. $2.50 per person.
Somewhere to sleep secured, we walked back to the restaurant/bar/guesthouse spot where our new friend worked.
We never left. We played cards, made instant, incredible friends, enjoyed Beer Laos, ate shakshuka for breakfast with new Israeli friends, compared travel stories, ate plates of rice and noodles, laid in the hammocks reading, tubed down the Mekong River, barbecued on the beach, walked around the island, biked to see the waterfalls, laughed a lot, sat in awe of sunsets that streaked the sky with new colors every time you glanced away, said sa bai dee (hello) to everyone, high-fived the kids running by, loved on all the street dogs that wandered in and out of restaurants to cuddle up at their leisure, drank fruit shakes, built bonfires on the beach, watched for shooting stars, lost track of what day it was, and felt at home everywhere.
In a few days, we were greeting familiar faces strolling down the main path and we were settling into easy routines, always eating at the same place because the food was always good and we were always there.
We met a few people from around the world who had visited once or twice and then never left. One year. Two years. Six years. It only takes about 10 minutes on the island to understand why.
We had a hard time pulling ourselves away, but we had to reach Ho Chi Minh for our flight home eventually, so reluctantly, after five days of bliss, we strolled down the path one more time, saying ‘sa bai dee’ to all those familiar faces and getting on one more boat. Until next time, Don Dhet.