The first afternoon (mornings tend to slip away in these laid back hideaways) was spent with Paul, Pauline, and Ramual ( French folks who I commiserated with at the border debacle). We rented some squeaky bikes and headed to the island of Don Khon, connected by a southern bridge to Don Dhet. As always with these island bike rides, the simplicity and "Hello!s" were plentiful. We dipped our toes into a clearer section of the Mekong on the southwestern tip of Don Khon as the white beach began to lose its heat.
For sunset we took what was the first tour of the trip for me. But for just four dollars it was well worth it. The four of us plopped down sandwiched between our two guides in a skinny boat hand hewn from wood. The long propeller ideal for when the river runs low held a puttering motor. We glided downriver aided by a current that was deceptively strong. The top looked sluggish but one look at the trees rushing by on the shore, and I was glad we had a capable pilot.
Near the Cambodian border, we joined a pod of boats floating in view of the main event. Close to shore the fabled river dolphins were on display for all to see. With only fifty or so in the world, and only two supposed spots to see them, it was a rare sight. They emerged sporadically with a pfft of spray as their slick grey backs shimmered in the golden sun. While we never got closer than 30 meters it was a sight I'd never seen before and was worth the ride.
That night we chanced upon a guesthouse owned by a local family, but for all accounts run by a man who called himself Papa. Papa is all at once so foreign and local. His relatively towering frame, robust stomach, and Welsh-Scottish accent set him apart from the long time residents. However, despite his contrary physical traits and short time on the island (5 weeks) he seems right at home. Everyone who passes by knows his name and he knows everyone else's. He slips in and out of basic Laos while doing odd jobs around the bungalows and translating between chefs and guests. I've met a few people like Papa in my life. They are so confident in their own selves that others can't help but gravitate towards this stability. Life tends to revolve around them because they are living it to the fullest.
We spent our second night with Papa and some neighbors who broke out the well used karaoke DVD. Off key drawls and cigarette smoke filled the steamy island air as two cultures united in a Saturday night party.
The last full day on the island was divided into one purely local event and one touristic minor let down.
In the early afternoon a villager called Papa down the road. He turned to us and asked if we wanted to see a real cockfight. Of course we couldn't miss out on such an opportunity. Tucked behind on of the planked houses was a pulsing ringlet of men and boys. Cheers and jeers alerted us to the activity long before we saw the action. Once we approached close enough to peer over the crowd, we saw what all the excitement was about.
Inside a precisely constructed ring, two roosters shifted around each other in a bloody tango. Their heads were already stained maroon and bald spots littered their chests and backs. They alternated between aerial attacks to the opponents soft spots and doggedly leaning against each other like boxers who came to a brief truce to provide each other rest. The fight continued for 10 minutes or so before a draw was declared.
After the birds were finished in the ring, they were brought to the side for a rubdown of sorts. Like Rocky headin to the corner of the ring, the cocks' owners hold them gently to prep them for the next fight. Wounds were cauterized with quick brushes of a hot towel and eyelids were stitched back to provide better sight. Then it was up to the owner whether to reenter the bird for higher chances of money and death. I never saw a death in my short visit, but from the blood-empassioned shouts and rising stakes, it was only a matter of time.
After the fight, we took a boat to the biggest waterfall in southeast Asia, Khonephapheng. It was quite a spectacular sight. It was a broad cascade of frothy mist with birds passing by over the crash. A suspect entrance fee definitely put a damper on the spectacle, but still a worthwhile stop.
The next morning I rose early and Paul, Pauline, and I took a local boat across to the mainland for a bus. (Ramual had moved on the previous morning to make it to northern Laos) My time on the island was slow and peaceful. The 4000 Islands are a cultural mixture of partying tourists, island hopping hippies, and a homegrown culture that lives on beyond the tour companies and bars. In a way Papa embodied all of these things. And I did too during my brief stay.