My journey to 4000 islands in the South of Laos isn't quite a journey to the centre of the Earth. But it is 20 hours, most of which is on a ‘sleeping bus’. I share a single bed with a Dutch girl I've just met. We laugh at being squeezed together like battery hens.
I stop off for a Lao massage and a good night’s sleep in Pakse. Meeting Bougan is the highlight of Pakse - he's in his PJs in his Dad’s grocery shop. He points at a juice carton and says ‘orange’.
I point at fruit and animals and people on packaging. And Bougan calls out: papaya, pineapple, panda, giraffe, bear, boy, girl, baby - wow Bougan, you know your stuff.
Another 3 hours south to Don Det in the morning...
A minivan then a longtail boat to Don Det, one of 4000 islands (Si Phan Don) in the south of Laos, on the Cambodian border.
When the world is covered by water, it will look like 4000 islands. Some islands are just trees popping their heads out of the water.
Others like Don Det and Don Khone, you can cycle around in a few hours along river paths and through sun-baked fields.
I decide to treat myself in Don Det (after 3 months backpacking, I surely deserve a few days flashpacking). I check into Little Eden guest house on Don Det. The Belgian owner, Mathieu, brings me chicken and lemongrass soup for lunch, steak in creamy pepper sauce for dinner, eggs for breakfast.
Viewed from Little Eden’s terrace, the Mekong river looks like a lake. Longtail boats cross the water, paddled by men in pointed hats. The breeze, when it comes, is as welcome as mint ice cream.
My bed at Little Eden has whiter than white sheets and Mr Soft pillows. My inner princess detects no peas beneath the mattress. Hallelujah!
Next day, I cycle a few miles to the neighbouring island of Don Khone and go dolphin-spotting.
In our wooden boat, we pass trees that look like they are losing a fight with a gale - but there's no wind here. I wonder why they've grown this way.
I can hear Cambodians cockerels from the boat and we see a group of Irawaddy freshwater dolphins. They play hide and seek with us for half an hour.
I eat lunch with a Thai guy and two Japanese guys. One of the Japanese guys, Yoshida, is a Manga writer and illustrator. He offers to do a Manga drawing of me – how could I refuse? I feel extraordinarily shy as he sketches me.
The other Japanese guy, Mr K. Etsushi, gives me a signed Polaroid picture and insists I sign his copy – we are holding up his Lao-Japanese phrasebook complete with cartoon pictures.
But it’s the kids of Don Det village who entertain me the most...
Kids play in wheelbarrows and joke around with each other.
And yes, kids peer up a buffalo’s bum – the buffalo holds his tail up most obligingly.
Later, a herd of water buffaloes take their afternoon bath in The Mekong. They exhale noisily and slap their chins against the water.
A great place for writers
I meet Megan and Ally in Don Det – two writers from Canada and Scotland, both working on novels and blogging about their travels.
One of the reasons Ally is travelling is to add more colour to the locations in her fantasy novel. Ally’s latest blogpost is about stumbling across some skinned rock rats on Don Det. And she tells me a terrifying, late night story about her encounter with a huntsman spider on her travels.
Megan convinces me to visit The Philippines on my travels – Megan’s tales of bright blue waters and white sand grab my attention.
We all agree that Don Det is a great place for cracking on with our writing projects. There are no distractions here. Just the ripples of the river, the occasional boat motor. And the call of a very fat gecko called George – he sounds like a wind-up toy and looks like a small dinosaur.
Just as well my 30 day Laos visa is running out – otherwise I’d probably stay a month.