I’ve been in places before that were not featured in the Lonely Planet or on Wikitravel. And I’m quite proud of that. But a random island without a name, unfindable on Google and for which even the locals don’t know how to get there? How can that be any good?
It was awesome.
How I heard about it
While we were eating baguettes, watching Friends and sipping real good cappuccino in Vang Vieng, my German friend Michael told me about the little islands in Ang Nam Ngum Lake. Actually he couldn’t tell much about it, but he spoke to a Lao guy who told him it was great. That was enough information to give it a try. It was exactly in between Vang Vieng and Vientiane so it was on our route anyway.
How we got there
After a failed try to get up in time and another day filled with baguettes, Friends and cappuccino we found ourselves waiting for the local bus to Phon Hong. The local bus was actually a songthaew, a pickup truck with two benches in the back. It left somewhere around 8 am in front of the Moon Bar in Vang vieng and cost us 30.000 kip each. I don’t really remember how long the drive took but it might have been around 2 hours. The drive to Phon Hong was a quite scenic drive through the mountains. I took my chance to stand on the back of the pickup to be able to look around me and over the roof. An old local man who tried to speak Lao with me shared some kind of fruit with me. It tasted like radish and was quite hard to eat while holding onto the songthaew with my other hand.
The locals on the songthaew seemed to be quite confused why in the world we wanted to go to Phon Hong but they did tell us when we had to go off. Of course a taxi driver started haggling us to jump in his car so he could bring us for 150.000 kip for a drive to the lake. We knew better as our favorite sandwich lady in Vang Vieng gave us all the local knowledge. We just jumped on the next songthaew to Talat for 10.000 kip. And after a short stop and a few bowls of rice soup we took a shared taxi from there. Another 7 kilometers for 20.000 kip each.
The taxi driver refused to bring us to the wharf as he was certain there weren’t any guesthouses on the islands. Instead he took us to a resort where we booted up our cellphones and laptop to find at least some information online. There was none.
With who we were
We were lucky to run into two more young Germans, a guy and a girl. The guy spoke a bit of Lao and double checked if it really was impossible to stay on the islands. It was impossible, according to their Lao friends.
How we got to the island
Convinced that nothing is impossible in Laos, we all grabbed our backpacks and walked to the small town along the lake. We bought as much sticky rice, bananas, water and Beer Lao as we could carry and paraded around the town with it until some locals understood what we were up to. A nice shoplady helped us out to charter a boat that would normally be used to cruise people from the resort around the lake. We agreed to pay 100.000 kip one way and pointed to the smallest uninhabited island we could see. It took under fifteen minutes to get there.
So there we were. Sitting on the rocky beach of an uninhabited island with nothing but the stuff we brought to the island ourselves. We shared a warm Beerlao to celebrate.
And what happened over there
Finding firewood was a piece of cake and we got a nice campfire going on long before sunset. We shared stories, explored our own small island, went for swims into the lake and even built a small shelter against the sun out of bamboo and a hammock. It was perfect. Primitive perfect.
Most of us did not have sleeping bags or any other camping gear, but luckily I had a thin travel mattress I could put on the rocky beach to sleep on. I woke up only once to discover that the campfire had died and changed into long jeans, a jacket and socks. It wasn’t quite enough to be comfortable but it was enough to get through the night.
Our second day on the island we got so attached to the place that we wanted to stay another day. We waved down a curious Lao women in a fishing boat and somehow managed to explain here that we were in need of more water, sticky rice and of course another crate of Beerlao. There was no way to know for sure that she would return when she left with 300.000 kip we gave her for groceries and petrol. But she did not much later. With all the stuff we asked for and some more. The Beerlao we shared with her was greatly appreciated.
Just when we were about to start our dinner of sticky rice and bananas, the lady came back with her two boys and one girl. One of the boys handed me a plastic bag with three fresh fish in it. I was just standing there, not sure what to do with it. Luckily one of the boys helped us to clean the fish and construct a grill our of bamboo sticks to cook them on our campfire. How he managed to construct a grill in the middle of nowhere was so simple I could never have come up with it. He just took a piece of fresh bamboo, but it in half, put the fish between it and closed it with some rope the girl made out of another piece of bamboo. It was no surprise that the fish was extremely fresh and tasty.
The next day they came back again with a huge basket of sticky rice and more fresh fish for lunch. After lunch she made clear that she wanted us to go into her small boat. We tried for a long time to understand if she was going to bring us to the mainland or to her own place, but eventually gave up and just jumped into her boat.
Not much later we arrived on another small island where her family has been living for a long time. It was much smaller than ‘our’ island but had a small collection of structures on it. There was their house, their old and half broken down house, a shed with fishing stuff and a toilet. Apart from the family of five and the four of us the island was inhabited with ducks and dogs. She gave us more food, which was of course sticky rice and fish. The two vegetarians in our group seemed to be slowly dying inside as their diet on the islands consisted merely on just sticky rice. But then, even for them an amazing local experience like this must have been worth it a thousand times.
The lady grabbed one of the ducks, put it on a scale to find out it was more than 3 kilograms and took it into her boat along with an empty car battery. She came back with groceries and a full car battery. We were being given the miracle of electricity. I would rather have eaten the duck than watch Thai soap series for 15 minutes until the battery was flat.
When the sun went down it became obvious that they wanted us to stay for the night. It became even more obvious when they started making up some beds with blankets for us on the veranda. We spent the whole evening shooting cheap local Lao Lao whiskey and trying to communicate with the family and for some reason that was lots of fun.
Tell me all!
Have you been in this lake? Or do you know any other secret places in the world you would like to share? Share them here, I won’t tell anyone!
Jan – That Earth