The backpacker’s circuit in Southeast Asia has is infamous for its debauchery and out of handedness. Whether it’s numbered bartender girls along Soi Cowboy in Bangkok, or flaming jump ropes on Ko Tao island, the possibilities for shenanigans appear endless for the young and impressionable Western traveler. Perhaps nowhere is this more visible than on Don Det, a small booze-soaked island bobbing in the middle of the Mekong River in Southern Laos.
It was a convenient location for us. Morgan and I needed to kill a few days before entering Cambodia because of visa issues, and Don Det was situated right along the border. We also just wanted to get swept up in the backpacker’s atmosphere. On Don Det there was no resisting it. We ended up at Smiley Bar the first night, the place that seemed to represent all the glories and suburban mom’s worst nightmares about the SE Asian backpacker’s circuit wrapped up into one.
It was 9pm. “More Lao Lao!” the Frenchman screamed, waving moonshine rice liquor in a plastic bottle wildly around his head so it splashed upon the people around him. The shot glasses that answered his call were poured in a continuous stream that left more liquor on the table than in the glasses. At two dollars a bottle, it wasn’t a big deal. Another crazy-eyed French woman (Smiley’s was the French spot apparently) commandeered the stereo system and changed the song to a furiously tempoed number with slapping bass and cowbell and accordion, and jumped up on top of the bar.
The poor Laotian bartender furiously scribbling down everyone’s swelling bar tabs couldn’t curtail the flood. Everyone started jumping up on the bar. I saw him dive to catch a falling glass, and then another. He was barely keeping the scene together. The bar itself was swaying dangerously on the few wooden stilts supporting it above the tides of the Mekong.
Midway through the song, an eight or nine year old Laotian kid ran into the bar wielding a squirt gun, and let loose on the crowd. “Shit!” “Surprise attack!” someone yelled.
“I’m Hit!” I called out, clutching my shirt to cover mock bullet wounds and jumping off to the side to avoid getting further doused. Another couple dancing nearby dived back towards their table, where they had their own squirt guns on standby, and launched a full counter-offensive. Suppressing fire and two tangos on the kid’s flank! He was outnumbered. Under a heavy barrage of fire, the bogie retreated from the bar back into the jungle to regroup with his other 8 year old comrades. I’d been witnessing similar scenes all day. Around the Laotian New Year, one of the traditions is soaking family members and friends with water, and squirt guns seem to be an integral part of the operation.
At this point our food still hadn’t arrived. (Note to self: never order food at a Laotian bar). I could feel three beer Laos getting on top of me, and Morgan had started salsa dancing with the girlfriend of the Aussie I was trying to maintain a coherent conversation with. He and I exchanged knowing looks.
Then Elina was calling me over to the bar, to meet someone I suppose. Elina was Don Det’s networker. Every backpacker’s destination has one – the “super” traveler whose unofficial, self-designated duty is to keep track of everyone who comes and goes, determine who needs to meet who, and knows what happening places to be at the right times. She gave us the tip to go to Smiley’s when we met her in a bar earlier that day watching Hot Tub Time Machine.
My problem was I couldn’t approach the bar without getting more shots of lao lao pushed towards me by the Frenchman who looked like a sunburnt raisin. I scanned the room instead for attractive, single females, didn’t see any besides the one passed out and sprawled on the floor in the corner – an early causality – and so I elected to take the middle of the dance floor where the Frenchman couldn’t get to me.
Ohr and Ohr, two Israelis named after the same conjugation, were hailing me from Smiley’s entrance. They were high as a kite, finishing off the last puffs of a joint after god knows how many since I’d met them at Rasta bar earlier that afternoon. The availability of weed on Don Det is something of backpacking legend in Southeast Asia – the menus at many restaurants give you the option to “make it happy,” and the Laotian government has turned its back on the practice because it’s become such a grand tourist attraction.
Ohr and Ohr couldn’t handle Smiley’s. The frenetic energy of the dancing Frenchmen and blaring cowbell was a little too much for them in their state, and after yet another beer Lao, it was becoming a little too much for me as well. I was getting sloppy, and so at 10pm I tapped out.
The next morning I sat at Mama’s café, nursing a massive headache I hoped to solve with some greasy eggs. Ohr and Ohr arrived there soon after me, walking directly into the kitchen to ask Mama for their “usual.” The cook had gotten to know them well in their 5 days on the island. They emerged from the kitchen toting with two glasses filled with a creamy, coffee colored drink.
“I always start my morning with a happy shake” Ohr said to me with a wink.
My god. I thought.
I can handle the debauchery thing for one or two nights, but I can’t imagine doing it every day. Smiley’s and Don Det were perfect for what it was, a brief dip into a different world of travelling. But once I’d gotten it out of my system I was ready for Cambodia. Beyond those next villages and rice fields and small cities and campsites we’ll cycle through, I knew we’d eventually cross paths with the backbacker’s soon enough. When my greasy eggs arrived, I tucked in. I found myself wondering what our next encounter with the SE Asian Backpacker’s trail might bring.