The thud of pumping base and the rhythmic grinding of a thousand sweaty bodies has never been particularly high on my list of vacation musts. In fact, the idea of travelling the world only to engage in exactly the pastimes that I could find in my home town seems pointless and financially reckless (particularly since I have no great love for bump and grind clubbing at the best of times). Party travel is, however, a highlight for millions of travelers every year. Places like Ibiza, Mykonos, Amsterdam or Bali are known, sometimes exclusively, for their popularity with travelers seeking alcohol-fuelled excitement in packed nightclubs and the sweaty pressing of flesh. Now I have absolutely no problem with such activity, and I’ll even admit to having donned a whistle and a neon headband on one or two occasions, but now that I’m over thirty, few things seem less appealing.
Kuta Beach in Bali, Indonesia is a prime example of why I cringe at the idea of party travel. Bali has become synonymous with party travel and is the quick break destination of choice for many Australians. Every football team west of Sydney seems to select Kuta as their preferred spot to engage in post-season revelry, safe in the assumption that their debauchery will be washed away by the warm waters of Kuta Beach. The problem here is clear. Every drug or alcohol scandal that comes out of a place like Kuta reflects on Australian travelers everywhere, and while Bali is a party hot spot, it also has much to offer as a part of the stunning Indonesian archipelago. I took a group of students to Labuan Bajo in 2013 and our day in Kuta Beach was certainly not the highlight considering the opportunities for white water rafting less than three hours away, or the opportunity to see Komodo dragons in Labuan Bajo (one hour’s flight from Denpassar).
So it was that I found myself in Laos last year on a mini bus heading south towards a region called Si Phan Don (also known as 4000 islands). Our purpose was to spot the Irrawaddy dolphin which can be found almost exclusively in the region, however we also hoped to tour the region and see the twin party islands of Don Det and Don Khong. My partner and I had no real urge to sample the party culture for which the island was known, but the waterfalls and French colonial history were enough to convince us to take a look.
The two-hour bus ride from Pakse was surprisingly pleasant as there were only 6 passengers taking the journey and this afforded me a glimmer of hope that the islands might not be the crush of humanity I had pictured. We were ejected at a gas station in a village called Nakasong and wandered along the road towards the Mekong where we were assured we would be offered passage to the islands with our bus transfer. I’ll admit that I was skeptical and fully expected to be asked to pay again on reaching the river, but my fears were unfounded. We waited for a few more travelers to arrive and shared our cheese crackers (I did not taste any cheese) with a few of the long tail boat pilots in their shack above the river which was still swollen from the monsoon. Before long we were nestled among our bags as we floated on the Mekong current. The trip across the river took about 20 minutes and the boat was scarcely affected by the swirling water. We landed on the far northern point of Don Det which we were told was the backpacker party hub of the region and found ourselves alone on an empty street.
Don Det is a peculiar mix of pack backer bungalows, village storefronts and tourism stalls all flanked by bars restaurants and flophouses. We walked along the deserted, sandy street and began to look for a place to stay. I immediately liked the place, but was immensely pleased that we had landed a couple of weeks before the beginning of tourist high season as it was clear that my fears of crowds of partygoers would have been realised had we arrived in October instead of late September.
After about a kilometre (which was about as far as we felt like hauling our packs), we came across the Don Det Bungalows and I immediately decided I liked the bar suspended over the river. It took one Bar Lao and a tiny kitten to convince us that this was the Bungalow for us. The rooms were clean, the bathroom functional and did I mention the adjacent restaurant? There would have to be 100 similar spots on Don Det alone to cater for the high season rush, but if you are there out of season, the choices are almost limitless.
After another Beer Lao, during which we met and recruited to our party, a lovely Californian chap (you can catch his travels explained in planning friendly detail at http://www.galactabunny.com/) we hired bicycles and began to explore (you might remember Galactabunny as one of the travelers who set us on the quest for Utopiahttps://einsteinsbarbershop.wordpress.com/2015/03/27/finding-utopia/). We found the remnants of the French colonial occupation everywhere and learned how the French had hoped to use the Mekong to supply Vietnam and maintain their empire in Asia. We also saw firsthand how those aspirations were doomed at Li Phi Falls – a kilometre wide (at least) horizontal waterfall that makes river travel north impossible. This was an absolute highlight of the islands and justifies the trip by itself. After a bit more exploration (The story of which I will let my camera express), we found a bar and restaurant overlooking the torrent and enjoyed a few Beer Laos and fruit smoothies before riding back to do the one thing you would not expect in a party location – relax.
I understand that Don Det and Don Khong become busy and the party atmosphere prevails from about Mid October, but for us, 4000 Islands was the most relaxing part of our Laos trip and the place where we met the most like-minded travelers and after all, isn’t meeting people the whole point of partying?