Eleven or 12 years ago, on a date in mid-April, a boat landed at Si Phan Don in southern Laos. Travelling folk can easily picture the scene: the setting sun, the gurgling river, boats put-putting in the distance and so on. A minor hubbub as goods and passengers alighted from the craft. The usual mix of tourists and locals milling about before eventually dispersing. It was, in short, typical of the more popular stops along the Southeast Asian trail.
There was nothing special about this boat, nor its occupants. What was important was the destination. Si Phan Don, more commonly known as the Four Thousand Islands, had rapidly gained notoriety as One Of Those Places. Somewhere To See. However, unlike a lot of other spots – picturesque Luang Prabang to the north or Wat Phou Champasak, for example – the emphasis here was on nothing. This was the charm of Si Phan Don. Come and exist in a bubble away from the world. Lock into the flow of the Mekong and see where it ended up.
Most would flock to Don Det, Don Khong or Don Khon. It all seemed much of a muchness. Rural life in Laos writ large. No noise, no commotion, no traffic to speak of. Looking for a bridge to cross could easily be considered drama, such was the total lack of concern. The easy pace of life was key. Cheap waterside accommodation, cheap food, no power save candlelight. Rent a bike and explore the myriad islets and sandbars or sit in a tube and gently float downriver. That was it. Sit back, kick back, relax. The world still existed but for a brief second its earthly concerns were in another place entirely.