Island Dreams and Good-bye

After the sleepy village ambience of Don Khong, life at the beautiful River Resort near
Champusak felt like living in a exquisite bubble. The young man we met at Pon’s on Don Khong told us about the “so great” hotel he works at and suggested we should go there instead of back to Pakse before our flight to Thailand. When I looked it up on the internet, lo and behold they were offering a “March Promotion.” How could we pass that up? So we booked in for 3 nights (pay for 2) with a free river cruise and two massages thrown in!

They constantly refer to small hotels here as “boutique” but this one lived up to that term. Nine two-storey bungalows, each housing a large upper and lower unit with an enormous terrace, were arranged with stunning views of the Mekong, a very different riverscape from Don Khong, the river being much wider and the banks littered with boulders the size of Volkswagen Beatles. What gorgeous new rooms, very bamboo minimalist and exquisitely appointed with every mod con imaginable. Now we are spoiled for good!

The sunset river cruise was quite the experience. When we sat steaming at the side of the river where the van from D.K. had dropped us off, bargaining in a desultory fashion for a large bottle of cold water, we spotted a raft with palm thatched roof approaching from the other bank. “Here comes our royal barge,” I joked, then out jumped a uniformed attendant holding a sign saying “River Resort”, and that was indeed our transport to the other side of the river and the cutely landscaped boat landing just for the resort. The next evening we were taken for a little motor up and down the river in the late afternoon, seated in comfortable chairs at a table for 2, shaded by the thatched roof, while being served chilled white wine and picture perfect appetizers by our own waiter (fortunately Kae from Don Khong who was very pleased to see us when we turned up at his wonderful hotel)! As sunset approached we landed on a sandy islet and sat to watch the bright red orb plummet to the horizon as it does in the tropics. Blink and you’ve missed it.

We biked into Champusak but since we had seen its main attraction, the Khmer ruin of Wat Phou previously, and had also spent time in the nearby Bolaven plateau, we just did some roasting hot sight seeing and toured the small town and its grubby river landings before repairing to the lovely infinitely pool which seemed, from water level, to flow into the Mekong.

Champusak is seeing a hotel revival as a new bridge links it to Pakse and hence the airport from where we flew to Bangkok and then on to Trat for van and ferry transport to Kho Cheng off the east coast of Thailand where we had arranged to meet Rebecca, Mel and Heath for the final few days of their whirlwind Thailand trip. This plan was hatched after we left home and we were delighted to alter our travel plans in order to spend some time with them. So sweet of them to ask us. It was such fun to draw up at the entrance to the resort and see Rebecca dashing through the lobby to welcome us with Heath not far behind.

I suffered terrible anxiety booking this part of our journey as we are not beach resort aficionados and had not planned to go to any Thai islands (they are full of tanned, smoking Europeans with a current emphasis on Russians) and so could just not decide what to choose. We decided on Koh Cheng for ease of access especially for the Edmonton group who flew down from Chiang Mai. I was in a complete quandary, everything was so much more expensive than we are used to, and didn’t look all that impressive, the pictures on hotel websites clearly being taken the day the place opened years and years ago so in my experience completely untrustworthy. Fortunately I remembered that the Connors had been to the island a couple of years ago and they recommended the K.C. Grande to us as a good family place. It was ideal for our needs, we had so called “garden villas” near each other, there were 4 pools for Heath to swim in, and most importantly the beach was extremely long and wide and very safe and accessible for swimming. The waves were gentle, the water bathtub warm, and depth change was acceptable but gradual. Needless to say I never swam in a pool, but loved the ocean at a temperature which was scarcely refreshing but perfect for a cold phobic like me.

Heath discarded his water wings in the pool while there and began swimming independently, loving to dive for things thrown in for him by patient grandpa. He wore the wings in the ocean so he could go out deep with us, but he is so relaxed and happy in the water. We all had a fine time, and we were sad to say good-bye to them after almost 5 days together. They were sad too, especially returning to Edmonton and the aftermath of a blizzard.

We managed to while away 3 days on our own, reading in the dead shade with hourly dashes across the hot sand for a dip. Far too hot to lie in the sun in my opinion but somehow the Europeans manage it, barbecuing themselves like roasting ducks on a rotisserie while puffing smoke constantly. English speakers were a tiny minority, and we always find it amusing watching other nationalities and making unfair generalizations about them. The scene at the massive buffet breakfast each morning was particularly riveting. You would think people who could afford to stay at this rather expensive resort would not feel the need to hoard food, and judging from the variety of enormous bellies on display in speedo trunks for men and bikinis for women of all ages and sizes, no one was undernourished, but the vast plates and plates of food that these people were straining to consume and smuggling away in paper napkins was nauseating to observe. And don’t get us started on the beach chair situation — suffice it to say that some people came equipped with devices like huge bag clips to secure their belongings to the chaise lounge that they had chosen and to which they laid claim for their entire stay — even if they only sat on it for a couple of hours a day. Weird.

We rented a car one day and spent the whole day touring what is a small island with really really steep, narrow and winding roads. Some curves are so severe that you have to stop and yield to oncoming cars if two of you approach the curve at the same time. No wonder they have so many tourists injured and killed on motor bikes each year, people with no experience rent scooters and tootle off, completely incompetent and scary to see, in effect learning to ride in conditions daunting to expert riders. The eastern side of the island, opposite to the resort ridden western side, was all rural fishing villages and small plantations, very cute. The interior of the island is jungle, protected as a national park. We stopped at a wharf surrounded by fish boats, with a large restaurant and ordered 2 crabs by pointing at a picture in the all Thai menu. They duly arrived, undoubtedly fresh, but completely whole with nothing but a spoon and fork provided to aid us in cleaning the things and accessing the meat. No crackers, they see no point, they just tap them with the spoon on a wooden surface and crack them neatly, though we could have done without all the guts. We again thanked the Connors for suggesting our hotel as its location at the northern end of the resort strip was relatively quiet compared to the southern end, particularly the misnamed “Lonely Beach.”

Now back in Bangkok to fly home on Friday we are moving slowly in the 40 degree afternoon temperatures. Decided to check out the sky train yesterday, which is identical to ours. The expedition involved walking to the ferry landing, taking the southern bound boat from our landing, #13, to Central which is zero and where this boat route ends, then getting on the sky train for the trip to shopping mall central at Siam Square. If you know how we despise shopping, especially Doug whose leg goes numb just thinking about a mall, you will realize what an irresistible lure air conditioning is in a climate like this. We spent 5 hours wandering from incredible mall to incredible mall (kids, West Edmonton Mall is nothing, and I mean nothing, compared to these). I decided I needed to buy a sweater in the first one as I am unused to the chill, but everything was far far too expensive. By the time we reached the last one and an affordable department store, I had acclimatized and given up the sweater idea. Just as well as everything with a recognizable brand name was pretty much double what we pay at home for the same thing and everything else was “designer”. So sorry Ella and Heath, nothing purchased from Gap Kids for you guys!

We’re planning a longtail boat ride through the residential khlongs today and that is about it for Thailand. This has been an enjoyable and very relaxing easy trip for us. We were pleasantly surprised by how interesting Thailand still is, and how easy it is to get off the tourist track. Revisiting our Lao favourites was nostalgic and rewarding, nice to see how the Lao remain the world’s nicest people despite the influx of tourism in some places. We have loved our experiences with Thai food, and returning to our first favourite, the Hemlock here in Bangkok shows how far we have come. It still has very tasty food with interesting flavour blends (some are “ancient” or royal recipes), but now we have been spoiled by the amazing presentations of some of the other restaurants we have eaten at, notably Saffron by the Sea on Kho Cheng where the “Yum” salads have to be the most beautifully arranged I’ve seen, each one a work of art. This has not been, by any means, a weight loss trip!

We look forward to seeing everyone in a few days. Off to the airport and good-bye to Asia at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning. I see the weather is slightly improved at home, fingers crossed for a nice Easter weekend.. Thanks for reading, C&D

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