Ain’t no party like an island party

Todd at our $3 a night bungalow - Don Det, 4,000 Islands, Laos
Todd at our $3 a night bungalow on Don Det | Photo by Lauren Girardin

As Todd and I swing in our hammocks on the deck of our tiny river-side bungalow on Don Det island*, we see several unusually burdened boats float by on the Mekong River.

The first few are loaded with folding tables and chairs, the next with brightly painted carousel animals, and then one nearly sinking under the weight of a half-dozen giant speakers. It’s when we see the second boatload of speakers that we get really curious.

No one seems to know for certain why there’s a big party tonight, here in the rural south of Laos. One rumor is that it’s a memorial – or maybe a birthday? – for a rich man. Another is that the party’s a celebration to ensure the auspicious opening of a new business. A few tourists gullibly believe that it’s a Beer Lao-fueled Full Moon Party, done up 4,000 Islands style.

Poised propeller - Don Det, 4,000 Islands, Laos
Poised propeller on the Mekong | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Just after sunset, our bicycles shake over the dusty footpath that circles Don Det, then rattle over an old French-built bridge, now stripped of train tracks and ties, left with a ragged stone surface, bumpy as the back of a toad. As we roll through the moonlit dark on Don Khone, we follow no directions, just the increasing volume of music and the thickening stream of people.

After hiding our rented bikes in some shrubs, we cross a lumpy, dried out rice field that feeds cows during the day, as evidenced by the mounds of turds, threateningly fresh and numerous. Ahead, the party’s lights seem glaringly bright after the island darkness, where weak, generator-powered electricity only runs after sunset, on just for four few hours.

Thousands of Laotians picnic in front of two stages, ringed by vendors hawking peanuts still attached to their vines, soup (of course), and manhole cover-sized rice crackers cooked over a campfire. There’s the now-assembled carousel, the type that spins children wildly on arms around a center pole, like Gene Kelly’s Singing in the Rain umbrella. It takes Todd and I a few minutes to grasp that the carousel is people-powered, it’s rotation maintained by three sweating men.

Tha Khek, Laos
Water buffalo babes | Photo by Lauren Girardin

On one of the stages, a hot, young couple belts out Laotian pop tunes while making frequent costume changes. They’re accompanied by a willowy man playing a multi-tubed bamboo wind instrument, which he holds vertically pressed between the palms of his hands, as if in prayer, as he hyperactively pendulums his hips, snug in shiny black pants. This lead trio is backed by twenty pre-teen dancers, dressed in nearly but not quite matching outfits of neon ruffles and spangles, waving their hands around in an attempt at synchronization, knees bending awkwardly to the reggae beat, as their feet, clad in practical, frumpy black flats, hardly move at all.

On the other stage, a Laotian rock band plays one of the loudest sets I’ve ever heard, thanks to the twenty-foot high speaker towers. Of the band’s two adolescent backup dancers, one has clearly studied a few music videos for her insistently sexy hip thrusts, while the other lazily follows the other’s lead. In front of the stage, a crowd of local teens rock out, kicking up a cloud of Pigpen dust. Every time the band finishes a song the teens scream dramatically and run away from the stage, leaving behind a few startled and confused foreigners. As the band pops a squat, a bland man talks into the mic for five minutes, chattering what later we find out are paid commercials for local island businesses. As soon as the band starts up again, the teens flood back to dance, one beer happier than before.

Both stages are nonstop while we wander the party and after. When the rooster that roosts under our stilt-bungalow crows, as it does every night at 3 a.m., Todd and I hear the overlapping Laotian pop and rock still carrying far over the river.

* For you sticklers out there, yes, I know saying “Don Det island” is a lot like saying “ATM Machine.” But for clarity’s sake, I beg your grammatic lenience.

Photos from 4,000 Islands, Laos

As mentioned previously, I accidentally deleted many photos from our time in south Laos. These are what’s left from our time in the 4,000 Islands. Unfortunately, no pics from the party survived.

If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.