The Luddite’s Last Stand (Don Det, Laos)

The Internet and Traveling – A Struggling Outpost – I am a Trojan Horse – The Development Debate – Zeus’s Fury – Escape to Cambodia! 

The internet is a mixed blessing for travelers.  The internet connects travelers like never before, allowing us to research travel information instantly, trade tips with others, find accommodation, book plane tickets, and stay in touch with our friends back home.  It makes traveling infinitely easier.

The internet also insulates us from our hosts.  Backpacker haunts are filled with internet cafes with travelers talking to family on Skype, surfing their friend’s Facebook pages, and checking the score from the previous Manchester United match.  In this sense, the internet chains our minds to home and prevents us from completely “letting go” and surrendering to our new environments.

By the time I reached Si Phan Don, or “Four Thousand Islands”, I needed to escape the internet for a while.  I had just spent three weeks applying for a job in Spain, countless days working on my blog, and mindless hours on the Facebook.  It was time to unplug and I was excited for a week on an electricity-free island.

I stayed on Don Det, a small farming and fishing island with no paved roads, no cars, and no permanent electricity.  Ducks, chickens and pigs freely roam the island’s farmland, children ride oversized bikes along the dirt paths and fishermen pilot dug-out canoes along the Mekong.

I rented a wooden bungalow on the banks of the Mekong for $2.  A large tree shaded my porch, a cozy hammock hung from the rafters and beautiful sunsets graced each evening.   At night I slept with the large windows open to the fresh breeze from Mekong…until one of my neighbors discovered a 4-meter long python beneath their bed.  The locals killed it, barbequed it, and ate its eggs.  Don’t worry, they assured us, It can’t kill you, it only eats children.  I slept with the windows shut after that night.

We ate dinner by candlelight and watched spiders and lizards battle each other on walls of restaurants.  There were no TVs, but having front-row seats to a spider-lizard battle was like watching Animal Planet live!
At night I watched animal battles by candlelight and during the day I wandered around the island and relaxed in my hammock.  I wandered through farms, past muddy ponds full of water buffalo, and onwards to mighty waterfalls in the Mekong.

On one of my daily walks around the island, I made an unpleasant discovery.  I passed a small boat landing where a wooden fishing boat was unloading massive concrete slabs onto the muddy beach.  The boat was almost sinking from the load and about fifteen villagers were struggling with the concrete, so I jumped in and gave them a hand.  After a few moments I realized what the cargo was for: concrete foundations for more guesthouses.  Don Det was beautifully unspoiled, yet I was using my own hands to help build the very guesthouses that would destroy this island’s peaceful atmosphere.

Don Det was a besieged outpost of traditional Lao lifestyle whose walls were being slowly eroded by the increasing stampede of tourists.  It was oasis a refugee camp for those of us trying to outrun the inescapable reach of the internet, for those who preferred the simplicity of candle-lit dinners to satellite TV and WiFi.  We had found what we were looking for, but it was a Pyrrhic victory.  I knew I was a Trojan Horse inadvertently destroying what I cherished the most.  Change would come soon enough.

It was not my hands, but my very presence that was building the guesthouses: it’s simply supply meeting demand.  The island may not have electricity at the moment, but for how long will this last?  How many iPods can remain uncharged?  How many Facebook profiles can remain un-updated before supply finally meets demand?

We backpackers are our own worst enemies.  We are all searching for the unspoiled purity of a simpler time, yet we foolishly bring our electronics along for the ride.

There is another, more fundamental question that remains unanswered: why should we backpackers have any say in this debate?  Who are we to tell these poor farmers that they cannot build a guesthouse, that they cannot start a family business that will feed their children?  Sure, it’s more exciting to ride down unpaved roads on the top of a 30-year old bus, but don’t the locals deserve better?  Certainly we cannot expect people to live in poverty so our vacations will be slightly more adventurous.

I always hear the same complaint from travelers, Man, I was here five years ago and it was so much better then…Now it’s just too “developed.”  Often I agree with them; it’s a shame to see the natural beauty of a place destroyed by crowds of people, restaurants playing Friends, loud bars, and aggressive touts.

In Don Det I saw the potential for this paradise to be lost to over-development.  Already much of the riverfront property was developed, roads were cut across the farmland, there was a Reggae bar in town, and the “tubing” phenomenon had reached the island.  At nighttime generators pumped electricity to the guesthouses and two small internet cafes had opened.

Simple bamboo shacks were being replaced by up-market bungalow and local entrepreneurs were building large houses and buying new motorcycles. The dirt paths on the island and will soon become major roads.  Next year, the island will have electricity full-time.  I cringed when I realized that one day all the farms will be gone and the entire island will be one big chain of guesthouses, massage parlors, and happy pizza bars.

But these farmers deserve a better life and if they wish to trade their farms for a guesthouse I cannot stand in their way.  The irreversible change has already begun.  The local children work in guesthouses and their parents stopped farming long ago.  The old men and the old women stay away from the guesthouses and the foreigners, watching their island change silently from the distance.

This anxiety about the future of Don Det troubled me at first, but I knew that I must cherish the island for what it is today.  So I cherished the pythons, my uncharged laptop, the candle-lit dinners, and the luke-warm Beer Lao.  I embraced the situation for what it was – Laos, South East Asia, and the developing world in flux, one of many battles between traditionalism and modernity, poverty and self-reliance, and development and preservation.

On my last night, the skies poured down rain and under explosions of lightening the Mekong flashed perfectly white against the black skies beyond.  Zeus had found me again was thundering from Mount Olympus.  I knew there was no escaping his fury now: it was early May and the monsoon was coming.  For the rest of my time in South East Asia it would rain incessantly, despite even the most generous offerings to the gods.

The tricks of the gods did not end there.  I had spent a week on this island before realizing I had been captured by Calypso again!  Others had been sucked into this paradise for longer – some for weeks, and some for months.  I selected the most able-bodied victims (those whose limbs had not atrophied from weeks of swinging in hammocks) and together we cursed Calypso, sacrificed two goats and a lamb to Zeus, Hera, and Athena, and escaped from the temptations of Caplypso’s island to the safety of the mainland beyond.

From there it was a short ride to the Cambodian border, where we had to bribe four different Cambodian officials to admit us into our next destination: Cambodia, the land of the great Khmer kings of Ankor Wat and victim to the savage genocide of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.  I had spent my time at Si Phan Don reading about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, and my stomach curled in anticipation of what I would witness in Cambodia.  I crossed the border and caught a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and the home to the Khmer Rouge’s infamous “Killing Fields.”

[Don’t know about the Khmer Rouge or the Killing Fields?  For a brief overview on the Khmer Rouge click here, read the book First They Killed my Father, or rent the movie The Killing Fields to get an idea of where I’m going next.  Now go do your homework on Cambodian history and then continue reading my posts!]

One Response to “The Luddite’s Last Stand (Don Det, Laos)”
  1. People do glorify the past but noone really wishes that they were born in our parent’s or grandparent’s era. There will always be outposts to what was. Depending on perspective what’s old can be seen as primitive, decaying or romantic.

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