Four Thousand Islands, Laos (SPIDER ATTACK!)

In 2008 I spend three months backpacking around Southeast Asia. This is one of my stories. 

Keli and I took turns riding the broken bike the whole winding road back. We’d spent our second day cycling around the island of Don Khong and across to a neighbouring island to see the Khone Phapheng Falls, the largest waterfall (by volume) in Southeast Asia. 4,000 Islands or Si Phan Don are nestled into the verrrry bottom of Laos right near the Cambodian border. Though often frequented by young backpackers as a side trip from Thailand, Laos shares much less in common with its neighbour to the southwest than you might think. In 2008, at least, there were no 7-11s, no t-shirts boasting Heidi Klum’s naked back and middle finger (a Khao San favourite in those days), and at least 75% fewer buckets* per person.

Striking a pose in front of Khone Phapheng Falls.

I had met my travel buddies, Katie and Keli, British ladies on their way back from a year in Australia, on the bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong. That was where we would start our two-day slowboat journey down the Mekong River and into the heart of Laos. After 10 days traveling through peaceful Luang Prabang, dionysiac Vang Vieng, and sleepy Vientenne, we decided to set off for the 4,000 islands together. Kelly, Keli and Katie. We bid adieu our other Laos travel companions — they were headed off to Vietnam — and went south.

We landed our first night on the island of Don Det. But, with no other backpackers to be found, decided to head over to Don Khong as soon as possible for what we hoped would be a livelier time. First thing the next morning we loaded all our worldly possessions into a large canoe-type boat with a motor on the end and set off, the water around us murky brown, like the colour of milk chocolate gone rancid.

Our boat floated lazily downriver, guided slowly by the puttering motor, passing linked islands, their foliage spilling out into the water. The world here is flat, nothing but palm trees separate island and sky. Guesthouses pepper the shore, raised up on stilts. Some of them have brown, thatched roofs; others red or blue plastic tiles to protect them from the elements. Most have hammocks swinging on their balconies.

4,000 Islands

After arriving on Don Khong, we spent the better part of an hour searching for a place to sleep. All the huts were dingy and beat up. I would safely say there wasn’t an air conditioning unit around for miles. We didn’t come across many backpackers either, so we decided to spend only one more night there and leave for Cambodia first thing in the morning. By this logic, we were satisfied with a small room, boasting one double bed (to squeeze the three of us in), a couple stringy hammocks on the balcony, and the not unfamiliar combo of hole in floor + sink = bathroom. If memory serves, this particular hole was surrounded by shiny blue tile; a classy touch. After arranging for early morning transportation off the island and over the border, we rented some bikes and began to explore.


After taking pictures at the waterfall, we had hoped to rent a boat and be taken to see the Irrawaddy dolphins, (a breed that lives in brackish or freshwater), but our leisurely pace had set us behind. Twilight was creeping nearer, and the boat drivers wouldn’t take anyone out this close to dark. So we turned back around and bike through the palm trees and past the vibrant green fields back to our guesthouse. Katie’s chain fell off her bike about fifteen minutes into our return journey.

Our bike path on Don Khong.

My hands got all greased up trying to repair Katie’s chain. Locals we passed on the way tried to help as well, but the chain was broken; there was no fix. We decided to take turns on the broken bike, one foot on a pedal, the other foot pushing and coasting, pushing and coasting. Although we didn’t have enough light to make it to see the dolphins, we should have had plenty of light to get home before dark. But a sign poking out of a window just off the road reading ‘Authentic Italian Pizza’ distracted us from our journey. We couldn’t resist stopping.

A margherita and two quattro formaggis later, the sun had set and we were on our way again, now in the pitch black dark. It seems to be pizza > safety, every time. Fortunately, between the three of us we miraculously had two items that glowed. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop Katie from almost biking head on into a water buffalo. At least none of us fell into a rice field (though it got uncomfortably close).

It was about nine thirty at night by the time we road in, elated and exhausted. We laid our bikes up against the shop we’d borrowed them from and surveyed the near deserted pathway. Lights glowed from only a few buildings. We wandered down until we found the island’s internet cafe. Settling in, they reminded us of the electricity curfew of the entire island. Lights off at ten o’clock. (Yes, the entire island, believe it or not, turns off at 10 p.m.) We spent 10 minutes checking Facebook, then, realizing the time, headed to a little shop nearby to buy candles. It was now quarter to ten, just enough time to return to a our wee little room, brush our teeth, and tuck ourselves in before the entire island went dark.

Candles in hand, we walked down the path to our guesthouse and up the three steps to our balcony, still buzzing from our broken bike ride, unlocked the front door and flicked on the lights. And there it was…

Inside our mosquito net.

Four inches long.




Four legs angled to jut out of its front half and another four jutting out the back. Not round, but rectangle shaped; gigantic; hairy; brown; spider. I repeat, inside our mosquito net. And yes, with ten minutes until the whole island was to go dark.

I’ve always been afraid of spiders, my whole life. And, apparently, so have Keli and Katie. We screamed, I am not proud to say; then we stared: at each other, at the spider, our mouths gaping open and closed, silently, in utter shock. This is no good. I watch as tears roll down Katie’s cheeks and I try to gather enough breath in my lungs to stop my hands from shaking violently. This response is not rational, I know. But today does not appear to be the day that any of us conquer an irrational phobia. So what are we going to do? We’ll sleep on the balcony. That’s the only option. But it’s not an option. Our bags are on the floor, we can’t leave them there, open, unattended. There are only two hammocks on the balcony and they’re scrawny as hell. And God only knows what could crawl on us out there. Someone needs to get rid of the spider. It has to go. We need to sleep in that bed. But I won’t move it. Keli won’t move it. Katie won’t move it. Fine, we won’t sleep. We’ll stay up all night, smoking our dollar packs of cigarettes, swinging on the rickety plastic hammocks. No. No. We’ll go get help. There’s got to be someone who can help us.

I instruct Keli to stay put and watch the furry monstrosity. Don’t let your eyes stray from it, or it could move and then where will we be? Stare at it. Don’t even blink. Katie and I grasp on to each other, still shaking, and head for the road, back to the cafe. We spot an older couple chatting with a guy in his late twenties. Excuse us. Is there… Could you… could you possibly do us a huge favour? They initially regard us with concern (it was probably the tears) but after we explain the situation, they simply laugh.

We guide them back; the young man has agreed to remove it for us and the couple wants to watch. Keli is still standing at the entrance of our room, petrified. There, we point… inside the mosquito net. The young man looks inside the room. The three of us edge backwards. The older couple giggles at our state. The man pulls a tissue out of his pocket and steps inside. My eyes burn as I try to remain calm. We’re too far back on the balcony now to see what’s going on. He’s in the room just a second, but by the time he comes out, we’ve crammed ourselves into the furthest possible edge of the balcony corner. Got it. He stretches his arm, and spider-encased hand, out toward us, teasing, but is met with shrieks high enough to communicate with stray dogs on the other side of the island before he can even fully straighten out his elbow. Seeing our fear, he rescinds the gesture.

Thank you. Thank you. We couldn’t have… Oh my God, thank you so much.

We have about two minutes ’til lights out now. The emanate terror is gone, but every dark corner holds a new, unknown threat. I pick gingerly through my bag, poised to react at a moments notice, and pull out a long sleeve t-shirt and pants — clothes inappropriately warm and packed mostly for plane rides — but I need to cover as much skin as possible. I pee into the blue tiled hole, eyes peeled on every corner of the room. I brush my teeth and slip into bed next to Katie, who under the pretence of being the most frightened managed to score the middle spot. Keli’s laid out candles on the window sill and I watch them burn as we tuck in every corner of the mosquito net, our sole protection from the outside world and all its creatures. Katie plays music from a small speaker. We speak in hushed tones, as if loud noises might stir other figments of our nightmares. I lay awake, watching the candles melt, drip, and, slowly, go out.

The next morning, after a sleep even more fitful than one an overnight bus blasting The Beach on repeat, we pack our bags and head to the boat. As we settle in to the passenger van that will take us to Kratie, Cambodia, my long Canadian legs squished against the back of the driver’s seat, we talk about our plans to stay the night somewhere, not only air conditioned, but in a building, made of cement, on the top floor. The mini bus revs on and we begin our journey across another boarder, happy to be leaving Laos. Little do we know, the first thing to greet us on the other side will be a platter of barbecued tarantulas resting atop a smiling Cambodian woman’s head. Maybe it’s time to conquer that fear after all?


* bucket – a mixture of Sang Som (Thai whiskey), coca-cola, and red bull (the illegal in North America kind) served in a colourful plastic bucket (think children’s sand pail) with many straws meant for sharing (or not) and causing its imbibers to get incredibly fucked up.

A water buffalo.

Every Tuesday I’ll be doing a new Travelback instalment. It’ll will likely be different every week — sometimes a list, sometimes an essay, sometimes just highlights or photos. A huge dream of mine is to write about travel and the world… Okay, well, I’m already living that dream, so I should specify: a huge dream of mine is to get paid to write about such things. This exercise may be a bit self-indulgent, but ultimately I want to work my travel writing muscle to the point that it’s strong enough to entertain and inspire you. As such, I hope you enjoy. xo Kelly.

Memories of Paris

I’ve been to Paris twice. The first in September of 2007 and the second in November of 2007. It was on the same backpacking trip and the only destination I circled through twice. When I first arrived in Paris, in September, from Vancouver, my heart and my head were full of expectations. So full that I’d forgotten to fill them with directions from the airport to my hostel. I was traveling with a not entirely pleasant girl who kept barking at me to, instead of my somewhat broken but mostly passable French, ask for directions to the 10th Arrondissement in English.

After an hour or so of asking random Parisians on the street — On cherche Rue la Fayette! Savez-vous où est le hostel Peace and Love?* — and, mind you, we were actually fumbling closer to our destination… I finally broke and consulted a hotel desk clerk… in English. She directed us to a bus and, relieved, we got on. I remember Rhianna’s “Umbrella” was playing over the speakers, but in my jet lag-addled brain, the words sounded French. Figuring they must have recorded a different version for this iconic country, I said as much to my travel mate. She sneered and I listened more closely: “When the sun shines we shine together…” Oh. Well, that settles that then.

*Not “Paix et Amour”, but Peace and Love — obviously catered to travellers and missing from any well-to-do Parisian’s radar.

Effiel Tower from the 10th Arrondissement
The view from Peace and Love hostel and my first time seeing the Effiel Tower live.

What I know now is that the Paris Metro system runs from the airport I landed at (CDG) and meets a connecting line that would take us a block from where we were going. But I had an overly-confident attitude heading into my first backpacking trip, stemmed likely from travels with my parents to various countries — some of which I don’t even remember but figured, surely, that the ability to travel well rested within my blood. And, perhaps, also, I assumed Paris would take me in, accept me as its own. I knew I belonged there, so shouldn’t the city know it, too?

Whatever confidence I assumed my blood to be filled with, it certainly wasn’t there three days later as I sat, crumpled, at a dusty train station, halfway to Versailles to visit some long-lost cousins. Crumpled because of construction closing the train line and deterring me from carrying on. Crumpled because I didn’t know now where to go. Crumpled, dreaming about returning home. I arrived in Paris expecting to be swept up, but Paris laughed at my romanticism. It chewed me up, spat me out, and kicked dirt on top of me.


When I returned to Paris two months later, everything was different. My maddeningly passive aggressive trip mate had returned to Canada, taking with her 300 dollars that she would never return and any sense of obligation I had to anyone. Paris, the second time, was going to be mine.

I selected a bunk in a large co-ed room at the 3 Ducks Hostel; this time in the 15th Arrondissement, a 25 minute stroll to the Effiel Tower. Their policy was ‘no outside alcohol’ as to promote sales at the bar, but we snuck 97¢ bottles of France’s best non-champagne region sparkling in anyways. We played Kings Cup/Ring of Fire/Sociables with the harshest rules: anyone who swears gets that word written on their face in sharpie. I learned how to roll cigarettes.

The two people I remember most were an American girl and an Australian boy. Though I was only 20 at the time, I remember thinking they were so young. They must have been 18 but to a 20 year old as wise and experienced as I, they were children. I was jealous of them, though, as the American girl would spend our pre-drinking evenings reading French newspapers, analyzing and translating every single word — the Australian boy was invited to look over her shoulder, but I was not. She was living in the hostel and in Paris for an indefinite amount of time. Part of me wanted to be her.

One day the Australian boy and I made plans to sightsee. First, we made our way to the Catacombs. Over time I’ve been told they can often be severely backed up with tourists, but on this brisk day in early November, we walked straight in. Straight in then down and down and down and around the winding steps. Unsurprisingly it is quiet down there, muted. There is something special about being underground. It is the opposite of the thrill and unease you feel while flying. There is comfort in the depths, familiarity. Even in the dim atmosphere there were still tourists behind us that yelled and shouted. So we kept our voices hushed and our pace slow, losing them for several minutes of quiet until another group rushed by.

The amount of bones is staggering. Skulls on skulls on femurs and fibulas and thousands of other human puzzle pieces. Despite the stacks of deconstructed skeletons, it wasn’t at all scary or terrifying. More contemplative than anything. I read every plaque but I couldn’t now tell you a word of what they said. The bones of six million people.

Once we emerged from under the city (and after we found the nearest crepe truck), the metro whisked us off to Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. If you can visit on an overcast fall day, I suggest you do just that. Crisp leaves and dark skies are the perfect setting for visiting the above-ground dead. Most cemeteries around the world could put their Canadian counterparts to shame, but of all the storied haunts I’ve wandered through across the world, this one stays in my memory the most. The best set designer in Hollywood could not mimic the grandeur of Père-Lachaise. Perhaps because the atmosphere is so dense with history, with devotion. This is a place where you have to die as somebody. Père-Lachaise elevates your artistry in death and the tombstones reiterates that.

We hovered by Jim Morrison’s grave, giving the French teenagers space to smoke their In Memoriam cigarettes and listen to The Doors through their headphones. I put on red lipstick and kissed Oscar Wilde’s grave. The Australian boy took a picture on his camera but never sent it to me.


I tell anyone who will listen that one day I will live in Paris. You could play a game in my home of ‘count the Effiel Towers.’ Including photographs and magazine cutouts and artwork and postcards and my metre high statue, there might be 2o. Or more. It is a cliché, I know. I am Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris. I am Carrie Bradshaw in season six, but I don’t skip out on dinners in my honour to please a man. Magic lives in those streets and I want to be a part of it.

They say Paris is for lovers, but that’s not true. Paris is for anyone who wants to believe. In something. In anything. Be it love, magic, history… death. When you go to Paris — or when you go back — I suggest you leave everything behind. Bring a map and if you can’t resist it, a camera. Speak in broken French. Get lost. Make new friends. Avoid anywhere playing Rhianna. Smoke cigarettes outside cafés and drink the cheapest sparkling you can find… on the street, by the Effiel Tower, by yourself or with that bloke you met at your hostel. The magic of Paris is what you make of it. It won’t present itself to you, you must seek it out instead. I imagine Paris as a bridge troll, not allowing you to pass until you have given it something. Not money or trinkets, but something of yourself. Blood, tears, dignity. Perhaps that can be said of all great cities, they take nearly just as much as they give. But sometimes, I think, Paris gives just a little bit more.


Every Tuesday I’ll be doing a new Travelback instalment. It’ll will likely be different every week — sometimes a list, sometimes an essay, sometimes just highlights or photos. A huge dream of mine is to write about travel and the world… Okay, well, I’m already living that dream, so I should specify: a huge dream of mine is to get paid to write about such things. This exercise may be a bit self-indulgent, but ultimately I want to work my travel writing muscle to the point that it’s strong enough to entertain and inspire you. As such, I hope you enjoy. xo Kelly.