Islands in the Mekong, more of southern Laos
Trip Start Jan 28, 2012
19Trip End Jan 28, 2013
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The ancient city of Champasak was built in the 5th Century, with the temple complex that you see today being more from the 11th Century. We were completely awed by the temple complex set out at the foot of a hill and the history of how religion adapts… Originally of Hindu origin, the complex today is now part of a large Buddhist pilgrimage that is held on the full moon of February every year (which we had just missed). We spent ¾ a day wandering amongst the temple site and ruins and wondered how Angkor Wat would compare…
The village itself of Champasak is a hidden gem! Most tourists do a day-trip from Pakse and don't even enter the village they just go straight in and out of the temple complex, which meant that that we got an awesome guesthouse on the edge of the Mekong, the village has no souvenir shops or food stands just villagers and wooden houses amongst old French colonial buildings, a real treasure!
But time and travel must continue so we stuck to our plan and decided to continue south to the 4000 Islands of the Mekong… you just cant stay away from the river in this country!
We had read up on an area in the Mekong River near the border with Cambodia called the 4000 Islands. This section of the Mekong has a myriad of small sandy islands with an escarpment within the river and floodplain, meaning that these myriad of numerous river channels all have a waterfall that flow off the escarpment and continue down the Mekong.
The French colonists originally encountered this area when they sailed up the Mekong with gunboats, looking to secure the Indochina region. They found that their ambitions were blocked in every direction by these series of waterfalls. Not to be outdone they eventually built a small railway (14km) south to north across a couple of the islands Don Khon and Don Det, dismantling their boats on the downstream side of the waterfalls and transporting them along the railway and rebuilding them again at the top of the waterfalls to continue sailing north to Luang Prabang. The railway remained in use during WW2 when the Japanese controlled the region and until recently this was the only railway in Laos.
What really intrigued us about the islands is that although they are within a River they are like tropical coastal islands that are covered in coconut trees and palms, transport is by boat, they have beaches as well as a rare species of freshwater dolphin (Irrawaddy dolphins). So we decided to hang out here and look around for a week or so.
The Islands were great, the people were the most laid back in Laos which is fairly reclined. All the accommodation is along the edge of the islands with fairly simple bamboo and wooden bungalows completed by fan and mosquito nets and a couple of hammocks on the front veranda. Bungalows on average are between 30,000 – 80,000 KIP ($3.20 to $10). Afternoons are hot and humid and all you can do is swing in your hammock read a book and drink fruit shakes and cold Beer Lao ($1.20 per long-neck). Each guest house has a lounging area usually a covered platform on pylons over the river. We found a place on a 'quiet section’ of Don Det called the ‘River Garden View’ surrounded by local houses and farmland (rice, coconuts and kapok).
We did do a few activities such as ride push bikes (I got a lavender coloured one… again) around the island tracks seeing waterfalls and swimming at the beaches. One trip we did resulted in a few of us getting back late in the evening to the boat dock, the boat had no light and the driver had forgot to fill his tank with fuel and by the time he sourced some it was dark, he also bought along a couple of locals who also wanted to get back to Don Khon, which filled our small wooden boat to nine people. These boats are locally built from forest timber and are thin and long, have no buoyancy tanks or life jackets or lights, but he assured us he knew the way back through the sand bars and rocks. As we were motoring along, those of us near the front noticed that the nose seemed to be forcing or ploughing more and more through the water. It was then that we noticed that the water in the boat was up to our shins, we enthusiastically told the boat driver that the boat was filling up with water and after some convincing that we weren't’t going to make it back without suddenly sinking, he tried to find a sandbar to run the boat up on so we could bale out the water. While this was happening we quickly ripped some plastic water bottles in half and baled as fast as we could.
After we grounded on a sandbar and bailed out most of the water and repositioned everyone towards the back of the boat, it was pitch black with shallow rocks bars and sandbars all around us. One of the German guys on board remembered he might be able to use the light on his iphone (a great idea Steve Jobs) and so laid up on the front of the boat sweeping it from side to side like a search light. The boat driver was laughing and shouting "Where is Don Khon… were is Don Khon" at this stage we were laughing too, as we were saved a swim and a long walk… or worse. We made it back to the guesthouse dock and saw the look on the boat drivers wife's face which said “You had me really worried” he smiled and laughed back and said “We’ve been to Cambodia ... Ha...haaa.”
We really enjoyed this area because we felt it was a really good lifestyle balance between the locals and foreigner’s. Luang Prabang had become such a draw card that most of the houses in the old town had become bought out by businesses probably mostly foreign owned and the locals could no longer afford to live and work there, in the future it may become a little like a museum / tourist town. Vang Viang had also changed, the culture of their town was no longer Lao but international party backpacker come army base, they seemed to have lost their town and the soul of the landscape. While the Islands (and Champasak ) had low key travelers, the local farmers mostly owned the bungalows and also continued to farm and live their everyday normal lifestyle, a wide range of people seemed to make a little bit of money from renting push bikes, to boat transport, to collecting small fees to view the waterfalls and to watch your bike (so it wouldn’t get pinched) and travelers and locals said hi and chatted, it was a really good vibe and balance.
One of our favourite haunts was a restaurant bar called King Kong, it was owned by Mini and his Lao wife and their two kids. Mini was a 50 something Englishman with a strong accent, a scouse I believe. On Sundays at his place it was pork roast day and poker, this attracted a number of local expats, part of the lost tribe of older travellers who found the ‘real’ home, far away from home. They had absorbed the local environment like osmosis, all lean and tanned to the bone by the sun. They all had interesting life background stories some owned guesthouses and trekking agencies in Asia others had personal little hideaways in quiet corners of the earth and kept living and travelling on the cheap. We talked to Soon who was Korean by birth but adopted by Belgian parents spoke three languages and was travelling for a year and a half but had spent the last 4 months on the islands. He had bought a block of land on a small more remote island off a local farmer, it had no power but he had no intention of making money from it, it was just his little private bolt hole that he could escape to whenever he wanted. I asked him what the deed to the title of the land said and he replied “I don’t know, I can’t read Lao, but if you can’t trust these people who can you trust?’ Which I guess says a lot for the people who live here and those that want to.
Towards the end of our stay we took a kayak trip down the Mekong through rapids around a waterfall and downstream to the border with Cambodia. It was a great trip but we were really hoping to see a pod of the Irrawaddy dolphins.
The Irrawaddy dolphins have a pale and strange round shaped head kind of like a Beluga whale or if you don’t know what that looks like imagine my head ploughing through the water (I can see you all diving straight to the internet for a photo). Amongst the Lao the dolphins are traditionally considered to be reincarnated humans.
The Irrawaddy are rare fresh water river dolphins and only occur in small populations in the Padama river in Bangladesh, Ayeyarwardy river in Myanmar and the Mekong in Laos and Cambodia. Within the lower Mekong river the dolphins are a relic population of an endemic sub- species totally cut off from the sea and isolated for more than 10,000 years. From a report I read dated 2002 it was estimated that the total population was reduced to 100-300 individuals with only 20-50 in the area we were in. It was predicted that within 10 years at current loss rates the population would be extinct (by 2012). Recently a project has been set up to prevent net fishing within an area to help protect the species, may be it was working.
So we paddled into a still and expansive area of the Mekong and we looked around and waited to see if we could see any sign of dolphins. We were hugely thrilled to eventually see a small pod of three and then another pod of three to five. They moved our way and I jumped in the water as they moved passed only about 25m away, just me, the dolphins and a million parasites and diseases.
I was still in the water as a boat sped past me and a local pointed at me and laughed to her friends, I had the distinct feeling she said “hey his head looks just like an Irrawaddy!”.
As an end note to Laos there are little things I’ve noticed that are missing in countries that we take for granted as essential in Australia, as a mental note to make my fortune by importing these Australian items. For example when we were in Japan I was continually fascinated that no one seemed to have back sheds everyone always piled up stuff on the side of their house or under a veranda.
So to Laos;
1. With very hot and humid weather and long necks of beer drunk everywhere the beer always turns luke warm to hot and not once did I see or find a stubbie holder in the entire country, how could this be missed?
2. On many occasions I sat and watched as local people would struggle with hoses and watering gardens. Hoses were joined by inserting a smaller inner sleeve of metal pipe between the two ends and then the join duck taped shut. The result was a constant daily struggle with leaking and breaking hoses and poor water pressure. As an international aid program to Laos I’m recommending, boxes of pope garden connectors.
And finally kwap jai lai lai (Thankyou you very much) Laos, we loved you!