Tag: ‘loas’

4,000 Islands | Don Det | Laos

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Fisherman by The Congos

After the Wat Phou festival, Jim and I made our way to the 4,000 islands, otherwise known as Si Phan Don, the southern most part of Laos. Unlike most travelers, we decided to take local transport the entire way from Champasak to Don Det. After this experience, however, I highly suggest going via minibus! There wasn’t much of a price difference, and we spent hours sitting on precariously placed rice sacs hanging out the back of a jam-packed sawng thaew (rice sacs deceitfully look cushy and comfy, but are hard as bricks…and a sawng thaew is a pick-up truck with wooden benches).

The 4,000 islands have been described as a traveler’s dream. Lonely planet writes, “Si Phan Don is an archipelago of sandbars and inlets set amid the turquoise expanse of the Mekong River. At night the river is dotted with the lights of fishing boats, while during the wet season, the lush, palm studded islands are alight with fireflies.” and “Pirogues zip down the river past clouds of butterflies, doe eyed water buffalo, gleaming emerald patties, and a rural lifestyle that hasn’t changed for centuries…welcome to the travelers’ paradise that is Don Det and Dong Kohng.”

24-hour electricity and wireless internet only recently arrived to Don Det; tourism has changed the game, and now to truly be “cut off from the world,” one must venture to a further island.  Less than a decade ago, backpackers merely peppered Don Det’s riverfront, and bungalows were $1. Now,  it has more than earned a spot on the banana pancake trail. It is notorious for ruining schedules (“I was only going to stay 3 days, but it’s been 3 weeks…”), and I understand why. It seduces you with days of sipping beers in hammocks, sunset dinners on the Mekong, bonfire parties on the beach, and of course, late mornings. The pace of life borders on non existent, and New York City literally felt worlds away. It’s almost a cliche. A hypothetical scene might include a dread-locked guy in his underwear riding by on a pink bike while two other beach bums have a conversation about smoking joints on mountains (“not exactly sure where they were… but it was cool, dude.”). Oh wait…that’s not hypothetical, it actually happened! Every meal or fruit shake on Don Det, by the way, can be made into a “happy meal” (infused with marijuana). At least that’s what I heard!

Jim and I stayed on the sunset side, which keeps cooler during the day, and provides spectacular views at dinner time. To some people’s dismay, but to the benefit of locals, Don Det is no longer the land of $1 rooms. As tourism has grown on the island, working groups have focused on establishing a more sustainable income for farmers and those running guesthouses and eating joints. The idea is that this will also encourage skill growth; as financial independence increases, so does the quality of the visitor experience (as travelfish points out, roofs may be thatched, but they still cost money and need to be replaced…and hey if you can afford to buy a $100 backpack, you should be able to pay $5 for a room!). We paid $10 for our room, but the average  is $3-6. Each day, behind our bungalow, a heated game of soccer took place….which I watched while sipping beer in my hammock (decided now wasn’t the time to rekindle my soccer days). One afternoon, I couldn’t tell you which, (the days, uh just seem to run together….must be a contact high from the happy shakes ) Jim and I mustered up the ambition to do a half-day bike ride around Don Det and Dong Khong. We stopped by the waterfalls, and found a beautiful beach, (that many people look for but can’t find), but I didn’t even photograph it because I was enjoying it too much. I thought of friends and family as I swam in this magical little spot… because, well, I’ve discovered that’s what you do when everything’s perfect.

We also procured the motivation to do a full day kayaking trip, ($20) which included dolphin watching for the nearly extinct, rare Irrawaddy dolphin. They didn’t come above the surface much, but we saw at least three, and it felt like such a special thing to see a species that few get the chance to see. We also visited the biggest waterfall in Laos, Khone Phapheng, which was spectacular, and has a back story ingrained in its waters. The waterfall made it all but impossible to navigate between Laos and Cambodia by boat, so French colonizers, (annoyed by the inconvenience!) built a narrow-gauge railway in 1917 that was to be used across the rapids, but it was never completed. There are remnants of this and other aspects of colonialism, (isn’t there always?!) scattered on the island, including a rusty steam engine and bridge that connects the islands.

While there are supposedly 4,000 islands that make up Si Phan Don, most of them are just clumps of vegetation and/or all but submerged… and even then, 4,000 seems a hefty estimate! Regardless, it astounds me to think of all these kinds of little places around the world. It reminds me of when I was younger, and I used to imagine places that no humans have ever been to and pondered their beauty. I still do…..Though Si Phan Don isn’t as culturally rich (due to tourism) as most parts of Laos, it was well worth the trip…it’s just one of those places that feels like nowhere and everywhere. Every night. around 11 pm (after things closed down), travelers gathered on the beach for a huge bonfire….together, we were nowhere and everywhere…surrounded by 4,000 islands…. in a landlocked country, how’s that for magic? Next stop… the Kong Lor cave.

on the way to the island

well i guess this is one way to know it’s fresh…

view from dinner spot

cats with guns

piggys! took these pics for my best friend erica krumbein!

funny looking pups

wheel on a stick toy

many people make their living fishing on Don Det

this guy was so funny….he insisted we visit the old man above and see the fish…i’m glad he did!

gave him my beer, he was very happy.

the rare Irrawaddy dolphin

jim in the water

these two were quite the lovebirds, especially in a country where PDA is frowned upon

largest waterfall in laos

hey look, it’s me

the bonfire

me keeping it classy, thanks to the stranger who captured this

Wat Phou Festival | Campasak | Laos

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

After my lovely experience with Samart in Chiang Mai, I flew to Phuket for my first destination wedding, with Philippines-based photographer Julian Abram Wainwright. Stay tuned for the photos on my wedding blog. I will be returning to Phuket later next month to shoot two more weddings, so I will save my Phuket post until then. After a few days of  chilling out, I flew to Ubon where I prepared to cross the Thai border to Laos and meet Jim, my travel partner for the next few weeks.

From Ubon airport, I took a taxi to the bus station, where I waited for a few hours to catch a bus to the Chong Mek border crossing. On the bus, I met a young novice monk, and we chatted for quite some time, as he enjoyed practicing his English. From the drop off point, I made my way on a motorbike taxi to the border where I got my passport stamped and received my visa ($35 if you pay in USD $42 if you pay in Thai Baht). Apart from the poorly marked paths and a little confusion, it was a fairly simple crossing that took about 30 minutes. From there, I grabbed a minibus to the guesthouse where Jim and I had planned to rendezvous. Jim and I met on couchsurfing.org in the South East Asia forums while we were planning our trips. We decided, despite never meeting or talking on the phone, that we would travel together for almost three weeks in Laos. Jim is a young older guy (51 but passes for 40), and we proved to get on well…most of the time (a brother-sister dynamic ensued!)

I was eager to explore Laos, and see how it differed from Thailand. Laos is the first communist country I have visited, and I was curious to see how, if any, the communist state influenced the culture. I will talk more about this in later posts. Jim and I spent our first few nights in Pakse, which is mostly a border crossing town, but we found it quite nice. We had a delicious dinner (Tom Yom soup—decided to skip the “pork bowels”) on the Mekong as the sun went down at a lively spot where many locals were gathered drinking beers. Before bed, we enjoyed some traditional Lao herbal massages, which are quite divine (and cost $4-6/hour!). Unfortunately, by this time, I had become quite sick due to an air conditioner in Phuket, but with a few days rest, I was back to normal.

The (usually) sleepy town of Champasak was our first official destination in Laos. Along with thousands of Lao locals, we were headed to the full moon festival at Wat Phou, one of the oldest archeological sites in Laos. Constructed in the 9th century, it was a holy site for Hindus and later Buddhists. Once annually, during the full moon on the third lunar month, there is a religious festival held at the site, and it just so happened to coincide with our travel plans. Unfortunately, today the ruins are just that—in ruin—and in danger of crumbling, even as organizations in France and Japan work to restore them (Wat Phou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

After spending our first day wondering the festival’s huge market in the incredible midday heat, we decided to take a break on following day, by hiring a boat to take us to the tiny fishing island across the river, Don Daeng. We had planned to spend most of the day on along the shore under the sun. But before settling in, we ventured off for a little walk. Fast forward four hours later; we were lost, exhausted, and burdened by aching feet (with only our flimsy flip-flops shielding them from the ground). We gravely underestimated the width of the island, and thus ended up walking 25K over the course of five hours in brutal mid day Laos heat. This was an immense challenge for me physically and mentally, and I had to prevent myself from stopping for breaks, because I knew we needed to keep going. We considered backtracking multiple times, (and should have) but we just kept going. Though strenuous, we saw some beautiful sites along the way; children riding bikes in front of a temple, kids playing with push carts, and families making sticky rice over fire in tubes of bamboo. When we finally arrived in familiar territory, we enjoyed a half hour of swimming in the murky Mekong before the boat returned to pick us up. We also noticed that had we walked right instead of left, there was a beautiful eco-resort with a swimming pool and bar, where we could’ve spent the day relaxing!

On the last day of the festival, we climbed to the top of Wat Phou ruins. The temple was lit by hundreds of candles that the monks had set ablaze at dawn as part of an extensive alms blessing. Walking up these glowing ruins at dusk was a spiritual experience for me. Incense burned strongly from all directions, monks and nuns stationed at various places offered blessings, and near the top, I watched children and families collect water from a fresh water spring that trickled through the cracks of the ruins. It has been flowing for thousands of years, and the water is believed to be holy. And just as the festival began winding down, dozens of lanterns began floating into the sky…between the moon, the candles, and the lanterns, it was like sitting atop a spiritual dreamland.

Other than Wat Phou, there isn’t much to see or do in Champasak. It’s a small village that runs by nature’s clock, and like many cities and towns, is sustained by and dependent upon the Mekong. Even as there were hoards of people coming and going for the festival, the vibe was still completely relaxing. It contains only one dusty “main street,” which has a fair number guesthouses (we had no problem getting a room without booking in advance). Unlike many other travelers we ran into, Jim and I were traveling south to north in Laos, which enabled us to exchange useful information with our fellow travelers. From Champasak, we headed even further south to the fabled “4000 islands,” which many call paradise. Stay tuned.

you thought finding your car at target was hard….

i am starting a long-term photo project about children with toy guns….this picture was not posed.

loved this little boy with bright pink fingernail polish…perhaps another gender themed photo project is in store

the traffic to the festival was amazing

don daeng finishing island…the trek begins

officially lost… we contemplated stealing a boat….

wat phou festival, eveningtime

jim and our Portuguese friend…. who we ran into in four different cities Laos

not sure how much the fan is helping…

full moon at wat phou

more children with toy guns…

collecting water

it’s a long day for local vendors…

next year they will do it all over again… without a doubt, it’s the most exciting thing that happens in the town each year.


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