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