After successfully completing our motorbike tour of the Bolaven Plateau, we made our way south alongside the Mekong until we reached Si Phan Don, more commonly referred to as the 4,000 Islands. Near the border with Cambodia, the Mekong widens, making room for 4,000 islands of varying shapes and sizes, at least during the dry season. We were headed for Don Khone, one of two popular islands (the other is Don Det) linked by a bridge. (In case it hasn’t yet become obvious, “don” means island in Lao.)
Of course, first we had to get to Don Khone from the mainland. We bought an all-inclusive minibus + ferry ticket from Pakse to Don Khone and then onwards to Kratie in Cambodia – a total of 4 bus tickets (2 per person) and 4 boat tickets (also 2 per person). Imagine our surprise when we were handed a simple yellow paper with a hand-written date and a “note” that detailed “To Don Khone, then overnight, then Kratie.” More details on the crazy adventure that is buying tickets and traveling by bus in Laos and Cambodia in our next post.
Our minibus dropped us off near the riverbank and we followed our driver down to the ferry landing. At that point, everyone started yelling at us to buy a ticket or they wouldn’t take us to Don Khone. Having already paid for the previously-mentioned all-inclusive ticket, we adamantly refused to make a second payment of $3. As we were being yelled at in Lao, Gio emphatically pointed to the magical yellow paper, shouting back “included in the ticket from Ms. Noy!” We repeated this exercise three or four more times. Somehow, we eventually were allowed to board an already very-full ferry.
Having missed the direct ferry to Don Khone during our ticket discussion, we boarded a ferry that stopped first at neighboring Don Det. The majority of visitors to the islands stay on Don Det, which has more guesthouses and a reputation among the many backpackers travelling through Southeast Asia. Since we are no longer 20-year old backpackers and/or dirty hippies (seriously, they are very prevalent here, and very dirty), we opted to stay on the slightly quieter Don Khone. We had read that many ferry drivers simply drop everyone off at Don Det, leading to a long walk with heavy backpacks to Don Khone, so we were prepared for a second discussion as to our drop off location, but we were needlessly worried on that front.
With the boat to ourselves, we puttered around Don Det and into the channel separating the two islands, where the driver deposited us on a muddy beach. We headed down the dirt path, presumably in the direction of our hotel. Walking with our backpacks in the heat, even for a short distance, we were thankful that we weren’t traditional backpackers who show up at a destination to wander from guesthouse to guesthouse to find a place to spend the night. Apparently, the term for what we are doing is "flashpacking” (similar to “glamping”). Who knew that wanting to know you wouldn’t have to sleep on the street (and having an en suite bathroom) was so flashy and glamorous? Our destination was only a short walk away from the beach and we were happy to check into our home for the next three nights: a floating bungalow on the Mekong!
The island of Don Khone is not exactly a bustling metropolis and we passed a lazy three days along the banks of the river. For one thing, there were gorgeous sunsets to view from our balcony (accompanied, of course, by the requisite sundowners).
We also made various forays via bicycle into the surrounding countryside. We peddled through rice paddies, down to the “beach,” to the edge of a series of waterfalls (more like rapids), and across the old French railway bridge. Despite several close encounters with cows, ducks, and motorbikes, Steph miraculously never crashed. However, she did almost get trapped in the mud once.
Having survived our biking adventures, it turns out that we should have focused more closely on the dangers associated with spending the night in a Lao floating house.
One evening, we listened to a torrential downpour outside, wondering all the while how tightly the house was bound to shore and whether we would start to float down the Mekong or if we should be worried about flooding. Furthermore, floating, wooden houses happen to be surprisingly flammable. We woke up one morning to a funny smell and a somewhat smoky room – was it the exhaust from the boats puttering up and down the river with ancient engines? No, it turns out that the wooden walkway to our house had mysteriously gone up in flames. As Giorgio ran for some water, a hotel employee arrived just in time with a fire extinguisher. In case you were wondering, nobody ever bothered to explain what actually happened or try to reassure us we would not be incinerated sometime during the subsequent two nights. Just another morning in Don Khone.
For our final expedition around the islands, we headed to the southernmost point, which promised views of the local pod of rare Irrawaddy dolphins. We hired a boat driver to take us out onto the river for a close-up sighting. After a lengthy, although scenic, wait, we finally spotted a few of the marine mammals in the distance. We asked our driver if we could get any closer, but were informed that the dolphins were currently in Cambodia. Did we want to go to Cambodia? If so, we just needed to pay a “fine” to the Cambodian police. Rather than go through the lengthy and probably confusing process of bribing the Cambodian authorities, we opted to continue watching the dolphins from afar. Sadly, this means there is only very poor photographic evidence of our animal sightings. Try to spot the dolphin in the second picture!
PSA: Irrawaddy dolphins are highly endangered! There are only about 10 dolphins in the pod that we saw and less than 100 individuals in the Mekong. Although they aren’t being poached by the Chinese like the rhinos in South Africa, they are endangered by local fishing methods, as detailed in this sign we found:
Yes, current fishing methods include dynamite and electrifying the water. Plus, there is apparently a big dam being built slightly upriver which is likely to cause the death of all remaining local dolphins (as well as severely affecting the livelihoods of the local fishermen). We’ve determined the electricity is probably going to be exported to China.
After our lazy days on the Mekong, more adventures were waiting – an overland journey back to Cambodia! Stay tuned for more details.