Published: June 18th 2008June 18th 2008
Laos, if I could compare thee to a dish then you would certainly be spaghetti carbonara. Why? Because spaghetti carbonara is such an incredibly delicious dish, easy to make, with so few constituent ingredients, but can be, and often is, made extremely badly (mine, of course, being the best). Spaghetti, egg yolks, cream, bacon, parmesan and pepper; that's it, nothing more, yet what an abominable hash is so often created. So how does this compare in any way to Laos? Well, when trying to pin down exactly what it is I love so much about Laos, and why, I realised that I could not sum it up at all until, in one of those lucid moments half way through a bottle of Lao Lao that alcoholics call a moment of clarity, I hit upon the food metaphor above. It seemed to make sense at the time but I'm becoming dubious now! Moment of clarity my arse! It struck me then how basically similar all South East Asian countries are, not so much in the overall feel, politics, scenery or customs but more in the basic ingredients available. Thailand and Laos for example share many similarities, their language for one is very
close yet, as the Brits say about American's, are separated by a common language. The food is also very similar, as is the Geography (both countries share a massive land border) and even the people have common ancestors, yet the two countries have such a different "feel". As with a well made carbonara it seems that the constituent ingredients that go into creating "Laoness" have been blended and mixed to perfection, the eggs have not been allowed to cook and the bacon is perfectly crispy, with the end result being a seemingly perfectly harmonized country. I cannot say why I love it so much (this is our second time here) nor what makes it so special, all I can say is that I'd love to thank the chef.
It has been almost three weeks since the last blog but due to a certain lassitude of mind, or more correctly to rapidly diminishing funds, we have been in the far south of Laos in an area collectively called Si Phan Don or the "4000 islands". This is a rural Laos at its most laid back and pretty. The Mekong river, which flows through Laos from north to south and is
integral to so many communities along its banks, reaches its widest point in this area and, especially in the dry season when the water level drops, contains many islands and sandbars that go into making the "4000 islands". We have stayed on three of these; Don Khong, Don Det and Don Kon. Life has been easy, incredibly cheap, entertaining, educational (occasionally), scenic, relaxing and just plain odd.
The first island we got to was Don Khong, by far the largest of all the islands and relatively untouched by tourism. We caught a local Saengthaw from Pakse which we shared with a wide variety of live produce being taken to market and a squeeze of smiling locals. The journey went by in a flash and soon we were on a ferry being hauled across the Mekong by a small tug boat. Once on Don Khong itself it was only a short drive to the small smattering of guest houses that serve the tourist trickle that comes this way. We stayed in a delightful guest house with huge room's (wood throughout), a massive common veranda, a well tended garden and run by diligent, helpful owners. We stayed there for almost a
week and spent our time cycling round the island in forty degree heat (where is the monsoon?) admiring the farms that look as though nothing has changed for hundreds of years, taking short walks, visiting temples, eating, reading and sleeping. When all that activity got too much we headed over to Don Det to really step it down a notch!
Don Det is the most well known of the islands and has consequently the greatest proliferation of guest houses in the area. We were worried that this would be a problem and that this might, in some way, have sublimated the charm of the island. we were relieved to find that this wasn't the case and found Don Det and its sister island Don Kon (linked by a railway bridge built by the French - the only track they ever laid in Laos) perhaps even prettier than Don Khong. For a start the islands are both much smaller than Don Khong and therefore less exhausting to explore, they are also more leafy which again aids exploration but most importantly once out of the main cluster of guest houses that fringe the north of the island the rest seems entirely
The main attractions on these two islands (other than swinging in a hammock) are to see the Irrawady Dolphin's or to visit one of the waterfalls. As we had previously seen the incredible Dolphin's further down the Mekong in Cambodia, and as the chances of a sighting are pretty low in the wet season, we decided to make our single excursion from our hammocks a trip to see the falls. We were well glad we made the effort. Although the falls only fall about eight meters it is the incredible volume of toffee coloured Mekong water that thunders over them that is so impressive; what they lack in length they make up for in width - these falls cover a huge area and it was massively thrilling to witness such a mass of roiling, confused water. There are some other falls we could have seen but they required an expensive (relatively Scott, relatively) boat trip to view them, so we declined.
For the rest of the time we have been pretty pathetic to tell the truth. We spent huge amounts of time in our 20,000 Kip ($2.50) room reading books in the hammock and watching the Mekong
glide serenely by. We have indulged in a few bottles of locally made Lao Lao for 8,000 Kip ($1.00), not least when we unexpectedly found ourselves in the middle of a festival, some equally cheap "Lion King" whisky (pass the Simba), some delicious food and almost no anthropological research, in fact almost no cultural commingling at all. We are sorry for this, we have been bad and lazy and promise to make amends. We are planning to spend our last week away in the Bolivan Plateau, hopefully there we shall find more to write about.
There are more photos below