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Published: April 11th 2011
Forget Greece. Si Phan Don has it all. Here, the Mekong is at it's most beautiful. This fifty kilometer, turquoise stretch of the river is scattered with islands - four thousand islands, to be exact. Here the river is enormous, swelling to it's broadest point - an amazing fourteen kilometer span from shore to shore during the wet season. Hardly a river - it resembles the sea, still, sedate, mammoth.
Don Khong is the largest and quietest island. We are lulled into lethargy and spend hours watching long-tail boats and pirogues bobbing gently, men fishing with weighted circle nets, boys wading with nets on poles and water buffalo wallowing in the shallows. Ferries make the occasional trip to the mainland, carrying women with shopping baskets and men with motorbikes. A steady ebb and flow. The island has it's own rhythm - a barely discernable but steady pulse.
I succumb to it. Rising at 6am I make my way to the river and watch traders arriving from different parts of the island. Women carrying bags filled with green vegetables and plastic buckets brimming with squirming fish, make their way across dry, dusty rice paddies to the market. I follow along
the road, dodging scooters which carry three or four passengers squashed against each other. Giggling girls sit side-saddle, kids stand on the body of the bike bundled between parent's legs, or perch on the tip of the saddle, barely able to see over the handlebars. Bags of produce dangle from fingers, brush against legs, and sway softly with the slaloming of the bike as it criss-crosses ruts and holes. Once at the market, produce is unpacked onto squares of plastic sacking on the ground. Wares are arranged with care - tiny amounts of fruit piled into pyramids, liberally sprinkled with water, the best pushed to the front. The amounts for sale are paltry - one or two fish, fruit picked from trees surrounding the house - whatever is left over from feeding the family. An old woman with a weary face sits behind four eggs and four or five sweet potatoes. A young girl not more than ten years old, cuddles her young brother in her arms, expertly keeping him amused as she tries to sell a few berries and two fish. A woman extends her arm and offers me a piece of fruit, a tiny oval of orange, it's
sweet and delicious. By 7am the market is finished and I make my way back to the main street - a sandy, shaded stretch fronting the river with a handful of restaurants and guesthouses. Kids make their way to school on bikes too big for them, standing on the pedals, Mickey Mouse rucksacks on their backs. Women sweep the front of their houses, and burn small piles of rubbish and dead leaves in the verges. Shop shacks are restocked and bottles of drink and bags of crisps flicked over with a feather duster. The day begins.
On mornings when I don't go to the market I watch the monks from the nearby wat make their alms round. There's no-one else watching - it's just me. The lady from our guesthouse and the young girl from next door kneel in the dust. The monks - just two of them, approach slowly, purposefully - it's a living Van Gogh dancing in front of me - bright orange robes vivid against sandy earth; green leaves, lilac frangipani blossoms, the pinky Mekong pale in the barely risen sun, and silver ceremonial rice bowls. The monks gently lift the lids of their alms bowls
and the ladies offer a handful of sticky rice. The monks chant prayers standing shoulder to shoulder, looking ahead into the distance, before walking silently away. It's an intimate exchange and I feel like an intruder, but I'm moved by the respect and trust offered and received by all involved.
The excitement of the early hours gives way to inactivity in the heat of the day. On the deck of the Souk Sabay guesthouse a waiter with nothing to do strums on a guitar. Our restaurant kitty stretches out lazily on the table, using my bag and purse as a cushion while washing her paws. A cock crows somewhere. Underneath houses on stilts men laze in hammocks and women sit on low beds, hugging children, combing their hair, passing the time. We sip fresh lemon shakes, laced with sugar, and watch, busy doing nothing. Hours pass.
Towards the end of the day, before the sun sinks, men untether boats and paddle out into the river. Pirouetting with the grace of ballerinas they throw their nets; dark mesh circles outlined against a backdrop of purples, pinks and mauves. The water ripples. The islands cast shadows. The sky darkens. Lights
illuminate the guesthouse decks and insects gather. The day has passed. Time flies and yet stands still, so many impressions gathered with such little effort on my part. Learning to slow down. Learning to be.
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