The Four Thousand Islands

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December 27th 2006
Published: January 8th 2007
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A Spectacular SunsetA Spectacular SunsetA Spectacular Sunset

Flares across the sky above Laos' 4000 Islands. © L. Birch 2006
A bumpy ride down an unmade dirt road culminated finally in a swirling cloud of dust outside a crude collection of shacks in the village of Ban Nakasang. Jumping down from the truck that had taken us there, seven of us - two Brits, two Australians and three French guys - stood looking around ourselves, squinting in the harsh light of mid day. It was like a scene from a spaghetti western; the unshaven jaws - or legs, in Viv's case - the sidelong glances, the settling dust. All it lacked was the Morricone soundtrack.

Where did we go now, we wondered, dusty packs sitting at our feet. It was a Laotian voice, not a mexican one that came to our aid. A group of men sitting in the shade of a nearby shop were pointing down the road. "Boat, 400 metres," they said. Reluctantly, we shouldered our packs and headed in the direction they had indicated. In the hot sun and carrying heavy packs, even a walk of 400 metres seemed a long way but it was not long before we stood - once more - on the banks of the Mekong, a small cluster of boats grounded on

Like something from an 'Indiana Jones' movie. The temples of Chempasak are all that remain of a complex built during the Angkor period. © L. Birch 2006
the shore below.

Up to this point, the 4 hr journey had taken us through a hot, dry landscape that bore more resemblance to the bushlands of northern Australia than it did to tropical Asia. Leaves hung limply on sparsely scattered trees and the yellowed grass beneath looked as if it hadn't seen rain in a long time. By contrast, the banks of the Mekong were green and lined with coconuts and widely branched trees. We were only a stones throw away from Cambodia now and the Mekong was at its widest point, flattening out across the flood plains of southern Laos before tipping into northern Cambodia. At its broadest point, the Mekong measured 14km across and was studded with hundreds of islands, islets and sandbars collectively known as Si Phan Don - The Four Thousand Islands. Being a landlocked country with no access to the sea, Laos had to be content with the Mekong as its primary aquatic outlet. The mighty river was the lifeblood of the country and provided everything from bathing water to food and recreation. So it should have come as no surprise to discover that Laos had its own answer to sunkissed beaches and

These Big Trees near Don Det looked as if they had come from the pages of a Brian Aldiss novel. © L. Birch 2006
tropical islands. Everyone we met in the south had either been to or were on their way to the islands and we heard stories of a tropical paradise where you could stay in bamboo huts overlooking the Mekong and swing in a hammock all day. After seven weeks of hard travelling, a spot of R&R before we tackled the rigours of Cambodia seemed very much in order.

And so, we had set off from Pakse and followed the Mekong south - stopping for a couple of days at Chempasak to visit a spectacularly ruined Angkor-era temple built by the Khmers. From there, rides in a tuk-tuk, a boat, a hitched lift in the back of a pick up and finally, the truck taxi - had brought us to the dusty village of Ban Nakasang where a short boat ride was all that separated us from the islands. Our guide book said that a boat should cost around 5000 kip per person but it was not always right and no amount of haggling would get the boat cartel to lower the price from 15000. Bowing to the inevitable, we paid our money, took off our shoes and waded out to
Bamboo Huts...Bamboo Huts...Bamboo Huts...

Like these on Don Det, provided a taste of what life used to be like before everything was available at the flick of a switch. © L. Birch 2006
the longtail boat that would take us to the island of Don Det.

It was only a short ride, the boat threading its way through a maze of small islets covered in greenery. As we drew nearer to Don Det, I could see its ramshackle bungalows - the approach dominated by three huge trees with a single, interwoven canopy. It formed an enormous dome that dropped right down to the water and looked for all the world, as if it had been neatly 'clipped' into shape. It reminded me of the immense tree described in the science fiction novel "Hothouse" by Brian Aldiss and I couldn't help wondering how the first travellers had come across this isolated little backwater. Ten years ago, Don Det was virtually unknown to the outside world and was largely populated by subsistence farmers growing rice and coconuts. But as more travellers found their way here, the locals discovered that building a few huts for them to stay in and cooking them up cheap rice and noodle dishes was far more lucrative than breaking their backs in the fields. Most still have their farms and the landscape is predominantly agricultural but you can't help wondering
It's Paradise...It's Paradise...It's Paradise...

At least, that was how Don Det looked to us when we first set foot on the island. © L. Birch 2006
how long it will last.

For now though, it seems like paradise. At least, that was how it looked to us as we stepped from the boat into the muddy shallows on Don Det. Finding a place to stay was easy: we just wandered around until we found a place that took our fancy. We settled for a palm thatched bungalow on the western side of the island that had great views and was perfect for watching the sun set each evening. The accommodation was basic and came simply furnished with a rough wooden bed, a mosquito net and a hammock slung across its small balcony. There was also a shared cold water shower and squat toilet - hardly indulgent but then, you didn't come to Don Det for its luxury amenities. For most, a big part of the island's attraction was its simplicity. It provided an opportunity to experience the way life used to be lived by most of us before everything became available at the flick of a switch. There was no mains electricity, no fresh water on tap - only what was pumped out of the Mekong for our showers. And if you wanted to wash
Life from the RiverbankLife from the RiverbankLife from the Riverbank

Fishermen checking nets at sunset, Don Det. © L. Birch 2006
your clothes? Why, you did things the way the locals did and washed them by hand in a metal bowl filled with water from the river.

We slipped easily into island living and were glad that we had renewed our Laos visas in Vientiane. It meant that we could enjoy our final few days in the country at a leisurely pace and not have to rush on to Cambodia. Even so, the seven days we spent 'conducting research' into island life passed all too quickly. Yes, there was a certain amount of indolence - lounging around in hammocks while the sun sank over the Mekong or swilling a beer at a restaurant as we discussed border crossing strategies or overland routes with other travellers. Surprisingly too, there were other diversions. It was possible to join a local fisherman on a sunset fishing trip, take a boat ride to spot rare, irrawaddy dolphins, hire a bike or trek out across the island to see one of the biggest waterfalls on the Mekong. You could visit local villages or follow the 5km course of a long defunct railway line - the only one in Laos - built and finally abandoned by
Echoes from a Colonial PastEchoes from a Colonial PastEchoes from a Colonial Past

The dusty remains of a steam locomotive sit abandoned in a weed grown siding, Don Khon. © L. Birch 2006
the French in the early 1900s. The track had long since gone but you can still see the embankment with a few wooden sleepers that have somehow survived the depredations of termites, a bridge or two and a rusting steam locomotive - overgrown with weeds in a grass covered siding. Somehow, it was a rathering sobering testament to the lofty ideals and self serving aspirations of colonialism.

We moved from the west to the eastern side of the island during our stay - just to get a balanced view of life on both sides of the island. Our second hut was beneath palm trees and benefitted from a cooling breeze - something absent on the western side of the island. It also had pink curtains... which was definitely a clincher.

"Come on You Blues..."

A festival on the neighbouring island of Don Khong - where national dragon boat racing was taking place - provided an inside peek into a very Lao social event. When we arrived, festivities were well underway and a carnival atmosphere prevailed. The banks of the Mekong were thronged with spectators and gaily coloured boats were being put through their paces. Simple farmers
Rice HarvestRice HarvestRice Harvest

Mrs Hom demonstrates the use of a threshing wheel, Don Det. © V. Birch 2006
- who could probably not afford to do so - were drinking prodigious amounts of rice whiskey and laying bets on which team would win the next race. Many people were from the provinces and probably didn't see westerners very often. Babies burst into tears at the sight of us and men and women gawped as if were aliens newly arrived from another planet.

The races reminded me of the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race, except for the fact that participants wore differently coloured shirts of course. And that they rowed in teams of 30-men in brightly painted 'dragon boats' - but apart from that, it was just like the Oxford and Cambridge boat race! Each race consisted of a short but extremely fast sprint for the finish line. As they set off from the start line, the yellow and orange shirts seemed well matched and raced at terrific speed for the red flag. As both teams drew nearer the finish, excitement among the spectators reached fever pitch, everyone cheering for their team. Meanwhile, out on the water, the rowers grunted loudly in unison as the coxwain counted off the strokes - "Suun, neung, sawng; suun, neung, sawng." It was close but it was the yellow team that finally nudged inside the red flag just centimetres ahead of the other team, a great cheer of excitement rising up from the crowd on the banks. Those who had obviously won their bets were almost jumping for joy while those who had not been so lucky, retreated to a whiskey shop to drown their sorrows and hope for better luck in the next race.

Back on Don Det, we also had an opportunity to get involved with the rice harvest one afternoon. After attending to various other chores, Mr Hom and his wife - the farming couple who owned our bungalows - often spent the afternoons threshing sheaves of recently harvested rice. It was hot, dusty work and on this particular day, the farmer's wife was doing the job on her own. With nothing better to do, we went over and offered to help. Of course, she was delighted and together, we spent the afternoon threshing our way through a great stack of sheaves, extracting the grains that would feed the family and take them through the dry season until the next harvest. It was hard work and I don't think either of us will take our rice purchases in the supermarket back home so lightly ever again.

We left Don Det on the very last day remaining on our Laos Visas. Neither of us felt ready to leave but it simply wasn't possible to stay any longer. Casting a last, long look back over my shoulder as the boat pulled away from the muddy shore, I wondered if we would ever return to Don Det. But as the boat bounced across the water, our minds were soon occupied by other concerns. It was time to knock on Cambodia's back door and see if the Cambodians would let us in.

Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest... The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off from everything you had known once - somewhere - far away - in another existence perhaps.... I got used to it afterwards.

Joseph Conrad
"Heart of Darkness"


11th January 2007

Hi Laurie Can we see the photo of Viv's hairy legs please? Thanks Grant
14th January 2007

Ah, nice to hear...
... your latest tails. I'll never think of rice quite the same again. Its amazing what we take for granted in our western opulence. Beccie and Steve have sailed off yesterday for France, Spain and Portugal having caught the surfing bug, and they've bought a van. Its starting to give us itchy feet, still, we've booked a weekend in Torquay in February!
25th June 2007

Don Det Here I Come!
Laurie & Viv, Your description of Don Det has given me pre-travel goose bumps. I'm in Canada, counting down 3 weeks until I board the jetplane for SE Asia and I've fallen for Laos already. Thanks for the pulsing narrative. Happy travels, Brad
11th January 2010

Thanks for the post. We're heading to Laos tomorrow and it sounds like the 4 thousand islands are definitely worth a visit. I guess they may have changed a bit by now though. We'll see.

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