Four Thousand Islands


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Asia » Laos » South » Si Phan Don
September 27th 2003
Published: February 18th 2008
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My balcony and hammockMy balcony and hammockMy balcony and hammock

One day I read, dozed, ate. All day, all from this hammock.
I have been away from internet cafes for 10 days or so (which is harder to do than you would think). I think when last I wrote I was talking about going on a five day trek in Savannakhet province. For some reason (which due to communication difficulties I was not able to ascertain) this trek is not being run any more. So instead I went to the very southern-most part of Laos to an area called the Four Thousand Islands. It is an area where the Mekong stretches to 14km across. In the dry season there are many many small sandy islands in the area (four thousand at last count apparently…) in addition to the larger ones with vegetation and even villages. At the moment it is the rainy season, and the area is more like the “Thirty-Two Islands”. I stayed at “Don Det” which takes about 10 mins by bicycle to cross. There were quite a few bungalows along the east side of the island for tourists, but there was no one there (they probably read in the Lonely Planet that rainy season was not a good time to go). I only had one afternoon of rain in four days there. The place was beautiful. Apart from the simple bungalows (US$1 a night) it was completely old-school Laos village. Pigs, chickens, water buffalo, manky dogs, people planting rice, plowing rice paddies with buffalo, kids jumping into the river. It was such a great atmosphere that I took a bicycle out for three days in a row just to cruise around soaking it all up (I wish they would stock a Mathew version of a bicycle though). I can’t really remember all the little instances that made the place special, but it was.

The animals here (and also around many other parts of Asia) would make great film candidates. They are totally bullet-proof. Dogs lie on the road while traffic swerves around them, you have to push the buffalo off a dirt path to get past, and you can step over cats without them moving. Apart from the lack of parasite control, dermatological problems, and probably a reduced life expectancy, I think a lot of dogs have a better life in parts of Asia than in western countries. They cruise around, are not subjected to too much human interference, seem to get enough to eat (not too many are fat though), get to socialise with other dogs all day, and understand the few basic rules that exist with humans. I would probably rather be a manky dog cruising around in Asia than a fat NZ dog waiting in the back yard for its owners to get back from work at 6pm. They are also not subjected to genetic selection for human-imposed physical characteristics, and as a result seem to have a far healthier conformation (I bet they would suffer less from skeleto-muscular disorders and other health issues if brought to NZ and compared with the show breeds there). Go the dodgy mongrel!

In the area of the Mekong around Don Det there are also Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins. Two recent guide books I looked at place their numbers at 50 to 200 individuals of the species left. The best place to see them was on the Cambodian side of the Mekong, so I took a rather dodgy low-sitting long boat to Cambodia (10 mins) to see them. There was a Cambodian “Border Post” in the river bank which was a bamboo thatch affair with “Royal Cambodian Border Post” hand painted on the side. Highly official... It was probably
Kids on Don DetKids on Don DetKids on Don Det

No video games or TV, so life is good
some farmers who set it up in order to collect the 5000 kip (50c) “visitation fee”. Although saying that I would not be surprised if it was in fact an official Cambodian office. Anyway…. (I am trying to pass the time before my bus leaves) the dolphins blew me away. They would disappear for 2 mins then surface to breathe. There were at least three. They had bulbous heads, and no “bottle nose” like the ones we are familiar with. How often do you get to see an animal in the wild that is so close to extinction? Due to the penchant that the Cambodians have for fishing with grenades it is estimated that there will be no Irrawaddy dolphins left in 5-10 years. Very saddening.

During four nights at Don Det I spent NZD$50 and ate like a king, had a few Beerlao in the evenings, and lived in a bungalow over the river. Beautiful. A couple of highlights were: watching three geckos staked out next to one of the few generator-driven lights on the island feasting on insects drawn to the light (its amazing what will fit into a small gecko…); sitting in my hammock by the
Wat Phou ChampassakWat Phou ChampassakWat Phou Champassak

Not very well maintained
river with a crystal-clear sky overhead and watching massive lightning storms on the horizon; and having a few Beerlao while an English guy played some very impressive guitar to a group of five of us. Traveling really makes you feel alive.

From Don Det I went north again to Pakse (where strangely enough there is a very good Indian restaurant). On the way I took a detour to Wat Pho, an Angkor temple. Parts of it are from the 6-8th centuries. It does not compare to the best parts of temples around Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but the setting was brilliant. Large mist-covered mountain in the background, no tourists, no restoration (which is sad, but makes you feel like you have discovered the place) steps leading up the mountain to the final sanctuary 300 meters up.

I bought a pirated Lonely Planet for Laos in Vietnam for $2 and it had two pages on a province called Sekong and the same on a province called Attapeu. It said that due to the difficultly of getting around few travelers went to these places. I though this would be the case especially during the wet season, so off I went
Awesome kidsAwesome kidsAwesome kids

Without prompting they shared the fizzy drinks out in equal shares
by local bus to Attapeu (the most south-eastern province) via a waterfall called Tad Lo and the province of Sekong. I stopped in Sekong town to buy some Laos weaving that was sourced from the villages in the area. I got a traditional ceremonial loin-cloth which took 30 days to weave (not that I believe anything locals tell me after being in Vietnam). I then waved down another bus to Attapeu. It really felt like I was in the wops. Every person would turn and look at me as I passed. I now know what it is like to be Tom Cruise. While waiting for a bus I was watched by a safe distance by 15 or so smiling children. I tried to ask them a few things in Lao, but my pronunciation is random. I managed to figure out that one girl was 12… I was her size when I was 5. I bought them a few Pepsi (bloody American fizzy drinks are everywhere) which they absolutely loved. The older ones shared it out to the youngsters. What really entertained them was when I fired a bottle cap from my fingers. They must have brought it back to me
Russian Surface-to-Air Missile launcherRussian Surface-to-Air Missile launcherRussian Surface-to-Air Missile launcher

Paam village, Attapeu province
20 times…. They were also intrigued about my ability to get a bottle cap off by using another bottle… all those beers in NZ finally paid off.

Right… anyway… this is getting like one of Jaz’s epics… I felt like I was off the beaten track until our bus picked up two girls from………… Invercargill….
mmmm. Really spoiled my sense of adventure. When we got to Attapeu we were the only westerners there though.

The next day we went on a mission with a local to the Ho Chi Minh trial which was great. It is a series of gravel paths that leads from the north of Laos to the south (following the border with Vietnam). It was used in the war for independence with France in the 40s and 50s but was mainly used by the North Vietnamese to traffic supplies and weapons to the south of Vietnam during the 1965-75 war with the USA. Because of this the Americans bombed the bejesus out of Laos, making Laos the most bombed country ever (far more bombs were dropped on Laos than all the bombs of WWII combined). This campaign was not overly successful, with only 15-20% of transported goods affected. The USA even tried bombing the area with detergent to make it too slippery for travel, and also dropped canned Budweiser to see if the VC would drink themselves to a halt...?

Now I am in Bangkok, in 24 hours I traveled by land from Attapeu. Good effort I think. The rush of Bangkok is too much after Laos. The buses run on time, the curries are good, and people speak English, but give me friendly dodgy old Laos any day. I’m off to Ko Tao to do my “emergency first responder”, “rescue”, and “divemaster” courses. Awesome. Can’t wait to be under the water again.
Thanks for your emails. Please write, its good to hear from people.



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Irrawaddy dolphin (black spot in water)Irrawaddy dolphin (black spot in water)
Irrawaddy dolphin (black spot in water)

Photo not impressive enough for you? Fussy.
The Mekong during the rainy seasonThe Mekong during the rainy season
The Mekong during the rainy season

You could hear the roar of this torrent of water from the other side of the island. I followed the sound until I found this inimidating barrage of water. I found out that this set of rapids is what caused the French to install the railway tracks on the island. Park up at one end of the short island, off-load cargo to train, train crosses 1km island, another boat picks up on other side of island - rapids dealt with.
Wat Phou ChampassakWat Phou Champassak
Wat Phou Champassak

Not very well maintained
Wat Phou ChampassakWat Phou Champassak
Wat Phou Champassak

Phu Kao mountain in the background


20th February 2008

Seems like it was.....perfect!
Loved to be able to share your experience in Laos sounds like a wonderfull encounter with a welcoming country and its people. Glad you could feel so alive without the remote control, the cell phone and rush hour traffic

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