Dons and dolphins

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May 18th 2012
Published: August 13th 2012
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Kong Lor cave, Si Phan Don, both in Laos. Kratie, Koh Trong, in Cambodia. Over about 10 days.

We broke up the almost interminable bus journeys in southern Laos with a detour to the impressively vast and vastly impressive Kong Lor cave, which runs for about five miles under south central Laos’ mountains. The cave is over 100m high in places, with small waterfalls occasionally pouring down, illuminated only by our torchlight, their sound amplified by the gloom.

An adjoining cave provides a chance to leave our tiny wooden boat, and explore a land of gigantic stalagmites and stalactites on foot. Unfortunately the floodlights aren’t working, but this merely adds to the unearthly atmosphere, as our meagre torches illuminate the columns one by one, slowly revealing a vast cavern full of eternally developing formations.

A few days later, at Laos’ south-western tip, we found Si Phan Don, literally “4000 Islands”. They’re all named Don (island) -something. Don Khon, Don Det, Don Kong, Don Duck, Don Kekong, Don Draper. Ok, some of those may not be real. Or perhaps they are; Most are uninhabited and seemingly unnamed, and around half are submerged at the peak of the rainy season.

Despite a few thunderstorms threatening to hamper our progress as we made our way through southern Laos, Si
Sunset over Don DetSunset over Don DetSunset over Don Det

Yes, this is a real photo!
Phan Don was bathed in nothing but sunshine and clear skies for our time there.

We stayed on Don Det, a small island with a fledgling tourist industry. There are a few guesthouses, restaurants and bars at the northern tip. But on a bike ride or a walk around the island, with the wind rustling the trees and the Mekong lapping the shores, life slows down and the land becomes agricultural.

The main attractions for us were the spectacular waterfalls that separate several of the islands, and the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that inhabit the calmer waters downstream. On two late afternoons, we took boats to go dolphin spotting. Initially we harboured doubts about seeing any, but it soon became apparent that sightings are pretty much guaranteed, as the dolphins occupy the small area of water that’s sufficiently deep for them. The only drawback is that the Mekong here forms the border with Cambodia, and the dolphins, it seems, don’t have Laos passports or visas.

A few days later, we entered Cambodia overland. After some minor delays and encounters with brazenly corrupt border officials, we reacquainted ourselves with Mr. Robert Mead, and another pod of Irrawaddy dolphins, near
Irrawaddy Dolphin close up!Irrawaddy Dolphin close up!Irrawaddy Dolphin close up!

Where they appeared was, of course, fairly random. Thanks goodness for Mina's telephoto lens.
the town of Kratie. Robert had travelled all the way from London, via Kuala Lumpur and Phnom Penh, to meet us. At some point in the distant past, the ancestors of the dolphins had probably travelled from the South China Sea up the Mekong, to form two isolated communities of these now endangered mammals.

Compared to wild dolphins that we’ve seen in the Mediterranean, these creatures don’t put on much of a show; there are no flips, jumps or even swimming alongside the boat. Even their features are rather plain, with an indistinct beak and tiny dorsal fin, and a fluke that rarely leaves the water. With their long, almost featureless bodies, they resemble benign slow moving torpedoes. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to see them in their natural habitat, unmolested by humans, aside from one boat of scientific researchers, hopefully helping to prolong their existence.

In Kratie, accompanied by Mr. Mead, we again stayed on an island in the Mekong. No Dons here though – back to ‘Koh’, similar to Thailand. The dark wooden house of a Cambodian family on Koh Trong was our home for two nights. Cycling around Koh Trong’s quiet paths and sandy lanes, then
Unspoilt sandback on Koh TrongUnspoilt sandback on Koh TrongUnspoilt sandback on Koh Trong

It provided a great place for a swim.
swimming off an untrodden sandbank, we quickly immersed the willing Robert into our Asian experience. His excitement at being so far from western life, figuratively and literally, reminded us of what a special time we were having.

Additional photos below
Photos: 45, Displayed: 24


Local childrenLocal children
Local children

Eager to show the way to Kong Lor cave.
Heavy loadHeavy load
Heavy load

In places it's amazing to consider the mass of mountain above.
Whence we came.Whence we came.
Whence we came.

The straight main roads in southern Laos contrast with the windy mountainous ones in the north.
Exploring the old and the new on Don DetExploring the old and the new on Don Det
Exploring the old and the new on Don Det

Electricity only arrived a few years ago, closely followed by satellite dishes.
Li Phi waterfallLi Phi waterfall
Li Phi waterfall

Viewed from the west of Don Khon island.

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