Mekong meanderings

The last of our days in Laos were spent on and among the Si Phan Don, or “Four Thousand Islands”, an archipelago on the broad Mekong River comprised of islands that vary in size and number depending on the season (rainy versus dry). We only had a couple of days there, but the idyllic setting was a lovely place to bring our time in Laos to a close.

Transport and accommodation notes

We got there with an easy van ride from Pakse. Buying a ticket through one of the many travel shops in town meant pick up straight from our hotel and getting crammed into a stuffed vehicle with a bunch of other tourists. The drive was relatively quick and very easy, and after getting dropped off along the shoreline, a short boat ride brought us to Don Khong.

The main island among the “4,000”, Don Khong boasts a population of about 13,000 and is less touristy than the backpacker haven of the better known island Don Det, further down the river. We took a hotel on the main strip along the water front (mostly a cluster of guest houses and tourist-geared restaurants. The rest of the island though is mostly villages and farmlands) of Muang Khong, the larger town.

The hotel is listed as Phoukhong Guesthouse in Lonely Planet. It seems to have changed names but unfortunately I forgot to write down the new name! It’s easy enough to find from the description in the book though if you happen to be looking for it. The room could have used a thorough sweeping and dusting, but overall it was relatively clean and the huge windows and all the light they let in were lovely.

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Lovely big windows and a balcony to boot!

Sights and photos

The first day we rented bikes (a matching blue and pink set!:-)) and did a tour, following one of the few roads along the island’s perimiter. Despite finishing up with really sore rear ends by the end of the day, we loved the ride.

The island is so quiet; we hardly ran into any traffic. Mostly we were biking through beautiful farm lands and I got to savor more of my favorite south-east asian scenes – rice fields in varying stages (fallow, ploughed, dried out, just sprouting) stretching out towards the horizon, people in conical hats working in those brilliantly green paddies that are ready for harvesting, endlessly adorable water buffalo luxuriating in mud puddles, massive butterflies dancing through the air in front of temples.

Our drinking in the sights was punctuated with choruses of “Sabaidees” every time we’d pass through a village – pretty much every child we passed was eager to greet us. Very sweet! 🙂 Fun too was being forced to find shelter from time to time when (thankfully) short downpours would begin. The fun of the rainy season!

The next day, we hired a boat for a tour along the river (encouragingly, we ran out of gas after the first ten minutes and our driver spent a lot of time bailing water out of the bottom. We made it back safe and dry though 😉 ), cruising between some of the smaller islands and making a stop at Don Det. The river scenery was lovely. The Mekong is just huge; at the center between either shore the mud-colored water expands out underneath you in all directions, capturing the broad sky above in its reflection. We really enjoyed the atmosphere, skimming along the serenely churning waters.

Our short walk through Don Det was nice enough; we were happy not to be staying in one of the many back-packer style bungalows (“Know thyself” – I’m too old for that sort of thing at this point! 😉 ) but we enjoyed wandering among the houses further back in the island, smiling at betel chewing grannies, walking by massive clumps of towering bamboo that creaked magically in the wind and searching for an abandoned colonial railway.

Best of all though was being able to catch glimpses of every day life along the river: families paddling out in small boats to gather edible greens from the water, men and boys casting nets from shallow waters along the shore, women bathing young children and washing clothes at the river’s edge, groups of kids pausing their games to wave and shout enthusiastically at us from the shore.

We’d just passed a grandmother and grandchild harvesting river plants when we encountered the most shocking portion of the boat ride. Two boys were in the water by a wooden boat. I thought they were fishing and waved back as one started to greet us when suddenly the second one sprung up from the water like a rocket. He was stark naked and started dancing like crazy with enthusiastic gyrations and hip thrusting that would have been incredibly lewd except he was young enough to get away with it. Instead it was just hilarious (Roman assures me I was blushing none the less!), and I cracked up for the rest of the day every time I thought of it.  🙂

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Old tree among rice paddies

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Our matching bikes, parked while we waited out the rain under a cozy tree

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Village kids come by to investigate and say hi during another rain break

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Storm clouds ahead, golden sun behind

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A farmer and buffalo ploughing rice fields

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Beer-bottle caps ready for a game of checkers

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Strong currents – the view from the middle of the Mekong

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