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Four Thousand Islands and a day on International waters

10 February 2012

Having spent a great fortnight in Cambodia, with perhaps too long spent diving and windsurfing in Sihanoukville, we decided to make our way into Laos.  We had been repeatedly warned against the bus border crossing and so considered the plane for $150.  The problem with the bus crossing is, we understand, that the bus leaves at 5:30 am but needs to be at the Laos border before 4pm, when the Laos border guards cease work.  If this happens, the bus company supposedly put you up at the border and then take you through the next morning.  We subsequently spoke to two fellow travellers, one who suggested that the border could still be crossed if the guards were paid “overtime” and another who had caught the bus the day before we planned to and had been put up in the home of one of the bus company as they had not crossed the border in time.

As the trip is supposedly 10 hours, this should generally be fine, but given that each of our previous bus trips had overrun by at least two hours, this left it quite fine to cross the border and we opted for the flight.  After a 3.5 hour delay on the one hour flight, we made it to Pakse, which to be honest is a bit of a one horse town, but a hub to Southern Laos.  We stayed at the Saigon Guest House Hotel, which was clean and relatively cheap, although the reception staff was very helpful in procuring a sim card and on-going transport.

Unimpressed by Pakse, we booked an early morning transfer to Si Phan Don (the Four Thousand Islands), and more particularly Don Khon, otherwise known variously as Done Kone, Don Khome but not to be confused with Don Khong, the largest of the “four thousand” islands.  We had heard that Don Det was quite a party place but with a lot “happy shakes” or “happy anything” and so had opted for the apparently quieter Don Khon.  The transfer was 70,000 kip each (about $9) in a “VIP bus” which turned out to be overpacked with rucksacks in the aisles, departing with a relatively prompt 30 minute delay.  Fortunately the roads were good and we made it down in good time, via a short 20 minute ferry (included in the price) to Don Khon.

              

There were few places on the island advertising on the internet so we had had preliminary email exchanges with Pan’s Guest House, advertised in the Lonely Planet (obtained in Siem Riep for a bargainous $3).  They had offered us a garden view room for $35 but as we felt this was a bit steep we hadn’t got round to filling in the booking form.  Fortunately, when we arrived, Mr Pan showed us the last garden room and offered it to us for 150,000 kip (about $18 for a double).  We celebrated with a quick beer in Mr Pan’s restaurant and were even more smug as he turned away the next travelling couple while we relaxed.

       

The main things to do in Si Phan Don seemed to involve kayaking, admiring the waterfalls, trying to spot the rare Irriwaddy dolphins (freshwater dolphins which had been massacred in typically idiotic fashion by the Khmer Rouge in an attempt to disprove the superstition that they are reincarnated locals, for more on the dolphins see the WWF page), cycling, limited tubing and just chilling out.  On the first afternoon we opted for the cycling.  The locals have certainly cottoned onto the tourist dollar with numerous bike rentals (generally 10,000 kip but we negotiated 5,000 for the afternoon) and an additional 20,000 kip each just to get around Don Khon – apparently to ensure that all the locals benefit from tourism, this is charged under the bridge entrance to Don Khon, you would think it would be included for those staying on the island and seemed easily bypassed by those coming from Don Det.

The islands are very flat and so I was not overly optimistic about the waterfalls.  The locals consider that these are trapped spirits and so swimming is frowned upon but we made the Li Phi (Tat Som Phamit) falls our first stop.  As expected, it was more an intense rapids than a waterfall, but pretty impressive and having a nice small beach area. 

   

Not wanting to offend the locals, we didn’t go for a swim but opted for a cooled coconut and pushed on to the dolphin viewing area for sunset.  This was a beautiful beach and a great spot for sunset, but we did not spot any dolphins which was unsurprising given their apparent rarity but was a great outing all the same.

   

I am a big fan of kayaking and so the next day we had booked on a kayaking tour through Mr Pan, shunning the Green Discovery trip advertised by the Lonely Planet.  We didn’t really know what to expect other than including breakfast, involving kayaks and possibly going near the waterfall but had handed over $25 each without much consideration.  It was actually a great trip and really made our stay on the island.  It seems to have been run by Happy Island Adventure Tours or Mekong Adventure Tours depending on if you read the life jackets or their t-shirts and was carried out by two cheerful locals (Mr Sum and Mr Wat, although Mr Wat’s accent was strong and I got their names from him…).

Complete with safety gear

We were picked up, only 20 minutes later than expected, by Mr Sum and Mr Wat and driven to the North end of Don Det where we were treated to a cooked breakfast (including coffee and condensed milk which appeals to my sweet tooth).  There were about ten of us on the trip, eight in double canoes and two in single canoes.  The canoes were sturdy sit-on-tops and we were provided with dry bags for the trip (which were in good condition and worked, unlike those provided later on in Van Vieng).  After a pleasant hour of paddling down the length of Dom Det, past our own accommodation and under the bridge connecting the two islands, we stopped by the temple on Dom Khon and viewed the Li Phi falls (again) from land while local assistants carried our canoes down.  

We rejoined the water below the falls and passed through two sets of rapids (very gentle but still resulted in one couple tipping over!).  We continued into the Mekong Delta, skirting the Cambodian border and everyone was beginning to feel their muscles as we pulled into sight of the beach on which we were due to have lunch.  However, our guides began gesticulating and pointing towards the Cambodian border – dolphins!  Initially, I was sceptical but the blowholes increased and eventually we spotted at least five dolphin shapes cresting in the water.  Muscle fatigue and hunger was forgotten and we drifted gently, watching the dolphins cruise the lagoon first away from us, then closer in towards us until five crested within a dozen yards of our canoe.

The Cambodian lunch island, with the dolphin spotting in the background

As the water settled, we headed into the beach and shared a packed lunch of egg-fried rice with chicken and were visited by Cambodian border guards – it appeared that the island on which we stopped was actually over the Cambodian border and so our guides had to make a “local payment”.  Lunch was followed by a refreshing swim and then a forty minute paddle downstream to the Laos mainland where we embarked on a Tuk-Tuk and visited the Khom Phapheng falls, even more impressive than the Li Phi falls, where the Mekong narrows and cascades down to Cambodian territory. 

We were assured that the final part of the trip would be a ten minute paddle and were transferred again by tuk-tuk to the ferry “terminal” (a rickety wooden shack) were we launched the kayaks into the sunset and paddled for Don Det and a nice beach area that Don Khon lacked.  While the guides stored away the equipment we treated ourselves to a well-earned Beer Laos.  As there were three of us heading back to Don Khon, rather than the bouncy moped Mr Wat took us back to our lodgings in our own private fish-tail boat, much more relaxing than gripping onto his seat!

All in all, a very relaxing visit and it is tempting to stay here longer but we need to head off and not give in to spending extra time wherever we feel we can relax!

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