Laos – Southern LaosBack to Story

Four Thousand Island area in Southern Laos

The region in Southern Laos around the Thousand Island area is one of those destinations where photographs do no justice. This is where the Mekong sprawls into tributaries and creates little islands everywhere.

Perhaps it is because of the journey that this seems like such a paradise. You can arrive via Cambodia or, like I did, from Vietnam. I flew into Pakse and from here you can either take a local bus, take a scheduled mini van or hire transport yourself. I hired my own transport but seem to spend the trip following the local bus anyway. The bus is really best described as bench seats on the back of a truck. There is overhead shade but the sides are open. There are a few foreigners crammed in with the locals. I spoke to a couple of them later and they said despite the wooden plank they were sitting on the three hours went by quickly.

Every time the bus stops a tribe of vendors run behind the bus trying to sell barbequed goodies on a stick. Some of the sticks look suspiciously the same like they have rats butterfly grilled on them. I don’t see many takers but someone obviously buys their wares.

As the journey continues the next thing that is obvious it how dry the countryside is. The ground is rock hard and there is not a crop in sight. Nearly every water hole is dried up and the rare water to be seen contains everyone from the water buffalo to the kids. Obviously it is the dry season but it leaves you wondering if this is abnormal or if there is a problem capturing the rain from the rainy season – possibly the answer is a mixture of both. Like everything the issues are complex. Everyone looks hungry from the people through to the hollow-thighed water buffalo.

I am beginning to wonder where I have been sent. Is this really the paradise I had been told and read about? This is when we arrive at the edge of the river to catch a boat across to Don Khon Island. The change is quick and extreme. We take a long boat along the river which is lined with tropical looking lush vegetation. You can see crops growing on some islands and the environment seems to have breathed a sigh of relief – as have I.

Don Khon Island

The boat delivers me to the wharf – which is a loose term as it’s really a river bank. There are the usual group of men hanging around in what looks like a shed. None of them offer assistance as bags and photography gear is lugged up the bank. They do however kindly point in the direction of the Guest House I am staying in. So I roll the cargo down the dirt road until I find my lodging. Later I see very hot and bothered tourists doing the same but for much greater distances over at Don Tet. So be warned you’re on your own and if you’re wheeling something it is best have decent wheels.

The Guest House I am staying in is called Sala Don Khone and looks like one of the best spots on both Don Tet and Don Khon– although there are many more options on Don Tet. Recent expansion has seen a new wing built at the back of the grand old villa. The rooms are clean and functional but lack the atmosphere of the old grand dam. There are also water huts which I hear are very comfortable and atmospheric.

These sleepy islands instantly slow life down and you can’t help but relax. Everything happens in its own time. You can rent bicycles of varying quality everywhere. They are good for shorthaul only as the roads are a little patchy at best and seldomly anything other than dirt. After a day of hauling camera gear around on a child’s bicycle I rented a motorbike which delivered the results I needed. Don Khon is the quieter of the two islands with a relaxed atmosphere.

Exploring the island you find rice fields and water buffalo. Small winding paths leading you along water ways and through the countryside. Lonely planet described doe eyed water buffalo – not convinced I would go that far but there was a slow amble to the pace of everything. There is a waterfall called Tat Somphamit on one end of Don Khon which is worth checking out and it seems to be well frequented. There is an old railway bridge connecting Don Det and Don Khon that costs a daily charge to cross.

It is also recommended that one journey is taken on the water. Many guesthouses and all landings will assist in organising a river journey. There are freshwater dolphins, which you can try to find but it’s probably best to go with the expectation of seeing local life and the sunset. From 4-6pm is when children have finished school and they go down to the river with their mothers for a swim and wash. There are fishermen throwing nets out to catch their dinner. All in the fading light of the afternoon.

Khon Phapheng Falls and Champasak

On return to the mainland it is also well worth the 7km diversion to go to the much larger Khon Phapheng Falls. It is the largest waterfall by volume in South East Asia and is not especially high but wide and has a good flow of water through it. The journey back to Pakse can also be broken up by a visit to Champasak and in particular to Bun Wat Pu Champasak, a pilgrimage site for buddhists. A drive through the Bolaven Plateau on the way back and even in the dry season you can see lush rice fields flooded with that much needed resource water. It is a strange sight when you know how dry it is not very far away.

Travel photographs from Champasak, Don Khone, Don Det and river life

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