There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 16 November 2015

Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands): Part 10 of Thailand and Laos

Yesterday we arrived after dark at Muang Khong the largest settlement on the largest of the 4,000 Islands lying in a reach of the Mekong in the far south of Laos.
Our route through Lao to Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands)

In my youth I was a talented sleeper, but somewhere on life's journey I mislaid the knack and now usually rise well before 6 o’clock. Lynne woke me around 5.30 with the words, ‘Come and look at the sunrise.’ Had she said that in 1975 ours might have been a short marriage but in 2015 I was merely surprised that I was not already awake.

Pulling on a pair of shorts I joined her on the balcony. The horizon glowed pink, orange and gold, colours picked up by the river on the far bank. The sun was yet to appear, but the sky was already fading from blackness to a blue that was reflected in the blue/grey slate of the water lapping the island’s shore.

Just before sunrise, Si Phan Don
Then the sun rose. The only camera we had left after the ‘Kong Lor Disaster’ was hardly up to the job and these are the best we could manage.
Just after sunrise, Si Phan Don
Having heard rumours that as in Luang Prabang monks did a begging run at 6 o’clock we wandered out to take a look. Although we spotted several monks the rumour proved false, but it mattered little, six o’clock in the morning is a lovely time. The freshly-minted morning folds you in a warm embrace, the air is clean, the sun sparkles on the water and the day to come holds infinite possibilities.

 Calmly facing infinite possibilities, early morning, Muang Khong
One of those possibilities was breakfast.  Ging and his driver had been home to Pakse for the night and conveniently arrived as we finished eating.

We packed our cases in the van and checked out. By 8 o’clock we were sitting in a small boat ready to investigate less routine possibilities.

We set off down the channel between Don Khong and the river bank, passing settlements…

Settlement beside the Mekong Si Phan Don
…and under the bridge we crossed last night.

Don Khong Bridge
We saw fishermen….

Fisherman, Si Phan Don
….and overtook slower moving traffic as we headed into the maze of channels between the various islands.

Slower moving Traffic, Si Phan Don
 It was a pleasant and a relaxing trip, the movement of the boat providing a refreshing breeze as the day grew hotter.

Our destination, over an hour from Don Khong, was the confusingly named Don Khon, a small island but the second most developed of the (alleged) 4,000. As we approached we were passed by a couple of boy racers.

Boy racers, approaching Don Khon
We moored at Ban Khon, Don Khon’s main settlement. We were headed for Ban Hang on the island’s southern tip but for reasons that will become obvious, taking the boat round the island was a bad idea. Bicycles can be hired for the 4km journey, but as neither of us had ridden a bike for forty years we took the easy option, a motor-tricycle.

Setting off from Ban Khon on a motor-tricycle
It was not the most comfortable of rides, the unpaved road was sometimes rutted and meeting a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction meant a visit to the hedge.

Somebody's coming the other way! The road to Ban Hang

The road ends at the French port near Ban Hang where a concrete platform looks out over placid pools stretching away to the Cambodian border. These pools are home to several dozen Irrawaddy Dolphins. Despite their name they are not true river dolphins, and very few live in the Irrawaddy - most of the world’s 7,000 Irrawaddy Dolphins live around the coast of Bangladesh. They regularly move into brackish water and a few populations have gone the whole hog and moved up river systems to fresh water, the 80-90 surviving in a 200km stretch of the Mekong being the largest such population. The use of gill-nets, electricity and poison in Cambodia, have reduced their numbers and the damming of tributaries on the Lao side has damaged their habitat so they are now critically endangered.

Placid pools, with Cambodia on the far side, south of Don Khon
Ging hired a canoe and we walked down what seemed an over-elaborate slipway, boarded the boat and puttered out into the pool, the long tailed-outboard being more than sufficient to scare off the dolphins. The boatman ran us onto one of the many shoals, cut the engine and we waited and watched.

Waiting among the shoals, south of Don Khon
Nothing happened so we moved to more open water and waited and watched some more. I do not remember who saw the first one, Lynne, the boatman or Ging but it was certainly not me. I heard a hiss and the words ‘over there’ but I was sitting in the bow so could not see the pointing arm and the dolphin was long gone before I was looking in the right direction. This was repeated several times and I was becoming frustrated but eventually I was lucky enough to be looking in the right direction when I heard a snort and I saw a bulbous head, long back and small fin as a creature 1.5m long and the colour of the river breached the surface. In forty minutes or so we made about a dozen such sightings, none lasted longer than seconds and few were shared by two or more people. And did I get a photograph? Of course not, so I have borrowed one from Wikipedia.

Irrawaddy Dolphin, photograph by Jean-Claude Durka borrowed from Wikipedia
This photograph was taken a little further south near the Cambodian town of Kratié

As we walked up from the landing stage one of my new shoes, the ones I bought in Thakhek only two days previously, fell apart. I paid only 55,000Kip (£4.50) but had hoped they would last the week.

Walking up the over-elaborate slipway from the landing stage, Ban Hang, Don Khon
Lynne walked and I limped to a caf√©. ‘Do you need glue?’ Ging asked, spotting my predicament.’ I looked at the small array of goods available, they did not include glue. ‘It would be useful ….’ I ventured. ‘There is glue,’ Ging said confidently and spoke to the owner

As we ordered, I noticed the owner’s daughter setting off towards the village on her motorbike.

Lao coffee is strong and thick and strained through a muslin sack. Ours was served with the usual tin of sweet coconut milk gloop and, less usually, a bottle of glue. Ging appointed himself shoe repairer in chief - as a rich westerner I was far too important or incompetent to mend my own shoes (and the second of those is probably true).
Coffee and shoe repair, Don Khon
 After paying for coffee and glue we climbed back on the tricycle with Ging on the pillion, survived an overtaking manoeuvre and turned left towards the island’s western shore.

Overtaking a tractor, Don Khon
Leaving the bike at the end of the road we walked through bamboo thickets to the Somphamit (or Li Phi) Falls. The Falls are more rapids than waterfalls but show clearly enough why we came across the island rather than round it by boat.

Through bamboo thickets to the Somphamit Falls

The area of white water is huge and we could see only a small fraction from the land. Li Phi mean Sprit Trap as it was believed the bad spirits of the dead collected here as they were washed downstream while the good spirits often became dolphins.

A small part of the Somphamit (or Li Phi) Falls
 The French had acquired Saigon and the Mekong delta in the early 1860s and most of what is now Cambodia later in the decade. With the British well established in Shanghai and controlling trade from central China by the Yangtze route, the French hoped to make Saigon a rival to Shanghai with the Mekong providing a path into the riches of northern Siam and southern China.

In 1866 the Mekong Expedition left Saigon, charged with important scientific, mapping and diplomatic work but its primary purpose was to assess the river’s navigability.

At Phnom Penh they detoured up the Tonle Sap to Seam Riep to see the newly rediscovered Angkor Wat. Rapids in northern Cambodia provided their first problem, but then they saw Somphamit and the Khon Phapheng Falls (see later). They spent a week exploring the channels hoping to find some way to force a medium sized boat through, but it was impossible. Despite this disappointment the expedition continued upstream, through Vientiane and Luang Prabang to Yunnan in southern China and thence via the Yangtze to Shanghai and back to Saigon. The expedition was a major scientific success but an equally major economic disappointment.

Just a small part of the Somphamit (or Li Phi) Falls
The French did not give up on their plan. On the way back to Ban Khon we paused at a relic of their heroic efforts to open up the upper Mekong.
Engine on the Don Det-Don Khon line
I had wondered about the elaborate slipway down to the landing stage. Now I learned it was the start of the only railway ever built in Laos (until 2009 when the line from Bangkok was extended across the new Friendship Bridge and a couple of kilometres into Lao territory). A 600mm gauge line was laid in 1893. The track was removable and the trucks man-hauled the 4km to Ban Khon village. A year later a permanent track was laid and a wood burning engine brought up the river. As the water at Ban Khon was too shallow in the dry season a bridge was built to Don Det island…
The bridge to Don Det
… and the now 7km long railway was upgraded to metre gauge. Starting with a squadron of gunboats, steamers were brought in sections, loaded onto the train, transported above the rapids and reassembled. The railway later carried passengers and freight, remaining in operation until 1940. None of the track survives but the road our motor-tricycle had plied between Ban Khon and Ban Hang was the original railway alignment.

The Don Det bridge
The pedestrians are mostly schoolchildren heading home for lunch.
We continued past the old French built school back into Ban Khon and stopped at the restaurant in the village centre. It was a little early for lunch so I enjoyed a pineapple milkshake though I have no idea where the milk came from, dairy products are virtually unknown in Laos.
School built in colonial times, Don Khon
Then it was time for lunch. Lynne tried one of the local specialities - fish with honey and fried potatoes, a strange combination but surprisingly successful. I had Pad Thai Pork a universal Lao/Thai favourite and always enjoyable. From the restaurant we could watch the central crossroads with children coming home from school ...
The bustling centre of Ban Khon
 and across the main street was a shop selling some of the biggest, roundest pineapples it has been my privilege to ogle.

Just cop an eyeful of those pineapples, Ban Khon
 After lunch it was back onto the boat and through narrow channels to the eastern bank of the river…

Through narrow channels back to the eastern bank of the Mekong

… where our driver was waiting to take us the short distance to the Khon Papheng Falls. The eastern counterpart to the Somphamit Falls is also a huge surge of water – in terms of throughput, by far the largest falls in Laos. The greatest single drop is 21m, but during the rainy season and just after (i.e. November) the quantity of water disguises the height. Because of its accessibility it is a much bigger tourist attraction than Somphamit with the usual tourist infrastructure – entrance fee, buggies to drive people round and stalls to sell them unwanted souvenirs. We preferred the undeveloped Somphamit and anyway this was our second falls of the day, which may be one too many.

Just a small part of the torrent, Khon Papheng Falls
Our last two nights in Laos would be in Champasak, over 100km to the north, so we set off back up Route 13. Laos’ French colonial legacy raises its head in unexpected ways, baguettes, pastis, boulodromes and the red topped kilometre stones familiar to anyone who has driven across France - or across Laos.

French style kilometre stone, Route 13
 After an hour and a quarter we detoured down a side road towards the village of Houei Tomo (or Houaytomo) and the temple of Oup (or Oum) Mong (or Muang or Muong) which was rediscovered in the early 20th century. There is no agreed transliteration from Lao to English and multiple spellings are common.

A short walk from the road in a patch of woodland near the river is a 13th or 14th century Khmer temple. Probably built as a resthouse for visitors to the much larger Wat Phou (next post) it may be late Khmer, but there is very little left, mainly moss covered stones among the trees....

Oup Mong, moss covered stone among the trees
 .... though one recognisable building remains.

Oup Mong - on remaining recognisable building

We had the place to ourselves, and as such it is atmospheric, but there was little to see and much work for archaeologists when they get round to this site.

Oup Mong, much work for archaeologists

 We continued north. From Vientiane to beyond Savannakhet the Mekong divides Laos from Thailand, but north of Pakse the river takes a south-easterly turn while the border continues south leaving a wedge of Laos to the west of the river and Champasak was on the western bank.

We left Route 13 and made our way down to a small ferry, where we crossed the river while Ging and the driver returned to Pakse for the night.
Our cases are carried aboard the Champasak ferry
We disembarked, climbed up some steps and there was our hotel.

Thailand and Laos

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