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 after sunrise, Si Phan Don|
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.
|Fisherman, Si Phan Don|
|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|
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|
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
|Walking up the over-elaborate slipway from the landing stage, Ban Hang, Don Khon|
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|
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.
|A small part of the Somphamit (or Li Phi) Falls|
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.
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.
|The bustling centre of Ban Khon|
|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…
… 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|
|French style kilometre stone, Route 13|
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|
|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.
Thailand and Laos
Part 1: Bangkok and the Train North
Part 3: Across Isan to the Lao Border