4000 Islands

July 2-3, 2009

In the southern tip of Laos there’s a place where the Mekong River fans out to cover a 14 km wide area dotted with islands.  This region is called Si Phan Don (“4000 Islands”).  After returning from our motorbike tour in the Bolaven Plateau, Pnina and I headed there.

To get there from Pakse required a tuk-tuk to the south station (10,000 kip), a pick-up truck ride to the ferry landing (30,000 kip, 2 hours), and a boat ride.

There are multiple island destinations to choose from.  The big famous one is called Don Khong.  We decided to try something slightly further off the beaten path, so we opted for a pair of smaller islands connected by a bridge.  One is called Don Det and the other, confusingly, is called Don Khon (note: no ‘g’).  But it’s not clear if we succeeded in our mission of getting off the beaten path because this pair of islands is clearly a backpacker destination.

Pnina on the long-canoe style ferry:

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Before leaving Pakse we met this guy, Chad, who comes (most recently) from Portland, Oregon.  Chad does real estate for a living.  He co-owns a small business to buy apartment buildings (with loans) and rent out units.  The business is doing well enough for him to take off on a trip like this while his business partners take care of things at home – nice!  He had a lot of interesting ideas about where the economy is going, and kept raving about a book called The Great Depression Ahead (add that one to our reading list…).  Anyhow, he was a pretty relaxed traveling companion.  He ended up taking a room in the same guesthouse where we stayed, and we spent most of 2 days on the island with him.

Pnina and Chad hanging out in one of the restaurants on Don Khon:

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This restaurant had a pretty loose policy about marijuana.  Their menu had this hillarious section called “Happy Holidays” that included various “happy” items – cakes, pizza, mashed potatoes.  We saw a group of people at another table “celebrating a birthday” with cake, so we asked them about it.  They said that the happy hits you less quickly than from a joint, but it also lasts longer.

“Happy” items in the restaurant’s menu:

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The same restaurant also had a pet monkey hanging around.  The poor guy had no choice about it since he was tethered by a leash, so he only had the freedom to go from the edge of the balcony to the nearby tree, but no further.  He looked pretty young and it’s possible he was still looking for maternal attention.  At one point he fell asleep in Pnina’s lap.

Pnina with the restaurant’s monkey asleep in her lap:

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We saw some beautiful sunsets from the restaurant’s balcony, and from another spot just down the road:

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River Dolphins and The Big Waterfall

The next day we joined a group tour to see a couple of sites – river dolphins and the big nearby waterfall.  Our group was pretty small.  Besides Pnina and I and our friend Chad, we had a Dutch couple, Marlouse and Daniel.

Shahaf, Marouse, and Daniel on the boat:

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The Irrawaddy dolphins move around from season to season.  In this time of year (July) they hang out in the southern part of the river, along the Cambodian shore.  Normally you would need to get a Cambodia visa or stamp to set foot inside Cambodia (one would think), but the people operating our tour had some kind of arrangement with the Cambodian border people.  They allowed us to pull ashore in the dolphin-viewing spot without the hassle of dealing with passports.  So when people ask us how many countries we visited in our trip, the question is now a little harder to answer – does Cambodia count??

Hanging out on the Cambodian shore trying to spot dolphins in the river:

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Anyhow, we sat on this shore looking out at the river, trying to find the dolphins.  Eventually we did spot a few, and we even took our boat out to try to get a closer view.  But we never got a really good view.  The dolphins were just way out there.  In our opinion it’s probably best to skip the dolphin part of the tour and save a little money.

This is probably the best dolphin photo we got (using Pnina’s 200mm zoom lens):

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There are a number of unusually wide waterfalls interspersed between the various islands in the region.  As part of our tour we went to see Khone Phapheng, which is the biggest of the falls.  In fact, it’s the biggest waterfall in southeast Asia by volumn, though certainly not by height.  The waterfall was very “sprawly”, and it was very hard to actually see the whole thing from any location.  It looked much more like a white-water rapid, though I’m guessing it’s far too intense to actually negotiate in a raft.

A view of just a portion of the Khone Phepheng waterfall:

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On the right edge of the falls the locals built a strange contraption – a kind of bamboo ramp stretching down into the current.  We think it’s used to trap fish, but we’re not sure.  We didn’t see any fish get caught on the ramp while we were there.

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After wandering around the falls for about 45 minutes, we all headed back to the minivan, all of us except Pnina, that is.  We waited in the car for about 10 minutes, and then the driver became impatient and wandered off to look for her.  Suddenly he rushed back to the car, waving his arms frantically, and telling me to follow him.  When we reached the river I found Pnina suspended above the water by a pair of ropes.  This was a really stupid stunt to pull.  If Pnina happened to fall into the water she would have certainly drowned.  On top of that she would probably get quietly swept at least a kilometer downstream without anyone noticing, so she would basically be gone.  And the ropes that suspended her were not attached particularly well (on one side they were tied to a tree, but on the other side they were tied to a shaky stick in the ground).  Anyhow, by the time I reached the scene Pnina was actually most of the way back to the safety of land, so I only had a chance to take one quick picture.  Pnina – please don’t do that again!!  🙂

Pnina suspended above the torrent below by a couple of loose ropes:

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Bike Ride to the Small Waterfall

After we returned from the boat trip, we rented bicycles and took a ride around our pair of islands – from Don Khon over the bridge to Don Det.

A random backpacker on a rented bicycle with a local boy clinging on the back.  I love this picture:

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Pnina riding on the edge of Don Khon towards Don Det (which is on the other side of the river):

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A couple of kids hanging out on the grounds of a temple on the island:

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Eventually we reached the “small falls” called Tat Somphamit.  They looked pretty much the same as the big falls we saw earlier.  Yeah, they’re smaller, but they’re still plenty big and they are much cheaper to reach.  So, our recommendation would be to skip the boat tour altogether and just hang out on the island.

The “Small Falls” of Tat somphamit:

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Bonus Picture

A common snack in Laos – eating the seeds of a Lotus plant.  They have a nice texture – crispy and juicy.  But they don’t have much flavor.  It’s like eating Edamame, minus the salt.

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One response to “4000 Islands

  1. wow! i’ve never seen a full lotus plant–just the little pieces you find in chinese food. 🙂

    ps. pnina, i totally would have pulled the rope trick. sorry shahaf!

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