After two nights in the sleepy village of Champasak we caught a bus down to Muang Khong. That’s as far as you can go by road so we joined hoards of tourists leaving the bus station and headed down to the waterside. It was quite obvious as we got onto the ferry that most travellers were young backpackers, in other words we kind-of stood out! Seems that one of the islands, Don Det is known for its hippy party scene and is a backpacker’s Utopia. It’s part of the beautiful 4000 Islands archipelago on the Mekong Delta. But Don Det wasn’t our destination, we were heading for the quiet village of Don Khon, the southern-most island and as far as you can go in Laos.
It’s a little confusing as normally you can get a ferry direct to Don Khon but because the Mekong was so low they were not running and so the only ferry was to the neighbouring island Don Det. These two islands are connected by a bridge and the only way we were getting to our guest house was by motorbike taxi. Neither my man nor I had been on a motorbike since the ’70’s! I was a little apprehensive but was assured that my young driver was very experienced. Did I enjoy the twenty minute trip down the unmade sandy tracks – you bet!
The Pomelo Guesthouse is run by Olivia who is Swiss and her Thai partner, Tan. It’s a very laid-back friendly place with excellent home-made Thai & Lao food, basic but adequate wooden stilted bungalows and an endless supply of Lao beer. There was a friendly cat as well so all needs were catered for. The village has around 50 houses and 250 people live there. It’s very peaceful but you can hear the partying going way into the early hours on nearby Don Det.
Before we had our meal we decided to hire a boat to see the freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphins. Again a little confusing as they live in the Mekong close to the shoreline. These dolphins are so endangered that WWF estimates that in the river between Laos and Cambodia there are only around 90 left. It costs about 9USD for an hour’s trip and together with the possible sighting of a dolphin or two, you get to see a beautiful sunset. The boatmen know exactly where to take you. There were only a couple of other boats around and when a dolphin is spotted everyone converges to that spot. They say sightings are pretty certain and especially when the river is low because the dolphins stay close to the shore. It’s so hard to take a picture of them as you’re excited when they appear and of course they dive back into the water quickly. However it was magical to see them and what a precursor to an excellent Thai curry at the guesthouse.
Now any guide book will tell you that the way to discover this area is by bike. There’s the remnants of the old railway line which link the island to Don Khon and is the main route now. It’s called the Don Khon cycle loop and includes a temple, the French bridge, a decrepit old French steam locomotive and the Khon Pa Soi Falls. Cycling is the obvious way to travel and most people do, however that’s all very well if you can ride a bike. Well I can, but I’m rubbish and despite several attempts over the years, I’ve given up on it. They were quite surprised at the guesthouse that we were walking to the waterfalls and in hindsight they were right. It was only a few miles and it was interesting walking along the paths away from the main route but unfortunately after an hour or so the searing heat affected me. What seemed like miles from anywhere we sought refuge in the shade of a disused wooden shelter, drank copious amounts of warm water (it was cold when we left) and ate several polos. After a while I was able to carry on and and thankfully just down the road was a sign to the Khon Pa Soi Falls.
The falls aren’t the largest on the island but they are pretty impressive. It is on the tourist trail but apparently it never gets too crowded. I can’t tell you if you have to pay to go in as we somehow got swept through the entrance with a tour group. There is a wooden suspension bridge to the island which takes you to the main waterfall but that was closed when we were there.
With the temperature still hitting 40 degrees we stopped at the little cafe there to get more water and to ask about a tuk tuk to get us to Ban Khon Tai. The guy at the cafe said something to his lad who was obviously none too keen to cycle to the village in this heat but he did and came back with a Tuk Tuk and we rewarded him for it. Hope we gave him good enough tip?! I’m glad we went to this village because it made us really appreciate where we were staying. Ban Khon Tai was very touristy with cafes and restaurants either side of the street. We had lunch in one of them but it wasn’t anything special and the service was rubbish … our next challenge after that was to find a tuk tuk back to our guesthouse. It wasn’t easy and no doubt we paid over the odds but at least we didn’t have to walk all the way back. It took a couple of beers back at Pomello to sort us out.
If that wasn’t enough excitement for the day, it wasn’t over yet. First of all we decided to take another boat trip to see the dolphins. Our boatman, a real character and a man of few words with a cheroot permanently wedged between his lips took a while to spot any dolphins. We’d booked the sunset trip so we were slightly later than the night before, however seeing dolphins a second time and the most impressive sunset was just perfect.
Once again we had an excellent evening meal complete with the resident cat on the look out for food. Olivia and Tan had left their young assistant in charge as they had been invited to a party in the village. I might have mentioned how quiet and peaceful this island is but tonight they were rivalling Don Det. The only difference was the party was for the locals. They were celebrating the completion of a new house, similar to the ‘Rickfest’ which Germans have when the roof is finished on a new house, only party was on a much grander scale.
We’d seen the tables being set up earlier together with the erection of a large stage so we knew this was going to be some party. Olivia had said that most islanders would be going as it’s expected. What surprised us was how many people were there and how much food was put out on each table plus an endless supply of Lao Beer. For the entertainment there was a compere and a couple of singers accompanied by very loud music. How do we know all this? Well after our meal we decided to be nosy and walk round there to see what was going on. Even though we weren’t standing that close it wasn’t long before a very smartly dressed woman came over and led us to a table full of young people. Whatever she said they quickly moved their chairs so we could join them. What a hoot!
Although only one or two of them spoke a tiny bit of English we were made very welcome and given the flimsiest plastic glasses I have ever seen with Lao Beer and lots of ice. Every few seconds you had to clink your plastic glass which is not easy when they’re so flimsy and you say “Nok”, Laotian equivalent of “cheers”. We didn’t have anything to eat as we had already eaten and to be honest we had no idea what most of the dishes were. As this is Lao everyone and I mean everyone was drinking Lao beer. We didn’t want to let the English side down by refusing too many top-ups but we were also aware that if we stayed too long we wouldn’t be able to walk back to our guest house! These people know how to party!
We slept well that night and were pleased to hear when we checked out that Olivia knew an experienced boatman who could navigate the low waters of the Mekong to get us back to the mainland. We were so lucky as if it was a week later the river would have been too low. Our young ferryman really knew the river and only scraped the boat once. Don’t know how he managed because all the way along you could see the bottom of the rocky river bed, just inches away it seemed.
Our two-hour bus journey back to Pakse was less eventful and quite a boring journey so we were pleased to arrive back at Residence Sisouk and be welcomed back like long-lost friends.
Not sure I should include this last picture. We went back to the same cafe that evening where I polished off a plate of Morning Glory washed down of course with Beer Lao. I love this vegetable but on this occasion it didn’t love me! Fortunately by the time we boarded the plane for Bangkok my tummy had settled a little. Can you spot all the garlic? I didn’t need the side dish of chillies!
So that’s the account of our week in Laos. Next stop Bangkok.