Si Phan Don (literally “four thousand islands”) is an idyllic part of the Mekong at the extreme south of Laos, on the border with Cambodia. There aren’t actually thousands of islands here but dozens, and the pace of life is dreamily slow. It has a reputation as a backpacker haven, a place where in the words of Lonely Planet life is “so laid back that you could imagine the islands just drifting downriver into Cambodia with barely anyone rolling out of their hammock in the process”. That might have been true five or ten years ago when it was difficult to cross the border, when coming to Si Phan Don required lots of time to get down here and then back up again after you’d had enough of chillin’. But now that through travel to Stung Treng and beyond in Cambodia is rididculously easy, it’s become an almost-mandatory start or end point for those visiting Laos for any length of time. The ‘Lonely Planet Effect’ has transformed the most popular islands of Don Det and Don Khon into what is effectively a giant backpacker resort: now there are dozens of small properties each with a few bungalows on or near the river, distributed up and down the banks of each island. It’s still a very peaceful and beautiful place, but it’s no longer as remote as when there were just a handful of simple shacks available for as little as a dollar a day.
I’d always intended to finish my trip to Laos there, and I still will, but I was expecting it to be quite crowded so I was also keen to find a different way to visit the area. When I discovered that the eco-tourism outfit Green Discovery offers two- or three- day kayaking trips to Si Phan Don I signed up as soon as I got to Pakse. To make it affordable I had to wait for some others to join the trip, and in the end the only people who were interested wanted to do a two-day trip instead of the three-day version I preferred. But it turned out two days was plenty, and along with the unique perspective offered by floating downriver we still got to visit all the highlights of the area and spend a night on Don Khon, so I now have a much better idea what to expect when I arrive there again tomorrow.
After a three-hour minibus ride to the boat landing that heads to Don Khong, by far the largest island in the area, we packed our gear into drybags and mounted up. Our party was small: just myself, Australian couple Tom and Belinda, and our guide Don (also known as Tigerman). Initially Don wanted he and I to share a kayak, but I was keen to paddle alone so I insisted on one by myself. After making it clear that it would be quite an effort as the kayaks were large and designed for two or three people, Don relented and he and I both had separate vessels while Tom and Belinda shared. I think Don was hoping I’d prefer to share too; now he had to paddle all the way by himself as well! The sun was bright and strong as we set off, and I quickly revelled in the freedom of paddling my way down the Mekong to Cambodia. Our first day involved a lot of paddling: close to 20 kms in fact, much of it into a stiff headwind, and I experimented with different strokes, rhythms, and grips throughout the day trying to find the most efficient way to move. The two-in-one kayak of Tom and Belinda had “turbo power” as Don said, and they set a strong pace that was an enjoyable effort to keep up with. I’ve never kayaked so far or so exotically in my life and I was loving it 🙂
Past riverside villages, a car ferry, kids playing in the water, people bathing or washing clothes, all under the penetrating glare of the unforgiving afternoon sun. Lunch on a small beach in the middle of the river was a picnic affair of sticky rice, noodles, vegetables, and most contentiously an array of cooked meats that probably flouted every food hygiene standard imaginable back in Australia. Lao sausage (essentially little balls of pig fat in small casings), diced chicken, strips of the popular local dried beef jerky, a large “fresh” pork sausage that looked rather uncooked in parts, and dried fish – all of which hadn’t seen a refrigerator for at least seven hours (if at all). It was an extensive but very typical Lao picnic and I hoed into everything except the fish. Tom and Belinda avoided all the meat, as they’re naturally cautious and had suffered food poisoning only the week before. My fingers were metaphorically crossed behind my back but I was hungry, and if it was good enough for Don it was good enough for me. I survived.
We pulled into Don Det late in the afternoon after more than five hours of paddling, and headed off to a lovely outdoor bar-restaurant to watch the sun set over the Mekong while our kayaks were towed away for the night. The sunset was spectacular and much better than the one in Vientiane; here you could see the sun descend all the way down into the hills of Cambodia without it getting lost in low hazy clouds. I will definitely return to this spot at least once before I leave Laos. After a hair-raising bike ride through the dark with little illumination and no brakes we arrived at our bungalows for the night on Don Khon, and the welcome relief of a shower and change of clothes. Before dinner Don treated us to a special ceremony called baci. This Lao tradition is performed whenever people arrive from or are about to set out on a big journey, and involves a shaman saying prayers and lighting candles before tying a number of white threads around your wrist. Before tying they are waved up and down your forearm while he intones words to the effect of “out with the bad energy, in with the good”. You wear the threads for at least three days, after which you can remove them but only by untying or pulling, never by cutting. It was a simple but special ritual, and Don said afterwards that in two years of working for Green DIscovery he had never before done this with foreigners. He felt we were a very good group of people, and I was humbled to be honoured in this way.
The next day we visited a famous temple on Don Khon, and were given a lengthy and detailed explanation of the life of Buddha before he became Buddha. Then to the massive Li Phi waterfall complex, a huge expanse of numerous rocky canyons and falls down which a good proportion of the Mekong tumbled. The French attempted to blow it up almost a hundred years ago pursuing their dream of creating a boat passage upriver, but one glance at the sheer extent of the rocky falls could tell you the plan was futile. It’s even more impressive in the rainy season, apparently. We put our kayaks into the river just below Li Phi, into a narrow chasm that still had quite a swift flow. Unlike yesterday we were instructed to wear our lifejackets and helmets and keep a good distance between the kayaks to avoid pile-ups, and I was the last to set off. Round the first bend was a small but fast rapid, and as I turned the corner I could see immediately that Don and Belinda had capsized. They were still hanging on to their craft and were floating to a large overhanging rock that formed a small and partially sheltered pool to the right. Don was trying to paddle back to them as I came through the gorge, and seeing what had happened I furiously moved to the right and came up beside their overturned kayak as they bobbed at each end. I held on to their kayak to see if I could help, but I soon noticed that my craft was being pulled towards the strong current of the main river flow. As Don pulled up and began to help Belinda out of the water, my kayak overturned and I was plunged into the river.
It happened so quickly that I barely had time to grab the cord that ran the length of the kayak, and all I knew was that my lifejacket would propel me to the surface as soon as possible. However the current had pushed me along and I surfaced underneath the kayak, unable to get clean air. I scrambled to be free, flailing, and cleared the kayak only to come face to face with the steep overhanging rock, still underwater. Suddenly a hand grabbed the back of my lifejacket and I was pulled to the surface, and I wrenched my headgear off in panic and gasped for breath. I was wearing a wide-brimmed hat underneath my helmet which was great sun-protection when floating on the river, but which hung wetly over my face when soaked and contributed to the feeling of drowning. I was probably only under for a couple of seconds but it was terrifying, and I calmed down only when I got a decent purchase on the rock and knew I wouldn’t be submerged again. Don was a champion in the crisis, and he herded Belinda and me and our two kayaks around the rock to a more protected area further down while he chased after a discarded paddle. Returning to us, he tied his kayak to ours and then swam upriver to rescue to Tom who was still clinging to the large rock. Don later explained that I should not have tried to help, instead I should have continued downriver until it was safe to turn around and wait for the others (or try and pick up anything that broke free and floated my way). It’s a lesson I have learnt the hard way and certainly will never forget.
It took another twenty minutes or so for us to collect ourselves and remount the kayaks, as we were all quite shaken. Fortunately our drybags remained lashed in place and we paddled carefully for a short while before pulling up to the rocky shore for lunch. We ate in almost complete silence, still processing what had happened. Don explained that there was only one more section that would be tricky, and he went as far as drawing a map to explain how best to approach it. The current would try to take us around to the right but we wanted to go straight on, so we had to keep left and paddle like mad to break free of the flow and head in the right direction. Our kayaks were designed for calm waters not rapids, so they were much more likely to tip than usual. As we’d found out… this time we were all extremely careful and made it through without a problem, and we could then focus on the highlight of the whole trip that was an hour downriver: the very rare Irrawaddy dolphins.
There are now less than a hundred of these creatures in the world, and they only live in this stretch of the Mekong. Distinguished by their short noses and very short stubby dorsal fins, at least a few of these are almost always visible in the afternoon at a particular spot just south of Don Khon. Tourist boats take sightseers to a couple of vantage points on the river, but neither of them get you anywhere near as close as we went. After a tough hour’s paddle including some broad low rapids we entered the dolphin zone, and Don ordered us to keep silent and paddle as quietly as possible as we approached. After a few minutes his eagle eye spotted a pair in the distance, and we slowly headed towards them. It was a good five minutes before I could see anything, but eventually I saw first one then another dolphin’s back arc over the water. For the next forty minutes we gradually crept towards them, floating in silence and wonder as they continued to surface every minute or two with a gentle pfffft of air. Drifting on the river, we got as close as 100m to the Cambodian shore before finally setting off again to our final stop. It was much more special than I expected and the best moment of the entire journey.
After disembarking and somehow loading all three kayaks in a vertical stack on top of our minivan, we drove a short distance to the spectacular Khon Phapheng waterfall. Billed as the largest waterfall in south-east Asia by volume, tens of thousands of litres of water a second gush down a large horseshoe-shaped waterfall and several side falls in an imposing demonstration of nature’s force. Apparently the three-day kayak trip has you paddle near the edge of the TOP of the falls; I was even happier that we were on the two day option after I heard that! We were all tired by this stage and running quite late, but the late afternoon light was perfect and I managed to get a couple of good photos before returning to the van for the long trip home. Despite the mishap and the very tired body afterwards, this tour was the best two-day period I’ve had on the entire trip so far 😀