We got to the Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) area in the very south of Laos on a grubby local bus that reminded me of the truck in the old Spielberg film ‘Duel’. It was a miracle that the thing was going at all, as it looked like it must have been in a serious head-on collision at some point and was repaired by a man with a hammer, glue and sticky tape. Amazingly, we arrived without a single breakdown, but seemed to stop at every tiny village (or every time the driver fancied a watermelon or a cigarette). As soon as we stopped, various local women would jump on board and parade down the aisles selling their homemade spring rolls, mango slices barbequed chicken skewers or (my favourite) eggs on sticks. We stopped overnight in the town of Pakse and had just enough time for some sleep and a Korean-style barbeque experience where you cooked your own meat at the table (which was pretty good until until a dog pissed up our table leg).
The Four Thousand Islands get their name from the fact that during the dry season many hundreds (if not thousands if you count each sand bank) of islands are revealed within the Mekong River. Regardless of season, the larger ones are always there and are enjoying burgeoning tourism due to their reputation of being a wonderful place to relax. We had time to explore just three of them… Don Khong, Don Dhet and Don Khon.
Our first visit was to the largest of the islands, Don Khong. This pretty island is 18km from top to bottom, so we needed to hire bicycles to explore. Our bikes were in desperate need of some oil and general TLC, but we managed to force the creaking pedals round a 20km circuit of the south. The greens and blues here were much more dramatic than further north, like we’d been suddenly swept up from Kansas into the technicolor world of Oz. It was a beautiful place to explore and utterly peaceful. I had my first good night’s sleep in far too many days in a wonderful guesthouse run by a sweet lady called Madame Kampieuw, who spoke to me in French and kept her rooms spick and span. Most Laos mattresses seem to be made of piles of cardboard wrapped in fabric, but Madame’s were blissfully soft and she had the most wonderful terrace overlooking the Mekong.
Having found such peace here, I was loathed to move on the next day, but there wasn’t much left to do in Don Khong. We took the longboat further south to the smaller island Don Dhet. At first it was a struggle to find a good (and cheap) guesthouse in a peaceful area, but we were lucky enough to stumble across the tranquil ‘Mekong Dream’ and grab the last available room. This was a fantastic place to stay. The back window of our chique little darkwood room had a view over fields full of grazing buffalo and outside the front door was a terrace that jutted out over the Mekong, full of bamboo hammocks, where you could swing lazily for hours in the shade. Absolute bliss.
On the second day here we crossed the old railway bridge to Don Khon, hired more dodgy bikes (these were a lovely shade of pink and were about the right size for an average eight year old) to take the bumpy road to some waterfalls. The falls were pretty nice, but further up the road we found what we’d been craving in all the heat and humidity – a place to swim! We put on our swimwear and joined the other Falang (foreigners) desperate for a dip in this sandy cove, exposing our neon-white bellies to the sunshine for the first time in ages.
Sadly, the clock is ticking and I have come to my last day in Laos. Tomorrow I make my way back over the Thai border for the last leg of my trip. I’m excited about the days to come (and can’t wait to get back to Khao Lak for more diving) but I’m sad to wave goodbye to Laos. I’ve had some great adventures here and have really warmed to this beautiful country and its friendly people.
Tourism is in its infancy in Laos, and they’re still busy learning how to do it, but it’s been fantastic to visit before things get too sophisticated. The ‘rough around the edges’ travel experience has been a big part of the attraction of Laos. Travel here often lacks the sleek easiness of Thailand, but for me that is part of its charm. I’m not sure how long it will maintain its authenticity as more and more of us Westerners start piling in (Vang Vieng is an example of how badly things can go wrong) but for the moment it is largely unspoilt and amazingly beautiful. You may have to wait an hour or two before the meal you ordered arrives (and it may not be what you asked for in the first place) but it’s always brought with a smile…. and hey, who’s in a hurry anyway?