After spending two days in Phnom Pehn hanging around the Laos’ and Vietnamese’ embassies, Therese and I climbed onto a bus heading across the Cambodian border to Laos.
We’ve been looking forward to the Laos portion of our trip since we decided to add the country to our itinerary in January. When you mention Laos to any backpacker in Southeast Asia only positive stories and anecdotes are shared. It is also known for being somewhat less touristy (and less traveled) allowing some of the natural destinations (caves, islands, mountains etc.) to have a more authentic feel.
The border crossing into Laos was much smoother than Cambodia and we arrived in a small town on the edge of the Mekong river around 5:30 p.m. as the sun was starting to sink low into the sky. We were herded, along with maybe 15 other backpackers, into long narrow flat bottom boat with propellers extended way out along a pole of the stern so it could accommodate the shallow water. With the backpacks and people filling the boat to the gills we set off across the river, catching our first glimpse of the countless islands that won the region the name The 4000 Islands.
The islands are a river archipelago and only about half of them are exposed when the Mekong floods each rainy season. Right now we’re experiencing the dry season in Laos though, so the water is low allowing the tufts of grass and trees to appear as if floating along with the current of the river.
As our boat pulled up to a little beach on one of the main islands, Don Det, and we unloaded our gear, the sun started to set, colour painting the way down the small dirt road that we would search for somewhere to stay.
After checking out a few spots we settled on a rustic bungalow perched on stilts at the river’s edge. Although there were no screens in the windows and you could peer outside through cracks in the walls, the little wooden room felt so cottage-y we couldn’t resist. Plus there were two hammocks hanging on a private deck out our front door. A shared bathroom and mosquito net was worth the other perks!
After our first breezy sleep in weeks Therese and I woke up refreshed. We had met a lovely girl from California the night before at dinner and agreed to meet up in the morning for an adventure so we headed to the beach where we rented some bicycles and took off cycling along the river.
Don Det is the smaller of two islands that have accommodation in the 4000 Islands. The larger island is Don Khon which Don Det is joined to by a bridge. We rode to the end of Don Det making our way across the bumpy bridge to Don Khon to see some of the larger island’s waterfalls and hire a boat out onto the river in the hopes of spotting the fresh water dolphins the area is known for.
I think we all had low expectations for dolphin sightings as we set out in our little boat with an elderly Laos driver. As we maneuvered around the trees and ferns growing out of the river we all sat quietly, scanning the churning water.
When we spotted our first Irrawaddy dolphin the cries of excitement made our driver burst into a smile, laughing as we all shouted and pointed at the distant grey blurs. As we grew closer (or rather, the dolphins came closer to us) we saw some kick up their tails, clear their blow holes and one even rolled over waving a fin and exposing his slightly pink belly. The Irrawaddy dolphins are a critically endangered species and only few still exist in Southeast Asia, particularly in this area. We spent an hour coasting with the current, turning our heads in circles to watch the dolphins play before heading back to land with massive smiles plastered on our faces.
The next day we booked transportation to visit Khone Phapheng Falls on the Mekong river. Known as the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia this waterfall isn’t tall or tropical – it’s a massive wall of water stretching across a section of the Mekong where the river’s power and volume is exposed.
Therese and I had watched some of the BBC series Human Planet while in Korea and this particular waterfall was featured in the episode on people that rely on rivers, highlighting the dare devil fishermen who walk on wires across the falls to catch catfish. After watching the story of this community unfold we had to see the sight for ourselves and we weren’t disappointed. As we arrived fishermen were inching along the wire as the water pounded into the rapids below.
When I skyped with my parents and told them about the falls my Dad asked how the size of the falls compared to Niagra. It’s hard to say as Niagra Falls is truly massive so nothing quite compares, but the sight of the Khone Phapheng falls seemed to really express the power of nature. The statistics are that the falls reach 21 meters high and the rapid stretch for nearly 10 kilometers.
The area is not particularly touristy and so you feel like you are in the wild, witnessing this incredible sight. There are no restrictions on where you can go so we crawled along the scorching rock above the rapids breathing in the fresh water spray.
The rest of the day we spent lounging in our hammocks, reading and catching up on postcards, really enjoying the serenity of the 4000 islands.
We’re now in Vang Vieng after a night in Vientienne and a thrilling overnight bus ride where the two of us shared a single bed bunk bed for the 12 hour ride.
Yes, there were bunk beds on the bus.
Our trip is starting to wind down now and we’re both quite giddy. The moments where we stop to appreciate the things we’re seeing and experiencing are occurring more often, as are our discussions of flights and first things to eat when we get home. Only Luang Prabang, a homestay in Northern Laos and Southern Vietnam left and then it’s back to Canada for the both of us.