To our surprise we discovered that buses from Bangkok to Pakse were quite a rarity. After tedious negotiations with various local travel agencies we succeeded in securing two seats on a local bus. Our exit point, Mo Chit is by far the largest bus terminal in Bangkok, and as we descended from our tuk-tuk we found ourselves surrounded by swarms of people. For the first time in Thailand we were even subject to a few glances from the locals as we walked past. The atmosphere was exciting, the air was thick and humid, the sky outside was a dark navy and although weary, our eyes were veiled with the glimmering reflections of the fridge lights in the surrounding kiosks.
Settling down at a food court somewhat reminiscent of a Singaporean hawker centre, we observed numerous interesting characters. Two women frantically discussed various make-up brands, a solo traveller sat a few benches in front of us discretely gazed at his smartphone and during my navigation to the restroom my attention was diverted by a women sat in a phone stall who proceeded to shriek as I walked past, hyperventilating in excitement. Although flattered as I was, I remained a little uncertain on what to do so I swiftly returned to the safety of our table.
Finally commencing the journey to Pakse, I was reminded of the certain lustre that comes with being hidden behind a moving window at night. The direction of your passage withdrawn from your control, but inside you’re left free to gaze outs at the different individuals wandering random streets you’ll likely never pass again.The picture outside illuminated by the odd flickering street lamp portraying a constantly evolving cityscape as you progress towards your destination. It’s undoubtedly romantic.
Kate on the other hand almost instantly was engulfed by her exhaustion from the busy day and was fast asleep next to me with her mouth open. I’m not too sure how pleased she’d feel if I shared the photographs. Upon awakening after the Thai-Lao border crossing, the scenery outside was no longer composed of concrete highways and people scurrying like rats under the moon. We were in the countryside, exceptionally beautiful countryside. Paddy fields lined the roads with cattle carelessly roaming freely between them. The coach crossed a grand metal bridge over the Mekong to Pakse, one of the larger towns in the south of Laos. From here we boarded an exhaustingly sweaty local bus crammed full of people in thirty-seven degree heat followed by a small wooden boat to reach the Mekong river island of Don Det (Part of the 4,000 islands).
Upon our arrival that evening we were depleted of energy and eager to get some proper sleep, we managed to fit in a short walk in the nearby countryside, dinner with some German girls we met aboard the bus and a night-time dip in the Mekong. Our undersized cabin was beautiful despite the rough edges and recurring evening invasions by river bugs who flocked in their thousands to ensure our light had company. Our front porch possessed a view of the Mekong and some hammocks suitable for helping to appreciate the view. A good few hours were wasted here writing post cards and listening to music while the water passed by us.
As the sun rose that next day, we waded out into the countryside in search for breakfast. Approaching a humble looking cabin we hopped inside, ordering some fried eggs and tomato coupled with some baguettes. Similar to the Vietnamese the Lao people accepted bread into their culinary culture during their time as part of the French colony. This was undoubtedly the best breakfast we had during all of our travels, cooked in plenty of oil it was a brilliant start to the day.
Our chosen partners in our expedition for the remainder of the day were some rental bikes picked up at a local shop. Our tyres rotated endlessly onto the uneven dirt track as the heat of the sun pierced our skin, only comforted by the cool breeze created by the vast open space. Herds of cattle and water buffalo became recurring obstacles in our path. Ancient Palms and modest village shacks lay scattered across the horizon in the watch of the ground and sky, which intermingled via the reflections created by the flooded fields.
Once emerged from the countryside and reunited with the banks of the mighty Mekong river, we chartered a small wooden vessel to reach the Cambodia – Lao border in search of the rare freshwater irrawaddy dolphins. The irrawady dolphins are few in numbers and were difficult to spot, the main give-away of their location being the magnificent sound made through their blow-holes when rising up for air. Sighting the dolphins peacefully floating downstream during the mid-day heat was one of my favourite moments from all of my travels so far, especially considering how rushed and full on our days seemed to be, it was pleasant feeling calm and content as our boat softly drifted around them in the peace of the open water.
Conservation of these animals has only recently been brought to the attention of the locals and you can read more about the efforts being made here.
All this peace and natural beauty led me to develop quite an appetite, reluctantly we pushed onto our pedals for a little while longer until some tables and chairs became visible between the trees. We pulled up and parked our bikes beside what looked like someone’s kitchen. The place was empty, a local woman sat patiently weaving a fishing net saw us from afar and greeted us, her children played blissfully around her, play fighting with each other and their pet dogs. We lounged as if dead on the plastic chairs, her husband emerged from the kitchen and greeted us whilst handing us some menus. It was low season and we were probably their only customers the whole day, this made most of the food in the 4,000 islands take a while to be prepared, we ordered the local speciality of fish larp served traditionally with sticky rice and raw vegetables.
After replenishing our reserves I attempted to make conversation with the man, we exchanged a good number of smiles whilst I hopelessly experimented pronouncing various Lao phrases and he would reply using his hands and the odd word of English he spoke. On the whole we didn’t fare too badly, he managed to inform us the fish we had eaten was caught from the river nearby and pointed to the field where our rice was grown. After me asking about his family he later he introduced us to them. He mentioned different westerners who had come to his restaurant before us, showing us pictures photographers had taken of his wife in the past.
I was successful in asking him when tourists first started coming, he recalled his first encounter with a western tourist was from as recent as ten years ago. The family was so kind to us and were very patient whilst we asked them question after question, we were sad to leave them but the sun drew closer to the horizon and the journey back to Don Det would be difficult at night due to a lack of street lights.
Our final sight was the belittlingly named ‘small’ waterfalls. The sun peeked at us beyond the stones and the hills as we followed the waterfalls down to the so-called beach. Here I witnessed the most memorable sunset of my life so far. I desperately attempted to capture the magic of the moment through my lens yet failed to be entirely successful. The beauty of the moment lay within the distinctly coloured layers of the scenery. The sand lay together within the creases of the weathered limestone, both of them leading into the river overlooked upon by the hills and forests in the distance. However long we stayed and gazed at the landscape, it was simply impossible to tire of the view.
My experience in the 4,000 islands of the Mekong in Laos was truly unforgettable, I would enjoy saying one day I would return, but my time there has left me with such special untainted memories I cannot help but fear of it developing and changing in any way. I can only hope future visitors will be respectful of the natural beauty and the lifestyle of the people who live there.
- Bring a Lao phrasebook, the local people are very friendly and up for some conversation
- The ‘small’ waterfalls are much more beautiful when seen in the evening near sunset (less people)
- Take your time while cycling, the scenes in the countryside changes throughout the day
- Bikes can be rented really easily from almost any shop in Don Det
Favourite things to do:
- Cycle through the countryside
- See the ‘Small’ and ‘Big’ waterfalls
- Watch sunset at the ‘Beach’ located by the small waterfalls
- Eat some locally sourced produce
- See the river dolphins
- Swim in the Mekong River at night (free)
- Watch the wild water buffalo bathe (free)