Four thousand islands on Mekong

Islanders set off for fishing early in the morning, Si Phan Don

The wild south of Laos is mainly empty gravel roads, sparsely populated villages and  fields of rice filling the floodplains of mighty river Mekong up to the horizon. Si Phan Don means in Lao 4000 islands. This is one of the main attractions for visitors in southern Laos. The actual number of islands varies depending on the level of the Mekong River, but it is customary to say there is four thousand of them. We stay at the popular island of Don Det. There are both natural-born hippies and tired of intensive weeks of moving around travelers, who found their place for a little relaxation. I meet up with Bess again, who was in Thailand for about a week. We manage to find a pretty nice bungalow for $2.5. There are two hammocks on our terrace overlooking the Mekong River. This is a perfect place to grab an ice-cold Beerlao and catch up.

We walk around the island and get to know some people involved in their daily activities. Some are taking cattle to pasture, others are gathering resin from the trunks of rubber trees, working in the rice fields or picking mushrooms, herbs and spices.

A bit of astronomy in practice

A little girl playing with stick, Don Det

We watch fantastic sunset on the other side of the island and after dark we sit comfortably in our porch. I take a night-time picture with several minutes long shutter speed and I realize that the North Star is in a slightly different position than I have expected. It is worth to mention that taking a long shutter speed picture of firmament, the North Start is the only star which takes form of a point, while the other stars move around it in a circular rotation.

I verify my observation with a compass and it seems to be correct. The explanation is simple. After the fall equinox the sun on northern hemisphere travels shorter way between sunrise and sunset points on horizon, thus astronomical east and west are closer to each other.

Soon the moon emerges from behind a tree line and an intense orange light is cast over the sky. It is still a few days left until full moon. At this time the moon is slightly bitten at the top. I take another long shutter picture with the North Start in the center, make some notes and go to sleep.

I wake up at 5:30 in order to see the sunrise. A pink glow is visible on the horizon and it gradually fills the entire sky. The sun appears over the mighty Mekong river at six o’clock. The first boats with hyperactive islanders set off. Crowing roosters also signify their presence.

I take a book to my hammock and when Bess is already up we take a walk to Don Kong, a nearby situated, slightly lager island. This comes down to be a full day hike.

Lao girl playing with her younger brother, Si Phan Don

There is a historic locomotive, which once served as an indirect means of river transport. Goods used to be transited by railway along the island to avoid strong current of the river nearby dangerous cataracts. It is also the only railway section in entire Laos and it comes from reign of the French.

We admire the massive waterfall cascades. In this area the river reaches the width of up to 16 kilometers and the waterfall is formed on a large narrowing. The weight of water is impressive. The lower Mekong’s average annual water flow is 15000 m³/s, but in the middle of the rainy season in August it may even be doubled.

We meet a fisherman, who promises that the following day at dawn he would take us back to the mainland. We easily find sawngthaew. This is an extremely handy local means of transportation, which is slightly covered and extended pickup with two benches mounted along to increase passenger capacity – naturally at the expense of safety.

Jungle

Jungle hike around Kiet Ngong, Laos

Kiet Ngong is a village at the Se Pian National Park. We arrive here taking a vehicle which arouses my undoubted interest. It is a cross between a tractor and a cart, a sophisticated and uncomplicated machine. Its simplicity is impressive. Two or three fan belts, two gears, then reverse and neutral, also a brake and a steering wheel similar to the one in a bicycle. I help a Lao driver to crank up the machine and here we go.

We enter jungle. It is swampy, densely, but not stuffy, thanks to the dry season. We are accompanied by a guide who explains the importance of selected plants and spices encountered along the way. He indicates which are ‘food’ and which are ‘medicine’. Besides the only other English words he knows is ‘be careful’.

We make our way through thicket. From time to time we find chameleons, small snakes, insects and spiders. In the evening we pitch a tent on rocky banks of a river in the middle of the bush. A guide and his assistant, who is also our cook, prepares a makeshift fireplace, which is good enough to cook a decent dinner.

The sound of water from the waterfall combined with the sounds of rainforest put us to sleep. The next day we leave in the morning. On the way we see a foot-long earthworms, giant snails, strange-shaped thick crustacean, termites, toucans and even monkeys somewhere in the tops of trees. I guess also lot of other jungle inhabitants, but it is a matter of better perception. We continue to make our way through narrow passage and continuously head in the direction where seemingly there is no path just to realize it exists but it is barely visible.

On one hand the problem is not the giant ants, remains of animals, spiders and snakes, actually the guide is needed to take us out of the jungle!

laos south