Our first destination in Laos (pronounced to rhyme with ‘Slough’) was Don Khon, one of the so-called ‘Four Thousand Islands’ in that part of the Mekong River, just north of Cambodia. We arrived at 1pm on Sunday 25 November – 31 hours after leaving our hotel in Siem Reap!
From our researches, the islands, and Don Khon in particular, sounded idyllic – and the reality fully matched our expectations. We had a riverside bungalow, en suite, with a large shaded deck and a beautiful view of the Mekong. It was quiet and peaceful, the ideal place to relax, so we spent a fair bit of time just chilling. Ian sat in a deckchair, his only exercise being to give Sandie’s hammock a gentle push with his toe now and then….. It’s hard work, being retired.
We liked the island so much that we stayed longer than intended. Of course, we did not sit around all the time; we spent part of each day going for walks on Don Khon and the neighbouring island, Don Det, which is linked by a bridge. Our exploration of Don Khon led us through rice paddies and jungle to some picturesque beaches and waterfalls. Somphamit Falls are especially beautiful: a whole series of falls at different levels, crashing over multi-coloured cliffs. Our jaws dropped when we saw them; we had not expected to find such spectacular scenery on our quiet little island. We walked along the edge of a small canyon and admired the ever-changing view.
The Khon Phapheng Falls
On Thursday 29 November we reluctantly dragged ourselves away from Don Khon. We crossed to the mainland, but the bus north was not scheduled to leave till11.40, so we had time to visit the Khon Phapheng Falls. We and our luggage were taken in a large tuk-tuk, different in style from the ones we’d seen on the island. Khon Phapheng is the largest (by volume) waterfall in SE Asia, and it was certainly worth seeing, although we did not find it as attractive as Somphamit.
The first stages of our journey through Laos proved to be quite eventful. Our bus arrived late, and people crowded to get on. Apparently there were more people with tickets than there were seats. That problem was finally resolved, but then it transpired that there was not enough room in the hold for all of the luggage. Most of our fellow passengers were backpackers, with huge rucksacks, and the bus crew stacked up many of these in the aisle of the bus. We were therefore completely boxed in, which was bad for Sandie who is claustrophobic and was on the verge of a panic attack. Luckily, a young man we’d met earlier was sitting right at the front of the bus, and he kindly agreed to swap seats with Sandie.
We were only going as far as Champasak, less than two hours north. At least we thought we were going to Champasak … we discovered that we would be dropped on the other side of the river, and would need to take a ferry across to the town. The ferry consisted of a wooden platform lashed on top of three small boats. It was designed to take vehicles, and apart from us there was just a Lao guy and his wife in a pick-up.
We assumed that when we reached the opposite bank there would be tuk-tuks waiting, but there were none. We could have walked to our guesthouse, but not with all our luggage. We were just wondering what to do when the Lao guy motioned to us to put our luggage in the pick-up, and then climb in with it. He insisted on driving us to the guesthouse, and we were very grateful.
Our reason for staying in Champasak was in order to visit the Wat Phou temple ruins, which we did the next day. These are similar in style to the ones at Angkor, but in a very beautiful setting, on the side of a hill overlooking a lush valley dotted with frangipani trees. Restoration work meant we could not go inside all of the temple buildings, but the view alone made it well worth the many steps we had to climb.
Our experience the previous day made us doubtful about catching the same bus again, but we discovered a boat going to Pakse (the next major town) that afternoon. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours relaxing as we made our way up the Mekong; with just ourselves and three other passengers on the boat, we had more room than on the bus! The only problem came when we landed at Pakse and again there were no tuk-tuks to be seen, and no friendly rescuers either.
Sandie’s enquiries at nearby cafés got nowhere, but while she waited with the luggage Ian went to explore in the opposite direction, and eventually returned triumphantly in a tuk-tuk. This was yet another different design (we’re sure there’s scope for a thesis on types of tuk-tuk in SE Asia); the seat on the side of the motorbike was barely large enough for two, so we were doubtful about how our luggage would fit. But there was a kind of basket underneath the seat, and it just about all went in.
On to Savannakhet
Pakse is not a particularly interesting town; we stayed overnight there just because it was too late to go further. The following day, we travelled by bus to Savannakhet. The journey was supposed to take four hours, but actually took six. There were lots of stops to pick up more passengers, and one longish stop (we kid you not) when eight new motorbikes were offloaded from the roof of the bus.
Savannakhet itself was disappointing. Unlike Pakse, it is recommended in the guidebook as a city worth visiting, indeed as a highlight of Laos. We took several pictures of a colourful wat complex, and had drinks while watching the sun set over the Mekong. But we did not find anything else of interest, so our stay in Savannakhet was brief. The next day we travelled onward to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.