The Mekong river, having traversed the length of Laos on its journey from Tibet to the South China Sea, takes a breath at Si Phan Don before crashing down a series of waterfalls and entering Cambodia.
Si Phan Don, loosely translated as the four thousand islands, is located on the widest stretch of the Mekong’s journey seawards. The river appears languid and lazy curling around islets and islands; flowing gently but surely. Like the river, life on the islands is slow and sure; unhurried and contemplative.
Nothing is done at speed here. Even the rising sun takes its time; a slow, almost deliberate painting of the east bank of the river in pastel shades of orange and yellow. Sitting on the deck of Pon’s guesthouse on the west bank of Don Khong island, I watch the dawn and feel myself slipping into a stupor of inertia – the sun’s rays anesthetic for my soul.
There seems no reason to move. Pon’s deck extends out over the river, some ten meters above it. From my vantage point I can watch ducks paddle by, fishermen casting nets from low-gunneled long boats, ferries crossing the river and the slow meandering of various flotsam and jettison escorting the river on its journey. Don Khong island is the largest of the “four thousand” islands and generally avoided by most travellers visiting Si Phan Don. The islands of Don Det and Don Khone are the popular ones especially with younger travellers looking for “hammock-style” time out and gentle watersports such as tubing down the river.
Laos is embracing of eco-tourism. Zip-lining through tree tops, tubing down the Mekong, trekking in the jungles, visiting newly created conservation areas or kayaking on the river … Laos is switching on to responsible tourism. Yet there are plans to build twenty hydro-electric dams, copper and gold mining concessions are handed out and lumber from the ancient jungle forests is felled for Chinese and Vietnamese demands. It’s a tough balancing act for this in-between, crossroads country that is dependent on its neighbours for trade, industry and funding. China is a big investor in Laos and its south east Asia railway network that will connect China as far as Pakistan and India, due for completion in 2014, runs right through Laos.
Don Khong island is eighteen kilometers long and eight kilometers at its widest. Like most of Laos the island is flat, lacking hills, which seemed like a good reason to hire bicycles and see a bit of the island at a snail’s pace. We cycled on dusty roads past shackled pigs and buffalos, through villages and past paddy fields. It was late afternoon and everywhere we rode we dodged children playing and laughing or “free-ranging” chicken pecking at the dust. We stopped off at several run down Wats to take photographs and I ventured into a paddy field to photograph the ladies tending the rice. A young girl, her face shaded by her non la (cone shaped hat), posed for me, her disarmingly huge smile popping out from the shade of her hat. I beat a hasty retreat though when her mother engaged with me and started indicating with her entwined fingers that her daughter and I should become “linked”. Smile politely and run away.
Despite Don Khong’s lack of tourist charm and attendance there are many new hotels and guesthouses, decked out in spanking new polished wood, being built. And there’s a huge concrete road bridge being built from the mainland to the island.
Perhaps we visited Don Khong in time, before it transforms into something more commercial. You see, Laos is currently ranked in the twenty poorest countries of the world. With a GDP of 7.7% in 2010 Laos seems set to meet its target of being out of the twenty poorest by 2020. Given all this development, the time to see Laos is now.