To spend eight hours perched on various wooden long tail boats, interjected by a spell of cycling across an island, for a chance (with no guarantee) to see the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins is madness. A masochistic madness borne of a life-long fascination with cetaceans … and as Riff Raff so eloquently sang: “madness takes its toll”.
The Irrawaddy dolphins
Sometimes called the Irrawaddy River Dolphin, it is an oceanic dolphin and not a true river dolphin. It gets it’s name from the Irrawaddy river in Burma but its range extends from The Bay of Bengal to New Guinea and the Philippines and there are established sub-populations in the Ganges, Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers. Living in rivers seems to be an easy adaptation for this species of dolphin as its usually found in brackish water on coastlines, river mouths and in estuaries.
No wide ranging survey of these dolphins has been done and ninety percent of the estimated seven thousand strong population is reckoned to be in Bangladesh. The remaining population, in rivers and estuaries, is critically endangered with gill netting being the main culprit for decimating the population. It astounds me that in a large pool of the Mekong river, at the borders of Laos and Cambodia there are fourteen of these dolphins eking out an existence. Especially since the Khmer Rouge, apparently, used to dynamite them and the pool is an ideal gill net fishing ground. Somehow these dolphins have survived and someone has persuaded the local fishermen to protect them. So you see, I just had to make the effort to see them.
I started my dolphin-viewing day by getting up early to take in a lazy sunrise over the Mekong’s east bank. It was another of those slow and languid pastel-painting sunrises made all the more hypnotic by the deliciously sweet and creamy Laos coffee I managed to persuade the sleepy kitchen staff to make for me. There really is no better way to start your day in Laos than with a great coffee and a superb sunrise.
On the river
Surprisingly, given the laid-back vibe in Laos, we were collected at precisely eight-thirty (the appointed time) for the dolphin-watching excursion. Now you have to understand that the entire excursion was to be a mystery to me. We’d managed to ascertain that we could get to see the dolphin but there was no way of communicating the logistics and the how-long it would take. All we knew was that we were to be picked up at eight-thirty and we would get to see the dolphins. It was unnervingly vague but deliciously exciting to be completely out of control and having to trust in the universe, the dolphin gods and the boat owner we’d contracted.
Along with seven other passengers (of which four were carrying large backpacks) we were bundled onto a long tail boat measuring about seven meters long and about one and a half meters at its widest. Fortunately, the boat had an awning, for the the Laos sun can get pretty harsh when it’s finally breached the eastern horizon and is making its great traverse across the sky. However, the luxuries extended only to an awning. We squatted on wooden benches made for the average Laotian who barely comes up to my chest. And the thumping beat of the car engine mounted at the back resonated and vibrated throughout the boat, especially the wooden benches. Standing up to relieve the pain in my bum and the knots in my thighs was out of the question as these long tail boats are designed to be stable only when passengers are sitting down.
The people of south east Asia seem born sans hamstrings and sinews. They squat everywhere, their knees about their ears, and look so comfortable. Of course being closer to the ground because of their short stature may have something to do with it. Or perhaps it’s just our chair-borne western lifestyle that makes it uncomfortable for us to adapt. Nonetheless I kept glancing enviously at our pilot who squatted at the back of the boat steering happily and chain-smoking. Each time I looked at him, he gave me a cheery grin as if to say “suffer baby, suffer”. And suffer I did.
Despite the pain, the ever changing riverscape we travelled was a brilliant distraction. We criss-crossed the river avoiding sandbanks, seeking the deeper reaches, past islets and huge rocks peeping out of the water. On the river banks we saw life passing by; people cycling to work or the market, children playing in the water, buffalo languishing in muddy flats and women washing clothing. Men tended to fishing nets or their fishing boats.
On the river men balanced expertly on low gunnelled long tail boats to cast nets in a wide umbrella-like scoop. Here and there similar long tail boats propelled by hand- held long shaft motors passed us by ferrying passengers or goods. It was idyllic and lazy and serene and a brilliant way to lose myself in voyeuristic delight. It was like watching a never-ending documentary where I provided the narrative.
After several hours of transcendental river cruising our pilot skippered us through some narrow channels to the ex-hippie island hang-out of Dong Det where we ditched our back-packing fellow passengers. No longer a hippy hangout where clouds of marijuana smoke fill the air, Dong Det has become a backpacker paradise island and it’s obvious from our viewpoint on the river. We pass loads of river-front reed and wood chalets punctuated by strung hammocks filled with sleeping bodies dressed in tie-dyed loose clothing. Here on Don Det, the living is cheap and the parties long.
Our pilot grins to the three of us that remain on the boat and points down-river. “Dong Khone” he says and then fires the boat engine into life. Well okay then, Dong Khone island it will be … but when do we get to see the dolphins?
Some twenty minutes later we land at Dong Khone island and our skipper leads us up the high bank of the Mekong river then indicates to us to follow him. Suddenly the slow, lazy day turns into a high-paced burst of activity. My legs are still trying to extend back into the shape they started the day in as we try to keep up with our chain smoking skipper, now turned guide.
He leads us through a village to a cycle stand where we each get given a bicycle with a basket mounted in the front. I straddle the seat and the weight of my camera filled day pack weighs heavily on my, by now, very painful butt. Only this time, I’m sitting on a different part of my bum. It’s scant relief however.
We pedal off at a high pace behind skipper-guide and stop at a ticket office to pay for the privilege of visiting the sights of Dong Khone. Like me, you may be asking at this stage “what sights, I thought we were going to see the dolphins?”
Well, it turns out that this island is in the middle of the waterfalls that mark the end of the Mekong’s catching of its breath. Here the Mekong plunges down a series of waterfalls that have proven difficult to tame. When the French coveted all of IndoChina they chose to subjugate by owning the Mekong’s river ways using gunboats. They tried various means to circumnavigate these waterfalls including building bridges and railway lines. But the only way they could control the Mekong above the waterfalls was to construct gunboats that could be disassembled, portaged around the falls and then reassembled. And so, one of the sights is of an old steam locomotive used by early French explorers. This rusting piece of metal is housed in an outbuilding of sorts surrounded by posters explaining its use and place in history.
From the locomotive we’re taken to see the waterfalls, well only one of them. The one we see is particularly impressive with lots of spray and crashing water set in a jungle background. It’s a pretty view but I notice a growing collection of plastic flotsam and jettison in the churn under the falls.
Locomotive and waterfall ticked off, we cycle off with the promise of “dolphins” from skipper-guide man. Some ten minutes later we arrive at the other end of the island and get loaded onto another long tail boat. Only this boat is tiny by comparison with the boat we’ve used thus far. At most the boat is five metres long but its beam is a minuscule half a metre, at best. So I fold myself into something resembling a lotus-position on the floor of the boat, ignore the painful protesting coming from my arse and prepare myself for another ordeal.
This time we’re piloted by a young man who squats nonchalantly at the back of the boat all the while handling an outboard motor. The boat ride is absolutely brilliant though. We rocket down minor rapids, navigate past huge boulders and ride the rush of the Mekong. Every movement I make wobbles the boat and I can sense the skipper’s disdain at the pair of clumsy westerners squashed into his boat.
It takes twenty five minutes under the blistering hot mid-day sun to get to the Laos-Cambodia border, but when we get there the reward is more than worth the effort. Our skipper switches off his motor long before we arrive at the pool frequented by the dolphins and he skillfully drifts us into the centre of the pool where we wait quietly, glancing this way and that. We sit in perfect mental solitude, awed by the beauty and the sounds of the river and the calls of birds. Then we hear it, that unmistakable rush of expelled air that all cetaceans make when surfacing from a dive. Finally, we get to see the Irrawaddy dolphins. All in all, we get to see five of them and spend forty minutes watching them surfacing, blowing and diving again and again. They’re shy, surface, breathe and dive again very quickly and are underwater for anywhere between two and five minutes. Unlike Bottlenose and Common dolphins there is no caudal tail fin show when diving. Surfacing and breathing is very quick and much like my experience of watching the dugong of Bazarutto island. I make several attempts to get photographs of the dolphins but between dangerously wobbling the boat and trying to predict where they will surface I fail miserably. And then, in a perfectly ludicrous moment the Cambodian border guards decide to play “Gangam Style” over their loudspeaker system, at full blast.
It’s an insane juxtaposition of being with a rare and endangered creature in a perfect setting, with every inch of my body in pain and agony listening to the “sexy lady” refrain at maximum decibels – madness does indeed take its toll.
If you enjoyed the images in this blog post visit my gallery of images of life on the Mekong in Laos here
My post on Si Phan Don & Don Khong island