Don Khone Island

Originally published on Wish You Were Here.

Don Khone Island (also known as Don Khong, Done Khone and Don Khon) is one of the many islands that comprise Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) and is located in the Mekong just north of the Cambodian border, in the heart of the province of Champasak.

Don Khone Island from Champasak Province
Don Khone Island from Champasak Province

Don Khone is a relatively small island, which is connected to an even smaller island known as Don Det by way of the abandoned French railway bridge.

Silhouettes on the old railway bridge.
Silhouettes on the old railway bridge.

“The French envisaged Don Deth and Don Khone as strategic transit points in their grandiose masterplan to create a major Mekong highway from China. In the late 19th century, ports were built at the southern end of Don Khone and at the northern end of Don Deth and a narrow-gauge railway line was constructed across Don Khone in 1897 as an important bypass around the rapids for French cargo boats sailing upriver from Phnom Penh. In 1920, the French built a bridge across to Don Deth and extended the railway line to Don Deth port. This 5-km stretch of railway has the unique distinction of being the only line the French ever built in Laos.” [1]

Don Det is a backpacker haven. You can walk around the island slowly, or ride a bike around the island even slower. You can sleep all day in a hammock, read, smoke or contemplate the meaning of life.  Although it is a lot quieter than Vang Vieng, there is suitable (cheap) accommodation, inexpensive yet tasty food and the odd ‘happy’ shake or pizza that is prepared with marijuana, mushrooms and, occasionally, opium. What happens on Don Det, stays on Don Det 😉

Rice paddies on Don Khone Island
Rice paddies on Don Khone Island

Don Khone on the other hand does not have a huge backpacker scene, but is just as peaceful and serene. As per usual we hired push bikes to get around the island, but the roads are paved in places so motorised scooters and tuk tuks are an option.

Off the beaten track
It gets worse…

Although the main roads are to the south of the island, there are some tracks that take you along the coast to the north and parallel to Don Det. From the tip of the island you turn right and follow the track back down the eastern side of the island where there are many small villages, never-ending rice paddies and plenty of traditional Laos life.

From here the track becomes a little precarious and we found ourselves braking hard to avoid large pot holes, wayward bullocks and rotting broken bridges. You will also spend a lot of time ducking, swerving and swearing at the foliage as it reaches out to unseat you from your transport.

But that’s all part of the adventure and as you pop out of the jungle at the southern tip of the island you will reach the old French port at the end of the railway with spectacular views across the Mekong toward Cambodia.

Cambodia
Cambodia is but a short swim away 🙂

Here you can hire a boat to take you out into the mini delta and search for one of the last five remaining Irrawaddy river dolphins in the area. The plight of these beautiful and critically endangered species is so desperate that, back in April, the WWF urged the Laos and Cambodian governments to work together to find a solution to the declining numbers, and to protect the existing pod.

“Gillnet entanglement has been identified as the major cause of dolphin mortality in the river, as local fishermen have been using these nets more and more over the last few years.” – WWF [2]

© David Dove / WWF Greater Mekong
© David Dove / WWF Greater Mekong

During a visit here in October 2015 with thirty-five grade eight students (approximately 14 years of age on average) we kayaked from the beach a little further north and down towards Cambodia. I managed to stay at the back of the pack on purpose and as the rest of the group drifted further ahead, thus making less and less noise, one lucky student and I were treated with an incredible sight. Two small grey dolphins surfaced only a few feet from our kayak for a quick breath and we got so see them up close. We watched them swim away from us heading north and just as we were about to head off to join the rest of the group a larger light grey coloured dolphin breached right beside us.

Seeing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat was both awesome and sad at the same time. Will the species survive, or am I about to become one of the last people to see them in the flesh? Only time will tell.

From the old port there is a main road that will take you back to the bridge in the north of the island. Along the road are many detours to the beach from where my kayaking expedition set out and to the Liphi Waterfalls also known as the Tat Somphamit Waterfalls. The falls are a wonderful sight to see, splashing down the rocky slope at various angles, however the entrance fee of 35,000 kip is a little steep. 

So, after a day of cycling, swimming, kayaking, boating and sightseeing it is time to soak up the sunset from any number of vantage points. On our first visit Heidi and I managed to watch the sun disappear from the old railway bridge. On my second trip I watched the daily solar phenomenon from across the rice paddies on Don Det.

Finally, you’re now feeling really hungry and probably have a sore bum from all the biking etcetera well never fear because Don Khone has a plethora of inexpensive little restaurants dotted all along the roadway back from the bridge and into town, service all manner of Laos cuisine.

In our opinion Don Khone and Don Det are wonderful destinations to visit.

[1] Footprint Travel Guides – http://www.footprinttravelguides.com/asia/laos/far-south/don-deth-don-khone-and-around/ Accessed 29th November 2015

[2] WWF Global – http://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?243737/Mekong-River-dolphin-death-reduces-Lao-population-to-five Accessed 29th November 2015.

[3] Irrawaddy dolphin, Mekong River, Cambodia Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella Brevirostris) at Koh Kon Sat, Mekong River, Cambodia. © David Dove / WWF Greater Mekong

Wat Phou

Originally published on Wish You Were Here.

SunsetThe Wat Phou is a ruined Khmer Hindu temple that forms part of the Champasak Cultural Landscape, which is a well preserved landscape more than a 1,000 years old.

According to UNESCO’s website, “It was shaped to express the Hindu vision of the relationship between nature and humanity, using an axis from mountain top to river bank to lay out a geometric pattern of temples, shrines and waterworks extending over some 10 km. Two planned cities on the banks of the Mekong River are also part of the site, as well as Phou Kao mountain. The whole represents a development ranging from the 5th to 15th centuries, mainly associated with the Khmer Empire.” [1]

It resides at the base of Mount Phou Kao, a curious formation with a natural linga at the top that is supposed to represent the phallic symbol of Shiva. Personally I think it looks more like a nipple than a penis, but that’s just my opinion.

The original temple dates back to the 5th century, however the remaining structures are circa 11th to 13th century. At the top of the temple is a fresh water spring where it is believed that Shiva used to bathe. The spring water flows through wooden troughs and into large stone vessels pictured below. Visitors splash their faces with the water as a type of blessing, or for good luck.

The structures within Wat Phou are built on seven terraces and, as is typical of most Khmer temples, it was constructed facing towards the east. The uppermost terrace contains the main sanctuary and offers fantastic views over the surrounding area. Sitting up here at sunset is an incredibly peaceful experience, however do not try to climb down in the dark as there is a good chance of a sprained ankle.

Like most Angkorien temples Wat Phou is adorned with all manner or Hindu deities and creatures such as Indra riding the three headed elephant Airavata (pictured below) or the deity riding the Kala (a monstrous serpent usually depicted with no bottom jaw) pictured in the images at the bottom of this post.

Indra riding the three headed elephant Airavata
Indra riding the three headed elephant Airavata

Every year, during the full moon of the 3rd lunar month, there is a three-day festival called Boun Wat Phou Champasak. Thousands of Lao people attend to pay their respects and bring offerings to Buddha.

Wat Phou04

Wat Phou is constantly under renovation and some of the structures may be off limits when you visit. Needless to say, it is definitely something to add to your ‘must see’ list in Laos.

[1] UNESCO – Vat Phou – http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/481 Accessed 26th November 2015

Done Daeng Island

Originally published on Wish You Were Here.

TransportDone Daeng Island, known as the “Red Island”, offers a tranquil environment and sandy beaches. There are approximately ten villages located on the island, bordered by the Mekong river on both sides. On the opposite shore is Mount Lingaparvata (now called Phu Kao) where lies the ancient temple of Wat Phou.

Transport to the island is via a Lao ‘catamaran’ and dok dok to transfer the several hundred feet of sand that appears as the dry season approaches. You can hire bikes to ride around the island, which is exactly what we did.

The largest village on the island is Ban Hua Done Daeng, where you can sample some of Mrs Khamtha’s whiskey directly from her distillery if it is open. Apparently the whiskey is made by mixing 8kgs of sticky rice with around 10 litres of water and a couple of egg-sized yeast balls.

Rice Husking
Rice Husking

The fermentation process take around ten days from which the mixture is heated metal drums. The alcohol fueled steam condenses on the cooler lids of the drums and drains off into large ladles. This produces around 5 litres of Lao Lao whiskey that usually has a mild taste.

There is a community guesthouse on the northern tip of the island where you can rent a room from the head of the village. Turning right from the guesthouse will take you along the eastern side of the island and through the villages of Ban Noy, Ban Si Chanto and into Ban Peuay Lao.

Unfortunately you cannot ride completely around the island and at Ban Peuay Lao you will be forced to turn right and head back through the middle.

Wat PhaThis part of your trip will take you through the many rice paddies that fill the island’s interior and on to Wat Pha, an incredibly old temple of which only a single chedi remains. This is a very sacred site for the locals on Done Daeng and we were lucky to be present during a Baci Ceremony whereby the local Shaman blessed a woman from the village who had returned from study in Canada.

As the family sat down to begin the ceremony we got up and moved away to allow some privacy, but the shaman instructed the girl to ask us to stay. At the conclusion of the ceremony we both had our palms read and were offered a blessing.

Wat Pha is practically in the centre of the island and from there you can continue your journey west to the village of Ban Si Moungkhoun.

BuffaloTurning south you can visit the villages of Ban Xieng Vang, Ban Boung Kham, Ban Si Souk and Ban Dan Thip. Turning north will take you Ban Bang Sai and the La Folie Resort, which happens to be the only other accommodation on the island.

Long sandy beaches surround the Done Daeng on many sides and provide a great walking experience. Life on Done Daeng is very traditional. Most of the villagers live in wooden Laotian houses on stilts, gathering hay and planting rice, with children and chickens running everywhere.

Occasionally the tracks will be blocked by a docile water buffalo, but other than that life on Done Daeng doesn’t get much more exciting. Which is just how we liked it 🙂

Beach at Sunset