Introducing Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands)
There must be some rule in Laos that says the further south you go the more relaxed it becomes, because just when you thought your blood pressure couldn’t drop any more, you arrive in Si Phan Don… The name literally means ‘Four Thousand Islands’, and the few you are likely to visit on this scenic 50km-long stretch of the Mekong are so chilled you’re liable to turn into a hammock-bound icicle.
During the rainy season this section of the Mekong fills out to a breadth of 14km, the river’s widest reach along its 4350km journey from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea. During the dry months between monsoons the river recedes and leaves behind hundreds (or thousands if you count every sand bar) of islands and islets. The largest of the permanent islands are inhabited year round and offer fascinating glimpses of tranquil river-oriented village life – ‘more detached from time than from the riverbank’ as one source described it. Communities tend to be self-sufficient, growing most of their own rice, sugar cane, coconut and vegetables, catching fish and weaving textiles as needed.
Island life is changing, however, and electricity and tourism are the big drivers. Don Khong attracts travellers looking for better lodgings while Don Det has become one of Southeast Asia’s backpacker magnets, with all that entails; Don Khon falls somewhere in between. Power pylons are slowly being erected and Don Khong is on the grid, though Don Det and Don Khon will have to wait until at least 2008. In the meantime most homes are linked to one generator or another and at night you’ll see extended families sitting glued to the new-found joy of Thai soap opera.
The villages of Si Phan Don are often named for their position at the upriver or downriver ends of their respective islands. The upriver end is called hǔa (head), the downriver end is called hǎang (tail). Hence Ban Hua Khong is at the northern end of Don Khong, while Ban Hang Khong is at the southern end.
The French left behind a defunct short railway (the only railway ever actually completed in Laos), a couple of river piers, and a few colonial buildings. Other attractions include some impressive rapids and the Khon Phapheng waterfall, where the Mekong suddenly drops in elevation at the Cambodian border. The increasingly rare Irrawaddy dolphin also likes to hang out in the Mekong south of the falls.
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