Serenely Simmering Don Khong



Si Phan Don means 4000 Islands in Lao, and while that may be a slight exaggeration of the number of tiny islets in this stretch of the Mekong there sure are a lot of them dotted over the glass like surface of the river. We are on Don Khong, the largest island of the group, relaxing on a terrace overhanging the river. We look across to the mainland, probably at least 2.5 kilometres away, where the skyline is dominated by a massive golden Buddha which we drove past on our way from the airport to the boat landing. We really could never tire of this view which is hypnotic in its appeal. Sadly for Doug it is very difficult to photograph as a haze overhangs it always, thereby increasing the romantic effect but rendering photographs grey and lifeless.

In the evening the view is particularly seductive as the fishermen go out in their tiny dugout canoes to cast circular weighted nets into the water. Doug has tried hard to get some pictures with the net in the air, as you can see. They handle their craft so nimbly, standing in the cranky little shallow draft boats to cast the nets, often jumping overboard to untangle vines and so on, then clambering back in as if it was effortless. We know they are easy to tip because we have watched the kids tip them on purpose, all it takes is a shift to one side and they’re over. Elementary age kids come along in the morning, 3 or 4 kids paddling a canoe, pull up their boats against the bank below the hotel and scamper up the bank and over to the school behind us. Secondary students have farther to go and we see them go with small motors on the backs of their canoes. I don’t know how they keep their school uniforms so clean!  At lunch some of the boys from the elementary school run down the bank, strip off and spend an hour swimming, completely unsupervised of course, before regarbing and running back for the afternoon session.

Yesterday the hotel wasn’t busy so the boys from the restaurant had boat races with the boys from the guesthouse, and everyone dumped the canoes, jumped in to cool off, and generally had a hilarious time while the girls cheered them on from the restaurant terrace. Interesting to us is the fact that the Mekong has a lot of schistosomiasis (Mekongi) and people here get a lot of health problems, serious ones too, from the parasites. We met an epidemiologist from Vientiane who has been researching this type of schistosomiasis in Laos and in Philippines, he suggested we refrain from river bathing so lucky we have the pool… There is an easy and cheap medication but the health system in Laos is still completely non existent. The so-called clinic here has to be seen to be believed, and even in bigger more affluent centres like Luang Prabang the conditions are dire in the hospital. Everyone with any money at all just goes to Thailand at the first sign of anything, not the best solution for traffic accidents or heart attacks.

There are 60,000 inhabitants of the island, which is surprising to us since there is no large town or even village, just tiny mostly bamboo stilted houses stretching along the banks of the river and through the rice paddies behind. The rice grown is the sticky kind and they only harvest once a year, right now the fields are burned brown and will be until they plant again in the rainy season starting in June and July. The exception is a small area with irrigation where the paddy fields are green now and almost ready to harvest, and where the housing is considerably more prosperous. Most people get only enough rice for their own use, but the few with irrigation get two crops and can sell it. 94% of the inhabitants fish the river (stats from the tiny but interesting museum) hence their prowess with the canoes and the many kinds of fish traps stored under the stilted houses.

One reason for the heavy skies in the evenings and the constant smoky smell, is the Lao habit of burning off all the underbrush in the jungle, as well as the rice straw in the paddies, and while they’re at it they burn a bit of garbage and the odd stump. This is not slash and burn agriculture which is widely practised in northern Laos and causes awful smoke pollution too, they do this more generalized burning all over Asia and we have never been able to figure out how they don’t set the whole parched (at this time of year) jungle alight and cause massive forest fires. Everything is just so dry, I would think a stray match would cause a conflagration but for some reason not. However it would certainly be better for everyone’s health if they thought of another method!

We were here in 2007 and stayed in one of the handful of guesthouses at Mr Pon’s Riverside Guesthouse where we had the VIP room at the top of the house opening onto the communal verandah, a bargain for $18. Well a building boom has taken place here, and Mr Pon has constructed a flash new hotel nearby where we have a coveted Mekong view room with our terrace (shared with one other room but we have had it to ourselves) hanging over the river. It feels like being on a ship and it catches whatever breeze goes by. Since it is absurdly hot here that is a huge plus. We also have the only swimming pool on the island, a tiny but gorgeous infinity pool where if you stumble getting out of the water you can fall 20 feet straight down into the Mekong off the unprotected edge! A new bridge linking the mainland with the island is under construction and everyone appears to think this will bring more travellers and more investment and rooms are popping up all over.

The pace of life here is slow even by Lao standards –some people say Lao P.D.R. stands for “please don’t rush” not “people’s democratic republic” and since this is a repressive communist one party state that would be a less ironic interpretation — but with the heat and the soporific scenery and the lack of impetus to change anything much at all, people seem to spend a lot of time relaxing under their houses, drinking beer Lao (the men), chatting, rocking babies, grooming each others’ hair, you get the picture. We crazy farangs think we should do at least a little something each day, so we have been out on our bikes pedalling between clusters of houses along the river, waving at friendly children who call out “Saibadee”, visiting the numerous tiny very simple wats where the faithful (mostly female) bring the monks their lunch each day at 11:00. The monks signal their readiness to eat by banging the temple gong and a small group of ladies appears with baskets of the ubiquitous sticky rice and trays of cooked vegetables and soup.

By lunch time we are so sweaty we look like we have stood in a shower so we feel obliged to repair to our cool swimming pool, then spend the afternoon reading and contemplating the view from the terrace. Everyone else is asleep all afternoon anyway, if you want to eat something you have to wake up one of the poor exhausted boys dead to the world in each riverside restaurant. There is one “tour” you can do here, a day long boat trip to a couple of other southern islands but we did it last time and feel no obligation to repeat. We did go out with a boatman for a “sunset cruise” (not quite as you have no doubt envisioned, very hard on the bottom in the wooden boat) with 3 French women from the hotel, so we could get some pictures of the fishermen and experience the peace of the waters.

We’ve had a lovely time here, but off by 2 boats and a minivan tomorrow to Champasak where we visited the famous Khmer era Wat Phou last time, but which also has a new bridge hence access to the airport and apparently also some nice new river side places to stay. We fly out to Bangkok then on to Koh Cheng to meet the Edmonton contingent after that. It seems we have finally achieved our often stated goal of travelling slowly and enjoying each day. Such luck! Best regards, your happy geriatric travellers.


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