Sep 2013

Asia, Blog

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One Day, Four Thousand Islands

Just as the captain pushed the boat away from the shore a seventh body catapulted onto the deck. He was winded but clearly excited to have made it with not a second to spare. We didn’t know who he was but he surely wasn’t a local. He was like the Incredible Hulk with tan skin and curly shoulder length hair.

Once he settled in on the bench he spoke. “Excuse me, but can you tell me where we’re going?”

What kind of crazy person…?

Someone explained to him that we were on a boat trip down the Mekong River to Don Khon—a different island—where we were going to ride bikes for the day and then later in the afternoon head back to our island. It would be an all day kind of thing.

He didn’t seem like the bike riding type so I was quite curious to hear what he thought of his new itinerary. He laughed and clapped his hands. I think he was pleased. “I saw the boat leaving and said to myself, I don’t know where it’s going, but I want to go!” He smiled and then looked at his feet and was silent for a moment. “Do you think they rent scooters?”

On the boat there were six of us now: Manuel from Germany, John and Karen, who we’d met in Laos, and now a crazy free-spirited Algerian.

I told him he was the first Algerian I’d ever met in my life and he laughed, clearly excited to be representing his nation. His excitement about pretty much everything was contagious.

The day before, we had arrived at the highlight in southern Laos: Si Phan Don or 4,000 Islands. It’s here that the wide and shallow Mekong allowed for the formation of a great number of islands, which vary largely in number and size depending on the season, although it’s safe to say that even an estimate of a thousand islands would be a bit of a stretch. We could only guess that the exposed lumps of grass and random tree saplings must have been included in the count.

Within these “4,000 islands” only three were inhabited, and of these three, only one had a car ferry. So, we drove Nacho onto a rickety ferry and headed to Don Kong. It was an easy crossing and while we waited at the ferry’s loading platform, we watched the locals on the motorcycle ferry. It was a creative contraption; merely a wooden platform that stretched across two canoes.

Within five minutes of arriving on Don Kong we had pretty much seen and done everything. We expected that would happen—hence the reason that the entire island’s foreign population was now aboard a boat on the Mekong headed somewhere else.

Aboard the boat we moved down the Mekong. The water was murky and brown, but it was still beautiful. The weather was good with sufficient shade and plentiful breeze. It was a quiet morning and we didn’t see another boat for the entirety of our commute. At an hour and a half we broke our huddle under the boat’s canopy and followed our boat captain up Don Khon’s steep embankment. Once at the top he settled into a hammock and told us when to return.

We stopped at the first nondescript restaurant and had lunch, delaying our bike ride by an hour to foolishly coincide with the hottest part of the day. Lunch took forever and Brad joked that the lady must have had to go catch a fish before preparing my meal. My dish of pok la was definitely worth the wait; a moist and fragrant mix of river fish, coconut milk and herbs of ginger and basil steamed in a banana leaf.

From the same establishment we rented cruiser bikes at $3 for the day. I loaded my cruiser’s wire basket with a few liters of water and Brad loaded his with a new cat friend. Our dirt road wandered through the sleepy village where families rested under their raised bamboo homes and water buffalo faces poked from the murky ponds.

We continued on until our road turned into a boulder strewn mess and pitched down to the beach. The rocks were sharp and loose and for a moment I imagined I was on my mountain bike somewhere in the desert. Brad and I raced down and I can’t remember for sure, but I think I won [editor’s note: she lost]. At the bottom was a fishing village of some sort with nets stretched across the burning hot sand and wooden boats pulled up out of the water.

This remote little sandy beach acted as the primary take off point in Laos for spotting the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. With only seven Irrawaddy dolphins left in Laos, they are verging on extinction and even despite the species being fully protected, the numbers have continued to decline. Locals don’t know why but it’s thought it is related to polluted waters and loss of habitat.

We walked for a bit and cooled off in the shade under a nearby shop’s canopy.  The shop owner wasn’t interested in selling me a drink or food, rather he just wanted to show me his adorable son sleeping in a nearby hammock. Various stuffed animals held the boy in place, and his mother slept in one of those conservatory chairs next to his hammock.

“He’s beautiful, isn’t he?” the man asked, stared at his son with admiring eyes, and then rearranged the baby’s arms to make him more comfortable.

Our last stop for the afternoon was Don Khone waterfall, a wide and powerful cascade. Up to this point, I had not seen the Mekong looking so fierce. We all expected this would be an ideal place to swim, but we were clearly mistaken.

Our bike ride had been too ambitious and we arrived back in the village far beyond our allotted time. I feared our captain would be put off, yet this was island life- even better, island life with Buddhists.  It was hard to put them in a bad mood.

I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that our captain hadn’t moved since we had last seen him. He looked to be in no hurry and slowly rolled out of the hammock, stood back on his feet and said his goodbyes. We were off, back down the river amid the 4,000 islands.

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