Si Phan Don

Si Phan Don opens up slowly to the traveller, the first chug on the Mekong giving the barest taste of the enormous riches of the river, its wildlife and its people.

It is not surprising: you may think of a river the size of the Thames or the Chao Praya or even the Mekong for most of its 4,350 kilometres from Tibet to the South China Sea off southern Vietnam.

But the Mekong, here, is 14 kilometres wide with islands – giving the area its name of Si Phan Don, literally '4,000 islands' – that stretch into the distances so that you cannot see both sides of the river at the same time.

Most people arrive in the area from Pakse or Champasak by bus or one of the tourist minibus services. A few, apparently, lash out the $50 for a car.

We arrived at Ban Hat, a large village on the edge of the Mekong, from Champasak. It stands opposite Don Khong, the largest of Si Phan Don's islands and the area's centre of administration and post, and as we stepped off the bus, the means of our onward journey was waiting: Monsieur Phoumy and his boat.

He took us across the half-mile or so, the brown flow slow on a quiet afternoon. The soft colours belied the fury of the monsoon storms that, within a few days, we would see turning the Mekong into an incredible river of black and silver and then, just just minutes later, rich golds and blood red in the dying sun.

We pulled in by Muang Khong, the main village on the island and where travellers tend to stay. M Phoumy recommended the Muang Khong Villa guest house and marched ahead, showing the way, and we liked his recommendation. But we had planned to stay at the Auberge Sala hotel and went to see that too. But he was right, the guest house was better for us and a fraction of the price. And it had two huge trees full of ripe mangoes just waiting for us ...

Muang Khong is the kind of sleepy place that can gently welcome you for a few days or a few weeks or a few months.

Its most prominent feature is an enormous naga Buddha (picture right), modern and glowing in the sunlight, that looks towards the river. The wat, an even quieter retreat than the village, spills forth novices and monks on their alms rounds just before dawn, barefoot, gravely dignified, part of a merit-making system of giving to the sangha, and sometimes they pause to offer more elaborate blessings: we saw them blessing some land not far from the wat, the owner squatting in respect while they intoned their prayers, and a chicken casually pecking its way through the middle.

We had just settled in with drinks on the veranda at the Muang Khong Villa when a noisy band of 20 men, mostly young, with a giant, brightly-painted phallus and musical instruments, arrived.

They looked uncertainly at us, we at them – an exchange of smiles started them playing their instruments and singing, their exuberance drawing out the guest house owner with a bowl of uncooked rice, some money and a bottle of lao-lao, the brain damage spirit made from rice.

We were in luck: this was part of the boun bang fai festival (see link). We were serenaded, given lao-lao rice spirit; we gave money; the phallus was anointed to bring fertility to the region, though from the size of it, it probably caused storms from Laos to Hong Kong.

The next day, M Phoumy arrived at 6am to take us on a day's trip along the Mekong – the only way to see the area is by boat and the better the boatman, the better the trip. And it is hard to imagine anyone better than M Phoumy.

We walked down to his boat and churned off into the pre-dawn darkness. The boat rounded a bend, as the light was creeping out of the east, and dozens of fishing boats spanned the river: the working day had begun.

The river started to take strange turns, except, of course, it was not the river but the part we were using between the islands: a detour here, a rapid there, through trees (picture above) growing from islands already submerged by the early rains and it felt like we were going through a waterlogged forest.

Eventually we came to a bridge. Build, arch after supporting arch, from brick in a European style. It was old, overgrown in places, but there were figures on it, crossing from one island to the next.

It was the old French railway bridge – the practical answer to the end of colonial dreams of navigating the Mekong from southern Vietnam to Laos's fabled places like Luang Prabang.

For the French had found that the mighty waterfalls of the Mekong could not be beaten. So they had built a 14 kilometre narrow-gauge railway across the islands of Don Det and Don Khon (not to be confused with Don Khong, some miles upstream) and run cargoes, sometimes whole boats, on flattop wagons from below the falls to above the falls, and, of course, vice versa.

There are no rails there now, not that we saw, but the rotting train is still to be admired where it stopped for the last time after the second world war and, amazingly, its driver still lives nearby (see On The Road: Si Phan Don).

And you can walk the line, stay on the islands, ease yourself into local life which tends to be at its most active when there is daylight – there is no electricity yet.

Don Khon has a good pattern of footpaths, through the fields used to grow coconuts, bamboo and kapok, past jungle patches with wild mangoes and more exotic trees, leading to coves where you see fishermen with their Mekong harvest of 2ft-long fish.

Not far from Ban Khon, the island's village, are the raging rapids of Taat Somphamit. There, you can sit in a little platform bar hanging over the falls, sipping soft drinks – or, more fun and certainly more refreshing, try the the milk from a young coconut before scooping out the thin, tender flesh with a spoon.

Don Khon is also the setting off point to see the Irrawaddy dolphins, which swim in the Mekong between the Laos and Cambodian banks just before the river disappears into Cambodia.

A tiny fishing boat took us out to a small rock island in the middle of the river, perhaps half an hour down stream, where we sat watching the dolphins while they leapt above the water an eco-friendly half-mile away (see On The Road: Si Phan Don).

The dolphins are endangered – some say they will have disappeared from the Mekong by 2010 – after extensive killing by Cambodians, especially the Khmer Rouge, and the accidental killing of them with bomb fishing and in small-mesh nets.

The big sight at that end of the Mekong is Khon Phapheng Falls, part of 13km of rapids that defeated the French, which have more water flowing over them that the Victorian Falls.

You can get there on Route 13 but it is more fun to take a boat to Ban Thakho and a songthaew over a rollercoaster unmade road to Route 13 and then a dash the last kilometres south to the falls.

There, you can see the falls from a new wooden platform – or you can be adventurous, as we were, and climb down to a more intimate vantage point.

It is there that you will recognise the rocks and the view of the falls because every poster photograph of the falls shows this angle. Just the place for your 'I was there' snap.

But, while you are enjoying the view, take a look round ... there are fishermen using nets off the bare rocks for a catch in the turbulent waters beneath, a sure death for anyone who fell in.

In this strange and compelling land, life and death are often separated by the merest whisper of a chance.


On The Road: Si Phan Don


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