Years ago, I went backpacking around South East Asia. I skipped Laos however, as it was expensive to travel to the country and within – at least compared to the other countries in the region. This is because cheap airlines like Air Asia are not allowed to operate in the country – you had to take Air Laos. Because of this, tourism in Laos has developed at a slower pace than it did in the other ASEAN countries – and that’s a good thing.
In 2011, the BBC released Human Planet. In episode seven, “Rivers – Friend and Foe”, there was a segment about fishmen traversing the cataracts of the Mekong that flow through Si Phan Don during the monsoon floods. Because the segment made such an impression on us and because I felt I “missed out” on Laos the last time, we decided to travel to Laos that year.
The highlight of Si Phan Don are the Khone Phapheng Falls. These falls are located near the border Laos shares with Cambodia and are often seen in photographs as thousands of foaming rapids – the result of the Mekong river flowing with great pressure during the Monsoon season through the many islands and waterways of the area.
Outside the monsoon season, the Mekong and its banks are truly serene and beautiful in this region. Here, it feels like time has stopped. This is not to say that Laos has not undergone tremendous development in the last few years – only that this particular area continues to preserve and maintain the way of life even as modernisation and big city living came to cities like Luang Prabang and Vientiene in the north.
Here in the south, people still live relatively simply. The houses we passed all had little vegetable gardens and the men went fishing year round, even during the Monsoon season when the river is really dangerous to navigate, in order to feed their families. The only commercial establishments I noticed were the lodges and the one or two minimarts selling snacks and mosquito repellent, mostly to tourists. I really enjoyed the meals we had here as they were so good. This is because they were made from vegetables grown by local farmers and freshly caught river fish.
I’m wary of romanticising poverty though – the Laotians who live around Si Phan Don live lives that remind us outsiders of more pastorial times because they are poor, most living under $1 a day. The fishermen do dangerous work every day just so they can eat. They send their children to school in the hopes that education will bring them an easier future. I think it is important for me to remember this and not over-romanticise what I saw.
Laotians do have a great appreciation and awareness of their environment however, and you can see this in how clean the landscape is. Unlike some other South East Asian countries, the countryside is not littered with plastic bags and strewn with garbage.
While visiting the 4000 islands, we stayed on the Done Khon island in the Sala Done Khone lodge. Done Khon is a lovely little village. I’m not sure about the number of inhabitants, but it wasn’t much. Sala Done Khone itself wasn’t very large, it only had a small handful of rooms and while we were there, it was just us and two Dutch women. It felt like we had the entire place to ourselves sometimes! The village itself was very lovely to walk in. My father is from Kuching in Sarawak, and it reminded me of how some of the villages there were like. A lot of these people live in houses that seem very poor to me now, but I recall staying in similar homes when I was very young, when we visited family in Kuching. Times have changed though, and it won’t be long before the inhabitants here experience more development or – more likely – simply leave for the richer north.
One activity I would highly recommend is to go on a river cruise at sunset. We got on a little motor boat, just three of us and the skipper, and traversed the calm waters of the Mekong for over an hour. The area is so rich with life – we saw lots of fish swimming in the water underneath us and heard the calls of many different birds. We were also on the look out for the famous and endangered Irrawaddy dolphin – but sadly we did not see the telltale fin slicing through the waters around us.
After the cruise, we chilled on the riverside terrace belonging to our villa. It had an adjoining kitche where we ordered dinner. It was absolutely lovely, chilling by the river as the last rays of the sun fell below the horizon, tucking into freshly grilled fish and soup flavoured with lemongrass.