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Islands of the Mekong

LAOS | Sunday, 18 October 2009 | Views [4389] | Comments [2]

A small section of Li Phi Falls.

A small section of Li Phi Falls.

Southern Laos used to be one of the backwaters of South East Asia and rarely visited by travelers. For me it was one of the few places in the region I hadn't been too but I’d seen pictures at a lecture some years ago of the rapids on the Mekong that looked well worth exploring, so I made a point of going there this time around.

Travel in Laos and Cambodia has changed a lot since I last visited these countries in the mid nineties. Road travel in both countries was still considered quite dangerous and you could only travel to certain ‘safe’ places. In Laos I traveled around by air. Not only is all that ancient history but the growth of transport links is way ahead of what is described in the guidebooks. It’s now possible to travel all over the region by VIP long distance buses and routes and border crossings that would have seen fanciful in the past are now wide open. It helps that many counties allow visas to be bought at border crossings allowing travelers to be more flexible.

I crossed from Ubon in Thailand to Paske in Laos buying a visa at the border (fees vary according to nationality). Of course as Laos was once part of the French Empire one of the first things I saw as a woman selling baguettes. From Paske I took a songthaew (a big pickup converted into a bus) to the town of Champasak. This involves crossing the Mekong on a ferry which was made of three boats nailed together with bits of wood. In Champasak there are various guesthouses and a new boutique hotel – the ‘Inthina Hotel’ (rooms $50 a night). Champasak is a small agricultural town, the reason to go there are the ruins of Wat Phou, which is a Khmer temple built before Ankor Wat. It is much smaller of course but it is very atmospheric as you climb a grand staircase up to a sanctuary built beneath a cliff face. There is also a very good museum, with some of the finer stone sculptures on display. Another pleasure is getting to the Wat, the 8 km cycle through the countryside with its backdrop of forest covered hills.

There are now well established mini bus links for travelers between Pakse and the Cambodian border and I took one down to Ban Nakasang, the main ‘port’ for the Mekong Islands.

At the most southern point of Laos the Mekong broadens out and splits up into what are known as ‘The 4000 islands’. Don Muang is the largest and the most developed but the two that attract the most visitors are Don Deth and Don Khone. Both these islands are now firmly on the backpacker itinerary and have both seen a lot of development.

Don Deth has the most guesthouses which stretch from its northern tip almost all the way around is shoreline to the south. Most of these have bungalows with either shared or en suite bathrooms and you pay for the comfort levels. In the cheaper places the water comes from the Mekong with squat toilets, some have fans. Very few places have 24 hour electricity and most places run generators from 1800 to 2200. Prices for rooms go from $2 to $12 per night depending on the amount of comfort. This may all change soon, as the islands have been wired up for mains power and there was talk of it arriving in the next month or so and this will probably lead to more facilities and higher prices. Don Deth is where most people stay and it the northern tip is the party place. A few places have slow and pricy internet connections. (I’m writing this in Pakse).

Don Khone is the larger island but is much less developed. The two islands are connected by a bridge built by the French in the 1920’s for a railway line the remains of which run across both islands. This was built to by pass the rapids and most of the guest houses and restaurants cluster around the bridge at the northern end. This is where I stayed as it’s quieter and more laid back than Don Deth.

Most guesthouses rent out bikes although the islands are small enough to explore on foot. Don Deth is very rural, mainly paddy fields, the homes of the local people are scattered amongst the guesthouses. Most of Don Khone is forested with only the northern tip cultivated and most of the population live in villages at the north and south of the island. One way to see a cross section of the islands is to walk or cycle the railway line.

Located at the north west edge of Don Khone is what I had really come to see, the Li Phi Falls. Falls doesn’t really describe them, they are more like grand rapids and although there is a good viewpoint they actually extend far further than you can see. They are impressive. On the other side of the island are more rapids, which are even bigger but few people make the trip out to see them as they are much less accessible and difficult to see. Here local fishermen have built massive fish traps where tons of fish are caught when the river reverses it flow in June and July. If you’re really keen (like me) you can take a trip out to the Khong Phapheng Falls downriver which are even bigger.

The islands are one of those places where people just keep on extending their stay, they’re great places to hang out. Moving on is pretty easy too, most guesthouses and restaurants sell bus tickets, and from here you can get a bus to anywhere in Laos south of Vientiane, to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (one and half days away) in Cambodia and even Bangkok. So if you are traveling in this region make time to see the Mekong islands, it’s worth the effort.

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Tags: borders, islands, laos, rivers, temples, travellers places, visas, waterfalls




Hey will,

We liked your story and decided to feature it this week so that others can enjoy it too.

Happy Travels!

World Nomads

  World Nomads Oct 19, 2009 10:34 AM


As a follow up to this post, there is a very interesting article about the 4000 islands area in the January 2010 edition of ‘Geographical’ magazine, written by Melody Kemp. It’s about plans by the Lao Government to build a dam in one of the main channels of the Mekong. The environmental and social impact assessment admits that the dam will kill off the remaining dolphins as well as blocking the main channel for migrating fish; as they travel by instinct they will continue to use the channel and will be killed in huge numbers by the turbines and this will be equally devastating for the local fishermen. With the type of government the Lao have, there is no discussion allowed and little chance it will be stopped.

And the reason they want to build the dam? To provide electricity to help develop tourism.

  Will Jan 29, 2010 8:30 PM



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