Monday, 2 February 2015

Don Det, 4000 Islands – in search of Irrawaddy dolphins

Walking to the ferry dock for our trip out to Don Det
4000 Islands
Located in the very south of Laos, right on the Cambodian border, this is a piece of paradise, all the frustrations of Thakhek and Pakse forgiven! It is worth a trip to Laos just to come here, little tropical islands set in amongst the wide meandering Mekong River, it’s a world away from hustle and bustle.

Don Det and Don Khone are two islands connected by an old French railway bridge, set in amongst small largely uninhabited islands that are covered with tropical trees and undergrowth. 

On the ferry boat
Views of the islands on the way
The Mekong River meanders by beneath a clear blue tropical sky, looking quite clean and healthy with the odd fish breaking the surface and fishermen in longtail boats casting their nets. In town nothing is hurried, there are no roads, just narrow dirt tracks with the odd moped and tourists on cycles chugging by and the many bars and restaurants are positioned along the waters edge with mats to lie on and chill in the afternoon sun. Nobody rushes here, dinner can take an hour from ordering, even a beer order can be 10 minutes or so, but everyone is relaxed and laid back and it all works at its own comfortable pace.

The view from the balcony of our first guesthouse
Even teddy got a view!
We chose Don Det island as its a bit cheaper than its slightly more upmarket neighbour and we were a little concerned as it has a reputation as a bit of a party island, but like Vang Vieng, it has cleaned up its act a bit and it’s really very pleasant. It is also noticeably very quiet and most bars and restaurants are virtually empty, despite this supposedly being high season. Even for us it’s quiet, but at least it means there's no loud music until the early hours!

Jackie's happy as it's full of the friendliest cats in Laos
The journey Pakse to Don Det:
To get here we had a pleasant journey on a newish minivan that wasn't overloaded and, what's more I could find nothing wrong with it, tyres OK, lights worked, windscreen not cracked, wow! After 2.5 hours we were out for a short walk to the rivers edge, a walk over the beach (those wheeled suitcases don't work well on sand!) to a wooden platform that served as a dock and onto a narrow long tailed boat for our 10 minute trip to the island. It was a little bit longer as a twenty something girl passenger said they hadn't loaded her luggage, she could see it on the wooden platform she said in a panicked voice, so the driver turned round and headed back, but as she stood up and looked at the luggage on the boat she said "oh no, sorry, it’s here!"

I think we're going to like it here!
More kittens
As the boat approached the island he headed for a small beach with some wooden planks leading up to the small town with bars overlooking. He cut the engine and we coasted in, beaching the front of the boat on the sand. No one could get off until the lad in front moved and he didn't think we were there, so moments passed until someone said "We're here!" Over the edge into knee deep water (we managed to jump off the front and avoided getting wet), grab the rucksack and head up the beach, only to bump into Ian and Franzi, that's the couple we've met in Vang Vieng, Vientiane and Pakse. We'd booked into the Baba guesthouse, 2 minutes walk away, modern place, fabulous river view, balcony with table and chairs, big room, all very nice but no air conditioning, at $25 per night. Ian and Franzi had booked into Johnnys guesthouse, with air con at $20, but no river view.

More islands
The is the old French railway bridge
We were happy with ours, it really felt nice with a great view and we'd booked for two nights. We'll see after that we thought. However, the night, for me was a bit too hot with just a fan, so after our two nights we switched to Johnnies and had Ian and Franzi as our neighbours for a night.

Don Khone waterfall/rapids
What a way to earn a living as a fisherman!
So this is really a chilling out place and there are a number of 'cool people' here and a number of hang out joints where they sell 'happy food' and 'happy drinks' (we haven't tried any), but its not too overt and most people are normal, like us (!). As a result we've chilled out. From about 11:00am its really too hot to do anything energetic other than stuff in the water, so ambling around, sitting, reading, drinking in bars is the norm, reserving anything energetic for first thing in the morning when its a cooler temperature. Evening sunsets are something special, as are sunrises. I saw one this morning on a run round the island, about 8km. Out at 6:00am, before sunrise and most people, it was fabulous, running along the old railway track through dried out rice paddy fields, to the French bridge and back along the other side of the island, watching the sun appear, to find Jackie still in bed (it was still before 7am).

An old map of Don Det and Don Khone islands showing the old French railway track and bridge, also showing rapids at every branch of the Mekong
One of the old steam locomotives from the old railway
A bit of history:
We hired a couple of bikes on our second day and cycled over the bridge, onto Don Khone and to a waterfall. Very picturesque and quite a surprise in this otherwise flat area. It turns out the many branches of the Mekong all go over waterfalls, or large rapids at this point, making it impassable to shipping. In fact, that's the reason there used to be a railway on the two islands, it was built by the French in 1893 as they were desperate to find a route through their Indochina colony from the South China Sea to the lucrative Chinese markets. 
The British controlled the shipping lanes, so the Mekong was their only option, but much of it was controlled by Siam. After sending gunboats up the river to Bangkok, Siam eventually signed a treaty marking the Mekong as the border between Laos and Siam, but the big barrier were the rapids on the Mekong in this area. After trying many times to sail up the rapids but failing, they eventually built the railway to transport specially built ships that could be taken apart, shipped by rail past the rapids and reassembled upstream to continue the journey. An ingenious solution! The railway was expanded over subsequent years to meet a growing commercial demand, but with construction of a road in 1937 from Saigon to Luang Prabang its use declined. The Japanese used it during the Second World War, but after they left it fell into disuse to be retaken by the jungle and the track taken up and used for other things.

Sunrise from the balcony of our first guesthouse (06:30am)
The raft from Vientiane chugs towards the beach landing
Rafting trip anyone?
The next day we were sitting in a bar overlooking the beach landing area when a home made raft appeared with three lads onboard. They beached it then effected a sign to say 'raft for sale'. Apparently they built it for 16,000,000kip (£1,333), sailed it from Vientiane and were now trying to sell it for 10,000,000kip. However the fact that they could go no further downstream because of the rapids may be a disincentive to buy, although it did have a new long tailed engine, so it would be possible to motor back upstream, but with a much greater use of fuel. It looked a great life though, three garden recliners for beds (saw no mosquito nets though), half an oil drum and grill for a BBQ and a cover on an ‘A’ frame for protection from rain/sun. One of them lit the BBQ on the beach and proceeded to fry and then roast a whole chicken, covering it with a metal washing up bowl.

Sitting on the balcony of our second guesthouse. No river view, but still very nice
There are also lots of little puppies on the island eager to play
Irrawaddy Dolphins:
We spent one of the best £8 ever yesterday, two bikes to get across to Don Khone again and cycled down to the beach where you can hire a longtail boat to take you out to see the rare Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins, I was slightly nervous about hundreds of boats hounding the dolphins but the 6 boats were very good, turned off the engine and paddled a little bit, except for ‘locals’ getting from A-B who just whizzed through the area regardless! The dolphins live in small isolated groups around Asia and Australia and are very threatened, so I had been very dubious about the chance of seeing anything. Ian and Franzi however had so we had to give it a go. It was a lovely boat ride in itself down some interesting small rapids through beautiful scenery to where a bigger raft was waiting, so we stopped and within a very short time spotted our first dolphin. 

Saw lots of these sunsets, but particularly liked this one. I call it 'art'!
The ferry landing where everyone arrives and departs
You could hear them almost before you could see them, as they puffed out so you knew where to look. It is impossible to know how many we saw, but two or three at a time over and over again absolutely fabulous. Having decided we’d had enough we turned round to head back only to come across another group of three or so which we had all to ourselves and much closer as they passed by! 

except when the water buffalos want to use it
Off again and we were hailed by a couple of fisherman, I assumed they were pointing more dolphins out, but no, they wanted us to take a huge, 3’ at least fish from them back to the shore (not sure why, but there was plenty of space, though it had a bit of a whiff). Continued back to the beach as the sun was setting, absolutely beautiful! There may be no pictures of this as B had meant to charge the camera battery all day and forgotten, we’d actually got as far as cycling off when he remembered so we dashed back and gave it a quick 5 minute blast, most of which went on taking pictures of water where dolphins had just been, as is usual when trying to photograph wildlife!

This is 'Tiger' the resident cat at Johnnies guesthouse restaurant wanting to be the centre of attention! He's very friendly and very happy to sit on Jackie's lap!
Waiting for our dolphin spotting boat with a coconut
We got back onto dry land  and went to collect our bikes which looked remarkably like all the other bikes, only to find B's there, and mine not, so what to do? Assume it's an innocent mistake and that every person came on a bike and will go home on a bike, so picked the nearest (although it was blue and not red) assuming it would all come out in the wash! Got to the French Bridge where many had gathered to look at the red sky, and there was a bloke on my bike, so did a swap and left him with the problem, all he knew was his bike was red not blue, but hey, glad to make it somebody elses problem!

Walking to the dolphin spotting boats
Heading out
So our last day on the island before another border crossing into Cambodia, which just seems much less organised than the one into Laos, I’m sure it will be fine, but we have decided to stay in Stung Treng the first local town, where we would have to change buses anyway, to avoid any untoward stress and give us the chance to face a 4 hour public Cambodian bus ‘fresh’ the next morning!

River scenes on the way
Yes, I know it could be anything, but that's an Irrawaddy dolphin!
This was the best photo I got. Not very good I agree, but you can at least see there are two and you can see a fin!
This apparently is what they look like. It's a photo of one of their promotion posters. Cute aren't they
And this was the fish that we took back in our boat. A good 1m (3 feet) long and very heavy!

1 comment:

  1. Great entry. You have really enthused me about the place. It sounds fantastic and looks lovely. Kitty cats and puppy dogs all help too! How strange that you keep bumping into people you have met before? Or is that more normal than you might think I suppose - everyone in a particular part of the world is going to head for the sights I guess. Have fun. Jealous as it is still really cold here. brrrr! lots of love Helen xx