The 4000 Islands in southern Laos, low lying sandy clumps in the Mekong River, are famous for their easy-going pace, banana pancakes, afternoons in hammocks, dolphin-spotting opportunities, wide-sky sunsets, and raucous parties.
I’ve cycled over traces of the old French railway tracks through mango and teak forests, walked the slow loop of sandy trails wriggling through the islands’ small communities, and flitted about from one vestige of French power to another, to bar, to café, and guesthouse many times. I’d never considered taking to the water, though, until now.
The Mekong River can look formidable at times – a fast-flowing wide milk chocolate brown river cut with rocky islands and drowned trees. But a kayaking trip sounded exciting, and with a chance to spot the area’s rare Irrawaddy dolphins, too, I eagerly signed up.
Green Paradise’s kayaking expedition wisely includes free breakfast for its mainly land-lubber clientele. After fuelling up with baguette, egg, and thick Lao coffee at a restaurant on Don Det island, we grabbed life jackets and tucked into our kayaks. Hoping to halve the work of paddling, I jumped into a kayak with our guide, Mr. Sam.
Patient Mr. Sam spent a good deal of time barking ‘right, right’ as our crew of 21 – Brits, Australians, Dutch, French, and Hungarians – took to the water like ducks, I mean clumsy humans, grappling with kayak balance, water flow, and huge thickets of vegetation that reared up unexpectedly.
Our first destination was downstream at Don Khone Island’s Pa Soi rapids. Early on we temporarily lost part of the group, one kayak team fell into the river, and one kayak got sucked into a cluster of bushes and became entangled. The heat was unforgiving but we giggled at these mishaps and continued on our journey navigating clumps of trees and mini islands. We parked up just before Pa Soi rapids and walked over a bridge to look at the frothing water below.
The kayaks had been moved beyond Pa Soi Falls to a safe spot; we boarded them again for a journey to the bottom of Khone Island. At Hang Khone village, at the tip of Khone Island, we packed into a longtail boat to head upstream in search of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. We clambered up the sandy hill of a large island and looked across the stream of the fast-flowing river. The dolphins, their wet skin glistening in the sun, surfaced and ducked as they searched for fish in the food-rich pools. It was thrilling to catch a glimpse of these rare mammals. The WWF reports there’s been a slight increase in their numbers in the Mekong in Cambodia from 80 in 2015 to 92 in 2017 but not in Laos. In the Lao Mekong, there are just three. While munching on a lunch of baguette, chicken, and fried rice we saw all three of them about 30 to 40 times – all fins, snouts, sleek metal-grey bodies gleaming in the strong sun.
Back at Khone Island we fetched our kayaks and headed out downriver to a pickup point on the mainland at Ban Veunkham. The sun was crippling but, like a miracle, there on the riverbank at Ban Veunkham was a stall with a packed icebox. We cleaned it out of Beerlao and Coke before boarding a truck to visit the mother of all waterfalls – the kilometers-wide Khone Phapheng Falls.
At first sight, you can see why it defeated French colonial explorers. It’s a seething, frothing mass of thundering water swirling over sturdy boulders as it fights to enter Cambodia and the lower Mekong. The French found themselves in these parts when they were shoring up claims to the river and their Indochina colonies. The French needed to move gunboats into position to defend new territorial claims but navigating past the raging Khone Phapheng Falls – with its 21-meter drop – had defeated French minds. They built a railway across Khone Island, directly west of the Phapheng Falls, so two gunboats could be hauled across it; the railway infrastructure (some of which we saw at Hang Khone village) was later adapted for commercial traffic with steamboats on the river thrown into the mix. When roads were built in the 1930s the railway fell into disuse. Today, rusty locomotives stand abandoned at the edge of paddy fields, the last tangible remnants of island railway traffic.
After ice cream – more energy – we boarded our kayaks at Nakasang village to paddle downstream and back to Don Det Island. As the rose-pink sun began to set, the light was beautiful, the water appeared like silk, clumps of greenery took on a velvet glow, and fishermen were pootling about in pirogues.
Of course, after so much exercise, we replenished our muscles with more sundowner Beerlao as soon as we clambered back on to dry land!
Lao Airlines has daily flights to Pakse from Vientiane, Luang Prabang,
and Bangkok. The 4000 Islands are 3 hours south of Pakse by road.
Originally published in Champa Meuanglao Magazine.
Text BY Claire Boobbyer
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Swisscontact / Bart Verweij / Phoonsab Thevongsa