Given it is the rainy season in Laos, it is low travel season. To be fair this has generally worked to our advantage as things aren’t too booked up (although you have to watch out for the converse that sometimes trips or buses won’t run if there are not enough punters), discounts can be more easily negotiated and places are not too crowded. But don’t get me wrong, we are following a pretty well-beaten tourist trail and there are still quite a number of foreigners around (and some places such as Vang Vieng are magnets for surprisingly large numbers of Korean tourists following in the footsteps of one of their beloved K pop stars who visited earlier).
But then we arrived in Si Phan Don – the name translates as 4,000 islands (there are more islands in the dry season before the level of the mighty Mekong River begins to rise). We opted to stay on the largest of the islands, Don Khong, and although there were other tourists on our minibus heading to the islands from Pakse, we were the only people who were dropped somewhat randomly at the roadside near a sign pointing towards the river saying Don Khong.
We knew we needed to take a ferry to the island and had carefully checked our ticket price covered both the cost of the minibus as well as the ferry. What we hadn’t banked on was the leg in between these two – the 1 km journey which was undertaken one by one riding pillion on the ferryman’s motorbike each with our big rucsacs on our backs and our daypacks on our fronts between us and the driver. Despite being a pretty bumpy road, fortunately we both got there ok although at one point I did feel as though my big pack was going to slip slightly which would have unbalanced us.
On arrival on the island, we checked in and discovered we were the only guests in the hotel (a rather charming 100 year old French colonial holiday home) and as we wandered round the little village of Muang Khong, we saw no other tourists at all despite there being at least 10 to 15 guesthouses and hotels and a handful or more of restaurants (many linked to the guest houses). But this was perfect and suited us as we’d come to the islands for some downtime after a few days on the bounce when we had been moving by bus every day in varying levels of comfort (to be fair, all much better journeys than our nightmare one from Luang Namtha to Phonsavan (see Blog post “A L-O-C-A-L B-U-S” dated 28 June 2018). Not only did the hotel have a generous sized and beautifully clean swimming pool but of course we had this entirely to ourselves. No sharing required: result. And the weather (so far) is behaving: 2 of our sunnier and clearer days in Laos to date although on our first night at dinner, we were able to watch a lightening show taking place on another island while we sat as dry as a bone. Maybe the “Si” in Si Phan Don can deliberately be mispronounced as a deep relaxing sigh as this is a pretty stress free place.
Today we hired some bicycles and went off exploring the island. As I said above: this is the largest of the 4,000 islands (18 km x 8 km) with 2 main villages and is home to a population of around 60,000 people. There are cars and motorbikes and it’s even got a bridge connecting it with the mainland so this is not some sort of tropical sandy Robinson Crusoe remote type of island but for us, an opportunity to see close up some rather picturesque rural scenes (at this time of year there is a lot of rice planting activity going on and everything is very green and lush).
Don Khong was as flat a pancake to cycle around and we covered over 30 km leisurely in a few hours. Actually if you take into account that you have to zig zag so much when cycling in order to avoid all the huge pot holes in the roads, you can probably add a few more clicks to that total!
And all done with a chorus of “sabaidee” (“hello”) ringing in our ears. It’s such a beautiful sound as people almost sing it (rather than say it) and it is almost always accompanied by a friendly wave and/or a big smile. Let’s just say our progress round the island did not go unnoticed but still (just like Daffyd Thomas from Little Britain), we were the only gays (sorry I mean, foreigners) in the village in this low season.