Having set the alarm for pre-dawn, I popped down to the river bank to watch the sun rise over the Mekong. It wasn't spectacular, as sunrises go, but it was worth a photo of two. Most amusing was watching the fishermen throw their nets out – one chap was a little too enthusiastic with his throwing, falling backwards out of the boat in the process.
Phet, last night's waiter, had pre-warned us about the monk procession this morning, another reason for getting up early. Not as many monks as in Luang Prabang, but better in many ways, as there wasn't another tourist in sight, just the locals gaining merit by getting up early to cook some rice for the dozen or so monks doing their daily rounds.
Parting company with our luggage outside the hotel on Khong Island, we set off in a long tailed speed boat to explore the 4000 Islands area. Much more comfortable than yesterday's dolphin-watching boat, this one had cushions and even seat backs, and the benches were raised much higher off the floor of the boat. Almost luxurious.
4000 Islands Area
Known as Si Phan Don in the Lao language, this is the widest point of the Mekong and during rainy season the river recedes, leaving behind 1000s of islands and islets, hence the name of 4000 Islands.
Initially, the islets we saw were mainly uninhabited, just little mounds of grass and a few trees, then a few more boats, fishermen, women doing laundry in the river, buffalo grazing, men repairing their vessels and monks' robes hanging out to dry (no more dirty habits for them then...) Later we passed one of the main backpacker islands in this area, Don Det, with the riverbank lined with rustic bungalows on stilts, lively bars and kayaking/tubing youngsters.
Our stop for the morning was the large island of Don Khone, another backpacker haven, where we were to rent bicycles for a tour of the major sites. Seeing the size of the bikes and the state of the track, I chickened out of cycling, and decided to travel on the back of Khien's motorbike instead. After a few minutes of bumping along the track I was jolly glad I did! David, being the braver of the two of us, decided to risk a pedal bike...
Known as the Corridor of the Devil, Liphi means bad spirit in Lao and refers to the fact that many dead bodies were found trapped in fishing nets here during the war, and locals believe bad spirits of dead are therefore trapped here. No-one will swim here for that reason. Legend also tells of a princess who went over Liphi Falls in a raft and was reincarnated as the river tern bird. These were probably the prettiest of all the waterfalls we've seen so far on this trip.
The French built a railway here in the 1930s to bypass the Khone Phapheng Falls for the vital supply link of cargo from Vietnam. Remains of the tracks can still be seen, as well one of the locomotives. Initially, the ferry was put on the tracks and pulled along by local workers before the arrival of engines.
Back on the boat again for some more exploring and returning to the mainland for lunch in a tourist restaurant on stilt overlooking the river. The menu looked impressive, but the chicken was off, so was the ginger, and the sweet and sour, and the 7-Up as well as Diet Coke – so basically whatever you ordered, you ended up with hot and spicy pork and Pepsi. Just as we were finishing off our food, a huge group of Thai tourists with matching black jackets and red baseball caps arrived in their double decker bus. Suddenly a variety of foods appeared from nowhere....
Mullet-cuisine lunch: it could be sweet and sour pork (which I ordered), or David's choice of chicken with ginger. Or you could have hot and spicy pork. Unless you were Thai....
The large and the small of it - our huge mini-bus (for the two of us, plus Khien, our guide) is dwarfed by the bus carrying the Thai tourists.
The roads here in the south are generally in a much better condition than those we drove along further north, and a couple of snoozes later, we arrived at another one of those 'sideways' ferries to transport us across the river yet again. This time there was only our vehicle on board, so we were able to get out and walk about.
A UNESCO Heritage Site, the name means Mountain Temple, and is an ancient Khmer ruin from the 7th to the 11th centuries, basically preceding Angkor Wat. Wat Phou was once the capital of the Khmer kingdom, which later moved to Angkor in Cambodia. The oldest historical site of worship in Laos, the temple is dedicated to Shiva, and Khien, David and I all made offerings and prayers to the Buddha before scaling the seven levels of the temple.
We missed a festival here by a few days, which Khien said was a good thing as the place is uncomfortably crowded during that time. Huge teams of workers were still busy clearing the rubbish. Obviously the Glastonbury of Laos.
Another boat trip across the Mekong to our hotel for the night, this time on a catamaran with a flat wooden deck suspended between the two boats, and a couple of chairs for tourists to sit and admire the view.
During the dry season, large expanses of sand are exposed here, making an enormous beach in front of the hotel. A small tractor with a trailer for tourists and luggage (affectionately known locally as the Chinese Buffalo) takes you from the riverside to the grand entrance of La Folie Lodge, a small luxury hotel on Don Daeng Island.
Wooden bungalows sit on stilt with large balconies overlooking the beach. Not a bad place to finish our Lao tour...
Sunset from the bar...