In the very south of Laos, close to the Cambodian border, the enormous bed of the Mekong River widens, flooding several kilometres square of land. So many islands stud the waters that the place has been called “Si Phan Don” in Lao – “4,000 Islands”. When you find yourself in the middle, it is impossible to spot the banks of the Mekong; as far as you can see, only islands, trees and bamboo… Some of these islands are no more than a bump of soil and a few trees emerging, others are large enough to be covered in villages and rice paddies.
I arrived on Don Det – one of the main islands of Si Phan Don – only two days ago, but the place is not really what I expected. A famous backpacker spot, Si Phan Don is the perfect place to relax – if you don’t care about being in the middle of the tourist crowd. The village on Don Det is nothing but a succession of guesthouses, restaurants, Internet cafés and bars. There are so many of them that even with a massive flow of tourists, supply exceeds demand and many are for sale… To access Don Khon (Don Det’s sister island), you even have to pay a fee…
After experiencing the magnificent sunset over the islands – one of the few pleasures of the place, I grab a meal in a cheap Indian restaurant and decide I’ll leave the place the day after. I need something more quiet, and I know where I’ll find it.
Far away from the crazy tourist stream…
The next day, I am all set to go in the early morning. My goal is Don Kho, a small Mekong island 80km further north. I get on a boat to leave Si Phan Don and alight on Nakasong’s small pier, along the banks of the Mekong. From there, I manage to catch a van which drives me to Pakse, a small laid back town. Roads are in very good shape in Laos, and it is a quick 70km trip. Once in Pakse, I need to get to the East Market to grab a local taxi. The shared 8km ride between the city and Ban Saphai is also a quick one, if somewhat crushed alongside fruits, meat and people coming back from the famous and colourful market. The island is in sight now, just in the middle of the river. I land at last on Don Kho, after a 5 minute taxi boat jump – but I get fleeced by the boat driver who charges me almost 20 times what a local would have paid…
Don Kho is exactly what I was looking for. This small island is stretched out in the middle of the Mekong River. A small community of 400 inhabitants are settled in a few houses, mainly gathered along the north east shore, surviving on fishing and cultivating rice and vegetables, or selling the exquisite “Don Kho’s silk sarongs” at the Pakse Market. There is no electricity, no running water, no restaurant and no guest house. The only way to stay there is to get invited to one of the people’s houses and pay them a few Kip for sleeping and food. Some families indeed offer accommodation to welcome travellers and earn a few extra Kip.
Don Kho – a deep dive into Lao life
The houses of Don Kho stretch along a riverside dirt path, facing the water. They are built in a traditional way with dark wood, and settled on stilts. Under the house itself, between the stilts, a nice shady open area is used as a kitchen and a workshop. Fishing nets and silk weaving looms are mixed with pans and cooking devices. In the centre of the area, a bamboo platform provides a table, a seating place, or a sleeping bed for a nap… Hammocks are strapped between two stilts, and are widely used for siestas – at any time of day. A fire is permanently lit and a small closed room made of wood provides a bit of privacy as a toilet.
On the first floor, above the open space, the wooden house itself is composed simply of one big room separated into smaller spaces by a wardrobe or some curtains. Beds are dotted here and there under mosquito nets, and decoration is summarized in a few frames showing old wedding pictures. Two or three generations of the family often live in the same house, sharing a very simple life. There is no bathroom; the morning bath is taken communally, in the Mekong.
As I walk on the quiet path running along the bank, only a few noises come to my ears. It is 2pm, and I should really have a nap like almost all the people on the island. The heat is sweltering at this time, but despite this, an unhurried walk under the trees and the bamboos is pretty relaxing. The Mekong River runs on my left and I can see its grey waters slowly flowing between the foliage. In the calm, only the sounds of a random long tail boat sliding down the current, a woman quietly weaving silk on her loom or a few chickens are breaking the silence.
The path leads to a small temple. Several buildings square a courtyard, and a massive tree marks the very centre of the place. The temple is surprisingly gorgeous, mixed between classical Lao and French colonial architecture. As I am quietly venturing inside one of the old buildings, I catch a young monk working on making clay mouldings. I stay here, quietly watching him. He can’t be more than 10 years old, but he is already so nimble in his work… Crouching in his orange toga, he is creating mould castings in order to decorate a new frieze on some part of the temple.
In the late afternoon, I get invited to have a boat tour of the island. Mister Noy – a nice local guy I met on the island – takes me on his long tail boat to cruise around. Fishermen are busy getting food from the Mekong and kids are taking their evening bath…
Don Kho, a kind of retreat
Life is simple and quiet on Don Kho, and everyone knows everyone. It is a small community, living peacefully on a small piece of earth. At any time, you can step into anyone’s house, and always be welcomed with a drink and a tremendous meal made of fresh fish and vegetables from the garden. The concept of propriety doesn’t seem to be very tangible. A few days on the island are just enough to recharge your batteries from the beaten tracks of tourism, and make you experience just how simple and good life can be far from the hubbub of the cities we are so used to living in, in our cherished western world.