Our third full day in Pakse included a day-trip to the 4000 Islands on the Mekong, one of Lao’s most beautiful natural treasures. To remind you, our first day we went trekking in the Bolaven Plateau and the second we explored Pakse Market.
The 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don) is a riverine archipelago located in the Mekong River, Champasak Province in southern Laos. It is characterised by numerous islands, half of which are submerged when the Mekong River is in flood.
Our own best photos will follow but for now open this link for some amazing photos in the public domain.
We booked our trip with Pakse Travel. We were picked up by minibus from our hotel at 8.15AM. We were the last onboard, so we got the worst seats. Alf was next to the driver on a seat above the gearbox and Marilyn was behind in the centre seat with two colorful characters on either side; the first was in his thirties with orange coloured dreadlocks that were half tied in an elastic band and the rest hanging around his face in some untidy fashion and tinny headphones that resonated a thumping noise that did not resemble music in neither sound nor form; the second didn’t stop eating an assortment of strong-smelling food and he was obviously straight out of bed, in the same clothes too probably! Apart from us, everybody was clearly backpacking and the majority looked like gap-year students; there were eleven people in the minibus in total. The travel market in Pakse only opened up in 2000 and there’s very little choice. If we wanted a customized trip, we were offered our own private tuk-tuk, an extremely uncomfortable form of travel; we settled for the shared mini-bus for the two-hour journey to 4000 Islands. But Alf was pleased when the driver announced a ten minute comfort stop!
We then continued on to our destination, along the way dropping a few people off at very remote beauty spots, including Marilyn’s unwashed travelling companion, wondering what they were going to be doing there.
Once we reached our destination, we were all transferred to a motorized longboat.We were now down to seven. As soon as the boat journey started, we realized that this was very special. The views in all directions were truly spectacular, a photographer’s dream. It immediately reminded us of Inle Lake in Myanmar (Burma). The views of fishermen, small islands and boats with the sun backlighting them were delightful. After about a half an hour, we dropped ‘dreadlocks’ with his heavy backpack on one of the islands. We chose a one-day trip but multi-day trips are popular with accommodation in guest houses or homestays on these beautiful small islands.
After another fifteen minutes, we said goodbye to our fellow travellers and disembarked onto one of the larger islands. We were met by our tuk-tuk driver for our three hours on the island. The tuk-tuk was a motorbike and pylon where we both squeezed in. We set off on this beautiful but bumpy ride to the other side of the island, making for the nearest landmass to Cambodia. In the waters between Cambodia and Laos, there are the very famous Irrawaddy dolphins (very rare freshwater dolphins). The chance of seeing the dolphins was one of the highlights for us, as they are now an endangered species.
Anyway, the trip across the island was quite magical. It was so, so beautiful with tiny farming villages and people waving and smiling at us – we must have looked pretty unusual to them, trying to hold our large hats on our head with one hand and stay in the bumping tuk-tuk with the other. Eventually, we reached a small fishing port and were transferred to our own motorized longboat.
The boatman looked quite elderly but with typical features of an eastern fisherman he also had amazingly sharp eyesight. We headed off for about ten minutes, keeping to the Laos side of the waterway. We had been told that if we followed the fish to the Cambodian side, we’d need to pay a small supplement. The boatman took us to a favorite spot and cut his engines. Fortunately, there was a canopy above us protecting us from the worst of the fierce sun. We felt like we were stewing in our own perspiration. Suddenly, the boatman pointed, exclaiming excitedly in Lao and in English ‘looky looky’ and we had our first glimpse of the dolphins. We were lucky to have about a twelve sightings in all. But the dolphins are only on the surface for seconds and so we needed to be really fast on the camera trigger – it’s completely different to whale watching, for example.
After about an hour of viewing dolphins and admiring the breathtaking views, we back tracked, returned to port and found our driver, ‘Cy’ and his tuk-tuk for the remainder of our journey on the island in reverse and over the bumpy and dusty tracks we travelled once again and all the while in the tropical sun. On our way back, we made two detours to see a spectacular waterfall and a steam engine that was used in French colonial times in Laos.
We then headed back to port, for want of a better word, and waited here for our boat transport back to the village where we would meet our minibus.
We were eventually picked up by another boat and we recognized the rest of the group from our minibus. Immediately we were asked about the dolphins. Again we marveled at the scenery but were soon disembarking and rejoining our mini-bus. The journey back to Pakse was less crowded as some of the others were spending time on the islands. Most of the young passengers were sound asleep in seconds – of course, we stayed awake!
Our visit to the 4000 islands on the Mekong will always be a treasured and breathtaking memory.