Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Four thousand islands destressing

There are borders that are rivers [Laos, Thailand] and there are borders that are mountain ranges [Laos, Vietnam] but, at the southernmost tip of Laos, the border with Cambodia is formed by a band of waterfalls. Across the falls and upriver from them is an array of islands, numbering up to 4,000 if you count the very smallest of them, amongst which the Mekhong laces its way. But, on reaching the falls, the river ceases to be useful as a waterway: to overcome this, the French colonial authorities built a railway [the only one completed in Laos] from a jetty on one island [Don Det] across that island, over an elegant bridge, across another island [Don Khon] to a jetty below the falls where goods could be loaded again for the route downriver to Saigon. The islands are quietly rural, growing rice, kapok, coconut palms, teak and hosting tourists [mainly backpackers] in stilted huts along the water's edge. Here they occupy hammocks and watch the river and its traffic while time slips by with the current's flow. It's a beguiling place, a little like Bali was 35 years ago but without that island's dramatic beauty of landscape and culture. Here the charm is in living among small-scale farmers, chickens, ducks and pigs underfoot, cows and water buffalo nearby, cycling along sandy paths, exploring the rural landscape and life and the relics of colonial history - and slowing down.

As backpacker hotspots go, this place is mild and inoffensive - no video bars showing The Simpsons, for example - and just a short walk from the landing beach on Don Det takes you past the thick of it and the places to stay become more spaced out until it's unsullied riverbank again. Later, as DonKhon and the railway bridge heave into view, a few more places to stay appear and then, on the next island, something like a road [what a shock!] and some more upmarket guesthouses. Most places are just $3 for a simple room, a hammock and a stunning view, but for two nights we splashed [ha!] out on a floating room on a bamboo raft - which sank perceptibly in the brief while we were there. Otherwise, the first and last places were similar in many ways but the last was in a quieter, prettier and more remote location.

Every paradise, in my experience, has its devil [packs of dogs and murderous undertow in Bali, I remember] but here the worst we've found so far was a Temple Fair that went on at deafening volume through all of one night just across the river. Whether or not this can count as 'reculer pour mieux sauter', the unwinding here has been good after the rigours [such as they were] of travel through Laos [and Vietnam]. It's also good to step back for a spell before facing the uneasy implications of entering a country just a few kilometres away that was for some years in the late 1970s the scene of the most widespread and brutal reign of genocidal terror that this area has ever seen. And the world rarely. The knowledge of that having happened so close at hand is perhaps one devil in this gentle, slow-paced, mellow paradise.


Blogger E said...

4000 islands paradise and living the local life sounds lovely! Here, the earth trembled the other night during a widely felt earthquake (5.2 on the Richter scale). And then a rather distressing experience, with a paranoid Earl's wife and police [!] yesterday. Now also in need of some destressing but no hammocks available and no rivers to watch either. Take care.

Thu Feb 28, 07:52:00 am GMT  
Blogger Tom said...

ve to you both from a very wet Norfolk. Keep on blogging - news of that part of the world is cheering
When are you back? Love Peter

Fri Feb 29, 02:37:00 pm GMT  

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