Saturday, May 4, 2013

Gone to the Beach - Don Khone

After a few days of "city living,"  I decided it was time to get off the beaten path and head to southern Lao. I talked to several tourists trying to decide if I would make the journey to central Laos to experience a 7km cave. I know I should not take other travelers opinions but I did. I had seen my share of caves in Laos and was ready for some island life. So, I bought my ticket to Pakse. I left Vientiane on the 8:00 PM sleeping bus. I was excited to see this bus never know what experience was ahead! It was an 11 hour journey to Paske. I had not made any hotel arrangements. I wanted to see if I was going to be able to handle another 3-4 few hours down to the islands or if I wanted to rest for a day before continuing south. I boarded the bus and found my bed. Yay! It was a flat bed with a pillow and blanket! Granted, I was going to be sharing this space with a stranger. Who was a flat bed! I look for the positive with overnight travel! I got comfortable and waited to meet my bunk mate. As long as they don't smell, I am fine! I got lucky and had a Russian guy that was really nice. The couple in the bed next to us were a Lao (woman)/Swiss (guy) couple with a lot of advise for Lao travel to the islands.  They were headed to 4000 Islands to buy riverfront property for $2000 USD (100 m x 50 m). He had been traveling for 18 months by bicycle and actually spent 6 months as a kayak guide in the islands. It was interesting listening to his suggestions and stories about Laos and China business that is ongoing in the country. My bunkmate was actually traveling on business and was looking for Lao exports to Russia. We all sat and shared travel stories, experiences and talked politics as the Russian shared his food. He came prepared with croissants, cheese, crackers, fruit, cookies and milk! A great picnic. The conversation and company was fun. Another example of what I love about traveling! The conversations and experiences don't happen at home. I smiled as I got comfortable and told my bunkmate he could hit, kick or push me over if I try to snuggle or steal his blanket or pillow. He assured me that he had no problem putting me in my place. I put on my headphones and fell asleep. I awoke at 5:30 AM to the sound of honking. I sat up and noticed it was a herd of water buffalo crossing the road. This continued for the next hour as all the farm animals seemed to be wandering across the highway. Definitely more laid back than water buffalo crossing the streets!

Since I had slept well, I decided to continue on to Si Phan Done (4000 Islands).  As I said my goodbyes to my sleeping buddies, I found a bus that was headed towards the islands in an hour. I bought a ticket, loaded my bag and waited. My Lonely Planet guide book described 4000 Islands as the land where the "pendulum swings more slowly and life is more laid back, a world disconnected with the mainland." I was excited to see how life in Laos could get any more laid back and I was ready to explore some islands. These islands are on a 50 km stretch of the Mekong River in southern  Laos. You can see Cambodia from one island. During the rainy season, this stretch of the Mekong River reaches 14 km wide, the widest stretch before arriving in the South China Sea. However, during the dry months, the river recedes and leaves behind hundreds of islands and sandbars. I decided to head here since it is suppose to offer a glimpse of traditional river life in Laos villages. I chose to go to Don Khone.
The bus arrived in Ban Nakasang after 3.5 hours and I signed up for a boat across the Mekong River.  I was thankful for my backpack as I walked about 500 m to the boat ramp, across the beach, over a large cement drain and to a small boat. I laugh every time I see people with the rolling suitcases...doesn't work on this type of travel! We boarded and were off on the quick trip to the islands. When I arrived in Don Khone, I walked to a couple guesthouses to check on availability and prices. I decided to splurge for the Sala Phae floating houses since I got a great discount. It is a great little bungalow floating on the Mekong. I had decided to stay for 3 days and was going to enjoy the views!
It had been a long trip and I was ready for some food. I got a quick bite and took a walk around the small village. It is quiet and relaxing. Small dirt roads run along the island. It is described a genuine Lao river town with family ran guesthouses, bike rentals and small restaurants. As I walked along the path, I was charmed by the small village life. The locals know what happened in Vang Vieng and do not want the same to happen to their island life. 
It started to rain and I took that as a reason to go back, shower and read about the island. I grabbed a drink from the fridge and went out on the porch to enjoy my view. The rain stopped and the sun came out just in time for an amazing sunset. Ahhhh...I was going to enjoy island life.
The next morning, I decided to go to Li Phi waterfall. I know about the Lao afternoon sun and decided to leave early. It was an easy 4 km walk to the falls. I headed down the main street. I stopped to watch a gibbon next to my hotel. He was a pet and spent his days outside in the cage and lived in the house at night. His name was Lao for Escargot and he screamed like an ambulance siren. It cracked me up! (I posted a video of him on my Facebook page for Continental Hopscotch)

There are no street lights but many animals crossing the road. I stopped as piglets ran across the road in front of me an a small herd of cows walked towards me. Just out for their morning exercise and breakfast! The road to the waterfall passed rice fields and Lao homes. I laughed as there was no fee to the waterfall but a fee for all bridges in the area. Ok. I walk through the park and I am surrounded by trees and herds of cows. I was a little concerned I had gotten lost but I could hear the waterfalls. I eventually found them....WOW! There were several (7-9) all coming together in one gorge. It was beautiful and this was the dry season. There were fisherman out on the rocks making there way to put out nets by the falls. CRAZY! I talked to one and he told me "Safe. Fishing since I was 5." Safety is different in the USA than in Laos! Afterwards, I walked to the natural Lao swimming pool at the bottom of the falls. It was hot and I really wanted a swim. I was the only person except for the Lao workmen building a bar. I decided against swimming when I looked up and 10 men had stopped what they were doing to watch me. I got a little uncomfortable and decided to wade in with my clothes on. I went knee deep.  It was warm and had a pretty good current. I was done and headed back to the village.
I returned to my bungalow for an afternoon swim and reading on the porch. As the sun started to set, I noticed the locals headed to the river for their evening swim/bath. The children played in the water. they were delighted to have a Styrofoam cooler that they used as a boat. Meanwhile, the woman washed their hair. It was a fun scene to sit back and quietly watch as the sun set over the river. Another beautiful sunset at the end of a relaxing day.

The next day, I awoke at 5:30 AM and decided to get a little exercise before breakfast. I went walking east to another waterfall, across the suspension bridge and back up the old railway path. I got back to the guesthouse in time for a shower and breakfast. Then, I rented a bike to explore Don Det island. It is connected to Don Khone by a French bridge built to connect the railway.

Don Det was a nice bike ride and the southern road was the most beautiful. The remainder of the island is a backpacker haven, nice but not as beautiful. It has a lot of inexpensive accommodations and restaurants and caters to the backpacker crowds. I was happy at my age that I stayed on Don Khone! I enjoyed a great lunch on the island and then road back to my bungalow. It was the middle of the afternoon and time to relax by the river and enjoy my last day on Don Khone. I went for a swim in the Mekong and enjoyed a beer as the sunset on Don Khone. Another beautiful day in paradise.


  1. Hey Michelle. Have you found the Lonely Planet guides that your using to be the best and spot on for everything being up to date and current? Marsha- Nutrilite

    1. Hi Marsha!
      I consider Lonely Planet a resource but it has lots of errors. By the time it is published information is often outdated so I do a lot of online research also. I admit I still get a book because it is a great resource how to travel from one city to the next, hours of sights, some local maps and gives history of the country, sights and a little language dictionary. I use the dictionary frequently when I need to order food! But the downfall with Lonely Planet is accommodations. They are booked first and I have found that once a hotel is listed in Lonely Planet then they stop trying. Some are filthy and should lose there recommendation. I have had better luck with using Hostelworld, Agoda and Tripadvisor. But the best is to stop in and ask to see the rooms and try to negotiate a lower rate.