To say the least, I was super excited about visiting a place referred to as ‘4000 Islands’. Most tourist agencies throughout Laos had actually discarded the location’s original name, Si Phan Don, to replace it with its’ selling point: Si Phan Don.
The map on the Lonely Planet guide was even more enchanting: rivulet upon rivulet with speckles of what appeared to be land mass. I was convinced this would be one of the most spectacular natural landscapes I would visit in my 8 months of Southeast Asian travelling.
A long journey to get there with intermittent changes and a hell of a lot of waiting around: a two-hour wait for the bus to arrive at our hotel; we were the last to arrive on the bus, so naturally, we secured the last two available rear-end seats… the walkway in the middle, stacked with backpacks and travellers’ luggage (I had to apologise to most passengers as I removed my flip flops to walk on top of people’s bags)…A few hours on the bus, a few stops, a bit of confusion as passengers going to Don Khong needed to get off before the port town… and passengers going to Don Khon (without a ‘g’), needed to stay on the bus until the port town of Ban Nakasang.
Ban Nakasang is dirty: banana peels, toilet roll, dead fish, mango pits, bags of overflowing rubbish, cigarette stubs – you name it – strewn across the dusty ground. Market stalls with salespeople sat on pieces of cardboard on the ground, selling fly-infested, ‘fresh’ chicken feet; river prawns; and various internal organs of locally-available large mammals. Women with fresh fruit in baskets on the top of their heads, walking up to you with chopped pineapple in their hands, trying to make a sale. All of this commotion with 20kg of ‘stuff’ on your back, a mindful eye on those ‘valuables’ you carry in secret, safe places around your body whilst trying to reorient yourself to find the damn long-tail boat that can transport you to this ‘magical’ island you were dreaming about.
We purchase our boat ticket, and – no questions asked – drop our bags onto the boat and try to stabilise ourselves as the 1×10 m, long-tail boat rocks to and fro whilst we get ourselves situated. (The last thing we want is for the boat to capsize).
During the 40 minute boat journey, you see virtually nothing: mossy green water with local women wearing sarongs whilst bathing themselves and their naked, young children in the river-water; men and young boys wearing ’80s style snorkel masks with little baskets weaved onto their belts, looking for the day’s catch worth of small fish to eat for dinner or to sell at the local market; man-made, bamboo shacks surrounded by shrubs and short trees whose branches were filled with clothes, hanging to dry… and, finally, a sudden realisation that all of these ‘4000 islands’ the tourist agencies were talking about were indeed grassy shrubs and bushes, mere outgrowths of the seabed. What a disappointment!
There are three key destinations in Si Phan Don for tourists to choose from: Don Khong, Don Det and, finally, Don Khon. Though Lonely Planet is clear that Don Khon is ‘quiet’, I’m not sure I grasped how quiet ‘quiet’ really was… We found ourselves a basic and cheap little guesthouse with a fan and a mosquito net. And – having first realised the extent of Laotian heat in Vientienne – we really really struggled with the heat in Si Phan Don.
We hired rugged bicycles and spent our two days cycling on dirtroads through a couple of tiny villages and one Buddhist temple… we gave the water buffalo the right of way, as herds of them sluggishly crossed the street every few kilometres. We caught sight of the water mass joining Laos with Cambodia, and contemplated a boat ride to see the near extinct ‘Irrawady dolphins’ (we decided, however, to chance a sighting of these rare mammals later, in Cambodia).
Most frustratingly, we had considered a potential ‘kayaking’ trip to some water rapids in the area. However, we hadn’t realised that Dhon Kon didn’t have any ATMs, and therefore – we had no money. We were lucky, actually: we needed to pay for our tickets back to Ban Nakasang and onward to Cambodia on a loan, as we didn’t have enough money to leave. Thank goodness for the loan, as 3 days and 2 nights in Si Phan Don was most certainly enough.