Don Det and Luang Prabang13/06/2011
4 Thousand Islands is a beautiful section of the Mekong right in the south of Laos where the river is up to 14km's wide with hundreds of islands (apparently there are thousands if you count all the sandbars etc but I don't think there are actually 4 thousand, although I didn't count!). We stayed on Don Det, one of the 3 main inhabited islands. Don Det is basically made up of two streets, sunrise and sunset. On the assumption we had more chance of being awake to enjoy the sunset then the sunrise, we decided to stay in one of the many basic bungalows on the sunset side. It was little more then a woodern hut with a balcony, two hammocks and a lovely view of the river and it's islands, oh and the sunset of course (only in the evening though - as we were helpfully once told).
We spent about a week on Don Det filling our days with eating, drinking, reading, playing chess or pool and sleeping - so much sleeping! It was fantastic! We decided that we should have one active day so we arranged to go kayaking down the river with a guide to see a couple of waterfalls, enjoy the river, and see fresh water dolphins. It was a great day, probably the highlight of our visit to Laos. The "white water" section of the river wasn't the toughest to kayake but the waterfalls were both very impressive (we walked to these, we didn't risk taking the kayakes) and the rest of the river was peaceful and beautiful. The river at this part forms the border between Laos and Cambodia and we actually stopped for lunch in Cambodia (does that mean we can now say we have visited 5 countries so far, not just four?). The Irrawaddy dophins where enjoying the afternoon in a protected part of the river just in front of the "restaurant" where we stopped for lunch (I put restaurant in inverted commas since they didn't do food, the guide had brought that with him, but did provide tables and a few drinks). The dophins don't seem to jump around like their more common friends that we saw in India and Thailand, but they were graceful and had the courtesy to stick around for a long time and let us watch them while we enjoyed our lunch. After lunch we continued down stream (having sort of teamed up with another English couple and their guide who didn't seem to speak any English) and then - after a long break waiting for a tuk-tuk - we headed to Khon Phapheng, a dramatic and powerful waterfall, before going back to the island in time for sunset from our balcony.
In the end we had to leave the peace and quiet of Four Thousand Islands and head back up north. First we took the bus back to Pakse where we had time for a Lao Massage, chess and dinner before getting on the over night bus to Vientiane to pick up our passports from the Chinese Embassy. We then stayed one night before heading on up north to Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang is another town on the Mekong, but it has a huge French influence and feels very different from the other places we have visited here. The bus ride to Luang Prabang went through some of the most stunning scenery we have seen since Nepal - in fact it reminded us a great deal of Nepal. The town itself has a large hill in the center which has a great view of the surrounding spectacular countryside. As with much of Laos, the tourist highlight of the town is to go to the nearby (30kms) waterfall - Tat Kunang Si. The waterfall is a many-tiered fall where we could swim in some pools and swing into another pool from a tree that helpfully hung over the water. The woodland around the waterfall was beautifully maintained carefully keeping on the right side of natural beauty, while still clearing paths and seating areas to enjoy the pools and waterfalls. There is also a bear enclosure here used to house bears rescued from poachers (apparently keeping them captive being better then releasing them back into the wild where they are likely to be re-caught by the poachers).
The town of Luang Prabang itself also has a lot of offer as a place to visit. There a lots of Wats and monstaries, but the river and views were the main draw for us. The street food here is also great (and considerably cheaper then the restaurants which for the first time in Laos, are over priced and not good value - in our opinion) and the night market has enough for everyone, including a new wallet for me and flip-flops for Seth. Having checked into our nicest room of the whole trip so far (including air-con, free wifi, a hot shower and spotlessly clean everything - something we no longer take for granted), Luang Prabang was a lovely place to relax and enjoy the last few days in the company of the friendly and helpful Lao people (and their beer!).
Now though our visas are due to expire and it is time to head to China. Tomorrow we catch our bus to Luang NamTha where we intend to stay just one night before getting the early morning bus across the border to China... and so the adventure continues...