I travelled to the Four Thousand Islands in southern Laos by riverboat, which I caught at the village of Champasek. This river journey was more like what I expected of the slow boat from the Thai border to Luang Phabang. We backpackers lazed about on the roof, a guy put some music on, and we cruised down the Mekong to the beats of Bob Marley.
At one village stop in the middle of the afternoon we even persuaded a guy to bring us down some beer. One of my enduring memories of travelling in Laos will have to be sitting on that roof calling Saba-deeee to the children on the river bank and having them chorus back SABA-DEEEEEE!!! in return, waving and laughing and leaping into the water.
The final destination in Laos was Si Phan Don, the Four Thousand Islands, a landlocked archipelago where the Mekong spreads out into a 14-kilometre-wide area before crashing through some enormous rapids and becoming a normal river again. One final boat trip and I was in my hammock on the verandah of my “hut” (try wicker basket) overlooking the river.
These islands are very rural, fringed with palm trees, the interior all rice fields in colours ranging from jade to brilliant lime green. The Laos village I stayed in had a few hours of generator electricity in some places and not much else, besides a couple of satellite dishes (which are apparently reasonably affordable second hand). The few houses with TV in the village were magnets for the neighbours – all gathered around a flickering black n white screen – just like 1950s in the west.
If you get up early enough you can watch the monks from the local Wats (Buddhist temples) parading through the village gathering alms in the form of food and other supplies.
When it comes to food I recommend the local fish dishes. Catfish caught straight from the Mekong and steamed in a banana leaf with lemon grass. Yum.
I had some interesting conversations with a cafe owner on the island. He fled Laos as a refugee in 1978 and spent 16 years living in Australia. He is happy to be back, living in this isolated part of Laos and building up his embryonic business.
He considered that he has complete freedom and freedom of speech. It is communism “Laos style” and the family and community oriented Buddhist culture certainly take care of each other, focused around the temple. “Jo” just makes one trip a month to Pakxe the provincial capital to get his fix of MTV and other comforts.
I didn’t quite spend all my time in the hammock, I walked about a bit watching the rice being planted and the water moved from one field to the next.
There was also a bit of an adventure when a few of us hired a longtail boat to take us to see the largest waterfalls in south east Asia. For various reasons we delayed returning and ended up coming back in the dark. The boatman was seriously not happy with us and it was a tense 40 minutes as he hugged the banks trying to avoid hitting any of the 4,000 islands, especially the ones submerged in the rainy season. He was aided somewhat by the regular light show from the three electrical storms converging from different points around our horizon. We had faith in him but his wife was chucking a mental on the boat landing when we got back.
All too soon it was time to hightail it back to the border with Thailand to continue my travels. It was certainly an interesting land journey, about which I will just briefly say that on one of the madly overcrowded “busses” (i.e. converted flatbed truck) that day there were two live chickens and a duck (also alive) under my benchseat with their legs sellotaped together. Another bunch of chickens was flung on the roof at the end of a rope and could be heard every time we stopped protesting their state – not very Buddhist chickens.
The people riding on the roof were much more philosophical. Oh yes and I mustn’t forget the eight huge baskets of fresh fish loaded onto the back of the truck beside me, yes it reeked. No wonder no one wanted to sit next to me on the bus back to Bangkok.
By Natasha von Geldern