Nature & Man Collide at The 4,000 Islands


The northern view from the Champasak Grand Hotel presented the bookends for the next two days. Stop 1: a giant glistening golden Buddha surrounded by green at hillside Vat Phou Salao across the Lao-Nippon Mekong Bridge. End game: check out the ongoing development of Pakse’s riverbank.
There is plenty to do around PakseTown, but Phou Salao Mountain with its giant Buddha beckoned. An easy 10-minute drive across the Mekong ended at a view all the way to the Bolaven Plateau.
According to Mr Outhay Khamsomphou, Champasak’s Tourism Marketing Advisor, Phou Salao means “Whiskey Mountain”. Legend holds that a drunkard got lost in the mountain. When locals found him, the Champasak king ordered him to marry a woman, who was “ugly and had a big nose.” The drunk objected, so the king promised him whiskey to wed the mountain girl.
And while vendors served beer at Phou Salao, standing next to a peaceful Buddha looking over a 30-mile panorama of Southern Lao set spiritual gears in motion. Backing this awe stood rows of smaller Buddhas and Vat Phou Salao, a modest but well-adorned temple.
Next came the 155-km drive along the Mekong and 4,000 Islands to the Dong Kalo Lao- Ben Tra Kien Lao-Cambodia border checkpoint. Ever-optimistic itineraries will tell you the trip takes about 2.5 hours. Ours lasted four.
During Green Season (June-September), the roadside is a carpet of green rice fields. Then comes the harvest in October and November. By December, brown stalks with grazing cows cover the dry paddies. Baw pen yang (Never mind). We’d see the coffee harvest on the Bolaven Plateau.
We reached the new checkpoint that accepts visas on arrival and offers a duty-free shop. The days of the wooden shack entry and a boat across the border seemed over. This crossing offered a welcome feel.

From here, it took a few minutes to reach Khone Phapheng, Southeast Asia’s largest waterfall by volume. It dumps millions of litres of the Mekong over a river-wide mass of boulders every minute. And during Green Season, the earth-shaking load can double or more.
Khone Phapheng  forms a curved fault line, pushing the water with incredible power into an explosive cloud. It then settles into the calm waters that enter Cambodia just 13 km downriver. Historically, the falls prevented upstream navigation by French explorers and merchants. This is where nature and man collides, but the best part of that story is at our next destination. Don Khone and Don Det.
A 20-minute drive delivered us to Nakasan Pier and the ferry to Don Det’s northern tip. We passed the remains of a reinforced concrete French colonial gantry. This was the point where freight and tourists could continue upriver after the Li Phi (Somphamith) Waterfalls blocked riverboat passage.
However, the powerful Li Phi falls was on tomorrow’s agenda. For now, it was time to relax at the riverside Golden Hotel Dondet, where southern hospitality peaked. 
People have defined traditional baci ceremonies in many similar ways. Sometimes, it can seem like a tourist set up.
Not at this hotel. Someone spent plenty of time weaving saffron wristlets. The people tying them to me offered a genuine prayer for my luck and safe travels, translated by Mr Outhay. They looked me in the eyes as they spoke. I saw sincerity. Then, at 22:30, one of the village elders delivered a crate of Beer Lao.
As this Oktoberfest had started before 17:00, and hyper-hospitality kicking in, I excused myself to find a lighter for my cigarettes…and the backdoor of my poolside room.
The following morning arrived too early. We piled into boats to neighbouring Don Khone, where history and nature meet. The colonial gantry we had seen the previous afternoon kicked off the tale about man versus the Mekong. Actually, the gantry was the last chapter of the nature-man clash.
We passed a 13-arch, 158-metre-long, concrete bridge across the Hou Béhanzin Channel connecting Don Det with Don Khone Islands. The French had built it in 1910 to alleviate congested traffic at the Ban Khone railway terminal.
Railway? This historic tale starts to unravel at the islands’ information pavilions housing train engines dating to the 1893 launch of the Don Khone railway built to defeat Li Phi Falls, our next stop. This is ehere French wit outsmarted Mother Nature. *Download the whole story at the end of this page.  
Li Phi Waterfalls’ twisted network of rocky channels blocked navigation up the Mekong. A rocky walk down the bank reveals bizarre bamboo scaffolding and fish traps balanced across the rapids, where you can watch the fishermen’s circus act on a wooden frame.
I had been on this ankle-challenging journey before, and went part of the way down the wild maze. While the others continued to explore these Class IX rapids, I snuck back to the Li Phi Waterfall Park.
A series of tree forts climbed to the launch pad for a zip-line adventure across the falls. A French family was prepping for the ride near a circular pavilion playing soft ‘70s rock at the bar.   
They served me a Beer Lao that triggered soft karaoke moments with Abba, John Denver, and Cher. Metallica wasn’t available. The staff enjoyed my show, tossed me a free beer, and I sang about West Virginia.
The clock was ticking and the group was nowhere in sight. “Baw pen yang,” said the staff, as they opened another free round. It’s culturally insensitive to say, “No”. They had already contrived a way to get me to Pakse, but I’d miss the river dolphins. I’d seen the show before, but the endangered species deserved respect. 
The group returned, and we raced off in a pair of bizarre pontoon boats to a distant Mekong shore to spot the elusive freshwater dolphins. No one expected Flipper dancing on the river. Rather, this pod of about five, barely broke the surface when they occasionally surfaced for air.
Everyone caught a quick glimpse of the dolphins, with spottings ranging from three to eight. No one took a photo. No one even tried. We sat and pointed, experiencing the gasps of a dying breed.
But sugar palm would sweeten that sad thought, with an unscheduled diversion to Don Khong, the largest of the 4,000 Islands.
Don Khong, once a French colonial centre, offers plenty on a one-day bicycle tour. Start at the museum in a well-preserved colonial structure, and then take a lap that reveals ancient Buddhist temples and abandoned sacred stupas and Khmer ruins. *Download the story of Don Khong at the end of this page.  
Be we only had time for sugar and Hinsiou-Tai Village, where Mr Oon Huan greeted us. Years ago on a visit to the village, I had met the elder, who is considered Don Khong’s “Sugar Palm Tree Chief”. With knowledge handed down over generations, Mr Oon knows best how to grow and reap the harvest from sugar palm trees, and continues to teach children the trade.
The process begins with a circus act with Mr Oon climbing a precarious bamboo ladder to the sugar palm tree’s tube-shaped fruit. He then slices the fruits’ long, oval tips, squeezes them into a juice, and steams in a rotating pan until sticky. The liquid is poured into palm-leaf rings, where they harden into a sugar cake called nam oy. His sugar cubes went great with the Bolaven coffee we’d sample the next day.
Running late, we raced to the Champasak Grand Hotel and a fine Chinese dinner. After dessert, four of us followed a GPS app to the riverfront and an empty tin-roof shack that served Vietnamese beer. A few backhoes just upriver took a nap from the day’s work at improving the bank. 
This was part of a plan to develop the province, according to Miss Mala Chanthalam, the Deputy Director of the Champasak Information, Culture, and Tourism Department.
She had been the gracious hostess at the opening dinner, but had excused herself from the 4,000 Island trip. She had to present her plan to the National Assembly in Vientiane, but would be back with the results by the Bolaven Plateau tour. That was the next day.
Stay tuned for the final instalment of the Southern Laos FAM trip and the Bolaven Plateau Coffee & Waterfall Circuit.  

Leave a Comment