We left Cambodia and headed to Si Phan Don in Laos, literally meaning and better known as the 4000 Islands. We waved goodbye to Tony’s father and departed Kratie, Cambodia. We had come to Kratie to see the rare and endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins who live in the Mekong River. We drove about 15 km out of town and then took a boat. It seemed like an impossible task to spot one of the few specimens in the huge Mekong, especially at that time of year when it is at its mightiest. We had been looking for them for almost two hours, and losing hope by the minute. Just when we were about to turn back, Tony spotted one of them. We stayed for longer and caught a few glimpses of them. They are very cute, but only come up for a quick breath of air once in a while. We all had our cameras ready to snap, but it was impossible to catch them. Still we were really excited we spotted them.
4 hours after leaving Kratie we had arrived at our next destination, the island of Don Khone. We took a minivan from Kratie to Stung Treng with a journey time of 1.5 hours, then a one hour bus to the border, 30 minutes at the border, 15 minutes from the border to Ban Nakasan, and 20 minutes on a small boat to Don Khone. The journey did not go without incidents though. The border crossing from Cambodia (Dong Kralor) to Laos (Dong Kalaw) is notorious for its corrupt officials. On many occasions during our travels we have been warned about situations like this, but being very aware and informed we have been able to elude them, so far we had done all our travels without having to pay any bribes, or additional “fees”. That was until Laos. Lao visas are available at this border since this year, but to avoid being the prey of this infamous officials we applied for them in advance at the Lao Embassy; a very straightforward process that only took one day and $40 each, no additional charges.
This border crossing is quite rustic, simple and fast. Exiting Cambodia, I handed my passport to an official and he murmured “1 Dollar”. I replied very loudly: “1 Dollar! For What?”. He did not reply back. There were four other travelers with us and another official told one of them “1 Dollar for stamp” before returning his passport. He replied he didn’t have any money, and that was the end of the story; they gave all of us our passports back, stamped and with no further demands. Easy enough saying “no money”. 200 meters and we were in Lao territory. We filled the entry card and handed it in with our passport. “2 Dollars for entry stamp” said the official. The first traveler said he didn’t have any money. It didn’t work this time…To make the story short, after more than 30 minutes of arguments, begging, insults, threats, etc, the six of us had no choice than to pay the bribe. Every traveler had a different strategy to get out of it, and none worked. From the Japanese girl’s strategy of I am so innocent I don’t understand, to Tony’s tough guy attitude, nada; we all had to swallow our pride and cough up the bucks. Tony verbally expressed all his sentiments to the officer, but of course the only English he knew was “2 Dollars”, if not he would have been deported before getting the entry stamp. Needless to say it’s not about the $2, but about the principle. We all felt robbed, violated, impotent, it’s a horrible feeling. After venting out all our frustration, we were all quiet the rest of the way. Tony and I played with the idea of just entering Laos without the stamp (as you can easily walk in and out), but we didn’t risk it because our plan was to leave by air; if we were leaving by land, we would have called their bluff and not give in to the bribe. We all had our visas which are not cheap, we all were coming to spend money in a country that really needs it; Laos is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, and it does not receive the tourism that its neighboring countries do. How can the central government allow this situation? They are very aware of it because it’s written in guidebooks, traveler blogs, etc. Welcome to Laos!
Just a few kilometers into Laos and we realized how different than Cambodia it was. For starters, the roads are really bad, while in Cambodia they are in pretty good conditions. The farther we went into Laos, the better the weather, we had left the humidity of Cambodia behind as we headed North and up in the mountains. Surprisingly people were not as friendly, and they were not wearing pijamas (common in Cambodia). 18 km after the border we arrived in Ban Nakasan, the gateway to the islands. From there we were taken by boat to Don Khone, our selected island. 4000 islands is still not in most traveler’s itineraries as it is off the beaten path, except for those traveling overland between Cambodia and Laos. It makes a good stopover to break the long journey, considering especially the border crossing closes at 4 pm (or you can pay a big bribe and they will open it especially for you, but no transport at that time anyway). Out of the 4000 Islands, most travelers choose Don Dhet, as it is the most easily accessible, with the cheapest accommodation and food, and the party vibe. Don Khone is a bit more upscale, quieter and more beautiful, boasting 2 interesting waterfalls and more authenticity as it gets fewer tourists.
Apart from the border incident, the travel went well. We were hesitant about buying the ticket from an agent in Kratie (called Mr. Cheat) all the way to Don Khone, as it involved 4 transfers. Usually we are very careful, purchasing always every segment personally and directly from the operator ourselves, but this time we gave it a shot. We paid $14 each from Kratie to Don Khone. Mr Cheat did not cheat us.
The 4000 Islands are in the province of Champasak, South Laos. They are a group of islands in a winding part of the mighty Mekong River. When the rainy season is over, the water levels drop dramatically and more islands appear. Apart from the muddy brown waters of the Mekong, the setting was postcard perfect. Lushness everywhere, tall palm trees and bamboo plants adorned the isolated rustic villages. We walked the main strip looking for accommodation. We couldn’t believe how cheap it was, we were offered waterfront AC ensuite rooms for 7 US Dollars. However we wanted something nicer, so we kept searching until we found a duplex hut with a private balcony directly on stilts over the water for $25. Our accommodation was brilliant, we could lay in the hammock and just watch life on the Mekong pass by, even from the bed you could hear and see the river. It was lovely hearing the rainstorms at night, the sounds of the wild, and looking at the stars and fireflies. I could have easily stayed a long time there doing nothing as in Gili Meno, but Tony was not impressed and the rest of Lao and Vietnam were waiting for us.
One of the few activities you can do is rent a bike and cycle the island, but because of the rain the terrain was too muddy. Instead we walked the island, which is very easy. Into the island you find the locals leading their daily life, planting the scenic rice fields, kids at school, etc. We were shocked and disgusted to find a gibbon trapped in a small cage and a macaque tied with a metallic chain to a tree. I felt like denouncing the situation, but to who, they would have laughed at me. We arrived at the Somphamit waterfalls, and although I have to admit they are more like rapids than waterfalls, they are quite impressive because of their width and the fast flowing huge amounts of water. You can walk up to them from the side and it’s scary to think about slipping falling into them. Another activity is to try your luck at spotting the rare Irrawady dolphins. We had already done it in Kratie, were chances are stronger, so we did not pursue them in Don Khone.
Then the second bad incident in our first 24 hours in Laos occurred. There is an old French bridge connecting Don Khone to Don Dhet. The local “authorities” (there are no formal authorities or police) of Don Khone have imposed a toll fee of 20000 Kip (about US $2.50) to foreigners crossing on foot or bike from Don Dhet to Don Khone. It’s their village and I suppose they can do whatever they please, but I still think it’s steep; especially considering that it only applies to foreign tourists on foot or bike; not to the hundreds of daily Thai tourists that come in package tours and cross the bridge in minibuses as they make a quick visit to the waterfalls. I witnessed how many tourists coming from Don Dhet had to turn back as they were unwilling to pay the fee or did not have money with them. We had no plans of visiting Don Dhet, even less if we had to pay that amount. As we were walking in Don Khone, Tony thought we should step over the bridge to cross a muddy bit. Immediately the man in charge demanded the toll. We explained to him we were not going to cross the bridge, we did not want to go to Don Dhet. He became unreasonable and as the border official, all he could say was “money money”. Tony told him a few things and got on the bridge. Tony is double the size of most men in Laos, so he did not dare stop him; but then he tried to stop me by blocking my path. I thought things would start getting ugly as other men appeared out of the booth, so I told Tony we should get out of there. For agriculture or whatever reason, most men there carry axes and machetes with them, it wasn’t a good idea to fight them. After a cross of English and Laotian insults between both parts, we left. We both felt disgusted, disappointed and angered with Lao attitudes towards foreigners. Further on, every time we passed by the “toll booth”, groups of men (that hang inside the booth all day and do nothing but put tourist money in their pockets) would come out of the booth, and harass us. It was intimidating.
We stayed for only 48 hours and it was enough. Maybe in dry season when they say the Mekong is turquoise clear (hard to believe) and mot muddy brown the 4000 Islands are worth the trip. Laotian food was surprisingly delicious in Don Khone. I was really hoping Laos would start to look up and redeem itself because it was my idea to go there. Tony wanted to skip it, and divide the time between Cambodia and Vietnam. After reading from many travel blogs and hearing from travelers that Laos was so brilliant, I insisted we should come. Curiously enough just before arriving into Laos we heard and read traveler reports stating the opposite, how they disliked Laos. Let’s hope Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang will give Laos a good name.
For more pictures of the 4000 Islands click here.