Sunday 7 February 2010

Leaving Laos via Si Phan Don

The most famous tourist spot in the south of Laos might be Si Phan Don, Lao for 4,000 Islands, where the Mekong runs through the land like strands of hair. Mark Elliot says that, in the rainy season, there are only 2,000 islands, but the scale of the Mekong means you need Google Maps to see more than four at once. Don Det and Don Khon provide the hub and offer plenty of bungalows, restaurants and tour operators. There are no towering karsts around here so it’s great for easy cycling, which is the best way to cruise the rice fields and cross the bridge from Don Det to Don Khon to find the old steam engine and the waterfalls (even the ‘small waterfall’ is huge). Even though there are no mountains, the mud and rocky paths meant that everyone without a mountain bike spent as much time fixing the chain as they did in the saddle. We didn’t see the elusive Irrawaddy dolphins, although there is a label for them on Google Maps so they must be there. There’s a big gap between destinations in the centre and the south of Lao and I’m not sure that it’s worth making a special trip down for Si Phan Don, but it’s a great place to relax for anyone coming to or from Cambodia.

You could bum around Laos for a month, as we did, and almost completely forget that this is the most bombed country in the world, and that during the Vietnam War, more bombs were dropped on it than were dropped during the entire course of the Second World War. Mark Elliot suggests that, today, the Lao government is even more oppressive than that of Burma in the respect that, even though it’s severely weakened, an opposition party does at least exist. But unless you make the effort to dig deeper, it’s easy just to kick back in another waterfall, admire the beauty around you and relax. Even the street sellers, of which there aren’t many, are more of a laugh than a hassle. Because English is not often spoken, the focus of communication usually being a menu written in both English and Laos, personal views are hard to come by, so it’s easier to get a sense of Laos’ past and present from the guidebooks than it is from being there. Cambodia is a completely different story...

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