Si Phan Don means “4000 islands” in Lao. And Don Khone is one of them, located pretty much to the southern, downstream end of this Mekong area, and just above the Li Phi Falls. Together with the Khon Phapheng Falls, which as far as I can see are caused by the same rock formation, a little further to the east, this forms the monumental obstacle to navigation on the river that the 1866 Garnier expedition early on must have realized ended the prospect of a major waterway trade route to China. Yet, the expedition continued, and ultimately made it to Yunan, some two years afterwards; a largely futile exercise, even though they had adjusted the objective to mapping the Mekong – the upper reaches of which they were prevented from doing by the Chinese -, but, once again, an interesting read.
The falls aren’t that high, but do push a significant amount of water through the many channels in the rock, to the extent that the Khon Phapheng Falls are considered the largest falls in South East Asia by volume. No surprises here, we all knew that the Mekong was a big river. The 4000 islands are obviously upriver from the falls, and many are only an island in the dry season, when the river level falls significantly; in addition there are a few larger, permanent islands. On Don Khone and neighbouring Don Det the French built a short railway to facilitate transport of goods that were offloaded and hauled up from the downstream side of the falls, to be brought by train to a port facility on the upstream side.
(1) A small part of the Li Phi Falls, which stretch over a significant distance, and (2) another set of falls, probably the start of the Khon Phapheng Falls. Not so high, huh? But it kills a trade route.
(3) The French railway bridge and (4) the port, an attempt to keep up the same trade…. In the process achieving the construction of the only railway in Laos – so far (remember the plans for the Bullit train?)
These days the islands are largely a chill-out facility for backpackers, many of whom spend their days smoking pot, wiling away in hammocks – “vertically challenged”, as the Lonely Planet calls it. And I must admit that there is a certain tranquility hanging over this place that invites slowing down a little further even from the already pretty relaxed general Lao pace. We enjoyed it, too, doing a short river trip in between the islands, cycling and walking a little across the island, and eating and drinking well in the only slightly more up-market hotel, situated in the converted former French railway office building. Except that the gin and tonic tasted like alcohol-free gin and tonic-light.
(5, 6) All traffic is by boat, obviously, in between the 4000.
(7) …of which some are not occupied by tourists.
And except that everything in this environment is tourist oriented, money-focused and not very authentic, but I suspect that is not different elsewhere in tourist-dominated areas. Except that the Lao people, in general, do not seem to be so friendly and helpful as many of their neighbours are. Just an observation, admittedly from only three weeks in Laos. Let’s see what Cambodia brings us, our next destination.
(8) Some fishing is still going on, despite the easy tourist bucks