Like a lot of cycle tourists in this part of the world, we can’t resist a couple of days rest and relaxation on the famous, idyllic 4,000 Islands. It would be rude not to.
Most of the riverside accommodation on Don Khon is full by the time we start enquiring, so for our first night we end up taking a wooden bungalow at Souksan Guesthouse (50,000 kip, hot water, wifi, decent bed) overlooking… a piece of tarmac. But there’s also a low key little restaurant here – one of the last on the northern end of the island, and also one of the cheapest – so we spend a very pleasant evening watching the sun go down and eating a fine meal, in the company of some very amicable Brits. By a strange coincidence, the conversation has just veered towards the subject of bedbugs, when one of the group emerges from their cabin to announce that it is riddled with… bedbugs! The comedy timing is perfect even if it’s no joke for those guys, who have to swap rooms. Nevertheless, we enjoy the laid back charms of eating here under the red lights (pretty to look at but also don’t attract the swarms of bugs white lights do). The service is so chilled out it’s non existent, but when the food does eventually arrive it’s really, really tasty.
Next day we check out the Li Phi waterfalls. We almost don’t, as the entry fee of 35,000 kip feels excessive (there’s also no info about what you get for this) but we’re just about glad we do, even if they’re more ‘rapids’ than ‘falls’. The sheer power of the previously placid, wide, gentle Mekong as it squeezes through these narrow gorges is impressive. The thought of French colonialists trying to figure out a trade route through this section of the Mekong is almost as funny as the solution they came up with instead – a narrow gauge railway from one of the island to the other, which lasted just a few decades and remains Laos’ only stretch of railway, for now at least.
There’s also a beach here and, despite the warning signs for no bathing, there are people taking a dip, although you do have to be careful not to get dragged away by the strong currents. In the end, we spend a good few hours here and just about get our money’s worth.
The following day we take our bikes out to explore the rest of Don Khon, by bike of course. We’re doing OK cycling around the north and east side of the island (where we cross a cool suspension bridge onto a smaller island, and find a great swimming hole), but we hit a snag when we try to head south. A bridge crossing a small but steep and overgrown valley has collapsed, and there’s simply no way across with the bikes. We’re forced to turn back and instead approach Bo Hu beach via the main track from the French bridge. No matter, once we get there, we discover a glorious beach and vast waters perfect for swimming in. There’s less of a current here, and there are just a handful of people, so it really is a great place to relax on an afternoon.
It’s also a good spot for picking up a boat to go and see the Irrawaddy dolphins. We club together with another girl and take a narrowboat out into the Meekong to see them, for the sum of about 75,000 kip. The ride is good fun as we weave our way through the fast flowing waters. Eventually, the engines are cut and we drift silently for a good 15 minutes watching for the dolphins. We catch just a few glimpses of small dorsal fins. They don’t come that close, and part of me is thinking that a noisy motorised boat is perhaps not the best way to visit these rare creatures (kayaking trips are also possible) but by this point it’s too late. There’s also no explicit connection between the fee you pay to see the dolphins and the money being spent to help protect them, or at least if there is it’s not made clear to us. Ecotourism is still very much in its infancy here, it seems.