Saturday, January 05, 2013

Into Cambodia

I'm writing this near the Laos-Cambodia border with some extra US dollars in case bribery is required as apparently corruption is notorious at this crossing. Fingers crossed!

We're now leaving Laos after two days on Don Khon, one of the 4000 islands that make up the archipelago of Si Phan Don. Again, the journey here was an adventure in itself: a tuk-tuk to the Mekong, then a shaky canoe across the river where we were deposited on a quicksandy shore (luckily we avoided the worst of it after watching the first people sink to their knees!). Then a bus to another stretch of the river, then an equally shaky motorboat that we got to by climbing over others (incredibly nobody ended up in the Mekong).

While there isn't much to see as such, the islands are a beautifully sleepy place where the main effort of the day is to get yourself off a hammock to find another Beer Lao. While there were a few guesthouses, by and large the islands are populated by local farmers and fishermen and it looked as though it hadn't changed in decades. To say it was laid back was putting it mildly.

We rented bikes and cycled the circumference of both Don Khon and the neighbouring island of Don Det, stopping often to take in the beautiful views. Many of the cafes had cushions to sit on the floor with, while eating delicious local food cooked from scratch (so no rush to get your food - it's on Laos time). And you know the feeling after a good meal where you want to lie down and have a quick rest of the eyes? It is what you do here - hammock or stretch the cushion out to a bed. Awesome. Plus the sunsets here are the nicest I've seen as the light dances on the Mekong.

You'd never know it from looking at it, but these two islands were historically important during the colonial days. France held territory in northern Laos and the English were threatening - the French needed to get gunships up the Mekong but it is impassible at this stage due to the Li Phi Falls (we saw them - true enough!). So the French built a railway on Don Khon and Don Det, then a bridge to connect the two islands. This allowed them to transport ships overland and around the falls and ultimately defend their northern territory. Later it was used for goods transport. The railway was abandoned after WWII since roads made the railway uneconomical. Jungle quickly reclaimed the tracks. It was only in 1990 when a tourist discovered two engines on tracks deep in the jungle! Goes to show how remote some of these places were, and in many ways still are.

A great way to finish off the Laos portion of the trip. While the pace was much slower than the madness of Vietnam, and while they can't quite compete with the food and prices of their eastern neighbour, I found Laos to be a lovely country with incredibly chilled out and friendly people. Noticeably compared to other SE Asian countries, there was no pressure to buy stuff from an army of vendors. The understated beauty of this country will stick with me, and you can only hope it doesn't change too much with the inevitable increase in tourism as the years go by.

Now onto Cambodia. There will no doubt be some sad things to see here what with the recent Khmer Rouge atrocities, but important to see I think. But looking forward to seeing how the people and country have recovered.

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