Early in the morning, we packed up our things and trodded down the road to meet up with Tom and Tatiana at their guesthouse. The four of us piled into a tuk-tuk which took us to another guesthouse in town. This is the place where the boat comes to take people from Champasak down to the 4000 Islands. No one knew when the ferry would come - we were told 9:30 am by one person and 10 something by another. We arrived around 9 am just in case, but as it turns out, the boat wasn't going at all on this day. Who knows why? Perhaps the boat captain wasn't up to it. We would have to take the "bus" instead.
The tuk-tuk driver took us down to the main port where we boarded a small boat. It was actually two canoes side-by-side with a wooden platform on top for the passengers (see the picture to see what we mean). We squeezed onto the platform next to several motorbikes and their drivers and were taken across the river. On the other side, we got in another tuk-tuk who took us to the bus stop along the side of the road.
Moments after we got there, the bus/large truck arrived. It was packed. People had filled the seats along the sides, on the wooden bench down the middle, and in the back. We assumed that we would never be able to fit. We asked when the next one would be coming by and were told that it wouldn't be coming until 2 pm. Seeing that the next bus wouldn't be coming for hours and this was our only real choice, we handed over our bags to be placed on top of the vehicle as the people running the operation encouraged the passengers on the bus to make room for all four of us. Surprisingly enough, we were not the last passengers to board. As the bus made its way down to Don Khong (the largest island in the 4000 islands), we kept picking up new passengers and squeezing them in. I suppose that the buses are never really full. If there's an inch of space, there's room for another person. At one point, there were probably 40 people in a space slightly larger than the back of a pick-up truck.
We were let off the bus right in front of the guesthouse we had picked out in our guidebook - Villa Khang Khong. It was very cute, with a large open balcony, teak floors, and beds with mosquito netting. The woman who showed us our room didn't speak much English, but she got across the point that if we wanted air conditioning, the room would be $10 and she would simply flip on the breaker. For fan only, it was the same room but we simply wouldn't use the air conditioner and the room would only be $5. With two windows offering a nice cross-breeze, we opted for the cheaper option.
The afternoon was quite relaxing. We had a little food, relaxed, and read on the hammock and chairs of our guesthouse balcony, and then rented bikes for a short ride across the island and back to our place. The rain started coming down towards the latter part of our ride, but we managed to avoid the full downpour by pulling our bikes and waiting it out at the house of a friendly Lao person.
In the evening, we sought out Mr. Pon, who is apparently the man to go to for arranging boat trips out to the other islands. We signed up for an outing the next day.
We were at Mr. Pon's guesthouse by 8 am the next morning. Along with Tom and Tatiana, we were joined by six others. The first part of the outing was an hour and a half boat ride on the Mekong to one of the other islands. We passed by many small outgrowths in the water - bushes and other plants. Each of these is considered to be an "island," which is why the area has 4000 islands. There are only a few islands that are actually large enough for people to live on or walk around on.
We stopped at Don Khon island and followed our non-English speaking guide to a rusted-out locomotive. Apparently, the French had tried to create a railway system to get around the area since the many small islands and large waterfalls made boat travel impossible. They abandoned the rail project, leaving behind relic train parts.
Next on the agenda was a visit to a set of impressive waterfalls. We couldn't go into the falls -they were fast and intense. We did enjoy climbing around on the rocks, walking along a path near the falls, and relaxing on a beach at the end of the path.
After lunch, the group was transported in a van to the Khon Phapeng Falls, apparently the largest in SE Asia. The falls were quite impressive, but unfortunately there wasn't much to do but view them from afar and then wander back into the van.
Our last stop was in Cambodia - really. We were taken to a launch spot where the group got in a couple boats to go out and see the rare freshwater Irrawady dolphins. The boats zoomed along and then we were droppped off at a small island, with some people selling Angkor beer and t-shirts. Apparently, this little island took us past the sourthern tip of Laos and into Cambodia. There wasn't much to the island, but it was a place to stand and spot the dolphins. We did see them from afar, as they jumped out of the water, but unfortunately we didn't get to see one up close.
It was a great day outing, all in all, with fun fellow travelers from England, Ireland, Germany, and the U.S. A couple of the other individuals in this group also planned to head up to Pakse the next day, so the four of us asked Mr. Pon about arranging a van to take us up North (he does it all!). When a couple other travelers signed up for the ride, the group was all set and we enjoyed a luxurious ride in an air-conditioned van with room for everyone!
- It is definite low season - there were few other travelers here and of those in the town, we recognized many of them from our travels in Southern Laos. Often times, travelers follow the same route, but you really begin to notice this when you come into these small towns and see many familiar faces.
- It has been raining for some part of every day for the past couple weeks. It doesn't usually cause problems, as it only comes down for an hour or two, and usually in the afternoon or evening. It's interesting to be able to travel long enough to see the change in seasons.
- We've noticed that the smallest children not only do not wear diapers, but often don't wear pants at all. On our crowded bus, there was a pantless boy, about one year old. We weren't sure if he was potty trained early, or if his parents were going to hold him over the side of the bus when he started to go. We didn't offer him a seat on our laps.