In Laos’s deepest south, just above the border with Cambodia, the muddy stream of the Mekong is shattered into a 14km-wide web of rivulets, creating a landlocked archipelago. Known as Si Phan Don, or Four Thousand Islands, this labyrinth of islets, rocks and sandbars has acted as a kind of bell jar, preserving traditional southern lowland Lao culture from outside influences. Island villages were largely unaffected by the French or American wars, and the islanders’ customs and folk ways have been passed down uninterrupted since ancient times. As might be expected, the Mekong River plays a vital role in the lives of local inhabitants, with 95 percent of island families fishing for a living. Ecological awareness among locals is high, with nearly half of the villages in the district participating in voluntary fisheries conservation programmes.
The archipelago is also home to rare wetland flora and fauna, including an endangered species of freshwater dolphin, which it’s sometimes possible to glimpse during the dry season. Southeast Asia’s largest – and what many consider to be most spectacular – waterfalls are also located here. The area’s biggest sightseeing attractions, the Khon Phapheng and Somphamit waterfalls, dashed nineteenth-century French hopes of using the Mekong as a trade artery into China. The remnants of a French-built railroad, constructed to carry passengers and cargo past these roaring obstacles, can still be seen on the islands of Don Khon and Don Det, along with a rusting locomotive and other ghosts of the French presence. The most developed place to base yourself is the popular island of Don Khong, with its collection of quaint villages and ancient temples, but there’s also plenty of accommodation on Don Khon and Don Det.Read More
The largest of the Four Thousand Islands group, DON KHONG draws a steady stream of visitors, most of whom use it as a base to explore other attractions in Si Phan Don. That said, it’s nowhere near as popular as Don Det and Don Khon, further south, which means it’s far easier to find a peaceful place to watch the sunset.
Don Khong is surprisingly wide for a river island, and is known locally for its venerable collection of Buddhist temples, some with visible signs of a history stretching back to the sixth or seventh century. These, together with the island’s good-value accommodation and interesting cuisine, based on fresh fish from the Mekong, make Don Khong the perfect place for indulging both adventurous and lazy moods.
Don Khong has only three settlements of any size, the port town of Muang Sen on the island’s west coast, the east-coast town of MUANG KHONG, where most of the accommodation and cafés are situated (see the map), and the smaller town of Ban Houa Khong, where slow boats from Pakse moor. Like all Si Phan Don settlements, both Muang Sen’s and Muang Khong’s homes and shops cling to the bank of the Mekong for kilometres, but barely penetrate the interior, which is primarily reserved for rice fields. The best way to explore Don Khong and experience the traditional sights and sounds of riverside living is to rent a bicycle from one of the guesthouses and set off along the road that circles the island. Don Khong’s flat terrain and almost complete absence of motor vehicles make for ideal cycling conditions. For touring, the island can be neatly divided into two loops, southern and northern, each beginning at Muang Khong, or done all in one big loop that takes about three hours without stops.
- Don Khon and Don Det
Naga and ngeuak: water serpents of Lao legend
Naga and ngeuak: water serpents of Lao legend
The origins of the naga are debated. Snake cults are thought to have existed in Southeast Asia long before the arrival of Buddhism in the region, particularly in Cambodia, so it is possible that this snake-like icon is indigenous. Another possibility is that the naga is a cultural migrant from Hindu India. In Hindu mythology, the naga, Sanskrit for serpent, is sometimes associated with the god Vishnu in his incarnation as Narayana, a cosmic dreamer reclining on the body of a giant naga and floating on an endless sea. Buddhism adopted the icon, and a story relates how, while meditating, the historic Buddha was sheltered by a seven-headed naga during a violent rainstorm. In Laos, it is probable that the present-day form of the naga, called nak or phayanak in Lao, is a fusion of both indigenous and imported beliefs.
The naga is both a symbol of water and its life-giving properties, and a protector of the Lao people. An old legend is still related of how a naga residing in a hole below Vientiane’s That Dam stupa was known to rise up at critical moments and unleash itself upon foreign invaders. While the naga is mainly a benign figure, a similar water serpent, the ngeuak, is especially feared by Lao fishermen. Believed to devour the flesh of drowning victims, ngeuak are said to infest the waters around Si Phan Don. As for the existence of naga in modern-day Laos, the Lao point to “proof” that can be seen in a photograph displayed in some homes, eateries and places of business. The photo shows a line of American soldiers displaying a freshly caught deep-sea fish that is several metres long; some copies of the photograph have the Lao words nang phayanak (Lady Naga) printed below. Where and when the photo was taken is a mystery, but many Lao believe that the photo depicts a naga captured in the Mekong by American soldiers during the Second Indochina War.