A day exploring the Mekong’s 4000 Islands

Today it is boat, tuk tuk, boat, tuk tuk, boat, bus, walk & electric buggy, followed by bus as the day is spent exploring the Mekong from dawn to dusk.
The sun comes up over the jungle-lined far bank drawing out the first fishermen on the still water and the procession of grave monks, intent on their ant like progress collecting sticky rice from their followers, on the awaking land. The early rays give the river a classic mirror surface, disturbed only by the widening wake of a longtail or the growing circle of a thrown net. The saffron of the monks absorb & reflect a glorious golden sheen.

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Then into the longtail boat and downstream to explore the lower part of the river. At its widest point the Mekong is 20 km wide. The area here is called 4000 Islands made up of sandbanks , collections of rocks & trees & larger, inhabited islands several kilometres across, linked by bridges & even a railway built by the French. There must be fish around the arches of the new road bridge as 20/30 thin boats collect there like small leeches wriggling their bodies from a single anchor point on a mirror clear surface. Their occupants twiddle their small paddles to remain stationary & lay out a line or an arching net.

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The bank flashes past accompanied by the roar of the longtail ‘s open engine. Jungle, palms, stilted houses, banana trees, satellite dishes, moored boats, fronded shelters merge together in a mosaic of colour & texture. The raised dwellings provide shade & coolness during the day, storage & living space & protection above if the river ever floods.

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The engine slows its roar to more of a snarl & we offload into a riverside village of stiled homes, general stores, free standing fridges, farmsteads & the occasional guest house. Children play, women work around the homes & men pull & cut & tug & hack as they harvest the rice & straw in the fields. Conicalled figures make small clusters of animated activity amongst the patchwork of dried paddy fields.

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Now a new form of transport is chosen in which to cross this island. This must be the gaveyaard of all large tuk tuks. Lined up, ready to go in order like Oxford cabs down George Street, are the largest selection of rusty, dusty scrap iron vehicles you could imagine could transport people. These would be credible extras in any Mad Max movie. My favourite is this mechanical elephant with one tusk missing – ivory poachers missed one?

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Sadly he is not next in line so another beast is chosen – one which crunches & grinds its way through its antiquated gear box. Gear box is a bit of an exaggeration as it goes no further than second where it roars & branches & howls in protest as the engine growls & cranks against the metal cogs. 7 km takes about an hour through the dry countryside. At the end boats await & we take to the water to spot Irrawaddy dolphins (look them up if you interested!).

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Lunch is taken in another riverside village. During the heat of the day most locals flop about between the stilts of their homes in the shade as heat & sun beat up the land.

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The Khong Phapheng Waterfalls are the widest in SE Asia. A huge, jagged, horizontal lightening bolt slashes its way in the normally glass like progress of the Mekong to the sea. Here, the waters have scarred a drop through 15 metres as they cascade in a crescendo of foam & fury from the tranquility of the top level to regain its peace down below at the bottom level.

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Dusk brings down the curtain on the day. The goldness returns to the landscape. The clouds billow in never ending structures of water vapour & the reflected glory of the sun gives the river a purple sheen as it returns to its mirror-like flatness & clarity.

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Out come the evening fishermen in their leechlike boats. Paddles doodle, nets curl through the air, lines are set out – the world returns to its proper state of calm contentment.

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The day ends, helped by a Beerlao!

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