Idling on islands

Life glides by slowly perched in a hammock overlooking the swirling Mekong River in Laos’ Four Thousand Islands. Sipping a Beer Lao and watching the ever-changing colours of the river is meditation not just popular with locals but with an increasing number of independent travellers.

Si Phan Don, as the locals call it, is a collection of some 4,000 islands wedged into the broadest section of the Mekong _ it’s over 10 kilometres wide in some places _ in the far south of Laos.

While some are no bigger than a patch of alluvial dirt and a coconut palm, others are expansive and support small villages, where rice-paddies are dotted with gilded temples and crumbling French colonial buildings.

Think tropical holiday with a difference: the heat is sizzling but instead of white-sand beaches, try dangling your legs in the swirling river from your private balcony at the eco-friendly raft-hotel, Salaphae, on Don Khon island.

Airy and tasteful rooms go for around US$20 a night, easily the most luxurious water-fronted accommodation on any of the three main islands in the river archipelago. The old French hospital Sala Don Khone, set just back off the river, is another fine option oozing charm.

Rent a wobbly bicycle and go exploring along the narrow and sun-dappled dirt trails.

Don Khon and Don Dhet across the way are well and truly on the backpacker trail these days but the islands retain a laid-back bucolic charm, where farmers till the rich soil much as they did a century ago and fishermen still silently toss their nets in the early hours of the morning.

There’s not too much to see or do _ that’s really the allure _ but there are a few items to cross off the tourist list if you must.

The railway bridge linking the two islands that the enterprising French built as part of their ill-fated railway project is difficult to miss and a historical reminder of their misplaced optimism.

Indefatigable explorers thought they would be able to navigate the Mekong through the Khone Falls just to the south of Don Khon by bridging the two with a few kilometres of track to bypass the falls.

Their might, alas, was nothing in the face of the massive falls and their dream of shipping out China’s fabled riches _ the river begins in Tibet _ via the 4,000-kilometre Mekong to Vietnam was dashed.

Today, just the ballast remains of the railway, which can still be followed by bicycle through alternating lush jungle and emerald paddies to the rusting French pier. Chances are you’ll dodge strolling saffron-clad monks, school children and an array of farm animals on the way there.

From here you can hire a boat to see the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, which swim in pools along the Cambodian border and are best seen in the late part of the dry season around April and May.

As the sun falls in particular the islands really come into their own with fantastic light showing off scenes that seem artfully painted. At night, all is dark and blissfully quiet. The islands are off the main electricity grid, though generators are gradually popping up. With a brilliantly big star-speckled sky though, you hardly need power.

Food on the islands is basic but delicious, and centred around spicy curries and salads served with sticky rice. Lao coffee, with condensed milk two fingers thick nestled at the bottom, is also ubiquitous.

Legend has it that the first backpacker showed up on Don Dhet and was so impressed with the place he asked a local fisherman to build him a hut and provide him with meals in return for US$20 a month.

Depending on who’s talking, he stayed six weeks to six months, but when he returned to native Canada, word spread and the travellers trickled by.

Due to an abysmal lack of public transport in the landlocked country, particularly in the far south, these backpackers have not been chased away by package tourists, with bamboo huts going for a dollar a night being the standard set-up.

A few hours north by boat is Don Khong, the largest of the islands. On this island, you can’t beat staying at the seductive colonial Auberge Sala Done Khong. This large teak house has some stunning rooms _ starting at US$25 _ with a pretty garden to pass by the heat of the day.

Once you drag yourself out of the Auberge, try to cycle the 30-kilometre trail that circumnavigates Don Khong. Don’t worry though if you flag half way _ many succumb to the enervating heat and at best do a half-loop, taking in wooded villages, riverside wats and an endless stream of waving children.

You can always do the other half next time.

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