Sunday, December 12, 2010

4000 Islands (Si Phan Don)

The 4000 Islands (4K Islands) are located on the Mekong river, where the river is at its widest, at the southernmost tip of Laos. The Cambodian border lies 5km from there and if you want to go fresh dolphin watching (Irrawaddy Dolphins) , you take a boat which takes you across to a Cambodian island, you pay $1 USD to cross into Cambodia (plus the cost of the whole trip to take you there in the first place), look at the dolphins and then head right back to Laos.

A ferry (nothing more than a small long tail boat) took us across the river. On the way I chatted to a Thai girl from Bangkok who was there with her friends from Thailand on vacation. They had 3 days off for the King’s Birthday and they wanted to see what all the hype was about in Laos. This surprised me for a couple of reasons. The first being that they would travel almost 1000km’s during a 3 day trip. They would be spending 2 whole days travelling and only 1 day on the actual island. The second thing that surprised me was that they hadn’t been to Laos up until this point. Laos borders Thailand and although the 4K Islands are far south and far away from Bangkok, other parts of Laos are much closer. But they were very excited to be on vacation and I wasn’t going to bring any of these things up with them. The girl and her 4 friends were psychologists in Bangkok.

We were dropped off on the island and immediately started looking for a guest house. We found one rather quickly for $4 per night. In the Lonely Planet guide they describe the Mekong river as “iridescent blue” but we found it to be a very murky brown. We found out it was because of the rains the previous month but were assured by January the river should be blue again. Right away we found the atmosphere to be completely relaxed. Our bungalow was right on the water and had 2 hammocks. Our neighbours were hanging out (no pun intended) on their hammocks. The island of Don Det is fairly small and there are no real roads. Any roads are dirt tracks (shared by pedestrians and scooters) or gravel roads. The island consists mostly of guest houses, a couple of restaurants and rice paddies. It is also connected to Don Khon (another small island) via a bridge. There really isn’t much to do except relax. We grabbed some food, ran into some people we had met at the waterfall in Pai, and just hung out.

The next morning we grabbed breakfast, and took a walk around the island. It was hot outside. The walk around the island took a couple of hours, and after we got back and showered, we stayed in our hammocks for the rest of the day reading. The following morning we rented 2 bicycles and rode over to Don Khon and crossed the bridge. The day before there were a couple of guys waiting on the other side who said we needed to pay 20,000 kip ($3) each to cross the bridge. There was a sign indicating they were telling the truth. (The locals only pay 5,000 kip) That day, however, there wasn’t anyone there so we rode our bikes across without paying. We drove to see a waterfall, and then went to see a beach. The roads were terrible and the bicycles were not mountain bikes but street bikes with baskets on the front. We also went to see about the dolphin watching but we thought paying $10 was too much so we didn’t do it. As we were on our way to the next waterfall Andrew realized he had a flat tire. We were in the middle of nowhere so there was no choice but to walk the bike. This caused us to take longer than usual to get back to the bridge. But before we crossed over we found a bike shop that had a tire pump and we were able to put air in Andrew’s tire. There seemed to be a problem however as the air kept going down. We were heading back home when the guards asked us for the tickets for the bridge. Of course we didn’t have any so we just pretended not to understand and said “ya ya, over there” and didn’t stop and rode past them as fast as possible. After we crossed the bridge Andrew’s tire was flat again so we needed to walk the bike all the way back. We returned it without saying anything. Again, we spent the rest of the afternoon in hammocks reading.

We booked a ticket directly to Seam Reap, Cambodia from the 4K Islands for the next day. The price was pretty good, $12, and it would take us 14 hours to get there. We were happy with the price because we had inquired into the same trip before we got on the island and were quoted a “very good price” of $28. We left the next morning at 8am. The border crossing wasn’t very stressful but it was interesting. Although I can’t confirm this, I’m pretty sure we were ripped off. Before we could leave Laos we had to have our passports stamped by the Laos immigration, indicating we had left the country. They told us we would have to pay $1 USD for this, which we did. We then walked over to the Cambodian immigration, but before we could get our visas we had to undergo a “health check” and pay $1 USD. The health check consisted of a lady measuring our temperature with an electronic thermometer from a distance of 3 inches from our head. I’m sure the measuring was very accurate. We could then proceed to fill out the forms for our visa. We were informed the visa would cost 1000 Thai Baht (around $30CDN). Andrew asked if he could pay in US dollars and was informed it would be $23 USD. This was obviously more beneficial for us so we paid in US Dollars, but according to our research it should only have cost us $20USD per person. In order to complete the visa application we needed to provide a passport photo. If we did not have passport photos we would have to pay an additional $2 USD per person. Luckily Andrew and I had a lot of passport photos from when we had them done on Koh Tao in Thailand. We had needed them for our Advanced Open Water course. The photo shop had provided us with 9 passport photos which have come in very handy. We obtained our visas without much problem. We then had to wait 2 hours for the bus to leave again. If we wanted to use the washroom we would have to pay $1 USD per person. Before we left however, I was able to sneak into the bathroom and use it for free. Later we found out a couple of girls questioned the $1USD for the health check and were told it was as a donation and they refused to pay it and were let through. So I guess we were scammed! We found out we would have to switch buses at one point during our trip and it turned out we wouldn’t arrive in Seam Reap until 11:30pm, an hour and a half behind schedule.

We arrived in Seam Reap at 11:30pm, were “attacked” by tuk tuk drivers who were willing to take us anywhere we wanted to go for $1 per person. We took a tuk tuk that assured us he would take us wherever we wanted to go. Unfortunately he didn’t. He stopped in front of a guest house we didn’t want to stay at. He then asked (with very pleading eyes) if we could stay there because he makes commission. We said no. So then he drove us to the guest house of our choice and then kept asking us if he could be our driver the next day. I felt really bad as it was very sad for me to see someone begging so badly for what would only be a few dollars. We didn’t know what our plans were for the next day but we took his phone number and said we might call him. We got a room for the night and settled in. It was late, we had had a long day and we were exhausted.

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