Down here among the 4000 islands of the lower Mekong River before it flows into Vietnam. Wonderful setting and waterfalls and very hot and sticky.16 November 2006. There are only three ways to travel in Laos: bus, boat or plane, and the first two are very slow. It would have taken us two days to travel overland from Luang Prabang in the north, to Pakse in the south, our stopping off point for onward travel down to Si Phon Don, also known as Four Thousand Islands, on the Mekong on the border with Cambodia. This would have meant yet a further day’s travel. We had to cover ground more quickly so decided to fly. There’s nothing much to say about Pakse except that it was much hotter and more humid that Luang Prabang – really tropically hot and sticky. The south is much flatter than the mountainous north, but still very pretty in it its own way. We really wanted to be able to come to this area because it would give us a wider view of Laos – or should we say a longer view as we’ve now travelled the length of it – before moving on to either Vietnam or Cambodia. You don’t need to get a visa for Cambodia in advance as they can be issued on arrival at airports – which is just as well as we don’t have Cambodian visas because we never managed to find a consulate or embassy on our travels. We did hear that it was possible to get a visa at the land border crossing with Laos, but there was also conflicting information saying that it was dubious. The flight options to Vietnam from Pakse were pretty limited but there were direct flights to Siem Reap in Cambodia. They issue visas there and that’s also one of the main places in Cambodia we want to go. So after much humming and haa-ing, we decided it would be easier to fly to Siem Reap from Pakse, making Vietnam our last country in SE Asia before heading to Bangkok for our flight to Australia. Now having been down to the islands near the Laos/Cambodia border, we know that they are issuing visas, and we could in fact have crossed the border over land, which is what we’d have preferred to do. But hey ho too bad, we made our plans and will just ‘go with the flow’. Hindsight is a great thing! After a brief overnight stop in Pakse we hopped on a bus down to Hat Xai Khun for the short ferry ride to the village of Mueng Khong to spend a few days on the island of Don Khong. We bought our bus tickets from @[email protected] Internet Café in Pakse. The guy (Adam’s brother) was very helpful and had a few strings to his bow, mainly roasting and exporting his own coffee beans grown locally on the Bolavan Plateau (delicious – we’d cups to prove it), but we reckon we paid over the odds for the bus and ferry. Although it was a few thousand Kip extra, in reality it was only a couple of quid so we won’t beat ourselves up over it. But, we do need to wise up a bit more on getting best value! For instance, we could have got the public bus (but haven’t found the bus station), we could have gone direct to the travel agent (Lanexang Travel which is only 100m from @[email protected] Internet) that supplied the bus, and we could have gone over to Don Khong on the public car ferry which is a couple of kilometres south of Hat Xai Khun (but would have meant a tuk tuk on the other side). So perhaps swings and roundabouts……………. It’s lovely and peaceful here and there isn’t really very much to do – a walk round the village area took about half an hour – but it’s absolutely gorgeous. The Mekong is about 15 km wide and flows slowly and gently past banks dotted with banana, palm and other exotic trees. The people, though, are very poor and, as in the north, have a very basic standard of living. Although more of the houses here are made of wood or rattan, some have electricity and satellite TV, but people still have no running water and wash themselves and their clothes in the river. After a quick evening meal in our guest house (fresh caught Mekong river fish in coconut milk wrapped in banana leaves, and spicy fresh papaya salad), we were advised to head down to the concert. This turned out to be on what appears to be a village green, opposite the local Wat (Buddhist temple), and was a live stage performance which looked as if it had borrowed heavily from a Brian Rix Whitehall farce. However, the crowds were out and it went down a bomb with the locals. Headed back to the guest house with a back of butterkist from one of the stalls, and no doubt several mozzie bites from the long grass. The highlight was a trip on the river with a young boatman, and his very young sister, down the Mekong to the islands – Don Det and Don Khon (with the remnants of the French built railroad between Laos and Cambodia) to visit the Li Phi Falls (very impressive). Next stop was the Phaphang Falls between the mainland and the islands – even more impressive (see Si Phan Don photo album). Back at Mueng Kong, we enjoyed a couple of beers and the best spring rolls we’ve ever had, courtesy of Mr Pon’s guest house (the local entrepreneur who’d organised our trip). The following day, back to Mr Pon’s to hire a small motorbike and explore more of Don Khong. And also thought it a good opportunity to have a practice run on a motorbike as we plan to buy one in Oz – but watch this space! Eric started off very gingerly indeed. Not surprising since he hadn’t been on a motorbike for about 25 years – the last time was on Spetses in the Greek Islands in the early eighties! But he got the hang of it again and soon we were off, with Margaret on the back hanging on for dear life, looking over Eric’s shoulder for potholes – and occasionally failing to hang on to her baseball hat (no crash helmets or other safety measures here!). We won’t go into Margaret’s shot on the bike. Suffice to say she’ll be taking lessons in Oz! No particular highlights, but we went round the island twice (it’s only 8 km wide by 18 km) and despite 5 attempts, failed miserably to follow the Lonely Planet’s directions to Wat Phu Khao Kaew – apparently an interesting temple built on Khmer ruins. Even this far south, we keep bumping into people we’ve met elsewhere in Laos, even as far north as Luang Namtha. Many were heading on to Cambodia and we started to think there were more people on our flight than there were seats. We drew up a detailed strategy to arrive at the airport early enough (ie even before it opened) to make sure we got on the flight. But this failed miserably because - it was another Whitehall farce getting out of the hotel, our tuk tuk driver unaccountably decided to take a rather circuitous route to the airport (not sure he’d been there before as he tried to enter through the out gate!), and check in procedures were the most convoluted and confusing we’d ever come across. In the end we got on the plane ok and there were even a few empty seats. But it was reassuring to be surrounded by people we’d met in various part of Laos – indeed we seemed to know about half the flight! Those we didn’t know personally included Victor Meldrew and his wife Linda Stronach, Mike Hanlon in his early twenties, and the comedian guy who’s on one of the teams on They Think It’s All Over (forget his name). Margaret thinks it was Whatsisname Hancock who reads the questions.