Laos Muang Saen 2002.02.17 - 02.20

Land of 4000 Islands

Accommodation is found on 3 of the 4000 islands in the Si Phan Don region of Laos near the Cambodian border. We departed Champasak in the morning intending to reach Don Det Island. The public bus on this day terminated on Don Khong Island in the town of Muang Saen, 2 hours north of Don Det. Being flexible, we accepted this unexpected itinerary change and found accommodation in Muang Saen. The advantage to staying on Don Khong Island is electricity. The advantage to staying on Don Det or Don Khone Island is the remoteness. All have few tourists, gorgeous sunsets, and access to the same sites.

Dolphin watching and the Phapeng Falls are the main tourist draws. Both can be seen in a single day. Neither are worth the effort needed to reach Si Phan Don. After the one-day tour, most travelers vegetate in a hammock for several days for lack of anything else to do. In fact, all across Laos, travelers tend to choose a random location and vegetate for a period of time. Laos seems to have little to offer beyond a relaxing sluggish lifestyle. People wanting to see interesting sites, travel quickly to several locations on a schedule, and be entertained shouldn't come to Laos. Those seeking a sedentary lifestyle in a past century love Laos.

Two modes of transport from Pakse and Champasak to the south islands depart in the morning daily. First is the boat down the Mekong River. The departure time from Pakse varies between 06:00 and 10:00 depending on the mood of the captain. 3-4 hours later it docks in Champasak, then continues downriver to Don Khong Island, arriving at 18:00 when lucky. The second mode of transport is by bus traveling the paved road parallel to the Mekong River, on the opposite bank from Champasak. Bus departure times from Pakse are as imprecise as the boat. In both cases, the only advice is to arrive early and wait.

In Champasak, our guesthouse owner recommended neither boat nor bus over the other. The only option is to choose one, hope it arrives, and hope it reaches its destination. In the worst case, a return to the guesthouse and an earlier start the next morning is always an option. The distance from the guesthouses in Champasak to the boat port is a short 100 meters. At the late hour of 09:00, we departed our guesthouse on foot to check the boat status at the port. A few tourists and locals sat in the shade of a tree by the riverbank. Nobody knew when the boat would arrive, but they were fairly certain that it hadn't already left. Boat fare was 25,000 Kip (US$2.64) per person. Since the bus is generally faster than the boat, we continued to the bus stop. A motorcycle with sidecar took us 2km to the ferry port (1500 Kip (US$0.16) each), the ferry carried us to the opposite bank of the Mekong (2000 Kip (US$0.21) each), and a tuk-tuk delivered us to the bus stop 3km east (3000 Kip (US$0.32) each). Travel time from our guesthouse to the bus stop was one hour. Luckily, in 5 minutes the bus came. " Don Det?" we shouted. Yeah, yeah, yeah, get on, the bus attendant motioned. 4 hours later, the bus terminated in Muang Saen on Don Khong Island (13,000 Kip (US$1.37) each). In Muang Saen, a restaurant owner offered to take us the 2 hours to Don Det Island for 60,000 Kip (US$6.34), but we chose to stay in Muang Saen for the night.

The next morning, the tourists coming by boat from Pakse / Champasak the previous morning arrived in Muang Saen. "What happened?" we asked. The boat departed Pakse late, departed Champasak later, and docked at the boatman's house at dusk. "We slept at the boatman's house," they said. They reached Muang Saen 15 hours late. The lesson? Don't come to Laos on a schedule.

The guesthouse owner in Muang Saen briefed us on the area activities. We were a group of 5 wanting to see dolphins and waterfalls. Ta-ke, a Japanese guy who kindly stowed our luggage in his room at a neighboring guesthouse as the roof of our guesthouse in Champasak burned, traveled with us to Muang Saen. On the same bus to Muang Saen were a German couple, Bjorn and Katrin. Our hotelier repeated the same information with questioning from us in several languages. "Depart early to see the dolphins. Leave at 07:00. 08:00 is too late. A day trip to the large waterfall, Phapeng Falls, is impossible from Muang Saen. Go by boat to see the smaller Li Phi Falls. Wait until tomorrow. The boat costs 100,000 Kip for the day, and in the morning, many tourists will travel, reducing the fare per person. After you get to Don Det, hire a small boat and tuk-tuk to see the dolphins and small waterfall. You pay extra for those."

Sure enough, the next morning 10 more tourists came to the boat dock. All 10 were going to Don Det to stay. Only the 5 of us wanted to see dolphins and waterfalls. On Don Det, an English speaking girl told us a different story. We pay 30,000 Kip (US$3.17) each to see dolphins by small boat and Phapeng Falls by tuk-tuk. Sold. That's the program we wanted in the first place.

The large boat from Muang Saen to Don Det continued to Nakasong with our group of 5. In Nakasong, an awaiting truck transported us to the 28km distant Lao-Cambodian border. Walking past Lao immigration to the Mekong River, we boarded a second boat that propelled us 30 minutes upstream into Laos where the dolphins swim. We heard the forceful exhale of surfacing dolphins before we spotted them. To the left and right of our boat swam dolphins in 2s and 3s. But this is no Sea World. The only visible part of a wild dolphin is the top fin. Returning to shore, we walked past Lao immigration once again, boarded our truck, and road to Phapeng Falls. Admission for foreigners is 9000 Kip. The waterfall is several notches below world-class, but worth the $1 admission, nonetheless. From there we headed home, first by truck to Nakasong, then by large boat to Muang Saen. Home at 18:00, we had a delicious fish dinner and stayed up talking until the early morning hours.

The day before, our hotelier confirmed again and again the bus departure times. "The 07:00 and 08:00 bus go to Pakse. The 09:00 bus stops in Pakse, then continues to Vientiane." Perfect. We wanted to go to Vientiane. At 08:45 we were ready. No bus. Ta-ke saw a bus at 08:30, but at 08:45 it was gone. The 08:00 bus must be running late, we thought. Close to 09:00, there was still no bus. Masami asked around town. No, there's never a 09:00 bus. The Vientiane bus departs at 08:30. Everyday it departs at 08:30. The next bus is tomorrow at 07:00. Katrin, Bjorn, Ta-ke, Masami, and Wes were all in disbelief. Our hotelier insisted, "Sometimes the 09:00 bus leaves early. No problem. Stay another night. The next bus is tomorrow morning." Nope. We figured we could find a tuk-tuk to the ferry crossing to the main road and flag down a truck heading north to Pakse. The tuk-tuk from Muang Saen was our first challenge. "The driver will be back at 10:00," a lady assured. At 10:15 she continued, "Another 15 minutes, maybe." At 10:30, there was still no driver. Fortunately for us, a brand new Toyota pickup stopped nearby. Masami went to ask for a ride to the ferry port. "No problem. Hop in!" "We're servicing the local hospital equipment," the doctor in the front passenger seat explained. "We need to make one more stop on the island, then we'll drop you off at the ferry port." "Where do you go next?" Wes probed. "Pakse." "We're trying to get to Pakse too," Wes eagerly informed. "Then ride with us," came the offer we hoped for. "But first, we will go to Phapeng Falls to eat lunch." Bracing against the wind at 120 km/h in the back of the pickup, we paralleled the river route that took 2 hours by boat the previous day. 35 minutes later, we were paying another 9000 Kip admission for the same lousy falls. Lunch was excellent. It helps to be Lao when ordering Lao food. We 5 tourists getting a free ride insisted on paying the lunch bill. After some coaxing the Lao doctor would let us pay the food if he could pay the beer. Agreed. Back aboard the truck, we made excellent time to Pakse: 150km in just under an hour and a half. We were on the fastest transport in Laos.

All 5 of us decided to stay the night in Pakse. Early the next afternoon, we parted ways. Ta-ke, Katrin, and Bjorn went to Thailand, and we went north to Vientiane.

The Mekong River Phapeng Falls, 2.5 hours south of Don Khong Island and 30 minutes southeast of Don Det Island, is the largest waterfall (based on water volume) in Southeast Asia. Our guidebook lists Phapeng one of the highlights of Laos. Still, it's hardly worth the travel effort to visit.
We enjoy the company of our new found friends. Left to right are Katrin and Bjorn from Germnay, Ta-ke from Japan, and us.

HomePrevious PageNext Journal PageJournal Index 2002Map of Indochina

  Copyright © 2000-2002   Wes and Masami Heiser.   All rights reserved.