Ban Don, one of 4,000 islands: go there before it’s lost

Welcoming Visit Laos Year 2018, Vientiane Times is publishing a series of feature articles and images inviting you to experience the authentic nature, culture, history and hospitality of Laos, jewel of the Mekong.

The highly scenic and riverine area of Siphandone (meaning 4,000 Islands) which includes the island of Don Khong in Champassak province is somewhere you should visit before it changes beyond recognition.

The old temple in Ban Na.

This bucolic area, with the Mekong at its centre, is one of my all-time favourite places in Laos and I try to go there whenever time permits. Most of my trips have involved visits to the smaller island retreats of Don Det and Don Khone but I know that other places in the area are equally beautiful.
On my last visit I decided to go to a large village called Ban Don.
I arrived quite late in the evening and expected to arrive on Khong Island by boat as usual, but instead was taken there in a car.
I was somewhat confused because on my last visit four years ago I went everywhere by boat. I asked around to check that I was in the right place, as my surroundings were unfamiliar in the darkness.
In the morning I walked to a restaurant and saw many vehicles on the streets. But then I walked down to the river and saw people fishing and farming on the riverbank just as I remembered.
Then I knew for sure I was in Ban Don and it seemed like nothing much had changed apart from the number of cars around.
This was easily explained by the fact that a large bridge now linked Khong Island to mainland Champassak across the Mekong.
The bridge opened in November 2014 and is 718 metres long and 11 metres wide.
Its construction took 34 months and cost US$34.12 million, funded 95 percent by China and 5 percent by Laos.
I searched for information about further developments in the area as I had read about plans for large-scale commercial construction, but couldn’t see any changes.
According to what I’ve read on YouTube and Google, this area has been earmarked for development as an economic zone.
I spent three days and two nights in the village with staff from World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) who were visiting people they were working with as part of a project called “Management and sustainable use of fisheries and aquatic natural resources in Siphandone”.
I wandered around the village and enjoyed it as much as I had before. I relished the friendly smiles I received from the local people and sat on the riverbank to gaze out over the large expanse of calm water.
On my last afternoon there I again walked through the village but took my time and stopped to look at the old houses.
I saw a lot of old and beautiful wooden houses but I was rather surprised to see the rotting wooden supports under many of them, which looked like they could give way at any time, although some were still new and in good condition.
I walked along the river road and chanced upon a charming old temple. I fell into conversation with some German visitors who were sitting reading or walking around and taking photos of the temple.
One couple told me they were part of a group tour and had asked to be taken somewhere that was quiet and undeveloped and not an official tourist site, as they wanted to see the real Laos.
They said they enjoyed the village because it had not been artificially developed for tourists so they could enjoy being in an environment that was truly Laos and be part of a laidback way of life that was entirely natural.
During the journey back to Vientiane I wondered when I would return and what changes I would find in a few years’ time.
From the villagers’ point of view, commercial development will benefit them because transport will become easier and they will have other conveniences, but I hope their lives are not radically changed.
There are some places in Laos that are better left untouched.

 

By Patithin Phetmeuangphuan
(Latest Update December 5, 2018)

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