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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  4000 Islands, Laos | Light on the Mekong

Our small wooden motorboat sliced through the pewter-coloured Mekong river like a tailor’s scissors through silk. On my left was Laos; on my right, Cambodia. Clusters of small islands, many of them only small knolls scattered across the river’s 14km width, floated by. The region is called 4000 Islands, but no one really knows how many islands there are. Somewhere below the water surface, I knew extremely rare dolphins were swimming around. Every time I saw a ripple, I mentally willed a dolphin to surface, if only to salvage my rickety reputation as a tour guide.

My best friend Jacqui and I had travelled overland from Siem Reap, Cambodia, to the Si Phan Don wetlands, colloquially known as the 4000 Island region, in southern Laos especially to see the Irrawaddy dolphin, a species that fishing has left critically endangered. Jacqui and I hoped to catch a glimpse of this special animal before it disappears off the face of the earth. There are less than 100 of them alive today—I didn’t fancy the odds that I would spot one of them on the stretch of the river that I was traversing.

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A child cycling in Don Khon village

Jacqui had been kind enough not to mention my failure as a guide, but if things didn’t improve soon, this would not last. In fact, if not for her French language skills we wouldn’t even have known where we were by the end of the day. An elderly Cambodian woman who still spoke the French she’d learnt in colonial times told her we had arrived in Stung Treng. The border was closed, she said. We would have to stay in her dusty hotel—we did. The following day, two bus rides, a stop to get a visa and a boat journey later, we finally set foot on the island of Don Khon, the home base from which we hoped to go on trips to see the Irrawady dolphins in their natural habitat.

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Villagers taking offerings to the temple in Don Khon

The dirt track circling the island was a little uneven in parts. The rainy season had just ended, which meant the rice paddies were a fresh rain-washed green so vivid they made our eyes ache. In some fields, we saw the bent backs of men and women working. Occasionally a child sat in a sarong waiting patiently for his parents. We whizzed past other guest houses and tourist cafés offering traditional Lao food—green papaya salad and noodle soup—as well as European fare like chips and omelettes. But this wasn’t the peak tourist season, so we had the delicious sensation that we had the entire island to ourselves.

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The author’s friend Jacqui walking towards the Mekong river

A calm area had been roped off for swimmers. Neither of us had brought along swimming costumes, but that wasn’t going to stop us. Since there was no one about, we simply swam in our underwear. Revived, refreshed and a little damp, we continued our circumnavigation of the island. By the time we arrived back at our guest house we were hot and sweaty, and it was too late to go on the quest that had brought us there—dolphin spotting.

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After almost 2 hours, a dozen saffron-robed monks entered from the dwellings they lived in next to the temple. They sat cross-legged on a raised stage. A local elder intoned a prayer as the villagers lined up to present their offerings to the monks. Our young friend explained that this was a special ceremony to celebrate the full moon and the end of the rainy season. I stood silently, grateful to be part of this gentle, elegant and spiritual ritual.

Afterwards, we rested as planned and rose late in the afternoon, ready for our dolphin adventure. A local guide took us in his motorbike’s sidecar to the riverbank where a boat awaited us.

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Our beaming, non-English-speaking guide waved to our left. Our heads swivelled in frantic unison, but all we caught was the splash of what we presumed was a dolphin. The clouds looked smoky now. The sky darkened. An orange hue glowed in the distance.

“It’s a lovely trip anyway," I said, in vain denial of the fact that we were running out of time. Jacqui looked away. “There. Over there," I heard her shout suddenly. This time, I too saw the outline of what looked like a flying sausage. And then another.

It was the Irrawaddy dolphin, there was no mistaking it. It’s not a pretty creature, but a dolphin leaping for joy in a river has an unrestrained beauty about it, more so when it happens just metres from us. Our grins widened. Our eyes shone. We spotted at least six more leaping dolphins and took several blurry photos.

In a few minutes, the dolphins sank under the now-still water’s surface, and darkness obliterated the last shreds of daylight.

Yvonne van Dongen is a freelance travel writer and journalist based in New Zealand. She has also worked at Condé Nast Traveler in New York.

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