Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Temple on an Island Called Don Kho, A Church in Pakse – Travel Log 112011

Upon arrival at Imoun Homestay, I promptly told Por, my host, about my intentions of taking a trip to an island north of Pakse. It’s called Don Kho, an island placidly suspended in time along the Mekong. It’s situated in the vicinity of Ban Saphai (Saphai Village) where a boat is hired to get to the island. South Laos is full of homonymous names that baffle and confuse newbies, I had to seriously study the places to get the difference. With reckless planning, there was a chance, though slim, of finding yourself in an inadvertent destination.


Don Khong is the big island in the riverine archipelago of Siphandon aka 4000 Islands (in the Khong District of Champasak province) several hours south of Pakse. Don Khon (Don Khone) is the other half of Don Det, and otherwise referred to as the “party island” of Siphandon. On a lesser scale of “difficulty”, there’s Don Det and Don Daeng. And as if that wasn’t enough, part of my itinerary for this trip would have me dealing with Thailand’s northern regions of Chiang Rai, Chiang Saen, Chiang Khong, Mae Sai, and Mae Chan. Inspiring, eh?


In my room, I gave myself 30 minutes to lay down my stuff, catch my breath and freshen up, then I headed back down the lobby which, that early, was starting to feel like home. Por informed me that a tuktuk was charging $10 or 80,000 kip for a return trip. After having had a tuktuk from the nearby bus station charge me 40,000 kip for a 15 minute ride, this rate was easily acceptable. After all, I’m visiting a village, crossing the Mekong on a boat, visiting an island and venturing around a temple.


Before leaving, Por whipped up a meal I specifically ordered: chicken, vegetables, rice worth 17,000 kip ($2.10). When you’ve read enough jubilant reviews from other travelers, you’re reduced to anticipation, and it would be an understatement to say that I was looking forward for a taste of Por’s cooking. Yum!

My ride swiftly came, like magical finger snaps from “Bewitched”, and for 45 minutes, we went northward on an immaculate road, heading to the fishing-and-weaving village of Ban Saphai. We passed by small houses and Pakse Airport, turned somewhere, until we reached the end of a road. It was my stop. My tuktuk parked where he could wait. A boatman guided me to the riverside and I had to skip on wooden planks leading to my boat - 20,000 kip ($2.50) one way, and another 20,000 kip back ($5 return). The water was tranquil and I caught very few others floating through. The ride itself was pleasant and short, 10-15 minutes.


Don Kho is an underexplored island in the middle of Mekong. It is 3 kilometers from end to end and 800 meters in width, with a population believed to be 800. It didn’t seem that way. It was desolate and underpopulated; the whole island is a village (ban) in itself with some 70 residential houses. The middle of the island is a haven of rice fields and vegetable gardens. But the main destination here is a Buddhist temple simply called Wat Don Kho, built 1800 years ago. It has a Scripture Library containing the most complete scripture written in Akhara Dhamma (ancient Laotian letters). Though it doesn’t do anything tangible for me since I am clearly not a scholar who needs to unravel the mysteries of the past, it’s nevertheless interesting information.

My tuktuk - 80,000 kip for a return to Don Kho and Ban Saphai

Nice northern road to Ban Saphai

Ban Saphai (Saphai Village)

20,000 kip for a one-way ride to Don Kho.


I carefully got off my boat in wobbly fashion, while the boat gently rocked back and forth on the water. There are no jetties this part of Laos. Then I climbed a flight of stairs until I saw the temple compound. It was eerily magical in its solitary splendor. The temple stood to the right beside a small Preaching Hall. Another building at the back of the temple must be the Scripture Library, but it’s closed – and would seem like no one’s visited in ages. At one corner near the library, there stood a Drum Tower. A big dilapidated two-story building rose forlornly at the center of the compound which houses the monks as well as long boats jutting out from some rooms. The back roof has amazingly caved in, and without human intervention, the rest of the ceiling would eventually all fall down. This decrepit condition should be a source of concern, most especially since young monks live there.


I sat at a waiting shed facing the temple and took in the atmosphere. I made it! I wasn’t sure this was do-able the same day I arrived. I was deluged by a sensation of serenity, such as the gentle breeze blowing from the east. There were few monks walking from their abode to the preaching hall, occasionally glancing at my direction. After checking out the temple, I braved the three-story Drum Tower. The huge drum, like the monk’s house, had a gaping hole at one side. I was awash with a fleeting sadness. Everything seemed to be falling apart in Don Kho. Isn’t a slice of history kept here? Before stepping down, I was joined by a young monk who would later prove that, even in its state of ruin, a rundown drum can still provide its purpose. Indeed, even broken souls can still provide a purpose.

Once back on the ground, I went further afield. There was a rice field at the back of the temple grounds stretching to the other side of the island. After a few considerations, I decided to walk and make the distance. God, let there be no dogs! I eventually reached the other side, 800 meters from the temple. This was the village, but even the houses were few and slumbering. The few people I saw smiled, but kept doing their stuff, placing some harvest on a sack. Lush bamboo trees abound. I excused myself and stepped inside a gated house to see the Mekong from the other side. The serenity of the river renders endless acquaintances with all that’s naturally beautiful.


I heard the beating of the drum. In steady cadence, there was a decadent beat that lured me back to the temple – so I went back where I came from. The drum was still working! And I was inexplicably overjoyed. For 15 minutes, a couple of young monks were playing music; one that thumped and boomed. Like magical incantations, the sound cast a spell on a sleepy island. There are simple pleasures more precious than anything money can buy. I also realized that it was time to go. A group of monks were cleaning a boat (1st photo). I saw my boatman waiting beside the monk's boat. Without a strain of conversation, we made our way back to Ban Saphai.

An oddly shaped Buddha inside Wat Don Kho

A novice monk joined me at the Drum Tower (below)

A broken drum

Gaping hole at the roof

A young student walks back through dry rice paddies.

Bamboo trees at the other side of the island.

The view from the other side of Don Kho. The village across is called Ban Saman. Just north of Saman is Ban Koutlamxeng.

A small temple in Ban Saphai.

Map of Don Kho - the road from Pakse to Ban Saphai


At Ban Saphai, I excused myself and walked away from my tuktuk. I checked out a small building with gadgets used for weaving, but it was deserted. Further away, I took a walk under the beaming sun and leisurely passed through houses. Was any one home? There was no hint of activity, but for a child who was riding a bike and moving away as fast as he came. I saw a small store and bought myself a Pepsi, then went back to meet my tuktuk driver.

The way back to Pakse was uneventful. I have always loved the rush of the wind on my hair. As immaculately coiffed my hair is in Manila, I hardly cared if they were in a state of disarray in Laos. This is after all the Land of Chill! And if I were to be castigated for repeating what “Lao PDR” really stood for, I dare say again: “Please don’t rush!” And no one’s rushing.

A street in Ban Saphai with wooden houses on stilts.

Back at Imoun, I got a few stuff from my baggage then decided to walk and check out the riverside which was just 50 meters from Imoun. I keep seeing Mekong like an old friend wherever I roam. It's comforting.

From a distance, I could see the graceful Nippon-Lao Bridge, otherwise known as the 3rd Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. There were modest restaurants scattered along the Mekong, and by 4:30PM, people have started to populate them. 4:30 is their Happy Hour! This schedule accommodates longer hours before the 11 or 12AM curfew. Laos has a curfew!
I walked away from the river and saw Por at the lobby. She invited me for dinner tonight. I needed to check my mail at the market, but quickly adjusted the plan. I am not gonna miss another gastronomic experience in Pakse. This village – Ban Pakhuaydeau – is relatively far from the hustle and bustle of the city, but I chose the area to acquaint myself with the riverside languor. The street in front of Imoun Homestay leads to a New Market where a relative hum of activity occurs.


Along the road, I saw a hospital. Nearby, there was a Catholic Church, one of the few ones I saw in Laos (there's one in Savannakhet). I peeped through a half-closed door and saw the setting sun dramatically illuminating Jesus crucified on a huge cross, hanging down the altar. It was almost prophetic; of what, I’m not sure.

It felt comforting to be in the company of Someone you believe in. I knelt down and prayed for my selfish intentions; I prayed for my family; I prayed for my dreams – the selfish man that I am. But why not? Though not particularly religious, the God that I know has boundless patience and kindness. I am sure He can understand through my greed. Haha. Meanwhile, the market area has shops that sell anything from clothes, kitchen ware, market produce, flowers and fruits, and even DVDs and VCDs.

References just call this "Catholic Church".

Sun shining on the crucifix.

Lao-Nippon Bridge connects Pakse to Vangtao, the border town.

I bought 10 DVD’s, but only got 1 Lao movie – “From Pakse with Love”, the sequel of the charming “Sabaidee, Luang Prabang” (the first film shot in Laos – in 2008 - since the country adopted communism in 1975). Though highly successful, this was only followed by sequels: “From Pakse with Love” and the 3rd parter called “A Lao Wedding”. This purchase would complete my trilogy collection. The rest of the titles at the DVD shop were either Thai films or Lao telenovelas (yes, they’re also plagued by teleseryes). At 5,000 kip ($0.63) per piece, I was happy with my stash.

I found Sedone Internet Café beside the market – 5,000 kip ($0.63) an hour – but the speed was so slow I finally gave up after an hour of trying. I later learned that the other computers in the shop worked better. But how would I know if I wasn’t told? In the vicinity, I saw Vinath Money Changer, a forex shop that didn’t deduct a service charge, thus you get a little more from your dollar.


At 7:20PM, I rushed back to Imoun and learned that I was to share this dinner with a Dutch girl and a French guy. Though initially wary, I eventually warmed up to my new acquaintances. We pulled our tables together while the dishes were one-by-one laid in front of us. Por was beaming from the selection and I was glad to be there. Over careful mastication, I learned a little more about my new “friends”.

Teske – aka Tess – hails from Holland. She’s a social worker who takes care of adolescent problems. She had been traveling for a couple of months and had seen India. She’s heading north of Laos from here before flying back to her homeland. Jean Louis is this exceedingly French guy who’s been traveling for a long while around Asia. He’s a bit bashful with his limited English, but is actually sweeter than most elder travelers I’ve met. The two has seen Wat Phu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site south of Champasak. Though one of his arms has been amputated, this has never stopped Jean Louis from engaging in activities most other able bodied backpackers can only dream of, and I salute him for that. He is a source of inspiration. It was also interesting to learn that one could visit Wat Phu for the day – on a motorcycle!

Conversation stretched on longer than expected. Tess regaled me with her adventures in India, occasionally annotating about her photos (she had a laptop with her). It was interesting to just listen most of the time. Jean Louis would flash his own amazing shots from places all over, including photos from Champasak and Attapeu. This is what makes backpacking journeys more colorful. At 10PM, we said our good night. Jean Louis will be departing in the morning, while Tess will be checking out Pakse. Meanwhile, I have booked for another day tour to the Bolaven Plateau – and I was so stoked with excitement. What could be better than a motorcycle and a driver at my beck and call? Tess and I planned on visiting the big temple together at the other end of the road when I get back from Bolaven.

Traveling friends - Teske from Holland and Jean Louis from France. The three of us occupied Imoun Homestay's only 3 rooms.

We shared the food. This vegetable dish was particularly tasty.

This chicken meal was delicious but exceedingly spicy.

A book store near the New Central Market (above) and some shops at the market (below)

After a quick shower, I headed back to my room and verified my itinerary the next day. I tried to sleep but there was thumping music emanating from the riverside bars. I couldn’t sleep no matter how I tried. The noisy music abruptly stopped at midnight - as though a switch had been turned off. Curfew. I drifted to a dreamless sleep.

It was 3AM when I woke up shivering from the cold. You just hate the clattering of teeth and the wobbly knee. I switched the electric fan to lower speed, but even that wasn’t enough. So I turned it off – and headed back to slumber. I successfully dozed and went to lala land this time.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

The Pakse street in front of Imoun at 7PM


Ola said...

I always like to check what you are eating during your trips:)

Life and travelling

eye in the sky said...

@ Ola:

Unfortunately, unlike you, I don't experiment much with food when I'm traveling. But these set in this travel post was delicious! :)

NRIGirl said...

That's a beautiful write up; felt like I was also visiting with you.

Thank you!

eye in the sky said...

@ NRIGirl:

Thanks for the kind words. :)

Twin said...

Wonderful storytelling!

eye in the sky said...

@ Twin:

Thank you! :)

Ramakrishnan said...

The names certainly can be confusing. Por's rice & chicken meal looks quite tempting:) Nice motorized boats. Hope you can swim if any contingency arises. Charming little Buddhist temple-the young monk looks so radiant & serene. Laos appears to be a very poor country.
You had nice company for dinner at Imoun :) Por is such a good hostess lavishing you with an array of delicious dishes.

Ramakrishnan said...

Thanks for disabling word verification!

eye in the sky said...

@ R. Ramakrishnan:

Laos is one of the world's poorest, but it also has some of the nicest people.

Actually, we had to pay for our food. It wasn't exactly free. :)I really wanted to check out Por's culinary expertise.

Re: word verification, no prob. I didn't plan on having it. I just didn't set it, not as far as I can remember.