Tuesday, November 7, 2017
How To: Laos - 4000 Islands section of the Mekong
The Mekong is the 12th largest river in the world and is navigable for the majority of it’s 4,350km length. Linking six ‘Mekong’ countries, namely China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, this waterway has served as an important trade route for local and international communities. A trade route that is interrupted only once, by ສີ່ພັນດອນ (Si Phan Don), which is Laotian for ‘4000 Islands’. A deserved name, as this area of the Mekong splits between a plethora of islands. A few larger ones with guesthouses and restaurants, some with huts, small agricultural patches or thick jungle and then thousands of smaller islands. 4000 Islands is where the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ trade routes meet and are briefly forced onto the Laotian mainland, resulting in the development of Nakasong and a series of small trade-based villages.
In the late 19th century French colonialists made repeated attempts to navigate the falls in an effort to develop an unbroken trade-route, but their efforts failed. Though for different motivations, I guess these men were ahead of their time as it wasn’t until 2000 when Australian Mick O’Shea convinced Mikey Abbott, Alex Nicks, Tyler Curtis and mega crew to go and explore the region. This began what is and will continue to be a rich history of whitewater kayaking in 4000 Islands.
Easily accessible class IV-V whitewater, cheap food and accommodation, a good night life, a relaxed island vibe, smiling locals and the river pretty much to yourself. This destination is a suited to not only class V senders, but would be great for class IV to V kayakers looking for a little adventure and would be a great place for a paddler to take their non paddling partner. The goal of this article is to give people the fundamental information and a head start when planning a trip to Si Phon Don or the 4000 Islands.
When to go:
As with all kayaking trips, flow can make or break your trip. Fortunately at 4000 Islands there are numerous channels that can be paddled at a variety of flows. That said, the general consensus is to be there somewhere between December and the end of January. Australian Lachie Karracher was once there in September and experienced ‘biblical’ flows.The ‘Gradient & Water’ crew of Jordy Searle, Ari Walker, TT Cakekinson and Sam Ellis had near perfect flows from mid January, paddling all but two channels as the river dropped more than 3 metres in the big volume channels, during their two-week stint.
What to take:
In short, you do not really need to take too much with you. That said there are some fundamental things that will make things much easier and more comfortable for you.
- USD: This is always handy to have with you in Asia, particularly in smaller denominations. This will help with border crossings, avoiding ‘expensive’ transaction fees when getting local currency in laos and paying for transportation to and from 4000 Islands.
- Good Shoes: Hot days, warm water and the short nature of the water water here might lead you to believe that you can just wear a light ‘mesh’ pair of water shoes and you’ll be fine. And you might be, but the rock in Laos is extremely sharp, abrasive and you will be walking on it a LOT. Something with a solid sole and is grippy, you will be thankful.
- Sun Protection: It might seem like a no-brainer to some, but if you forget to bring your own it will cost you. Sun-block is exuberantly expensive and after a few long days in the crispy sun, you’ll be wishing you’d brought what now seems like a cheap $30 bottle from home. A bucket hat is a good idea, especially if you’re planning on chasing the more isolated channels that take time to get to and from.
- Paddling kit: Obviously take your standard kit, but there are some things that become fundamental here that most crews omit. Bring a collared long sleeve shirt to paddle in, you cannot buy one there for some reason. Jordy Searle took shorty and almost ended up with heat stroke. Having a lifestraw in your PFD would be pretty handy too.
- Smartphone with waterproof case: Encouraging kayakers to take a smartphone on a kayaking trip may seem a little redundant but having one with a waterproof case will save you a lot of energy and time pulling yourself between spider-ridden bushy islands while swearing at your mates. Having google earth with you all the time will help you line up with the bigger islands so you drop down into the correct channels, and more so help with the big ferry’s back to Don Khon/Don Det.
How to get there:
Getting to the 4000 Islands section of the Mekong is not particularly easy. Ideally you would fly into Pakse in Southern Laos and then catch a bus to 4000 Islands, which is around 4 hours drive. Expensive flights and bad connections, however, has meant that most paddlers fly into larger airports in neighbouring countries and travel overland to 4000 Islands. Make sure you have that USD with you, it is $30 for the Laos visa and you pay $2 - $5 to leave Thailand and the same for an ‘administration’ fee to enter Laos. You pay that again when you leave too, USD is key. Keep all paperwork, tickets, receipts and check that have your departure location, destination and price paid noted. Here are some options for getting there:
- Bangkok: From the airport get a taxi to the Bangkok Bus Terminal, look for a provider that has a set price and be pushy about getting your boat in too. From there, get an overnight bus to Pakse that should cost you about $50. You’ll go through the Chong Mek Border Crossing, make sure you pay for your visa, get a stamp in your passport and you keep any paperwork that you’re given. Sam Ellis thought he’d found some form of hack during his commute, but nearly 3 hours or intense questioning on his way back to Bangkok proved him otherwise. Grab another bus down to Nakasong, which is the settlement/port that services Don Det and Don Khon, you’re there. Return is easier, a booking operator will get you from Don Det or Don Khon all the way to Bangkok with one booking. It might be a random assortment of rides, but as long as you have that physical ticket they’ll generally get you there.
- Siam Reap: This is the major airport close to the Cambodian - Laotion border and might be appealing as you can couple the paddling trip with a visit to Angkor Wat and get some tailored suits made. You have to stay one night in Cambodia, so get some accommodation sorted beforehand and once you’ve stowed all your kit get to sorting a ride. It is Asia and it will take some bartering. You kind of want to show them your kayaks to make sure you can get them on, but at the same time you also kind of want to surprise them and just pressure them into taking them. The GW crew ended up chartering a van because there was 3 of them with kayaks. From Siam Seap to Nakasong was $200USD, which is kind of pricey but takes a 12 hour journey down to about 7, the ride will be more comfortable and you’ll have an easier time at the border. Mr Heng is based in Stung Treng (088 5 955 950) and speaks good enough English to make an agreement and really looks after clients. He helped the Kiwi crew after they had been hustled and left semi-stranded. Like coming from Bangkok, you’ll end up at Nakasong and you can paddle across or get a $2 ticket from the ‘office’ with the green roof to the right of the boat ramp. Either way you’re in Si Phan Don!
- Vientiane: Though more expensive than the other flight options, this option avoids the hassle of border crossings, visas and probably ends up costing similar overall. From the airport itself you’ll pay anywhere from $90-$150 for the twenty-two or so hour journey down to Pakse and then another $8 - $15 for the bus from Pakse to Nakasong. The first leg is in a sleeper bus that has 1.6m shared beds, not quite a double but a little more than a single. So if you’re travelling solo or you are the shunned 1 of a 3 pack travelling together, make sure to befriend someone small because you’re really going to get up close and personal with someone on that bus. This is probably a good option if you’re just trying to do a whirlwind trip and want to keep it simple.
Accommodation and Food:
Once you have made it to Nakasong you have two options for places to base yourself, that is Don Det and Don Khon. Don Khon is the bigger Island that has the waterfall park next to it and is where Mikey et al based for their exploratory trip in the early 2000s. More recently it has developed into the more expensive of the two islands and generally attracts an older and quieter crowd. Don Det is the smaller, cheaper and more ‘youthful’ island. For this reason the majority of crews nowadays have chosen Don Det, so all the beta from here is about Don Det:
- Accommodation: You’ll want to find yourself a place on the Sunset (west) side of the islands. There are a variety of places that you can stay at, from the plush Mama Luerth’s Guest House for about $10 a night, mid range places like Oi’s Place or Tena One for $5 a night and there are some cheaper options that have shared bathrooms and no hot water. The further south you go, the more ‘hippy’ or ‘rasta’ the demographic becomes, if those are the people you prefer to meet. One thing to keep in mind is that your Laotion family hosts may observe some traditions or beliefs that you do not, please be sensitive to these. Also, respect any house or island rules as the host family will also be punished by authorities for your behaviour. All that said, it is a pretty relaxed setup and I couldn’t imagine many kayakers behaving in a way that would cause trouble here.
- Food/Drinks: One thing that really makes this destination is how cheap the food and drinks are. Fresh spring rolls for $2, incredible Chicken Tikka Masala for $4 and $7 for a bucket of Gin & Tonic, just to give a measure. You’ll probably eat around a little bit but there are some reliable places to fall back on; for breakfast Dalom and 4000 Islands Bar are great; Oi’s Place and One More Bar are good for small meals; and all the Indian places, 4000 Islands and the Kebab place on the Sunrise side of the island have kayaker sized portions of tasty food. There a lots of option, most are pretty good. Except Lao Lao. Lao Lao is the cheapest liquor on earth is tastes like just that. You’ll try it anyway, proceed with caution.
Getting your bearings:
Once you’re checked in and fed you’ll be fired up to get on the river. It is as simple as just paddling downstream, but when the river is 14 km wide things can initially feel a little confusing and complicated. You will have had a little look at google earth, may have even seen Alex Nicks’ “Jehovas Wetness” or some YouTube videos but nothing can substitute for seeing things personally to get a reference. The best idea is to hire a bike, for a massive $1 a day, and head down to Tat Somphamit Waterfall Park off the west side of Don Khon.
When you cross the bridge from Don Det to Don Khon you’ll be asked to buy a ticket to the waterfall park, pay the fee. A British crew avoided the fees and kayaking was temporarily banned in the area. The fee is 35,000kip ($4.30), not much to pay in any part of the world and to maintain an amicable relationship with locals and keep access open to one of the most unique kayaking areas in the world. Pay this fee EVERY time you enter the park. You might not have an opportunity to pay on the days you chase the more isolated channels but it may be worth buying an extra few tickets to have on hand just incase some official turns up and asks for one.
When you get down to the waterfall park you’ll see several channels, these will give you an indication of the power of the Mekong. You’ll also get a feel of the sharp rocks, how dense the jungle is, notice human-sized fish traps in some of the channels outflows, how warm the water is and the availability of water, tuk tuks and food at the park. Keep all these things in mind when you’re out exploring. There is even a bar at the takeout for you to get a can of coke (to kill waterborne bugs) and to leave your kayaks if you’re sessioning the waterfalls over a few days or hiking up river-right of the ‘mega-slide’ to access some of the central channels.
The bar is the take-out for pretty much all the whitewater you’ll paddle. You can hike back up the channels to pre organised boats to take you Don Det, but they’re not that cheap and it can be hard to establish exactly when/where to meet. When seeking out the goods over toward the cambodian side you can get a taxi back upstream and ferry back to Don Det. In 2015 Liam Kelly managed to sort one for $15 without much hassle but crews recently have been getting ‘out-bartered’, paying more like $30 and have been lucky not to get extorted at the checkpoint along the way. You can ferry and attain back across to the bottom of Don Det, to a different beach about 2km from the waterfalls park and work it out from there.
The back channels are a bit more difficult and have a lot more fish traps. Construction has begun on a dam in one of the channels, so access to that area will probably become restricted or lost. But if you do head into the back channels you can flag down boats for a ride back to Don Khon or at the worst you can paddle to the Laos mainland and get tuk tuks back to Nakasong. That is the longest and most expensive option, so have plenty of kip.
Now you know where things are and how to get back, sort of, it is time to climb into your kayak the has been sitting outside you little bungalow and paddle down to some of the best whitewater in the world.
Note: if you’re taking a drone, which is an incredibly useful tool for scouting/navigating around the Mekong, do NOT use it where people can see you. People do know what they are, and officials have a very hard line on people using them without a permit. Be discreet and try refrain from buzzing the incredibly picturesque boats moving along the Mekong.
There are four general areas that you will paddle, each with their own character and hazards. Here is a bit of a breakdown.
- Somphamit Waterfall Park: Definitely the easiest place to get bang-for-buck, and a good place to warm up for the other areas. ‘Morning Glory’ is 10’ footer or a stout hole lead in to a 25’ falls, it is also the best way to paddle into the waterfall park. “Gutter’ or ‘Easy Channel’ is a fast class IV-V chute to the right of Morning Glory that finishes in the same pool as Triple, a chossy set of drops that Brits strangely rave about. Then there is ‘Mega-Slide’, you’ll know it when you see it. Li Phi is the prize jewel in this area and most crews will build up to it. Tread lightly and be respectful in this area as the falls is believed to be a ‘spirit trap’, a result of the history of wars in the north and the resulting bodies that have floated down into Si Phan Don.
- Central Channels: You cannot see these channels from any of the major islands or the mainlands but there is a worthy amount of whitewater out here. The two major channels are ‘Volume’ and ‘Deadcow’ and have a lot of other channels running into them. One to watch out for is ‘Gun-Barallel’ that runs in parallel to the top of ‘Volume’. What seems like a seemingly welcoming walled-in chute actually has a horrendous entry hole and the exit is super backed up a medium to higher flows, scout it thoroughly. Between ‘Volume’ and ‘Deadcow’ is another channel that requires higher flows and can be exited by climbing over the island on river left after you go through ‘Tricky’. There is plenty more out there to find, just do your homework on how to get there and check the outflow for fish traps!
- Cambodian Side: Heading over to this area is a cool mini mission that most crews will do a couple of times. Definitely ferry upstream and towards river right for much longer than you’d think before you begin to drop down to the ledge. And do so with caution, as at higher flows you might paddle yourself into a place that forces you to paddle something you do NOT want to. The second channel in from the Cambodian mainland may be the most picturesque in the 14 km expanse, that is ‘Mr Clean’. First Descended by little Ali Marshall, this 20 - 30 foot falls is intimidating but plays out really well and is lappable. Ari Walker ran it 6 times in a row, on the most recent trip to the area in late January 2017. There is a very stout and consequential rapid against the Cambodian mainland, set adequate safety and keep boof it all.
- Back Channels / Laos Side: This area is quite a bit of work, has a savage amount of fish traps, a dam is being built and is completely flow dependent. The first few channels east of Don Khon are smaller, therefore require higher flows and you MUST check the outflows as everything has fish traps. Oppositely, the furthest east channel from Don Det/Don Khon against the Laos mainland is the biggest channel in 4000 Islands. This is where ນໍ້າຕົກຕາດຄອນພະເພັງ or Khone Phapheng Falls thunders unrelentlessly. Also known as the “Big Falls”, it is the biggest waterfall in SE Asia. To date no one has paddled the main channels of these falls and it will probably take a marriage break-up or a drastic development of kayak technology before someone does attempt it. Chris Korbulic and Ben Stookesberry had a dabble into some of the fringe drops but the main lines remain unpaddled, as far as we know.
Si Phan Don has a incredible of whitewater and pretty much all of it goes, you might just have to wait a few days for some things to drop or to feel comfortable dropping in. You should be able to find and paddle everything in like 5 - 8 days paddling, so factor in a reccy, rest/hungover day(s) and a spot of sight-seeing if you happen to take your non-kayaking partner along for the journey. Sam Ellis’ advice sums it up nicely, “pound a couple of litres of water before your cheap breakfast, sun-block up, take 2 litres of water with you, send until you’re hungry, walk/bike/tuk tuk back for a feed then get into a few or more than a few cocktails. Then repeat”.
- Jordy Searle (Gradient & Water)