Water World of the Mekong

Looking for a reprieve from the intense Cambodian heat, we set out from Phnom Penh with the goal of making it to the cooler climate of Si Phan Don, Laos, also known as the 4,000 islands. The halfway point of our journey was a small town along the Mekong River called Kratie in northeastern Cambodia. Twenty kilometers to the north of Kratie is one of the best spots to see the critically-endangered Irrawaddy dolphins swimming in the Mekong. These dolphins are are small and gray with the shape of their heads being reminiscent of a beluga whale. There are only 70-80 Irrawaddy dolphins estimated to be left in the Mekong River.

Our boat driver for the morning

Unsure of our chances of getting a glimpse of these dolphins, we hopped in a tuk tuk and travelled 30 minutes north to an area where they are known to congregate.  Since it was the low season, we got a boat all to ourselves.

At first, we were one of two boats on the river, but others soon followed. One boat carried a group of brightly-dressed monks.

We only headed five minutes upstream before we saw the first fin break the water.  Our driver killed the motor and we spent the next hour watching several dolphins swim up and down river by our boat.  We tried our hardest to get pictures of their uniquely shaped heads, but ended up only getting a few pictures of their fins since they surface and dive very quickly.

Irrawaddy dolphins

Cambodian hipster style…

Kratie was very different from other places we had been in Cambodia. Life is slow-paced and the town is almost untouched by tourism.  We liked the local atmosphere, so we decided to stay an extra day.  Across from Kratie is the large island of Koh Trong.  We boarded a small ferry with mostly locals and crossed the Mekong.  On arrival, we rented bicycles and followed a bumpy and sometimes muddy nine kilometer trail around the island.

The ferry to Koh Trong

The “port” at Koh Trong

The trail took us through small, rural villages and lush scenery.  Local children sporting big smiles eagerly waved to us as we passed by their homes.

Scenes from Koh Trong

The next morning we set out on a long day of travel to Si Phan Don.  Our four hour bus ride turned into a twelve hour day (including a 5-hour bus break). At the border crossing we managed to avoid a visa-scam, but it took another 2 hours to get moving again. We arrived too late to catch the boat we had a ticket for, so we had to pony up more cash to get a “private” boat out to the islands. We caught the sun setting on the boat ride out and could feel the tension of the long day drop away as we approached the islands.

The most popular islands to stay on in the 4,000 islands are Don Det and Don Khon.  We opted for the less touristy island of Don Khon and chose a guesthouse on the river that included a large deck with hammocks.

Local water buffalo

The best way to explore Don Khon is by bicycle.  We spent two days biking and getting lost on the muddy trails around the islands. It rained much of the time we were there, but being Portlanders, we don’t let a little rain stop us from having fun! On the northwestern corner of the island we biked to a raging set of rapids called Li Phi waterfalls.  The falls do not have a massive drop, but the volume of water and the fury in which it roars downstream was impressive.

Li Phi waterfalls

Two fisherman minding a bamboo trap that funneled unlucky fish out of the water and onto the wood

Don Khon

One of the few non-muddy trails on the island

A giant centipede and a large snail feasting on some fruit

Khone Poi Soi waterfalls

Towards the east of the island, an incredibly muddy path took us on a trail to Khone Poi Soi waterfalls.  After crossing a rickety suspension bridge, we headed to see another set of raging rapids.  At the base of these rapids, numerous bamboo traps have been set up by fisherman in hopes of funneling fish out of the river.

Bamboo fish traps

WARNING: RANT ALERT..if you are tired of reading just look at the pictures from this point onward 🙂

These fishermen reminded us of the old photos of Native Americans fishing the waterfalls on the Columbia River before the waterfalls were submerged by the Dalles Dam. Unfortunately, the Lower Mekong River and the people and animals that live here are also under an imminent threat from a huge dam project that is moving forward in Laos. The Don Sahong Dam is being planned for a large channel of the Mekong just upstream from Don Khon. This dam will block passage to the main dry season channel on the Mekong, preventing fish from going up or downstream.

Fisherman and their bamboo traps

The Mekong River has the largest freshwater fishery in the world and has the second-most fish species in the world – only the Amazon has more. Downstream from here the Mekong flows through Cambodia and Vietnam. Cambodians get the majority of the protein in their diets from fish – mostly freshwater fish from the Mekong. Not only that, but many Cambodians make their living from fishing this rich resource.

Further downstream in Vietnam, the silt from the river annually replenishes the Mekong Delta – the region that feeds half the country. This dam will block sediment from flowing downstream to this region, critically stressing this important food-growing region.

To make matters worse, the soundwaves from the explosives that will be used to clear rock from the channel are expected to kill many of the remaining endangered Irrawaddy dolphins that live directly downstream from the site.

Laos is under a treaty that requires it to consult with neighboring nations on decisions along the Mekong before moving ahead with this type of project. Late last year they had this “required” meeting with Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, even though they had already started building roads and infrastructure for the project. The neighboring countries called for the project to be immediately halted so that impact studies could be carried out but were basically ignored by Laos’ single-party socialist government who clearly saw the meeting as a rubber stamp to continue with their plans. 

The truly sad part of this is that viable alternatives to this project have been proposed that would produce the same amount of electricity without blocking channels on the main stem of the Mekong. These have been ignored as well.  As a metric, this dam will only produce about 1/50th of the electricity of the massive Three-Gorges Dam in China.  As of right now, it doesn’t appear that the project will be stopped, and millions of peoples’ food security and livelihoods, not to mention hundreds of animal species’ habitats, will be horribly affected.

Tourism, perhaps the least important item, will also be adversely affected.  We came to this area to see the amazing natural landscape along the Mekong River. We came to see dolphins and waterfalls and local culture.  We spent our money in small, poor, rural communities that derive much of their livelihood from travelers coming to their corner of the world for these reasons. If the Don Sahong Dam moves forward this could all go away.

The government of Laos claims to have a plan to turn their country into the “battery” of Southeast Asia by producing energy with massive dams and then selling it to their neighbors, thus pumping much-needed cash into their economy. Unfortunately, in their shortsightedness, they have failed to see the many ways that hasty and poorly-planned engineering projects like this will further impoverish their country and their neighboring countries, not to mention the world as a whole.


Biking through one of the monasteries on Don Khon

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