‘The dolphins be damned‘ isn’t a statement of what I want to happen, but in respect of the Irrawaddy dolphins of the Mekong river it is a literal truth (albeit with clever punning spelling). A bloody great dam is being built right now on the Laos/ Cambodia border region, not 2 km from one of the few remaining dolphin pools. The booms from its construction have already caused the depleted numbers (there may only be three or so individuals, so not a sustainable population I know, functionally extinct I think the phrase is, but surely hardly the point) to change their behaviour and move away. This will be extinction for the dolphins I’m sure, and may also kill off the burgeoning tourist industry here too, not to mention impacting on fishing downstream. It is all pretty depressing. I know that people need electricity too, but I have seen so much habitat destruction over the last few days whilst been shown supposedly ‘pristine’ areas, I really despair. I mean, I was worried the dolphins were being unnecessarily harassed whilst viewed by tourists when we saw them before, but that was as nothing compared to the impact of this.
Don’t get me wrong, the Mekong Discovery Trail is an amazing experience, but it is not an exploration of a pristine wilderness. More face to face with the challenge of holding back the trashing of a fragile environment and more than a small dose of ‘last chance to see’. So let me explain… This is where we went – I’ll try to do a better photo of the map sometime, but right now I can’t be bothered, sorry.
This being the 16th January 2017. Our itinerary was set out as follows:
travel north by car and then by boat to a remote site on the Mekong where we will disembark and begin trekking through hills and pristine old growth forest. After a couple of hours trekking, we will emerge from the thick jungle to a wide rocky expanse where the Mekong drops in a spectacular waterfall over a rocky ledge. After listening to the roar of the powerful river and exploring the numerous drops, we will board a boat and continue to a small island where we will set up camp on a sandy beach and enjoy dinner around a campfire.
Oh good, that sounds splendid!
So first off, breakfast, which was distinctly average, but not actually vile so that was a significant improvement on last night. We were to have breakfast at 7.30 a.m. which was tight as rendezvous for trip back at hotel was at 8.00. We walked down to the restaurant ‘Ponika’s Palace’ which lonely planet rates. It is cheap and some food OK, good English spoken but I wouldn’t make a detour for it. I think it does well because of lack of competition, but then maybe I ordered badly. Friendly place though and geared up for tourists which few places seem to be in the area. The whole street is a building site, literally, but I found it weirdly enjoyable, if not restful, watching Cambodian road rollers trundling noisily back and forth as we ate. The riverside looked lovely in the morning light. The gold river hotel is aptly named.
At the hotel we left our big bags in the care of the friendly staff, and found our guide and the driver – who was actually the boss of the company who’d met up with us the night before – but he was disguised in a white t-shirt so I failed to recognise him. We headed off in the van down a dusty road, past endless lines of palm oil trees. These extend for miles and miles, people were forcibly cleared to make way for this mono-culture and forest cleared. The land is being leased to China (I think, but as I write it I wonder if I made that bit up) on a 70 year lease or something, but that’s no good, the forest is gone for good, however you choose to carve it up. I had no idea we were so close to the Laos border either, until we started seeing the signs, our trip in fact took us to the Laos territory, but not the mainland, so no passports required. This was just as well as mine was stuffed in my backpack back at the hotel.
So at some point, I don’t know where, because even though we were given a map and it was explained that was all in one go at the beginning so I had little sense of where we actually were at any given point in time. Anyway, we and our guide were handed over to the care of a boatman from one of the riverside communities. I have felt on this trip a bit like a burdensome but potentially valuable package, we are endlessly being handed from one minder to the next. This is what makes the tipping such a nightmare, so many people, so little idea of how to tip… Anyway, he was seemingly a bit cold and uncommunicative to begin with, but warmed up hugely as the days adventures were shared – and more specifically video clips, but more of that all in good time.
Floating down the boat on the Mekong was indeed lovely, but extremely reminiscent of our previous boat trip and I did wonder if booking this trip was quite such a good idea if it was just to be a very expensive rerun of earlier adventures (spoiler alert – not so ultimately, not so at all). The boat was low and Mekong is indeed Mighty, it dawned on me we will be kayaking down this at some point, I wouldn’t stand a chance in that current. As ever I realised too late that I’m not really a water babe. I like water to look at, but plunging in and out of it scared me quite frankly, I hope this isn’t all some terrible mistake on my part, could be a long week. I suppose it’s always good to respect a river, but with the wobbly boat I hope my innate buoyancy will serve me even if my swimming does not.
The Mekong is spectacular and the throb of the boat’s engine strangely hypnotic. The scenery was gorgeous and the river blue. It flows less fast in this the dry season. Our guide pointed out a few things, notably that at one point we passed an unremarkable looking pole painted red and white stuck on a rock in the water. It is apparently a border marker, we were now in Laos! At one point we passed a photographer patiently in position on a boat in an area where the Irrawaddy dolphins are known to congregate. His wife (assumption on my part, but I reckon she was) was on a different boat bank side, smoking and looking bored. That’s why I think she was his wife, felt obligated to hang on in there with him, why else would she do so when she was clearly so massively unimpressed by the whole proceedings. I kept trying to get a decent photo, but you can’t really. It’s so vast. It is not a wilderness, there is a lot of floating debris, and empty plastic bottles used as floats for nets are everywhere, but it is still beautiful and spectacular. Look at the trees though, you can see how they are submerged and shaped by raging currents, how they still grow I just don’t know, other worldly I felt. It really does feel as if you have discovered a new and unknown world. There weren’t any boats around, I think fishermen had been and gone and we saw no other tourists, it was as if the river was ours and ours alone.
We alighted on the mainland further upstream. There was a gathering of local people, I’m not sure if that was to do with our arrival or just coincidence. Our daypacks were hung on a tree and our boatman marched ahead of us in silence clutching a bunch of bananas and accompanied by a very excitable puppyish dog – the nearest thing I’ve seen to a canine pet since I’ve been here. It wanted to join us for the walk and dashed ahead of us, sometimes circling back round behind us, and on one occasion at least yelping for help after somehow getting caught up in undergrowth. It even rolled on its back asking for cuddles which is something I’ve not seen any other dog here do. The ones you see on the streets, even when they are aligned to a particular shop or household co-exist, there is not usually any outward display of mutual affection that I’ve ever seen in Cambodia. Well hardly ever.
And so we commenced our walk into the ‘pristine jungle’. It really wasnt and isn’t. The path was well established, I mean that’s fair enough I wouldn’t expect to machete through virgin forest, but I didn’t expect a rubbish strewn path with hacked steps and discarded planks and building materials around it. Our guide made valiant efforts to point out things of interest, occasionally seeing an interesting plant or unusual fungus, and he took time to explain some traditional uses of the plants we did find, but there wasn’t all that much about. It was still beautiful, but you could see straight away it didn’t have the biodiversity you might expect – I’ve seen more variance and life in Sheffield woodlands, and I don’t think it’s just that I know how to read that habitat. I asked about animals, but my guide explained that ‘people don’t really care, if they find an animal they will hunt it and eat it.’ He explained that the area was supposedly protected but in practise nothing is enforced. He didn’t even pretend there were still animals within. So depressing. I mean, call me sceptical by all means, but just how pristine is a bit of jungle with a motorbike in the midst of it and a road running through? Not very I think you’ll find.
By the way. I’ve just realised (because I’ve been doing multiple blog posts on one day, sorry about spamming you people), that in all the photos of me and my co-traveler, I am standing behind him. I wish to point out this is not a demure act of submission and deference on my part, I am rather using his body to obscure my own unflattering choice of clothing and increasingly rotund physique. It’s not entirely worked to be honest, but I had to take what evasive action I could. Some readers out there may understand… One day I’ll go on a holiday where I look like a living goddess, it may be a goddess of people who are spherical in shape and get dragged backwards through hedges, but it will be a goddess nevertheless. You’ll know when.
Some features were pretty cool though. The bamboo rail to help us up a particularly challenging bit of path – it was hot and sticky traipsing through, and a lot less sure under foot than I’d expected. We only went a few km but I found it quite hard. It’s the heat, no escape. The monkey stairs were good – curled branches that weaved all over the forest. There are no monkeys left now though. Our guide explained in rather graphic detail, that monkeys were poached and smuggled alive to Vietnam. There the taste was to eat the raw brain of the decapitated monkeys whilst they were still alive. Oh great, more good news. They were worth a lot whereas you’d get $150-£200 a kilo for a cobra, for a monkey it was more like $350. An enormous sum. You can understand why people did it to bring prosperity to their families in an environment where as long as you pay a bribe there are no consequences for breaking the law. It’s little wonder this so-called pristine jungle is silent now. I liked the tarantula nest though, and there were some cool fungi, so let’s hang on to a bit of hope if we can…
After we crossed the main road (I know) we did a sort of little loop through the jungle which was entirely gratuitous I think, and of no navigational significance. However, it did give us the effect of coming back out onto the main road, and seeing a little booth where you had to pay admission to get to the viewing point of the waterfall. In another bizarre twist on the concept of ‘pristine’ we walked past a casino under construction as the heat bore down on us.
I don’t know quite what i was expecting, a waterfall with a pool where we could swim i think. Rather we got to this massive scar of rock across the Mekong. You have Laos on one side of the river, Cambodia on the other, and the mighty Mekong surges over this rock face plunging down. Of course when the river is high all this is submerged. It made me dizzy to think of it, when the river is in full flow, then if you were boating across the top, all of this would like beneath. It made me shudder. The Khone Pha Pheng Falls are extraordinary. Vertiginous indeed, and vast. How have I never heard of them before?
So the actual falls are extraordinary, albeit they didn’t offer up sensible swimming opportunities. There were white egrets hunting in some of the eddys. More disturbingly though, in one of the rock formations was a construction of a fish trap, some fisherman are risking life and limb setting that up and checking on it periodically. Every year several die trying to continue to fish these treacherous waters and straying too close to those rapids. It’s easy to see how.
Unfortunately, the banks of this river and this view-point were inches deep in rubbish. You feel helpless against this tide of waste. Then add to that all the mess from the building work. This is seemingly not a culture where people notice litter, and if they do, I suspect that it from an aesthetic rather than environmental damage and pollution context. How can this river and this place survive if even places as sacred and special as this, marketed proactively as tourist destinations are knee-deep in debris. It does not bode well. I have a horrible feeling that if someone did come and clean it everything would be chucked out-of-the-way into the river anyway, which would be even worse, as it is, when the river rises again, all of this mess will be swept away anyway. How depressing.
After waterfall gazing for a bit, we then adjourned to the restaurant beneath the casino construction for a pretty poor lunch. Vegetarian option was boiled cauliflower with onions and rice, and tasted about as good as you imagine it would have. Fortunately, I did not come on this trip for the food. Unfortunately, even so I’m piling on weight here, I think it’s the lack of exercise compounded by ubiquitous sugar in drinks. I won’t be able to walk on the plane by the time I have to go home at this rate, it will be carry on or waddle only…
The views from the balcony were stunning, and I liked the construction activity too. It was interesting to see how they were working. Make what you will of the juxtaposition of ancient geological land formations and contemporary Cambodian constructions.
Lunch though, was where the proverbial ice was broken. My co-traveler produced his smart phone to help clarify some of the conversation we were having. This led to sharing of photos and videos of amongst other things, early morning shenanigans at the Olympic Stadium. This was a genius move, albeit an inadvertant one. Suddenly he laughed uproariously, and I think maybe just saw us in more human terms. After that there was much more interactivity and even exuberance on the trip. Things were looking up. I asked our boatman if he’d ever been to Phnom Penh (we were talking about the traffic) through our guide he explained he had been only once, for 10 days, to meet his wife. Wow, that’s a conversation I’d like to have been able to continue. What a life he and she for that matter, must have led, what contrasts they have experienced. I wish we could get beneath the proverbial surface but the language barrier is too great.
On the journey back we went along the road a little way, and cut back a different route through the forest. This time he stopped and showed us little crabs in the river, he found curious insects and all sorts of other treasures. We were told how he used to use a plant toxin to poison fish in pools of water along the river – it was OK because it diluted in larger water sources so poisoning was localised so he said. It was a massive improvement on atmosphere before which wasn’t exactly bad, but a bit mutually self-conscious.
The rhino beetle/ bug/ grasshoppery things were brilliant, I couldn’t work out if they were hopping or flying when they moved. Our guide though was most impressed and mystified by some bamboo growing out of a tree. Bamboo grows from shoots, and there is no other similar bamboo species around it could have grown from. It should not appear midst a trunk as it does. He seemed to find this not just strange but supernatural, he was saying it was a specially powerful tree. It is strange, our guide seems very western in many ways, and contemporary in outlook, but there are references to beliefs that are strongly held that seem at odds with those more modern values. I guess all people are complex, why not him. It is also the case that although his English was extremely good, some concepts do get lost in translation, most particularly nuanced topics around beliefs and superstitions. For example he talked of imps as ‘real’ whereas from our perspective they are not. I couldn’t tell if he was being literal or metaphorical, not sure it even matters to be honest.
I was surprised to find ourselves back at the riverside, where we were reunited with backpacks, boat and the puppy, that had clearly decided to abandon us midway through our walk. Can’t blame him, way too hot to be cavorting out there unnecessarily. Our guide meanwhile had found a really curious tree root, shaped like a rhino horn of which he was enormously proud. He held it aloft in a phallic like salute, and it subsequently became an impressive figurehead for our boat the next day, tied securely into position at the front of the boat, giving it the appearance(ish) of a viking longboat!
So then we were off on the boat and our next stopping point was an island in Laos. Here there is a railway. No I couldn’t follow the history either. Essentially though, there is a viewing point for the dolphins here, and also a railway, which was used to help get boats up and past the unnavigable falls I presume. There were explanatory notices about but it presumed a degree of historical understanding that I lack. You could look it up if you want to though it’s the Don Det – Don Khon narrow gauge railway We disembarked and clambered up some extraordinarily steep steps to this Laos area where iced coffee was charged in kip, and their tuk tuks were instead motorbikes with sidecars. We looked at the rusty engine and gazed at the display boards. Yes, I get that it is an extraordinary feat of engineering to build a railway here, but such industry again shows nowhere here is untouched by development, war or exploitation at some point in recent history. Impressive though, you have to give them that. Here are lots of photos make of them what you will…
We didn’t see any dolphins, we did drink iced coffee, which was thick and sweet, and cheap compared to Cambodia.
Back on the boat, we headed to the dolphin pool. As we chugged away, our guide pointed out the dam. It is in sight of the dolphin area, and the construction is enormous. You don’t need to be an expert in ecology and conservation to see how it will disrupt the ecosystems of any creatures that close to it. The dolphins are just the tip of the iceberg alas. We got to the pool, it was but a short chug away, and then engines off, and we waited, gliding about in the tranquil waters. Every so often there was a flash. We did see the dolphins, circling around. I don’t think our guide and boatman were especially helpful, delightedly making splashing sounds or clicks in response to the poor dolphin’s activities. I think there are only three there in any case, we saw at least two of them I think, or one of them can swim very fast and double back on itself. I didn’t bother trying to capture photographs this time. They are always terrible anyway, better to just watch. I did get some of the general ambience though. These were seemingly calmer waters than the frenetic viewing point we stopped off at before, but appearances are deceptive, later on at night, on the island we heard the dull booming of construction from miles away, the dam sending its vibrations through the water like a sonar missile. Poor dolphins. No hope for them at all. Here’s one of the dolphin pool you can see the dam on the horizon in silhouette, it is massive.
After an hour or so of dolphin spotting, we chugged over to a little island that is deserted apart from a lost dog cavorting around barking, and some water buffalo who were doing their thing. We, me and my c0-traveler were marooned with water and a mat whilst the guide and boatman nipped to the mainland to get food and supplies. We sat for a bit and then went on our own little exploratory forays. I saw a ubiquitous plastic chair in a tree, lots of litter, no dolphins but stunning skies and the water is amazing. We met up again on our respective circuits and I then went to see the buffalo, and finally we sat back down on the mat where our guide had left us, no doubt giving him the impression on his return that we never once stirred from that spot. What unappreciative westerners we must have seemed indeed, left on our own on a romantic desert island we sat in separate unmoving solitude. It occurred to me this does sound like a romantic getaway, but really it isn’t. Apart from the rubbish on the island, and the ominous bits of discarded toilet paper that alert you to your proximity to potential landmines of little piles of human poo, there is the fact that even though we are only two on this trip, in reality you are always under supervision or observation from at least one guide. This is not an issue on our trip, but if you were honeymooners looking for solitude this is not where you would find it. The photo isn’t of football goal posts by the way, it’s where fisherman can hang out their nets. What were you thinking, honestly!
I’m also beginning to think that in this cultural context, the word ‘pristine’ is used in marketing material purely to lure you in. I mean of course I know it is, but I wonder if it isn’t a deliberate deception, but the word is used in a loose way like you might say ‘beautiful’ the link between pristine and cleanliness and unspoilt is not seen as important or relevant to the meaning, it’s just what you have to say. As an interesting (to me anyway) aside, some fellow volunteers at CWF spotted that in their marketing material the school proudly announces that ‘all our teachers are fully qualified‘, but we explicitly are not. Many of us are, but the whole point of the programme from a volunteering perspective is that it is a conversationally based course where teaching qualifications are explicitly NOT required. I was quite annoyed when I saw this, but did my unassertive passive aggressive avoidance thing and ignored it and hoped it would go away because I’m here now. A fellow volunteer though did politely query it. Interestingly, the response was a simple ‘it’s OK, I know, but we say this to get people interested, and then we explain more about who our volunteer teachers really are‘ and to be fair, they do. It is on the posters around the school that we are volunteers and won’t teach grammar, but deliver instead a conversationally based curriculum. Maybe the same principle applies to the marketing of the ‘pristine forests and/or beaches’ nobody seriously expects them to be pristine, it is simply the opening gambit, like when you haggle for goods at the Russian Market. It is not a deliberate deception. I wonder..
Our guide is really struggling with the idea we are not a couple. ‘Two tents?’ He queried hopefully, silently willing us to look alarmed and request just one. ‘Yep‘. He was not impressed. Not for the first time I felt a fusion of guilt and annoyance. Guilt that this is extra work for our local guide, but annoyance with the person with whom we booked who has clearly charged us a premium for separate accommodation (which is fine) but has not passed this on at local level (which is not fine). Oh well.
When our minders returned, we were encouraged to check out the Mekong for a dip, whilst they wrestled with our tents. They didn’t seem to be doing all that well, the frequency with which the tents were airborne and upside down whilst they tussled with them to get them up seemed amusing at the time. Less so when the wind caught them in the night when we were inside them…
So basically, they did all the work, including lugging timbers of driftwood dislodged from trees which it had floated into during the high season, we swam in the Mekong. There was a wonderful comedic moment when we watched the two men carrying a massive timber, ostensibly working together. However, in practise the guy at the front was unwittingly carrying the entire weight. So wish I’d caught that on camera!
At the point when we were in the water, for the record, we were technically swimming with dolphins in that we shared the same waterway but not in any meaningful sense of the word. This is a classic of how you choose to present a holiday. I could say we swam with dolphins and stayed on a deserted sandy island in the middle of the Mekong, and it would be true, and it also wouldn’t that’s the point.
Splish splashing in the water to the backdrop of the sun setting over the Mekong was pretty darned amazing though. The water is refreshing, and you forget about the bottles and human excrement that no doubt surrounds you, just enjoy the sensation of sun overhead and cooling water on your skin. Great. Our guide joined us once the tents were up, and the fisherman headed off again to return later with more provisions and a worthy assistant for the night’s adventures ahead.
We played in the water splish splashing around and doing hilarious (to us) dolphin impressions, until it started to cool. We then returned to the land, where an impressive camp fire was underway, and water and beer on hand to kick-start the evening. You can see the ‘rhino horn’ had accompanied us. Check out the way my tent was all laid out invitingly with a headrest and mattress. It looked gorgeous, it seems churlish to point out that it was unfortunately murderously uncomfortable and not conducive to sleep, it is most surely the thought that counts!
Once the boatman returned with his young side kick of unknown origins, night fell. There was much excitement as a beetle hunt commenced. Lights were shone up at a nearby tree, and then once the beetles were attracted (they looked like cockchafers of some sort) a long pole was used to bash furiously at the tree, causing the beetles to crash to the ground (I don’t know why they don’t fly, they must be disoriented somehow) then there was a frantic scramble to get them. They were then moved first to a plastic bag, and later to an empty water bottle. Our boatman was delighted with his rich pickings. He ate a couple raw (or ‘fresh’ as our guide put it) just ripping off the wing casings and chomping down. The rest he threw on the ashes of the fire, until they were basically burned, then hauled them out again and chomped them down with relish. My co-traveler was cajoled into trying one, he did well, chewing but not swallowing it, and reporting that it basically tasted of fire embers – not in a good way. I sort of get that insects might make a nutritious snack, but why wouldn’t you put them on a stick and hold over a flame rather than just ending up with a mouthful of ash I can’t imagine. Here is a daytime snap of a left over beetle I scooped up very dead the next day. That got eaten too – for breakfast, but not by me.
It was all quite lively. Then there was the buffalo skin strips, a local variant on crackling I suppose. This required an enormous amount of banging with a hammer prior to being tossed on the fire. Looked pretty unappetising, but most meat products here are. It was clearly viewed as a delicacy here though.
Supper had been brought across for us from the island. Now I do find that weird. We two travelers were like lord and lady muck. Food being provided for us whilst our guides various sat apart eating their beetles (admittedly seemingly having a grand old time doing so) and when we asked them to join us we were told they had already eaten. Probably they had, but I felt uncomfortable having this sort of lifestyle, seemed rude to eat when they did not. Food was omelettes (yay, eggs… again) and rice, but it was fine. There was a further comedic moment (black comedy though) when, during discussion about what would happen tomorrow the guide explained to me that it would be very difficult to do vegetarian food tomorrow as we were kayaking, so could I have pork instead for a change. I politely demurred, I said an omelette would be fine and very practical. It is not that I want to be contrary, but it is odd. This incomprehension about non-meat diets in a Buddhist country is unexpected, and it isn’t difficult to do vegetarian food tomorrow, not exciting perhaps but not difficult. Plus, we are back to it having been agreed in advance as not a problem at all. I’m annoyed with our original agent, I feel he has not earned his fee. Oh well, it was resolved with smiles all round if also a bit of mutual incomprehension. Still, that’s pretty much my default setting here, so let’s not worry too much about that.
Then it being dark, and not having slept for as far back as I can remember, I was happy to turn in, gazing out of the mosquito netted tent front at the burning fire and hearing music floating across from the village on the mainland just opposite.
Today was a good day. A grand day in fact. A deserted island on the Mekong eh. That’s pretty splendid, even if it somewhat selectively described as a marketing ploy… My Mekong adventure, properly underway.