An excellent excursion
What we say:
The small island on Don Kho, 17km from Pakse on the Mekong river is home to Saphai village (Ban Saphai) which is renowned for it's silk weaving, and provides an excellent opportunity for a day-trip or overnight stay from Pakse. It was settled by a group of families from Attapeu hundreds of years ago, and today there are 44 families living on the island, making up a total population of 396. Their traditional Lao-style houses ring the island which can be easily circumnavigated in a couple of hours. The houses are all on stilts providing a cool space beneath where just about every family spends the day spinning thread and weaving fabric by hand -- when they aren't cultivating local crops of corn, watermelon, and rice.
It's frequently visited by tour groups and the islanders are well-used to visitors, though they have a surprisingly light touch when it comes to hawking their wares and a great sense of humour about being the object of so much attention. Looking around the island today, it's hard to believe that it was the administrative centre of the area for ten years during the 1800's under French colonial rule, before the centre was moved to Pakse. Don Kho also provided a safe and convenient location for docking French ships, though the old administrative buildings are gone now save a few stones here and there.
Tours are available which include information about weaving, about the history of the island, but we found it was a great place to visit on your own, stroll around a bit, and chat with the locals. You can also stay overnight -- one of the families will put you up for 20,000 kip per night, and you'll have to kick in for meals.
There are houses all over the island, so just take a stroll around. There's a small restaurant on the western side of the island -- take the road that runs east-west through the rice fields, turn right at the end, and look for the sign. We can't guarantee you'll be well-fed -- on our visit all they had was eggs! But it's a relaxing place for a cool drink overlooking White Beach, a patch of sand that's not really white, but you can swim if you want, though April through March are the best months for that. Also, the sand is increasingly being carted away and used for construction. But it's a pleasant spot all the same.
Tours can be arranged at the Visitors' Information Centre in Pakse or through any place that has travel services. A boat tour of the island should cost about 50,000 kip per person, 40,000 kip extra for an English-speaking guide.
More details17km from Pakse
How to get there: To get here, head 17km north along the road to Vientiane. At the town of Saphai, turn left, and continue until you hit the water. There you can easily hook up with a very skinny traditional boat called a rua pai, fitted with a modern boat engine, to take you across to the island for 5,000 kip. You can also ask for a paddle boat if you prefer. Be careful getting in the boat -- they tend to tip over pretty easily. Once you reach the other side you'll be scrambling up a bamboo ladder built on the side of the embankment.
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