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Publication Date : 27-02-2013
Explore the village life of a quiet, unspoiled island in Laos
Early in the 1960s the first foreign tourist, an Englishman called Phillip, arrived on Kho Island in Champassak province to discover for himself the pleasure of living a simple life.
Phillip's escape from big city life some 50 years ago extended into a stay of several years while he enjoyed living on the island as a villager.
Kho Island (Donekho), where the only form of motorised transport is the occasional boat, is opening its doors to the outside world, encouraging others to follow in Phillip's footsteps and visit the island to learn its culture and language and how to relax and enjoy a simple life style.
Under the Lao Pilot Project in Champassak, which is supported by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, visitors are shown how they can experience the same simple pleasures that Phillip did, like learning how to weave, catch fish from a boat and follow healthy pursuits such as swimming in the river or jogging around the island and, most of all, finding real happiness in staying with the hospitable and friendly villagers.
Done Kho is a small island in the Mekong River located 15 kilometres upstream from the city of Pakxe, with a population of just 450 people.
It has a quiet serenity and charm that is yet to be discovered by most tourists so its relaxing atmosphere in natural surroundings remains unspoilt.
The villagers depend on fishing for their livelihood, with much of the fish caught being sold to provide an income. This is sometimes augmented by part-time work weaving silk fabrics, which are highly regarded for both the quality of the silk and the patterns produced.
Villagers on the island also grow rice from June to September which they harvest in October to provide another source of food.
The island is not connected to any mains electricity so there are no poles to be seen and no street lighting of any kind but most of the villagers have recently put in their own generators so they do have some electrical appliances. However, visitors should take a good torch with them so they can find their way back to bed at night.
Visitors should also be aware that there are no organised nighttime activities like bars and restaurants as there is insufficient electricity for such things.
Last year only a few tourists visited the island because of the limited resources and attractions but for those who seek peace and quiet for a while, it is a haven. It has a small school and a surprisingly dramatic temple which was originally built by the French around 1890 when the island was used to refuel boats that were based nearby.
The temple's central hall is a mixture of French and Lao Buddhist styles and features a large bell tower used by the monks to signal meal times for those on the island.
How to get to Kho Island
In Pakxe you can book a local guide who will take you there and arrange for people on the island to welcome you, but if you wish to go alone, just get a tuk-tuk or songteow to take you to the boat mooring where you can get a boat to take you to this wonderful island.
How to arrange a homestay
If it's your first visit the island, you should ask a guide in Pakxe to book you in with a family where they will prepare sleeping accommodation as well as serving you local food as the island doesn't have any restaurants or guesthouses.
You should try to ensure that you sleep in a house close to the river so that a gentle breeze will be your companion all night, the fresh air helping you to relax into a deep sleep undisturbed by the noises made by fans and air conditioners.
The sound of a speedboat used by the locals to take their produce to market as well as their children to school in the morning may act as an alarm clock, but by far the best way is to rise early so you can see these activities for yourself.
Sitting on the floor to eat and chatting around the pakhao (wooden food tray) will make you appreciate that you are staying with a warm and friendly family and you will quickly become aware of the open-heartedness of the locals. For those who want it beer or locally brewed alcohol can be served during dinner, but hot tea or coffee is recommended in the morning to give you energy.
Basic bathroom facilities exist but washing is done in the open air, in a yard without walls where one's modesty is protected by special clothing. Ladies should ask for a sinh (a traditional garment which covers from above the bust to the knees) and gentlemen wear a sarong or, quite often, just a pair of shorts. Some locals also bathe in the river.
Things to do
Done Kho offers beautiful sunsets made more entrancing because you can experience them while walking along a white sandy beach as children swim in the river. Getting up early to watch the spectacular sunrise will enable you to see the fishermen standing in their boats and hauling in the nets they set out the night before.
Learning to appreciate the simpler things in life is the main benefit you will derive from a stay here. And learning how to cook different foods accompanied by sticky rice will be a pleasure that will stay with you.
The island also offers visitors the opportunity to do the same things Phillip did half a century ago - planting vegetables, growing mulberry leaves to feed to the silkworms, traditional fishing, and even weaving.
Above all, however, they will find a true haven of peace and tranquility well away from the hustle and bustle of everyday city life with no noisy vehicles or loud music to disturb the serenity of the place.