River cruise offers unique opportunity to see the last of the Mekong dolphins
Welcoming Visit Laos Year 2018, Vientiane Times is publishing a series of feature articles
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history and hospitality of Laos, Jewel of the Mekong.

Mahanathi Siphandon, known as the 4000 Islands in southern Laos, is a huge area of the mighty Mekong River that flows out into many channels, creating numerous islets and rapids.
This area harbours a huge number of fish species and is the habitat of rare animals including the Mekong dolphins.
Mekong dolphins, or Irrawaddy dolphins can be found in some coastal areas in Asia but there are only three freshwater subpopulations, in the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar, the Mahakam River in Indonesia, and the Mekong River in Cambodia and here in Laos.
Mekong dolphins in Laos are known as pa kha. These rare freshwater dolphins have lived beneath the rapids in a wide and deep pool south of Don Khon islands for decades and this part of the river has long been a major visitor attraction.
A few weeks ago, I visited the 4000 Islands and couldn’t pass up the opportunity for an encounter with these amazing creatures before the small population dies out

The fin of a dolphin coming up for air in the Mekong River at the Laos-Cambodia border.
--Photos Phoonsab Thevongsa

altogether.
Two years ago a report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) stated that the Mekong dolphins were functionally extinct in Laos as the number had dropped from six to three individuals. There is little hope for a reversal of the situation as the small population is no longer viable.
To give myself the best chance of seeing the dolphins I began my boat trip early in the morning as recommended by the villagers. The old French boat dock at Ban Hang Khon has a boat service counter set up by the local to run boat trips. The cost depends on how long you want a boat for, ranging from 60,000 kip for a maximum of three people for a one-hour charter.
Mr Chiengkham Philavanh, 32, who runs the Hang Khon Boat Tour service, said there were currently three dolphins in the Siphandon area, in a transboundary pool. They are mostly on the Lao side in the dry season and seem to move nearer to Cambodia in the rainy season.
Mr Chiengkham is a native of Don Khon and said he could remember once seeing about 30 dolphins in this area. There were very few tourists in those days and his father had a small wooden boat that he used to take visitors on river trips.
For decades some of the dolphins migrated to a pool in Kratie province, Cambodia, but one by one they died. Two years ago one died near the Cambodian side of the river.
After talking to Mr Chiengkham for about 10 minute as we cruised along the river, we arrived at the conservation area which is considered to be the best viewing spot. Our boatman turned off the engine and we started to look around. Suddenly we heard a strange noise like the sound of an elephant blowing water. We followed the noise and were amazed and delighted to see a dolphin’s fin emerge from the water about 50 metres away.
The dolphins appeared very quickly, about 2-4 seconds in every 3-5 minutes. Sometimes they come up quite close to the boat and sometimes further away but they were certainly visible and occasionally we were able to photograph them.
Mr Chiengkham said that nowadays 400-500 tourists come to see the dolphins each month – fewer than last year. He said the main reason was a lack of advertising while he also thought that fewer people were coming because they didn’t believe they would see any dolphins. Of course, a sighting can’t be guaranteed. Sometimes they just don’t come to the surface, and disappear for a while, although no one knows why.
Apart from dolphin watching, we also made a boat trip to some islands, saw a flooded forest, and observed the local bird population, while taking in the daily routine of the islanders whose life depends on fishing.
Mr Chiengkham said the best time to see dolphins was from January to May in the early morning from 6am-8am or in the evening when the weather is cool and there is not much boat traffic. At other times they surface very quickly and spend more time under the water.
In hopes of attracting more visitors, village authorities plan to improve the road from Don Det to Hang Khon village. At present some parts of this road are in very bad condition. They are also thinking about improving the boat dock as well as teaming up to help protect the remaining dolphins. If they disappear from the river it could be a severe blow to eco-tourism in the area.
Sadly, since I made this trip I learned that one of the three dolphins, a young animal, had died, reducing the surviving pod to just two.


By Phoonsab Thevongsa
(Latest Update March 31, 2018)

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