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Laos' first railway: 14 km of rust
An abandoned railway, decrepit villas and barbecued frogs on sticks provide an evocative glimpse of the life that used to swirl through Laos' "4,000 Islands"
Skeletal railroad tracks and a grim-looking locomotive are some of the rusted remnants abandoned in southern Laos. They sit decaying after French colonialists built a bridge and train to avoid the Mekong River's biggest waterfalls, and exploit Indochina.
Today, this rugged region is known as Si Phan Don, "the 4,000 Islands," and allows travelers to explore the Mekong River by boat, discover the inhabited isles among Buddhist temples and cross the nearby Lao-Cambodian border.
Visitors can also imagine how Southeast Asia's history would be vastly different if Paris continued to open up the 4,900-kilometer Mekong, which flows from Tibet to Vietnam's South China Sea coast.
World War II ended all that.
The first railway in Laos
Japanese attacks, against the French in Indochina, forced the train to stop in 1945, never to run again. It now rots in a jungle clearing.
Built around 1917 by the French, it was the first railway ever to exist in land-locked Laos.
Since then, Lao villagers have seized many of the valuable metal tracks to create small footbridges across streams and ditches, or fences to mark boundaries and control jungle growth.
Faded, antique villas also built by the French are now used for hotels, restaurants, schools, homes and government buildings despite their tattered condition.
A graceful, French colonial, multi-arched railway bridge links two popular small islands -- Don Det and Don Khon.
The now-walkable bridge is part of the abandoned 14-kilometer railway line which crosses and connects Don Det and Don Khon.
Dilapidated cement piers, at either end of the railway line, show where boats loaded and unloaded their cargo, which was briefly hauled overland to avoid the waterfalls.
This was an essential link for colonial France's trade and travel between their southern Vietnam port of Saigon -- now known as Ho Chi Minh City -- and their upriver administrative towns in Laos, which included Pakse, Savannakhet and Vientiane.
The railway also allowed the French to export Lao coffee beans, which continue to fetch good prices in Paris.
Beginning in 1885, French colonialism in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia gradually solidified before ending in military defeat in 1954.
Today, Don Det and Don Khon islands provide tourist-friendly accommodation, including rustic guest houses and restaurants, plus a few newer, upmarket establishments.
Electricity is a recent addition, but cars have not yet made it to either island.
Most people walk, bicycle, or motorbike along dirt roads and paths.
An occasional satellite dish emerges, presenting an ambitious bowl toward the sky while rooted in dirt among weeds, clay water jugs, drying laundry and debris.
Water buffaloes, geckos and chickens wander amid the palm trees along the Mekong's banks.
Starting on either small island, an easy walk leads past the French bridge and the Buddhist temple of Wat Khon Tai on Don Khon, and eventually to the attractive Li Phi Falls.
Some say the low, wide waterfalls were named after the "phi," or ghosts, of dead fishermen who cast their nets too close to the hammering rapids.
Ghosts and grilled frogs
Local cuisine includes grilled frogs and fried bananas, cooked by impoverished women on open stoves among trees and bamboo, near Li Phi Falls.
Bamboo splints hold the small amphibians and short bananas in place, over glowing coals.
The frogs probably nourished villagers long before the French arrived, but the coincidence is striking.
Don Det and Don Khon are very close to the Lao-Cambodian frontier, and travelers can take cross-border buses either way.
A much more developed third island, Don Khong, is larger and includes a small town, but it is upriver and farther away.
Another knot for navigation on the Mekong River appears at nearby Khon Phapheng Falls, which requires a brief road journey to reach the best viewing site.
Li Phi Falls and Khon Phapheng Falls are probably best described as multiple cascades and rapids, because the drop in elevation is only about 15 meters at Khon Phapheng Falls, the biggest of the two.
The waterfalls' drama is due more to their width, sprawling across one kilometer at Khon Phapheng Falls, plus the sudden gusto of the Mekong River as it tumbles, splashes and roars through a myriad of rocky crevices.
Laos never gave up its dream of building a railway. In March 2009, Laos and Thailand constructed a stub of tracks, only 3.5 kilometers long, which allows a train to run from northeast Thailand's Nong Khai, across the Mekong River over the Friendship Bridge, and to the railway's only stop at Thanalaeng station, 25 kilometers outside of Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
To reach Vientiane, passengers can then travel by bus or other vehicles.
Thailand provides an easy access to the 4,000 Islands via the eastern city of Ubon Ratchathani.
Buses to and from Ubon cross the Thai-Lao border, near the southern Lao city of Pakse.
From Pakse, modern buses and vans slide south on a smooth, double-lane Highway 13, originally built by French colonialists using forced labor.
At two riverside landing sites, "long-tailed" motorized boats wait for passengers.
To get to Don Khong, get off the bus at the first landing site, Hat Xai Khun, and take a very short boat ride to the isle's Muang Khong town.
To reach Don Det and Don Khon, climb into the boats at the second landing site, Ban Nakasang, for a relaxing, meandering journey through jungle-clad mounds which rise up among the Mekong River's 4,000 islands -- some big but most of them minuscule.
Passengers can disembark at either Don Det or Don Khon, where villagers have built accommodation, with hammocks, along the river.