Irrawaddy Dolphins and breast milk

Waiting for a Jumbo to take us to the corner of Routes 8 and 13. A bus stops and we change plans, it is good to stay flexible when traveling. On the bus we meet Shitole, I am not making his name up. Shitole is a young student who is keen to practise his English. I giggle my way through a stilted conversation where he asks us how many children we have and when we got married. I do not try to explain that, despite being the grand age of thirty-three, neither Jette nor I have kids (fingers crossed!) and that we are not in fact married. Shitole gets the driver to drop us at the corner and bids us farewell. The first hour of our commute worked out quite nicely. Claudia has decided to join us as far as Pakse, as she would be arriving in the nighttime she wanted company and we gladly let her tag along.

Despite our best information no busses pass us on the way south so we give up and flag down a Jumbo headed for Tha Khaek. In Tha Khaek we switch to a motorbike tuk-tuk which takes us to the bus depot. We are glad to find a bus leaving for Pakse in ten minutes. Fresh baguettes are hastily filled with sardines from a rusty, dirty tin and inhaled along with a can of coke before we walk to the bus.

Which is impossibly crowded.

Small plastic stools have been set all the way down the aisle for extra seating, people crowd in the aisle, trying to find room for legs, bodies and luggage. The heat inside the bus is beyond description. We stand in the aisle trying to find room for the eight hour ride and just give up. We fight our way off the bus and stand in the full sun, which feels cool after the bus’s interior. Looking at the bus I see a railway car crowded with Jews on their way to the gas chamber, not a transport option. Three Italians sit on hard won plastic chairs in the bus and ready themselves to brave the journey. Not long after this crowded bus leaves another one takes its place. This one is only going as far as Savannakhet, but will see us in the right direction and is far less crowded, however shabby and stinky it is.

About three hours later we jump off in Savannakhet and are greeted by three very tired looking Italians who have beaten us by a mere ten minutes. Their eyes twitch when I tell them about the second bus. Another baguette later we find a bus which is headed for Pakse. This bus stops every few metres along the journey and Jette, Claudia and I are all thoroughly sick of bus life when 11:30pm and Pakse rolls around. A motorbike with a side car takes us to the nearest open hotel where we collapse.

I wake to hear the shower. It feels like 5am but is really 9:30am. We find breakfast, and the Italians, who are eating slowly and thoughtfully. Their crowded bus arrived in Pakse at 2am after requiring some roadside repairs and unloading. This is where we stop complaining about our relatively painless commute. After breakfast Jette and I farewell Claudia and set out for another, relatively short commute.

On the Jumbo bus trip to Ban Naka Sang I develop a fondness for Sudoku and narrowly miss being hit by flying breast milk. A young mother is feeding her very new baby when a violent bump separates baby and nipple (I could not help but notice it was an extremely long nipple straight from the cover of National Geographic). I look up from my Sudoku at the bump to see a stream of breast milk spraying nearby commuters like a wayward fire hose, a very unimpressed baby and an embarrassed mother. I look back down to my Sudoku quickly and avoid any eye contact with Jette as this would start racks of giggling. Despite no eye contact I can hear her thoughts “don’t look at Ben, don’t look at Ben” Thankfully the bus ride finishes soon afterwards.

We jump onto a boat which takes us directly to Don Khon Island where we find a room and stop.

It is really nice to just stop.

Our room sits on the banks of the Mekong River near the end of its four-thousand, nine hundred and nine kilometre journey. The river is big, fast and rich brown. It discharges four hundred and seventy-five cubic kilometres, kilometres!, of water annually. That is two times the length of Tasmania-ish cubed, full of brown, muddy water. Try to picture this number if you can, it is a figure which is truly hard to comprehend.

We don’t strain ourselves on the island, a lazy morning is followed by a short walk to a beach where an unpainted canoe takes us to find the extremely rare Irrawaddy Dolphin. A close relative of the Irrawaddy Dolphin, the Yangtze Dolphin was recently declared extinct. This marks the first large vertebrae forced to extinction by humans in fifty years and only the fourth time since 1500 that a complete branch has fallen from the evolutionary tree.

The Irrawaddy Dolphin is sadly following its cousin’s fate with less than one hundred in existence on the entire planet, all of them living in the Mekong, forty where we are going. In the 1950’s there were thousands of these snub nosed dolphins right along the Mekong’s length. Future plans for more dams, levees and barrages will put impossible strain on this species.

This sharp decline is not due to persecution or hunting but unskilled fishing. Long, un-baited lines bristling with hooks are dragged up and down the river snagging fish, branches and dolphins, nets are cast carelessly. In the dry season greedy fishermen drop dynamite into deep pools to stun and catch fish. These pools are where the Irrawaddy Dolphins stay to wait for rain.

Our canoe sneaks us over the border into Cambodia where a viewing platform sits on the bank overlooking a deep pool. We spot one fin, then another. The irrawaddy dolphins look like the goofy cousin of the bottle nosed dolphin. The cousin which you have to be nice to despite his irritating laugh. Despite their plight they wear a perpetual grin but are extremely shy, they only briefly pop up for air before diving again into the brown waters. I manage a few photos but cannot do the moment justice. I struggle to capture them on their brief sojourns to the surface. The dolphins rise so rarely for air that I start to think it would be convenient if one had asthma, or smoked. No such luck. We sit in the heat and enjoy seeing this species, one which most likely will be extinct during our lifetime. I mentally review my bucket list as we ride the canoe back to the beach.

-Bottle Nosed Dolphin – tick

-Pink Amazon Dolphin – tick

-Irrawaddy Dolphin – tick

-own a ride on lawn mower – not yet

-eat moose meat – not yet

-skydive in a tuxedo – not yet

-Climb a mountain, paraglide from summit – not yet

There are still some jobs to be done…

Tomorrow we are waking early again and are bussing again. This time a short (15 hour) hop to Siem Reap where we have a big temple to see and I have some baby clothes to donate to an orphanage courtesy of Baby Teresa. Both should be rewarding experiences.

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