In the area around Don Khon in the Mekong River at the southernmost tip of Laos you can sometimes see the Irrawaddy dolphin. The freshwater dolphin is also called 'pla ka' and gets its name from the Irrawaddy river in Burma, and is classified as among the world's most endangered mammals.
The Irrawaddy dolphins—Orcaella brevirostris—can be found in other parts of the region, from the Bengal Bay to Papua New Guinea, from Northern Australia to the South China Sea.
Their habitat varies from estuary to the bank of fresh water rivers such as the Irrawaddy in Myanmar, Mahakham in Indonesia, Bhramabutra in India and the lower Mekong.
Traditionally, the dolphins are neither hunted nor their meat eaten. However, they come into regular contact with human beings because of their habitat—warm, shallow coastal waters.
Recent studies indicate that the majority of the dolphin population have migrated to Laos' southern neighbour, Cambodia
Current estimates estimate that there are 40 dolphins in the north-eastern part of Cambodia, from a total of about 100 dolphins altogether in the Mekong river.
During the flooding season, Mekong dolphins follow migratory groups of fishes from the eastern Cambodian province of Kratie to various tributaries upstream.
But during the dry season, usually December to mid-May, their sanctuary is limited. Usually they migrate to the river's "deep pools" to ensure their own safety and to use as feeding ground during this time, and this makes them easy to spot.
Surveys show that there are 36 "deep pools" in the Mekong, including the ones in lower Sekong and Se San Rivers, apart from the other five tributaries along the Lao-Cambodia border, for Irawaddy dolphins to take refuge in during the dry season.
When to go:
The southwest monsoon brings heavy rains around May that last into November. This is when the Mekong can rise ten or more meters. Immediately following the rainy season is a good time to visit. Waters have subsided, revealing the islands in the Si Phan Don area but the river level is still high enough to allow boats to make it all the way to Khong Island. The dolphins are best sighted during the first few months of the dry period.
How to get there
From Nakasang you can get a bus to Pakse for $3 which takes about 3 hours. Buses leave (Nakasang) at 06:00,07:00,08:00 and 09:00. There is a pickup that leave at 10:30 for $5 per person (5 people minimum).
To/From Don Khong
From Nakasang you can get a Pakse bound bus to Hat Xai Khun for the crossing to Don Khong (at Muang Khong) which costs $1. If you couldn't be bothered waiting for the bus, a motorbike will take you there in a fraction of the time for $3.
Don Khon can be reached two main ways -- by boat from Don Khong, or by boat from Nakasang. Don Khon is connected to Don Dhet by the silly French bridge.
To/From Don Khong
The trip from Don Khong takes around 1.5 hours depending on the time of the year and quality of the boat. From Don Khong to Don Dhet costs $15 for 1 to 4 people or $4 per person for 5+.
The trip takes about 15 minutes and costs $1 per person or $3 for the boat.To/From PakseIf you are intent on doing the whole thing by boat, the boat from Pakse arrives too late in the day to continue by boat down to Don Khon unless you want to hire a whole boat. You will have considerable trouble convincing a boatman to do the trip at night.