Heard and read much about Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands) in Southern Laos, which conjures up exotic images of tiny islands scattered throughout the Mekong.
The Mekong expands to its widest, further south into Laos. In the rainy season, this can be up to nine miles across. Not so in the dry season though when just a little water is around.
This exposes numerous sandbanks and islets, which locals claim if counted, there would be over 4,000 islands – the reason for this expansive area’s name. Many islands are inhabited and tourists are welcome.
A few colonial villas still grace the popular islands – a legacy of the French.
Although there are 3 main destinations (Don Khong, Don Det, and Don Khone), most travellers head to Don Det and Don Khone. At least they did in October 2014. These islands offer cheaper accommodations and sights are more easily accessible. Don Det exudes a more hippy feel.
For those of you in need of some R&R, head to Don Khong for peace and serenity.
Tip: Regardless of which direction you’re travelling from in Laos, make sure your minivan or bus driver knows which island you need to stop off at as there are several jetties. Especially as Don Khong and Don Khone’s pronunciation are very similar to a local, your driver can get it wrong and take you to the wrong jetty – as he did for us…
The crammed minivan from Pakse to Si Phan Don left around 08:00 am and arrived about 4 hours later.
Our driver dropped us off at the wrong jetty. He didn’t check our ticket and assumed everyone wanted to be dropped off at the Don Khone jetty.
When I tried to explain our ticket was for the Don Khong jetty, not Don Khone, he walked off for his break and didn’t want anything to do with us. Nor did he have any intention of taking us back to the correct jetty, some 20 minutes away. Stranded.
I found the ticket office, which is connected to the Pakse office. Entering the office was like intruding into someone’s living room. Two people lay on the tiled floor with a baby half asleep, watching TV and quite annoyed that I interrupted their siesta.
The guy waved me away as if I was nothing, a bother. I kept insisting. Eventually, he called another lady who spoke English.
This lady was just as annoyed and quite rude; and adamant that I should have known where I had to get off.
The 2 options she blurted at me: either pay for a ticket back to our correct ticketed destination or wait 2.5 hours for the next scheduled bus back. Waiting meant that we missed our scheduled boat trip to the island.
After much arguing with everybody, the driver reluctantly drove us back, quite fast. A small win.
It was an unnecessarily stressful hour, which could have been avoided. All I can say is that perhaps because of the many tourists moving constantly throughout this area, locals are fed up and no longer want to help when something goes wrong.
Waterfalls, islands, boat trips, swimming, trekking, and much more are available once you arrive.
Don Det and Don Khone
As soon as your bus drops you off at the mainland side jetty for Don Khong, Mr Phoumy (+856-2022403315) is the guy that takes you across the river – he seems to meet most of the buses. But, not before he gives you a sales pitch, takes a deposit, and books you for the next day on his tour (60,000K each).
Albeit a little pushy, he’s very smooth whilst taking your money with ease and doubt you’ll get away from him. From his pitch, you assume Mr Phoumy is taking you the next day, but in the usual Asian style, someone else takes his place.
Typically, someone doesn’t speak English or very little, but don’t worry as the fill-in knows the drill and where to take everyone for the day.
Regardless, it’s a great day and not to be missed. After all, this is one of the main reasons travellers gravitate to this gorgeous, relaxing region.
Your day starts at around 09:00 am at the jetty in Don Khong where other passengers will also converge.
The boat driver first stops off at tiny Don Det Island just to drop off any passengers staying on the island. The next stop is Don Khone for a few hours. Here, you walk about a kilometre (or hire a bicycle) along some picturesque scenery to the impressive Li Phi waterfalls (Tat Somphamit). Not sure why, but the locals nicknamed the falls Devil’s Corridor.
Before you reach the waterfalls though, you’ll stumble across a small old railway open-air museum with an old rusted locomotive. The Lao State Railway authority, operated this railway (joining Don Det to Don Khone), which opened in 1893 and closed either in 1940 or 1949.
From the railway museum, keep walking until you come across a ticket booth, which is where you must pay the 25,000K entrance fee for the falls before going any further. The falls are worth seeing so pay the fee and walk on. After all, this is the reason for the long walk under the steaming heat of the very hot sun (even during the rainy season).
Another highlight of this day is to spot the ever-elusive and rare Irrawaddy river dolphins frolicking along the Mekong, which sadly on this day, were indeed very elusive and not interested in a frolic.
The day finishes around 4 pm with your trusty boat driver meeting you at the jetty to take you back.
Around Don Khong Island
Hire a motorbike (60,000K/day) and ride around this pretty island for the day. You can buy fuel along the roadside throughout the island.
Riding out of Kang Khong village (jetty landing) takes you through some lovely scenery. Today, locals started harvesting rice. Dark-clothed bodies against the bright golden-coloured backdrop are just stunning.
Locals are very friendly and the local children are gorgeous – I love Laos for its people!
Don Khong History Museum
A beautiful colonial building and well-preserved but sadly, it was closed at the time of visiting. Great for taking photos though…
Pon’s River Guest House (Khang Khong) – booking this guesthouse via Agoda is much more expensive than a walk-in price.
A good-sized room and cleaned every few days. Large communal deck off the room, AC and a private bathroom with hot water included. Wi-fi is better out on the deck than in the room. Breakfast is included and delicious (select from 4 choices) with coffee, tea or juice, and a big plate of fresh fruit.
The Pon’s River Guest House restaurant is across the road and serves good food but there’s a slightly cheaper one that’s very good 2 doors down (heading towards the bridge). Overall, good service from the main English-speaking guy but from the rest of the staff it was mediocre.
I did have a couple of issues at Pon’s though:
- Lock up anything you don’t want to lose. I lost my precious woven bracelet. I left this on the dresser and only noticed it missing on our departure day. Although it wasn’t worth a lot of money, it was a gift and keepsake from Pakse. When I brought this up with the English-speaking owner’s son, he asked the cleaners and one had seen it there a few days before (weird to mention this). I questioned it again before leaving but he brushed it off as if it didn’t matter. The temptation was a little too great for one of the cleaners.
- Discovered the second issue too late and well on the road to Cambodia. Bought the bus tickets from Pon’s. What was promised is not what we got for our money. A take the money and run situation. Buy tickets for the direct bus, which handles border crossings from the Tourism office at Don Khong, as it is the better place to book your ticket.
Most of the guest houses in Khang Khong own a river-front restaurant of some sort across the road from the actual guesthouse. These vary greatly in price and quality. Don’t be in a hurry for any of your meals as everyone works to island time.
- Pon’s River Guest House restaurant – offers good local food at reasonable prices. The ambience is what sells this restaurant as it’s overlooking the Mekong and you can laze whilst sipping on a cool fresh fruit juice or alcohol.
- A couple of doors down from Pon’s on the riverside (sorry, don’t remember the name), there’s a better and cheaper restaurant. The quality of the local food is very good and this seems to be run by mostly women.
A few tiny house-front shops dot the main dirt road in this village as they are one street back from the river with other restaurants. You can buy basic supplies from these shops.
Overland border crossing to Cambodia
Sadly and with a heavy heart, it’s the end of travelling in Laos, but continuing the southerly trajectory and onto Cambodia for a month.
Considering, the almost non-existent travel itinerary before leaving Australia didn’t include Laos at all, had an exceptional time in Laos. Spending 2 months here was the highlight of travelling so far – a spectacular country with so much to experience and see.
I’ve added a map of the complete 2-month path of the journey in my post, which also explains the changes I’ve seen in Laos after 25 years.
Heard and read many traveller stories about the corruption at the next Laos/Cambodia border crossing, when starting from Don Khong to Stung Treng (Cambodia). Although, why not give it a shot as really don’t want to fly everywhere?
Travelling overland through SE Asia is much cheaper and you see so much more…