In the middle of the Mekong, right on the border between Laos and Cambodia are the 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don). It’s hard to tell where the number 4000 ever came from. There are certainly some bigger islands (Don Khone and Don Det being the two main destinations) but, for the most part, the other ‘islands’ look more like floating vegetation. Sometimes there’s a full-blown vege garden on top. Regardless of where the name comes from, the islands are definitely a good place to relax.
We pull up onto the tiny patch of sand that passes for the Don Det beach late at night after crossing over from Cambodia on a 16 hour bus/ songthaew/ boat journey. We really want to be on Don Khone, a 5 km walk away, but there’s no way we’re getting there tonight. Instead, we find a cheap (6 USD) but fairly revolting bungalow just off the main road on Don Det. Perhaps this was a poor choice and there are better rooms to be had farther along, but we’re too tired to do anything other than stagger down the road to eat Thai curries and pass out in bed. Don Det isn’t really our kind of place. If you like hanging out in bars that play 80s rock and reggae on repeat, drinking heaps of cocktails and smoking weed around a bonfire until the early hours of the morning then definitely stay a little longer.
We’re mostly after some relaxation, so next morning we head for Don Khone. Unfortunately for us, our ear plugs are too effective and we sleep in late despite the incessant rooster crowing just behind our bed and the early morning sounds of our drunk neighbours. By the time we get going it’s 12pm. Definitely not the best time to tackle a 5 km walk along a dirt track devoid of trees or shade. Still, eventually we make it to Don Khone and we even summon the energy to be good budget travellers and compare room prices. This turns out to be a great decision. For 9 USD a night we end up with a large, spotless room in a place right on the banks of the Mekong. The restaurant is even better: built on a wooden platform overhanging the river, it’s got comfy Thai-style floor cushions to sit on and wooden tables to relax at. Apart from the occasional lunchtime rush when the place fills with French tourists we mostly have the restaurant to ourselves and treat it like our own private outdoor deck. The owners are lovely, and their gorgeous dog comes up for pats every morning.
It’s no surprise that we have trouble dragging ourselves away from this paradise to see anything on Don Khone, but occasionally we manage. One morning we head to Li Phi (or Somphamit) falls. It’s described as the ‘biggest’ waterfall in South East Asia, but in case that makes you think of Niagra or Victoria falls we should clarify: it’s actually the longest and widest waterfall in the world. It’s not one, high waterfall but a series of smaller falls cascading down the river. The name means ‘spirit trap’ in Lao, and people believe that the rocks catch spirits and ghosts as they pass through the falls. There is a place you can swim at the falls, where the river is less treacherous. Like many sites in South East Asia, this one comes complete with riverside bar playing bad techno music. Maybe our expectations are too high, but we aren’t really bowled over by the falls and the atmosphere at the bar is pretty weird. It also isn’t free, and if given the choice again, I definitely wouldn’t pay the asking price. I can’t remember what the price is, but I know it’s too high.
On our last evening on Don Khone we head to the dolphin lookout. This turns out to be an absolutely stunning part of the river where the Mekong slows down and widens out so much that it resembles a beach. If you want somewhere to sit, swim, or just enjoy the view head here instead of the waterfall. We arrive just as the sun is setting over the mountains behind the river, making for some great sunset photography. If that’s not your style there are also boats waiting to take you out to look for the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that live in this part of Laos.
Apart from those two sites, there’s not a lot to do on Don Khone other than to kick back and relax. In between lounging on our riverside deck, we went for long walks or runs through the surrounding villages. The accommodation and restaurants on Don Khone are packed into a short 2km strip, and as soon as you pass through it farms and small local villages surround you. It’s fascinating to see how they make their lives on the banks of the river. Walk past during the morning or afternoon and you’ll see men bringing in the fishing catch, women feeding pigs and children playing soccer or mucking around in the river.
We spent six days lazing on Don Khone, and for us it made the perfect, chilled out stopover before we tackled more adventurous pursuits – motorbiking through Southern Laos.
Getting there: We crossed over from Cambodia into the 4000 Islands. Our ticket cost us 27 USD each from Siem Reap to Nakasang (the port town from which you access the islands). This was 2 -3 USD more expensive than normal because we were travelling during Chinese New Year. Be careful when booking your bus ticket in Siem Reap: some buses stop overnight at a town near the border so your trip will take you 2 days. On the plus side, this does mean you’ll arrive on Don Det during the day. The boat from Nakasang to Don Det cost us 30 000 LAK. Since we arrived at night we had no other option than the one open tour operator, but if you arrive during the day you could walk down to the port and ask around, probably saving yourself a few dollars. Sleep: We stayed at Nok Noy guesthouse for around 9 USD for a room with a private bathroom and cold shower. There’s a deck with hammocks out the front of the room and the restaurant is a great place to hang out. There is free wifi; it’s patchy but no worse than anything else on the island.