Si Phan Don (4000 Islands) is situated right in the south of Laos, in the stretch of Mekong River that borders Cambodia. Here, the Mekong River splits into a maze of different channels covering a width of around 4 km, creating thousands of small islands (around 4000 in the dry season). Si Phan Don is a place for relaxation and not doing anything in a hurry. Imagine yourself lying in a hammock with a book, while watching the sunset over the Mekong River that drifts by your bungalow.
The Islands of Si Phan Don
There literally are thousands of islands in Si Phan Don, but only a handful of them are permanently inhabited by people. Of those, only three have any tourism infrastructure. These three islands are quite different and you should choose which one would suit you better before you arrive. Here is a quick overview to help you decide:
Don Det – By far the most popular island in Si Phan Don, Don Det is also known as the “backpacker” or “party” island. Although all of Si Phan Don remains pretty relaxed and quiet most of the time, Don Det is where the partying types like to go, particularly at the northern end where the boat arrives. If you’re looking for something a bit more lively, this is the island for you. Don Det is also quite a small island, so it is walkable, though most people get around by bicycle.
Don Khone – Don Khone is situated just south of Don Det and is connected to the island via an old French railroad bridge. This is the island that we stayed on as it is much more quieter and relaxed compared to Don Det. In fact, when we were there we felt like we had the island to ourselves a lot of the time, only sharing it with the locals. Don Khone is also quite small and easily navigable by bicycle.
Don Khong – This is the largest island in Si Phan Don, and also the least visited as it is located further north from Don Det and Don Khone, where most of the popular attractions are. This can be a great thing though if you are after a more authentic experience. Fewer tourists head here, and things are about as relaxed as you can get. Head here if you want to stay away from any crowds.
Things to do in Si Phan Don
Si Phan Don is more about relaxing and enjoying the peacefulness and slow pace of this part of the world. There are plenty of things to do to keep you busy though, in between hammock sessions.
In Si Phan Don, the entire Mekong River drops in altitude, tumbling down a series of low waterfalls, creating a spectacular sight. There are lots of these waterfalls to view, however the easiest to access is Somphamit Waterfall, located on Don Khone. You can reach here by cycling from either Don Khone or Don Det. There is a fee of 25,000 kip to view the waterfall, though I have the feeling that I also paid for the bridge crossing (to Don Det) with my ticket.
There is no better way to see Si Phan Don than by bicycle. There are lots of roads on the islands that lead through some beautiful areas, plus cycling is a lot of fun. You can also cycle across the bridge between the islands of Don Det and Don Khone. Most places rent bicycles for 10,000 kip per day.
There is a small pod of Irrawaddy Dolphins that inhabit a part of the Mekong River at the bottom tip of Don Khone, and there are boats there that can take you out to view them. These dolphins are very rare and should be treated with respect. Make sure that your driver shuts off his engine when you get to the area, then the dolphins will pop up out of the water to get some air. I viewed the dolphins in Cambodia, so I didn’t do this while in Si Phan Don, though I hear that it is a similar experience.
Fishing is a way of life for the people of Si Phan Don, and some fishermen will even take you out on their boats with them early in the morning to do some fishing. This is a great way to experience the life of a local fisherman, and you will be supporting him and his family while doing so.
Kayaking has started to become popular in Si Phan Don, and its a great way to get out on the Mekong to explore its maze of channels. Some tours will even take you down some decent rapids.
Where to stay in Si Phan Don
There is plenty of cheap accommodation in Si Phan Don. Don Det has the most options, but you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a place to stay on any of the islands. A riverside bungalow with a hammock on the veranda is the best way to experience Si Phan Don.
Kham Pheng Guesthouse
We stayed on the island of Don Khone and found this little place while wandering along the main dirt road not far from where the boat dropped us off. Kham Pheng only has a couple of joint bungalows and we were the only people staying there for the four days that we were there. Our bungalow was clean and comfortable with a fan and private bathroom. It is also located right on the Mekong River, with a very comfortable hammock on the veranda for sitting with a cold Beer Lao and watching the sunset in the evening. The large bungalows (that we stayed in) are 60,000 kip per night, and their smaller ones are 40,000.
Where to eat in Si Phan Don
Most guesthouses and bungalows serve food in Si Phan Don, however funnily enough, ours didn’t, so we had the opportunity to go out and try a few other places while on the island of Don Khone.
Also a guesthouse, this restaurant is just down the road from Kham Pheng, not far from the bridge to Don Det. The family that run the place are lovely, their food is cheap and tasty, and they have a great view overlooking the river and bridge. We had breakfast here each morning. Try their rice soup for breaky (10,000 kip), with a nice strong Lao coffee.
This little restaurant is south of the bridge on Don Khone and is run by one very nice old lady. She had no customers when we wandered past one night, but her smile dragged us in. She cooked us up some delicious coconut curry fried rice with an egg on top. It was delicious and cost 15,000 kip ($2).
Pan’s is probably the most popular guesthouse on Don Khone, and they have a decent (and cheap) little restaurant attached. We had a nice vegetable noodle soup and a coffee for 15,000 kip each ($2).
Getting to and around Si Phan Don
There is only one way to get to the islands of Si Phan Don, and that is by boat. Small boats leave from the town of Ban Nakasang which can be reached by bus from Pakse in the north, or certain towns in Cambodia in the south. We travelled to Si Phan Don from the town of Kratie in northern Cambodia. We bought a combined bus/boat ticket from our guesthouse for $16, which ended up being a combination of two buses to the border, then a mini van to Ban Nakasang, where we got on the boat that stops first at Don Det and then goes to Don Khone. If you make your own way to Ban Nakasang, the boat costs 20,000 kip (as read from the sign at the dock), though I’m not sure if you need a certain amount of people or not before the boat will leave.
If you are going to Don Khong, which is further north, the bus takes you to the town of Muang Khong on Don Khong itself, by crossing the river by vehicle ferry. I didn’t visit Don Khong, so you can read more about it here.
Our return journey was much the same, taking a boat from Don Khone to Ban Nakasang, picking up passengers along the way, before hopping on a bus to Pakse. All of these journeys can be arranged at guesthouses and travel places on the islands or at your current destination. It’s all quite cheap and easy. You just have to be a little patient. This is Laos, and nothing happens in a hurry. The combined boat/bus ticket from Don Khone to Pakse cost 50,000 kip, booked at Pan’s Guesthouse.
The best way to get around depends on which island you are staying on. Cycling is the best way to get around Don Det and Don Khone, though Don Det is certainly small enough to walk around. Bicycles are cheap and there are places everywhere that will rent one to you for 10,000 kip. Don Khong is a much larger island and bicycles are fine if you just want to see a small part of it. If you want to explore the entire island, a scooter is the best option.
Boats can be hired to take you between the different islands and on different tours. Talk to the tour operators and boat owners to arrange a price and itinerary.