Referred to by some as Khao San Road on the river, Don Dhet is a classic backpacker hub with just a fraction of the shenanigans that take place on Khao San Road. Now well-established on the backpacker trail through Laos, the number and quality of rooms on Don Dhet continues to climb steadily. The scenery is indeed beautiful and the ambience very relaxed, but Laos this is not. Anyone who tells you differently has eaten too many banana pancakes.
If you're on the way here expecting to experience the local culture, prepare to be very, very disappointed. If, on the other hand, all you want to do is relax in a hammock for a week (or a month), meet and talk to travellers and eat traveller food then you're in the right place.
Certainly it's a beautiful area, with daily sunsets and sunrises equally stunning and a wealth of activities on offer – hiking to waterfalls, taking boat or cycling trips, general hiking, camping and extended hammock laying. You could busy yourself here for days or weeks.
You can easily visit nearby Don Khon by crossing the French Bridge, where there are great waterfalls, rusty trains, and the occasional glimpse of an Irrawaddy dolphin.
Electricity arrived in Don Dhet just a few years back and all rooms now at least have a light and a fan. And the fan you will absolutely need as most rooms are extremely stuffy due to the intense heat of the day, which doesn't seem to go away overnight. Especially now that most bungalows come with tin roofs, which compound the issue of the heat. Particularly brutal are the sunrise bungalows in the early morning and the sunset bungalows from about 15:00 onwards.
When we previously visited Don Dhet, rooms were still available for $1 per night. Now, the cheapest you will find is around the $3 per night mark or a little higher, depending on the season. And even these rooms are difficult to find and are extremely basic -- more like camping than staying in a room.
Most bungalows these days are moving toward private bathrooms, but there are still plenty around that share facilities. Overwhelmingly, we found that those with shared facilities offered fairly poor value as they were often priced similarly to those places with private bathrooms.
The accommodation on Don Dhet runs along three sides of the island: the northwest side (sunset side), the northeast side (sunrise side) and the southeast side (facing Don Khon).
For some, this is what travelling is all about. Relaxing by the river, living cheaply and meeting new friends. For others, it's exactly the opposite of what they are looking for. It all depends on what you want from your journey and only you can be the judge of whether this place is a good one or not.
Boats from Nakasang usually dock at one of two landings, depending on where you depart from -- songthaews from Pakse often head to the landing to the south of Nakasang, and the boats that leave from there pull up at the landing about midway along the eastern coast of Don Dhet. There is some accommodation between here and the French bridge to the south (which crosses over to Don Khon). These are good places to get away from the throngs if you're looking for some solitude.
Heading north, there's a long line of places to stay, eventually coming to a junction marked with signs pointing to accommodation on the sunset side. This road crosses the island and continues south for a bit before ending in some rice fields -- enterprising hikers who pick their way through the fields can find their way south to the French bridge.
The eastern road continues from the junction to the top of the island, passing the boat landing at the north end -- the boats here cross back and forth between here and the landing in Nakasang town proper. You'll want to take a boat from this landing when leaving Don Dhet, because songtheaws to Pakse depart from Nakasang town.
The road continues around the top of the island and terminates at Khampong Restaurant and Guesthouse. To get to the sunset guesthouses further south, you'll have to backtrack to the junction and take the sunset road.
Internet is widely available on the island with free WiFi often offered in cafes and guesthouses. At this point in time, it's quite poor and relies on the 3G signal. While this is fine if you have one person connected, we found that groups of people with iPhones would congregate at restaurants and this typically slowed internet down to a snail's pace. Your best bet is to buy your own Unitel SIM card and data.
There is no post office, no police station and no hospital on Don Dhet. The nearest facilities are all on Don Khong.
There are no ATMs on the island, but the town of Nakasang across the river has a BCEL ATM should you be running low on cash. Shops in the north of Don Dhet can exchange foreign currency and Adam's Bar offers a cash advance service from credit cards.
And finally, here's a bit of a hint for the uninitiated: the word 'happy' when it appears next to an item on a menu in Don Dhet has a very special meaning. Ask around before you order.
By Adam Poskitt