Far larger than Don Dhet, Don Khon offers the laidback riverside vibe without the unruly development and general trashiness that has befallen Don Dhet. The southernmost tourist destination in Laos, Don Khon also holds the majority of Si Phan Don/the 4000 Islands’ natural and historic attractions.
It’s impossible to mention Don Khon without also mentioning Don Dhet in the same breath—both are accessed by boat from Ban Nakasang village on the mainland and are connected by a bridge. While the bulk of backpackers head straight for Don Dhet’s sprawling metropolis of bungalows, Don Khon has tapped into a niche market of backpackers not interested in a party and mid-market mid-sized tour groups. Accommodation is limited to a kilometre stretch along the northwestern edge of the island, starting at the French bridge. Thrifty backpackers eschew staying here because it lacks the cheap-as-chips-shacks that Don Dhet has become famous for—don’t stay on Don Khon unless you’re willing to shell out 50,000 kip.
Relaxation and amazing Mekong sunsets remain at the top of the experience, with the added bonus of being in closer proximity to two waterfalls, a swimmable beach area, far superior food options than Don Dhet and fascinating history. It’s hard to believe that this sleepy, passive island was once the staging point for French colonial ambition.
In the late 19th century, the French were hungry for the riches of China and dominance of the entire region. With their stronghold in southern Vietnam and Cambodia, they sought a way to create a link to China to move goods and establish control. There was a slight problem, which you’ll understand when you see Khone Pha Pheng, Li Phi or Khone Pa Soi waterfalls. Actually, you need not see the falls, you’ll hear them well before. There’s an obstacle of over ten kilometres of rocks and angry rapids blocking the way.
Several expeditions to conquer the falls by steamer ended badly—the river was unyielding. By 1894, a railway to bypass some of the falls was built from the port at the southeastern tip across the jungle choked island. Infrastructure continued to be added and by 1910, there was an extension into Don Dhet and a bridge connecting the two islands bringing the total to seven-kilometres of rail, the only true railway ever built in Laos (the three-kilometres of train tracks near Vientiane definitely do not count). Today, the bridge remains the way to travel between the islands.
The heyday of transporting cargo and tourists with this train was rather short-lived. By the 1930s it was practically obsolete. The Japanese used it during the occupation in World War II before the abandoned line was reclaimed by nature. It’s possible to see a section of track and one locomotive just across the bridge, and another at the port which still has the ramp, pulley system and engine house. There’s signage with information and archival photos of this fascinating period of time and are worth seeking out.
Aside from chasing waterfalls, bouncing down rural tracks by bicycle and lazing on a Mekong beach, there’s not a whole lot else to do. Boat trips to spot the rare Irrawaddy Dolphin will most likely be fruitless now that they have been declared functionally extinct (the current population can no longer viably sustain itself). Even if they are still alive and flipping, we were told the explosions from upriver damming scare them off.
If you have your heart set on it with the added thrill that you’re skirting Cambodian waters, dolphin trips are arranged at Ban Hang Khone village (at the old port) or the beach at the southwestern corner of the island (south on the road past Li Phi). It’s 70,000 kip for a boat for an hour, maximum three people. Keep in mind that if you go for sunset, you’ll be riding the bicycle back in the dark. If cruising around on a boat is your main desire, arranging the trip from town may make more sense.
Is Don Khon real Laos? Far from it, though that experience can be found just a stone’s throw away—there are 4000 islands after all. Upriver, Dom Som and Dom Loppadi have no tourist accommodation. Step onto these islands and step back a few decades in time. A boat from Don Dhet to Dom Som is 10,000 kip per person, 15,000 with a bicycle one way (try to arrange for the return trip in advance). Once you get a taste though you’ll want to keep going. Those lucky to be on their own motorbike or bicycle, instead of travelling along the highway, island hop from Don Dhet, Don Som all the way to less touristy Don Khong.
Don Khon is accessible from Don Dhet via the old French bridge or by boat. Boats can shuttle passengers directly to Don Khon from Nakasang on the mainland. All the guesthouses and tourist restaurants are clustered at the northwest coast of Don Khon, near the bridge and facing Don Dhet.
Crossing the French bridge from Don Dhet costs 35,000 kip. The ticket includes admission to Li Phi waterfalls. Hang onto your ticket if you are planning to cross the bridge more than once that day.
Don Khon (also spelled Don Khone) is sometimes confused with Don Khong, the largest island and administrative centre of Si Phan Don/4000 Islands. To add to the confusion, Don Khon is within the district of Don Khong. They are not the same island.
Like Don Dhet, Don Khon’s “roads” are a series of seriously bumpy dirt track. Essentially one leads along the west coast (to Li Phi Waterfall), one down the east (to Khone Pa Soi waterfall) and one through the middle leading to the old port at the southeastern tip.
There are no services on the island such as post, police or hospital. The ATM is in Nakasang. A few shops do money exchange and cards are accepted at Sala Done Khone. Guesthouses offer bicycle and motorbike rental, laundry and ticket booking services, but have been slow to wisen up to the fact that WiFi is a strong selling point. WiFi can be found at many restaurants and cafes–it just may not work. If staying connected is important to you, get a sim card before arriving to the island as 3G usually works.
Homestays are available in Ban Hang Khone, the small village at the old port on the southeastern tip of the island where dolphin spotting boat trips depart from. The village is fairly rough around the edges. With so many homestay opportunities throughout southern Laos, we’d suggest opting for somewhere less affected by mass tourism.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Don Khon or check hotel reviews on Agoda and Booking . Hungry? Read up on where to eat on Don Khon. Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Don Khon. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Don Khon.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 16th February, 2017.
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