Deep in the most southern reaches of Laos, in a narrow section of the country where it can feel like there is more river than land, are the somewhat mythical 4000 Islands. Held up as a rite of passage for those travelling along the banana pancake trail, Si Phan Don as it’s known in the local lingo is a section of the Mekong River that fans out into a 10 kilometre-wide labyrinth of shallow waterways and islands. Some of the islands are so small that they’re submerged in the wet season while others are so large that they contain their own mountains and forests. Most travellers will want to choose from among three islands to stay on. Which is right for you?
Don Dhet is by far the most popular island for travellers to Si Phan Don. Why? Because it’s the cheapest, has the most accommodation options and attracts a strong flow of young travellers looking for a party. Truth be told, the party on Don Dhet is a tame one, with most activities wrapping up by 23:00, but that doesn’t stop enthusiastic souls heading down to the river with bags of beers and guitars to sit around a camp fire.
Over the past five years or so, the island’s standard of accommodation has really improved and as a result prices have risen. Expect to pay around 50,000 kip for a bungalow here, but these days it will have a fan and a light whereas in years gone by you were left to the sometimes unbearable heat of the night without so much as a waft of air. Be warned: we noticed on our last visit something of an ambivalence towards travellers by staff of restaurants and guesthouses, which is so out of character for Lao people that it indicates that something is likely culturally askew here.
Don Khon is the place for flashpackers and those backpackers who are a little older or simply do not like the junior backpacker scene. Cheap accommodation is harder to come by, but good accommodation abounds. Additionally, restaurants here are much better than the sub-standard fare that is largely served on Don Dhet and the overall vibe is much more subdued than there as well. As with Don Dhet, Don Khon is filled with bungalows facing the river with hammocks out the front. You’re also closer to most of the activities available on the 4000 Islands, such as the waterfalls and rare Irrawaddy dolphins. Come here if you are backpacker who wants to avoid the stereotypical backpacker scene, a flashpacker or perhaps even a luxury traveller.
Don Khong is the third of the popular tourist islands of Si Phan Don and the least visited, primarily because there just isn’t a lot to do — not that there is loads to do on the other two islands. The best option is to rent a bicycle and explore its vast interior which includes forests and rolling hills. The island truly is massive and at times you can forget that you’re smack bang in the middle of the Mekong. Measuring seven kilometres wide and almost 20 kilometres long, there’s plenty to explore — rural villages, isolated farms and that forest. The type of tourist you’ll find here is generally older, more likely to be carrying a suitcase and happier to be away from the party types. But we think this island has a bit more potential for budget travellers as it has some quite cheap accommodation and almost the entire island is open for exploration — you’re unlikely to see another tourist. It’s certainly rewarding for those who make an effort.
The 4000 Islands are perfect stop off either on your way to or from Cambodia and most travellers know it. Choosing the right island for you is simply a matter of joining the sort of crowd you’re most comfortable with and kicking back for a few days of rest, relaxation and river views. It really is a great part of the world.
By Adam Poskitt
Last updated on 29th January, 2015.