One of the most laid back places you’ll find anywhere, Si Phan Don (4000 Islands) in southern Laos is a wonderful place to come and do virtually nothing. Should that get old, you can spend your days walking or cycling over dirt paths past rice paddies and farm animals, swimming or tubing in the Mekong River, marveling at Southeast Asia’s largest waterfall, taking a boat to see pink dolphins or just sitting back with a cold Beer Lao and watching the spectacular sunsets.
Best Time to Go
The best time to visit Si Phan Don is during the dry season from November to March, when temperatures are cooler. The hot season from March to May is generally fine too, since you can jump in the river anytime you want to cool off. The wet season from May to October might make it more difficult to get to the islands, but the higher water levels widen the Mekong to over 14 km, making the sight of it rushing over the rocks at the Khon Phapheng Waterfall that much more spectacular.
Getting to the 4000 Islands
Most people head to the islands of Don Det and Don Khon (yes, I know Don means island), in which case you can take a songthaew from the Donruang Market in Pakse to Ban Nakasong for 35,000 Kip. From there, you’ll need to pay 15,000 Kip for a boat to the islands. Alternatively, you could take a tourist bus for 60,000 Kip, which includes the cost of the boat.
For the other island, Don Khong, take a songthaew to Muong Khong (35,000 Kip) instead. The songthaew will cross to the island on a ferry, so you won’t have to get a boat.
If you’re coming from Cambodia, try to book a ticket all the way to your destination. You’ll save money and a lot of hassle that way.
Transportation on the islands is mainly limited to rented bicycles (10,000 Kip per day) or your own two feet. On Don Khong, you can get a motorbike for 50,000-60,000 Kip. You may be able to rent a motorbike on Don Det too, but it will cost you more. It might be easier to just catch a ride with a local for a small fee. Don Det and Don Khon are small though, so your feet—and a bicycle for some destinations—are all you will need.
Don Det is the island most people will head to and it has a seemingly endless supply of dirt-cheap rooms (from 20,000 Kip). No need to book ahead; just show up and choose a place that looks good. This is the island to stay on if you’re looking for the typical backpacker scene.
If you want to get away from that a bit, head across the bridge from Don Det to Don Khon. You’ll pay a bit more here and there are fewer options, but it will feel a bit more like Laos, if that’s what you’re looking for. No need to book ahead here either.
The largest island, Don Khong, gets you you even further away from other travelers. It has fewer accommodation options than the other two islands, but gets very few visitors, so you can always find plenty of rooms.
If you don’t feel comfortable showing up without a prearranged place to stay, Pan’s Residence on Don Khon is really nice and reasonably priced.
Very few of the places on Don Det have an online presence. If you’re looking to book in advance for this island, Malina Bungalow is easily the best choice. I definitely recommend just showing up and finding a room when you get here, though.
If you’re planning on staying on Don Khong, you’re probably looking for something more upscale, so booking ahead of time makes sense. The Pon Arena Hotel is beautiful and, with rooms from $40, still very affordable.
Eating & Drinking
Beer Lao is available everywhere and much of your time on the islands will likely be spent sipping on one while gazing out over the Mekong River. Marijuana is just as readily available and it is quite common to see joints being passed around on restaurants decks overlooking the river.
A lot of relatively cheap and relatively good western food is available in the many restaurants on Don Det. Cheap local food is a little harder to come by and you’re better off heading to Don Khon or Don Khong if that’s what you’re looking for.
Things to Do
A lot of time on the 4000 Islands will likely be spent in a hammock or on cushions at a restaurant, but there are a few other activities to keep you busy.
- Cycle around the countryside: bicycles go for 10,000 Kip a day and once you’re out of the town on Don Det, the main roads aren’t too bad; you’ll be charged 20,000 Kip to cross the bridge between Don Det and Don Khon
- Khon Phapheng Waterfall: seeing the mighty Mekong rushing over these falls was impressive enough in the dry season; I can only imagine how much more spectacular it would be in the wet season; renting a bike and pedaling is the best way to get there; 10,000 Kip entrance fee; if you hike past the falls a bit and climb over a bunch of rocks, you can find a few calmer areas where you can go swimming; be careful of the very strong current, though or you’ll end up in Cambodia
- Irrawaddy Dolphins: you may be able to spot some from the southern edge of Don Khon, but your best bet is to get on a boat for 20,000 Kip
- Kayaking: from 150,000-200,000 Kip for the day
- Swimming: the same Mekong River that looked so muddy and filthy back in Vientiane and everywhere else really, suddenly looks much cleaner in this area for some reason; it’s not, but you can still swim in it and considering the heat in the hot season especially, you’ll probably want to do so several times a day
- Tubing: much calmer and more relaxed than Vang Vieng; here you’re really just floating along on a tube; do pay at least a little attention to where the currents are taking you, though; they’re stronger than they seem, which I found out the hard way
- there are no ATMs on the islands (and the exchange rates offered by the guest houses are pretty horrible) and no real stores, so bring money and anything else you’ll need, beyond the basics, from Pakse
- refill your water bottles at various places around town and save money and the environment
- check the tires on bikes carefully before renting
- if a menu item has the word “happy” before it, there will be drugs in it
- watch the current when swimming, tubing or kayaking; it is deceptively fast
- some of the places that offer laundry services and charge per kilogram will find your laundry to be up to twice as heavy as it actually is
- don’t use the internet on the island unless you absolutely have to; it is very expensive