Si Phan Don, Laos’ 4000 Islands

Way back when, Si Phan Don was where you ended up when you really wanted to get away from it all. Nowadays of course this riverine utopia in the far south of Laos, close to the border with Cambodia, is firmly on the tourist route, its ring of authenticity is somewhat tarnished, but it still has a pleasantly sleepy vibe to it that sets it apart from other notable destinations such as Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng.

The islands are formed by the Mekong River, which expands here and splits into many channels, creating an archipelago. Most of the islands are uninhabited and rarely, if ever, visited. When the Mekong floods, half of them are submerged. The region is renowned for its natural beauty – you get some of the most beautiful sunsets in Laos here – best enjoyed of course from a lazy hammock with a cool beer in hand.

Been there, Don Det, bought the T-shirt

Don Det and Don Khon are the main islands for tourism, and they are connected by a bridge. Don Som, further north and the second largest of the islands, is very underdeveloped, while the largest, Don Khong, is usually regarded as a base for exploring further afield. To do that, you need people power for the most part. Getting around on these compact, generally flat islands is on foot or by hiring bicycles to roam dirt tracks past rice paddies, old temples and quiet Loum villages. You can also kayak between them, join boat tours or even go tubing, which is a wonderfully relaxed form of sightseeing.

Accommodation is typically in riverside guesthouses, and you can expect the basic amenities: running water, electricity, WiFi, but no ATMs, so you will need a bit of cash if you plan to eat out. Si Phan Don has been firmly established on the backpacker route for some time now, but you won’t find anywhere near the party atmosphere that you get in Vang Vieng – most bars and restaurants close up by 11pm. What scene there is is mostly on Don Det. Don Khon is much more mellow, forested, with a couple of small sandy beaches and better food in its family-run restaurants.

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Things to do in Si Phan Don

Much of the pleasure in a stay in Si Phan Don comes from simply relaxing in such a scenic, peaceful environment. Cycling trips are very popular as the terrain is predominantly flat, and it doesn’t take long to get from place to place given the size of the islands. Between Don Det and Don Khon there is a historic railway bridge, which was once used by the old French railway, the first to be built in Laos. It was intended to carry goods, and even entire boats, past the waterfalls in the area as part of a trade route to China. The railway ceased operation after WWII, but you can still walk or cycle along the track bed.

The best known natural landmark in Si Phan Don is the churning Khone Phapheng falls, the ‘Niagara of Southeast Asia’, and said to be the widest in the region. At their highest point the falls are 21m, and it’s easy to arrange a boat trip out to see them.

Another favourite activity is to take a longtail boat out in search of Irrawaddy dolphins. Critically endangered, there is only a tiny handful of them thought to live in the waterways of Si Phan Don, but a pod is sometimes spotted and if you do see them you can count yourself very lucky indeed.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tinker & Rove] [Intro: Basile Morin] [Been there, Don Det, bought the T-shirt: Basile Morin] [Things to do in Si Phan Don: Hiroo Yamagata]