After our intense week in Siem Reap and the thrill of seeing the Temples of Angkor, Arienne and I found ourselves in need of a little R & R. Luckily for us, our overland journey from Cambodia to Laos left us in prime territory for the ultimate in vegetative lifestyles: The 4,000 Islands.
The 4,000 Islands is an archipelago found in the south of Laos near the Cambodian border, where the Mekong River is at it’s widest. While the river covers many of the islands during the rainy season, the larger islands are permanently above water and are slowly becoming a tourist destination for travelers in Laos. While tourist based developments have taken place on the islands of Don Det, Don Khon, and Don Khong, the area is still nothing close to a full-blown tourist trap. For the most part, travelers who have ventured to the 4,000 Islands have a lot of time on their hands, and are looking to enjoy a slower pace to their journey abroad. Indeed, if one is on a tight schedule, the 4,000 Islands may not be the place for you, as just like it’s lifestyle, it’s hidden charm is only revealed slowly to those patient enough to await it’s arrival while lying in a hammock, Beer Lao in hand, day after day.
As the island closest to the overland Cambodia/Laos border crossing, Don Det is the launching point for most travelers’ time in the 4,000 Islands. The main area of the island is a cluster of restaurants, internet cafes, and guesthouses purposely placed in close proximity to the main point of disembarkation. As Arienne and I meandered our way along the dirt roads, we were met with gentle touts from guesthouse owners offering rooms for us to stay in. After the more aggressive touting in Cambodia and Vietnam, we were pleasantly surprised at the laid back approach the Laotians took in seeking our business.
However, we had already planned on staying at a place 1km from the built-up area of the island. This not only afforded us the opportunity to escape the noisier central area, but also to enjoy a moonlit walk along the riverfront to our guesthouse by the river. While we did have to put up with a few cockroaches in our bungalow, we were very pleased with excellent food and kind service from the guesthouse owner, who also provided us with a boat ride (paid) to Don Khon the next day.
For those looking to mix with young travelers on the 4,000 Islands, Don Det will be the best place as it definitely had a more youthful vibe while we were there, though nothing substantially immature. Don Det is also the best place for booking river activities such as river boating or kayaking. For those looking for something even more subdued, consider moving on to either Don Khon or Don Khong shortly after arriving.
Don Khon is connected by a small bridge to Don Det, though consider hiring a boat to take you across if you are moving with your packs or gear. To cross the bridge, you’ll have to pay 20,000kip ($2.50 with return), though the bridge does allow travelers to enjoy both islands without having to change accommodations.
For us, Don Khon was the most enjoyable time we had in the 4000 islands, as it whittled our hectic traveling life down to the basics: eating, sleeping, reading, and drinking Beer Lao. We were really lucky with our accommodation, as there were hardly any other travelers staying there. This meant that the 20metre riverfront terrace that ran the length of the guesthouse rooms was entirely ours to enjoy. In front of each room hung a hammock which, coupled with the view of the river, made for endless hours of rest and relaxation.
Don Khon is a much simpler island, with a very strong community feel to it. There are a number of restaurants along the waterfront, all with terraces perched on stilts above the water. The food in general was simple but good, with ‘mok pa’ (minced fish in coconut milk, steamed in a banana leaf) being the local delicacy. Arienne and I did our best to go to a different restaurant each night, as we wanted to spread the ‘love’ around since they generally all served the same dishes.
The best way to experience the island is to rent a bicycle and ride around, which will take you to the spectacular Tat Somphamit waterfalls, and the boats that can take you to see the rare and endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. The people on the island were absolutely lovely and we found it difficult to find the will to leave our “simplistic paradise”. After 5 wonderful days, we said farewell to Don Khon and took a boat, bus, and another boat to get to Don Khong, the final island of our 4,000 Island experience.
Don Khong is the largest island of the 4,000 Islands, and was a great place to finish up our stay. The main riverfront stretch has a few more boutique hotels than the other islands, though it is just as easy to find budget accommodations as it is to find mid-ranged ones. Once again, there are a number of stilt terraced restaurants to choose from, all serving the same tasty fare as can be found on the other islands.
Don Khong also makes for a good place to take a bike ride, though beware, as it is the largest of the islands (18km x 8km) it isn’t possible to make it all the way around in one go (unless you’re looking for a good, long workout). If you want to ride around the whole island, consider renting a motorbike from one of the many bike shops, though of course use proper discretion anytime you choose this option.
The riverfront terraces of the main area allow for an excellent view of the mighty Mekong river, as well as a large seated Buddha atop a hill on the opposite mainland. While Don Khon made us feel more in-tune with the island way of life, Don Khong had it’s own little section for foreigners with the locals mostly living on the other side of the island.
Depending on what interests you, you may prefer Don Khong over Don Khon, or vice versa. For us, we found staying on Don Khong for 2 days was the perfect amount of time before we headed out of the 4,000 Islands and up to Pakse.
What You Need to Know
Despite what the travel guides might say, all three islands have 24hr electricity. Internet access is easily found (wifi more so on Don Det) though the prices vary greatly from island to island. One major thing to be aware of though, is the lack of ATM machines on any of the islands. There are places to exchange money (though at a poor rate), but we advise you to have enough cash on hand to last you for the duration on your stay on the islands.
We paid our guesthouse owner on Don Det 40,000 kip ($5 USD) to take us by boat to Don Khon, though since the boat ride only took about 10 minutes, we felt that price was a bit steep. We paid 70,000 kip ($8.75 USD) to travel to Don Khong, which included a boat ride back to the main land, a mini bus ride north, and another boat ride over to Don Khong. The total trip time was roughly 2 hours.