The 4000 Islands of Laos: Travel Tips and Photos

In Laos’s 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), the Mekong River flows fast and time seems to grind to a near standstill (and that’s without even tasting the “happy” food and drinks openly sold on Don Det’s bars).

It is in this area near the southern border of Laos and Cambodia that the French ambitions to extend their regional influence further North into China stalled at the turn of the past century. Here, the Mekong River becomes almost insurmountable as it splits into hundreds of channels thus giving rise to a myriad of islets and sandbars, as well as some mighty rapids.

If Laos is, generally speaking, a rather serene country, the 4000 Islands take this quietness up a notch. Relax for a few days here in a bamboo bungalow, watching the Mekong flow from the hammock in your porch, and you will forget about everything else.

During my stay there, I got so relaxed and lazy that I couldn’t be bothered to lug around my camera and lenses. This is why all the photos shown here were taken with my phone. It’s not the best quality, but they’re ok.

Don’t forget to check out the section after the photos for some practical tips to visit the 4000 Islands.

*Note: All photos in this post were taken with my phone camera.*

Boat on Mekong River, Four Thousand Islands

Boat is the main mode of transport at the 4000 Islands. You will likely get there after a 10-15 min trip from the boat landing at nearby Nakasang. A combined minivan/boat ticket from Pakse, Southern Laos’ main transport hub, to Nakasang will set you back about 7 euros/dollars.

Colourful bungalows with porches and hammocks on Don Det

You can book for very little money (see tips below) bungalows like these, many of them with porches overlooking the Mekong River. However, note the tin roofs, which are not exactly ideal for the blistering sun and intense heat of this region.

Bamboo house on an islet in the Mekong River, 4000 Islands

View from the old French bridge linking Don Det and Don Khon, looking South.

Rapids at Somphamit (Li Phi) Waterfalls, Don Kon, 4000 Islands

Somphamit (commonly known as Li Phi) Waterfalls are one of Don Khon’s main attractions. Looking at them it’s easy to understand why the Mekong was impossible to navigate at this point.

Somphamit (Li Phi) Beach, Laos

Frankly, there’s not much to do at Somphamit waterfalls or at its beach other than relaxing, as the combination of slippery rocks and strong currents near the rapids makes for dangerous swimming conditions. Fortunately, you can go swimming or tubing further upstream, between Don Dhet and Don Khon. And here by the beach there is a nice and quiet open-air chill out bar.

Colourful bungalows and palm tree on Don Khon, by the Mekong

Some of the views are truly beautiful. This is Don Khon as seen from Don Det across the Mekong.

Moped transporting big piece of furniture, Laos

It’s quite hard to believe what locals will transport on their mopeds in this part of the world.

Bungalow porch with hammocks, Don Khon, Laos

Who wouldn’t like to chill on a hammock on this porch? I certainly enjoyed spending a few days here.

Long-tail boat on Mekong River, Don Khon

Most long-tail boats here (and in many other parts of Southeast Asia) are equipped with loud car engines. Luckily, boat traffic is not heavy here.

Bicycles for rent in Don Dhet, 4000 Islands, Laos

You can rent a bicycle to explore both islands for just 10,000 kip/day (around 1 euro/dollar), or have your laundry done for the same price.

View of the Mekong near the old French Bridge, Don Khon

You can eat a nice lunch for just over three euros/dollars while enjoying this view. Not too shabby, I say.

House on tilts by the Mekong River, Laos

Or how about this other view for lunch?

Mojito and sunset in Don Dhet, 4000 Islands

Or this one to watch sunset while sipping a mojito?

House on tilts, Ban Khon, Laos

Life is relaxed and simple in Ban Khon village, on Don Khon island.

Old locomotive, Ban Khon, 4000 Islands

This is one of the old locomotives remaining from the slightly wacky scheme devised by the French (see link in the introduction) to transport steam boats overland across Don Khon and Don Dhet in order to avoid the Mekong rapids.

Tree by the Mekong River, Don Det, Laos

This has to be one of the most impressive trees I’ve seen in a long time. You can admire it while sipping a drink on the terrace of several bars on Don Det’s main street.

Guesthouse entrance, 4000 Islands, Laos

There really is no shortage of accommodation on the 4000 Islands, even for the lowest budgets.

Motorbike in Don Dhet, Laos

You don’t come across a “Susuki” bike like this every day.

Sunset over the Mekong River, 4000 Islands, Laos

One of the best spots to watch sunset is at the Northwestern tip of Don Dhet, just a couple of minutes from the island’s main boat landing.

(All photos are © 2015 Fernando Cortés-Cabanillas. Please contact me if you wish to use them).

If you want to go to the 4000 Islands:

      • Most people stay at Don Dhet (smaller, busier, more backpacker-oriented) or Don Khon (not to be mistaken with the even larger, but apparently not that interesting Don Khong). You can hop easily between the two, albeit at a cost of about 25,000 kip (roughly €/$ 3) for crossing the old bridge or taking a boat from one to the other island.
      • If you want to see fewer tourists and don’t mind having limited eating and drinking options, stay at Don Khon. If you want to meet people and chill at the bars, Don Dhet is your place.
      • Bear in mind there are no ATMs on either island. You can exchange money at a few shops and guesthouses in a pinch, or take a short boat trip to Nakasang, where there’s a cash machine.
      • This part of Laos is even hotter than the rest of the country. While it is tempting to stay at one of the many bamboo bungalows on offer for under €8/$10 a night, most of these lack air conditioning and will be equipped with fans at best. You won’t be spending much time inside during the day, but heat might be an issue at night. Bugs, including roaches, can also be a nuisance in these cheaper guesthouses. In my view it’s worth giving it a shot, though.
      • Also, watch where your bungalow is located, as the noise from cicadas (and/or other insects) can get unbelievably loud at some spots. This happens day and night, and could be an issue if you’re a light sleeper.
      • Expect poor internet anywhere, even at the more upscale hotels, as its based on 3G tech. But then, you will be there to relax, right?
      • Where to eat: there are plenty of dirt-cheap, correct (if not inspiring) options that will do. Otherwise, I can recommend Mama Leuah and the restaurant at the Little Eden Hotel; while not the cheapest around, they both serve delicious, largely Westernised, food in very nice and relaxing surroundings.

So what do you think? Does this look like a place you’d like to spend some time in? As always, do not hesitate to leave a comment or share this post if you enjoyed it!

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