4000 Islands in Laos: the ultimate travel guide
This post is about the 4000 islands in Laos. Also called Si Phan Don. It is a group of small islands in the Mekong river Delta in the southern part of the country at the border with Cambodia.
The 4000 islands in Laos is a very scenic area with a rich biodiversity that spans over both countries. The Mekong forms a diverse wetland with islands, waterfalls, travertines and streams. It is at the same time a laidback rural place that is the perfect place to relax.
Why visit the 4000 islands in Laos
The 4000 islands were my introduction to Laos. The scenery was stunningly beautiful, but at the same time the 4000 islands were very touristic with cheap backpackers all over the place. Honestly, I was a backpacker myself, but I was not interested in the bars, cafes and nightlife.
In Laos you need to make a bit of an effort to find the rural tranquility and slow pace of life that I hoped to find in Si Phan Don. The good news is that the 4000 islands in Laos offer both experiences. If you want to party you can find like minded people in Don Det. If you want to relax for a couple of days in a peaceful environment it is there too. Simply look for a quiet homestay or guest house far away from the tourist center.
4000 islands in Laos is big enough that everyone can find what they are looking for. There are hundreds of small scale hotels in the midst of the rice paddies with beautiful river views over the Mekong Delta.
Are there really 4000 islands? I am not sure. It’s good to note that most islands are so small that no one actually lives there. Even the bigger islands are sparsely populated. Tourism focuses only on two of those islands.
The main islands of the 4000 islands
Don Det is the island where most travelers arrive in the 4000 islands of Laos and it is the main place to stay for backpackers. There are plenty of cheap hostels, cafes and restaurants where young people hang out.
The party mood is there, but I was surprised by how relaxed things were, even in the center of Don Det. Nevertheless I would recommend Don Khone over Don Det anytime.
Don Khone is just south of Don Det. It has less facilities than Don Det, but this is where you will find the natural beauty that the 4000 islands are famous for. Don Khone is also where you will find the main things to see in the 4000 islands such as temples, waterfalls, rural villages and French colonial architecture.
The few riverside guest houses in Don Khone on the Mekong river truly offer a quiet little paradise to relax for a couple of days. The islands of Don Det and Don Khone are connected by a bridge so it is relatively easy to travel in between the islands.
Most travelers to the 4000 islands will only visit Don Det and Don Khone. Don Khong is the largest island of the 4000 islands in Laos, but sees few visitors.
If you really want to escape the crowds and find a more genuine Laotian experience you can choose to stay at Don Khong. The only disadvantage is that you are far away from the main sights. There is honestly not much to do on Don Khong, but relax.
The biggest town that connects with the mainland is Muang Khong where you will find one hotel and a few restaurants. There is also a ferry connection to Don Som
Don Som is the island north of Don Det and south of Don Khong. Although it is easy to take the ferry from Don Det to Don Som, very few people do so. People on Dom Som will still be surprised to see a foreigner on their island.
There is only one guesthouse on the shores of the Mekong river with a stunning location. It has wonderful sunsets and is surrounded by paddy fields. This is really the island if you want to go off the beaten path.
The best things to do on the 4000 islands
Most people that come to the 4000 islands spend at least one day doing nothing at all. The 4000 islands is the perfect place to relax in a hammock at one of the riverside guest homes. For me too, it was a welcome break in a hectic travel schedule. Coming from Banlung in Cambodia and going to the capital next.
Cycling Don Khone
Although it is very tempting to stay in your hammock for days it is also worth it to explore the islands by bicycle. Don Khone is easy to navigate and has a number of popular sights that you can all easily see in a day.
Don Det bridge
The bridge that connects Don Det with Don Khone is actually an old French railway line. The French wanted to connect their colonies in current day Cambodia and Laos with China using the Mekong river.
At the 4000 islands in Laos the rapids and waterfalls were a major obstacle. The small 7 kilometer railway had to transport vessels along the Mekong river. The railway was only functional for 50 years and stopped working during the Second World War.
The bridge is one of the few remains of the french colonial time. Next to the bridge on Don Khone you can also find one of the old locomotives.
Don Khone waterfalls
Don Khone is home to several waterfalls. The easiest to visit are the Li Phi waterfalls that are a 25 minute walk or a 10 minute cycle from the bridge that connects Don Det with Don Khone.
On the other side of the island you can find the Khon Pa Soy falls and the Khane Paksey falls. There is no entrance fee, but you have to cross a dodgy bridge to get there
Both falls are easy to reach when cycling on Don Khone island. These falls should not be confused with the Khone Phapheng falls. These are more difficult to reach and require a kayak tour or tuk tuk tour from Nakasong.
The Khone Papheng falls are definitely spectacular though. So worth the effort. They say it is the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia, but it is actually more a series of rapids that stretch over more than 10 kilometers.
Laos is a buddhist country and there are a number of buddhist temples on the 4000 islands. After you cross the bridge from Don Det into Don Khone you will see the buddhist temple of Wat Khon Tai.
Although it is a simple village temple it is a serene spot that is definitely worth a stop when you are on Don Khone. It is only a 5 minute walk from the bridge
Don Khone villages
Don Khone is largely a rural island with rice paddies and fishing villages. Although they are now used to tourists cycling by, I was surprised by how friendly people still are.
Of course there are the waterfalls and beaches, but the real highlight when cycling around the 4000 islands is the beauty of the rural scenery and the friendly villages.
Khong Yai beach
Khong Yai beach is a sandy spot on the river where you can go for a swim or arrange a boat trip. The boat trips are especially beautiful around sunset.
Old French port
South of the island you will find the old french port and the end of the french railway. There are still some ruins of French harbor buildings. What I enjoyed most here are the beautiful views over the Mekong river.
If you are an active person there are a number of outdoor activities. Kayaking on the Mekong river is obviously very popular and is easy to organize in either Don Det or Don Khone.
Tourist traps on the 4000 islands
Watching the Irrawaddy dolphins
There used to be dolphin tours on the 4000 islands to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong river delta. Although a boat tour on the river is certainly enjoyable, the dolphins are unfortunately extinct in Laos.
Sustainable travel in the 4000 islands
Although Don Det may feel like a backpackers paradise where everything is possible it is not. Laos is a conservative country. People might be too friendly to say something and are in much need of tourist dollars. Nevertheless, a lot of tourist behaviors are disrespectful to the local culture.
First of all. Dress modestly. Laos is not the Middle East, but showing too much skin is frowned upon. This counts for both men and women. Do not walk in your bikini or swimming shorts through town. As a general rule of thumb, cover at least your shoulders and up to your knees.
Secondly, respect the local culture by avoiding loud and obnoxious behavior. It might be easy to get, but remember that drugs are illegal in Laos.
Lastly, respect the environment. Do not litter or even clean up some of the trash you find. Don’t buy plastic bottles of water, but bring your own with a filter.
4000 islands travel tips
Where to stay in 4000 islands
Don Det: I stayed at the Rivergarden Guesthouse south of Don Det near the French bridge. It’s a bit far from the ferry port where you will arrive in Don Det, but as a result it has a quiet and peaceful location. It’s a very calm place with friendly owners and a great riverview.
Don Khone: Don Khone is slightly more expensive than Don Det. The Dokchampa guesthouse has really good reviews with clean rooms and a great riverview. Some of the rooms are right next to the river with a private deck with hammocks. What else do you need? Are you looking for a more budget place than you can try the Somphamit Guesthouse.
Don Khong: There is not so much choice on Don Khong. The Kongmany Colonial House and the Senesothxuene hotel. Both are a bit upmarket with a swimming pool. The owners are the same and therefore the places are very similar.
Don Som: Don Som Riverside Guesthouse is so small that it is more like a homestay. This place is rather remote and difficult to find, but you get so much in return. Far away from the tourist trail you will have a genuine rural experience. It’s a sustainable option too as the owners are very environmentally conscious.
How to get to the 4000 islands
The closest major town to Don Det is Pakse, which is located about 130 kilometers to the north.
Take a local bus or minivan from Pakse to Nakasong, which is the port town where you can catch a ferry to Don Det. The journey takes around 2-3 hours and costs around 50,000 Lao Kip (around $6 USD). From Nakasong, you can catch a ferry to Don Det, which takes around 15-20 minutes and costs around 10,000 Lao Kip (around $1 USD).
From Cambodia: Take a bus from Phnom Penh or Siem Reap to the Laos-Cambodia border town of Stung Treng. From there, you can take a local bus or minivan to the port town of Nakasong, which is where you can catch a ferry to Don Det.
How to get around the 4000 islands
Once you reach Don Det, you can explore the island by foot or rent a bicycle. The island is small and easy to navigate.
For exploring Don Khone as well I recommend renting a bicycle or tuk tuk. In one day you can see the main sights on Don Khone on a bicycle
When to visit the 4000 islands
The best time to visit Don Det in Laos is during the dry season, which runs from November to April. During this time, the weather is sunny and warm, with lower humidity levels and less rainfall. This makes it an ideal time to explore the island, go hiking, swimming, or simply relax on the beach. The average temperatures during this period are around 25-30°C (77-86°F), making it a pleasant climate for most travelers.
However, it’s important to note that this is also the high season, and the island can get crowded with tourists. Accommodation prices may also be higher during this time. If you prefer a quieter experience, you may want to consider visiting in the shoulder season, which runs from May to October. During this time, the weather can be more unpredictable, with occasional rain showers and higher humidity levels. However, the island is much quieter, and you may be able to find better deals on accommodation.
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