In the very south of Laos, the mighty Mekong River divides into numerous smaller runs with islands in between. Si Phan Don is the name of the area in Lao, and there is talk of 4000 islands. There are perhaps not quite that many, but their number is considerable, especially since towards the end of the dry season more and more rocky humps rise out of the water of the Mekong. Between the islands are waterfalls over which the Mekong overcomes the non-navigable threshold in the landscape. After all, the flowing area of the Mekong is about 14 km wide here. Many Laos – travelers enjoy a few days in this varied river landscape and love the lush greenery as well as the very rural region with water birds, bathing buffalo and shimmering insects on the border with neighboring Cambodia.
Don Khong or Don Det – two of the 4000 islands
Don Khong – the largest of the Si Phan Don islands
By far not all of the Mekong islands are inhabited, only on the larger ones there are small villages. Organized trips therefore usually lead to the largest island Don Khong at the northern beginning of the river sill. Muang Khong is a larger settlement at the southern end of the island, which even has a colonial French style villa and several Buddhist monasteries. Today there is a small regional museum in the French villa. Don Khong can be reached via several Mekong ferries, one of which is also a car ferry between Ban Hat (east bank) and Ban Na on the island.
Don Det and Don Khone
The backpackers prefer to go to the island of Don Det, which is located further south in the Mekong and is much smaller. From Nakasang you can take a shuttle boat to Don Det. At the northern tip, the small village (Ban) Houa Det has developed into a backpacker hot spot. A number of hostels, various restaurants – some offering western food – as well as providers of various activities in the river landscape of the 4000 islands now dominate the settlement. Only at the eastern end of the village at the old loading station it becomes a bit more „Laotian“, here there is at least a well-attended elementary school for the children of the island.
Don Det is also attractive because it is connected to Don Khon Island, which is about twice as big, by a bridge. Thus, one can do a bit more on the islands on one’s own. Also in Ban Khon at the channel between the islands there are restaurants and guesthouses, so that meanwhile especially the „somewhat more set travelers“ do not stay in the „party village“ Houa Det, but look for their accommodation on the island Don Khon. Some of the shuttle boats go directly to Ban Khon.
It is characteristic that the villages are located on narrow shore strips. Don Det is largely agricultural, i.e. in large parts of the „back land“ are rice fields. Only the banks of the Mekong, especially along the west bank, are lined with wide strips of trees (not to speak of forest), especially coconut palms. Don Khon Island, on the other hand, is mostly forested and thus pleasantly fresher during the day.
French colonialists on a discovery tour
Around 1860, a small French expedition group moved along the Mekong River. Their goal was to explore a possible shipping route on the river through which goods could be transported from northern Indochina to ports in the southeast. At the same time, one interest was also to secure the parts of the peninsula claimed by France against the British, who had declared the Kingdom of Siam in the west (now Thailand) as their colony.
But at the border with Laos, advancing from Cambodia, the hopeful plans of the French ended in 1866. They came to an approximately 50km long river sill in the Mekong, called by the locals Si Phan Don – the 4000 islets. Between the islands, the Mekong plunges into the depths in mighty waterfalls. No ship can overcome these rocky rapids. The largest waterfall in Southeast Asia is the Khone Pha Pheng Fall, where the eastern arm of the Mekong overcomes a height of 15m over a length of one kilometer.
Even if continuous shipping was not possible, the French provided an alternative means of transportation. The islands of Don Det and Don Khone were connected by said bridge. On the southern shore of Don Khon and at Ban Houa Det on Don Det, large loading ramps were built, which were connected with a narrow-gauge railroad. Transports were now possible – with two reloadings, but still. Even several river ships were brought up the Mekong – cut into parts – over this railroad track.
A fast bike path across the islands
The loading ramps and the bridge can still be found today. Even the remains of a steam locomotive, now under a shelter, can still be seen at the southern end of the bridge. Tracks are mostly found together with the steel sleepers as a garden fence.
The advantage of this railroad line – today the whole route is a dirt road, on which one can drive from the northern Ban Houa Det to the southern island Don Khone and there across the forest to the old loading ramp at the Mekong near Ban Hang Khone… or also hike, if one wants to. So Don Det and Don Khon have their own bicycle expressway. From this you can turn right or left into the smaller paths and trails, depending on your mood. However, it is important to have a flashlight or headlamp with you. Because during the main travel times from November to February it gets dark quickly and early in the south of Laos. And dark here means dark! Outside the small villages, where the houses have a few lamps hanging over the terraces, there is no lighting. There remain only the stars….
Bicycle rental recommended, island duty
A bicycle is really the best means of transportation on the islands. Sure there*s in Ban Houa Det somewhere a scooter – rental, but for the few kilometers the bike is enough, which is at the same time conducive to speed and tranquility in this landscape. If you are good on foot, you can also walk, but then the route across the whole island and back becomes a day hike.
Bicycles are available for rent at many of the guesthouses, usually for a small fee.
At the southern end of the old railroad bridge on Don Khone there is a toll station, so to speak. Bridge toll… Here, during the day, all non-Asian looking visitors who cross the bridge are collected (20,000Kip). So an island tax similar to the spa tax or bed tax in many European tourist regions. Later in the evening nobody sits there. So if you want to visit one of the numerous Mekong – shore – restaurants in Ban Khon again in the evening, you can do so unhindered.
On the Mekong islands Don Det and Don Khone there are only a few „sights“ in the classical sense. Nature and the river landscape are the real highlights. I have already mentioned the old railroad facilities, the loading ramps and the steam locomotive ruin at the bridge. Another, but even worse preserved steam locomotive stands at the southern loading ramp in Ban Hang Khon.
Tragedy with homo sapiens and Irrawadi river dolphins
From there, one also looks down on a larger river basin of the Mekong. On the other bank southwest is already Cambodia. There should be a special spectacle, which in the meantime has rather become part of the tragedy with homo sapiens in the leading role: In this basin there was a school of Irrawadi – river dolphins, which once lived in thousands throughout the Mekong.
During my first visit to Laos and the 4000 Islands in 2016, this was still considered one of the attractions of Si Phan Don. But practically during my stay on the islands, I became aware of an article in the german magazin „Zeit“, which reported that there should be only 3 Irrawadis left in the Mekong basin south of the 4000 islands. The population was therefore already considered „de facto extinct“.
A multiplication is extremely improbable, particularly since the dolphins get only every 4 and more years times a young animal and a contact or exchange with other populations in the Mekong practically does not take place any more. Despite protection efforts, the Irrawadis have become victims of fishing nets, dynamite fishing and water pollution. A similar fate befell the larger Irrawadi population in Cambodia further south in 2022, just 6 years later, from which I was able to see and photograph several more dolphins that year.
Both east and west of Don Khone island there are waterfalls. They belong to said river sill in the Mekong. To reach the waterfalls is possible by paths from the main path -the old railroad line. To get to the Somphamit waterfall west of the island, you can walk southwest through the village of Ban Khon Tai, just after the railroad bridge on the bank of the Mekong River. In the village is the temple Wat Khon Tai. This has early roots in the Khmer period. You can see a lingam and a yoni. About 1000 m further you will find the Somphamit waterfall. If you continue walking straight south from Wat Khon Tai, you will come to „Maguerite Bay“. There you can swim in the Mekong. However, you should always watch out for the strong currents and underwater rocks.
At Ban Sentho on the east bank of Khone Island, a concrete wall divides the river. This guiding system was used by the French to float valuable teak logs down the Mekong. The eastern Khone Pa Soy rapids lie behind it. A suspension bridge allows access to one of the offshore islands overlooking the falls.
Several bays are suitable for swimming. As already mentioned, do not underestimate the current! If you visit Si Phan Don at the beginning of the dry season, you may wonder how you can bathe in this clayey broth. However, clay is rather healthy for the skin. The Mekong River brings tons of clay particles from the mountain rivers in the upper reaches after the rainy season. Later during the dry season, around the turn of the year, the water clears and takes on a more blue-green color. In return, the harvested rice fields on the island become parched and brown.
A special Mekong – experience – Kayaking on the river
If you want to experience the island landscape of Si Phan Don from a different perspective, then take the opportunity for a kayaking tour. These start from Ban Houa Det. There you can also book your kayaking tour with the local providers.
By kayak in search of Irrawadi dolphins
After the start, you will first go along Don Det Island on the eastern shore. So you can see the huge loading ramp from the water side. Between two islands the kayaking tour follows the Mekong – course to Don Khon. At Ban Sentho we go to the shore, because you can’t kayak over the Khone Pa Soy rapids. The boats are loaded onto a trailer for the typical single-axle tractors and driven to the next launching point. In between there is a detour to the rapids on foot.
Behind the Ban Sentho the tour follows the now calmer course of the Mekong arm. Then the view opens over the Mekong basin south of Don Khone. During my tour, one of the local guides was still standing in the stern of his kayak and peering over the water, searching in vain for the Irrawaddy dolphins. Also none of the remaining three Irrawadis, which should supposedly still live in the river basin, could be seen. For it also here the view of the loading ramp.
On a sandbank in the river we had the opportunity to swim. The guides prepared a snack for us. Then we crossed to the eastern bank of the Mekong, which is still in Laos. The boats were loaded onto a trailer and we took a seat in a bus. This brought us first to the Khon Pha Pheng waterfall – the largest of the Mekong sill at the 4000 islands. Over a width of 1000 meters, the water of the Mekong falls in various channels from the rocks into a thundering basin.
The bus now takes us back to Nakaseng. There we get back into our kayaks and paddle in the sinking evening sun over to Don Det Island. On the bus we had another little nature experience – a „praying mantis“ snuck in as a stowaway.
Travel tips for Si Phan Don – the 4000 islands in the Mekong River
There are buses to the Si Phan Don region in the south of Laos. This is the easiest way to get there from other parts of Laos. For the southern islands like Don Det and Don Khon, the small village of Nakasong is the destination. From the bus station it is only a few hundred meters to the shore, where boats are ready for the transfer to the islands. An intermediate destination on the journey Mekong southwards is the (not exactly beautiful) town of Pakse, to which a road with border crossing also leads from Thailand (from Ubon Ratchathani). From Pakse, buses go directly to Nakasang. The bus offers often already include the crossing to Don Det (boat transfer).
Since even from the small town of Nakasang buses also go to Cambodia (there with the destinations Stung Treng and Kratie to observe the Irrawadi – dolphins), I assume that these lines are also operated in the opposite direction. So the journey over the border crossing Pra Preng Krian / Nong Nok Khian to the 4000 islands is also possible from Cambodia. Attention – these lines operate seasonally when there are many tourists in the region.
The return trip from the islands Don Det and Don Khon is usually organized by the operators of the guesthouses for their guests. Then you will be picked up directly at the accommodation by boat and landed on time before the bus departures in Nakasang.
Accommodation in the Si Phan Don region
backpacker like – hostels in Pakse
Pakse comfortable and convenient
Accommodation on the islands Don Det and Don Khon
Guesthouse Ois Place* is located on the „sunset side“ at the northern tip of Don Det and offers a fantastic view of the Mekong from the terrace. Mosquito protection is provided in the rooms. Bicycles can be rented for a small fee. Those staying on Don Det at the right time can even enjoy a small private beach.
Moon by Night* offers double rooms, a terrace overlooking the river and a tranquil garden on Don Det. All accommodation is on the ground floor and is considered wheelchair accessible. Drinks are provided by a bar and a vending machine around the clock.
Simple but pleasant accommodations can be found at Mr.Phaos Riverview Guesthouse* on the east side of Don Det. From the balcony you can look out over the branch of the Mekong River and enjoy the morning sun. This guesthouse also offers a delicious breakfast. There are mosquito nets in the room.
Tavendang Guesthouse* is located in the south of Don Det overlooking the Mekong – Arm on Don Khon. There is a balcony with hammock, the rooms have mosquito nets. Simple but clean and pleasant.
Right by the bridge to Don Khon you will find the River garden guesthouse*. From the terrace you can look at the river arm or watch the distant hustle and bustle in Ban Houa Khon on the other side of the river. There is also a small restaurant in the house.
Some links in this post are marked with *. These are links to online stores or agencies with suitable offers. If you buy or book something through these links, the sonnige pfade blog receives a small commission to cover the technical expenses. Nothing will be more expensive for you, because the commission has already been taken into account by the providers in the pricing.
Image source: ° Historical photograph of A.N. Aix en Provence.