Laos’ Four Thousand Islands, or Si Phan Don, region lies just to the north of the Cambodian border in the far south’s Champassak Province. Here the Mekong River widens and shallows dramatically before crashing over the spectacular Khone Phapaeng Falls.
4,000 is, of course, a guesstimate since islands appear and disappear with the dry and rainy seasons making it impossible to count but there’s certainly plenty of them! Large ones with several villages, medium-sized ones and tiny rock outcrops separated by wide swathes of river or narrow rushing torrents make this one of the most picturesque parts of Southeast Asia let alone Laos.
No islands have bridges to the mainland* and it’s only recently that the larger ones have been added to the national electricity grid so time seems to have stood still in many of these islands. Some are still covered in lush jungle, some with paddy-fields; larger ones have a scattering of old French colonial buildings – what a posting this must have been – and 3 or 4 now have accommodation for the increasing flow of tourists.
The first to see guesthouses was the largest, Don Khong, but the smaller, more southerly islands of Don Khone and Don Det have since surpassed it in popularity. Don Det is the backpackers’ choice and the island is almost completely ringed by near-identical wooden chalets perched over the riverbanks. Don Khone has less, but more varied, accommodation and is much better preserved with tourist cafes and accommodation being concentrated in just one small part of the island. A French-period bridge connects the 2 islands – a stone’s throw apart – and a long-disused railway track still runs across both islands. The southern tip of Don Khone is beneath the waterfalls and the northern end above, so even though the enormous waterfall was a major impediment to French navigation of the Mekong they found a novel way of solving the problem. Boats and passengers were unloaded at the foot of the falls on Don Khone, transported across the island, over the bridge by train and reloaded onto boats in a calm spot to the north of the falls on Don Det. (The old railway track makes a nice hike and 2 rusty old trains can still be seen.)
All Points East’s island of choice is Don Khone where we stay in either a refurbished French Villa or floating raft houses on the Mekong itself. Our usual stay is 3 days and 2 nights and activities include kayaking to visit the freshwater, Irrawaddy dolphins that still inhabit the calm waters at the foot of the falls, cycling or hiking around the island and a visit to the falls themselves as well as sitting around on the riverbank with a Beer Lao taking in the serene scene. (Ok no sunbathing or sandcastle but the river’s great for swimming – especially in the dry season when it’s crystal clear).