Four Thousand Islands is a laidback, sleepy, charming little gem of a place nestled at the foot of Laos on the Cambodian border, and as the name suggests, consists of lots of tiny islands scattered in the vast Mekong Delta.
Also referred to as ‘Si Phan Don’ in Lao, most of the islands are uninhabited, too tiny for roads, and the area has not long had electricity. It’s a glowing contrast to the tourist traps of Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.
Many travellers skip this destination due to the long unappealing bus trip from the capital via Pakse, but we’re here to tell you – it’s well worth the squashed overnight journey!
Disembarking the bus bleary-eyed you board a crammed long boat for the very short journey across to Don Det, the main place to stay for backpackers.
The boat pulls up onto a small beach, which has a resident water buffalo lazing in the shade. You will see the same one meandering through the village at various times, which never fails to raise a smile.
Wandering through the main street, you realise just how chilled out this place is. It’s like time has just begun to go a little slower and your pace starts to match.
The street is dotted with a few restaurants, a few bars and a couple of convenience shops before extending into a leafy track for walking and cycling.
Where to Stay in Four Thousand Islands
For backpackers, there are two main places to stay, Don Det and Don Khong.
Don Det is the main traveller hang out where you can bag yourself a bungalow overlooking glorious sunsets on the river for next to nothing.
There are a number of bungalows to choose from when you arrive, advanced booking isn’t essential. It will only take around 10 minutes to walk from the beach to find a riverside bungalow for a very reasonable price.
Try to get a river-facing room, as the sunsets here are amazing – there’s nothing quite like relaxing in a hammock watching the sun disappear leaving a beautiful pink coloured sky.
From here, many backpackers rent a bicycle (for about a dollar) and take a trip over the rusty French railway bridge and spend a day exploring nearby island Don Khong. The trip is worth it to see the biggest waterfall in South East Asia, Khone Phapheng Falls! (Pictured above).
Some good places to stay on Don Det are…
One of the cheapest options is Mr Phao Riverview Bungalows. He has bungalows for $5, the ones on the waterfront cost $8.50. It’s a basic place and you shouldn’t go expecting the Hilton (think shared squat-toilets). That said, for the money, it’s not at all bad.
Champa Mekong Bungalows start at $10 USD and offer private bathrooms and extremely comfy beds. It’s about 15-minute’s walk from the town, which may not be what everyone’s looking for, but will be perfect for others. There are hammocks to lounge about in on the waterfront and breakfast is included in the price, both nice touches…
River Garden Guesthouse is a similar option, $12 USD for a bungalow. The setting’s lovely, the food’s pretty good and reasonably priced. As was the case with the last two options, you shouldn’t expect hot water, or decent water pressure for that matter.
If hot water’s what you’re after, along with air-conditioning, spotless rooms and such frivolities as a fridge/minibar, consider splashing out $30 USD for a room at BABA Guesthouse.
Things to do in 4000 Islands
1. Kayaking Trip to see Irrawaddy Dolphins
The day-long kayak trip to see the rare and endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins is a must. Collected from the main street, you are driven out to a section of the river to spend the morning kayaking through impressive scenery with Cambodia on your right and Laos on your left! Stopping at a picturesque spot, an included lunch of noodles and fruit is had while taking in the pretty surroundings.
Next up is dolphin spotting and you’ll be surprised how close some of them come to the kayaks. Dolphins always make people happy and these ones are no exception! When we can’t spy any more of these rare mammals, our guides take us down some fun rapids.
The water is fast flowing and it takes a team effort to keep the two-person kayaks upright – something two of my friends didn’t manage, which caused much amusement.
You can hire a bicycle from a few places along the main street or from your accommodation, which is not expensive. Cycle the only way you can, away from the village, and enjoy the woodland before crossing the rusty French Bridge (you have to pay around 2GBP to cross) and taking some pictures of the Mekong in all its glory.
3. Visit the Largest Waterfall in Southeast Asia
Over the bridge is Don Khong which provides a home for the largest waterfall in South East Asia, Khone Phapheng Falls (featured image), and it is impressive! You can also find some lovely beaches to relax on before cycling back.
4. Fishing Trips
Book a fishing trip along the main street and get picked up on what can only be described as a party boat. So out of sync with the vibe here, the beach’s occupants will find it amusing to see a neon-lit boat approaching, blaring out cheesy western pop tunes.
Heading out into the Mekong, it’s fairly easy to catch a few fish which then get barbequed along with meat brought along. Relaxing on deck with a beer (BYO) and a full belly of fresh fish is a satisfying end to the day.
5. Relax (Guilt-Free)
Lie in a hammock and read a book. Take a walk. Have a snooze by the river. Four Thousand Islands is the place to relax without feeling guilty – it’s designed for it.
6. Beach ‘Parties’:
Everything on Don Det shuts before midnight, often around 10 pm. So almost every night, backpackers congregate on the beach to light a campfire and socialise over a few beers. You won’t find any crazy parties here, just the relaxing sound of chatter and guitar playing.
For more about Don Det and the Four Thousand Islands read our article – Been there, Don Det.
Places to eat in Don Det
Restaurants on Don Det aren’t plentiful but they are good. From the usual Asian fare to western food to fresh fish, we ate well. Don’t expect ‘fast food’ – ‘Laos time’ is the speed at which you’ll receive your food!
Oh, and Adam’s Bar has great cookies and films on during the day. Rumour has it you can request ‘space’ or ‘happy’ varieties of some of the items on the menu if that’s your thing…
Try to insist on a VIP bus as these seem to have more room – the two-person shared spaces can be extremely cosy, which can be a touch awkward with a stranger!
The only airport in Laos is in the capital, Vientiane if you are flying in from Thailand or Vietnam. From Cambodia, you can travel overland from Siem Reap across the Laos border.
Where to go next?
Pakse and Wat Phu: A small, quiet city in southern Laos, situated on the Mekong River. There isn’t much to do in the city other than wander around, see a few temples, and enjoy some peace and quiet. The real draw of this place is that it’s a launching point for visiting Wat Phu, an often-passed-over UNESCO site that’s well worth the visit.
Phonsavan and The Plain of Jars: A wind-swept dusty town in Central Laos, Phonsavan is infamous for being a place which was devastated by bombs during the American-Vietnam War. It’s also famous for the mysterious giant jars scattered across the countryside…
Vientiane: If you’ve come from Cambodia, head north to Vientiane to explore Laos’ sleepy capital (yes everything is rather sleepy in Laos!), and the gateway to the northern mountains…
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