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…
Like most accommodation on Don Det, Champa Mekong Bungalows boasts riverfront rooms with balconies and hammocks to while away the hours with a good book. A short walk from the main ferry drop off point, Champa offers 24 hour reception, free water refills, a restaurant and clean bungalows at £11/$14/123,000 kip a night (including breakfast, fan and mosquito net).
For a splash of luxury, head to BABA Guesthouse! 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 here! Rooms come with a balcony overlooking the river or the garden so it is a great place to relax and unwind.
Souk San Sunset Bungalows
Providing basic stone bungalows, Souk San is cheap (£14/$18/156,000 kip) yet maybe not the cleanest accommodation, however the rooms are fitted with air con and a fan which go a long way in the almost unbearable humidity of Don Det! A decent breakfast is included in the room price and it’s 2 minutes walk from the ferry drop off point.
The best thing about Souk San is the location, the decking boasts the best sunset views on the island! Even if you don’t stay here, be sure to spend at least one evening sipping a beer in their bar and watching the orange sun set over the river.
Just a short walk from the ferry drop off point, Little Eden Hotel is one of the pricier options on Don Det, but provides guests with air conditioned private rooms complete with balcony for watching sunset and a pool to cool down in during the heat of the day. Rooms cost around £30/$38/335,000 kip and include breakfast.
Easy Go Backpackers
Cheap and cheerful, Easy Go Backpackers has a bar, beach and BBQ area. Rooms and dorm beds are basic (and sometimes lacking cleanliness), but this is reflected in the prices: £5/$6/55,000 kip for a private double wooden bungalow with fan or as little as £2/$2.50/22,000 kip for a dorm bed with fan and mosquito net.
It’s a little far from the main restaurants and ferry drop off, but pick up is available from the port and bicycles are easy to rent all over the island toget around. Check the reviews before booking here, but if you don’t mind basic beds for a tiny price tag then you’re looking at the right place.
One of the few properties with air conditioning on Don Det, Moon by Night provides private stone bungalows with a fridge and patio opposite the
river. Reviews frequently mention the helpfulness and friendliness of the owner (Darren), who makes a stay at Moon by Night hassle free and memorable. A double room with a garden view and private bathroom comes in at £16/$20.50/178,000 kip.
A short walk from the main hub and ferry port is Crazy Gecko – another of Don Det’s iconic riverside bungalow with balcony style properties.
Breakfast and bicycle rental are both available at the property, and reviews praise the owner and staff. Spacious wooden bungalows with a private bathroom cost £13-£16/$16-$20.50/145,000-178,000 kip a night.
This is one of the cheapest options and you can get a bungalow for just £4/$5/42,500 kip! The ones on the waterfront cost £7/$8.50/74,000 kip. 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!
In a quiet spot alongside the Mekong, Mama Leuah not only has a lovely restaurant but also provides accommodation in the form of quaint wooden bungalows. It’s just £5/$7/60,000 kip for a bungalow with a shared bathroom or for a private bathroom it’s £7/$9/80,000 kip. Each room is on the riverside and has a balcony – the perfect place relax in a hammock for the day.
These bungalows are in the south of the island near to the neighbouring Don Khone. If you’re looking to get away from the main hub (not that it’s incredibly busy but the north of Don Det is mainly known for it’s bars and tour agencies), then River Garden Guesthouse is the place to come. From here it’s easy to get over the bridge to some of the main tourist highlights of the 4000 islands, such a Li Pi Falls.
Bungalows come with river views, fan, mosquito net, balcony and hammock. Reviews say the wifi isn’t as some would like, however if you want to get away from it all, Don Det is certainly the place. A small room cost around £5/$6/55,000 kip a night, while a king room is around £9/$11.50/100,000 kip a night.
Things to do in 4000 Islands
1. Go on a Kayaking Trip to see Irrawaddy Dolphins
This is one of the most popular things to do in the 4000 islands and with good reason. 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! There are several companies that run kayaking tours on Don Det, but we recommend Green Paradise Travel. Book your 4000 Island kayaking trip with them here!
On a full day kayaking tour you’ll get to explore the hidden waterways of the Mekong, see water buffalo eye to eye cooling off in the shallows, marvel at some beautiful waterfalls (including Li Pi Falls and the largest in South East Asia: Khone Phapheng Falls), and glimpse the elusive and endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins near the Cambodian border.
2. Rent a Bike and Cycle around Don Det and Don Khone
One of the best ways to spend the day on this laid back island it to rent a bicycle and explore. Bikes can be rented from almost anywhere and only cost 10,000 kip (under £1) for the entire day until 11pm!
You’ll find yourself meandering down riverside pathways and palm tree lined lanes, and there’s many a cafe to stop at and have a drink to cool down – we recommend The Garden of Nang (in the south). The mango shakes are incredible and if you buy a drink you can use the beach opposite to have a dip in the river.
You can even cycle over the iconic bridge to the neighbouring island of Don Khone, where there are several waterfalls to be explored or you can catch a boat to see the famous Irrawaddy Dolphins near the Cambodian border.
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.
8. Watch the Sunset:
Don Det is home to some of the best sunsets in South East Asia. Wander down to Souk San Sunset Bungalows (near the ferry drop off point) for the best view, or anywhere on the west side of the island.
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 and fresh fish, we ate well. Don’t expect ‘fast food’ – ‘Laos time’ is the speed at which you’ll receive your food!
Owned by German born Lutz and his wife Pheng, Mama Leuah is a family business that offers delicious European and Asian dishes. The cosy surroundings with beautiful views of the Mekong river make this the perfect place to have a break from exploring the island.
Prices range from 20,000-35,000 kips for Asian and Laos specialities, to 34,000-55,000 for Western delights (many of which are classic German and Swiss!). They also offer accommodation.
Looking for wood fired pizza? Look no further than Reggae Bar! The pizza here might take some time to get to your table, but it’s so good! They also serve classic asian dishes and other western food and you can make pretty much anything “happy” (even the mashed potato) if that’s what you’re into!
Located on the riverside near the ferry port, try and arrive before 7pm. After this time, hundreds of river flies descend on every light fitting and we’re sure you’d prefer your pizza without a side of insects!
Owned by a lovely expat couple, this restaurant is welcoming with chilled vibes and inspirational quotes adorning the walls. They also offer accommodation. You can get water refills here for 1000 – 2000 kip. The food is yummy – a decent breakfast can be purchased for around 10,000 kip and burgers and other western dishes cost around 30,000 kip. They also serve a variety of traditional Laotion dishes (around 20,000-30,000 kip) which are extremely tasty!
Jasmine Restaurant and Hathim Indian Restaurant
Both of these little places do similar dishes and are cheap. The food here is just the thing to satisfy your curry cravings when you’d like a change from the standard asian fried noodles and rice! They’re owned by super friendly Indian couples (so you know you’re getting authentic food) and are located down main “street” near ferry drop off point.
The Garden of Nang
If you’re a vegan or just like fresh healthy food, then make sure you visit The Garden of Nang during your time on Don Det. The friendly ladies who run this restaurant serve pumpkin burgers, papaya salads, rice dishes, curries and mango shakes which are to die for!
The restaurant is cute, welcoming and comfortable, and if you buy something there you’re able to use the private beach opposite and take a dip in the river for free. Things to consider are that food is only served from midday – 5pm and is made from scratch but it’s worth being patient! Use maps.me to find The Garden of Nang.
Getting to Four Thousand Islands (Don Det):
Four Thousand Islands is only accessed by bus and boat. Book an overnight bus from the capital, Vientiane, which stops at Pakse before continuing onto the Four Thousand Islands. 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 Pakse – Pakse to Don Det (or any of the 4000 islands) can done with a bus/ferry combo ticket, costing 60,000 kip. The bus is good (for Laos)! It is a VIP bus with air con, which takes you to Nakasong Village. There are ATMs here to get money out (as there aren’t any on the islands!) but they aren’t always working so try and get money out before the journey.
Here you can walk from the bus drop off point to the pier. Show your ticket in the booth and you’ll be shown to a long tail boat which will take you over to the northern point of Don Det Island. It takes around 3.5 hours to get to Don Det from Pakse or 3 hours to get to Don Khlong (island to the north).
From Cambodia – Several minivan companies run transfers between Siem Reap in Cambodia to Don Det and the other 4000 islands but after researching online, Asia Van Transfer (AVT) seem to be the most popular.
The journey takes around 8 hours (but can take longer depending on how smoothly the border crossing goes) and can be booked on the 12go Asia website for £19/$25/just under 216,000 kip. Expect a basic minivan and a bumpy journey, yet helpful drivers.
Where to go next?
North to Pakse and Wat Phu: It’s super easy to book a bus/boat combo ticket on the island for this, and it costs around 60,000 kip. 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…
Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand: There is an 8 hour minivan from Don Det run by Green Paradise Travel (costing around 204,000 kip on 12go Asia) or you can catch the bus to Pakse (60,000 kip) and then a coach over the border (90,000 kip), which is bookable in Pakse town.
South to Cambodia: The 4000 islands are so close to the Cambodian border that it’s super easy to book a bus there and on to other cities further to the south, including Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. There are many signs and tour agencies on Don Det or in the village or Nakasong where this can be done.