Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands, Lao: ສີພັນດອນ) is a group of islands in the Mekong River in Southern Laos.
The Four Thousand Islands have three main destinations for travellers：Don (Island) Khong (ດອນໂຂງ) is the biggest, but apart from the usual chill and look there's nothing great to do there. Most people head to Don Det (ດອນເດດ) or Don Khon (ດອນຄອນ), where accommodation is cheaper, you can walk to one of the big Mekong-Falls by yourself, and biking and walking and swimming in the river is just the same as in Don Khon.
Drugs such as marijuana and mushrooms are available in Don Det and are tolerated by some of the patio restaurants by the river. But though it is not uncommon to see people passing joints around at some restaurants, do not just assume that marijuana is fine anywhere.
Take a bus going down Rte 13 towards the Cambodian Border, for example from Pakse to Ban Nakasang, and take the river ferry at Ban Nakasang that crosses over to Don Khong and Don Det. A "jumbo" from Pakse to Ban Nakasang cost 70,000 kip, and a ferry from Ban Nakasang to Don Det is 15,000 kip per person if there are multiple people going, or 30,000 kip for just a single ticket. In comparison, joint tickets including a minibus ride from Pakse to Ban Nakasang and a ferry ticket to Don Det cost 65,000 kip.
Coming from Cambodia you can take a van from Kratie (USD15) or Stung Treng (USD12) which includes the boat trip to Don Det or Don Khong. Some guesthouses in Kratie may try to sell you the ticket for USD50. The border crossing is in the middle of forest and there is pretty much nothing else there than a few customs officials and a bad road on the Lao side. So you definitely want to get a ride all the way to Four Thousand Islands. You may not find any transportation at the border and if you do it's probably a rip-off.
There is a bus from Phnom Penh that leaves in the morning to Don Det. It takes around 7 hours to get there with minimal stops on the VIP bus (once in Kratie and once to stop for lunch). Near the Lao border, an employee of the bus will ask for passports and the fee for the Laos visa. No need to step out of the bus to immigration, the worker takes care of everything. Don Det is another 30 min away. Most get it for USD30-35, but citizens of a few countries have to pay more. Oddly for Canadians it is USD42.
You can arrive also by boat from Stung Treng. The boats leave in the morning. Many tourists have been made to pay around USD50 after the border for transportation to Four Thousand Islands. So again it's best to book the trip all the way to your destination if possible.
Be Careful: Travel agents will give you cash to pay for the boat ride from Ban Nakasang to Don Det. They might only give you as little as 5,000 kip. The fare is at least 15,000 kip (depending on the number of people going)
It's mostly people power. The islands are small enough that you can walk, although to get to some of the more far-flung destinations a bike will be nice. They can be rented everywhere. If you're feeling super-lazy, you might convince a local to take you on the back of their bike for a small fee. Bikes and feet are the only ways to see the island. There is one foreign (British) man with a Lao wife and baby son (2012) who would rent a 100cc bike for 90,000 kip for 24 hours, passport required. The road in Don Det is very rutted and muddy so one should take caution, either on a bike or motorbike. Once one leaves Don Det town, the road is much better and one can ride as fast as one wishes.
A beautiful set of islands, set against a lazy and winding section of the Mekong. Be sure to check out the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia, and have conversations with the friendly locals. Outside of the tourist town, one can get a glimpse of local people, rice farms and plenty of farm animals, especially cows. There are also several temples about of average quality, however, it is interesting to get away from the tourists to see the locals and their life. One must take care to take off one's shoes, just as in the rest of Laos.
The island is also oddly overrun by domestic dogs and cats which roam from place to place looking for scraps and whatnot. Most of these animals are sweet, friendly and mostly clean animals who like to be petted and especially fed. One of the foreigners stated that he and the islanders would be happy if people took the animals away as pets. However, it may be difficult and expensive to import an animal from Laos to one's own country.
There isn't much to do in Si Phan Don, but that's the point. The islands are laid back, with small huts mixing in with guest houses along the banks of the Mekong. But, if you get a bit restless, try these:
- Rent a bike for about USD1.50 and pedal around the two main islands, which are connected by a bridge that costs 20,000 kip to cross.
- Li Phi Falls (entrance fee) are easily accessible on Don Khon.
- Khon Phapheng Falls (20,000 kip), the largest waterfalls in Southeast Asia, are accessible by tuk-tuk from Ban Nakasang on the mainland.
- Take a boat tour around the area. These start at around USD5, or just ask a local boatman if you want to go somewhere specific.
- Beware, some visitors take candles, guitars and drums to the north beach (boat landing) on Don Det for a beach parties. These parties meet with little enthusiasm by the authorities, the locals and other visitors.
- Pink Dolphin Tours are very popular day trips on the island. For around USD10, you get taken by bus and boat to a small patch of sand, which is in Cambodia. There you drink beer—Angkor, not Beer Lao—and watch small pink spots bop in the distance. It's not bad, and usually includes a stop at a nearby waterfall to round off the afternoon.
Not too much. Stock up in Pakse or if you forgot something, look around in Nakasang before boarding the boat to the islands. That is your last chance for forgotten items. There are some items for purchase on the islands, including sunscreen and other items. Don Det also has small markets with other items
A standard menu of Laotian food and backpacker favourites (banana pancakes, garlic bread, pad Thai) are on top at most places. Some try to get fancy with special pizzas and exotic smoothies. It's very hit and miss, but never terrible and the service is friendly. You'd be hard pressed to spend more than USD3 on a meal here.
Eat the Lao food. It is delicious and everything is handmade. The food is very spicy, so if you do not like spicy foods, you may try to ask for fewer peppers. Try to avoid "Western" food because the quality will be lower. Don't eat the pizza, happy or not.
Beerlao on the Mekong. Available about every 200 m on the island, big bottles for 10,000 kip. Head toward the west part of the island (where there are only a few guesthouses) for a great view of the sunset.
Fruit shakes on every menu. About 5,000 kip. In most places they switch on the generators for preparation fans and music will work for some minutes.
The Don Det community, like most of Laos, closes down at around 23:00. There is usually one place that might stay rocking for another hour or so.
Guesthouses galore, at prices that are dirt cheap even by SE Asian standards. Most of these guesthouses have bungalows by the river, and include a mosquito net, double bed and porch. Toilets and showers are mostly shared. There's electrical power, but it operates off a generator that runs only from 18:00-22:00. Bring a torch and be ready for a return to nature. Most options cost about USD3-5 per night. In recent years more up-scale bungalows have been constructed, some with hot water showers and air-conditioning.
Don Det : Select from dozens of options that are more or less the same - however, there might be some differences with things such as mattresses and condition of mosquito nets.
Those going to Cambodia can buy bus tickets on all of the islands. The prices might seem a bit expensive, but this is due to the fact that travelling in Cambodia is more expensive than in Laos.
There are two companies that offer transport to Siem Reap, Kratie, or Phnom Penh. The international bus from Pakse to Phnom Penh will take you straight to its destination, without much trouble (departure at Ban Nakasang around 09:45, arrival at 19:30 depending on the weather, costs about USD14), for Siem Reap you change into a less comfortable looking bus somewhere 70 km north of Phnom Penh (arrival around 21:30). The other company, whose tickets are sold everywhere in all the hostels and restaurants on Don Det, takes you with a small van or bus to the border, where you change, after another hour or two waiting in the heat, to another bus or minivan. Later on, for Siem Reap switch again into bus or van. Those tourists getting stuffed in the minivan at the border had to sit later on in the aisle of the bus on plastic chairs or had to just stand for half an hour. Prices for this trip are generally USD2 less when booking from the border, but definitely not worth the waiting, changing and discomfort. Make sure not to take the regular tourist bus. If you don't find this international bus, better choose going back to Pakse and take a bus from there. Best is probably to take a flight from Pakse.
Ticket price should include the fare of the boat as well. Don't be tempted to buy a ticket going only to the border since it is very hard to get a ride from there.
Buses leave early every morning from across the river. It's about an hour to the border, but that's only the first stage in what's sure to be a long day of travel. After paying a USD1 "stamp tax" on the Laotian side and on the Cambodian side another USD23 for the visa plus USD1 for "processing" (and another USD2 if you forgot a photo). There is also a USD2 health check which is a hassle. Some people are able to skip this as there is no check later on. There is usually a "VIP" (tourist-minibus) leaving around noon at the border, but better have that organised before as the border is not much more than a street, two barriers and some bored guards in the middle of the jungle. If you want to break your travel, consider stopping at Kratie, which is a nice little city on the Mekong.
If you really want to take the bus to Cambodia then make sure to split the trip to Siem Reap and take a rest in Kratie where you will arrive in the early evening. After Kratie the ride in the regular buses gets worse as they make several stops in the middle of nowhere and drinks and food are very expensive at those stops. You will be switching buses again at approximately 22:00 after waiting for another hour. Then you get stuffed again into an overfilled bus where there will be no space left. You will arrive at Siem Reap between 01:00-02:00, which makes a travel time of 18 hours and not 12 as claimed on the posters.
Realize that time has not much meaning here so leaving the dock at 11:00 means that one goes about 11:30 or when the next boat is full. Some of the boats are better than others, the worse being long canoes. Upon reaching the "mainland", one has to wait with a group of other foreigners for transportation going their way, with the boss squeezing as many people as he possibly can. Leaving Don Det requires patience and a cool head. Give yourself plenty of time.
Pakse and Champasak