Beautiful sunset at 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos

4000 Islands: Been There, Don Det

Jan 13, 2015 - Julie

4000 Islands – also known as Si Phan Don – is a group of islands all the way in the south of Laos. On the border with Cambodia, 4000 Islands is a common way to cross into Cambodia or vice versa. Since we had already been to Cambodia, we really came just to check it out before heading back to Thailand. We had originally thought about not making the long trip all the way down to southern Laos; however, chances are we will never come back to Laos again (though I hope we will!) and we wanted to leave with no regrets.

The three main islands tourists frequent are Don Khong, Don Det, and Don Khon. The trip there ranks as one of the worst we’ve ever had, but you can read the full story in the post on buses in Laos. To say there was not much to do on any of the islands is an understatement, but we knew that going in and expected a super laid-back few days.

Don Khong

We had no original plans to go to Don Khong, but of course, many things don’t go according to plan when traveling Laos. Thinking we would get dropped off at Ban Nakasang where the ferries to the most popular island Don Det were located, we were completely caught off guard when the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere at 3am. It turns out “middle of nowhere” was the east side of Don Khong according to GoogleMaps, though the name was meaningless at 3am. All we knew was that there was a river on one side, nothing but darkness on the other, and we had been scammed to take an overpriced ferry come 8am because we literally had no other choice.

Our bed for the night after being dropped off at 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos
Our bed for the night after being dropped off at 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos

While we waited, we sat in a bamboo hut waiting for daylight, cuddling for warmth as our thickest clothes were not very thick at all. When the sun rose, we tried to take solace in the fact that we were witnessing a 4000 Islands sunrise. It was definitely an authentic experience, that’s for sure. We watched locals wake up with the roosters, adults getting ready for the day, kids getting ready for school. The restaurant we waited beside was also the home of the family that ran that restaurant. Peeking into the only fully-enclosed room (if you could call it a room), it was clear that all members of the family slept on a big mattress that was in a terrible condition. I would never touch that mattress, let alone sleep on it with four other people every night. In that moment, I felt crazy for having once upon a time complained about my brand new, pillow top mattress in my old apartment.

Boats cruising the Mekong River, 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos
Boats cruising the Mekong River, 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos

I have no wish to ever return to Don Khong after the grueling trip there, and hoped for better in the most popular island of Don Det.

Don Det

We based ourselves in Don Det and spent most of time in 4000 Islands here. Besides a concentrated area of restaurants and guesthouses, the rest was local houses or just undeveloped land. There were no real roads on the islands, only dirt paths, though bikes could be rented and we saw locals driving motorbikes. Electricity, hot water, and shaky internet (via SIM USB modem) were all available, so it did have all the basic necessities.

Main road of Don Det island, 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos
Main road of Don Det island, 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos

One of the “things to do” in Don Det was a 4000 Islands sunset. It’s a true testament to how laid-back a place is if the sunset is arguably the biggest attraction. We settled into a riverside restaurant balcony as the sun slowly set over the horizon. It was very peaceful and beautiful.

Beautiful sunset at 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos
Beautiful sunset at 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos

An hour and a half later, we were still there. Apparently like the rest of Laos, even the sun moves slowly. Sunsets elsewhere in the world (like Tamsui and Kaohsiung) are over in the blink of an eye. In 4000 Islands, it took almost two hours. We tried to take a time-lapse on iPhone, but over the course of an hour, the sun appeared equally bright even though you could see the water moving. Not quite what we were hoping to achieve with the time-lapse.

Sunset over the islands at 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos
Sunset over the islands at 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos

Besides the sunset, no other especially notable events took place. It was a good opportunity to meet fellow travelers and one of the easiest places to lose track of all sense of time. We also spent a few hours on another island connected to Don Det – Don Khon.

Don Khon

The main attraction on Don Khon was supposedly the largest waterfall in SE Asia. I don’t think what we found was the largest one, but it was hard to find reliable information on where this was exactly without booking a tour. Let’s just say that there were little to no directional indicators or even roads to take. We relied heavily on our iPhone compass, what little GoogleMaps could tell us about this part of Laos, and some very basic directions we found online and heard from others.

Cows on the Don Det island, 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos
Cows on the way to the Don Khon island, 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos

It was a long walk down the entire Don Det island, across the bridge into Don Khon, and over to the east side. The bridge supposedly charged a “crossing fee,” but no one bothered us for it so we got away with not paying anything. It was definitely one of those things where someone just setup shop to collect more money from foreigners for public infrastructure, so we didn’t feel bad about not paying, especially since if anything, the locals on motorbikes damaged the bridge much more than foreigners on foot or bike. The view from the bridge was admittedly picturesque.

Bridge from Don Det to Don Khon islands, 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos
Bridge from Don Det to Don Khon islands, 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos

The rest of the way was a lot of guessing and hoping for the best. Besides the area immediate to the bridge, the rest of Don Khon was completely undeveloped with dirt paths in the woods. At one point we passed by a bunch of youth playing a semi-legit-looking soccer game in the middle of a rice field. At another point we crossed a suspension bridge over rushing water. All the while we hoped we were walking the right way.

Locals playing soccer on Don Khon islands, 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos
Locals playing soccer on Don Khon islands, 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos

When we arrived, we concluded that this was probably not the biggest waterfall in SE Asia, because it wasn’t that grand. Nonetheless, it was nice. The waterfall area was not setup like Tad Sae Waterfall or Kuang Si Waterfall near Luang Prabang, but it was very natural with a remote and private feel. Two sets of waterfalls over varying levels of rocks converged into one river. We even found some visitors swimming.

Khone Phapheng Falls, 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos
Khone Phapheng Falls, 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don), Laos

Was the waterfall worth the journey? Not completely sure, but considering we had time on our hands, we were happy to go exploring. 4000 Islands would be a great way to ease into Laos from Cambodia, or to enjoy Laos one last time before heading into Cambodia. However, we were doing neither, and I can’t say with completely conviction that 4000 Islands was worth the long journey just for a visit without border crossing. Still, we’re glad we can say that we’ve “been there, Don Det.”

For more pictures from 4000 Islands, please visit the gallery!