The boat rocks from my weight as I enter its cavern.
I perch on a wooden slat and rest my feet in a pool of cool stagnant water.
We drift from the shore; the engine rattling with the repetition of a trance beat.
The river invites us, calm and still and welcoming.
One by one four thousand mangrove islands emerge on the Mekong.
Fishermen in conical hats float and cast their reels.
Wooden huts perch on stilts and jump from the jungle in pink, in rust, in blue.
We drift to the shore; I slowly wobble onto the muddy bank.
I fall into the rhythm of this sleepy island escape.
Smiling children play in the schoolyard and wave.
Cycles and motos dodge potholes and pigs as they pass.
The narrow dirt road splits and weaves across the small island into a maze.
I ride a rickety bicycle beyond the tiny town.
Guesthouses thin; water buffalo take their place.
I follow the signs to the mythical waterfall.
On this tiny island its majesty takes me by surprise.
Reggae wafts from straw huts sheltering hammocks
above a river that rushes from the falls.
I submerge into the warm green mineral water that tugs me to join its journey.
Back on the road I cycle under the merciful canopy of the forest.
Water buffalo observe me from their swamp bath.
I reach the river and hire a boat to see the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins.
Instead I spot the humps of thousands of mangrove islands.
Light turns the forest gold and I chase the sun before it sets.
Passing the rice fields and towering palms
I bid farewell to my doe-eyed friends.
As I listen to the frogs chirp in the fields
as I watch the clouds turn dark then light with each bolt
and as see the sun set on the river
I become silent with gratitude
because I found my pura vida after all.
How to Get to Si Phan Don
The Four Thousand Islands in Southern Laos have become a popular stop on the backpacker trail, typically on the way to or from Cambodia. Most tour desks, hostels, and hotels can arrange tickets from Vientiane, Vang Vieng, or Pakse in Laos or from Cambodia. Boats depart from the mainland to either Don Det or Don Khone and take about 20 minutes.
Where to Sleep in Si Phan Don
Don Det is certainly the more popular island to sleep on, but I far preferred Don Khone. During the low season both islands felt quiet and uncrowded, but Don Det is known to become backpacking party central during the high season. Don Khone remains quieter, more local, and in my opinion more beautiful and much cleaner. On Don Det it’s possible to find bungalows for under $3 whereas accommodation on Don Khone is slightly more upmarket at around $7 for a bungalow or a room, still highly affordable. My best recommendation on where to stay is to simply walk around the town and find the place that suits you best. The area with guesthouses is small and easy to navigate on both islands and places are being built or renovated constantly.
Where to Eat in Si Phan Don
Don Det certainly has more options for dining and even has small grocery stores. Most restaurants serve similar menus with a selection of Thai, Lao, and Western cuisine. The restaurant Loy Loung right across from where the boats come in on Don Khone has some of the best food I’ve eaten in Laos, the sweetest staff, and a cozy atmosphere. I can particularly recommend the fresh spring rolls and the Massaman curry which is possibly the best Massaman curry I’ve had anywhere. Come early because the place fills up fast and during the high season there’s often a wait.
What to Do in Si Phan Don
The Four Thousand Islands are best known as the hammock capitol of Laos. Where stoners come to wax poetic with other travelers inside of wooden bars on the river. However I found it to be a stunning place for natural exploration.
Cycle the Islands
Rent a bicycle and you will be amazed at how easy it is to become immersed in gorgeous terrain and traditional Lao life. Both Don Det and Don Khone mostly consist of vast rice fields with small trails to ride on. Don Khone has rapids, waterfalls, suspension bridges, and even old ruins you can discover. Find a sense of adventure, wear sunscreen, pack lots of water, be prepared to get lost and discover a magical world in the process.
Boats on the South end of Don Khone offer rides out to spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphins… but I can’t really recommend them. It’s inexpensive, less than $10 for the entire boat for an hour, but they don’t get close to the dolphins so you can’t see much. Kayaking tours get much better views and are offered from tour companies on both islands.
Swim at the Liphi Falls
The rushing waterfall on Don Khone is huge and reminiscent of Niagara Falls. It’s impressive to walk the stretch across from it, taking in the view, but the real joy is swimming in the river below. The onsite bar and restaurant has inviting huts with hammocks and floor cushions, a solid menu of Thai and Lao food (order the fresh spring rolls), and great reggae music. Be careful swimming as sometimes the current is strong, but the water feels incredible on tired traveling muscles.