Laos’ 4000 Islands is a great place to kick back and do nothing. But it also has plenty of attractions, natural wonders and activities for visitors. The deep south of Champasak Province is a relaxing tropical getaway. Read about the best activities to do and sights to see in Si Phan Don, Laos.
Watch the fishermen effortlessly jump from rock to rock through the rapids as they tend to their traps. Listen to the water roaring over Khone Phapheng falls, the largest falls in Southeast Asia and the reason boats can’t transverse the Mekong to China. The falls are home to the huge, and endangered, plabuck catfish, which can grow up to 3m (10 feet.) The fee to enter the falls for foreigners is 55,000 kip ($6.60 USD) and includes a shuttle around the property.
Located on the northwest coast of Don Khon, the view points of Li Phi Falls are numerous and just keep getting more and more beautiful. Grab a beer at the restaurant (and use some of the nicest bathrooms on the island), then set up shop on a bench or chaise lounge and watch the water swirl. Also called Tad Somphamit, the 35,000 kip ($4.20 USD) entrance fee includes access to the restaurant near the entrance and beachside bar toward the back of the property, with a plethora of bungalows filled with hammocks and cushions.
Called Pah Kha in Lao, the one critically endangered pod of Irrawaddy Dolphins in Si Phan Don lives just south of Don Sanlat. Boats can be chartered from the beach at the southwest coast of Don Khon or from ferry pier at the southernmost tip of the island for less than $10 USD per hour. Sightings are best in the early mornings or early evenings. Bring some water as many of the boats are uncovered, leaving you exposed to the sun. Then, with the engine off and a little patience, you will see dolphins, albeit from a distance. Forget trying to take photos unless you’re a professional nature photographer and simply take in the sounds and sights of these majestic animals.
An outdoor display on Don Khon shows a rusted French engine from the late 1800s, when the French built a 7km railroad line to bypass Khone Phapheng falls and create a trade route from Cambodia up the Mekong to Laos and eventually China. The French loaded the boats onto rail cars below the falls then put them back in the water above the falls. The operation was abandoned in 1940 when a road was built around the falls. Today, you can check out the display and stand on the bridge between Don Det an Don Khon, which was formerly for trains but is now open to foot traffic and two-wheeled vehicles.
Mr. Mo’s rents kayaks that visitors can take out on the Mekong on their own to explore the area between Don Det, Don Som and the mainland. Rentals cost 80,000 kip ($10 USD) for the day. Tour companies also offer organised kayaking tours. For enthusiasts who want quality time on the river, Green Paradise Travel offers an overnight kayaking trip from Pakse. Other shorter day or half day tours include kayaking, dolphin-watching, and viewing the waterfalls.
Don Det has a beach at its northern tip that doubles as a ferry landing. You can also take a dip in the Mekong, the largest river in Southeast Asia, on either of the two beaches on Don Khon – one by Liphi Falls and one farther south. Easy Go Backpackers Hostel on Don Det has a beach area and Don Som Riverside Guesthouse has a swimming spot on Don Som. If river swimming isn’t your thing and you’d rather lounge by the pool, check out the pool by Little Eden Guesthouse at the north of Don Det or the Blue Lagoon Swimming pool at the southern tip of the island.
When you’re booking your accommodations on 4000 Islands, you may want to consider the direction of the sun and whether or not your place has a hammock. The eastern side of the islands are the ‘shady side’ as they get morning sun and beautiful sunrises where you can watch the fishing boats pass by. Your bungalow will be mercifully cool by nightfall, having been in shade during the afternoon. However, the sunny side of the islands is prime for watching the best sunsets in Laos. As one of the main draws of island life is doing absolutely nothing, there’s no better place to partake than from a hammock.
Bicycles are available to rent for 10,000 kip ($1.25 USD) per day from guest houses and tourist shops on Don Khong and Don Det. Cycling is the perfect form of transportation to leisurely see the rice fields, waterfalls and head to the beach. Faster than walking and cheaper and offering more autonomy than a tuk-tuk, you’ll be able to go where you want, when you want on two wheels. Double check that the bike is in working order before you take it. Usually a deposit is not necessary. Ask for a lock as well, especially if you intend to leave the bike alone for a bit while your hike and explore. Unlike in other parts of Laos, helmets are not commonly worn or available for rent in 4000 Island.
Anywhere western-facing is a great place to stop what you’re doing at 6 pm and watch the sun sink over the Mekong River, making the water sparkle. One favourite place to watch the sunset is from the historic French railroad bridge that connects Don Det and Don Khon. Lao people and visitors alike flock to the bridge around 5 pm to chat and watch the brilliant colours light up the sky. Bring a headlamp or flashlight to help you navigate back to your guest house after the sun goes down. With no streetlights, the bumpy dirt roads and bamboo bridges can be especially challenging to navigate at night.