I’ll admit it, the first thing I thought of when I heard the 4000 islands in Laos was that awful all-American salad dressing. Fortunately, the Si Phan Don islands have nothing in common with the sticky substance and are a refuge of simplicity and nature. I spent about a week mostly exploring Don Khon–an island a bit more laid back and calm that the popular backpacker party island of Don Det, Laos. It was incredibly hot which made me incredibly lazy–and honestly, there’s no better place to chill out that the 4000 Islands of Laos.
I’ve been there, but I didn’t Don Det. This guide to Don Khon and the 4,000 Islands of Laos is filled with palm trees that sway in the wind, powerful waterfalls, majestic temples, and rare aquatic creatures–river dolphins! Here are the best things to see and do in Don Khon and the 4,00 Islands in Laos.
Did you know that Laos is about the size of Kansas, which is where I grew up? Visiting Si Phan Don in the south of Laos is like stepping back into time–especially on the less crowded island of Don Khon. The extensive Mekong Delta archipelago is a utopia for those who seek the shade of the palm trees while enjoying a cool Beer Lao. It’s not so great for digital nomads who rely on strong WiFi connectivity and cozy cafes for co-working.
Time passes slowly here–which can be simple and serene, or downright dreadful, depending on your mood. The islands still have an essence of being off-the-beaten-path as modern amenities are far out of reach and only intrepid travelers seem to be roaming around and standing out like sore thumbs amongst local Laotians.
HOW TO GET TO 4000 ISLANDS LAOS
Many backpackers end a whirlwind trip through Laos by going straight from Don Det to Siem Reap–which is exactly what I did. I can’t recommend avoiding the land border crossing enough from Laos to Cambodia, it was a total nightmare. I was able to spend six weeks in Laos exploring Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, and ultimately took a series of buses and boats from Pakse, Laos to Don Khon in the 4000 Islands which took about 4 hours.
Make sure that the ticket you purchase to 4000 Islands Laos includes your boat transfer and will drop you off at a dock that’s conveniently located to your accommodation. It’s a bit of a hassle to arrive at the 4000 Islands in Laos. But, you’ll be rewarded with riverfront wooden bungalows that are perfect for morning yoga practices, hammocks made for reading entire books, and leisurely strolls through the countryside to help you get grounded–literally.
WHAT TO BRING WITH YOU TO 4000 ISLANDS LAOS
First things first–you need to know that there are no ATM machines in the 4000 Islands Laos. If you end up short on cash you can try to find a place to trade USD to KIP but expect a terrible exchange rate. If you find yourself completely cashless you’ll have to take a costly and time-consuming boat ride back to the mainland to withdraw money. It’s better to have too much cash than too little, you can always exchange it at your final destination in Laos. You may lose a few cents but you’ll retain your precious sanity. Keep in mind that Laos is more costly than surrounding Southeast Asian countries.
My trusted GRAYL water bottle came in hand often during my week in 4000 Islands Laos as not many establishments had water refill stations. Please pack a reusable water bottle of some sort to cut back your single-use plastic waste, Mother Nature thanks you. As always, I shot these photos with my Sony A6000 and protected my skin with mineral SPF. With so many adventures awaiting you in the 4000 Islands Laos, it would be wise to have travel insurance, you won’t regret it.
HOW TO GET AROUND THE 4000 ISLANDS LAOS
The transportation options for exploring the 4000 Islands Laos are seemingly endless. I got around on foot mostly as I didn’t venture off of Don Khon but many guesthouses offer bicycle rentals if you can stand the heat and dangerous pathways. If you opted to stay on the party island of Don Det but want to visit the peaceful landscapes of Don Khon you’ll have to pay 35,000 KIP to cross the historic French bridge. A few times I hitched rides with locals on the backs of motorbikes–mostly to avoid packs of terrifying looking dogs. There’s always the option to get around by boat or kayak, especially for adventures on the Mekong Delta.
WHAT TO DO ON DON KHON IN 4000 ISLANDS LAOS
RELAX BY THE POOL
My ideal lazy day is spent by a body of water and as the Mekong Delta isn’t exactly a prime spot for swimming due to wild currents and water snakes, I found myself chilling out at Sengahloune Resort often. You can pay a day pass to use the pool or stay at the beautiful hotel. Be sure to stick around until sunset as they have cozy chairs tucked along the riverbanks which make for an excellent spot to watch the hazy day come to an end.
SPOT CRITICALLY ENDANGERED IRRAWADDY DOLPHINS
These odd-looking river dolphins are a rare sight to behold. The Irrawaddy Dolphin is critically endangered and one of the only species of freshwater dolphins left on Earth. It’s believed that there are only about 80 left living in the Mekong River. In the delta between Laos and Cambodia in the 4000 islands, there are only about 4 dolphins so there’s no guarantee you’ll actually spot a dolphin. The prime season for spotting the Irrawaddy Dolphin in the 4000 Islands Laos is October through December.
The best time of day to see the Irrawaddy Dolphins in 4000 Islands Laos is early in the morning as there is a lot of boat traffic passing through the river in the afternoon which disturbs the creatures and obstructs views. Shop around with some local vendors to get the best price. They’ll take you down the river and to a small island where you can climb to the top of a hill for a birds-eye perspective of the waters below.
I got lucky and saw the dolphins come up for air dozens of times but these creatures are quite fast making it very hard to capture a photo of them. They don’t jump out of the air but pop their heads up quickly before submerging back into the water.
VISIT THE ‘LITTLE’ WATERFALL OF LI PHI FALLS
Take a leisurely stroll from the town center of Don Khon to the Li Phi Falls which are also known as the Tat Somphamit Waterfalls to take in the sights of the 4000 Island Laos. You’ll pass by glittering Buddhist temples and endless golden rice terraces before you reach the phenomenal waterworks. When you arrive, you may chuckle knowing that these gigantic waterfalls are known as the ‘little’ waterfalls of the 4000 Islands Laos. The Khone Phapheng Falls is known as the larger of the cascades but are a bit more complicated and expensive to reach so I didn’t pay them a visit. Khone phapheng is certainly worth seeing though as it’s the largest waterfall by volume in Southeast Asia.
The sheer power of the Li Phi Tat Somphamit Waterfalls is still daunting. Rocks break through the Mekong Delta at various stages to create the falls which seem neverending. There are many viewpoints along the cliff side with fantastic vantage points of the cascades–just be careful, they aren’t well secured and you wouldn’t want to chance falling into the choppy waters below.
Towards the end of the path is a sandy area known as the beach. I got brave and went for a dip in the water but instantly regretted it once I saw a snake in the distance, so swim at your own risk. A safer choice? Chill out in the many bamboo hammocks and shacks at the river bar and enjoy the river breeze.
GET YOUR CULTURE FIX AT WAT KHON TAI
On the walk to and from the Li Phi Falls, you’ll have a chance to stroll through the serene grounds of the Buddhist Wat Khon Tai temple. Unlike other temples in Laos that are always crowded there never seemed to be a soul in sight here. If the temple is open take off your shoes and sit at the altar to meditate for a while or simply take in the peaceful surroundings.
Overall, the 4000 Islands of Laos didn’t live up to the hype for me personally, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t give these remote islands a chance. I was very low energy from a cross-continental flight from Central America to Southeast Asia. I was meant to spend the week with a friend who had to cancel at the last minute due to a medical emergency so it’s possible I was just a bit lonely. Overall, I found it hard to connect with locals or travelers in Laos. I tried to give in to my situation and relax but the lack of WiFi and vegan-friendly food left me feeling quite underwhelmed about the 4000 Islands Laos.
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