In Laos’s deepest south, just above the border with Cambodia, the muddy stream of the Mekong is shattered into a 14km-wide web of rivulets, creating a landlocked archipelago. Known as Si Phan Don, or Four Thousand Islands
About Si Phan Don
This labyrinth of islets, rocks and sandbars has acted as a kind of bell jar, preserving traditional southern lowland Lao culture from outside influences. Island villages were largely unaffected by the French or American wars, and the islanders’ customs and folk ways have been passed down uninterrupted since ancient times.
As might be expected, the Mekong River plays a vital role in the lives of local inhabitants, with 95 percent of island families fishing for a living. Ecological awareness among locals is high, with nearly half of the villages in the district participating in voluntary fisheries conservation programmes.
The archipelago is also home to rare wetland flora and fauna, including an endangered species of freshwater dolphin, which it’s sometimes possible to glimpse during the dry season. Southeast Asia’s largest – and what many consider to be most spectacular – waterfalls are also located here.
Famous sites you should visit
The area’s biggest sightseeing attractions, the Khon Phapheng and Somphamit waterfalls, dashed nineteenth-century French hopes of using the Mekong as a trade artery into China. The remnants of a French-built railroad, constructed to carry passengers and cargo past these roaring obstacles, can still be seen on the islands of Don Khon and Don Det, along with a rusting locomotive and other ghosts of the French presence.
The most developed place to base yourself is the popular island of Don Khong, with its collection of quaint villages and ancient temples, but there’s also plenty of accommodation on Don Khon and Don Det.
The largest islands are inhabited all year round and offer visitors a real glimpse of rural life along the Mekong where the people are nearly self-sufficient growing most of their food like rice, coconut, sugar cane and vegetables and fishing in the rich waters of the river.
The biggest islands of this area is Don Khong with around 55.000 inhabitants most of them located in two villages on either side of the island. As in all the Si Phan Don islands the best way to visit Don Khong is by hiring a bicycle and roaming around the small villages spread throughout the territory.
On Don Khong it is possible to find a wide range of accommodations from the simplest guesthouse to more sophisticated hotels.
The Islands of Don Det and Don Khone are close to the Cambodian border and were an important link for the flow of supplies between Vietnam and Laos during the French colonial era. Here you can still find the only remaining stretch of railway ever built in Laos, which was used by the French to bypass the nearby system of rapids and waterfalls that forbid navigation.
From either island it is possible to reach the Li Phi Waterfalls or to hire a boat in order to visit the surrounding areas where it is possible to observe (with some luck) the endangered Irrawady Dolphin (best viewed late afternoons, during the dry season as during the rainy season the water is too muddy).
On both islands there is a growing number of basic guesthouses as well as more comfortable accommodations.
The most impressive waterfall that can be seen in this area is Khon Phapheng located around 20 km south of Don Khong, here a large sala offers a good view of the biggest cascade of the Mekong River. Toilets and refreshments and coffee shops are available close to the sala.
To reach Si Phan Don area (Don Khong generally), it is possible to get a public bus/truck leaving from the “Lak Pet” bus station (there are usually two morning departures daily) or a much slower boat from the Pakse boat landing (during the late dry season those boats cannot completely reach Don Khong so you will have to hire a smaller boat for the final stretch).
Private transport services (small buses) can be orgnaised by Kingfisher Ecolodge or by local travel agencies at reasonable prices.
As often is the case in Laos the best option may be to arrange a trip to Si Phan Don at your hotel or guesthouse where you are likely to find that transport methods and time schedules are quite flexible and convenient.