In a nutshell
4,000 islands, also known as Si Phan Don, are a massive collection of teensy, large, inhabitable, and uninhabitable sandbars extending out from the waters of the Mekong River that run through southern Laos. Seeming to be lost in time, a laidback, relaxed atmosphere is the order of the day and stunning sunset views are the only clear passage of time here for travellers of Si Phan Don.
Why visit Si Phan Don
Those yearning for a spot of relaxation or a place to put down their heavy backpack in exchange for peaceful wandering, picturesque views and a slow pace of life would do well to visit the 4,000 islands. Filled with local villages, palm-fringed roads and hammocks facing the river; the islands offers visitors an almost (but not quite) beach experience unlike any other found throughout the landlocked country.
While some of the islands boast forests, rice paddies, waterfalls, restaurants and villages, others are home to little more than a family of crocodile lizards; and the archipelago of islands only really offers travellers the choice of three islands to stay on. These three islands are Don Dhet, Don Khon and Don Khong. The most popular of the three, Don Dhet is the singing-around-a-campfire-with-a-bunch-of-other-wandering-souls type of island and is ideally suited to free-spirited backpackers who aren’t too concerned with high standards in terms of accommodation and facilities. Don Khon lures in the more mature crowds who have a couple more zeros in their bank balances and ‘flashpackers’ who are wanting better quality of restaurants and bungalows. Don Khong, undoubtedly the least visited of the three, is best suited to travellers who long for solitude, novelists who are struggling with Writer’s Block and those who are quite happy to do absolutely nothing.
When to go to Si Phan Don
The ideal time to visit Si Phan Don would be during the dry season which occurs from November to March and fortunately these months also offer cooler temperatures too. The hot season from March to May is also a great time to visit as the Mekong is never too far away for those needing a refreshing dip. Although the Khon Phapheng Waterfall is a stunning sight to behold during the wet season, the months of May to October might be a tad too rainy for most travellers.
Where to stay in 4,000 islands
Rickety guesthouses and wooden bungalows are by and large the only options on Si Phan Don and accommodation options on all three islands are largely pretty basic. They do however, offer Wi-Fi and don’t require any pre-booking. Simply show up, take a wander and take your pick.
Don Dhet accommodation is predominantly catered for the budget backpacker crowds with rooms starting at a very affordable, LAK 40, 000 per night. Facilities are generally very simple with fan-cooled, shared-bathroom, mosquito-net bungalows dominating the accommodation scene.
Heading over to the more swanky of the lot, Don Khon gratifies luxury travellers who are looking for a cosy, upmarket bungalow on the riverbanks of the Mekong. Pricier but with much better facilities, this island offers the most upscale bungalows of the three.
Further north, lies the very remote, Don Khong. This island offers its guests a truly authentic Lao experience away from any and all maddening crowds. It has far fewer accommodation options, all of which are exceptionally basic, but as a result of the very few visitors, getting a bed for the night won’t be a problem at all.
Where and what to eat in 4,000 islands
Food on the islands is affordable, tasty and plentiful with Don Dhet offering more decent Western dishes rather than local cuisine perhaps as a result of the preferences of younger party crowd that are drawn to these parts. Menu items on Don Dhet seem to range from fruit smoothies, pizzas, garlic bread, banana pancakes, all the way to ‘magic milkshakes’.
For travellers who long for classic Lao staples such as sticky rice, noodle soup or other traditional Lao fare, head to Don Khon or Don Khong to satisfy these cravings.
Regardless of where you are staying, food is flavoursome, served with a smile and made fresh here on the 4,000 islands and no one will go hungry. Catering for meat-lovers and vegetarians, the restaurants are relatively clean, well-stocked, welcoming and tend to close before 11pm. Keeping the slower pace of life in mind, service is not always speedy but for those who are not in a hurry, this can be the ideal time to soak in the atmosphere, read a chapter of their holiday novel or play a game of cards.
How to get around 4,000 islands
Getting around on the islands is best done on a rented bicycle which usually costs around LAK 10,000 for the day although many people opt to walk too. In our opinion, the winding rural roads, fresh air and idyllic views are best experienced via bicycle, however for those wanting to visit the more far-flung destinations motorbike rentals are also a possibility. Keep in mind that the roads can often be muddy and pot-hole ridden and travellers should be careful when exploring the hidden gems around Si Phan Don especially for those in Don Dhet.
Kayaking around the islands is also becoming an increasingly popular means of transport for those who wish to explore the murky waters of the Mekong more thoroughly.
How to get to and from Si Phan Don
Getting to the 4,000 islands from Cambodia is possible with a minivan from Kratie, Stung Treng or Banlung which travellers should ensure includes the boat trip to Don Dhet or Don Khong. Joint tickets from any of these destinations should cost around LAK 100, 000 to LAK 150,000. For those who only get a ride to Ban Nakasang Village you can then catch a ferry to Si Phan Don but it’s advisable to try and get a ticket that includes the ferry ticket to save on money and time.
For travellers wanting to come to Si Phan Don from Phrom Penh in Cambodia, several morning buses leave for Don Dhet on a stress-free border crossing journey that takes around 7 hours. Tickets cost around LAK 300,000 and stopover once in Kratie and again for lunch. At the Lao border an immigration worker will take care of all the paperwork and passengers are allowed to stay inside the bus with minimal hassle and fuss.
Arriving from Siem Reap is also possible on a 13 hour overnight sleeper-bus.
There a few different ways to get into Si Phan Don. There is an 8am or 9am bus from Pakse in southern Laos which costs around LAK 70,000 and upon arriving in Pakse you’ll need to grab a minivan headed for the 4,000 islands. Another way to head to Si Phan Don from Pakse is via the southern bus station on a songthaew headed for Ban Nakasang Village. There are many songthaews leaving throughout the day and a one-way ticket should cost you around Lak 40,000.
For travellers wanting to arrive on Don Dhet or Don Khon, this is possible by leaving Ban Nakasang Village located on the mainland. The main tourist hub in Si Phan Don is Ban Hua Dhet at the northern end of the island and this is where the boats drop the passengers off. Joint tickets which comprise of a minivan ride from Pakse to Ban Nakasang as well as a one-way ferry ticket to Don Dhet will cost around LAK 60,000 and Lak 80,000. Be warned that the boats are rickety and cramped and luggage may get slightly wet during transit. Upon arrival at Ban Hua Dhet travellers will be left with two choices: heading along the sunrise (east) side or heading along the sunset (west) side. Tour groups are also occasionally dropped off at the Old French pier in Don Dhet which is 1.5 kilometres south of Don Dhet’s eastern coast.
Is Si Phan Don a safe place to visit?
Safety in Si Phan Don is generally not a concern and there are very few incidents of crime reported. Keep in mind that the roads are not in the best shape and that if travelling via bicycle or motorbike to be extra careful and vigilant especially during the wetter, muddier months. A final word of caution for those on a shoestring budget, travellers have reported being rather severely ripped off for boat rides across to the islands from Ban Nakasang on the mainland; so take this into account and do a bit of price comparing before hopping aboard.