Si Phan Don or Four Thousand Islands is a group of islands in the Mekong River in Southern Laos. It is located in the Khong district, Champasak province. There are many islands of different sizes, many of them are under water during the monsoon, when the river increases its body of water. The main islands are, by size: Don Kong, Don Som, Don Det and Don Khon. This river archipelago is located just at the boarder with Cambodia. The nearest main city is Pakse (118 kilometers to the north) and Champasak, were the Wat Pheu is located, at 92 kilometers to the north. Si Phan Don includes Khone Phapheng, the Falls of the Mekong, the biggest in Southeast Asia.
A beautiful set of islands, set against a lazy and winding section of the Mekong. Be sure to check out the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia, and have conversations with the friendly locals. Outside of the tourist town, one can get a glimpse of local people, rice farms and plenty of farm animals, especially cows. There are also several temples about of average quality, however, it is interesting to get away from the tourists to see the locals and their life. One must take care to take off one’s shoes (important in all of Laos!)
The island is also oddly overran by domestic dogs and cats which roam from place to place looking for scraps and whatnot. Most of these animals are sweet, friendly (and mostly clean) animals who like to be petted and especially fed. One of the foreigners stated that he (and the islanders) would be happy if people took the animals away as pets. However, it may be difficult and expensive to import an animal from Laos to one’s own nation, plus the fact that the animal will only understand Laotian and not English. Warning! Some of the dogs do get vicious at night, so bring a stick as they’re usually easy to fend off.
There isn’t much to do in Si Phan Don, but that’s not the point. The islands are laid back, with small huts mixing in with guest houses along the banks of the Mekong. But, if you get a bit restless, try these:
Rent a bike for about 10,000 Kip and pedal around the two main islands (Don Det and Don Khon), which are connected by a bridge. When you cross the old railway bridge from Don Det to Don Khon they will make you pay for the Donkhone Somphamit Waterfalls Park (Mekong Falls). A ticket costs 35,000 Kip.
Take a boat tour around the area. These start at around $US5, or just ask a local boatmen if you want to go some place specific.
Some visitors take candles, guitars and a drum to the north beach (boat landing) on Don Det for a beach party. Be warned, these parties meet with little enthusiasm by the authorities and the locals.
Pink Dolphin Tours are very popular day trips on the island. For around $US10, you get taken by bus and boat to a small patch of sand, which is techinically in Cambodia. There you drink beer — Angkor, not Beer Lao — and watch small pink spots bop in the distance. It’s not bad, and usually includes a stop at a nearby waterfall to round off the afternoon.
How to get Si Phan Don or 4000 islands
There are several ways to reach Si Phan Don. There is a bus from Pakse, that leaves somewhere between 8 and 9 in the morning. Costs around 70,000, sometimes including the boat ticket, sometimes not. Make sure you clear it out with the agent you are buying the ticket from. Most visitors will buy tickets in Pakse for a minivan going to the islands.
From the southern busstation in Pakse (also named ‘lak pet/ lak 8) there are ‘songthaews’ (local transport) leaving for Ban Nakasang (for Don Det and Don Khone) for 40,000 Kip from the early morning until the afternoon. For Don Som you can take a ‘songthaew’ to Ban Khinak for 40,000 Kip.
Tickets are preprinted and prices fixed. Prices for one person one way 15,000 Kip, per bicycle 5,000 Kip. Eventually you have to pay 30,000 Kip for just a single ticket, if not multiple people use one boat. In comparison joint tickets including a minibus ride from Pakse to Ban Nakasang and a ferry ticket to Don Det cost between 60,000 and 70,000 Kip. Note that the boats are small and shaky and your luggage may get wet so keep things apart that should remain dry.
Coming from Cambodia you can take a van from Kratie ($US15), Stung Treng ($US12) or Banlung ($16) which includes the boat trip to Don Det or Don Khong. Some guest houses in Kratie may try to sell you the ticket for $US50. The border crossing is in the middle of forest and there is pretty much nothing else there than a few customs officials and a bad road in Laos side. So you probably want to get a ride all the way to Four Thousand Islands, although you maybe able to hitch a ride to the turnoff to Ban Nakasang, which is where you will catch the ferry to Si Phan Don. On the other hand, you may not find any transportation at the border and if you did it might be a rip-off. Note: if in Stung Treng and looking to go to Si Phan Don, hotels may or may not know on-hand what vans are available. Ponika’s Place, the one Western restaurant on town located next to the market, sells tickets directly, for vans leaving at 2PM. There are at least two services going from Stung Treng to Laos. One of them is the very poorly performing Che Nang, which makes you wait long periods and then tries to get extra money at the border for your visa. The other is an independent operator who works with Asia Van Transfer and sells tickets from Stung Treng to Si Phan Don for about $12.
There is a bus from Phnom Penh that leaves in the morning to Don Det. It takes around 7 hours to get there with minimal stops on the VIP bus (once in Kratie and once to stop for lunch). Near the Lao border, an employee of the bus will ask for passports and the fee for the Laos Visa. No need to step out of the us to immigration, the worker takes care of everything. Don Det is another 30 minutes away. Lao Visa is available on the border from July 2012. Most get it for 30 or 35 dollars, but citizens of a few countries have to pay more, oddly for Canadians it is $42.
You can arrive also by boat from Stung Treng. The boats leave in the morning. Many tourists have been made to pay around $US50 after the border for transportation to Four Thousand Islands. So again it’s best to book the trip all the way to your destination if possible.
There are a couple of bus options from Siem Reap to Si Phan Don sold by all the major travel agents in Siem Reap market. A large sleeper bus that takes about 13 hours and goes east before heading north to Laos and a smaller VIP minibus option claiming 6 hours for slightly more money. Be warned of the alternative ‘VIP’ minibus option that promises half the travel time via a new ‘super highway’ that the larger sleeper bus. This option is pushed by the majority of the agents in Siem Reap as they can charge more for shorter journey time advertised. This is a con with the journey taking the same 13-odd hours to complete via a very roundabout route, unnecessarily changing vehicles countless times with attempted scamming / extra charging at each change. The route ends up near the Laos border where you’ll be picked up by the original larger sleeper bus that got there directly for quite a bit less money, and 100% less hassle. A full account of the VIP option is provided here and makes for interesting reading.
Be Careful: Travel agents will give you cash to pay for the boat ride from Ban Nakasang to Don Det. They might only give you as little as 5,000 Kip. The fare is at least 15,000 (depending on the number on people going)