After our motorcycle loop in the surroundings of Thakek, our next destination should logically have been Pakse to discover the Bolaven plateau. But here we are, after 4 days spent with our buttocks on a scooter, we didn’t really want to do it again right away… To save our backsides, we decided to go and relax for a few days in the extreme south of Laos on the Mekong river, in the 4000 Islands. A hammock, beautiful waterfalls, a beer in front of the sunset… This is the life we chose to lead! Do you accompany us in this difficult step 😉?
- Presentation of Si Phan Don or the 4000 Islands archipelago
- Getting to the 4000 Islands
- Things to do in the 4000 Islands
- Map of the 4000 Islands
- Useful information for a trip to the 4000 Islands
- Our review on Si Phan Don
We took this trip in 2014, but the article was completely revised and updated in January 2023. If you see any price changes or have additional information that might be relevant, please feel free to leave us a comment!
Presentation of Si Phan Don or the 4000 Islands archipelago
The first big question I had before arriving was: are there really 4000 islands? To be quite honest, I don’t have the impression that this archipelago of Laos really counts several thousand islands. After that, if every little shrub on 30 cm of land counts as an island, then why not! In fact, we don’t care a bit, the name sounds very glamorous and that’s the main thing, right 😎?
We reassure you right away, if you plan to go through Si Phan Don (the Lao name for the 4000 islands), you will not be confronted with a dilemma concerning the island for your accommodation… Of these 4000 islands near Cambodian boarder, only 3 are inhabited and have some guesthouses. To help you choose, we give you an overview of these 3 main islands!
The Don Khong Island is the largest of the archipelago with its 18 km length. It is also the closest to Pakse. We decided to skip this island because there are not so many things to do except rest… We also had only a few days and did not want to change island every morning.
Among the 4000 Islands, Don Det is probably the reference for backpackers and parties! To summarize, it is a bit of the meeting point of young people in Laos after having carburated to Beerlao in Luang Prabang and buckets in Vang Vieng. Lodgings are numerous and not very expensive.
After Vang Vieng, we were not really in the mood to get back into the party mood. As we are traveling as a couple, we preferred to go to Don Khone, the neighboring island of Don Det, reputed to be quieter.
Don Khone is the southern island of the archipelago, it is directly connected to Don Det by a historical bridge, a witness of the French presence. This island is 5 km long and 3 km wide, which makes it easily accessible on foot or by bike, but we will come back to that later in the article. Know that it is on Don Khone that we find most of the waterfalls!
The hotels are almost all located on the north coast of Don Khone. Do not hesitate to make a tour of the guesthouses! And if you have reached the 4000 islands, don’t miss the chance to get a room with a view on the water! For the extra sunset on the bridge from your hammock, prefer the hotels right next to the bridge connecting Don Khone and Don Det. If you prefer to book online, head to Booking to choose your next night by the water 😉. For a double room, you should expect to pay at least 10 $ (170 000 kips).
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Getting to the 4000 Islands
Whichever island you choose, your bus will pass through Nakasong village before crossing the Mekong River by ferry. Very often, you will get a combined bus and ferry ticket. But you may find bus tickets only. For your information, the price difference between the combined ticket and a bus ticket plus a ferry ticket is negligible.
To buy tickets for the ferry, go to the pier, 500 meters from the bus station in Nakasong. Count 20 000 kips for the 10 minutes crossing to Don Det and 30 000 kips for Don Khone (20 minutes). The prices are fixed, so for once, no need to negotiate (phew)!
From Siem Reap, it’s a quite long way but it’s still doable! Moreover, it is one of the last big tourist cities before the border between Cambodia and Laos. It will take you a little more than 8 hours to travel with Asia Van Travel from Siem Reap to Don Det or Don Khone. The prices of the tickets combining the bus and the ferry are around 700 000 kips.
You could also fly from Siem Reap to Pakse and then take a bus but we strongly advise against it. It is very expensive (at least 2 million kips, that is to say more than 130 euros for 1 hour’s flight!) and you will not save a lot of time by flying…
We wrote a whole part on the visas and the methods of entry in Laos to know all about the various points of crossing.
Buses (VIP or not), as well as minibusses, leave all day long from the south terminal of Pakse, also called the 8 km Bus Terminal because of its off-center position. If you book from your guesthouse, the price should be around 100 000 kips including tuk-tuk transportation to Pakse bus station. You can also book directly online the bus + ferry from Pakse (about 220 000 kips) or only the bus transportation (200 000 kips for 3 hour’s drive).
If you arrive from Thakhek like us, you have roughly two options:
- the most comfortable solution: take a VIP bus (sleeper or not) to Pakse (see above), then take another bus to the 4000 Islands, for a little more than 8 hours on the road. Many accommodations offer to book your tickets to Pakse including tuk-tuk transportation from your hotel to Thakhek bus station (Inter-Provincial Bus Station). Otherwise, you can always buy your tickets directly at the different bus stations (it is impossible online). This should cost you about 200 000 kips in total.
- the cheapest solution: take a local bus going directly from Thakhek to Don Khone (or Don Det). It usually leaves every day around 5.30 p.m. from the bus station and the ticket costs around 100 000 kips. As there is very little information about this bus online, we advise you to go there to check everything! But as you will understand when reading the following, the best solution is to go to Pakse first!
So, why talk to you about the first option with the VIP buses? Simply because we took the local bus, and we had a bad time! Other travelers also had bad experiences, so beware of long-distance local buses in Laos…
In South-East Asia, the local bus only includes basic seats, far from the comfortable version of the tourist buses! Add to that the fact that these buses do not have air conditioning. If the temperatures are cool, then why not! But that day, the thermometer was close to 40 degrees, so we literally liquefied in the bus, impossible to sleep!
The local buses also stop very regularly to take and let out people (the bus becomes full to bursting) and to deposit a whole heap of goods on its road. Pots of paint, bags of rice, scooters (yes, on the roof the scooters!), etc. In itself, it’s not a big deal that the local bus acts as a letter carrier, you might say.
Yes, well, except when the guys confuse a big backpack with a bag of rice in the middle of the night! We found ourselves at 6 a.m. in Pakse to change buses, and there, big panic! Fabienne’s backpack had disappeared! In these cases, there is no need to get angry, we breathe deeply and we count on our good star and the kindness of the Laotians!
Indeed, the driver agreed to turn back by stopping at all the previous stops! By chance, after about 30 minutes (the lapse of time largely sufficient for the holders of the aforementioned bag to pass by all the states of mind, to take inventory of everything in the bag, consider all the insurance scenarios, and come close to a nervous breakdown), the miracle happened! My faithful companion was waiting for us like an old forgotten bag of potatoes!
Anyway, we had to go back to Pakse in 30 minutes (with the bag this time). Of course, the bus to the 4000 islands was already far away… So it was in a collective tuk-tuk paid by our bus driver that we did the last part of the road! We arrived at Don Khone at noon, completely exhausted and sweaty, but happy to have found our bag!
Spoiler alert on our next adventures: the curse of the lost bag will strike again in Indonesia…
Things to do in the 4000 Islands
This is probably the main activity of a successful stay in the 4000 Islands in Southern Laos! We enjoy the nice weather, the terraces, the guesthouses nestled on the waterfront, and especially the hammocks installed facing the Mekong! From time to time, the small escapade consists in looking for a small fruit shake or an iced coffee, then we get back in position in the hammock! Around 5 p.m., it’s customary to exchange our fruit juice for a nice cold BeerLao and enjoy the sunset, all in the company of other travelers…
Yes, our life was veeeery painful on Don Khone island!
Cycling around Don Khone and Don Det
As Don Khone and Don Det are connected by a bridge, it is very easy to go around these two islands by bike. It is an opportunity to wander and drive among the rice plantations. We advise you not to do it on foot because, in Laos, temperatures can be around 40 °C and 4-5 hours of walking can quickly turn into quite an ordeal! To rent a bike, ask your hotel or guesthouse, they surely offer this service. The rental costs about 10 000 kips per day.
On both islands, you can:
- see the remains of the infrastructures dating from the French colonization. You will inevitably pass by the stone bridge, a vestige of the railroad established during the French colonization. You will also see the remains of an old locomotive near and south of Don Khone. East of Don Det, there are still some traces of the port that served as a starting point for the railroad.
- enjoy a hidden beach south of Don Khone. To reach Bo Hu Beach (or Khongyai Beach on Maps), take a small dirt road 200 meters from the intersection for Li Phi Waterfalls. After 1 km, you will arrive at a nice beach (access is free 😉), ideal to admire the sunset, do nothing and watch the blue waves, or have a boat trip on the Mekong River.
- discover the few temples more or less on both islands, especially Wat Khon Tai and Wat Khone Nua on Don Khone, and Wat Houa Det on Don Det. The entrance is free.
Enjoy the waterfalls
This is one of the major assets of the 4000 Islands! Here, the Mekong River turns into many rapids and beautiful waterfalls: Li Phi, Khon Pa Soy and Khone Phapeng. They are all on Don Khone except the last ones but we explain everything just below. You will find all the information on the map at the bottom of the article!
Li Phi (or Somphamit) Falls
Located on the west coast of Don Khone, the Li Phi Falls are not very high but very wide! From the bridge, it takes about 25 minutes to walk there and on the way, you will pass by the very nice little temple Wat Khon Tai! The entrance fee is 30 000 kips per person. Due to the strong currents, swimming is obviously not allowed there 😉. The trail continues along the coast for 400 meters before arriving at a nice little beach!
Khon Pa Soy Falls
Motivated for a day dedicated to waterfalls, we went down to the tip of the island along the west coast, then up along the east coast, to finish the day at the beautiful Khon Pa Soy Falls (or Tad Khone Pa Soi) on the edge of an islet. Today, the suspension bridge to access it is impassable and should (probably?) be repaired… Just before this bridge, you can still admire the Khane Paksy Falls. The access is free.
Be careful: Khon Pa Soy Falls are often confused with Khone Phapheng Falls! The first one is free and accessible from Don Khone Island while the second one is not.
Khone Phapheng Falls
Nicknamed the “Niagara Falls of Mekong/Asia”, Khone Phapheng Falls (or Pha Pheng) is the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia, no less! These rapids extend over more than ten kilometers and their flow is 11 000 m3 per second in dry season and up to 49 000 m3 per second in rainy season!
They are located on the western side of the 4000 islands, between the shore and Don Phapheng Island. To get there, you have two options: take a kayak tour with the visit and transportation included (there are several agencies on Don Det) or take the boat back to Nakasong, then take a tuk-tuk or a minivan to the waterfalls 25 minutes away (for about 50 000 kips in total). The entrance fee to Khone Pha Pheng Falls is 30 000 kips. There, you will have several viewpoints to appreciate the power of the Mekong!
To observe freshwater dolphins or Irrawaddy dolphins
Just south of Don Khone, we were able to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that still exist in the 4000 islands area. This is no longer the case today unfortunately 😢.
Currently, there are less than 90 dolphins left in the Mekong River and the protection of these cetaceans is more than urgent. Cambodia intends to strengthen measures to counter illegal fishing, the main cause of the disappearance of this species…
For the hyperactive or for stays of several days, there are some possibilities of activities such as tubing or kayaking. Even if the tubing reminded me a little too much of Vang Vieng and its creepy atmosphere, I must admit that the kayaking trip looked nice. On Don Det, you will find many accommodations that offer these activities.
Map of the 4000 Islands
As usual, we made you a little interactive map to visualize all there is to do in the 4000 Islands 😉.
Useful information for a trip to the 4000 Islands
- Choose the dry season, between November and March, it is the best time to visit Si Phan Don. Don’t worry, the waterfalls will have a good flow! During the monsoon season, the paths are more or less practicable and the Mekong will have abandoned its blue color for a rather muddy tint…
- To fully rest and enjoy the attractions of the area, we recommend you to spend 2 or 3 days in the 4000 Islands.
- As mentioned at the beginning of this article, after the measures taken in Vang Vieng, Don Det has become the new backpackers’ den. Many cafes or restaurants have the mention happy in the titles of the menus… You will certainly be when you eat happy banana pancakes because they contain… cannabis! For your information, drugs are (theoretically) forbidden in Southeast Asia but you are free to choose.
- There is no ATM on the islands, so consider withdrawing money before your trip to the 4000 Islands or at the only ATM in the area, namely the one in Nakasong!
- If Cambodia is your next destination, we advise you to finish your trip in Laos by the 4000 Islands to be close to the Cambodian border. Going back to Pakse afterwards is a not insignificant detour.
Our review on Si Phan Don
We enjoyed these islands to rest a little and discover beautiful landscapes. We really recommend this archipelago to recharge your energy and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere!
So, we went back to Pakse for the last step of our trip in Laos: the motorcycle loop in the Bolaven plateau! Are you ending the trip with us 😉?