After days of +38C in Vientiane, we decided we needed somewhere we could escape the heat a little, maybe with some swimming. So we decided to head south, towards the 4000 Islands of the Mekong River. This area is located on the border between Laos and Cambodia, though the islands themselves are all in Laos. It turned out to be a great decision – and island paradise hundreds of miles from the ocean. But first, our random adventure in getting here.
So we ended up on an overnight bus heading south towards the 4000 Islands. Our bus ticket simply said in handwriting “Don Det”, which is the name of the most popular island for backpackers. But the people at the bus station ticket office who sold us the ticket really didn’t speak English at all, and all we really learned from them is that our bus was supposed to leave the station at 5pm. We didn’t know how long it would take, though we’d read a blog online that mentioned something in the range of 12-15 hours. So we figured that wasn’t too bad, we would try and sleep overnight and then wherever it dropped us off we would figure it our early in the morning. We knew it couldn’t drop us off on Don Det, since its an island with no bridges. So we assumed it would drop us somewhere that we could catch a boat to our island, which is actually called Don Khon and is right beside Don Det. This plan may sound convoluted, but in Laos this is pretty much as good as it gets. The buses are awful and very few people speak enough English to give any level of confidence in what you’re doing.
So, back to the bus. Imagine our surprise when at 3am, the bus pulls over at an underpass and a random Laotian guy is calmly ushering us off here. I was watching our progress on a map on my phone, so I knew we were only about 4km north of our final destination – albeit on an island (the wrong island). So we assumed the bus was early and we would just hang around until dawn and then figure out how to get a boat. This was not to be, as we appeared to be under an underpass in the middle of nowhere. Instead, the Laotian guy said we should follow him, as he had somewhere for us to sleep. Now this may sound like the plot to some murder movie, but the guy seemed really nice and we were really tired, having not slept much on the bus and it being 3am and all. So we walked with the guy about 100m to a house, and in yard there was a covered bamboo structure that is basically what we’ve seen people use as beds around here. The Laotian went into his house and brought out blankets and pillows, and said in the morning he would help us get a boat. So we thanked him and quickly fell asleep.
Once the sun was up, people who we assumed were family members of the guy on the bus started leaving the house and going about their business. We weren’t really sure what was happening, so we basically waited for our friend to return to us and make good on his promise to help find a boat to Don Khon, our destination. He eventually came out of the house and and invited us to join his family for breakfast.
Breakfast consisted of river fish that were cooked whole, some extremely spicy vegetables, and sticky rice. I ate lots of rice, and made a show at one of the fish just to be polite. Emily said the fish wasn’t too bad. After breakfast, our friend asked us for money for the boat and then left, returning a short while later with a ticket for us. He then took off and we never saw him again. About 45 minutes later, while we were watching the road waiting for a bus to come take us to the boat, a different Laotian man climbed up the river bank and looked at us and just said “boat?”. Apparently the boat had come right to us, and so we climbed down the bank and off we went. And sure enough, the boat took us to our destination at Don Khon. So all in all we had a very memorable experience just getting here. We had wondered what we would have done if the guy had not told us to get off the bus with him. But a few days later we overhead some German travelers mention they took the same overnight bus as us (on a different night), and it dropped them at a bus station. Then they had to hang around until dawn when they found a place to get on a boat. So our best guess is that the Laotian guy on the bus knew where we were trying to go, and was just being super nice by saving us from waiting around at a bus station in the middle of the night. We wish we could have thanked him and his family even more for their hospitality.
So after that very long story, now we get to Don Khon. Don Khon is known as the quieter of the two main tourist islands (the other being Don Det – the party island), with not a whole lot to do. But that’s what we wanted – somewhere to relax, and hopefully somewhere to swim. We had booked our accommodation in advance based on a blog we read online, and it did not disappoint.
The main attractions in the 4000 Islands area are the waterfalls on the Mekong River. As anyone reading our blog would know, we have seen tons of waterfall in South East Asia so far. In fact, if you aren’t interested in temples and waterfalls then South East Asia is definitely not for you. They are basically the top 2 things to do in every place you go. But the waterfalls at the 4000 Islands are different. They are absolutely enormous, to a scale like very few others. There are actually a series of falls spread out over the 10km width of the river. To try and give you an idea of the scale of these falls, Wikipedia says the flow in the river (and over the various falls) around is between 4 and 5 times as much as Niagara Falls. They are the largest waterfalls in Asia, and by volume between the second and fifth largest in the world (depending on the source).
Warning: plenty of waterfall pictures below. Its hard to decide which ones to include!
One of the reasons we wanted to come to 4000 Islands was because of a BBC documentary that we watched a few years back. The host traveled the length of Mekong River over 4 episodes. She came to the 4000 Islands area and we remember this one particular scene where after visiting one of the big waterfalls, she found a beach with a small bar and a bunch of travelers drinking beers. We remember watching this and thinking how exotic it sounded, and saying that we want to go there some day. Well we are happy to say we found the beach.
Another one the major attractions in the area is going to see the Irrawaday dolphins. These are ocean dolphins that happen to also live in a few freshwater locations in Asia, including this stretch of the Mekong River. You can hire a boat to go looking for them, but we decided to do it on kayak.
And for our nephew Jacob, here is a picture of a Mekong River catfish that has just been caught. This is a little one, maybe 16″ long. But our guide said the big ones are out there, just like they show on River Monsters. Our kayak guide bought it from some fishermen we passed and brought it home for his family for dinner. It costs him 30,000 kip, about $4.80.
The 4000 Islands area is very much our favorite place we have been in Laos, and definitely in the top places we have been on our trip so far. It would be easy to stay here for a very long time. But we must move on, as we need to make it to Siem Reap by April 7th to catch a flight. So we are now headed to Cambodia.
- Doug & Emily / March 17, 2017 (Happy St. Patrick’s Day!) / Don Khon, Laos at DokChampa Guesthouse @ 3:45pm