The Island Life in a Landlocked Nation – Don Khon and the 4000 Islands, Laos

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.

We woke up to this view over the river.
We slept in the little hut on the left, on the bank of the river.

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.

We ate breakfast in front of this house with the family who lives here. I wish we knew their names, but they didn’t speak much English and we speak even less Laotian.

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.

Don Khon waterfront. Our guesthouse is the one with the 3 pitched roofs, 2 buildings left of the radio tower.
View from our balcony, looking towards Cambodia in the distance (the hills are in Cambodia). Not bad for $19 a night. The balcony comes complete with hammock, day bed, and table/chair where I’m writing this right now.
The street of Don Khon. Yes, “street” singular.
We think there are less than a hundred tourists here. Its hard to know for sure, but the restaurants all seem pretty empty and we keep running into the same people again and again.  But this is certainly not a bad thing.
We rented bicycles and explored the island out of the main street, and found some amazing views.  This must be the most stereotypical “South East Asia” views I can possibly think of.  The water buffalo are really tame and you can get quite close to them.
We saw this guy reaching into a tree with a stick, that he then used to capture a little lizard (looked like a mini iguana) from up in the branches and put it into a bag. He said they are really good to eat. He must have had 10 of them in his bag.

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!

Part of Tad Somphamit Falls. Its impossible to take a photo capturing the entire waterfall. Its over 3km wide (3 times as wide as Niagara Falls), with hundreds of individual rapids and drops.


Another section of Tad Somphamit Falls.
Another different part of Tad Somphamit Falls. And this is during the dry season.  In the wet season this must look really wild.
A nice place to go at sunset.
This is Khone Phapeng Falls.  We went here on a day trip, and our guides took us as close as humanly possible.  The boat that took us here went to within 10m of the crest of the falls, and then we walked through the jungle and over various bamboo planks to get here.  It was sketchy to say the least, but we managed not to break any bones and the view was incredible.
Remember those sketchy planks?  This wasn’t even the worst of them.
You can’t get much closer. I gave this water fall an enthusiastic “2 thumbs up”.
Suspension bridge over a small canyon downstream of one of the smaller falls.  The bridge was alarmingly dicey.  There was no fee to cross it, but there was a donation box that is used for the upkeep of the bridge.  Needless to say, we made a donation.

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.

A good place for a swim – but the current is strong, so we didn’t stray too far out.


We swam out to this island. Its surprisingly shallow here – I can touch the bottom most of the way.

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.

Kayaking through some of the 4000 Islands.


This a picture of a bird for Kerry. We saw several birds while kayaking and elsewhere on in the islands.
Apparently there are only 3 dolphins left in this part of the river.  They have a number of challenges for survival, but the most alarming is the new trend in Cambodia to use explosives to fish. No joke. Our guide said you can buy explosives in the market, and people throw them in the water and then collect the dead fish. It’s become so popular that nets are no longer being sold in the Cambodian markets, just dynamite. We saw plenty of dead fish floating in the river, apparently from this ridiculous method of fishing.  As you can imagine, the dolphins don’t do well with explosions (they’re pacifists).  We are glad we saw them while we could, but we wish everyone in the future would have the chance to see them too.  With only 3 left here, dolphin watchers will soon have to look elsewhere in Asia.
When we finished one stretch of kayaking we ended up in a little town.  While waiting for a van to take us away, this cow snuck into a restaurant/store and tried to make off with some fruit. This is an action shot of the store owner using her child to shoo the cow away.

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.

River monster! Well, River monster-to-be.

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






6 thoughts on “The Island Life in a Landlocked Nation – Don Khon and the 4000 Islands, Laos

  1. Hi Doug and Emily how are you it was cool you saw a Mekong cat fish it looks like you have had a fun time so far have a great time for the rest of your trip. Chat with you soon

    From Jacob Pease


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