After what seemed like weeks, we were finally in Laos. Luckily, the closest place to the border is also the most relaxing – the 4000 Islands.
We were really looking forward to the 4000 Islands (In Lao – Si Phan Don) Lots of small islands situated in the Mekong river, where life moved incredibly slowly. It looked like the sort of place where you could while away a few days in a hammock, reading and being incredibly chilled.
It was all these things but it also wasn’t quite what we expected.
The first thing we noticed was that the place was deserted. We’ve mostly stopped being surprised by this, though it still amazes me how much people follow the seasons.
The second thing we noticed was that everyone hated us. Presumably not just us personally, but tourists. I could half understand this. In high season the once traditional island is probably full of drunk and stoned backpackers so I can see how they could be resented. Without a doubt. However as there was absolutely no-one there, you would think making the few visitors in your restaurant or shop feel welcome would be a given. But no.
Orders would be taken with a sigh, plates would be almost thrown at you and you weren’t ever thanked for your business. In shops, there was almost always a sigh as the owner had to stop watching TV for 30 seconds to sell you something and presumably make a profit. It was hardly the friendliness we had heard Laos was renowned for. (Spoiler – the rest of Laos was not like this)
There wasn’t much we could do about any of this so we enjoyed the island as much as we could. There are few real roads on Don Dhet as it is so small, so we hired bicycles to get around. Now it is small but not tiny – cycling in the intense humidity got tiring very quickly. We abandoned our plan to cycle right around the island and cut across the middle along some paths. Big mistake.
It had obviously rained a lot more than we had thought and the mud was ridiculous. The journey was comical, we’d try to ride the bikes through it, get stuck, put a foot down and then lose a flip flop to the mud. Repeat about 500 times and we finally made it to the other side.
The next day we rode again but stuck to the perimeter path, and headed for the bridge across to another island – Don Khon. The bridge was originally a railway bridge, as believe it or not, the 4000 Islands were the home of Lao’s first railway! hence why there was this rusty steam engine which I very much enjoyed looking at.
We pushed on to the Li Phi waterfalls. We had worn our swimming clothes so we could take a dip but as soon as we got there it was obvious that we hadn’t researched this waterfall.
As it also started chucking it down we headed for ‘the beach’ where there was a cool (if empty) bar with private bungalows, where we spent the afternoon sinking a few beers.
Aside from this we did very little except relaxing drinking fruit shakes and beers, with the occasional walk through rice paddies, which is what we wanted after all!
Tips For Don Dhet
Tubing is apparently possible, and is something we were hoping to do, but it soon became clear this must be a dry season activity only. The Mekong was dangerously fast flowing and we didn’t see one person attempt tubing.
For some good food and friendly service (!) head to Street View restaurant, run by an awesome Aussie guy who has been in Laos a long time. He does a nightly BBQ which is well priced and delicious.
The bulk of the shops and restaurants are around the boat landing area. There is some accommodation here but the cheaper huts are a good walk away – perhaps 10-15 minutes walking down small paths with your backpack – bear this in mind. We originally planned to stay in Don Khon but abandoned this when we realised how long it would take to walk there.
There are NO ATM’s on the island. At all. A few places will do cash advances on your card for around 6%, only good for a last resort. We managed to get our bus to stop at an ATM just before the boat over to Don Dhet where everyone withdrew money. Get as much as you can! There are money exchangers who give ok rates on US$ (7800 kip to a $).
Where We Stayed
We stayed at Jhony’s Bungalows. These were both a good and bad choice. Good in that they were right next to the boat landing and that they were concrete huts, with little chance of bugs getting in. Bad in that they were not next to the river and so our dreams of chilling in a hammock were thwarted. Though we did get some unusual visitors..
Jhony’s had their own restaurant which was by the river so it wasn’t all bad. Price was 150,000 kip per night (about £11). This was expensive for Don Dhet but ok for our budget.