Coming from the Philippines, I had very little interest in travelling around Southeast Asia. I always thought most places would be similar to the Philippines and I would rather see more of my own country first. That was until I met Jon. He told me fascinating stories about his trips in Southeast Asia and I just couldn’t help but be curious about what was really out there.
Laos, a country I had heard little about, is one of Jon’s favourite countries. He always raved about Don Det, and the 4000 Islands in general. These tiny islands in the Mekong River have become popular with backpackers wanting to relax in a stunning location. Last year we visited together and I fell in love with this beautiful region. I compiled a list of some of the awesome things to do in the 4000 Islands, including watching sunsets, cycling through the countryside and spotting rare river dolphins – I hope it will inspire you to visit this special place.
Awesome Things in the 4000 Islands, Laos
Ride a Bike Across Don Det and Don Khon
Don Det and Don Khon are connected by an old French bridge, meaning you can ride a bicycle across two whole islands. It’s a really fun place to cycle and the scenery is great. You’ll pass by beautiful river views, the dusty island interiors and lots of small cafes and restaurants (it gets hot, so you’ll want to stop at one and rest for a while!). We even ended up on another small island by accident! You can reach most of the sights below on a bicycle; it’s the best way to get around Don Det and Don Khon.
See Traces of French Colonial Architecture
In order to bypass the treacherous rapids, the French built a bridge connecting Don Det and Don Khon. The bridge remains today; as do several old buildings on Don Khon (they are located in the village near the bridge). We love to see anything historical so it was nice to explore this area’s colonial past.
Visit the Li Phi Falls
This waterfall / group of rapids is located on Don Khon and is easily reached by bicycle. It’s very rocky and dry and looks like a different world compared with the lush greenery that you’ll see at most other river sections. It’s a beautiful place and is definitely worth dragging yourself away from your relaxing bungalow for.
See Irrawaddy Dolphins
One of the most popular things to do in the 4000 Islands is the boat tour to see endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. You can hire a private boat / driver (around 100,000 Kip) and head out on the water. It’s a really cool experience and we ended up seeing several dolphins. We couldn’t get a good photo though because the boat driver didn’t want to get too close and scare the dolphins away. The scenery is also really nice in this area – the tours are amazing value for money! The tours leave from Don Khon (the opposite end to the French Bridge).
Another free thing to do in the 4000 Islands, watching sunsets, is what a lot of people visit for. The sunset side of Don Det is the perfect place to view them and it seems like everyone on the island sits outside to admire the sky. There are many open air restaurants and bars where you can watch sunsets or you can sit on the deck of your bungalow. Wherever you watch them from you’ll be impressed; I think it’s one of the best places in Southeast Asia for sunsets. If you’re up for an early start to the day, you can also watch the sunrise on the sunrise side of the island.
Stay in a Riverside Bungalow on Don Det
One of the best things to do in the 4000 Islands is also the cheapest. You can find a little bungalow on the sunset side of Don Det for around 40,000 Kip ($5 USD). They aren’t at all luxurious but the views are incredible. It’s one of the most laid-back places on Earth and you’ll spend hours relaxing in the hammocks outside your tiny riverside bungalow!
Visit Vat Phou Temple
Okay, this isn’t technically in the 4000 Islands, but it is very close. Just outside of Champasak (located between Pakse and the 4000 Islands) lies a set of ruined Khmer temples and palaces. They are very similar to the temples of Angkor in Cambodia and make for the perfect day trip from the 4000 Islands. The ruins are located in a hillside setting and you can get great views over the Mekong River from the highest temple. You can organise tours from one of the islands or you can catch a bus / boat to Champasak and cycle to the temples.
RELATED POST: A Tour of Wat Phu: Crumbling Khmer Ruins in Laos
Be Amazed by the Khone Pha Pheng Waterfall
The Khone Pha Pheng Waterfall is the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia (by volume) and it is a must-see sight in the 4000 Islands. I’ve never seen a waterfall like it! The waterfall is located a short distance from the car park and there are several viewpoints to visit. Most people visit on a tour, as it’s located on the mainland meaning you have to get a boat and a bus.
Relax in Restaurants
One of the best things to do in the 4000 Islands is to do nothing. It’s one of the most relaxing places on earth and you’ll want to take advantage of the lazy atmosphere. The restaurants lining the sunset side of Don Det make for great places to sit around, read, listen to music and meet other travellers. The food and drink is also pretty good (and cheap) – try the coconut shakes and pineapple pancakes!
Go on a Mekong River Cruise
The 4000 Islands is known as a backpacker’s paradise, but a more upmarket way to see the region is on a Mekong River cruise. We went on a three day cruise and it was a really nice way of seeing the area. The cruises leave from Pakse and travel all the way to Don Khon, stopping off at villages and Khmer ruins along the way. I wrote a post about our experience, check it out!
Where to Stay
Most people stay on either Don Det or Don Khon, as these islands are well geared for tourists and are home to most of the sights. You can also stay on the larger Don Kon, but Don Det and Don Khon seem like the better options. We stayed on the sunset side of Don Det and loved it. The bungalows are cheap, but there are also some more upmarket options if you don’t want to rough it. Accommodation on Don Khon seems to be geared to the older crowd and is a bit fancier.
How to Get to Don Det
Most people travel to Don Det from Pakse or Siem Reap, Cambodia (where Angkor Wat is located). The best way to get there from Pakse is to visit a travel agent and book a boat / bus ticket. You could probably do it cheaper independently but it’d only save you a dollar or two and it’s a lot easier to have it all organised. I’ve heard bad things about the bus / boat from Siem Reap but Jon did it a few years ago and said it was fine. I guess it’s the luck of the draw with this kind of thing though – some experiences will be good and some will be terrible!
Did you enjoy our post about the best things to do in the 4000 Islands? Did it inspire you to visit this unique region of Laos? Let us know!