Si Phan Don, meaning “Four Thousand Islands” certainly lives up to its name. On this vast river archipelago, time moves slowly and great views can be had from pretty much any location. This is the widest point of the roughly 4000 kilometre long Mekong River, and the powerful currents and aquatic roar hammer this point home.
Sunset in Si Phan Don is a gorgeous sight.
Out of the huge number of islands, there are three that stand out as travel destinations. The biggest island in the archipelago, Don Khong, is incredibly lethargic and least touristic with nearby Don Khon and Don Det offering more in terms of sights and activities. Said activities include cycling, tubing, kayaking, waterfalls and dolphin-watching, but it’s also a spectacular place to rest up while relaxing in a hammock.
See and Do
While there are two temples situated on either side of the sizeable island, Wat Jom Thong
and Wat Phu Khao Kaew
, on the eastern and western shore respectively, they’re pretty unexciting compared to most Laotian wats. However, the view from the Mekong side
of Wat Phu Khao Kaew is particularly spectacular, even here in Si Phan Don, where everywhere you turn you’re greeted with another panoramic scene.
Tham Piu Khiaw is an annual pilgrimage site for the faithful.
The main thing to do in Don Khong is relax and let yourself be taken over by the lethargic vibes of the island. Rent a bike and ride around the 18 kilometre diameter of the island, and perhaps stop by the palm sugar farm at Ban Hin Siew Tai
, or trek two kilometres into the forest to visit Tham Phu Khiaw
, a forest-cave that serves as the object of an annual pilgrimage.
While Don Khong is a lovely place to unplug and relax for a while, it’s over on Don Det and Don Khon
that the action happens. Three magnificent waterfalls can be found here. The first, Khon Pa Soi Falls
, which due to its relative isolation is mercifully free of tourist crowds, requires you to cross a rather long wooden suspension bridge, which can alternate between thrilling and terrifying, depending on your relationship with heights.
Khon Phapheng Falls, the largest in Southeast Asia in terms of volume.
Next is Tat Somphamit
. More intense than Khon Pa Soi, this turbulent waterfall is said to trap bad spirits as they make their way down the Mekong. The local fishermen here put on quite a show as they endeavour to retrieve their cages by hopping from rock to rock amidst the violent flow of the water. Furthermore, if you happen to be here during dry season, there is Li Phi beach underneath the falls, avoided by locals for fear of evil spirits.
Last but not least is Khon Phapheng falls
, which has the honour of being the largest and by far most impressive waterfall not just on the Mekong, but in all of South East Asia. Millions and millions of litres makes its way down the 21 metre fall every second, and the roar is unsurprisingly deafening.
There is also plenty to do out on the water of the Mekong. An ever shrinking population of Irrawaddy dolphins
make their home among the islands, and if you head out in one of the boats leaving from the French Pier, you are almost guaranteed to get a glimpse of them.
Set out on the Mekong to see the rare Irrawaddy Dolphin.
Another fun activity on the river is kayaking
, though due to terribly strong currents it’s best done with a guide. While you might get lucky and spot some dolphins while kayaking, don’t bet on it, as sightings doing this are far rarer than the ones from the dedicated dolphin-watching boats.
Culture & Arts
The best way to get a full view of the culture and daily life on the islands is by renting a bike on Don Khong
and circling all the way around its shores. This lets you take in the locals doing their daily activities at a relaxed pace.
Local women giving alms.
If you want to ensure that your cultural experience leaves a positive footprint with the local community, head over to Sabaidee Don Khong
, where you can sign up for a week or more of teaching English to local children, in exchange for accommodation.
Food and Drink
Situated in the midst of the Mekong, Si Phan Don is a seafood lovers’ paradise. Classic Mekong staples like fried fish and fish lahp can be had in abundance here, as you’d expect.
Traditional Lao barbeque.
You can also head out on a BBQ cruise
from Don Det, letting you take in the sights of the mighty river while enjoying traditional Laotian barbeque on-board.
Festivals and Events
Don Khong is without a doubt the best place to experience the famous boat-racing festival Bun Suang Heua
. Held in early December or late November, the festival consists of four days of carnival and boat races, with the latter being far closer to shore than in for example Luang Prabang or Vientiane.
Boat-racing during Bun Suang Heua.