Si Phan Don is a collection of islands in the Mekong in southern Laos right at the Cambodian border. It translates to 4,000 islands but only a few of those are habitable. We visited Don Khong, Don Det and Don Khon, and all three gave off a very chill island vibe. Don Det is the backpacker hub, where lots of travellers go to recharge their batteries. Most hang out in hammocks, and dabble in the many “happy” menu items the police-less island has to offer. Don Khon is just south of Don Det and is less travelled, but offers some great waterfalls to visit. Don Khong is farther up river and when we visited in the low season it was pretty much empty, but it boasts lots of restaurants that are built out over the Mekong which are fun to eat at. All the islands are great places to relax and explore.
How to Get There
We took a local bus from Pakse to Don Khong which was a nightmare. We were basically stuffed into the back of a pickup truck for 2 hours with twenty other people, most of whom were sleeping on each other and us. At our only stop we couldn’t even leave the truck as it was surrounded by local ladies trying to sell us chickens on a stick by shoving them in our face. But that was all part of the experience of travelling on local transit. The nightmare part was when they told us they were doing to Don Khong and that it cost 20,000 kip each, and instead they dropped us 5 km from Don Khong and charged us double that. For 40,000 kip we could’ve taken a regular tourist bus, which was faster and way more comfortable. Luckily after walking about a kilometer a very nice man who had actually lived in Toronto (where we’re from) gave us a lift the rest of the way.
As you can probably guess we recommend you take a different route. There are coach buses that travel from Pakse to Si Phan Don. Our overnight bus from Vientiane actually continued on to Don Det after it dropped us in Pakse (our friends that we met on that bus took that route).
On the way back to Pakse we bought a bus/boat ticket for 70,000 kip each (more expensive to get off the islands than to get on them!). The whole trip took just over 4 hours. When you’re switching between the boat and bus you have to walk up the road to the bus station on the right, though no one tells you this.
Don Khong is the north most island, and we travelled from there to Don Det by boat for 50,000 kip each, it took about 1.5 hours. Don Det is just north of Don Khon, and the two islands are joined by a bridge you can walk across.
Where to Stay
- Pon’s Riverside Guesthouse – Don Khong was pretty much abandoned when we were there in the low season. Muang Khong is where the action is, which is a small town along the west coast of the island north of the main bridge. We literally walked into one hostel and found it completely unlocked but no one was there, it was spooky. Pon’s Riverside Guesthouse was where we found the best rate at 60,000 kip. The rooms were nice with an en suite and comfy beds.
- Mr. B’s Bungalows – These were basically wooden boxes with beds and mosquito nets, but they were dirt cheap at 40,000 kip. They had balconies with hammocks that overlooked the Mekong and offered great sunset views. Bathrooms and showers were in a separate wooden box but everything was close together. Owners don’t speak much english so if anything goes wrong with your room it takes a little while to explain, but it eventually gets figured out. You can book Mr. B’s Bungalows online here.
What to Do
- Li Phi Falls – This is a set of waterfalls on Don Khon with a very cool park and resort style restaurant beside it. We rented some bikes and wandered down here and were surprised by how great it was. Follow the signs to Oasis Beach/Restaurant and you’ll end up at an awesome spot! Most of the restaurants on the islands are fairly haphazardly made, but we walked into this and we felt like we were at a Caribbean resort. There’s individual bungalows with pillows and hammocks to chill out in, wifi, volleyball, billiards and lounge chairs in the sand overlooking the mekong. You’re able to swim in a calmer section by the falls as well which is fun. The waterfall itself is pretty spectacular too. If you’re just visiting from Don Det it costs 35,000 kip to get across the bridge, but the ticket also doubles as your entrance fee to Li Phi Falls. The bike ride from the main part of Don Det to Li Phi Falls was about 30 mins.
- Dolphin Kayak Tour – Lots of companies on Don Det offer kayak tours of the Mekong with the chance to spot the rare irrawady pink dolphins that gather in a specific spot in the river. We went with a group called Wonderful Tours for 180,000 kip and we had a pretty good time. We left in kayaks from Don Det and travelled down to a set of waterfalls and a cool suspension bridge farther south on the island. After that we headed to the area where the dolphins are spotted. We didn’t see any dolphins while we were in our kayaks but while we were eating lunch in Cambodia (yeah, we illegally smuggled onto an island in Cambodia no big deal) we spotted a bunch surfacing in the river. We headed over to the somewhat famous Khone Pha Pheng falls which we didn’t find that spectacular then headed back on a very bumpy bus. Our guide didn’t speak that much english and was pretty quiet, and lead us out into the river in the middle of a massive thunderstorm…but overall the kayaking was fun and seeing the dolphins was pretty cool. If you can find a tour that doesn’t include the Khone Pha Pheng falls it will most likely be cheaper as it won’t have to account for the 55,000 kip entrance fee to the falls which was included in our tour.
- Dolphin Spotting – If you’re not into kayaking, you can also rent a bike for 10,000 kip for the day and head down to the southern most point of Don Khon. From here you can see the basin where the dolphins play, and hopefully spot some surfacing. Worst case scenario you get a great view or the river and Cambodia right across the way. The best time to see dolphins is between 11am-1pm. It takes under an hour to bike there from the main section of Don Det.
What to Avoid
- Don Khong Low Season – Apparently we didn’t do enough research and showed up in the ghost town that was Muang Khong on Don Khong during the low season. We walked into one hostel that was completely empty but also completely unlocked. Spooky. I think we counted a total of 8 tourists in the town. Not much was open, and the only thing to do was sample the restaurants along the riverfront. We headed out to the much more populated Don Det the next moring.
- Khone Pha Pheng Falls – This waterfall is touted as the largest waterfall in southeast asia as it spans 10 kilometers across the Mekong River. That sounds cool, but they’re little more than a large set of rapids. You are also not able to see a ton of it unless you want to walk for 10 kilometers, and as far as our tour could tell us, most of it is unreachable. The steep price of 55,000 kip is also unattractive, you can easily see nicer waterfalls for free.
Where to Eat
- Adam’s Bar – Adam’s Bar is where we spent an embarrassing amount of time while visiting Don Det. Great american style food and a super chill atmosphere. Adam has a laptop packed full of movies that are playing all day, and you just get to relax on pillows and sample the “happy” menu items. Also a great place to try a pumpkin burger, which are all the rage in Si Phan Don and taste amazing. The bar closes around 11pm.
- Oasis Restaurant – A well kept restaurant on Don Khon down by Li Phi Falls. You’ll have to pay 35,000 kip to get into the park, but make a day of it and enjoy the creature comforts you don’t usually find in this area. There’s individual bungalows with pillows and hammocks to chill out in, wifi, volleyball, billiards and lounge chairs in the sand overlooking the mekong. The foods pretty good too, though a little pricey.