Travelling to Don Det in southern Laos can be a little daunting, especially if you’re heading there from Phnom Penh or Siem Reap in Cambodia and have a long bus journey and border crossing to contend with first. So, I’ll share some bad news and then some good news…
The bad news is that these bus journeys typically take longer than advertised. We’re talking at least 12 hours, but it’s difficult to predict from one day to the next. You may also have a run in with some sketchy border officials who typically charge $5 to $10 more than they should for your visa ‘admin charges’. You are likely to arrive somewhere near the port of Nakasong after dark and you will probably have to pay 50,000 kip for the boat, whether or not you were told it would be included with your bus ticket.
The good news is that you can still get a boat over to Don Det after dark and it’s definitely worth the hassle. In fact, it’s one of those laid back hippie traveller-type places that knocks you back with its natural beauty and persuades you to delay onward travel by at least a few extra days.
The catchy phrase ‘Been There Don Det’ is plastered on tank tops around the island, and below are 10 reasons you’d be silly not to join the crowd who can say the same.
1. BIKE RIDING
One of the best ways to get about on Don Det is by bicycle, which makes a refreshing change from all the scooters and motorbikes you’re encouraged to rent across Southeast Asia. It’s safer, healthier and better for the environment. Pretty much every rental shop has the same make of bike – a rickety old thing with a wicker basket on the front, no gears and no suspension. The basket is actually handy if you want to avoid a sweaty back. The lack of gears is rarely a problem either, since the island is virtually entirely flat. The suspension issue might lead to a painful backside if you don’t hop off your seat for the worst of the potholes. The most popular route is to cycle south from Don Det Village along the sunrise side of the island, across the bridge to Don Khon (where you have to pay 35,000 kip for a visitor ticket for the day), and then around the island in an anticlockwise direction, via Li Phi Falls, Hang Khon (for the dolphins) and Khone Phapheng Falls. You can easily do this in one day, stopping along the way to visit the main attractions and to have lunch.
On the map we were given when we rented bikes, it described Li Phi Falls as a ‘small waterfall’. This is doing them a significant injustice. Li Phi Falls are actually pretty spectacular, especially as they’re plugged as just ‘something else to do while you’re on Don Det’, rather than a must-see attraction in their own right. At Li Phi, there’s a path alongside the falls until you reach a really cool ‘beachside’ bar and restaurant with individual pods containing hammocks and mattresses to lie on. It makes the perfect spot for lunch, even if the meals cost a little bit more than you’re used to spending. Following the island round, you’ll reach more falls, which are accessed via rickety suspension bridges – the kind where you can see through missing planks into the raging water below. They make for an exciting crossing either on foot or on your bike!
3. IRRAWADDY DOLPHINS
This rare species of dolphin exists in only a few subpopulations around the world, outside of Bangladesh and India, and one particular place is a stretch of the Mekong just south of Don Khon. To see the dolphins, you’ll have to pay around 70,000 to 100,000 kip per boat (of up to three passengers), plus a fee of around 20,000 kip per person to briefly enter Cambodia. This feels like a scam – and they may well be overcharging – but it’s true that you’ll be setting foot on Cambodian sand. This is less of a boat tour and more of a shuttle service. The majority of your time is spent in a little shack overlooking the river, from which you will occasionally catch a glimpse of a surfacing dolphin some distance away. You shouldn’t expect close-up views, but you are quite likely to spot a few. They’re really unique in appearance – their rounded heads and short beaks leading some to comment on their likeness to male genitalia. Allow around an hour to an hour and a half for the return trip.
4. CUTE PUPPIES
Admittedly, this one isn’t guaranteed, but Don Det and its neighbouring islands are overpopulated with dogs, ranging in cuteness from fluffy and adorable to scary and possibly rabid. Thankfully, the majority are well behaved and, with such a large population comes the increased chance there will also be puppies. We found a litter of about 15 excitable bundles of fluff on the east side of Don Khon and couldn’t resist stopping for a play and a foot lick – because apparently they like that…a lot.
5. RIVERSIDE ACCOMMODATION
Thanks to the small size of each of the inhabitable 4000 Islands, most accommodation is riverside. The majority of bungalows are actually suspended above the Mekong so that you can see it flowing by through the cracks in your floorboards. Most also have hammocks on the deck, or, at the very least, cushions and mattresses to lie on. There are plenty of bars and restaurants too, most of which have comfortable areas for chilling out, watching films or episodes of Friends, working, studying or chatting lazily. There’s an 11 pm curfew, although you may find a few places like Reggae Bar to be open a little later than this if they’re busy. A sociable place to stay is Happy Bar, which, in addition to its bar/restaurant, has a range of private rooms from 30,000 kip a night. Be prepared to meet a lot of stoners who will frequently offer you spliffs.
6. SUNSETS AND SUNRISES
Another advantage to the island being small is that you can cross from east to west in minutes. If you slept in and missed the sunrise, you can pop on over to sunset side and see something equally as spectacular almost every evening.
7. WATER BUFFALO
Water buffalo are a common sight across Southeast Asia, but rarely are they as abundant as they are on Don Det and Don Khon. When cycling the narrow paths, you’ll end up playing ‘chicken’ with the beasts, and the jangle of the bells around their necks will be a sound you learn to associate with the 4000 Islands. They’re pretty docile and tend to mind their own business unless you provoke them in an attempt to get a selfie. Note that the owners have been known to request money from tourists who have taken photos of their buffalo, so ask first or be subtle!
8. RICE PADDIES
There’s not a lot to do here, unless you can find somewhere where they show you the farming methods, but the rice paddies make a picturesque foreground to photographs of the landscape on Don Det.
9. RICKETY OLD BRIDGES
When you’re cycling around all day, it helps to keep things interesting if the path’s a little uneven. Especially on the east side of Don Khon, it gets so narrow you’ll wonder if you’ve taken a wrong turning. Tree branches occasionally slap you in the face, you may have to paddle through mud or lift your bike over fences, and you will certainly have to cycle over a few rickety old bridges with missing or wobbly planks. It’s a guessing game where best to place your wheels and there’s always the small worry your tyre isn’t going to bridge the gaps!
10. LOCAL KIDS
Happy kids yelling ‘hello’ or ‘sabaidee’ are definitely not in short supply. As you pass through small villages on the islands, you’ll see children playing marbles on the footpaths, walking cattle, jumping from ledges into the river, walking home from school, and helping their family with everyday tasks. Give them a smile or a wave and they’ll almost always wave back.