A guide to Don Det & the 4000 Islands, Laos - everything to see, know and do
There's no place quite like the palm fringed backpacker's paradise of Don Det and the 4000 Islands, Laos. This guide runs through the best things to see, know and do, as well as where to stay on Don Det.
36 hours into our 48-hour bus ride from Luang Prabang to Pakse, we wondered whether our trip to Don Det and the 4000 islands was worth it.
For those of you who haven't had the joy of travelling on night buses in Laos, they're not overly pleasant, and the likelihood of getting a wink of sleep is basically zero. Still, the thought of lazing for a week on the infamous Si Phan Don (4000 Islands in Laotian) made the weariness easier to withstand.
Within an hour of arriving on Don Det, we knew we'd made the right choice.
A set of Islands where time stands still, and where every inch is picture-postcard perfect, Don Det is a backpacking utopia. Located in the south of Laos, they're part of the strange yet beautiful 4000 Islands archipelago on the Mekong Delta.
Don Det used to be a pretty well-kept secret amongst more intrepid travellers as the place to get away from it all. Like most of South East Asia, times have changed although an enjoyable backpacker vibe still exists, and this little island paradise has thankfully still retained two of its most important features; its chill factor and beauty.
Don Det itself is a lovely mix of riverside bungalows and restaurants overlooking the Mekong, and quaint rural homes where locals go about their day. It's home to some of the best sunsets in south-east Asia, cheap larb gai and Beerlao, and a lot of hammock lazing.
But if you're like us, you'll get a little restless after an hour or two of lazing about. Fortunately, there's a heap of things to do on Don Det, and here are our top recommendations.
been there, don det: A guide to DON DET, LAOS
THE BEST THINGS TO DO ON DON DET, LAOS
#1 KAYAKING THE MEKONG
If there's one thing you should do on Don Det, it's day-long kayaking expedition along the Mekong to see the rare and critically endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins.
The tour commences just outside of Don Det's main hub, before heading south towards the Laos/Cambodia border. Fortunately, the guides lead at a fairly leisurely pace, which we thoroughly enjoyed after losing any our heavy bout of food poisoning just days before in Luang Prabang.
After a few hours of paddling past some stunning countryside, the tour stops for lunch on one of the many banks. A feast of fried rice and fruit is served, which is certainly needed after the morning's paddle. It's also a great place to relax and get to know your tour buddies.
The kayak commences after lunch, heading towards the impressive Khone PhaPheng, the largest waterfalls in south-east Asia by volume. Don't stress, you won't actually kayak down these falls (that would be suicide), but it's a short walk to the actual falls. The heaving mountains of water are a sight, and definitely worth a few photos. It's a further paddle down the Mekong until you reach the docking point for the longtail boat ride to go Irrawaddy dolphin spotting.
It's worth noting that the freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphin is critically endangered (read more about their plight here), with less that 80 now in existence in the Mekong River, the chances of spotting them are incredibly rare. Fortunately for us, after a good few hours of traversing the river, we finally saw two pods, which was the perfect end to a wonderful day kayaking on the Mekong River.
COST | 170,000 KIP - 220,000 KIP depending on agent
DEPARTS | From Don Det village
BRING | Sunscreen, hat, water (say not to plastic - use this water bottle instead), camera (GoPro is best), dry bag, flip flops
#2 CYCLE AROUND DON DET ISLAND & BEYOND
A great way to see the Island of Don Det is to rent a bicycle and explore. Heading east from the village, a dirt path circles the whole island, leaving the unpleasant Don Det village behind and taking you into the scenic palm lined fringes and photogenic rice fields of the island's interior.
The midway point of the path is the historic French bridge to Don Khon island. Although it costs 35,000 KIP to cross, it's well worthwhile to get views of the bungalow-lined fringes of Don Det, and also to explore the much less developed Don Kong, Li Phi Waterfall and beaches.
Unfortunately, the island has lost most of its traditional culture, save for rice farming and traditional farm homes, and having a bicycle allows you to follow random paths and get off the beaten track. If you're slightly more intrepid (and not scared of snakes), ride to the untouched edges of the island and take in the Mekong in all her glory.
While the bikes aren't great, they should suffice for a day. We definitely recommend heading off early, or later in the afternoon as the midday heat can get overwhelming, and try to avoid riding at night as the Island is not well lit at all. Also, bring your own water bottle - there are not too many stores to buy from, and that way you'll save plastic.
COST | 100,000 KIP
WHERE | You can hire a bike from just about anywhere in town, as well as your accommodation
BRING | Sunscreen, hat, water (say not to plastic - use this water bottle instead), camera (GoPro is best), and wear proper shoes
#3 TUBING AT DON DET
For those who visited Laos during the hedonistic days of Vang Vieng, tubing in Don Det is a far more relaxed affair. Wile the day away in the glorious Laotian sun while enjoying the beautiful surrounds as you drift slowly towards the bridge between Don Det and Don Khon.
Tubes can be hired for around 10,000 KIP in town, and most people start from the main beach in Don Det, but you must get out of the water at the bridge as the current increases rapidly from this point and ultimately funnels into Li Phi Falls, a place you do NOT want to get pulled in to.
Although loading up on a few alcoholic beverages sounds like a good idea, be warned that most accidents happen to those who have drunk too much. So take it easy, and have a few relaxed drinks before heading back to town for sunset beers.
If you're not keen to carry your tube 3km back to town, you can arrange a pickup from one of the providers in town.
COST | 10,000 KIP
WHERE | You can hire a tube from many of the shops located in town
BRING | Sunscreen, hat, water/alcohol (say not to plastic - use this water bottle instead - don't litter), camera (GoPro is best)
BE AWARE | Make sure you're out of the Mekong at the Don Det - Don Khon bridge!
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#4 VISIT THE LI PHI AND KHONE PHAPHENG WATERFALLS
The 4000 Islands archipelago is home to a number of waterfalls, the two main being Li Phi and Khone Phapheng, and if you haven't visited either on a kayak tour, we definitely recommend trying to visit at least one.
Khone Phapheng, located on Don Khon, is the largest waterfall by volume in south-east Asia and worth the effort to get to from Don Det. Victoria Falls they are not, but you'll still be blown away by the sheer volume of water that flows through this rocky chasm. Just above the falls is a viewpoint, where you can get a great view of the falls.
Less impressive but still incredible are the Li Phi falls (sometimes known as Somphamit falls), also on Don Khon. You can check out various areas of the falls by walking along the bamboo bridges which connect the various small islands/boulders - each with a different perspective of the falls.
There's also a beach in which to hang out or cool down, depending on your vibe, and if you want to make a day of it, is the perfect place to relax, play some volleyball, and drink a beer or two.
The best way to get there from Don Det is to hire a bike (10,000 KIP) and cross the old French bridge.
COST | 35,000 KIP per trip
WHERE | Don Khon Island
BRING | Sunscreen, hat, money, water (say not to plastic - use this water bottle instead - don't litter), camera
#5 ENJOY A DON DET SUNSET & SUNDOWNER
Take it from us, the sunsets on Don Det ridiculously on point. We’re talking a glorious, streak the whole sky with colour kinda deal, every day. Therefore, we recommend grabbing a Beerlao or three and setting yourself up on one of the many 'sunset' riverside bars.
COST | 8,000 - 10,000 KIP per Beerlao
WHERE | Any bar/restaurant on the sunset side, although Little Eden is a very good spot to watch the sunset from
#6 IRRAWADDY DOLPHIN SPOTTING
The 4000 Islands is the last remaining location of freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins anywhere in the world, which is an incredibly sad fact. Worse still is the continued decline of the species due to a number of issues which include damming of the Mekong, overfishing, gill nets and pollution.
If you're keen to see the last remaining pods in the wild, an Irrawaddy dolphin spotting tour is well worthwhile. While there are no guarantees you'll spot a dolphin, but we managed to see a couple before our tour concluded, making us exceptionally excited.
COST | 150,000 KIP per person for a half-day trip including kayaking, 70,000 KIP per hour for a 'private' boat
WHERE | Tours depart from Don Det, or Don Khon island
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK ON DON DET
If you're a foodie, don't expect anything too great on Don Det - it's certainly not a culinary destination. That being said, we never ate a terrible meal and can definitely vouch for the Larb Gai at various restaurants.
We found most of the guesthouses on the sunrise and sunset side produced decent meals for a decent price (expect to pay around 15,000 - 30,000 KIP). Our favourite was Mama Leauh, which serves a curious mix of Laos and German cuisine for cheap prices.
If you are up for something slightly upmarket, Little Eden is probably the best restaurant on the on Don Det but is a little more expensive than other restaurants.
For vegetarians, there's a decent selection on the island, with most restaurants catering for herbivores. Jasmin Indian Restaurant is probably the best, serving very good vegetarian Indian food (Indian is always a winner), however, their service is pretty awful.
Throughout the island, you can buy tropical fruits that include pineapple, mango, watermelons, bananas etc. which are super tasty (that sweet, sweet south-east Asian fruit!) and a decent alternative to Pringles (our staple).
If you're up for a party, you're probably in the wrong place - Vang Vieng this isn't. Still, Adam's Bar is a good place to chill and have a drink with fellow backpackers.
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WHERE TO STAY IN DON DET - 4000 ISLANDS, LAOS
We arrived on Don Det with nowhere booked (a common thing with us) but managed to secure a place to stay on the sunset side very easily. While we do recommend booking, there are so many accommodation options it really isn't necessary.
Accommodation options on Don Det focus on two sides on the island - sunrise and sunset; we stayed on the sunset side and enjoyed the more rural feel. Sunrise is the eastern side of the island close to the main part of town, and the ferry dock. The majority of accommodation options include bungalows, however, if you're after something more upscale, the sunset side has a mixture of guesthouses and bungalows to choose from.
If you're not a fan of the heat, you might want to stay in a guesthouse with A/C as the majority of the bungalows have a fan (or a breeze).
It IS possible to negotiate a room rate if you're a walk up; whether or not you want to negotiate down an already cheap room is up to you!
DON DET GUESTHOUSES
Little Eden is the closest thing to luxury on the island, and if you're looking for something slightly more upmarket, this is your place.
Prices range from $20 - $50 per night, depending on your room. It's also one of the only properties on the island with a pool, which could sway you...
Book Little Eden here or search other Don Det accommodation on Booking.com
DON DET HOSTELS/BUNGALOWS
By far the most popular (and cheapest) choice is to stay in one of the many (read hundreds) of bungalows on the banks of the Mekong.
Built for backpackers, these bungalows are generally very minimal, most with shared bathrooms. Most do have a hammock on the balcony and are the perfect place to relax and read.
Although we wouldn't recommend where we stayed (Green Guesthouse - a little too sterile for our liking), we'd definitely recommend The Last Resort, which is about 1.5kms out of town and has a distinct hippie vibe. We checked it out a few times as we rode past, and were jealous of what seemed like the most relaxed accommodation on the island.
Book The Last Resort here, or search other Don Det accommodation on Booking.com
HOW TO GET TO DON DET - 4000 ISLANDS, LAOS
Don Det is really hard to get to - it's the definition of 'off the beaten track'. And for us coming from Luang Prabang, it was even worse.
If you're travelling around south-east Asia, plan to do the trip on your way to Cambodia. Otherwise, head south from Vientiane to Pakse, then onwards to Don Det and the 4000 Islands.
HOW TO GET FROM VIENTIANE TO PAKSE
We caught the VIP overnight sleeper bus from Vientiane to Pakse (170,000 KIP pp) which left from Vientiane's Southern Bus Terminal at 8:30 pm. You can grab a tuk-tuk from anywhere in town to take you to the station.
Tickets can be purchased from any travel agents in town, or with your accommodation provider (in our case, hostel). Ask at the time of booking whether a ticket can be purchased directly to the 4000 Islands as this will cut out any hassles in Pakse.
VIP bus is a loose term - the bus was barely roadworthy but certainly in better condition than a lot we saw at the bus station. On the bus, you'll have your own bed with blanket and pillow, however, you should do everything you can to avoid the rear of the bus, as you'll feel every. singe. bump., and where you may have to share with up to three other people (fortunately for us, we were sharing with a lovely Dutch couple and made the journey enjoyable).
Grab snacks and water before the bus leaves (these can be purchased at the bus station if you don't have the opportunity to organise prior, however, as always, we recommend you avoid plastic (bottles, wrappers) as much as possible.
The bus from Vientiane to Pakse takes around 10 hours, stopping at various towns throughout the evening before arriving around 7 - 8 am.
Flights from Vientiane to Pakse with Lao airlines exist and operate daily. Check times online as they do differ each day, however, there are generally morning and afternoon flights.
HOW TO GET FROM PAKSE TO DON DET
The bus from Vientiane to Pakse will arrive at the Southern Bus Station (Chitpasong bus station - this may vary), and from there you'll need to arrange a transfer to Nakasang, a market town that's the gateway to Don Det and the 4000 Islands.
The transfers usually depart around 8 am and can be arranged through any of the travel agents, guesthouses or hotels in Pakse - the cost is typically 50,000 - 80,000 KIP.
Once you arrive into Nakasang it's a short walk to the long boat pier which takes you across the Mekong to Don Det and the 4000 Islands. Purchase your ticket at the pier (15,000 KIP). When boarding, just be careful of your valuables as it can be quite unstable.
We definitely recommend travelling to Don Det via a transfer as the vehicle is more comfortable and the travel time quicker (2.5 hours).
If you're looking for a cheaper alternative, local buses depart from Pakse to Kakasang every hour from 7am - 3pm, and the price is 40,000 KIP. Be aware though - these are local buses so aren't as comfortable, and take around 3.5 hours.
OTHER IMPORTANT INFO FOR DON DET & THE 4000 ISLANDS
Don Det has a reputation on the banana pancake trail as a place to get 'happy'. Indeed, you can get 'happy' just about anywhere on the island - all you need to do is ask and your pizza, milkshake, even your salad can become 'happy'. We're not into that type of thing so can't vouch for any of the product, but pretty much everyone around us was, and they seemed to enjoy themselves with no ill effects (apart from passing out when the most ridiculously beautiful sunset was happening!).
A word of warning though - drugs ARE illegal in Laos, so we definitely wouldn't recommend it. If you do want to have a good time, be careful, always get high with a group, and ask fellow travellers more information about the drugs are on the Island (cost, strength, where to buy).
We found Laos to be quite expensive, especially on Don Det (Island prices). If you're on a strict budget, you'll need to stay in the cheapest accommodation and eat friend rice everyday if you want to enjoy a lot of the activities.
At the time of writing, there are no ATM's on Don Det or any of the 4000 islands. Therefore, load up on KIP before you arrive on the Islands.
Nakasang has three banks, however, we had a number of issues with the ATM's there (every single traveller needs to get money out there) and would recommend getting currency in Vientiane or Pakse.
The current exchange rate (29 May, 2018) is 1 GBP = 11,100 KIP.
Being Australian, we should be used to snakes, but we're not. We despise them!
We saw a number of snakes in the water and on land around the island, so be vigilant when walking/riding around the islands.
Don Det really is a cool place to visit and we hope this guide helps you have an great visit.
If you have any comments or questions on Don Det and the 4000 Islands, Laos, let us know in the comments!