Let’s face it, when you think of Laos, the last thing you would associate the small country with is islands and secluded beaches. After all, no one advertises the landlocked Laos as the next Phuket. Hidden in the deep south of Laos however, is one of the best preserved secrets of the nation, the spectacular archipelago of Si Phan Don, literally translated as four thousand islands.
Near the Cambodian border, the Mekong grows so wide that it accommodates hundreds of tiny islands in its center. While most of them are mere small boulders, some of them offer the most unexpected escape from reality. While the islands are quite developed touristically (quite like Nusa Lembongan near Bali and definitely more than Koh Rong Samloem in Cambodia), everything is very rustical and basic.
How to get there
Si Phan Don is the perfect spot for travelers looking for a break in between the long journey from Cambodia to central or northern Laos. From either direction, the gateway to the islands is Nakasang, which is located just to the left of the main highway. Nakasang itself is quite unspectacular, but it’s essential for its ATMs to get cash: There are none on the islands. Just located at the end of the main road is the harbor, where small wooden boats - that don’t really look waterproof - regularly take tourists to the islands.
For travelers, three islands are particularly interesting: Don Khong (the largest one in the archipelago), Don Det and Don Khon (yeah, we know it’s quite confusing). Don Det and Don Khon are also connected through an old French stone bridge and are the favorite choices of backpacker tourists, with tons of bungalow style accommodations, restaurants and never-ending streams of Beerlao. Don Det and Don Khon also probably offer the highest density of hammocks per inhabitant we have seen anywhere :).
Mama Leuah - The best restaurant in Laos?
Because it was peak tourist season in Laos, we had arranged accommodation beforehand. After some research, we had decided to try out Mama Leuah, which is run by a German, Lutz, and his family. After two weeks in Cambodia, we were desperately looking for quality Made in Germany.
And we were not disappointed!
The bungalows at Lutz’ place were located at a very beautiful part on the east side of the island, away from the buzz in the very north, but still central enough. They are very basic (like all of them) but clean (the most important criterion!). Lutz is extremely friendly and could help us with anything we asked him, even when he was a little bit sick at that time! We could rent bicycles and he even helped us to put together a Mekong boat tour.
The best part about Mama Leuah however, was its restaurant! Lutz (and his kitchen staff) provided us with the first Schnitzels we had after months on the road and god, they were amazing! But it’s not just the main courses, Mama Leuah also offers great breakfast and the best chocolate-banana shake we had since we left Bali. Although we had to leave Mama Leuah after only one night (because it was already booked out), we still came back every day for more culinary experiences.
Cycling Don Det and Don Khon
Si Phan Don has this irresistible flair which invites you to just lie down in your hammock, pick up a nice novel and do nothing while sipping on a Beerlao (or chocolate-banana shake). Still we decided to get up our lazy asses just a little bit and see some more of the islands. There are no cars on the island and the most convenient way to get around is with bicycles for 10.000 Kip a day. There are no paved roads so even cycling from one place to another invites you to take your time.
Tad Somphamit Waterfalls and river beach
The obvious destination for our little tour are the Tad Somphamit Waterfalls on Don Khon.
We have seen a lot of waterfalls in Southeast Asia, but Tad Somphamit was really unlike anything we had witnessed before. It’s not just a single waterfall but rather a gigantic pool of falls and rapids of the Mekong along Don Khon. From the entrance of the waterfalls, we walked to the main viewing platform and then to the left along the river where more and more falls came crushing into the Mekong.
At the end of the river trail was the most fascinating discovery, a secluded, sandy beach right next to the Mekong! After a swim to cool down, we bought some Beerlao at a nearby restaurant and just lay there on one of the benches until the magic started.
The sun set and turned the sky into millions of colors, which are then reflected in the water. Every inch that the sun dropped towards the horizon created new lights along the river. It was a spectacle that was as powerful as the sunrise over Angkor Wat with the only difference that apart from another backpacking couple, we were the absolute only ones!
Boat and Kayaking tours to Khone Phapheng Waterfalls
The other popular activity on Don Det and Don Khon is to take a boat or kayaking tour. Because the Mekong is quite dangerous near the waterfalls it is apparently not possible to rent kayaks for yourself so you have to join a guided tour for 170,000 Kip. The tour takes you to the Khone Phapheng waterfalls and also to a place where you can see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins. Since we had already seen the dolphins in Cambodia and were not interested to get up early, we decided against kayaks.
However, as mentioned before, Lutz from Mama Leuah managed to negotiate a boat tour for us with this neighbor, Mr. Phao (who also owns a number of bungalows). So for 60,000 Kip, his son took us on a wooden motorboat along the Mekong.
The tour started in the afternoon and took us first to the Khone Phapeng waterfalls. These falls are actually located on the main land so that it is possible to take a bus or Tuk-Tuk from Nakasang to visit them. They are a little bit more touristic than the waterfall on Don Khon. Otherwise, they are quite similar, again with millions of tons of water gushing into the Mekong in streams and falls and rapids (though they are also much bigger). We climbed around the rocks a little bit and got really close to the water before heading back to our boat.
After the waterfalls, it was time for magic again. The sun was beginning to set and our guide navigated the boat along the islands in the Mekong, expertly avoiding the strong currents. Driving around, we saw fishermen looking to finish their day, children playing by the side of the river and just general peace and serenity.
Finally, the fireball calmly descended towards the water, just like the day before and just like the day after, not caring about whatever happened with the people busying around. It’s an apt scene for Si Phan Don, a spectacular retreat which also is completely unfazed by the speed of modern life. Feeling simultaneously sad and happy, we left the island on another wooden boat, dreaming to come back some time in the near future!
Nicole & Kevin, written in Munich