4000 Islands is a collection of sandbars poking out of the Mekong River as it runs through Laos, very close to the Cambodian border (see: so close to Cambodia I still got service on my Cambodian sim card).
If the name is true, there are thousands of islands in this part of Laos. Some are big (inhabitable), and others are less than a meter long. Travelers usually visit 3 - Don Det, Don Khong, Don Khon.
People usually arrive to 4000 islands via bus. These buses drop travelers off Nakasong, Laos, on the shores of the Mekong River. Nakasong has a ferry station that takes travelers to different islands throughout "4000 Islands." Bus tickets to Don Det usually include a ferry ride from Nakasong to Don Det in the price.
Don Det is by far the most happening island. It has the largest collection of restaurants, bars, and guesthouses. While this turns some people off from staying there, Don Det actually has a great balance between tourism and authenticity. Everything is run by locals, and it only takes a few mins on a bike to get out of town.
Don Khon is right next to Don Det. The "Old French Bridge" (which was - you guessed it - constructed by the French) connects the two islands.
Don Khon is slightly developed, but not as much as Don Det. It is beautiful with beaches and waterfalls... but it is still probably better to stay on Don Det.
Don Khong (different from Don Khon) is the largest island people visit. It is a 1.5 hour boat ride from Don Det. I have heard mixed reviews of Don Khong. While it is supposedly beautiful and less developed, it is not clear if it is different enough from Don Det and Don Khon to be worth the trip
TOP THINGS TO DO IN 4,000 ISLANDS, LAOS:
Days are planned around the sunset on Don Det. Things either happen "before sunset" or "after sunset." Why, you ask? I think this speaks for itself...
LITTLE EDEN POOL
It is possible to swim in the Mekong River, but some people prefer to hang out at the pool at the Little Eden Guesthouse. I don’t blame them - this is the perfect place to kill an afternoon. For 35,000 Kip (around $4), you get access to the pool and a towel to use while you are there. They have the best public wifi and the best iced coffees on the island. After three days they started making me an iced coffee when I walked in.
In the dry season it is easier to swim and tube around the island. The current is less strong and the water is blue.
MAMAS TANON’S RESTAURANT
The most charismatic and giggly women on the island, Mama Tanon is a fantastic cook. The comfort and homeyness of Mama Tanon’s restaurant is like being in your own living room.
The setup of Mama Tanon's is standard for a Don Det restuarant - cushions on the ground, low tables, wholesome “believe in yourself” quotes covering the walls - but in terms of food, this is something spectacular.
Mama Tanon serves Thai noodle dishes, local favorites, and curry so good I finished it with a straw. The portions are absolutely massive, and very easy for sharing (2 dishes is sufficient for a group of 3). Prices are some of the cheapest on the Island.
Mama Tanon’s is about a 10 min walk from town down sunset side road. Her restaurant overhangs the water and has graffiti on the outside. She will most likely greet you as you pass by.
FAIJA INDIAN RESTAURANT
There are two Indian restaurants (maybe three?) on Don Det, but only one of them serves the best Indian food I've ever had. It makes sense- Laos is much closer to India than Pittsburgh. I went to Faija Indian THREE TIMES in my week in Don Det, and every time I was practically licking my bowl clean.
Ask the owner for recommendations. That is what we did, and clearly we were never disappointed. Look for the sign below... it is right on the main road in town.
BONUS: STREET SAMOSA
In front of the Indian restuarant they sell the best street samosa I've ever had (though, admittedly, it is a small pool to choose from). I am not sure if the stall is affiliated with the restaurant, but it doesn't matter. I ate two every day I was on Don Det. Vegetable was my favorite flavor (followed by pumpkin), but they are all good. There are two street samosa stands on Don Det - you want the one in front of Indian restaurant.
I don't know the name of this place, but it is just on the outskirts of town on sunset road side. They advertise the "Best Shakshuka on Don Det" on a sign outside of the restaurant. It is pretty damn good, and for 20,000 kip ($2.50), a great deal.
TAD SOMPHAMIT WATERFALL
On Don Khon, there is a beautiful waterfall with a beach and some bungalows with hammocks. It is a great place to spend a day. The waterfall is very easy to get to from Don Det by bike - just cross the Old French Bridge and turn right. It costs 35,000 kip (a little over $4) to enter Don Khon, but the price includes entrance to the waterfall.
Bring a swimsuit and a book. The island of Don Khon is beautiful for a leisurely bike around if you have time.
KAYAKING AND TUBING
I didn't do this, but a lot of people do. Tubing around the island is pretty cheap at 10,000 kip (around $1) for a tube rental for the day. Kayaking tours are a bit more expensive and vary in length and destination. Overall, a boat ride, kayak trip, or tubing experience is a great way to get a better grasp on what the 4000 Islands looks like beyond Don Det.
THE FRIENDS BAR
This is exactly what you think it is - a bar that plays the TV show “Friends” on gigantic tv screen 24/7 (at least when it is open). Floor cushion seating, bottles of beer... every person who comes to Don Det gets sucked into at least one night at the Friends Bar. If you are not a fan of the show, you may become one, as it doesn’t get much more laid back than this.
Adam’s Bar is similar to the Friends Bar. However, instead of Friends, Adam’s Bar plays something along the lines of Southpark, or a Seth Rogan movie. Sometimes they stray from genre, but it is usually goofy. In the back there is a similar setup (cushions on the ground), but showing sports instead of a stoner comedy. There is a dartboard in the hallway to bathroom, and Beerlao on draft for 6,000 Kip ($0.80)... Adam’s Bar is a happy place.
Another cushion and beer bar, but this one usually has live music.
Nakasong (the ferry/bus station area on the mainland) has a fantastic market across from the bus station. By the time most buses start departing the islands the market is closing for the day (around 9am). However, if you arrive between 6:30-7am, the place is alive with the type of energy only Southeast Asia markets have. Food and people watching opportunities are abundant. I spent several hours here, sipping coffee and observing the choas. Try the fried dough balls in a spicy red sauce.
If you arrive to Nakasong early enough (before 6:30AM), you can see the morning alms giving ceremony for the monks. .... which is 10000x better than the one in Luang Prabang.
I paid 50,000 for a private boat to take me to Nakasong at 6am and then explored for a few hours while I waited for my bus. I recommend this! It was a great way to see a different side of life in 4000 Islands.
This one is for the person who really wants to get off the beaten path and see local life, no matter the cost.
If you ask around with the tour operators in town, there is a tour to visit Loppadi Island, about 4 kilometers away from Don Det. Loppadi has 0 tourism and a vibrant culture. The tour includes an English speaking guide, the opportunity to interact with locals, and a chance to see some of the trades - sticky rice, rice baskets and fish net making.
The tour is around $50 for 4 hours.
I had planned to go, but my tour was rained out.
If you go to Don Det and end up going on the Loppadi tour, I would LOVE to hear about it! Please email me at email@example.com. I am yet to hear how it is!
WHERE TO STAY
It isn’t necessary to book accommodations on Don Det before arriving. As soon as you start walking around with your backpack, every place that has space will ask you, "room? room?"
There is also an Easygo hostel 20 mins walking from town on the sunset side of Don Det. The hostel is a nice place to meet other travelers, but it is really far from town. If you want a dorm room, there are several guesthouses with dorms much closer to town.
There are two sides of the island to stay on - sunrise (east facing) and sunset (west facing). I suggest staying on sunset side because you will always have a place to watch the sunset from.
Buses coming from major Cambodian hubs often don't arrive until after sunset. In those cases, it is easier to get a place on sunrise for the night, and the switch to sunset the following day.
The guest house I stayed in on sunset side was simple, but I shared a bungalow with another girl for 30,000 kip a night, which is less than $2 per person, per night.
It was nothing fancy… or super clean… or bug free… but for the price, I cannot complain.
15,000 kip got me a hammock, a bed, a bathroom, and what I think is the best sunset view on the entire island. Magically, the trees parted right in front of our deck, and we could see the sun hit the horizon.
30,0000 - 40,000 kip for one bungalow is standard. To find my place, walk 50 meters past Mama Tanon's restaurant and it is a row of 4 bungalows on the left side.
THE LAST RESORT
I didn’t stay at the last resort, but only because I am on a tight budget.... not that it is expensive, I am just a gigantic cheapskate. For 60,000 kip a night, guests spend the night in a straw teepee. The teepees are not big or luxurious, but it is undeniably a cool experience. It would appear (like I said, I didn't stay there) that the Last Resort does frequent bonfires and outdoor movies every other night.
The Last resort is far from town - 20 mins walk down sunset side road. If you arrive late in the afternoon, it will probably be full. Save yourself the walk, stay somewhere in town, and try again in the morning.
There you have it folks.....
It is important to be lenient about time on Don Det. Things get accomplished when they get accomplished, and there is no need to hurry. This is hard for some people (myself included), but it is a great exercise in patience. When on Don Det, live the island life and go with the flow.
Also, restaurants in Don Det are just pads on the floor and it is amazing.
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