The 4,000 Islands, or Si Pan Don, was one of my three must do things in Laos. It lies in the extreme south of the country, on the border with Cambodia, so I would have to travel the whole length of the country to get to it. I cheated on the last bit from Pakse and took a tourist van.
The scenery along the main Route 13 in southern Laos is not interesting. But once you take a boat to one of the islands, everything is rural, laid back, sleepy, and very very scenic.
There are a few islands to choose from. Don Det is full of drunken backpackers, which didn’t sound too appealing to me. So I decided to stay on Don Khon (not to be confused with Don Kong), which proved to be a wise choice. It was not crowded, and the tourists were mostly older French couples and a few groups of Chinese. This island was also where to waterfalls are.
The history of the islands is interesting. The French came to Indochina looking for a way to get goods from China. They were hoping they could use the Mekong. But at the 4,000 Islands the river breaks into narrow channels, rapids, and waterfalls.
The French wanted to exert influence on the Upper Mekong, so they could wrest control of the territory east of the river from Siam. They would need gunboats to do that. Incredibly, they built a railroad line across Don Khon using Vietnamese laborers. Then they took the boats apart, shipped them across the island, resembled them, then launched them into the Upper Mekong.
For a time the railroad seemed like it would be very popular. The French built a bridge to Don Det and extended the line across that island. But things didn’t work out for the railroad. Today there is no evidence of it, save for the stone bridge, and the big concrete structures on the water where the line ended.
The French left behind some buildings in the tiny town on Don Khon, now in spectacular states of disrepair. The town itself is mostly guesthouses and restaurants these days.
Shoddy Chinese bikes are for rent everywhere, and cost nothing, so it’s easy to ride around the little island. I visited both waterfalls. The big “waterfall”” is more than that. It’s the point where the mighty Mekong hits rocks and has nowhere to go. It carved channels through the rocks, but it’s work is far from done. The channels are narrow, and full of rapids and falls. Now it is spectacular to behold, but the French viewed it as simply an obstacle.
Like everywhere else in Laos, the 4,000 Islands is a sleepy place with not much to do. A day here was enough for me.
It would be fun to continue across the border to Cambodia. This would return me to Stung Treng. But I had one more place I wanted to visit in Laos.