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.

On the way to the 4,000 Islands.
On the way to the 4,000 Islands.

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.

Locals busy in the river.
Locals busy in the river.

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.

4,000 Islands is a good place to relax.
4,000 Islands is a good place to relax.

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.

Local ferry.
Local ferry.

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.

Kids at the temple.
Kids at the temple.
Strange structures at the little waterfall.
Strange structures at the little waterfall.
Sunset on the bridge.
Sunset on the bridge.
The old French bridge.
The old French bridge.
Kids at the school.
Kids at the school.
Water wheel at the big waterfall.
Water wheel at the big waterfall.
The big waterfall was awesome.
The big waterfall was awesome.
It had more rocks than water.
It had more rocks than water.
There would be no was to get a boat through it.
There would be no was to get a boat through it.
Sunset at the big waterfall.
Sunset at the big waterfall.
Sunset from my bungalow.
Sunset from my bungalow.
Terry
I'm Terry, former cubicle-dweller, and now traveler, photographer, writer, and entrepreneur. I quit my job in 2014 to travel to US national parks, then to South East Asia. I write about independent, flexible, long-term, budget travel. Sign up to my newsletter to get the latest news on what I'm up to. I hope you join me on my trek around the world.

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