Just as we were about to abandon ship, the engine of our crowded longboat sputtered to life and we set off across the moss-coloured surface of the Mekong, skirting around tiny grass-topped mounds. In less than ten minutes we hit the shore of Don Det with a soft bump and disembarked, trudging up the sandbank onto the one dusty road that runs the circumference of the island. We had arrived in Si Phan Don, also known as Four Thousand Islands, the area in southern Laos where the Mekong River is at its widest, surrounding hundreds of sandy islets and some larger inhabited islands.
Don Det is referred to as the most touristy of the three main islands, but that’s not saying much. A few dozen small wooden restaurants and bars line either side of the main strip, intersped with rickety bungalows suspended on stilts above the water’s edge. Their density thins the further you venture; a twenty minute walk along the path you find yourself surrounded by the river on one side and fields dotted with houses and the occasional bungalow or restaurant on the other.
We somehow found ourselves in a wooden bungalow opposite one of the noisiest restaurants on the island and settled in for a week-long stay. There’s not much to do on Four Thousand Islands besides relax; everywhere you look people laze in hammocks or sip fruit shakes in cafes. With extremely sketchy internet the main entertainment occurs alongside the river, children play in the shallows, fishermen cast nets from their narrow boats and falangs (tourists) float by in tubes or kayaks.
Biking Around Don Det and Don Khon
Since we’d gotten our tubing fix in Vang Vieng, after a couple of days on Don Det Andrew and I decided to head out and explore the island by bike. Like most days we’ve spent in Laos, the sun was shining fiercely as we set off, our tires kicking up clouds of dust as we went. Weaving alongside the river we passed buffalo grazing on parched yellow grass, half-naked kids playing boules and stray puppies sleeping in the shade.
Don Det is connected to the island of Don Khon by an ugly cement bridge which we cycled across, paying 25,000 kip (£2) each for a ticket to the waterfalls when we arrived at the other side. While searching for the falls we spotted a hand-painted sign directing us to the beach, which we followed down to a small cove, inhabited only by several restaurants and a hand-full of tourists. The sand was too hot to walk on and scorched our feet, so we took refuge in one of the restaurants for a tuna baguette before setting off again.
Next we found our way to one of the waterfalls; while it wasn’t the most impressive we’ve seen in Laos it made for a picturesque rest stop nonetheless. As the afternoon wore on we diverted down a bone-jarringly bumpy road in search of a second waterfall; at times the path was so rocky I had to get off and walk my bike along. After an hour of this we abandoned our search and exhausted, rode wearily back to Don Det.
Sickness Strikes on Four Thousand Islands
The day after our bike ride that innocent-looking tuna baguette came back to haunt me. For the next couple of days I lay inside the bungalow, avoiding food and battling nausea while my stomach cramped relentlessly. It was almost a week before I was able to eat a full meal again, a week in which all I wanted to really eat was a bowl of Heinz tomato soup – being sick when you’re away from the comforts of home is really miserable.
On the whole, while I love Laos I find its food pretty dire. If it weren’t for the clean cafes in Luang Prabang and the French-style baguettes, the country would be a complete write-off for me food wise. Yes, I may be a fussy eater and I do generally struggle with food in Asia but even Andrew finds it difficult to get tasty meals in Laos. Hygiene and food preparation standards in Laos seem particularly dodgy in comparison to other countries in South-East Asia and we’ve both had stomach issues more than once while travelling there. Luckily the scenery, people and atmosphere in Laos make up for the bad food somewhat.
Our Final Stop in Don Khong
Before leaving the area we decided to make one last stop on Don Khong, the largest of the inhabited islands. Despite its size, we found this to be the quietest and least touristy island we visited. Visitors stay along a small stretch of road where the boats dock; there aren’t any wooden bungalows to rent here, instead there’s a sparse selection of hotels and guesthouses, as well as restaurants overlooking the river.
Once again we headed out to explore the island by bike, passing along now familiar dusty, bumpy roads. We cycled by a few different schools, stopping at one to drop off some books we’d bought from Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang. The further we got from the main strip the more kids stopped to wave at us and people called out in greeting: “Sabaydee!” Spending a final few days on Don Khong was the perfect way to end our stay in Four Thousand Islands.
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