Before living in Southeast Asia I really had no idea where or what Laos was. As far as I can remember, from my vague encounters with the word I was under the impression it was pronounced ‘lay-os’ and was some kind of island off the coast of Greece or Spain. I was slightly off the mark and, fortunately, after a year working in Thailand – older, wiser and less geographically ignorant – not only did I manage to locate Laos on a map but was able to navigate my way right into the heart of the country.
Arriving in Laos
I entered Laos from the southwest, from Thailand, and spent a couple of nights in Pakse making poorly self-organised day-trips to see the beautiful waterfalls of the Bolaven Plateau. My eventual goal was to exit Laos from the north, to meet up with friends for Thai New Year in Chiang Mai. I had less than two weeks. I had nothing planned. During my evenings in Pakse I pored over my guidebook, between mouthfuls of laab and Beer Lao, and debated whether I could spare the time to head south. Could I justify heading in the opposite direction to my final exit point, to the bottom tip of the country near the Cambodian border, to visit Si Phan Don Laos, the ‘Four Thousand Islands’? I almost didn’t. That would have been a big mistake.
Getting to Si Phan Don Laos
Si Phan Don translates as ‘Four Thousand Islands’ and is the name given to a collection of islands that sit in the middle of the Mekong, at its widest point, just before the mighty river drifts into Cambodia. To get to Si Phan Don Laos from Pakse I took a wildly uncomfortable four-hour ride, on a barely padded bench, in the back of a rickety ‘Jumbo’ (basically a giant tuk-tuk) with locals piling what looked like months’ worth of food, toiletries and all other imaginable goods into every available space. I was finally let out in a car park and, after uncrumpling my aching bones, was pointed in the direction of the river. An important tip for travel in Laos: always have a good book or two; life moves slowly here and my sanity was often saved, when sitting for hours waiting for buses, by having plenty to read.
Was it worth all that?
As I was taxied, by longboat, along the final stretch of my journey to Don Det, the sun began to set and oozed molten orange into the darkening skies. As that giant orb melted into the Mekong River, so too melted away any fears that I’d made the wrong decision, all the aches and pains from the uncomfortable journey and, it felt like, all the worldly troubles, stress and anxiety I’d ever experienced in my entire life. I immediately knew I had arrived in a little patch of heaven.
What to do on ‘Four Thousand Islands’
Of the (supposed) four thousand islands travellers tend to head to one of three: Don Khong, Don Khon or Don Det. There’s fairly little in the way of must-see sights around the place. Hiring bikes, visiting waterfalls, tubing, dolphin spotting and lazing in a hammock are popular activities – and all are worthwhile. Definitely hire a bike and explore along the dusty pathways, through rice fields, beside stunning riverside scenes, past farmyard animals, local children, buffalo cooling off and families washing in the Mekong. I highly recommend staying at least a few nights at Si Phan Don Laos and soaking up the unbelievable nonchalance and serenity of life here. I didn’t regret it, even considering that long journey north I had ahead of me.