New Year on Don Det and the 4000 Islands

Gosia and I met Delia as we were all squashed in a hot tin box of a bus together on our way to Don Det and the 4000 islands.  Squatting uncomfortably on child sized plastic seats in the aisle we were soon chatting away and we decided to stick together and celebrate the New Year in style. 

If you are already travelling in S E Asia and need a guide book, don’t forget that you can get Lonely Planet guide books in electronic format as e-books Click here for the latest offers and prices

I was really stepping outside of my comfort zone by being around all this water and the boats but I wouldn’t have missed this part of Laos for the world.

You don’t have to go as far as Laos to challenge yourself but if you would like to find out what you are capable of, then take a look at this link and see what the The Smash the Pumpkin Project can offer you.

Andn case you don’t get to Don Det and the 4000 islands, you can live vicariously through my eyes in this article.

The 4000 Islands lie at the bottom tip of Laos and they share this section of the Mekong River with Cambodia. 

Don Det and 4000 Islands

One of Don Det’s famous sunsets

Many of the islands are little more than lumps of rock with a couple of trees growing on them but others have a well developed tourist industry and they support a population who get on with their lives as they have done for generations. 

We were on our way to Don Det – not to be confused with Don Dhet.  Don Det is one of the smaller islands with a focus on budget and backpacker travellers and we had heard that it had a relaxed vibe. 

Arriving on Don Det in the 4000 islands

We first had to take a ferry ride over to the island’s sandy beach.  Our rucksacks were all piled at the front of the boat and the passengers were warned not to move once we were seated or the boat would tip over – and then thankfully quite quickly we were landed on the hot sand over on the island.

Don Det and the 4000 islands

Arriving at Don Det

 There are a couple of brick built hotels on Don Det but the majority of the accommodation is in wooden cabins or bungalows.  Many of these are built on land which has been in families for generations and they now cater to the increasing influx of travellers.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

our home on Don Det

You can choose to stay on either the sunrise or the sunset side of the island – although don’t worry too much because, especially at the pointy bit, it is literally a three minute walk across to the other side.

Most of the bungalow groups have river-side settings, many have restaurants on decking which hang over the water and nearly all are completely laid back, chilled and relaxing. – Click here for up-to-date prices for accomodation from Agoda on Don Det

Don Det and 4000 Islands

view from our balcony

Things to do on Don Det 

We hired some bicycles and we spent a day touring the length of the island, crossing over the old stone bridge to the even smaller island of Don Khone (which is not to be confused with Don Khong).

Don Det and 4000 Islands

Chilling on the bridge

The centre of both islands is given over to rice fields, those cute little Laotian brown cows with their magnificent eyelashes, fruit plantations and vegetable gardens.

The main attraction on the island of Don Khone are the spectacular Somphamit Li Phi waterfalls.


Don Det and 4000 Islands

The Mekong

At one point on the side of Don Khone, the normally sedate river Mekong is forced to tumble through chasms and down the rocky river bed.  From our vantage point we stood for ages watching the water roar and pour its way angrily southwards.

The local fishermen spread their nets and fishing traps in the rapids and anybody wanting to tube up the river around Don Det is warned to get out of the river long before this point or risk getting swept down to Cambodia. 

Where the river settles down again it widens out and you can see across to Cambodia.  Here you can see why the area is known as the 4000 Islands, and it is here at this point that  you may have the opportunity to watch the increasingly rare Irawaddy dolphins.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

Stopping to chat to a local man 

Organised boat trips are available from the agents in the little town, but you can arrange one yourself and here at the southern-most tip is where you can bargain for a local guide to motor you out to the ‘pool’ where the dolphins like to chill during the day.

We almost hired a boat – it was cheap enough – but people coming in told us that it was the wrong time of the day to see the dolphins doing anything but lying on the surface and it was all a bit sad. 

The boats generally keep a respectful distance from the animals – but we didn’t really want to cause them any undue stress so we declined to go out.

Don det and 4000 Islands


Party Central 

We had come to Don Det knowing that it generally catered to the backpacker brigade and we were hoping to catch a few parties. It was New Year after all and a beach party was advertised.

There was only one small beach on the island – where the boats from the mainland come in – and there was to be music, dancing, drinking and celebrations.

We wandered down and picked our spot on the sand.  Clusters of people were quietly chatting and drinking and music was played over some loudspeakers by a group of teenagers. 

Unfortunately they didn’t seem able to be able to agree to anything and they kept cutting tunes off halfway through or switching from dance and trance to folk music as they argued.  So the dancing never really got off the ground and anyway the majority of people were just too chilled to even think about standing up or moving in any way.

 Midnight struck – or somebody shouted that it had, and we did all jump to our feet to hug and kiss friends.  A few intrepid men stripped naked and ran screaming and shouting into the water, only to be quickly ordered out again by police who were paranoid about yet another tourist drowning in paradise.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

Don Det and 4000 Islands

 We were now into 2016 and we were given the nod about another fantastic party that would be taking place far away from prying eyes.

We wandered down the sandy track into the dark and into the interior of the island.  The stars here were wonderful as there was no light pollution and we found a bunch of people cooking and eating pizzas.  We made ours up and popped them into the makeshift oven and waited for the party to get going.

Like just about everything else on the island it was all too much effort and a little bit disappointed that we still wouldn’t be able to party we left.  We heard that the party never actually did get going but we went back to one of the bars and we had  a few cocktails.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

more chillin’ 

You can get hold of drugs everywhere in Laos and especially in the tourist areas, although I wouldn’t recommend you do take them because the penalties are very high if you are caught in possession of them. 

We had only just arrived on the slow boat from Thailand to Laos  when were offered weed and/or opium and here on Don Det  island weed was freely smoked in certain of the bars and some of them advertised ‘happy’ pizzas or ‘happy‘ shakes.

Maybe this contributed to the relaxed atmosphere, maybe it was the hot weather or the decks lined with floor cushions and where nobody objected if you lazed around all day, but whatever the reason, the 4000 Islands is the perfect place to kick back and unwind.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

Don Det and 4000 Islands 

We would wander a little bit, occasionally cycle around if it wasn’t too much effort, lounge around and chat or sit on the decks and we would watch the sunsets across the water. 

I do think that I should travel with a hammock so that I can sling one anywhere and create my own little bit of paradise – Amazon sell a selection – and whilst not pretty, this one should do the trick – click here for the link to Amazon

Don Det and 4000 Islands

sunset on Don Det

Laos – to sum up 

Gosia and I had been in Laos for the thirty days which was the amount that was permitted on our tourist visa and sadly it was now time to leave.

We had travelled from the north-west where Laos borders Thailand and we had spent time in the UNESCO World Heritage Award winning town of Luang Prabang.

I had climbed a mountain in Nong Khiaw with a Catalan and got very sick in the north-east.  We had to abandon our plans to go across to the cave system close to the Vietnamese border due to the freezing cold weather, the rain, the mud and my stomach.

We` had been privileged to be a part of the Hmong New Year festivities and we had witnessed their courtship rituals and we had found out about the shocking legacy of the ‘Secret War’.

I had tubed down the river in Vang Vieng and we spent Christmas Day dining on fish on the same river as it flowed through the dusty sleepy capital Vientiane.

We fell in love with Champasak and we totally relaxed on Don Det on the 4000 Islands.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

catching supper on Don Det 

We didn’t have time to do any of the classic motorbike routes through what I have heard is beautiful unadulterated mountains but we did see rescued bears, waterfalls and millions of wooden houses where people live as they have lived for generations. 

Can you see the link which runs through this article and binds all of these places, and Laos together?

It is the River Mekong.  It forms the border for much of Laos with Thailand and later Cambodia and the main cities are all sited along its banks.  It is always wide and it usually flows calmly and it breathes life into this magical country.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

the river Mekong

It provides food, irrigation and a means of transport.  It provides hydro-electric power. It is the life blood of Laos. 

Much of Laos is underdeveloped and is still covered in jungle and forests and the Laos people are gentle, softly spoken and extremely shy.

Don Det and 4000 Islands

the people are all beautiful

The nation is immensely poor and it is stuck in poverty partly because of the Secret War.  The women are very beautiful, the food is generally simple and the countryside goes on for miles and miles. 

If you are reading this and wondering whether it is worth a visit – YES it is. 

Do go.

Do not be confrontational and do speak gently.

Be prepared to witness entire busloads of Lao vomiting into plastic bags because they all get travel sick and please don’t eat anything from a roadside cafe in the mountains that looks and smells like road-kill!

Gosia and I were unable to leave Laos without a nightmare thirty six hour journey. 

I had a panicky couple of minutes when I thought that I was being kidnapped and we got stuck for the night in a town where packs of feral dogs reigned after dark, but we finally left the peace and quiet and the gentleness of Laos for Vietnam. 

Boy, were we in for a shock! 

I have mentioned the books of Colin Cotterill in previous posts but he really does write beautifully and describes the countryside, the people and the traditions of Laos so well.  You can see some of his books in the  Dr Siri series here 

Sign up here (fill in the details in the box on my home page) so that you don’t miss my soon to be released articles about Vietnam and you can find out whether I loved or hated that country, and please, please, please DO NOT travel without decent insurance – I use Alpha Travel Insurance – you can get your free quote here

To accompany this series of articles on Laos, I have published a comprehensive 28 page travel itinerary of my month-long route around Laos. Simply enter your details in the box below to get your free guide.

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