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Si Phan Don

4000 Islands and numerous waterfalls in the Mekong river

Islands in the Mekong around Si Phan Don
Islands in the Mekong river

Si Phan Don, which translates to “four thousand islands”, is a group of islands in the Mekong river in the South of Laos. The area’s main attractions are its rural character, the tranquility, the opportunity to watch the rare Irrawaddy dolphin and the Khone Phapheng falls.

The pace of life is slow in the rural area where local people live in small wooden houses on stilts and where cows, goats, pigs and other animals roam around free. The relaxed and natural setting have made the islands near the Cambodian border a major backpacker destination.

Islands of Si Phan Don

During the monsoon season the Mekong river is over 10 kilometers wide at this point. In the dry season when the water level is lower, hundreds of small and larger islands emerge. The larger islands are permanently inhabited.

The most visited islands are Don Khon, Don Det and Don Khong, which is the largest island. Don Det is a small island that offers the most choice of accommodation. The island attracts a large number of backpackers.

The larger Don Khon island, which is just one kilometer from the Cambodian border is less developed than Don Det. The Irrawaddy dolphin lives in the waters South of this island. The island is connected with Don Det with a bridge built by the French during the colonial era. Currently there are no ATM’s on the islands. The nearest ATM is in Ban Nakasang village on the mainland.

Rice farm in the Si Phan Don area, Laos
Rice paddies

To do & see in Si Phan Don

To many the area’s main attraction is its tranquility and relaxed rural atmosphere. Besides relaxing in a hammock, activities include kayaking down the Mekong river, swimming and making a bicycle tour around the islands to see local village life, rice paddies, sugar cane and coconut farms.

Si Phan Don houses many impressive cascading waterfalls like the Li Phi falls located on the North West corner of Don Khon and the Khone Phapheng falls found South of Don Khon, which is the largest waterfall in volume of South East Asia. A small group of rare Irrawaddy dolphins live in the waters South of Don Khon island, between Laos and Cambodia. Unfortunately they have become very rare, as many get strangled in fishing nets. A dolphin watching tour by boat costs around 80,000 Kip per person.

In the colonial days the French built a railway and a bridge to go around the falls, which make the river unnavigable at this point. Visitors can follow the 14 kilometer long track and watch an antiquated locomotive.

How to get to Si Phan Don

Si Phan Don is most easily reached from Pakse, located about 145 kilometers North. The first leg of the trip involves getting from Pakse to Ban Nakasang village, a small town on the Mekong river a little off Route 13, just North of Don Det which serves as the main port for the area. A minivan from Pakse to Ban Nakasang takes about 2 hours and costs 80,000 Kip per person. A local bus takes 4 hours, tickets are 40,000 Kip per person. Busses leave from the 8KM bus station along Route 13, 8 kilometers East of Pakse downtown.

The second leg is the ferry from Ban Nakasang to Don Det or Don Khong island, which will cost around 20,000 Kip and takes between 20 to 30 minutes. Travel agents in Pakse offer a combined ticket for the tourist bus and the ferry at around 60,000 Kip per person.

View of Mekong river in Si Phan Don
Mekong river

Getting around

The islands of Si Phan Don are small. Much of the area can easily be explored on foot. A fun way to get around is renting a bicycle or mountain bike from hotel or guesthouse at 10,000 to 20,000 Kip per day. Crossing the bridge between Don Khon and Don Det carries a fee of 25,000 Kip, which includes access to the Khone Phapheng falls.