Si Phan Don “4000 Islands” Laos and Beyond

The Si Phan Don 4000 Islands are located in southern Laos near the border with Cambodia. The islands are in easy proximity to Pakse. As a result, driving from Pakse to Si Phan Don by motorbike only takes about 1-2 hours.

A motorbike tour is the most practical way to enjoy this area. Plus, the motorbike will bring some added adventure. See below for more details and all the photos on our 3 day Si Phan Don motorbike adventure.

The Challenges Created by the Mekong River

The English translation for Si Phan Don is “4000 Islands”. These islands are a natural phenomenon that was carved out by the iconic Mekong river in southern Laos.

The Mekong river originates on the Tibetan Plateau and transports over 450 sq kilometers of water annually from Tibet to the South China Sea. Indeed, the Mekong River is among the largest and most powerful rivers in the world.

For commercial use, the Mekong River is one of the world’s most difficult rivers to navigate. The “4000 Islands” and also the Khone Phapheng Falls are the Mekong river’s most formidable obstacles. As a result, the water route to the South China Sea is blocked and commerce in SE Asia is significantly impeded.

Although it creates problems for commercial transport, for tourists this is the main attraction. Unless you want to sail over the falls of course, then its a big problem!

Khone Phapheng Falls

The Khone Phapheng Falls and 4000 Islands are actually one in the same. After all, waterfalls and islands are really just a bunch of semi-submerged rocks.

Indeed, Si Phan Don is a river archipelago consisting of thousands of islands and half of them are submerged when the water is high. However, high water levels on the Mekong River transform the Khone Phapheng Falls into one of the natural wonders of the world.

Khone Phapheng Falls - Si Phan Don Laos
Photo of Khone Phapheng Falls in Laos during peak flood season.

I have traveled to the Islands during the dry season and also monsoon season. Despite the Si Phan Don weather seasonality, the water is normally very smooth for the boat ride from the mainland. However, there is a huge difference where the Mekong flows over the rapids.

This extreme contrast is easily viewed from the Si Phan Don Islands. The profound difference between flood stage and low water stage is awe inspiring.

Si Phan Don Falls, 4000 Islands Laos
This first photo is during the placid low water stage of the Mekong.
Mekong River Flood Stage
In contrast, this same Mekong river passage that flows through the Si Phan Don Islands is converted into raging rapids when the Mekong is in high flood stage.

How to get to Si Phan Don

There is no bridge from the Laos mainland to the Si Phan Don archipelago. However, it is possible to reach Si Phan Don 4000 Islands by boat at any time of the year.

Furthermore, transport for motorbikes to the islands is fairly simple. As a result, visitors will have a convenient form of transport with them on the islands.

Crossing the Mekong river to get to the islands is actually a rather placid affair, even during flood. Just follow the road to the boat launch and embark.

Boat Launch Si Phan Don
The site of the boat launch.

The Most Popular Si Phan Don Islands

Fortunately, the 3 main islands do not become submerged when the Mekong is at high water levels. Plus, they are well equipped with Lao restaurants and good (and bad) accommodations.

“Don” is the Lao word for Island. The three most popular Si Phan Don islands are Don Det, Don Khong and Don Khon and they are easily accessible from the Lao mainland.

Don Khong is the largest of the 3 islands and it would be our first stop of the tour. Ironically, it has the same name as the famous Hollywood monkey “King Kong”. However, just because it is the biggest doesn’t mean it is the best.

Highlights of our Three Island Tour

We stayed on Don Khong for one night and two days. Positive attributes of Don Khong island include some nice restaurants on the banks of the Mekong and road access around the island is good. As a result, bringing the motorbike across the Mekong is prudent because it provides easy transport. Additionally, Don Khong is the best location to appreciate the vastness of the Mekong, especially in early evening.

Don Khong Si Phan Don, Laos
Taking in the sunset at one of the restaurants on the banks of the Mekong while visiting Don Khong.
Mekong River seen from Don Khong
There are many fishermen casting their nets into the Mekong around Don Khong.

The levels of accommodation on the islands is pretty diverse. As a result, you can side step the sleazy backpackers pretty easily. Although it may cost a few extra kip, everything is inexpensive in Laos compared to destinations in developed countries.

Red Chili Pepper, Don Khon Laos
As usual the food is always good in Laos because they know how to make the lapp chicken real spicy, just how I like it.

Plus, we had a really unique experience at our Don Khon bungalow because they had a gibbon in the courtyard.

Gibbon Monkey in Hotel Courtyard Don Khon Laos
On Don Khon we made the acquaintance of a real life gibbon that stayed in the courtyard.

Additional Attractions on Don Khon

Besides the friendly gibbon, other features of the islands include the remnants of the French railway and also some old French administrative buildings.

Also, if you have the patience for it, you may want to go in search of the elusive Irrawaddy dolphins that live around this area. However, they are very elusive and not easily sighted.

Some local kids are putting the former French administrative building to good use in the the photos below.

French Administrative Building Don Khon
School children in courtyard French Admin Building Don Khon, Laos

Living off the land is quite common in developing countries. Of course, this includes both agriculture and fishing. On the banks of the Mekong it helps to have a huge source of fresh water nearby to irrigate the rice fields. Additionally, the rice fields provide a scenic landscape for sight seeing.

Rice Fields Don Khon, Laos

Excellent Fishing at Si Phan Don

Plus, the fishing is very good here. This section of the Mekong is home to the world’s largest fresh water fish called the plabuck. It is actually a giant catfish and it can grow to 10 feet in length and weigh up to 650 pounds. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to catch one during our visit.

Cast Net Fishing Mekong River Laos
Cast net fishing is a common fishing technique used around the islands.
Fish Trap, Si Phan Don
Another common method of catching fish here is with the use of wooden traps which are set near the river rapids.
Fish Traps, Si Phan Don
Checking the traps.

Prime Attractions in Southern Laos

Si Phan Don and the Khone Phapheng Falls are both must see locations when you visit Laos. If you read this post, you probably deduced that the photos were taken at different times. That conclusion is correct as I was visiting the area at different times of the year.

The first trip was with my girlfriend when the river level was lower. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to return to Laos a second time when the Mekong was in flood stage.

However, the main purpose of the second trip was to attend the opening ceremony of a school project that I had funded in nearby Champasak Province.