When I was buying my bus ticket from Kratie, Cambodia to Don Det, Laos I had no idea the boat transport from the mainland to the island would be included in price. I thought the bus will simply deliver us to the jetty from where we can conveniently hire a boat to get us across, but to everyone’s surprise, none of this was necessary.
The turn off to Don Det wasn’t far from the border. We only went for a few minutes before the bus got off the highway and steered through narrow dirt road to drop us off at the spot that was very close to the jetty. About half a dozen backpackers and one local got off the bus. That local guy asked each of us to hand him over the bus ticket we’d purchased and asked us to wait until he’s made arrangements to get us across the Mekong river.
This was a positive surprise as I was already getting ready to start negotiating with the boatmen but there was no need. Instead, I got a chance to chat with the other guys and savor the feeling of being free.
Laos vs Cambodia
The difference between Cambodia and Laos became instantly obvious. For one, none of the locals jumped any of us as we were getting off the bus. We were all able to peacefully collect our backpacks and figure out the next step without hosts of touts pressuring us and breathing down our necks from all sides.
Secondly, even though there were many villagers scattered around, none of them stared us down. They were simply minding their own business, allowing us to mind ours. We had a few minutes to spare, so I popped into a nearby convenience store (small hut with a few items for sale) and asked them if they would accept US dollars for a bottle of water I wanted to buy. I had no Lao currency on me but this was a no issue for the woman running the shop.
All it took was a ride across the border and fake smiles full of shady purposes were gone. They were replaced with genuine, warm and welcoming ones. It was a breath of fresh air to be approached by a local man who would simply want to ask us how the ride was and welcome us to his country, without attempting to scam any of us. It was the third time leaving Cambodia for me and it was the third time I felt like I got out of the gas chamber to breathe the free air again.
The deal was sealed – there are so many nice people who would make your travels enjoyable all over the world, and each day in Cambodia strips you of a chance to meet with them. From now on I only wanted to travel through the countries where there are nice people so deep in my mind I already knew – there will be no going back to Cambodia for me.
Boat Ride to Don Det
All of us who got off the bus at 4,000 Islands were backpackers so all of us were headed for Don Det. Don Det is where most backpacker friendly, budget guesthouses are located and it’s also where 4,000 Island’s nightlife (for what it’s worth) is at its highest concentration. Don Khon and Don Khong are the islands offering more peaceful stay with more upscale accommodation options.
The boat they packed us on was small and barely had us all fit along with our backpacks. It was one of those tiny fishing boats for one or two persons, only the owner added a few planks to bridge the sides so passengers could sit but it was a squishy experience. Of all the boats that were docked at the jetty, we were told to board the smallest and the furthest one. To get on it, we had to prance across several boats with roofs which gently tested our balancing skills. Keep in mind we all carried our backpacks and had to crouch down to squeeze through tiny space under the roof of a boat which was loosely on the water, hence moving with each person who stepped on it.
The boat ride itself was scenic enough to make us all forget that we had to sit with our knees under our chins only capable of making limited turns as each of us tried to record some video of the mangroves and islands we passed by. It only took a few minutes to get us across and soon we got to feel firm ground below our feet as bikini clad girls walked by headed for their chalets. There are no beaches on Don Det, but what’s there to hold you back when you’re on an island in a tropical country and it’s a nice, sunny day?
Don Det is very touristy these days. Many former fishermen now specialize in offering transport service between mainland and various islands because that’s where easy the money is. Tour operators and transportation companies have agreements with boatmen so if you end up buying a ticket to Don Det and then away from there, it will include the cost of the boat transfer so if you asked me how much a boat ride alone was, I wouldn’t be able to tell.
Below is the brief video from the boat that took us across from the mainland Laos to Don Det of Si Phan Det (4,000 Islands):