Getting to Don Det Island

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.

Photo: The Mekong River As Seen from Don Det
Photo: The Mekong River As Seen from Don Det

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):

Don Det Island, Laos

Don Det Island has gained its popularity through laid back way of life it offers. Even though this has hardly changed and one can still appreciate a full day of idling in a hammock with nothing else to do, the face of Don Det is not what it was a few years ago. With virtually every house along the northern peak of the island transformed into a guesthouse, a restaurant or some other establishment catering to the needs of tourists, and with the smell of weed rising from many a tucked back spots along the coast, Don Det has become a major magnet for backpackers who flock in large numbers to indulge in the finest a nomadic lifestyle has to offer.

Photo: Don Det of Four Thousand Islands, Southern Laos
Photo: Don Det of Four Thousand Islands, Southern Laos

I believe Don Det island should not be missed out on. Once you hop on a bicycle you have rented and take a ride around, away from the busy quarter where all other foreigners hang out and enjoy themselves with a bottle of BeerLao in one hand and a lit up joint in another, you will get the glimpse of the timelessness Four Thousand Islands are really about. Being constantly nourished by the waters of the Mekong, the greenery throughout the island is lush which is clearly appreciated by bountiful Water Buffalos who look far beyond well fed.

The Only Railway in Laos

The French built bridge connects Don Det with nearby Don Khon offering an easy possibility for a bicycle rider to explore two islands in one go (you’ll be asked to pay 20,000 Kip – about $2,50 US at the Don Khon side of the bridge). The bridge was originally built to be a part of the railway across the two islands the purpose of which was to bypass the rapids and waterfalls in the Mekong. The rapids were the main reason why the ambitions of the French colonists to use the Mekong as a highway to China was failing.

The railway was built, but the ambition to connect with China by the means of the Mekong River eventually failed and the use of the railway was discontinued after WWII. The road which once housed the railways track is very rocky and seems to have no end. You can find it on both Don Det and Don Khon and you’ll know you’re on it if your bicycle (if you’re riding) or your feet (if you’re hiking) start getting a beating from the sharp rocks that cover the surface of it. There is nothing to see along either of the roads so if you get down to exploring the islands and your path leads you to a rocky road, I suggest you turn around and take an alternative route. You’ll be glad you did.

Photo: French Colonial Bridge Connects Don Det Island with Don Khon
Photo: French Colonial Bridge Connects Don Det Island with Don Khon

Don Det, The Backpacker’s Paradise

Don Det is a backpacker’s heaven and it’s a sound riddance to enjoy it to the fullest. Lodging prices on Don Det are the most affordable in Laos (even though you will be getting what you are paying for, making for an overall not that great a deal) and food, despite the need to bring many ingredients from the mainland by boat is reasonably priced (in Lao terms). Internet is slow and super, super expensive so if you need to update that page, do it before coming on Don Det or put it off until you have come back on mainland.

Money Exchange Rates on Don Det

While official US Dollar to Lao Kip exchange rate was at 8,200 Kip for a dollar in Lao mainland, you could get 8,000 Kip for a dollar on Don Det which is not all that bad. There are no banks, ATM machines or money exchangers on Don Det, but many guesthouses or shops will buy your foreign currency for Lao Kip. The rate will be slightly disadvantaged, but not by much. I actually expected much worse exchange rates given that it’s a desolate island which requires a boat transport to get on, but losing 200 Kip to a dollar is not that bad (it’s good for 30 seconds of internet on Don Det, though). If you exchange $20 US, you will only be short of 4,000 Kip, which is about $.50 – definitely nothing to be concerned about.

Photo: Mekong River Around Don Det Island, Laos
Photo: Mekong River Around Don Det Island, Laos

Tubing on Don Det

If you are into drunken fun during the day, you should not miss out on tubing on Don Det (tube rental costs 5,000 Kip – about 60 US cents). Vang Vieng may be the tubing capital of Laos, but it’s also more overcrowded than Si Phan Det and that can take some of the adrenaline away. Although it’s quite fun to always bump into somebody else’s tube.

Don Det was my first stop in Laos and while it is not a showcase of local culture, religion or society, it is a great place to kick back and enjoy yourself. The rice paddies, lush jungle, fat water buffaloes and friendly, smiling locals make for a fantastic environment while endless options to hang out and chill with other backpackers allow for much needed boost to one’s spirit and energy.