Si Phan Don, or the 4,000 Islands, is landlocked Laos’s answer to the coast: laid-back, palm-fringed, and lush beyond belief, this riverine archipelago is the ultimate place to relax.
Si Phan Don, or the 4,000 Islands, is the last outpost of Laos before you reach Cambodia. Here, the Mekong River broadens to its widest point – up to ten kilometres across – and splits into a hundred or more streams, washing around the thousands of islands and sandbars that give the region its name.
Of these, there are three principal inhabited islands, each with its own distinct culture and character. Largely self-sustaining, the locals here catch fish, weave fabrics, and grow bamboo, rice, sugarcane and coconuts – in addition to running a handful of guesthouses and restaurants for tourists. Don Khong Island has the more upmarket accommodation options, and it’s quieter than the more backpacker-centric Don Det. Don Khone is a nice blend of the two, with a good choice of restaurants and a scattering of candy-coloured colonial villas.
Most visitors to the 4,000 Islands follow a well-defined route to a few main sites, which means that the better-known villages and markets are pretty used to tourists by now (by Lao standards, anyway). We still think they’re lovely, but if you want to get away from the beaten track our favourite way is to do so by bike – hopping from island to island on little ferries, stopping in at weavers’ workshops and boat-builders' yards, and eating lunch with a local family.
A visit to the 4,000 Islands is all about taking it slow. Not that Laos is ever really about taking it fast – but here, the beach-like surroundings and unhurried vibe are particularly enticing for those who want to take a few days out from more active pursuits and just soak it all up.