Don Det is the perfect place to disconnect and rejuvenate – there are no ATM’s, the Wi-Fi is limited and there are more hammocks than tourists. It’s relatively remote and difficult to access, but the journey makes this blissful slice of heaven all the more rewarding for the effort.
Tucked away in the far south of Laos, Si Phan Don is usually a travellers’ first or final impression of the country. For us, having travelled down from the mountainous north, it was the perfect way to soak up the last of Laos. We’re not sure if there really are 4000 islands, and given the laid back way of life I doubt anyone has ever bothered trying to count them.
Whatever the actual number, there are plenty to choose from but as it was low season we didn’t feel the need to head too far off the beaten track and opted for Don Det, which is best known for its sleepy atmosphere, meditative hammocks and mesmerising sunsets.
We were a little apprehensive, as some have coined the island ‘the new Vang Vieng,’ due to its hippy-ish vibe and the recent increase in tourism, however things were pretty tame when we visited and although the daytime temperature was intense, the nightlife was pretty laidback.
Despite the recent surge in construction of guesthouses and riverside eateries, the island has managed to retain its languid charm. Wooden huts are still the most common form of building and even the main town still has a local village vibe. A short walk or bike ride out of the main strip and you’ll find yourself among sprawling rice paddies, towering palm trees and wild buffalo.
We quickly fell into the island rhythm and spent a very easy seven days on Don Det. We passed our time swimming in the Mekong, eating local food and riding bikes between long stints spent reading and swinging in hammocks. For those who need a little more adventure there is plenty to explore on the neighbouring island of Don Khon.
Scattered with waterfalls, good walks and decent restaurants, Don Khon is just a short ride south from Don Det and connected by a beautiful old French bridge. Bike rental is a mere 10,000 kip ($1.20US) per day, and the ride between the islands is pleasant and fairly shaded.
We packed our bathers, towels and plenty of water – the midday sun is merciless – and stopped first at the entrance to Li Phi Waterfall, which is a great place to park the bike and cool off after the ride. There’s a great little swimming spot on the river with a rope swing, flying fox and big nets to climb on.
We cycled back into town for lunch at the excellent French bistro Chez Fred et Lea. It’s amazing how much you appreciate the little luxuries when you’re at the end of the earth – we were delighted by the simple salad with real olive oil, balsamic vinegar and French mustard.
After that we went back to explore the Li Phi Waterfall properly, which is in a well maintained reserve (entry fee 35,000 kip). The pressure and the power of the water is astonishing as seemingly lethargic rivers empty over the rocks into a raging torrent of white-water. Here you can truly understand the force of the mighty Mekong.
We wandered along the edge of the water until we came to a small beach that led into a calm, protected swimming hole. The infrastructure here is first class and there are a number of wooden pagodas with cushions and hammocks where you can have a drink and enjoy the river vista.
We stayed until twilight before riding back across the bridge to Don Det. If you are visiting during the summer then accommodation with air-conditioning is a welcome reprieve from the stifling heat. We stayed in a gorgeous room upstairs at the Baba Guesthouse with a large balcony overlooking the river. We recommended it to a few friends who had all given up on their bungalows and were searching for a room with A/C.
This is an island for long boozy lunches, for reading books, for escaping from the world and recharging the batteries. Our last piece of advice for anyone considering a visit to Don Det? Work out the number of days you think you’d like to stay, and then double it.