4000 Islands is the name of a series of islands in the Mekong in Southern Laos. I sincerely doubt there are 4000 Islands. There biggest island is Don Det and this is where 80 percent of the tourists go and probably the best island to stay in the area. Don Khon is connected by a large bridge to Don Det and is within walking distance from Don Det. There are several guesthouses in Don Khong as well. You can probably bike the perimeter of the Don Det in two or three hours. The pathway around the island is pretty good in the area where the boats land but gets a lot rougher the further you get from this area. The scenic beauty is incredible and you are treated to a panoramic view of the river wherever you look. I was there in the first week of November and the temperature was just perfect. The best part was almost no mosquitoes. I cannot vouch for the rest of the year. I had arrived from a week of outdoor fun in Vang Vieng, also in Laos, and had been bitten by mosquitoes like crazy and was extremely pleased by the lack of mosquitoes. I think the lack of stagnant water in 4000 Islands keeps the mosquitoes away.
There are about a dozen family run guesthouses with bungalows and many double as restaurants that serve mediocre food. The tourist center can be described very briefly. There is a bakery shop run by an Australian, one good restaurant, called Josh, run by an Israeli that is about two weeks old, one upscale restaurant called East Eden and one good bar called the Pool Bar. As mentioned, there are lots of other restaurants but 90 percent of the people spend 90 percent of the time in those three places. There is one major footpath around the island but people generally walk back and forth between the places mentioned which are all within five minutes of each other. The Josh restaurant and the Pool Bar are actually next door. The East Eden place is two buildings down. The bakery is the only one that is not right next to everything else and its pretty close as well. Just past the bakery is the King Kong bar that is owned and managed by a former rock and roll celebrity from the nineties. I am not going to mention who he is since he is trying to get away from the limelight and is very sensitive about his former celebrity. If you are a big fan of rock and roll you will recognize him as soon as you walk into the King Kong Bar. You do East Eden for breakfast to watch the sunrise. You do the bakery during the day. You do Joshes for dinner. Josh kicks you out at 10pm. You then do the Pool Bar and the owner of the pool bar kicks you out at 12pm and then you go to the beach after that or go to bed.
There is a Robison Crusoe air to Don Det largely created by the lack of electricity most of the day. Between 6-10pm generators are turned on and there is electricity only for this period of the day. The rest of the time there is no electricity. The big news is that electricity is coming to Don Det in a couple of weeks. Most of the villagers are pretty happy about this. First of all, the gasoline to run the generators really adds up and the bill ends up being several times what the bill for 24/7 electricity via a power line would be. Many of the villagers do have satellite TV and the children seem to really enjoy watching TV between 6-10 pm and would like to watch more. The generators are not powerful enough for an air conditioner and bungalows have fans if that. East of Eden has the most upscale bungalows and I guess the owner does a good business since they are always full.
There are some even nicer bungalows under construction that will include air conditioning and hot water. There is a proper convenience store in the works and also a modern pizza joint that will open soon. These new places are timed to open around the same time Don Dent goes electric. While the villagers and the Western residents are generally behind electrification some of the guests I talked to had mixed feelings.
Some of the guests enjoy roughing it. The lack of electricity means very little television and people don’t stay in their bungalows and watch TV but actually go outside and socialize with villagers and other guests. Vang Vieng has TV restaurants which play Friends or Family Guy endlessly and many of the guests, like myself, came from Vang Vieng. Most Westerners have nothing but bad things to say about the TV restaurants in Vang Vieng even as they watch TV in these restaurants. You have traveled around the world to watch Friends?
The lack of TV forces guests to “get to know the people” in Dondet. This is an often touted goal of travel that is actually not so easy to do when traveling. The line between village life and the tourists in Dondet almost does not exist. As you sit having a meal in a guest house restaurant, you will find yourself playing with the local cats and dogs. Ducks and chickens are all over the place and they love a piece of your baguet. I fed one dog some meat from my plate and the dog started following me all over the place for about two days. If you stay five nights, like I did then you will soon be known by at least a dozen villagers and you will be greeted by them left and right. I wore a monster mask on Halloween and the kids loved the mask. We took turns wearing the mask and chasing each other. The Pool Bar has two kittens and sooner or later everyone who visits the Pool Bar ends up playing with the kittens. I felt transported to a simpler life I had never known before and have only seen on TV. The villagers obviously do not have a lot of money but I would say are happier than a lot of the visitors who are probably 100 times richer when it comes to money. The villagers literally raise their own food and know alot about wild greens you can pick from the countryside and generally have a salad of such greens as part of their meal. If the global system of commerce ever comes to a screeching halt, the villagers of Don Det will be just fine.
I did go on a tour of some of the smaller islands in the Mekong by boat and we literally fished for our dinner. The tour guide works for the Pool Bar and had gone ahead and brought some prime catfish as well and I think this might have been the best fish I have ever eaten. The trip which lasted around four hours and included being sitting in an inner tube and being towed back, a couple of beers, and some wild boar meat, was 50,000 kip which is all of six bucks! I ended up staying longer than I planned. I would like to visit Don Det again in a couple of years and see how the electrification process worked out. Will Don Det lose some of its rustic charm due to electrification?
In Don Det you can go tubing, kayaking, hiking, and biking. You can also see the largest waterfall by breadth in SE Asia nearby. There is also a smaller waterfall on Don Det proper. Finally, you can take a boat ride and explore the Mekong and see the Irrawady dolphins. Most of all you can just sit back in your hammock next to the Mekong with a good book and relax far from the modern world.
Prices are low in Don Det even by Laotian standards and Lao prices are pretty low to begin with. Laos is, for example cheaper than Thailand. Vientiane is cheaper than Bangkok. The Laotian countryside is cheaper than the Thai countryside. The big exceptions are imported goods. Laos is a landlocked country and just about anything imported will be cheaper in Bangkok than in Vientiane. What is cheaper in Laos than in Thailand is food and accommodations. You can get a bungalow for as low as 15,000 kip (1.7 USD ). The upscale bungalows with air con and hot water will run 60,000 kip (7 USD). A top of the line meal such as a large beef steak with plenty of fries will cost 30,000 kip (3.5 USD). OK maybe this will not be the best steak you have ever had but at that price who cares? You can get an excellent hamburger for the same price at Josh’s and the buns are made fresh at the Australian bakers. You aren’t going to starve thats for sure. A large bottle of Beer Lao is 10,000 kip a bottle or just about a buck.
Most visitors come from Thailand to Laos and I would suggest stocking up on Western books, suntan lotion, shaving gel, whatever in Thailand before coming to Laos. The selection of used books in Laos is downright dismal compared to Khaosang Road in Thailand and the prices are about the same. Actually Khaosang Road may be the best place for used Western books in Asia period so stock up on Western books there no matter where you are going in Asia. Sitting in your hammock and watching the Mekong flow is not a bad way to spend a relaxing afternoon.
One more hint! Bring plenty of money before coming to 4,000 Islands!
The nearest ATM machine is in Pakse two hours away. There is a bank on the about half and hour from Don Det but you will have to take a boat go to the village across the Mekong and then travel to the main road. The road connecting the village to the main road is pretty bad. You can also get an advance on you credit card from a couple of the local businesses for a 3% charge.
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