Si Phan Don
Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands, in Lao ສີ່ພັນດອນ) is a group of islands in the Mekong River in Southern Laos. It is located in the Khong district, Champasak province. There are many islands of different sizes, many of them are under water during the monsoon, when the river increases its body of water. The main islands are, by size: Don Kong, Don Som, Don Det and Don Khon. This river archipelago is located just at the boarder with Cambodia. The nearest main city is Pakse (118 kilometers to the north) and Champasak, where the Wat Pheu is located, at 92 kilometers to the north. Si Phan Don includes Khone Phapheng, the Falls of the Mekong, the biggest in Southeast Asia.
The Four Thousand Islands have three main destinations for travellers：Don （Island) Khong is the biggest, but apart from the usual chill & look, a museum and some temples there's nothing great to do there. Most people head to Don Det or Don Khon, where most accommodation is cheaper, you can walk to one of the big Mekong-Falls by yourself, and biking and walking and swimming in the river is just the same as in Don Khong. Don Som has a guesthouse now as well located in the village Ban Thamakheb and this islands sees very few tourists.
There are several ways to reach Si Phan Don. There is a bus from Pakse, that leaves somewhere between 8 and 9 in the morning. Costs around 70,000, sometimes including the boat ticket, sometimes not. Make sure you clear it out with the agent you are buying the ticket from. Most visitors will buy tickets in Pakse for a minivan going to the islands.
From the southern busstation in Pakse (also named 'lak pet/ lak 8) there are 'songthaews' (local transport) leaving for Ban Nakasang (for Don Det and Don Khone) for 40,000 Kip from the early morning until the afternoon. For Don Som you can take a 'songthaew' to Ban Khinak for 40,000 Kip.
Tickets are preprinted and prices fixed. Prices for one person one way 15,000 Kip, per bicycle 5,000 Kip. Eventually you have to pay 30,000 Kip for just a single ticket, if not multiple people use one boat. In comparison joint tickets including a minibus ride from Pakse to Ban Nakasang and a ferry ticket to Don Det cost between 60,000 and 70,000 Kip. Note that the boats are small and shaky and your luggage may get wet so keep things apart that should remain dry.
Coming from Cambodia you can take a van from Kratie ($US15), Stung Treng ($US12) or Banlung ($16) which includes the boat trip to Don Det or Don Khong. Some guest houses in Kratie may try to sell you the ticket for $US50. The border crossing is in the middle of forest and there is pretty much nothing else there than a few customs officials and a bad road in Laos side. So you probably want to get a ride all the way to Four Thousand Islands, although you maybe able to hitch a ride to the turnoff to Ban Nakasang, which is where you will catch the ferry to Si Phan Don. On the other hand, you may not find any transportation at the border and if you did it might be a rip-off. Note: if in Stung Treng and looking to go to Si Phan Don, hotels may or may not know on-hand what vans are available. Ponika's Place, the one Western restaurant on town located next to the market, sells tickets directly, for vans leaving at 2PM. There are at least two services going from Stung Treng to Laos. One of them is the very poorly performing Che Nang, which makes you wait long periods and then tries to get extra money at the border for your visa. The other is an independent operator who works with Asia Van Transfer and sells tickets from Stung Treng to Si Phan Don for about $12.
There is a bus from Phnom Penh that leaves in the morning to Don Det. It takes around 7 hours to get there with minimal stops on the VIP bus (once in Kratie and once to stop for lunch). Near the Lao border, an employee of the bus will ask for passports and the fee for the Laos Visa. No need to step out of the us to immigration, the worker takes care of everything. Don Det is another 30 minutes away. Lao Visa is available on the border from July 2012. Most get it for 30 or 35 dollars, but citizens of a few countries have to pay more, oddly for Canadians it is $42.
You can arrive also by boat from Stung Treng. The boats leave in the morning. Many tourists have been made to pay around $US50 after the border for transportation to Four Thousand Islands. So again it's best to book the trip all the way to your destination if possible.
There are a couple of bus options from Siem Reap to Si Phan Don sold by all the major travel agents in Siem Reap market. A large sleeper bus that takes about 13 hours and goes east before heading north to Laos and a smaller VIP minibus option claiming 6 hours for slightly more money. Be warned of the alternative 'VIP' minibus option that promises half the travel time via a new 'super highway' that the larger sleeper bus. This option is pushed by the majority of the agents in Siem Reap as they can charge more for shorter journey time advertised. This is a con with the journey taking the same 13-odd hours to complete via a very roundabout route, unnecessarily changing vehicles countless times with attempted scamming / extra charging at each change. The route ends up near the Laos border where you'll be picked up by the original larger sleeper bus that got there directly for quite a bit less money, and 100% less hassle. A full account of the VIP option is provided here and makes for interesting reading.
Be Careful: Travel agents will give you cash to pay for the boat ride from Ban Nakasang to Don Det. They might only give you as little as 5,000 Kip. The fare is at least 15,000 (depending on the number on people going)
Those of you going to Cambodia can buy bus tickets on all of the islands.
Travel agents are charging high rates for transportation to Cambodia, taking advantage of the limited transportation options from Si Phan Don to the Cambodia border. For example, Don Det to the border costs $11, when it is only 18 km. There is no significant price difference to travel between travel in Cambodia and Loas.
There are two companies that offer transport to Siem Reap, Kratie or Phnom Penh. The international bus from Pakse to Phnom Penh will take you straight to its destination, without much trouble (departure at Ban Nakasang around 8.45 am arrival at 7.30 pm depending on the weather, costs about $US14 (seems to be outdated price information), for Siem Reap you change into a less comfortable looking bus somewhere 70km north of Phnom Penh (arrival around 9.30pm) (This information seems outdated). The other company - which tickets are sold everywhere in all the Hostels and Restaurants on Don Det - takes you with a small van or bus to the border, where you change - after another hour or two waiting in the heat - to another bus or Minivan. Later on for Siem reap switch again into bus or van. Those tourists getting stuffed in the minivan at the border had to sit later on in the aisle of the bus on plastic chairs or had to just stand for half an hour. Prices for this trip are generally $US2 less when booking from the border, but definitely not worth the waiting, changing and discomfort. Make sure not to take the regular Tourist Bus. If you don't find this international Bus better choose going back to Pakse and take a Bus from there. Best is propably to take a flight from Pakse.
As of late 2017, the Sorya bus seems to run only every other day, one day going north to Pakse, and then next day going south back to Cambodia. Sorya will only confirm the availability of their bus one day in advance. If you want to travel on one of the off days, you will have to deal with the minivan services. Travel agents in Don Det are advertising $29 to get to Phnom Penh, which is a very high price for this distance, and may involve poor quality transport, multiple vehicle changes, etc.
It is possible to get to the border yourself by paying for the ferry crossing (15,000 kip each). (Note that the tourist taxi boat is difficult to get running before 8:00 am). At Ban Nakasang, either take a tuk tuk to the main road (15,000 kip) and flag down any vehicle traveling to the border, or take a tuk tuk from Ban Nakasang all the way to the border (about 80,000 kip or 40,000 kip per person). After crossing the border on foot, you can buy tickets for the Sorya bus or one of the minivan services for $15. Generally the minivan services require a transfer in Stung Treng, so there will be waiting time at the border and also in Stung Treng.
SCAM ALERT 1: Most agencies at will cheat you and tell you they sell a ticket to the international bus to Cambodia (Phnom Penh Sorya bus company, which provides a comfortable VIP bus through all the way), but when you get to the bus station in Ban Nakasang, the ticket will be switched in the last minute to a "Angkor Paramount Express" ticket, which is the worst way of going to Cambodia (Awfully packed vans and old busses with lots of dust and unnecessary long waits). If you want to be sure, it's better to book at Pakse as said above, or find a way to get an official Sorya ticket at Ban Nakasang.
Ticket price should include the fare of the boat as well. Don't be tempted to buy a ticket going only to the border since it is very hard to get a ride from there.
All places on Don Det are selling tickets at the same prices to the same places with the same companies. The nearby mainland village of Ban Nakasang is where you'll have arrived at before taking a boat to to the islands, and it's the last place to use an ATM. MAKE SURE you have enough money for your stay, exit bus ticket, and visa fees. Transportation to Siem Reap is $35 and to Phnom Penh is $30, or 240,000 kip. Regardless of final destination, everyone eventually is transported to the border via boat then minibis, and you'll be at the border for over an hour. It can get hectic because there are 3 or 4 scams in a matter of minutes.
Buses leave early every morning from across the river, though you'll all leVe the border together after noontime. It's about 20 minutes to the border, but that's only the first stage in what's sure to be a long day of travel. After paying a $US2 "stamp tax" on the Laotian side and on the Cambodian side another $US35 for the visa plus $US1 for "processing" (scam, read below, and another $US2 if you forgot the picture). There is also a $US2 "health check" which is a hassle (scam, read below). This check is literally nothing more than measuring your body temperature with some kind of fake bleeping infrared gun pretending to check whether you have ebola or not and giving you a yellow paper afterwards that states that you need to see a doctor in case you are feeling sick . Some people are able to skip this as there is no check later on (I just waved them, said "yes, yes" and moved on). There is usually a "VIP" (tourist-minibus) leaving around noon at the border, but better have that organized before, the border is not much more than a street, two barriers and some bored guards in the middle of the jungle. If you want to break your travel, consider stopping at Kratie, which is a nice little city on the Mekong.
SCAM ALERT 2: When you are coming from Don Det a guy (wearing fancy clothes, nice shoes, a tablet, an expensive looking watch speaks English and appears helpful(scam warning sign)) will be waiting for the travelers at the bus station in Ban Nakasang, from where you will get into a minivan to the border. After checking your ticket he will give you some immigration papers to fill in and ask you to put these papers together with $40 (he claims 35 for visa, 4$ for stamping and 1$ for health check) and a photo in your passport and return everything to him. He will tell you that he is only helping you as he will handle the immigration for everyone together at once, which saves you a lot of time and effort. He claims that the stamps are $2 dollars each and the health check obligated by Cambodian law is $1.(update feb 2015 there is no Cambodian stamping fee and you can easily walk by the health check) After crossing the border very quickly and with no trouble everyone was returned their passport with a Cambodian visa and a stamp and the guy left back into Laos with a lot of money. From the three fully packed minivans only one couple took the risk by doing everything by themselves and they arrived 30 minutes later (which was not a problem at all because the minivans at the Cambodian border left two hours later...) and payed just $37. And guess what? No health check! So my advice if you want to cross this border, don't be scared and arrange everything by yourself just as you would do at any border crossing. This saves you three dollars and prevents the guy from getting very rich by deceiving tourists!
SCAM ALERT 3: This is a big one. Instead of a five minute boat ride to Ban Nakasang where we could use an ATM to get money for the visit process, the guys we were with took us 20 minutes downriver, intentionally avoiding the ATM. They then told us that those without money would be lent money and get their passports back after paying a $2 fee. A woman in our group had to do this, and the fee ended up being $15 (she had to pay this crook $50 for a $35 visa fee). He threatened to raise it to $60 when she protested.
Cost and scam summary: -$2 "Exit stamp fee" on Lao side imposed by officials. There are no signs advertising this and is is likely a scam. Nothing you can do here- they're officials with your passport in their hand behind a window. -$2-5 assorted fees on Lao side imposed by whom I would describe as "some guy". The con man at the table opposite the officials' counter guides everyone through the visa process as if it's mandatory. It's not, it's just some guy taking your money. Officials are in uniform, this guy was wearing a sideways baseball cap- don't give this guy your passport. Evidently he is convincing based on how most people believe him. -Several dollars charged by guys claiming to be taking your temperature for a health screening as you cross the border. These are crooks, don't even look at them. The border officials don't say anything (I speculate that, like the other scams happening in front of them, they get a cut) but they don't make you do the health screening because it's not real. -$15+ to pay back a loan for the visa fee if you must. Bring enough money, and keep in mind the crooks taking you to the border may not let you go to to the ATM as part of this scam. I haven't read about this scam elsewhere, but it happened to us today (May 2016).
So, you must pay $35 (320,000 kip, which is more like $40, and you can also pay in Cambodian) riel for a visa regardless of nationality, a $2 exit stamp fee, and the rest can be avoided by being informed and prepared. Good luck. After crossing, two groups of us coming from Don Det shared a bis bus to Stung Treng for lunch. This may be your first opportunity to use an ATM since arriving on the islands, and be advised that the ATM is a ten minute walk from where the bus has stopped and may dispense $100 bills. But if you withdraw an amount which includes $90, such as $290, you will get $90 in 20s and 10s. At this lunch break, you'll wait for minivans to take you to your final destination. The trip to Phnom Penh will take you about nine hours or so over roads in poor condition. We arrived at 10:30 pm, which evidently is early compared to other stories online. You'll never arrive at 7pm as advertised. You may need to to transfer minibuses twice during this trip There are many online accounts of passengers being dropped off in the middle of nowhere outside of the city late at night in front of a guesthouse and tuktuk drivers who will overcharge as part of one final scam. We were fortunate to be dropped off downtown, 1km from our guesthouse. Be proactive in telling the drivers early and often this is what you want.
If you really want to take the Bus to Cambodia then make sure to split the trip to Siem Reap and to take a rest in Kratie where you will arrive in the early evening. After Kratie the ride in the regular Busses gets worse as they make several stops in the middle of nowhere and drinks and food are very expensive at those stops. You will be switching busses again at approx. 10 p.m. after wating for another hour. Then you get stuffed again into an overfilled Bus where there will be no space left. You will arrive at Siem Reap between 1 and 2 a.m. (!), which makes a travel time of 18 hours and not 12 as claimed on the posters. But if they would claim the 18 hours much less people would propably book this trip. (This information is probably outdated as there is a new road which goes from Stung Treng directly to Siem Reap and does not pass through Kratie.)
A better way of getting to Siem Reap is by stopping at Stung Treng and taking the new road. This saves time and a sore ass. You can take a bus the next morning or continue with the same company you came with. Don't buy an expensive ticket at the border but wait until you are in Stung Treng! You will arrive around 10 p.m. in Siem Reap from where you can take a 5 km tuktuk ride for $2 to the night market in the city center.
Realize that time has not much meaning here so leaving the dock at 11 AM means that one goes about 11:30 or when the next boat is full. Some of the boats are better than others, the worse being long canoes. Upon reaching the "mainland", one has to wait with a group of other foreigners for transportation going their way, with the boss squeezing as many people as he possibly can. Leaving Don Det requires patience and a cool head. Give your schedule plenty of time.
It's mostly people power. The islands are small enough that you can walk, although to get to some of the more far-flung destinations a bike will be nice. They can be rented everywhere, typically for 10.000 kip (€ 1) per day. If you're feeling super-lazy, you can rent motorbikes from around 70,000 per day in many locations on Si Phan Don, passport required. The road in Don Det is very rutted and muddy so one should take caution, either on a bike or motorbike. Once one leaves Don Det town, the road is much better and one can ride as fast as one wishes.
A beautiful set of islands, set against a lazy and winding section of the Mekong. Be sure to check out the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia, and have conversations with the friendly locals. Outside of the tourist town, one can get a glimpse of local people, rice farms and plenty of farm animals, especially cows. There are also several temples about of average quality, however, it is interesting to get away from the tourists to see the locals and their life. One must take care to take off one's shoes (important in all of Laos!)
The island is also oddly overran by domestic dogs and cats which roam from place to place looking for scraps and whatnot. Most of these animals are sweet, friendly (and mostly clean) animals who like to be petted and especially fed. One of the foreigners stated that he (and the islanders) would be happy if people took the animals away as pets. However, it may be difficult and expensive to import an animal from Laos to one's own nation, plus the fact that the animal will only understand Laotian and not English. Warning! Some of the dogs do get vicious at night, so bring a stick as they're usually easy to fend off.
There isn't much to do in Si Phan Don, but that's not the point. The islands are laid back, with small huts mixing in with guest houses along the banks of the Mekong. But, if you get a bit restless, try these:
Not too much but the shops on Don Det have several things for sale now (candy, ice cream, beer, soft drinks etc.). Stock up in Pakse or if you forgot something look around in Nakasang before boarding the boat to the islands. that is your last chance for forgotten items.There are some items for purchase on the islands, including sunscreen and other items. Don Det also has small markets with other items.
Many travel agents and drivers will tell you there are no ATMs on Si Phan Don and that exchanging money on the islands will only be possible at a very poor rate. This is not true, and is more often than not an attempt to scam you out of money by offering a 'better' rate from them. There are ATMs in Nakasang about 300m up the road from where the boats leave for Don Det. There are also two ATMs on Don Khong (photo below). Money can be exchanged at a decent rate on both Don Det (near spot), Ban Nakasang, Ban Khinak and Don Khong.
A standard menu of Laotian food and backpacker favorites (banana pancakes, garlic bread, pad thai, fried rice/noodles) are on top at most places. Some try to get fancy with special pizzas and exotic smoothies. It's very hit and miss, but never terrible and the service is mostly friendly. You'd be hard pressed to spend more than $US5 on a meal here.
Eat the Lao food. It is delicious and everything is handmade. The food is very spicy sometimes, so if you do not like hot food, you may try to ask to use less peppers. Some places offer very decent 'western food', others give it a try but the quality is not great. Don't eat the pizza, happy or not.
Beer Lao on the Mekong. Available about every 200 feet in the touristy areas on Don Det and Don Khon, and big bottles for prices between 10,000 and 15,000 Kip. Head towards the western part of the island (where there are only a few guesthouses) for a great view of the sunset.
Fruit Shakes on every menu. About 10,000 Kip.
The Don Det community, like most of Laos, closes down at around 11 PM. There is usually one place that might stay rocking for another hour or so.
Drugs such as marijuana and mushrooms are available in Don Det and is somewhat tolerated by some of the patio restaurants by the river and it is not uncommon to have people passing marijuana joints around. However, do not just assume that marijuana is fine anywhere. There are several resident foreigners who can point one in the right direction, and a gentle warning to families with children or anyone who does not condone the use of the drug.
Guest houses galore, at prices that are dirt cheap even by Southeast Asia standards. On Don Det, most of these guest houses have bungalows situated by the river, and include a mosquito net, double bed and porch. Toilets and showers are mostly shared. There is electric power 24/7. Most options cost about $US4-8 per night.
I recommend "River Garden", situated in Don Det but in a very quiet place, near to the bridge to go to Don Khone. They have very nice bungalows with private toilet and hot shower (60.000-80.000 kip;), and the food they offer at the restaurant was very tasty, don't miss the rice pudding!
On Don Khong there are many guest houses near the ferry arrival, a couple in the more suburban area downstream, and a few away from the river which are perhaps the cheapest. I stayed in Don Khung right by the ferry and had a large room with fan, aircon, and ensuite: double off season was 70,000 kip. There were hardly any mossies despite it being the wet season. The food right by the Mekong is quite variable and quality. There are cheaper places a block or so back.
Don Khong has several guesthouses and hotels in different prices ranges. Khong View Guesthouse is the last one in the row of guesthouses in the main 'tourist street'.
Don Som has a guesthouse in the village named Ban Thamakheb on the eastern side of the island. Basic but a good place to be in the middle of the Lao countryside of the far south of Laos.